I hate to be a downer but the facts are there is no one who has been born that can avoid sickness, aging, weakness, separation from and death of your loved ones, loss of wealth, and the hate and harm of your enemy. The poor want to become rich, the childless want to have children, the unemployed want to have a job, and so Saṃsāra goes. How many of these desperate dreams will come into being? It often seems like there is no solution to our problems.
People all over the world are dying in terrible ways, car accidents, terrible diseases, mudslides, violence of war, violence of poverty, many in hopelessness take their own lives. We are constantly threatened with human extinction through nuclear, biological or climate catastrophe. Unexpected death is facing us everyday. We are taught that even though a living body can die consciousness never dies. The person manifests around this consciousness and a personality is reborn in one of the six paths: Heaven, the human world, the Aśura world, the animal world, the hungry ghost world, or hell. There is no escape from this revolving wheel of Birth—and—Death.
The Buddha did indicate a way out of this mess we call Saṃsāra. It was a simple way of getting past the travails of day to day life.
This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “There are these three properties for escape. Which three? This is the escape from sensuality: renunciation. This is the escape from form: formlessness. And as for whatever has come into being, is fabricated & dependently co-arisen, the escape from that is cessation. These are the three properties for escape.”
Knowing the escape from sensuality,
& the overcoming of forms
touching the stilling
of all fabrications:
he is a monk
who’s seen rightly.
From that he is there set free.
A master of direct knowing,
he is a sage
gone beyond bonds.
This passage would indicate “direct knowing” is the way to peace — but that would be only one way. Direct knowledge is a hard way to go for most people. It requires time, great effort, and the Buddha says this person “is a monk.” Most people, even most Buddhist people are not monks. How do they achieve this kind of liberation from unhappiness, the cycle of rebirth and alternating depression and highs? The Buddha offered such as these a way out of Saṃsāra as well. In the Nikayas it is called “foremost faith.” Faith in Buddhism is more like “trust.” Trust is based on prior experience, if I drop a cup of tea it will fall, spill and possibly break. Trust is also comes through others in which we have developed trust, such as a teacher or mentor, a friend or the Buddha. I’ve seen it before. In §90 of the Itivuttaka.
“Bhikkhus, there are these three foremost kinds of faith. What are the three?
“Whatever beings there are, whether footless or two-footed or four-footed, with form or without form, percipient or non-percipient or neither-percipient-nor-non-percipient, of these the Tathagata is reckoned foremost, the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One. Those who have faith in the Buddha have faith in the foremost, and for those with faith in the foremost the result will be foremost.
“Whatever states there are, whether conditioned or unconditioned, of these detachment is reckoned foremost, that is, the subduing of vanity, the elimination of thirst, the removal of reliance, the termination of the round (of rebirths), the destruction of craving, detachment, cessation, Nibbana. Those who have faith in the Dhamma of detachment have faith in the foremost, and for those with faith in the foremost the result will be foremost.
“Whatever communities or groups there are, bhikkhus, of these the Sangha of the Tathagata’s disciples is reckoned foremost, that is, the four pairs of persons, the eight individuals. This Sangha of the Lord’s disciples is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, the unsurpassable field of merit for the world. Those who have faith in the Sangha have faith in the foremost, and for those with faith in the foremost the result will be foremost.
“These, bhikkhus, are the three foremost kinds of faith.”
This is foremost for those with faith,
For those who know the foremost Dhamma:
Having faith in the Buddha as foremost,
Worthy of offerings, unsurpassed;
Having faith in the Dhamma as foremost,
The peace of detachment, bliss;
Having faith in the Sangha as foremost,
A field of merit unsurpassed.
Distributing gifts among the foremost,
Foremost is the merit that accrues;
Foremost their life and beauty,
Fame, reputation, happiness, and strength.
The wise one who gives to the foremost,
Concentrated on the foremost Dhamma,
Whether he becomes a deva or a human,
Rejoices in his foremost attainment.
It is not a Cosmic Buddha or yet to be enlightened Cosmic Bodhisattva, as imagined by mystics, that says this about faith, imagined by mystics, it is the historical Buddha who invites us to simply have faith. Faith in
- The Buddha, the historical founder & discoverer of the teaching;
- The Dhamma, the teaching & reality itself; and
- The Sangha, the community that lives by and spreads these teachings.
This is called the “foremost faith.” The Buddha goes on to tell us that those who are wise, “…whether
- “Footless or
- “Two-footed or
- “Four-footed, with
- “Form or
- “Without form,
- “Perceptive or
- “Non-percipient or
“of these the Tathagata is reckoned foremost, the Arahant, the Fully Enlightened One.” This is quite some list. Creatures without feet, like snakes, worms, fish and so forth; two-footed animals, like ourselves or our closest relatives in the jungle, and kangaroos; four-footed creatures, like cats, dogs, and cows; “form and formless” creatures, creatures with or without perception (percipient); all can have foremost faith in the Triple Gem.
