Filed in Pure Land (Shin)

Born Again Buddhist

Clark Strand stakes everything on faith in the Pure Land.

Clark Strand

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Pure Land, LA

ONE MORNING NOT LONG AGO, I was born again. Though unexpected, this was never outside the realm of possibility. According to the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism, all who call Namu Amida Butsu, Amida Buddha’s name, may be reborn in the “Land of Utmost Bliss,” provided they truly believe that he will save them. That, of course, had been the problem. Try as I might to finesse my way into the Pure Land, it didn’t matter as long as I didn’t believe.

Then, one Saturday in March, as I sat in my rocking chair gazing out the window at the back yard, a great and irrevocable change was triggered within me: I accepted, simply and without reservation, the teaching I had received from Pure Land founders Honen and Shinran—and I believed. Rennyo Shonin, the eighth head priest in the Jodo Shinshu lineage of Pure Land Buddhism, taught that we should not recite the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) in order to be saved, but rather because we were saved—in other words, not out of fear, but as the expression of gratitude and joy. I’d tried to do this countless times in the mistaken belief that if I could make myself grateful enough I might have the experience of shinjin, or “true entrusting,” that Shinran and Rennyo had spoken about. But I was coming at it backwards. Shinjin was the cause of gratitude, not the other way around. But now all that has changed.

I believe in the Pure Land, established countless aeons ago by Amida Buddha so that deluded beings like myself can be reborn there when they die. Further, I believe that I am born now—that at the moment I step beyond my own understanding, and entrust to a power beyond myself, I am “embraced, never to be forsaken” by Amida’s Infinite Light and Life. And that, at last, does cause joy to well up from within me. In fact, there is no way I can suppress it.

And yet, I do not much care for “Infinite Light and Life” as a way of talking about Amida Buddha, even though that is the literal meaning of Amitabha and Amitayus, the names given to that Buddha by Shakyamuni in the Pure Land sutras. Something about those expressions is too abstract to describe the visceral feeling I now carry within me in every moment, without my having to make any effort to maintain it. It is more like what happens to a sack of wheat when it has been given a good shake so that all the kernels settle at the bottom of the bag. I have been shaken, and settled. I am no longer restlessly running about this way and that trying to sort myself out. I have been weighed and found wanting. But it doesn’t matter. Amida will carry me wherever I need to go.

In a similar vein, I also reject that strain of modern Buddhist thought (dominant in the West) which says that the Land of Utmost Bliss is a fiction, a symbolic way of talking about a mind that has been purified of kleshas, or defilements. Here I part company with most of my own Pure Land teachers (the modern ones, at least), along with such authorities as Thich Nhat Hanh, who once wrote that the Pure Land of the sutras “is just for beginners.” But there is nothing to be done about that. I cannot help what I believe, and at this point I wouldn’t even try. I have cast my lot with the faith of the simple. There is no way back from here.

The esteemed Japanese Buddhist scholar Sachiya Hiro once confessed that he wanted to become a person who could believe in and accept the existence of the Pure Land “with no ifs, ands, or buts.” He discovered, however, that for a modern religious scholar this was not so easy. He lamented letting himself be diverted by what he called “the common sense of the world and of science.” Because of these diversions, he felt he had to offer some proof before he could state, “The Pure Land exists!” If that proof could not be offered, he had no right and no reason to believe. But then a wonderful thing happened and he realized that he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself. Those whose religion was science were responsible for believing in science, just as he was responsible for his belief in the Pure Land. There was no reason the two should be at war. Realizing this, he found there was likewise no reason not to believe. “My Pure Land is my own personal Pure Land,” he wrote. “And that is why there is no need to be reserved about the matter. I am finally able to recite the nembutsu without concern for what others think. Namu Amida Butsu. Namu Amida Butsu. . . .That is the nembutsu that is mine alone."

This kind of subjective realization is the cornerstone of the experience I have called being “born again.” Admittedly, I have appropriated a Christian term to express myself here, and one generally not held in much favor among Western Buddhists. But I have discovered in my own experience of “birth” what must have been at the bottom of Christ’s teaching in the Gospel of John. Thus, I find no reason to exclude Christians from my Pure Land. All are welcome there.

