As I was in the monastery for the past few weeks, I wrote down some thoughts that came to me from time to time, and one of the things that I felt was important was to talk about what Amitabha means to me. You know, for the past several months, now and then, you will hear me do a guided meditation where I will mention Amitabha as a possible mantra. And I haven't really gotten very detailed into the origin of that beautiful word Amitabha. So tonight I would like to do that. And so instead of being more like an inspired, spontaneous talk, it is going to be more like a college teacher's lecture kind of thing.
So as I was meditating, these are some of the thoughts that came to me about Amitabha. And I would like to talk about seven different understandings of Amitabha. First of all, there is the mythological aspect of the story of Amitabha. Mythologically speaking, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition—
And by the way, maybe I should preface this with another little college teacher's lecture and with some charts. In Buddhism, we have four main schools of Buddhism that are very prevalent in the world today, and of course there are many more than just for, but these are the four predominant forms of Buddhism. One of the forms is very rationally oriented, but not exclusively so. They all have an aspect of the others, but I'm just kind of categorizing them for us to understand a little bit.
Then the other three are what you might call more trans-rational understandings of the Buddha's teachings. All of them are valid in my opinion. This is kind of like an iceberg, I guess, sort of a diamond iceberg underwater. The one that is rational is only just one aspect of the Buddha's teachings. This is sort of what the Buddha actually said with human words. And the Theravada school of Buddhism, which means the way of the elders, they believe that they have kept as faithful as possible to the oldest understandings and teachings of the Buddha. They have the Pali canon texts of scriptures, which is huge. It is like 40 times bigger than the Bible. And so they whenever they have a teaching, they want to go back to this text to see if it corresponds and is in harmony with them. So you might say that they're sort of by the book Buddhists.
But later on, as Buddhism developed over time and through different cultures, there began to be the Mahayana schools of Buddhism, the great vehicle schools. Now sometimes Mahayana, because they were trying to be more popular than the Theravada school, they kind of called the Theravada school Hinayana, which means little vehicle, which is not very nice. So today, it is not P.C. to say Hinayana anymore, so just say Theravada, the elder school. But you can still say Mahayana, big vehicle.
And so, the great vehicle, they believe that you can't just simply go with what the Buddha taught literally with human words. The Buddha taught in many other ways as well. Any great teacher teaches with more than just words. Just the way they walk, the way they live is the teaching. How do you put that into words? Sometimes you may have to use poetry or rituals to capture that same energy, and so the Pure Land school of Buddhism focused on Amitabha especially and other Buddhas, mythological and celestial Buddhas. But in Pure Land, I believe that this is very much about the heart and also the imagination, using the heart and the imagination to capture that energy of the Buddha's heart that was being taught and transmitted, that feeling of love, and that feeling that the disciples got when they received that wisdom and love, which is just pure gratitude.
So anyone you talk to today, they will tell you that Pure Land Buddhist seem to be the most grateful Buddhists of all, and their heart is so huge and large, and their practice is simply gratitude. Instead of striving for enlightenment, they simply say thank you over and over and over again for the enlightenment that is already there and available and supporting them in the Enlightenment. And that is what for them Amitabha means. It just means literally of course infinite light, but on the heart level, it just means thank you. Thank you. When you recite Amitabha's name, it is just simply think you that I don't have to do this all by myself, that every breath is not my breath. It is the breath given to me. It is not my life, for the life that is given to me. You know, everything—even the teachings did not come from me. They came from others and all beings and all Buddhas, and so enlightenment is not at all anything about self struggle, but simply thank you for that infinite light that carries us.
But to capture the meaning, there are lots of texts that talk about this heavenly realm, this Pure Land with lots of flowers raining down from the sky, beautiful birds singing the dharma from the trees, every leaf of the trees full of jewels. It is very beautiful, but is it literal? Well, some people believe it is literal. Maybe there is a dimension in the universe that looks like that, but I think that the deeper meaning is that using story is a way to capture the essence of the heart. Poetry, the language of poetry, the language of mythology, the language of stories. Sometimes you can't just—you're like in love with someone. You know, you wouldn't say, "Darling, my heart is beating faster and certain chemical pheromones are being produced to my body, and I just"—no. You would say, "I love you." Right? Or like, "Your eyes are like roses," or whatever. You use different kinds of language that literal scientific language to express the heart through poetry and mythology. And that is what the Pure Land Buddhist did. They took that feeling from the Buddha and put it into these mythological stories.
