Green Koans Case 13: Seki’s Amida

Clark Strand

Hozen Seki once said, "All beings, when they die, are embraced by Amida Buddha—cats, dogs, humans, whatever they may be. It doesn’t matter if they have never heard of Amida’s teachings or recited the nembutsu."


Amida Buddha

BACKGROUND:
Hozen Seki was a Japanese Jodo Shinshu (“True Pure Land”) priest who came to America in 1930, serving in Los Angeles and Arizona before founding the New York Buddhist Church in 1937. During World War II he was interned in relocation camps in Maryland, Idaho, and New Mexico. He later became a U.S. citizen.

Amida is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. As a bodhisattva in remote kalpas (eons) past, he made a vow not to become a buddha as long as there was even one living being who, calling upon his name in faith, failed to attain birth in his “Western Pure Land.” In that land all impediments to enlightenment would be removed and one could quickly attain liberation from suffering.

The unique logic of Pure Land Buddhism states that, since that primordial bodhisattva became Amida Buddha long ages ago, his vow to save all beings has already been fulfilled—thus, this land truly is the Pure Land. As a symbol, Amida Buddha represents a cosmic (or planetary) ecosystem in which all beings are saved already because no beings have any reality apart from Amida’s universal, compassionate embrace. Seki once told his followers, “If I believed that there were any condition [any special requirement] in Amida’s embrace, I would abandon this ministry.”

Nembutsu (lit. “to think of Buddha”) is the practice of reciting Namu Amida Butsu or Namo Omito Fo (“I take refuge in Amida”). The primary practice of all schools of Pure Land Buddhism, it can be performed as a jiriki (“self power”) practice, usually in conjunction with some form of seated meditation, or as a tariki (“other power”) practice, entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha in much the same way that people in 12 Step Recovery learn to rely upon a Higher Power.

COMMENTARY:
A monk asked Jōshū, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” Someone must have asked Seki, “Do dogs go to heaven?” The only legitimate answer is, “Why stop at dogs?”

Jōshū answers with a word meant to shatter all non-ecological concepts of salvation. Thus, today Zen monks say “Moooo” until the cows come home, annihilating every thought of a universe that “loses track” of living beings. Seki’s approach is gentler. Go ahead and say the nembutsu if you want to. Knock yourself out trying to get enlightened (or your dog into heaven). But at least try to say it out of gratitude, not lack. Otherwise, you’ve missed the point.

VERSE:
Dogs go to heaven
A little more readily
Than human beings.
When the universe says “Come!”
They return without delay.

Green Koans Case 1: Shakyamuni Touches the Earth
Green Koans Case 2: Shantideva's Sword

Green Koans Case 3: The Great Compassionate One's True Eye
Green Koans Case 4: One-Page Dharma
Green Koans Case 5: The Person of the Way
Green Koans Case 6: The Green Yogi
Green Koans Case 7: Rain of the Law
Green Koans Case 8: Bashō's Last Words
Green Koans Case 9: General Stone Tiger
Green Koans Case 10: Joshu's Oak Tree
Green Koans Case 11: A Brahman Takes a Bath
Green Koans Case 12: The Original Face
Green Koans Case 13: Seki's Amida

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Dominic Gomez's picture

It seems this tendency to believe in some sort of heavenly paradise that exists apart from the harsh realities of the "here-and-now" (an example of dualist thinking) is hard-wired into the human psyche. Our evolutionary ancestors may have made a distinction between "the sky above, the mud below" and perhaps would've confessed a preference for one over the other!

According to sutras prior to the Lotus, Shakyamuni suggested that the world in which human beings lived was an impure land (samsara) filled with suffering and earthly desires. A world completely different and separate from the pure lands in which buddhas were said to abide. There was no hope of attaining enlightenment until you died and were reborn or ascended into such a “pure land.” It seems that at the time, Shakyamuni used this notion as a way to shake up the seeking spirit of those of his followers who seemed only concerned with the affairs of this material world. Much later, in the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni re-assesses his previous teachings. He says, “Ever since then (when he became enlightened not at the age of 30 under the Bodhi tree, but in the infinite past) I have been constantly in this saha world, preaching the Law, teaching and converting. And elsewhere I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas and asamkhyas of lands.”

In other words, buddhas can only exist in the real world. And samsara (this "evil" world rife with suffering and earthly desires) is where buddhas teach the dharma to help people overcome their sufferings. In "On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime" Nichiren Daishonin writes: "If the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds."

In short, depending on which of your ten life conditions is dominant, your home office can very well be the "Pure Land" (or Hell, for that matter!) and you the buddha (or tortured soul) in it. To illustrate:

Voice of OZ: "PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!"

Dorothy: "Who are you?"

Voice of OZ: "I...I...I AM THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.....wizard of oz."

Dorothy: "You are? I don't believe you!"

Little old man behind curtain: "No, I'm afraid it's true. There is no other wizard except me."

ClarkStrand's picture

I think Dorothy's song pretty well sums up the fundamentalist view on heaven or the Pure Land, but it's hardly what all Buddhist believe about the idea. Just as in your own tradition (which I am assuming is Nichiren Buddhist, based on your moniker) there are some who still think of Eagle Peak as a destination beyond this world, since Nichiren seems to imply as much in some of his letters to simple folk--even though when you read a letter like "On Attaining Buddhahood in the Lifetime," you find a much more profound and realistic view of the matter.

The Vimalakirti Sutra states that, when one seeks the Buddhas’ emancipation in the minds of ordinary beings, one finds that ordinary beings are the entities of enlightenment, and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana. It also states that, if the minds of living beings are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.

Seems like a good idea to recognize that among Pure Land practitioners (especially modern ones), there is, likewise, a diversity of understandings on whether the Pure Land is a symbol for this world or an actual place beyond it

For my part, I believe the Pure Land sutras offer the comprehensive portrait of a working ecosystem.for people who were able to intuit such a thing based on their observations of nature and their experiences with spiritual states of mind, even though they lacked the science to grasp the full scope of its working.

When I suggest that maybe the "Pearly Gates" are really gateless, I am alluding to the famous koan collection by that name. The pearly gates are gateless because they mark an inner gateway, not an outer one. But there's no point in belaboring this, since Nichiren has described it so well above. He seems to have understood this as well as anyone of his generation, and states it in much plainer language than his contemporaries Dogen and Shinran.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Toto -- I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that you hear of in lullabies. You make a wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind you. It's a paradise where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. That's where you'll find a buddha called Amida.

 

 

ClarkStrand's picture

An old friend sends me the following via Facebook after reading today's Green Koan: "To paraphrase Will Rogers: If there are no animals in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went."