Whether in a Christian or a Pure Land context, being born again is based on the understanding that belief is essentially a wager—albeit one on which we stake everything we have. It is decisive and fully committed. Jesus understood this implicitly and spoke of it again and again in his own Pure Land teachings:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

The meaning is plain: The price of faith is everything. That is what it costs. Nevertheless, for many of us that cost seems too high. That is because we think it means that we must reject the claims of science, or that we must then become intolerant of other people’s religious ideas. But this is only because faith has been given a bad name by the half-believer, by the one who has not yet paid everything for what he believes.

Admittedly, the half-believer can be dangerous. Half-believers are easy to recognize because they are engaged in the work of trying to believe and not in the work of belief itself. They are seeking some confirmation in the outer world to complete an internal process that remains half-finished within them; thus they are often highly vocal and intolerant of other points of view. If science or secular culture seems to deny their articles of faith, they must fight against them or deny them. And, as always, to bolster their belief, it is necessary that others believe as they do—preferably society at large.

By contrast, those who believe fully are at peace within themselves. They have attained what Honen called anjin, or “settled mind.” The Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao described that mind as “adamant,” not as that word has come to be understood in today’s religious milieu, as “stubborn, intransigent, unamenable to reason,” but in the original sense of being “indestructible or diamond-hard.” Such people don’t need an Act of Congress to affirm their faith. And they don’t need a bullhorn to communicate it to others. The experience of conversion, already settled within them, has a way of passing itself on to others, even if they never say a word.

Rennyo taught that when people witness the joy of ordinary lay devotees who have been saved by Amida, even without knowing anything at all about the teaching, those people will attain shinjin, the mind of true entrusting. In other words, they too will be saved. The modern Pure Land scholar Jitsuen Kakehashi explains it this way:

The affirmation of their having been saved by the Tathagata is transmitted through those persons who entrust themselves completely to the Buddha and in whom there overflows the joy of being saved. The power of the dharma that has saved such persons calls out to awaken others around them.

Along with the expression “born again,” I would like to reclaim this word saved, which has fallen on such hard times of late through its association with right-wing Christianity. In Mahayana Buddhism do we not speak of saving all beings? Can we seriously consider such a proposition without first being saved ourselves? But then how is that salvation to be effected?

Amida Buddha in LA

To this question the Pure Land tradition offers a different answer from most other Buddhist schools, for it begins with the recognition that we are essentially powerless to effect our own salvation. Why? Because our entire being is founded upon ignorance. Thus all efforts to deliver ourselves, even spiritual efforts, are fundamentally deluded. Stated in the simplest terms, it poses the question, How can any being destined for annihilation possibly save itself?

The answer offered by the Pure Land tradition, which accounts for over half of the world’s Buddhists, is that we are saved by Amida Buddha, who welcomes all beings into his Pure Land, regardless of whether they are good or evil, diligent or lazy, wise or foolish. Amida embraces us without distinction or discrimination, if only we call upon his name. Actually, in the Jodo Shinshu (“True Pure Land”) tradition taught by Shinran and Rennyo, we don’t even have to do that. “If I believed that there were any condition in Amida’s embrace, I would abandon this ministry,” wrote Shin priest Hozen Seki. In his book The Great Natural Way, he explains:

I believe that all beings, when they die, are embraced by the Amida Buddha—cats, dogs, humans, whatever they may be. Nor does it matter if they have never heard of Amida’s teachings or recited the nembutsu. I recall that once when Daisetz Suzuki was asked where someone went after death who had never heard the teaching of Amida, he replied, "Ask Amida."

Suzuki must have been thinking about a story he helped to popularize about the myokonin Shoma. In Shin Buddhism a myokonin (literally, “wonderful rare person”) is someone who, usually without the benefit of any formal training or education, comes to deep spiritual insight through faith alone. Shoma was a perfect example. Suzuki writes, “It is marvelous that such an ignorant person can grasp the deepest possible meaning that even learned, scholarly, and acute-minded philosophers fail to grasp because it is too deep for their understanding.”

According to Suzuki, once when Shoma had hired himself out as a day laborer, a man arrived from several hundred miles away, having walked on foot all that distance just to ask Shoma what he should do to be saved. Shoma, who was pounding rice with a great wooden mallet at the time, just kept pounding without giving any indication that he had heard. The man asked again, but Shoma still would not look at him. When the people who had hired Shoma saw this, they felt pity for the man and begged Shoma to counsel him, but Shoma just kept on pounding rice. Finally, the visitor said, “I’ve come such a long way, but if I can’t learn how to be born in the Pure Land, I have no choice but to return to my own village.”

