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One Dharma, part 2: Pure Land Buddhism
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One Dharma, part 2: Pure Land Buddhism (32 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
March 11, 2012 - Dallas, Texas

There is so much to say about the different various schools of Buddhism. It would fill up volumes, several months and years of classes, but I can't do that, and so I am just going to give you some little gems from the Pure Land Buddhist tradition that I found very helpful in my practice.

So, in the Buddhist tradition, there is this idea that we can attain a state called non-retrogression. In other words, you get to a point in your practice, your life, your state of being in which you no longer go backwards, but only forward to full enlightenment. This idea is found in all four schools of Buddhism.

In the Theravada tradition, they have four stages of enlightenment, and the first stage of enlightenment is the stage of non-retrogression. So if you realize the first stage of enlightenment, you have now entered into the stream of enlightenment, and that is why people who have realized the first stage of enlightenment are called stream enterers. So once you have entered the stream of enlightenment by realizing the first stage of enlightenment, you have now come into a state of non-retrogression, and you will in seven lifetimes or less—symbolically, I think—realize full enlightenment. So this idea is found in the Theravada tradition.

In the Mahayana traditions of Pure Land, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, this idea is also present, and in the Pure Land tradition, it is symbolized by the Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land that he has created or she has created or they or it. I don't take it so literally. And according to the Pure Land tradition, once you are born in the Pure Land, just being born in the Pure Land is already a state of non-retrogression.

Now, how do we reconcile these two different traditions, the Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition of Pure Land Buddhism? They both talk about non-retrogression, so it is probably true that it is true, that non-retrogression is possible, but here are two different angles on this state of non-retrogression. In the Theravada tradition, if we practice deeply, taking refuge in the Buddha and the dharma and sangha and also in the mindfulness trainings, if we practice this deeply, then it is very possible for any of us to realize the first stage of enlightenment. And one characteristic of the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravadan tradition is a true and deep knowingness, a true knowing of nonself, of the selflessness nature of things. That is one of the characteristics.

And there are many Buddhists who have realized the first stage of enlightenment, even in our century, although I don't really know how you can tell. But at least in the Buddhist community, there is a recognition that there are those who have realized the first stage of enlightenment.

For example, Dipa Ma, who was a Buddhist saint, you may say, who passed away a few years ago, she realized the first stage of enlightenment very, very quickly in her practice, and she would teach housewives in her home the practice of mindfulness, and most of them did not have time to do the long hours of meditation practice that she had learned at the monastery—I mean, the retreat center that she went to. So she taught them to just practice mindfulness in whatever way they could, especially while cooking and stirring the pot. So she actually is kind of well known for leading many women, housewives, to the first stage of enlightenment through mindfulness while cooking, just really being mindful while stirring the pot, watching the breath and being very mindful of the movements and being fully present. It is said that her daughter and her granddaughter also realized the first stage of enlightenment.

So, to realize the first stage of enlightenment is not—does not have the same kind of feeling of impossibility like full enlightenment does to some of us in our minds, because in the Theravada tradition, usually just takes eons and eons to realize full enlightenment, but the first stage of enlightenment is very easy for any of us laypeople if we practice very devotedly and deeply so that we can have that first insight—deep, deep, an insight of non-self, an experiential insight of nonself. There are a few other things also, but I'm not going to get into that.

So in the Pure Land tradition, there is also the same idea of non-retrogression not being necessarily so difficult, not as difficult as full enlightenment. So in the Pure Land tradition, if we practice deep devotion and solidarity with Amitabha Buddha or any Buddhas really, for that matter, to find our resonance with the Buddha and our oneness with the Buddha, if we completely devote our life in that way, then we then enter into the Pure Land of the Buddha, and you don't have to die actually to enter into the Pure Land, because the Pure Land is just another way of saying the Buddha field, because every Buddha has a field of wisdom and compassion and energy that they just naturally radiate, and when we open our hearts to the Buddhas, then we connect to the field of energy of the Buddhas, and there will come a point in our practice, whether during this life or when we die, that we will then enter into fully the Pure Land. And just by entering into the Pure Land of the Buddha, that is already the state of non-retrogression.