What would this kind of strong trust bring a person? In the Samyutta Nikaya 55.24 (Sarakāni Sutta: Sarakāni — Who Took to Drink) the Buddha says, that a person who is not capable of great practice or wisdom will be reborn in the pure abodes if he is not endowed with unwavering devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha but has merely faith, which could be better termed, “trust” or “a lack of doubt,” not merely affection for the Tathāgata, that person, too, does not go to states of woe. The drunk Sarakāni had none of the qualities of a great monk or Arahant, but because of his practice of faith he was guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land. It appears that the Buddha accepted individuals as they were, without precondition. This is the root of Pure Land’s unique approach to the Buddhadhamma. (Text of an excerpt of the Sutta is below.)
Yet, it is not enough simply to have faith alone. The practitioner has to share that faith with others. In the Mahanama Sutta: Being a Lay Buddhist (Anguttara Nikaya 8.25) the Buddha explains how virtue, keeping the precepts is not enough. It’ll make you “virtuous” but get you nowhere ultimately. It is sharing one’s faith, lack of doubt, the teachings assisting others in their spiritual journey that a person makes spiritual strides. This is compassionate wisdom. Further, in the Alavaka Sutta: Discourse to Alavaka (Samyutta Nikaya 10.12) the Buddha goes on the say that without faith the goal is not possible.
These lessons regarding faith seem to have lost in contemporary Western Buddhism. In the West we tend to emphasize the last words of the Buddha that suggest to us to
- Make of yourself a light.
- Rely upon yourself.
- Do not depend on anyone else.
- Make the Dhamma teachings your light.
- Rely upon them.
- Do not depend on any other teaching and interprets them as telling us that we must live our lives,
- Taking responsibility for our actions, but at the same time
Seeking to intersect our troubled lives with the indescribable something that the Buddha awoke to and which his teachings aim at guiding us to realize, is starting point is and as the starting point must always be, an aspect of the Four Noble Truths. For those of us who follow the Buddhadhamma this requires a process that is invested with faith:
- In ourselves
- In the teaching
- In the Buddha
In Pure Land Buddhism, the only way to realize the Buddha’s wisdom is to rely on Amida Buddha and the “entrusting mind,” which as the embodiment of the state of infinite compassionate Buddha, was provided by him. Our awakening to this is the matrix between our limited selves with the infinite. According to Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jōdo Shin Shu, this is the only way we can intersect with the infinite in this life.
Whether correctly or incorrectly, it is often taught that Shinran believed that we are ultimately saved from our kamma because of the infinite wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. It is not necessary to live a particularly moral life. Shinran does rely on the Great Primal Vow, especially,
“In my former life I made my Primal Vow;
All people, if they hear my teaching of the dharma,
Will without exception come and be born in my land.
The vow is only effective if the individual has heard the vows. But Amida Buddha made another stipulation as well.
Only those who have observed the precepts without fault
Have now come to hear the right dharma.
Those of evil, arrogance, the hindrance of passions, and indolence
Will have difficulty entrusting themselves to this dharma;
But those who have encountered Buddhas in previous lives
Will joyfully listen to the teaching of the World-honored one.
Because we live in the dispensation of Gotama Buddha, we have met with Buddha. We have the teaching in its myriad forms. The ethical issue of observing precepts are part of that teaching. If our faith is genuine we will keep the precepts as best we can according to our understanding.
In contemporary Pure Land Buddhism, faith is the driver behind practice. The Pure Land school continues to emphasize faith for those who cannot attain liberation through the path of wisdom and practice alone. This is exactly what the Buddha taught in the Nikayas and Pali Canon.
Because the path of the Pure Land school is primarily directed at lay persons, it is sometimes called a pseudo-Buddhism, but that’s the same charge that has been leveled at Zen, by the way, as well as Vajrayana Buddhism by other Mahāyana schools. Pure Land seems to be Buddhism, but it is not considered to be genuine from the “traditional” point of view, whatever that means, including Zen. Pure Land Buddhism is also mistakenly regarded as a “religion” for lazy people. Sometimes called the Easy Path, as its sole requirement is the simple act of faith and recitation of the name of Amida Buddha as its primary discipline rather than the practices of attaining the state of “emptiness,” chanting the sutras and so forth, as the means of reaching enlightenment. This is, an erroneous, ill-informed, and superficial view of Pure Land Buddhism.