And then the Tibetan Buddhists focus, I believe, more on the energy that was being transmitted from the Buddha and also what the Buddha taught in other realms aside from the human realm, and so how do you capture and convey that energy? I think that they devised certain rituals, chants, mantras to contain that sacred energy and transmitted from generation to generation. Now, did the Buddha actually make up all these rituals and chants? Maybe not, because according to the Theravada text, they never did such things. But I believe that this is a way to convey that same energy and pass it on. So through all of that, those rituals and that chanting and the ceremonies, you can convey that same powerful energy.
You know, one time I had a monk friend who had a disease that he had contracted, and he was ashamed to go back to his father, who is also a monk, because his father let him go off to America to explore what it is like not to be a monk because he had been in the monastery all his life because his father brought his son to the monastery when his wife died, and so he grew up in the monastery, and he never knew life outside the monastery. So he went to America. His father said, "Okay. Go to America for 5 to 10 years. See if you like that worldly life, and if not, come back." So while he was exploring worldly life, he contracted hepatitis or something like that, something that was not curable, a form that was incurable. And so he was really ashamed, and he wanted to go back to being a monk, but he couldn't bear going back to Asia to do that, and so he was very much upset with himself. So he chanted and did his ritual in the temple all night long with all of his heart. And after several hours of chanting and drumming the chanting drum thing, suddenly a power overwhelmed him, and he broke out into a sweat, and he felt this power enter into his body, and then he knew in his heart that he was healed. He went to the doctor the next day, and all of it was gone, completely healed and vanished.
So there is a power that can be transmitted through these rituals and these ways, and that is what is the income phase. The power of the Buddha, it just emanates light and love and healing energy, just like Christ also did the same thing. So then you have the Zen school of Buddhism, which is about not letting words and thoughts and concepts and rituals get in the way of just direct experience, direct knowing of who we are, which is beyond words. Not even the words Amitabha, infinite life can encapsulate the truth, which is empty of all concepts, words, ideas. And so there is a story in the Zen tradition of the Buddha holding a flower for a long time when he was supposed to give a talk, and everyone was wondering, why isn't he saying anything with words? And only one monk at the back smiled. It is said that the Buddha transmitted his dharma to that monk to pass on the lineage of Zen.
Now, is this story true story? We don't know. The story did not exist in early Buddhism. It was probably made up by the Zen masters. Why did they make the story up? To convey something that cannot be conveyed with words. And it is also in Zen unsolvable riddles. What is the sound of one hand clapping and other things like that. And why? Did the Buddha actually make up these types of things? No. But this is a way to help someone experience what the Buddha experienced, that direct understanding, that direct insight.
So I believe that actually the Theravadans are right. As far as human words are concerned, what they have is what the Buddha pretty much said more or less. And that yes, the Mahayana schools did make up a few things. I believe that just from my own research, but they made it up in the spirit of Buddha to convey that which cannot be conveyed with words. So the Mahayana schools also conveyed the teachings of the Buddha, of Buddha's heart, the Buddha's energy, and the Buddha's spirit, wordless, mind to mind wisdom.
So in a way, you can say that this is like the rational mind, the heart, the energy body, and spirit or consciousness of the Buddha being transmitted. You see that the mental, emotional, physical, and energetic, as well as the pure spirit of consciousness. And so coming back to Pure Land Buddhism, the myth is that there is this Buddha who vowed to create a dimensional realm so that people call on his name with faith and sincerity and attention, they can be reborn when they die into that Pure Land, and it will be a place where it is much easier to become enlightened because you don't have as many sufferings and obstructions, and you have lots of bodhisattvas to help you and teach you. So in one lifetime, you can become enlightened. That is the myth. I don't personally think it is necessary literal, although who knows? You never know. It is a large universe with lots of dimensions, but that is the myth, the mythological meaning of Amitabha.
Now, I want to talk about six more meanings, and that is the universal reality of Amitabha. So this myth is this Buddha who his name means infinite light creating a Pure Land. So, what is the universal reality of the story? I believe Amitabha is a reference to the source, to the true self, to the spirit, to the divine reality, and that is the infinite light that expresses in, through, and as everything in our universe. So that is the universal reality. So when I meditate with the mantra Amitabha, I'm not just thinking about this local story, this myth about Amitabha Buddha, but I'm getting in touch with something that that word points to deeper than the myth, which is that universal divine reality, the infinite light of our true nature.