So, perhaps there is a correspondence to the Theravadan idea and the Pure Land idea. Perhaps the Theravadan idea is a more literal way of talking about non-retrogression, and maybe the Pure Land is a more metaphorical, symbolic way of talking about non-retrogression, because both kinds of language are helpful to us as human beings because we have an intellectual mind and we have an emotional, symbolic, creative, imaginary mind, right? We have a left brain and right brain, so two different approaches to the same truth are sometimes very helpful. So the main idea here is non-retrogression, and to me, that makes me very happy to think about the possibility of non-retrogression, because in the Theravadan tradition, it says once you attain non-retrogression, you're guaranteed pretty much in seven lifetimes or less to realize full enlightenment.

And in the Pure Land it says once you enter into the Pure Land, depending on the level of depth of your practice, perhaps you'll be born in a lotus flower of the lowest of the low grade or a medium grade or a high grade, and so there is a low, medium, and high grade of lotus flower in the low category, the medium category, and the high category. So that makes nine. There are nine different kinds of lotus flowers you could be born into, which of course I see as symbolic, nine different levels of your practice, but if you take away the discrimination of the lowest of the low and the highest of the high, then you have seven, which is kind of similar to the seven lifetimes idea in the Theravadan tradition, so seven lifetimes, nine lotus flowers, kind of revolving through in the Pure Land.

But the main idea here is if I realize non-retrogression, then it is pretty much a done deal. I don't even worry about full enlightenment because the natural force of my energy is always going to be going toward full enlightenment. So I guess in my ministry here, I'm not really worried about personally trying to realize full enlightenment, and I'm not really worried about trying to help you guys to reach full enlightenment. All that really matters to me is practicing together with full devotion so that we can all realize non-retrogression, the first stage of enlightenment, or just entering into the Pure Land here and now and also in the afterlife. So if we can just do that, then it is already a done deal, you know? And it does not really matter to me how much longer it takes, you know? But if we can enter into that state of non-retrogression, that is enough, because the stream of the dharma will carry us onward.

So that is sort of my hope in this lifetime is for me personally to enter into the state of non-retrogression and to encourage all of us together to return to that state of never regressing backwards ever again, only going forward. Because if you believe in reincarnation—and you do not have to believe in it to practice this path, but if you do believe in reincarnation, you can imagine that you have gone through ups and downs for many, many lifetimes, sometimes born in very wonderful circumstances, maybe very wealthy, very rich, with a lot of physical beauty, power, wealth, influence, health, but you know, when you're born into those kinds of lifetimes, those are usually the toughest from the perspective of enlightenment, because what do most people do when given all of those gifts? They squander it, take it for granted, and start doing harm to others, right? Oppressing those who are less fortunate, and that is what happens.

When you do that in a lifetime, guess what happens in your next lifetime? You fall down into lower realms of existence. And I don't think that necessarily literally, but let's say in a human lifetime, a lower kind of life, perhaps one full of suffering. And depending on how you respond to all that suffering, maybe you respond by wanting to improve your life, wanting to help all of those who are suffering with you, then again you will be raised in the next life into a higher level of life, or if you respond with bitterness, anger, jealousy, hatred, violence, a life of crime because of your impoverished state of life, then you will go even lower, and hopefully you will hit rock bottom at some point and come back up again, but the thing is once you go back up to a higher life, being wealthy or whatever, again there is the temptation to do what most wealthy, lucky people do—well, not really lucky, because karma is not about luck—they just do things, again, out of ignorance.

And so because of the state of craving, ignorance, and aversion, you can see the possibility that we have been going up and down, up and down through the cycle of suffering in lifetime after lifetime, and it is endless, it seems. It feels endless, but through the dharma, through this practice, we can finally set our hearts toward the path of enlightenment and liberation from this ignorance and illusion of ups and downs and then set an energy toward lifetimes only forward, upward, lifetimes of enlightenment.

