Does the Pure Land Have a Starbuck’s?

Nagarjuna urges us not to mistake the finger for the moon. He tells us not to confound words and meaning, that is, not to mistake the secular words that are used to point to ultimate truth for that truth itself. We are able to see the moon because of the finger. However, we should not look at the finger and think that it is the moon. This is the meaning of the phrase, “Rely on the meaning, not on the words.” Here, the topic of our discussion is the significance of symbols.

Dr. Nubuo Haneda got himself into considerable controversy and argument with some of the hard liners in Jodo Shin Shu (True Pure Land school) people a few years ago by advancing the idea that Amida was a symbol and not to be taken as a literal being living out in space somewhere. At the time I had already been teaching that message at a Zen center I worked at. I likened Amida, Tara, Manjushri and all the Cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to Jungian or cultural archetypes, though they are not exactly the same. Later I heard about Dr. Haneda’s work and was grateful that I was not the only one who had this view.

There are sound reasons why it has to be that the Cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas must be symbolic according to the original teaching of Buddhism.

When a Buddha dies their consciousness is no longer found in the universe, so said the Buddha. How could one freed of the fetters of existence be reborn? That is a way of saying the Buddha leaves no marks, characteristics after there is separation from mind and body (death or parinibbana). That means that if the person really were a Buddha they are gone from human experience forever after death. They attain deathlessness not to reborn in any way or shape.

“This unsurpassed, foremost state of peace that comes as the mind realizes emancipation from the All, is totally Unconditioned.

“There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — uncompounded. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — uncompounded, there would not be the case that emancipation from the born — become — made — compounded would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — uncompounded, emancipation from the born — become — made — compounded is thus discerned.”

— Udana 8.3

If a Buddha called Amitabha (Japanese: Amida) were to appear to a human being then Amida would have characteristics and therefore could not be a Buddha. This is a fact of the Buddha’s teaching we often overlook. What is more surprising that as a trend in Mahayana the believer in the literal existence of Amitabha Buddha would also have to understand things like projection and that the world of experience is mind made.

Phenomena are   preceded by the heart,

ruled by the heart,

made of the heart.

—Dhammapada verse 1

Because of the teaching on the 12 links of Dependent Arising, anything that that any experience a human being has is merely a fabrication. This is the basis of both the famous Mahayana Yogacara School and the Mahayana Madhyamaka School, whom the Tibetan Buddhists call the highest teaching. Regarding the existence of a literal Amitabha, the fundamental logic of these schools would have to run something like…

  • Amitabha is a concept.
  • A concept of Amitabha is not Amida any more than a photo of my mother is my mother.
  • Amitabha, then must necessarily be a projection of my mind — a fabrication (delusion)
  • The same would necessarily follow for all the so-called cosmic Bodhisattvas as well.

Most Pure Land Buddhists of all trends, but especially the Chinese and Shin Buddhists, many of the followers of Amidism (another name for Pure Land Buddhism) have an outspoken attachment to Amitabha as a literal, even perhaps breathing, being and desperately adhere to rituals so they can be reborn in the Pure Land. Dependence on the “Other Power” for liberation is promoted because we are incapable of achieving enlightenment by ourselves, so we should depend on Amitabha to take us to the Pure Land where it is easy to become a Buddha.

It’s sort of a fast track to enlightenment. We don’t have to do anything, we only have to recite the correct words and the Amitabha will come to us and take us to the Pure Land after our death. Amitabha mitigates our kamma so we will be reborn in a paradise among the devas and rise above Samsara. These are fraudulent claims.

In teaching a literal Pure Land the devotee becomes convinced that the “people” living there are real. That birds sing the Dhamma all the time. The trees are lush with tasty fruit. There are no seasons in which to become cold or overheated. There might be a Starbuck’s coffee shop on every corner. The women are beautiful and the men virile. The sorrows and the trouble of Samsara will be just a memory.

Unfortunately, The Pure Abodes, even the Western Pure Land, are heavens of a sort and all heavens exist within the 31 Planes of Existence. The 31 Planes of Existence just happen to be within the boundaries of Samsara. It is in Pari-nibbana that one completely transcends Samsara. Heaven is just another rebirth with it’s eventual and inevitable death.

