Leader or Guide?

Upali lived during the time of Buddha and was the follower of another religion and went to the Buddha in order to argue with him and try to convert him. But after talking to the Buddha, he was so impressed that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha said:

“Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself.

“Now I am even more pleased and satisfied when the Buddha says to me: ‘Make a proper investigation first.’ For if members of another religion had secured me as a disciple they would have paraded a banner all around the town saying: ‘Upali has joined our religion.’ But the Buddha says to me: Make a proper investigation first. Proper investigation is good for a well-known person like yourself’.” (Majjhima Nikaya 2.379)

* * * * * * *

I sometimes use the Amitāyus Sādhana as a practice during mini-retreats. The Amitāyus Long Life Mantra is om amarani zewänteye söha. This Mantra is often taught to be a ‘sonic formula’ that when chanted ‘will clear obstacles that are obstructing one’s health so that they may have the blessing of time and good health to receive the teachings of the holy Dharma and practice by skillful means the altruistic motive of service to the seven future generations and all sentient beings, that they may be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and that they may experience happiness and the causes of happiness.’


It is probably not true that the mantra posses these qualities in and of itself.   It actually cannot do this given emptiness (Skt. shunyatta/Pali suññata) That is likely to be just some superstitious juju invented by people afraid of dying and found lack in their earthly lives. I am always amazed that some Buddhists really believe in this kind literal teaching that verges on magic. I am even more amazed that I fall into the trap myself when I like to believe that I know better.

If I believed the teaching about the mantra and took what is said literally I would be engaging in ‘reliance on ritual’ and a fallacious ‘self-view.’ I would also have to be engaging in doubt — the doubt that simple practice can lead to realization without the invocation of magical aids, such as other beings. I have used the mantra and know that it works but it works mainly because it stops my own papañcas, proliferation of thought, and allows me to see clearly. It allows bodhicitta to arise as altruistic thoughts because the teaching about bodhicitta is internalized and associated with the mantra. There is no magic involved. It is all cognition. It only seems like magic if the process is not understood. If the process is understood one is relying on one’s authentic self and not on a fabricated and pretend self through the reliance on a ritual. If the process is understood the normal ‘self-power’ process of ego formation can be diminished and the natural ‘other power’ process begins: other power being the natural way of ‘being’ instead of the normal fragmentation of ‘personality-versus-others’ mentality.

Then we can be true to the Buddha’s teaching…

One indeed is one’s own refuge; how can others be a refuge to one? With oneself thoroughly tamed, one can attain a refuge (i.e., Arahatta Phala), which is so difficult to attain. [Dhammapada v160]

‘…be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things: ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [SN 22.43]

I was accused of being a fundamentalist once.  I committed the apparently unforgivable sin of telling a fairly well-known ‘Zen Master’ that they might be misinterpreting the teaching of the Buddha when they mis-paraphrased the Kalama Sūtta (AN 3.65). (At least the ‘Roshi’ said they were a well-known Zen Master while angrily screaming that they were fully enlightened and no one else was so their words were ‘gospel’.) The Master seemed not to know what that was. They didn’t know they were paraphrasing it.  I was pretty much told by their entire Sangha to either shut up or get out. I got out.

What this person was essentially saying was ‘The Buddha taught that we should doubt everything.’ This is not true. The Buddha did not say, ‘Doubt everything.’ The Buddha taught in that Sūtta, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘Don’t believe anything just because you heard it or read it somewhere. Believe it because it is reasonable and you can experience it yourself.’ In modern terminology, Gautama Buddha was telling the Kalamas that belief in a teaching, or anything else believed for that matter, was believable only if it met certain criteria, it can be replicated through experience and it was reasonable. Today this is called ‘the scientific method’ which leaves little room for superstition or blind faith. He then immediately launched into a teaching he meant the Kalamas accept and believe precisely because those teachings met the criteria he just outlined.

In other discourses he places great emphasis on ‘faith’ and seems to place it above mere knowledge; but even here, the things that we ought to have faith in also meet the method of replication through experience and reasonableness. What the ‘Roshi’ and his community demanded was absolute belief in the words of the [self-proclaimed and self-identified] ‘Master’ forbade the doubt in the teaching he was giving. It’s like this, they told me, ‘Doubt everything except what I tell you to believe.’ After all, at that time they were ‘the Dharma Master’ and I had been a practicing monk for only 40 years or more.

Self-view, reliance on ritual and doubt are to be relinquished if one is to enter the Path toward enlightenment. If the Buddha had meant what the ‘Master’ had taught then the Buddha would have been a liar. After all, doubt is a hindrance.