When he saw how miserable the man was, Shoma finally answered. “Why not ask Amida? He’s the one who deals with such questions. It’s really none of my business.”

As simple as this story is, I believe it teaches an important lesson about faith and salvation. “Why not ask Amida?” Those are not the words of a person who thinks of Amida in abstract or intellectual terms. They are the words of one who thinks of him as a person, the words of one whose experience of salvation is unmediated by any kind of intellectual filter. On the other hand, someone who travels hundreds of miles on foot, as Shoma’s visitor did, cannot have done so without thinking of Amida as an idea. Otherwise, he would not have come. Such a person believes there is some special understanding that will allow him to be saved. “If only the famous holy man Shoma or D. T. Suzuki will explain it to me,” he thinks, “then I will be saved.” But both Shoma and Suzuki say, “Ask Amida. He’s the one who answers such questions."

I am not a Pure Land follower, a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, or even a devotee of its teaching. I am a believer, which is a little different. I don’t have to follow a tradition called Pure Land Buddhism and do as it says, nor is there anything compelling me to chant the nembutsu morning to night, or light candles and incense before an altar. The words Namu Amida Butsu come unbidden to my lips at many moments during the day before I have even clearly thought of them, but this happens because I truly believe in Amida and not through long habit or because of any desire to do Pure Land practice. That belief is my candle, my altar, my incense, and my creed. In essence, it just says, “No need for the middle man! Go right to Amida! He’s the one who saves beings like you.”

And what kind of being is that?

In a word, ignorant. I came into this world knowing nothing and will surely depart in the same way. Amida’s life is infinite, mine is not. On the vast sweep of cosmic time, my life places an open and closed parenthesis, like a footnote or a minor digression to some longer argument that I know nothing about. Within those parentheses, many things happen, but the truth is, I don’t understand any of them. I don’t know why they happen in the sense of knowing their ultimate cause, nor do I know what their ultimate outcome will be—if such a concept is even applicable. If what seemed a good thing in the morning can have turned out to be a colossal mistake by the end of the day (or vice versa), how much more so in a lifetime or a kalpa. For too long I used Buddhism to convince myself that I understood something I did not, but now I know the truth. I do not know anything at all. But then, that is precisely the kind of being that Amida Buddha saves—the one who has no choice but to surrender to a power beyond his own.

Actually, in the final analysis, that includes pretty much everyone, which is to say, all sentient beings. And so, along with Hozen Seki, I believe that everyone is saved—dogs, cats, humans, sunbeams, dust motes . . . the whole nine yards of universal being, with no particle left out or left over. And yet, bizarrely enough, that is the principal objection to Pure Land Buddhism that I have heard over the years—that it is too easy, that it lowers the bar of Buddhist practice so far as to become virtually meaningless. But that objection can only be a serious concern if we regard Buddhism as some kind of exclusive guild into which only the spiritually gifted may be admitted. Lowering the bar for entry onto the Buddha Way can only be an issue if one believes the Buddha wants us to high-jump. I, for one, do not believe that is the point of Buddhism. To save all beings is the point of the Buddhism I practice. Therefore I want it to be as easy as possible.

I want someone to be able to hear in the morning that they only have to have faith in Amida in order to be saved, and by evening to have entered the Buddha Way. And I want that person to feel empowered to save others in like manner, not by sharing the fear-driven anxiety of the half-believer, but the joy of the truly settled. I want Buddhism to ignite, spark from flint, and pass from heart to heart like fire. I want it to burn so brightly in America that no one can catch up with it, and no one can put it out. I want it to become a revolution that restores the words faith, belief, and salvation to what they originally meant. Naturally, karma being what it is, I do not know if any of this is actually going to happen. But I believe it will.

Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle. This essay is excerpted from “The Buddhist Manifesto,” a work in progress.

Images: Amida Buddha’s Pure Land and Heavenly Maidens, Hideya Chiji, 1971, section of a mural in the Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. PHOTOGRAPH BY TOYO MIYATAKE, COURTESY OF THE LOS ANGELES BUDDHIST TEMPLE AND YASUHIRO CHIJI

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