The Buddha taught just the opposite of the teaching that there is a power outside yourself that can save you. “One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.” Dhammapada 160. We cannot rely on a Buddha to save us from the effects of our own kamma. Neither Amitabha Buddha nor Avalokitesvara can purify anyone. Gotama explained, “By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.” (Dhammapada 165)

In terms of what the original Buddhist teachings are other issues arise as well. To be born into the Pure Abodes the disciple must be a Stream Enterer (2nd or 3rd Mahayana Bhumi) and reached the stage of Anagami, non-returner (6th Mahayana Bhumi). Those who believe that Amida and his Pure Land is literally physically real have not yet even entered the stream that takes us to the other shore.

A Stream Enterer must have relinquished three fetters 1) self-identity views, 2) doubt, and 3) clinging to rites and rituals. It is obvious that one who believes in a literal Amitabha — or anyone else for that matter — is a clinging to a view of self; one’s self or that of another. Clinging to the “Other Power” can be seen to be doubt, at least doubt in one’s self, the Path to Awakening, and doubt in the possibility that an ordinary human being can walk this Path. Dependence on Recitation, also called Nimbustu (Nienfo), to gain liberation is a clinging to rites and rituals.

When, however, Amida is seen as a symbol and Pure Land is a symbol for something available here and now — not then and there — then Pure Land Buddhism becomes something of incredible beauty and a completely Buddhist practice.This is not just a problem in Mahayana, although it is most obvious there, similar strangenesses exist in Theravada.

The only thing about Dr. Haneda’s writing that I find questionable is his clinging to the word “Hinayana” as if such a thing actually existed in reality. In his article he seems to imply that somehow the Pali Canon is inferior to the Sanskrit pseudo-canon. If he does indeed mean the Pali Canon then he is simply mistaken and poorly trained in history & general Buddhadhamma. If he means Theravada he is patently wrong. If he is referring to an attitude of practice, he needs to speak to the Buddha through the Suttas and get a reference from him. Many a Buddhist find that the Pali Canon has infinitely more depth than does the Mahayana Canon. Others do not. The Theravada practices are filled with selfless metta and compassion, but done wisely, with discriminaiton. Many cannot see this depth of practice. Others find Mahayana writings are very often trite, superficial, diluted and often deluded reinterpretations of Pali Canon teachings. The Pali Canon makes room for all human beings. There are 7 billion plus humans in the world, this means there are 7 billion plus ways of manifesting the teaching. It’s when we divert from the Teaching that we dispense with the Dhamma opting for a fiction in place of the reality.

Taking the symbol as truth and ignoring the meaning behind is a grievance to the Dhamma. It ignores the teaching of the Buddha and replaces it with a fantasy. Dr. Haneda made a reasonable attempt at arguing against the literal interpretation of the Pure Land doctrines. If the Pure Land teachings are seen as symbolic of infinite compassionate wisdom and the Pure Land a symbol of personal enlightenment, then Pure Land fits into the scheme of the Buddha’s teaching, in a householder’s scheme of things. Otherwise it degenerates into just another form of Marayana.   

It may sound blasphemous to a Nikaya Purist but I still often refer to the Sanskrit canon from time to time. This works well in America. Some of the Mahayana material is tremendously beneficial introductory material and the Pali Canon often holds the meat. The meaning behind the fantastic and often abundantly wordy symbols in the Sanskrit writings often obliterate the truths they are meant to convey. These truths are usually found more plainly expressed in the Pali. For example, it is much easier to read and understand the very short Sabbe Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 5.6) than it is the Heart Sutra, even though they both address the same issue. The wording of the Heart Sutra is somewhat misleading to many novice readers and may dilute the hard core teaching of the Sabbe Sutta because of the symbols the author has chosen to use.

Odd how that works. If we are careful we can wade through the fantasies woven in the Sanskrit canon and get to the meanings and if we do this mindfully, we do might not fall into the trap of superstition. The question then becomes why take a chance?

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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