If one practices the “chant” (Nembutsu, Nienfo, the name of Amitabha or Amida Buddha) is traditionally seen as a way of entering samatha meditation leading to vipassana and the jhanas. In Theravada a parallel practice called Buddho meditation is used. Visualization of the Buddha is an acceptable practice in Pure Land Buddhism and is one of the Forty Objects of meditation taught by the Buddha.
Some will complain that Amida Buddha is not the Buddha and therefore not to considered a real representation of the Buddha. Amida Buddha is not meant to be the representations of the Buddha, but of the state of Buddha itself. Pure Land Buddhism, in its many forms, is the most popular form of Buddhism practiced in the world today. It appears that most of these practitioners believe in the literal reality of a unique being called Amitabha (Amida) Buddha literally living in a land somewhere in the cosmos called the Western Pure Land, Sukhāvatī. Whether the teaching was originally meant to be taken in such a way is a matter of conjecture. It is even debatable if Shinran believed in the physical reality of the cosmic Buddhas and their respective Pure Lands.
Does it matter if the myth of Amitabha Buddha is a historical fact or not? Not really, no. In the Sabba Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 35.23) the only experiential reality we have available to us is the result of our six senses. Experientially, only what we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and think have immediate reality to us. In the Na Tumhaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 35.101) it is this very same experiential reality that we are enjoined to relinquish. In short, any Buddha we can conceive of is just a conception and not the Buddha himself, whether Shakyamuni, Amitabha (Amida), Medicine Buddha or any of the Buddhas in the Buddhist mythic pantheon. It is just that conception we are challenged to renounce if Awakening would be ours. If we have the faith, the heart of trust, in which Pure Land and the Buddha himself invites us to participate, this letting go of the conception of Amida Buddha is also required.
Imagine giving up your personal being, with all its aches & pains, hopes & dreams, judgements & preconceptions to the infinite compassion and wisdom of the universe, having been personified as Amida Buddha. This would be Buddha itself. This reality is called Amida Buddha in the Pure Land schools. It is personified as appearing exactly like Shakyamuni Buddha but either colored red or in a red robe. The image is a symbol we can use to meditate on the infinite compassion and wisdom of the universe. This Amida is a power beyond self. In Jōdo our individual efforts are called jiriki. This self power is the idea that we can become enlightened on our own, through our own merits. In Jōdo this notion of self reliance is to be abandoned in favor of tariki, other power. Amida Buddha is that “other power.” In the Pure Land way of thinking as sentient beings, we are immersed in our own delusion, attachment and aversion, robbing us of the strength and ability to develop the skills needed to attain enlightenment. Trusting ourselves becomes hazardous. Amida Buddha represent the “other power” the antithesis of “self power.”
Is “other power” really “other?” In recalling the Sabba Sutta it should be obvious that any one we rely on is still a product of our experiential reality. By this token, there cannot really be a “self power” either, because the self is merely a product of our experiential reality as well. Both Dōgen and Shinran used the word shinjin. For Dōgen the term referred to the liberation of the body-mind complex, while for Shinran it represented the “entrusting heart.” Dōgen’s liberation was a matter of trust in the Dhammic process leading to enlightenment. Shinran’s shinjin was a matter of trust in the Dhammic process leading to enlightenment. Both had, in a sense, created a better delusion for themselves enabling each t condition the mind to experience the unconditioned. Dōgen internalized as the experience of enlightenment. Shinran had internalized it as the experience of faith in the compassionate wisdom of the universe which he recognized as Amida Buddha. Both extraordinary men need faith, trust, to reach their goal, enlightenment. As both represent an experience of the unconditioned, where is the “self” and where is the “other?”
He Who Took to Drink (excerpt)
“Take the case of another man. He is not even endowed with unwavering devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha. He is not joyous and swift in wisdom and has not gained release. But perhaps he has these things: the faculty of faith, of energy, of mindfulness, of concentration, of wisdom. And the things proclaimed by the Tathāgata are moderately approved by him with insight. That man does not go to the realm of hungry ghosts, to the downfall, to the evil way, to states of woe.
“Take the case of another man. He is not even endowed with unwavering devotion to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha. He is not joyous and swift in wisdom and has not gained release. But he has just these things: the faculty of faith, of energy, of mindfulness, of concentration, of wisdom. Yet if he has merely faith, merely affection for the Tathāgata, that man, too, does not go to… states of woe.
“Why, Mahānāma, if these great sal trees could distinguish what is well spoken from what is ill spoken, I would proclaim these great sal trees to be Stream-Winners… bound for enlightenment, how much more so then Sarakāni the Sakyan! Mahānāma, Sarakāni the Sakyan fulfilled the training at the time of death.”
Sarakāni Sutta: Sarakāni (Who Took to Drink) excerpt.