A blog by Marcus, reflecting on some of his affinity for this more unusual School of Buddhism:
On Sunday the 26th of April, His Holiness Phakchok Rinpoche, the head of the Taklung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is giving a talk in Bangkok entitled ‘Who is Amitabha Buddha?’. Before then, I hope to organise my own thoughts regarding Pure Land Buddhism, of which I have a little experience drawn from Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan.
One of the first books I came across on Pure Land Buddhism was Taitetsu Unno’s “Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold”. I read it while living in Thailand and was amazed.
“No human life or experience is to be wasted, abandoned, or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of vibrant life, deep wisdom, and compassionate living”
Unno writes, and he goes on to describe the compassion of Amida Buddha and the practice of gratitude expressed in the words ‘Namu Amida Butsu’.
It was in this book that I first came across the image of a caterpillar making its way along the inside of a bamboo stalk. There it is, crawling along, looking for a way to escape, inching through segment after segment. On and on, on and on. Each segment, a lifetime. Goodness knows how many the poor little caterpillar has to get through. But should he find a hole in the bamboo and poke his head through, he’d be in the daylight and away in no time.
This is what Amida Buddha does. He provides the escape from lifetime after lifetime in Samsara by taking anyone who wishes it to his Pure Land, from where ultimate Buddhahood can be easily achieved. A good summary can be found in ‘Mind-Seal of the Buddhas’, a 17th century commentary on the Amitabha Sutra by T’ien-t’ia Master Ou-I, the ninth Patriach of the Pure Land School, which I read soon after Unno’s book, and in which Master Ou-I writes:
“The only way out is to have faith, vows, recite the Buddha-name and rely on other power. Amitabha’s vows are certainly not empty promises. If we have faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, when we die Amitabha and the assembly of saints will appear before us to lead us away. That way we will not fail, and we will easily be reborn in the Pure Land.”
It is commonplace there to see Seon (Zen) monks prostrating before images of Amida Buddha and getting up from meditation to call the names of the Bodhisattvas. The unification and integration of various strands of Buddhist practice has always been a hallmark of Korean Buddhism. Wonhyo, one of Korea’s greatest monks not only taught the highest most abstract philosophy, but also made popular the practice of yeombul, giving praise to Amida Buddha.
I loved sitting before the Buddha images listening to the recitation of sutras, and during Saturday night services in Seoul, along with good Dharma friends, I’d carry out 108 prostrations and chant the name ‘Kwan Seum Bosal’. Bowing, but only a little these days, and chanting the name of the Bodhisattva of Compassion 108 times, is a practice I still carry out daily. For some reason my main focus of devotion is to the Bodhisattva rather than to Amida Buddha himself, but I always close by repeating his name too.
To be honest, rebirth in the Pure Land doesn’t really concern me too much, although I imagine that at the moment of death the issue might feel a little more pressing. Rather, my faith is based on what I feel here and now. When I chant the Boddhisattva’s name, I feel her presence. When I sit in meditation, it is the Light and Life of other-power that I wait upon. This surely is a universal experience, this Light and Life is available to all of us under many names.
Of course all Buddhist teachings and practices are really no more than skillful means, designed to push us a little further along the path, and I remember that even the most advanced practitioners, ancient monks like Wonhyo, kept firm to Buddha-name recitation no matter how much they achieved in the highest realms. On our paths to perfect enlightenment, expressions of gratitude come naturally.