Now, a third meaning of Amitabha is the here and now reality of Amitabha. It is not just the divine source of the universe. It is also right here, right now. This is Amitabha. This is Amitabha, right here, right now. You see? Because sometimes we might have a tendency to separate ourselves. You know, well, we might call it God. That is a God and that is not. This right here, this is not God. No. The reality is that divine reality is right here and right now, infinite light expressing as these hands and these eyes, as this mind and body, everything, infinite light. And so, that is what we get in touch with when we meditate, that here and now reality of Amitabha.
And then I like to think of the unfolding reality of Amitabha because you could say, "Yes. I am an infinite light," but if it is your human ego self that is not fully enlightened saying it, it does not mean much for you. That is why there is also the unfolding reality of Amitabha, because Amitabha it's not just infinite light in theory. It is in reality, and it is manifesting through our human self. So there is that aspect which is the infinite light of your true nature, and it is expressing through and transforming your human self so that even your human personality self is unfolding as Amitabha, infinite light.
And then there is also the future reality of Amitabha, when you actually fully become that mature expression of the Buddha, of Amitabha, when someday you actually will become that fully enlightened, wise being that offers love to all beings. And that is also Amitabha.
And then number six, the cosmic reality of Amitabha and the ultimate reality of Amitabha. I feel like Ken Wilber here. So the cosmic reality of Amitabha is that it is not just about individual Buddhas. It is about the whole universe being realized as that divine reality, every being as Amitabha, infinite light. That is what history is moving toward. There is a wonderful teaching out there these days called evolutionary enlightenment. Enlightenment is not just about individual enlightenment. It is about the impulse of enlightenment expressing and unfolding so that all beings together are enlightened, and there is a movement toward something greater, and so that is the cosmic reality of Amitabha, that we are all in this together and we are co-creating the Pure Land right here and right now as this universe.
And of course the ultimate reality of Amitabha is beyond understanding, beyond words, beyond concepts. I can't even talk about that. But that is the ultimate reality of everything is Amitabha.
So, this is very meaningful for me because I've had several experiences with just my heart opening to that reality. I remember a year or so ago just sitting on my meditation cushion in front of my altar in my bedroom. In the middle of my meditation as I was just reciting Amitabha with my in breath and out breath, I just realized with this dwelling of love and gratitude in my heart that I don't have to do anything and that I can't do anything because everything is being done without any "I" to try to manipulate it. The fact that I can sit and breathe and meditate that morning does not come for me at all. The cushion—I didn't make the cushion or the materials that came together to compose the cushion. That cushion was supporting me in my practice. That cushion was Amitabha, infinite light.
And my very breath and my heartbeat, I didn't create that. It just is there. It comes from the gift of that ultimate divine reality which is Amitabha, infinite light. Every breath is Amitabha. Every heartbeat is Amitabha. And the fact that I understand Buddhist concepts and practices of meditation didn't come from me either. It came from Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers and his teacher and his teacher before him, generations of beings practicing and supporting me in this moment, Amitabha, infinite light. The fact that I have this body came from my parents. Amitabha, infinite light. The fact that I think in terms of the English language comes from my upbringing and education and the society. Amitabha, infinite light.
How could I ever even think that I am the one responsible for making myself enlightened? My only response should just be thank you and receive it. To receive with gratitude is my only practice. That is the essence of Pure Land Buddhism. That is the essence of Buddhism. That is the essence of all spirituality. That is Amitabha, infinite light.
So, there is no need to struggle. Just allow. Let the Buddha breathe. Let the Buddha walk. Let your life prayer just simply be Thy will be done. And what is that will? Love, joy, peace, truth, goodness, beauty, Amitabha, infinite light. So let us just chant that beautiful word Amitabha as an expression of gratitude for all the gifts within the and all around us that are constantly supporting us in our life and practice.
Let us place our palms together at the heart, and just repeat after me with each line, and then we will sing it all together. (Plays music and chants) Amitabha.
ChiSing: All together. (All sing together) Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha. Amitabha.
The infinite light is red and blue and black and white. The infinite light is 46 years old, 29 years old, 39 years old. The infinite light is male and female. The infinite light is beyond all names, and the infinite light is every name conceivable in the universe. So you can use this particular mantra Amitabha, but realize that the word, the sound Amitabha is just one expression of Amitabha. The mantra God is love is also Amitabha. The mantra I am peace is also Amitabha. The mantra of no words and no sounds, just this breath is also Amitabha. Amitabha is limitless. That is why it is infinite light.