There is a handout I printed out, and it gives the basics of some ideas and aspects of Pure Land Buddhism, and then on the other side is the Chinese Pure Land practice—five different kinds of practice in Pure Land Buddhism, kind of corresponding to five elements. The earth element would basically be studying the teaching of the Pure Land, and the water element would be the recitation of Buddha's name, Amitabha. And the air element represents practices such as making vows and doing prostrations and bows and just dedicating our hearts. And the fire element represents the visualization practices in meditation.

So Pure Land meditation does include visualization meditation, visualizing the Amitabha Buddha, visualizing the Pure Land, just basically filling the mind with the image of Amitabha and the image of the Pure Land. And the space element refers to the kind of meditation where we sit and breathe, and if we are practicing Amitabha as our mantra, there is a Zen way of practicing that, so we are chanting Amitabha silently in our mind, then we ask, "Who is chanting Amitabha? Who's the one chanting?" And that is a Zen way of going back to the pure mind that is the origin of who you are.

So anyway, as you try to study Pure Land on your own, and maybe you Google or look at Wikipedia, you will find that there are a lot of different ways of practicing. Unfortunately, I have not really come across any one that has really been helpful. The closest is maybe Thich Nhat Hanh's book on the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, and his is more of a Zen look at the Pure Land tradition, but I have not found very many books yet, so maybe someday I will, and I will share that with you. But really to me, it is not helpful to just study about Pure Land, because to me, Pure Land, because it is a less literal kind of practice, it is more about just practicing and opening the heart.

So you do not have to believe in the literalness of everything. Is there really a Pure Land and some other space-time dimension? Is there really a Buddha named Amitabha? Who knows? But it is not really about the literalness. It is about when you practice it, when you practice these practices that have been handed down by masters who have practiced this and many, many millions of practitioners who have practiced this, there is a real energy that you touch and that you tap into that helps you to attain non-retrogression, and that is real, and that is a literal, whether or not these other things are literal or not. That is not really the point. I know a lot of people don't really understand Pure Land Buddhism because it does not really make sense literally, but it is not about the literalness. So, just practice, and you will see.

So the Buddha in the Theravadan tradition taught that you could attain or realize the first stage of enlightenment in two ways: one was through the path of insight, and that is called Vipassana. So practicing and practicing meditation practice until you realize the insight of nonself. However, once in a while, there were stories in the Buddha's lifetime when someone actually realized the first stage of enlightenment in a different way than insight, and this was the way of deep faith.

And so, once in a while, someone was really, really—I mean, there's one story of one monk who was really, really dumb and could not remember anything, so he could not even chant along with anybody. He is like, "Namo—what was that again?" And he just could not remember any of the teachings. He could not remember any of the poems or the gathas or the mantras or any of the chants, so the Buddha just told him to sweep the floor mindfully, just sweep, just do your practice, just serve. And the Buddha one day said, "Okay. Do you believe that I am enlightened and that I am your teacher?" And he says, "Yes. Yes, teacher. I believe in you. I have deep faith in you." And then, "Okay. Then trust me that I can help you to realize the first stage of enlightenment." And he said, "Thank you, teacher. So what should I do?" And the Buddha said, "Mindfully sweep this corner of the room," and so he did. He said, "Now, go to the other corner and mindfully sweep there," and he did. And then he said, "Now mindfully sweep the other corner," and he did, and then he said, "When you sweep the last corner of the room, you will be enlightened," and he went there and he swept, and he was enlightened. He did not become enlightened through deep meditation practice and Vipassana insight practice. He obtained it through deep, sincere, untainted faith and trust.

So, there is this way that is possible. Even the Theravadan tradition admits once in a while there is someone who realized without doing all the meditation, but through deep faith. And that is actually, I believe, the seed idea that gives rise later to the Pure Land practice of deep faith in the Buddha Amitabha, deep faith in the Pure Land, and the faith and just opening the heart through chanting Amitabha, Namo Amitabha, and just completely giving yourself to the love of the Buddhas and just trusting the Buddha as your teacher. That also can lead to the first stage of enlightenment, to non-retrogression. And these days, it actually may be an easier way than the way of insight.

