Salvation without snobbery or the selfWant to go to heaven? It’s easier than you think. Just repeat these words 10 times: “Namu Amida Bul. I’ll call on Amida Buddha.”
Too easy by half for many Western practitioners of Buddhism. In the West, Buddhism is a religion of intellectuals. To them, this doctrine, called “Pure Land” or Amidism, often seems decadent, Buddhism gone to the unwashed plebeians.
And yet, this seems like the final position of Korea’s greatest Buddhist scholar, Wonhyo (617-686). He wrote profoundly about many Buddhist teachings, to end life beating an empty gourd in the marketplace, declaring his learning was of no value.
And, while Zen epitomizes Japanese Buddhism in the West, Amidism is by far the more popular form of Buddhism in Zen’s homeland.
To call it degraded, then, seems to insist that Westerners know better than Asians about their own, Asian, traditions.
Pure Land is arguably the final, full flowering of all Buddhist thought. Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, taught the doctrine of anatta, that there is “no self.” Simple, but liberating: if no self, then no other. If no other, no possible harm. All suffering is illusion. One with all creation, we are immortal, so long as any being exists.
This is a fairly precise description of the Pure Land of the sutras: a place where everybody lives forever, or dies if they choose. They can instantly be in anywhere, or several places at once. They can experience any sensation at any moment.
Of course. This is how the world would appear to an enlightened being, one aware of having no self, of being all things.
But if we have no self, and must see this, how do we get there from here? Obviously, not by individual effort: for then we are relying ever more on the self, and the goal becomes self-fulfillment. This moves us away from the goal, not toward it. We must find a skillful means that does not involve our effort, but union with other. Enter Amida, a historical king from before all memory, who achieved enlightenment, selflessly, only to allow others to be enlightened. Call upon him to be born again into his enlightened thoughts, the perception of no-self. The Pure Land.
Now, consider you are Amida. You have achieved enlightenment. You have no self, and now you know it. It follows that enlightenment cannot only be for you, or it is not enlightenment. Others must also experience it. In fact, it is not you who have achieved enlightenment. It is all things.
Therefore, any enlightened being must create Amida’s Pure Land: an enlightened thought is an enlightened world, in which all things are enlightened. And into which all things must come.
So chant: “Namu Amida Bul.”
Mind you, there is no guarantee. How can there be? That would still mean relying on your own efforts: You do this, and Amida will do that. No, you must be saved without merit. Amidism thus becomes a philosophy strikingly like born-again Christianity, similarly disliked by intellectuals convinced of their own merit. You pray the prayer with faith, and, one day, you may know by Amida’s grace that you are saved.
When Christian missionaries first came to Buddhist Japan, the Japanese therefore immediately saw Jesus as an incarnation of Amida Buddha.
Some prefer to chant before an image, for motivation. Amida images are common; but not always easy to recognize. Buddhas, having no self, look more or less identical. Spot Amida by the position of his hands: sometimes teaching, one hand up, one hand out; or both folded meditatively in his lap as he imagines into being the Pure Land.
Gakwonsa temple, near Cheonan, features a magnificent statue. Bulguksa, the great Silla temple, is also Amidist. In Seoul, try Mitasa (i.e., Amida temple), west from Bomun station, and north around behind the larger Bomun temple.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at the University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.
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