There are said to be five hindrances. They are generally listed as:

  1. Sensory desire (kāmacchanda): the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
  2. Ill-will (vyāpāda; also spelled byāpāda): all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject; feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
  3. Sloth-and-torpor (thina-middha): heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
  4. Restlessness-and-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind.
  5. Doubt (vicikiccā): lack of conviction or trust.

 AN 9.64

These are basic to the Buddha’s teaching. How could the ‘Master’ miss them?

The authoritarian position found in many schools and communities I’ve experienced, and I’ve been trained in a bunch over the past 5 decades, is often distasteful in that it leaves little room for growth and self-exploration. One is constantly trying to explore somebody else’s self and grow into their form. When taught in this way it becomes a matter of ‘righteous leaders and wanna-be righteous followers’ as opposed to ‘guides and sojourners’ both on the Path. I suppose I’d rather be guided on my journey than led somewhere by someone else. You can show me the Way, you can’t be my way. Here, in the West, we are inundated with dogma and authoritarianism in our ‘religion’, and now politics, and often turn to Buddhism, in its myriad forms, precisely because we feel we don’t need or want authoritarian dogmatism. Dogmatism and ritualized authoritarianism are stressful and don’t bring us to the serenity exemplified by the face of the Buddha.

There are other teachers, however, that seem to see themselves as messengers and not the message itself. They have more of a ‘try it and see’ attitude. They suggest using the Dharma as your guide. It’s not gospel just teaching. There is a difference in style of teaching: one has a very hierarchical approach and the other a more democratic feel to it.

Of course, as I write this I know others have had different experiences than I, I can only report on what I have witnessed. I cannot report on what others have witnessed.  I have also met some incredibly delightful teachers from a wide variety of sects over the years. Unfortunately, they rarely gain a large following and so are rarely known to the public who too often is not looking for answers but only someone to give them the answers.

I am not bashing any of the schools or trends of Buddhadharma while praising others. I am using examples where I have found the two different styles of teaching and one style obviously resonates more with me than the other does. It is the preference for the democratic style of teaching Buddhism as an education over the hierarchical religious style that led me to eventually settle on Pure Land Buddhism as my own practice and the trend of Buddhism I prefer to teach. At the same time it is a Pure Land teaching that is firmly based on the Nikāyas [Āgamas].

In contrast to Western religions, in which acceptance of creed or dogma is fundamental, the Buddhist Path encourages the cultivation of true understanding that is absolutely dependent on true becoming.

Becoming.  Not the ‘passion for becoming’ (bhava-rāgānusaya; cf AN 7.11), one of our seven latent tendencies, but becoming in the sense of unfolding, like a flower unfolds its petal in Spring.

The gap between understanding and becoming is bridged by the spiritual discipline, training, and development termed ‘practice’, called gyo in Japanese Pure Land. A common practice formula in Mahāyāna Buddhism has four stages: pure faith in the validity of a teaching, intellectual understanding of its contents, spiritual practice that incorporates the teaching into one’s being, and ultimate attainment of enlightenment. Forms of Buddhist practice often include the eightfold noble path, the six paramitas, cessation and insight (samatha-vipasyana), and seated meditation (zazen).

Pure Land Buddhism is no different from other forms of Buddhism in stressing the central place of practice: only by practice can the bonds of blind passions and attachment to the ignorant self be broken and one’s karmic incompetencies transformed into the integrity of enlightenment. In Pure Land Buddhism one’s own practice is seen to be inevitably blemished by the passions at the root of one’s own existence, so that it can never lead to Buddhahood. Rather, Buddhahood can be attained only through the wisdom-compassion of the Myth of the Primal Vow, in which the bodhisattva hero, Dharmakara, resolved to bring all beings to enlightenment and which he fulfilled through aeons of pure and strenuous practice. In Pure Land Buddhism practice is essentially that of Bodhisattva Dharmakara embodied in the Vow that works to bring all beings to Buddhahood. Dharmakara is not an authority and the Primal Vow is not a dogma, they are the central part of a mythos reflecting the true nature of human reality.

When we accept that a teacher is the master who will lead us to Nirvana then we fall into the same trap as when we believe a mantra or ritual will save us. We give permission for someone else, or something else, to be our Refuge and Sustenance. In a sense, we become a slave to the very kinds of dogma and authority we sought to escape through Dharma in the first place. Instead of relying on ourselves we come to rely on another instead of ‘the Other’, a topic for another essay or talk. We have made mere human beings and their pronouncements our ‘master’ and given over responsibility to a so-called, often self-proclaimed, master. This is the very definition of irresponsible behavior. Everyone needs a guide; no one needs a master to enslave and shackle him or herself to. We can do that ourselves, and we do that very well.

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.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Counterfeit Dhamma, Hongaku, Hongaku Jodo, Pure Land Buddhism, Rational Amidism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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