That does not mean that we should not practice insight in meditation. I still strongly believe that we need to practice both the way of devotion and the way of discipline—both—and hopefully one of them will get you somewhere. But also, it balances you out, because you really can't practice through discipline without some devotion energy, and you can't really practice deep devotion without discipline energy. There really two sides of the same thing. But the insight way of the practice and meditation, discipline, that leads to insight, and that is one way, and also the way of simple faith, simple trust, simple devotion, constant devotion of the heart. That also is a way.

And, you know, many of you I know, over the years I have seen, or I'm kind of guessing even after several years, you still don't meditate every day. And you know what? That's totally okay. Your devotion and service to the sangha is also a path, and if you just completely always bring your mindfulness to the love and wisdom and compassion of the Buddhas in every breath in every moment throughout the day, that is also a path. So don't despair if you're the type that you haven't gotten to the place where you can completely devote yourself deep in the discipline to meditating every day and just continue on that way. That is okay. That is why we have these other things—chanting, serving, devotion, bowing, all these different things are also ways that will also help lead you to the state of non-retrogression.

And before I go any further, I just want to say don't take anything I said to be the truth, because I'm only just speaking from my current understanding on my path. In fact, I will probably listen to this five years from now and say, "Oh my gosh. I can't believe I said those things." So don't take anything I say as absolute truth, but if you find anything helpful that will help you devote yourself to this path of discipline and devotion, then I'm glad that I was able to say something to encourage you.

The path of the sages is like learning to swim across the river to the other shore of liberation, to develop strong muscles and the skills the swimming. The path of the Pure Land is like jumping onto the raft that the Buddha already made for you and just sailing, gliding across easily. So, either way, just devote yourself to the path. Those who are on the path of the sages will develop the skills necessary to help many, many beings. Those who are on the path of the Pure Land can sail into a state of non-retrogression, learn from the Buddhas, and eventually over many, many eons of time also help all beings. But it doesn't matter which path you take. Just take a path.

I'd like to talk about this mantra, Om Namo Amitabha Buddhaya. And I shared this a few months ago, but I think it would be nice to share it one more time with those who weren't here. I find this mantra so beautiful. So, first of all, Amitabha, infinite light. Just this word is enough, Amitabha, for your practice, and it brings you to the reality that the infinite, true nature, the Buddha nature of the universe, of your true self, that is what you get in touch with as you breathe in Amita, and then breathe out, Abha, light expressing. So it is like emptiness and form, true nature and expression. This is the whole movement of the universe. Our true nature is always expressing.

And then, if you want, you can also use the word Namo Amitabha. And when you do that, the Namo then symbolizes your human self, and Amitbaha symbolizes your Buddha nature, and they are one. And they are not separate, so Namo Amitabha. Namo Amitabha. The Namo is always opening the heart to Amitabha, and Amitabha is always embracing Namo. Namo Amitabha. And then, you can add the word Buddhaya. Namo Amitabha Buddhaya, gratitude to the infinite light of enlightenment. So this is like the movement from the human opening the heart to the infinite and then the infinite is always coming back and serving all beings here.

So if you think that enlightenment is just going from the human to the infinite, you have an incomplete understanding of the path. We open up to our true nature, but when we awaken to our true nature, we realize our true nature is always expressing and serving all beings in this realm, so it is like this. So, Namo Amitabha Buddhaya. This is like our path. You know, our human self opens up to our Buddha self and then remembers that really being Buddha means serving all beings—so it comes back into this realm of form, fully enlightened and serving all beings. And then there is one last word also that is part of this mantra, Om Namo Amitabha Buddhaya, and that is just a nice reminder but where did this human self come from in the first place? Infinite true nature.

So our origin has always been that true nature, so Om, the infinite reality of the divine nature, Buddha nature, whatever you want to call it, the universal reality breathes itself into the physical, the human, and this human, even though we forgot who we were but through the path of enlightenment, we remember who we are, and that's symbolized by Amitabha. But when we remember who we are, what do we do? We always come and serve all beings. So that is symbolized by the Lord Buddha, Buddhaya. That is what Buddha does.

So in this one mantra, Om Namo Amitabha Buddhaya, symbolically the whole of the universe and all of reality and our path is contained in that. It is like a microchip of the dharma. So just practice, and if you'd like, read this handout, which I think is very, very helpful.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch