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2003 Dh.D.J.Brazier: Before and After the Awakening of Faith

Submitted by Dharmavidya on Wed, 15/01/2003 - 13:31

What follows is a piece written for the Pureland Buddhist Studies Course based on a talk given by Dharmavidya in October 2003. Also included are the responses by students following that programme at the time.

 

I feel a little diffident about giving this talk. It has a theme, but it is also somewhat in the nature of a personal confession of faith. Faith is something close to one's heart and displaying it to other always feels unseemly in some ways. On the other hand, if what one writes does not spring from one's direct experience, then it remains somewhat dry and uncompelling.

In this talk I will touch on a number of mutually related themes. Central to these is the question of the standing of religious practice or, as we often say, training. I will say more about the background in a minute, but let me say straight away that I practised Buddhism for many years under the direction of the Soto Zen tradition where the watch word was a quotation from the great 13th century master Dogen: "Training and enlightenment are not differentiated". I am still somewhat under the spell of Dogen, but have since come to what feels like a more refined understanding through adopting the Pureland Path.

In saying this, of course, I speak only for myself. Every person in Buddhism, from Shakyamuni onward, has their own path and there is nothing fixed or predetermined about it. Even within this community there are practitioners with a diversity of outlooks and these are not fixed for all time. I myself have shifted my viewpoint upon Dharma over the years. A shift of viewpoint does not in itself necessarily imply a change of basic spirit. It can simply be a sign of maturing understanding of the implications of particular ways of conceptualising what one is doing. Dogma has its place, but it is not an ultimate place. In Buddhism, pride of place is given to practice. Here we will look at the foundation - the conditioning factor, for practice.

When we study the teachings of the Great Masters the discipline that they demand is total. Thus Dogen says: "If you ostensibly continue to practise the Buddhadharma but secretly worry about such things as clothing for winter or summer and livelihood for tomorrow or next year then despite the appearance of learning the Way opposed to the ordinary world it is useless. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2-16). This is just the same as the Buddha himself saying that for a person who still has the slightest attachment to sensual pleasure to aspire for enlightenment is like somebody trying to make fire by rubbing wet wood. The texts are unmistakably clear on this point. Yet there are any number of people such as ourselves who think themselves Buddhist yet are a million miles away from any such level of dedication.

Even the great saint Honen had to admit that he was nowhere near accomplishing any of the targets for ethical perfection that are set in the sutras. We can all, of course, improve a little bit and this is intrinsically worthwhile. I am all in favour of improving. Some may even go so far as to renounce the worldly life, shave off their hair, don red clothes and join a Buddhist community. We all know well enough, however, that this, in itself, does not constitute the condition of being emancipated from all degrees of attachment and aversion that is spoken of in the texts. Buddhas are indeed extremely rare.

In my life I have met quite a few wonderful teachers who could explain the Dharma with charm and persuasive fluency. However, not one of them, I would say, fell into the category of complete unconcern for the things of this world. To be honest, I doubt if even the Buddha really fell into such a category, though that, of course, is heresy. A little while ago somebody heard me say some such thing as this and retorted that if I thought such things then I was despairing of the very purpose and meaning of Buddhism. I noticed, however, that the person who made this comment was also far removed from the state described by the Buddha and, for myself, I can say that I do feel at home in the Dharma as I now construe it in a way that I did not when I still believed in achievable perfection.

Of course, I have known many Dharma practitioners over the years. Many of them are very sincere and dedicated to their practice. Having practised assiduously, as they thought, for many years, I have seen some of them become frustrated. The thought that they have is roughly, "I have practised all these years, why am I not more accomplished than I am?" We might say, if one has followed the recipe, then the cake should now be ready. They are losing faith and developing doubt because they feel that they have followed the instructions and have not got the result. I do not think that this is a particularly selfish thought on their part, simply an objective assessment. They may go to a teacher who will say, "It takes a long time". I have seen this happen. "A long time" may mean many lifetimes or even many kalpas. Some people accept this. Others find it dismaying.

I myself have been many years in the Dharma. I studied samatha and tried to still my mind, but my mind would not be stilled. I discovered that my mind has a mind of its own. I studied Zen and tried to train "as though my hair were on fire", as Dogen says. I did quite well, but though I had wonderful satori experiences these did not save my marriage not prevent my life from getting into a mess. Nor were those who were apointed to give me the all-important "transmission of the Dharma" dry sticks either - the cief of them soon ran off with a parishioner and left the Order under a cloud. So I turned to the study of Tibetan Buddhism. I was empowered in various tantric practices and it was good to have my imaginative life enriched with such a wealth of symbolism. I studied the graduated path to enlightenment and I had some realisations. But experiencing the emptiness of phenomena did not stabilise my life and I still succumbed to simple temptations. Circumstances then threw me upon the shore of Vietnamese Buddhism and I learnt how to be gentle, how to breath mindfully and smile at adversity, watering the good seeds and keeping my mind full of lotus flowers and morning dewdrops. I did it all that with a sincere and dedicated heart, but it did not stop me getting into quarrels nor turn me into a grade one saint.

None of this is to say that the practises I followed were useless. Every one of them gave me something. As part of the repertoire of self-help methodology they are in the first league. They all got results in the relative world, but I remained wet wood as far as the one thing that the Buddha taught was concerned. So here I am, a very experienced failure who can propound the Dharma, but who, even after three and a half decades of practice, cannot get through a day without manifesting one aspect or another of the fathomless sea of blind passion. This, then, is the background to my enthusiasm for Pureland Buddhism, which I came to rather late in a long career of Dharma practice.

Pureland is a practice grounded in faith. It is, in tone, quite unlike other forms of Buddhism that I have encountered. This is not to say that it contradicts them in any formal sense, but it puts a quite different spin, as we say nowadays, upon the Buddha's mission and intention. As a Pureland Buddhist I feel completely accepted as I am. I do not have to attain or achieve anything. There are many things that I would like to improve about my life and I continue to work upon them, but this is not the dominant note in my relationship to practice. The dominant note is a feeling that all is well, just as it is.

This distinction between the dominant note and the undertone is significant. In Pureland, it is the rational, achievement oriented, worldly mentality that is the undertone; that which understands that all is impermanent, that dukkha pervades and that there is nothing predestined about our spiritual life - that it is up to each to strive on with diligence. That is the undertone. It is a consequence rather than a cause.

The dominant tone, however, is something quite different. It is something quite irrational. It is faith. It is represented in the idea that Amida Buddha has already accepted me just as I am now. If I die today it will be fine. I can express this by saying that Amida will receive me and take me to his Pure Land and it is a fine way to describe it. You cannot explain this sort of thing in any way other than by clothing it in a mythology. Such mythology speaks from and to the subliminal level of the human mind that our cultivated rationality systematically represses, but which, nonetheless, is the holder of our life-force. To speak at this level, however, is a leap, not a logical progress, primarily. Pureland is the Buddhism of the unconscious, of the irrational, of enbarking upon the white path which initially looks to be as doomed as any of the other options, as Shantao describes it in his famous allegory.

In Pureland Buddhism there is an all-important reversal of the usual Buddhist paradigm. Virtually everything that in other approaches to Buddhism is seen as a means to the supreme goal of gaining enlightenment is, in Pureland, seen as a consequence of faith and gratitude. None of it is necessary in order to reach salvation, it is all simply something that a person will naturally want to undertake out of gratitude when they realise that they are saved already. The Eightfold Path is here, therefore, not seen as the way to attain enlightenment. It is seen as the natural outcome of receiving Amida's grace. Amida having freely transferred the merit of infinite goodness specifically to rescue me from my incorrigible foolishness and faultiness, how would I not feel gratitude. I feel gratitude for the boundless blessings that keep me alive every day, that clothe me and feed me and provide me with a world of remarkable beauty. But above all I feel gratitude for having received this Dharma which is, as the texts say, so rare.

When I talk about faith, I am talking about the confidence to live without guarantees. Faith is the opposite of self. The doctrine of non-self has two separate dimensions I want to talk about and a third that I will come to later. On the one hand, anatma means that there is no atma, i.e. no "that of god" in each of us. The atma as a little bit of god implies inevitability about returning to god. It implies predestination. Buddha denies all that. Nothing is predestined. It is up to us to become dry sticks and generate spiritual fire. So one aspect of anatma is that there are no guarantees. Karma is inexorable. As we sow, so shall we reap. We can go down as well as up, and so on.

On the other hand, the "bit of god" is also closely associated with self-worship. This is especially true nowadays. Nowadays faith in an external god has waned so that the bit of god within ourselves is the only bit we have got left to cling onto. The worship of self has thus become a widespread religion of our times. This is actually every bit as metaphysical as the old religion was, but modern people have convinced themselves that this is rational. Nor is Buddhism immune: the Buddhist variant on this is belief in Buddha Nature conceived as an inherent perfection or "original enlightenment" within the individual. This idea is also a long way from the Buddha's estimate of the situation. Dependent origination implies that there is no predetermined nature any more than there is a predestined outcome. We have been made by conditions.

Nonetheless, from the Pureland perspective, though karma is inexorable, I am already saved by the seemingly miraculous power of Amida. Even if I am on a downward path, Amida will pluck me up. So some will say that this Pureland Path is the very picture of irresponsibility. This is, indeed, a charge that has been laid at its door. Unlike other Buddhists, the Purelander does not say "I will take my fate into my own hands". He believes that his fate is already taken care of. "Then there is no point in doing anything", or "Then you could wilfully sin and still be saved. How terrible!" say the critics, but they say this from their position of doubt. One cannot say such a thing from the position of faith. If there really is faith that the future is assured, what is there then to do? Only the very things that the Buddha described and practised as the Eightfold Path. We should remember that the Buddha himself did not practise the Eightfold Path in order to become enlightened. He did not discover the path until he was enlightened. Salvation comes first. Practice follows. He became enlightened by reaching a point where the practice he was doing failed. This failure came on top of a series of others. His marriage, his family, his career, his membership of previous spiritual communities, his friends - everything failed for him. His singularity lay in facing his failure, not in pursuing the Eightfold or any other path to the point of consummate success.

So I have come to several conclusions that are also important starting, or recommencement, points.
1. The doctrine of inherent perfection is (a) probably not Buddhist and (b) more conducive to illusion than liberation, especially in the contemporary cultural ambience;
2. It matters where we situate the divine, the sublime, the ideal, not so much in terms of an assertion about ontology or metaphysic but more in terms of the need to orient ourselves; and it is important that whatever divine there may be be situated outside of self, because of the spiritual catastrophe of pride that follows from situating it inside;
3. That we will not free ourselves from the religion of self-worship by lauding the self. Humility is necessary. Unless we can see ourselves as foolish, passion ridden, and ordinary, we will not function in a spiritually mature way;
4. Practice follows salvation, not vice versa. Interestingly, if you really believe that you are saved, then you do not worry over much about "clothing for winter or summer and livelihood for tomorrow or next year". You do what is necessary, but it is not central to your life project any more.

Now I am aware of a difficulty in presenting these conclusions since they sound to many people remarkably like the context provided by old fashioned Christianity which everybody, modern Christians included, is trying so hard to jettison. There are differences, of course, - Buddhists do not claim that Amida created the earth, nor that there is a judgement day, nor that divine intervention occurs in human affairs, but, notwithstanding these highly significant differences, there is something in the Pureland orientation that strikes a familiar chord. Amida is an other that one encounters as from a distance. Amida is not in oneself, nor omnipresent, but is situated in the Pure Land, that one may, if fortunate, glimpse, but not, in this life, enter.

Recently, a correspondent has drawn my attention to the work of Don Cupitt, a Christian writer wrestling to free Christianity of precisely these ideas at the same time as I am pointing out their relevance. Cupitt laments the fact that the traditional Church maintains "an unbridgeable gulf between Holy God and the sinful human being" and he thinks that a modern or post-modern Christianity will dispense with such a notion. Yet, Pureland Buddhism holds to a doctrine almost identical in form, and, unlike Cupitt, I find it satisfying. Of course, as Buddhists, we do not talk about God, but about the ideal Buddha, Amida, but the notion of a gulf is crucially important to the way in which we orient ourselves to the spiritual life.

This gulf is not, in Buddhism, for the sake of social control, as Cupitt claims, but, rather, serves at once, on the one hand, to ground our spiritual life in an existential personhood and world that never are ideal, whilst, on the other hand, never losing sight of that ideal by which alone our lives can be lifted and inspired. Collapsing one of these poles into the other one seems to me to be spiritually reckless, though I appreciate that many Buddhists would disagree with me. My position in this respect is characteristically Pureland. If you accuse me of dualism at this point, I will happily plead guilty.

I do not, however, see the spiritual life as a journey from the mundane to the divine, the ordinary to the ideal. Rather it is a journey in which both are eternally present as the landmarks by which one discerns a Middle Way. The Middle Way takes into account Amida's illimitable light and my own incorrigible darkness. As a result, I feel accepted just as I am, not as I might become only after scaling whatever spiritual heights there might be, but precisely as I am now, darkness and all. Light is not even really my concern - it is his. It is precisely this world just as it is that is the place where the spiritual life takes place, and it is here that I remain, on this side of the "unbridgeable gulf". There is in this a feeling of alienation, but the poignant longing that goes with it makes life more real, not less. In any case, anything else smacks of hubris.

This position is one of ease. It is the position of arrival, but arrival by a means of transport provided by somebody else. It is arrival without any conceit at having arrived, for one can claim no credit for it. It frees me of any necessity to act the part of the arrivist. I feel under no compunction to be constantly demonstrating how much benefit there is from all my years of spiritual practice. I am what I am: a foolish being, that's all.

So this is certainly not a doctrine of despair. I know that I will go to the Pure Land, but it will not be a function of my own effort or achievement. The merit that will propel me there will not be my own and any merit that I generate is not for myself. As a Purelander, whatever slight merit I may give rise to is for others. It serves to create or sustain Purelands where others may find awakening.

Let me turn to the question of faith. Even faith is not something that I can generate by an act of will. Whatever faith I have is also a product of conditions. Subjectively it seems to be something that one chances upon, but it must, in fact, be an outcome of karmic conditions.

This is why I advise people who come into spiritual training to make some enquiry into what it is that their faith already consists of. I do not mean by this that they should reinforce their ideological preferences and prejudices. I mean that there is faith in us already that is not our inherent nature but is the product of experience, of karma. Over the years we have invested our faith here and there and we have learnt many things as a result. Some of those learnings are wise and some are false friends, but it is important to take stock and see what we have got. In this exercise people find that they have invested faith in all sorts of things that clearly have little in the way of eternity value. These things include the usual range of tokens of financial and emotional security, possessions, status, relationships and so on. Along with these investments also goes all the resentment and pain associated with feeling let down by such things for showing us their true impermanent and contingent nature when we did not want to know about it.

Then there are deeper levels. There is a kind of subliminal faith. The other day I said that my subliminal mind believes in eternal life. My rational mind knows that we all die and has all the usual doubts about rebirth or heaven and hell or spirits or whatever. But, nonetheless, I find in the deeper recesses of my mind an orientation to the world and to time that simply assumes it to be limitless. I only have to gaze out of the window and watch the willow trees blowing in the wind to enter a state of timelessness, and it is from this timeless eternal place that all spiritual balm seems to emanate. Although Amida is by definition infinitely far away, infinity is miraculously opened up in such moments.

When we say that we are beings of fathomless blind passion, we are just facing the reality of our existence. We have many urges. We are inclined to call them needs and to give them imperative force and that is certainly how they often appear. We can sometimes understand them in terms of the self-construction project that each person is engaged in. I cannot really fully explain it for it is so all pervading. It would be like a fish trying to explain the sea. We really are completely immersed in an ocean of blind passion. Our lives are shaped and driven by forces over which we have only the most minimal control. Consequently we live in a state of constant self-deception.

This can be illustrated by incidents or by common syndromes. We feel needs. These needs are for resources that lie outside. We need others: both other people and other things. This is true at a basic physiological level as well as socially, politically and psychologically. We might conceive of spirituality as the project of achieving freedom from such needs - which would be a monistic solution - but it might be wiser to conceive it as coming to an acceptance of the reality of the situation - an acceptance of duality - of the unbridgeable gulf.

One person meets another. They are mysteries to one another, but this mystery is not experienced fully. Rather the unknown is obscured by the projection of what is known. Thus what we see is not the other in all their mystery, but something supposedly known. What is supposedly known, however, is no more than a function of desire for wish fulfilment. In other words it is a matrix of expectations. The greater my needs are, the greater my expectations of the other, and many of my expectations are mutually contradictory. Of course, I am likely to represent this to myself as my thinking well of the other because it involves me believing that they can indeed do the miraculous, namely meet my every need, and my assessment that I think well of them gives me a sense that I am well-meaning and a good person. At the same time, the greater my expectations are the more likely the other person is to fail to fulfil them and I am likely to hold them accountable for this failure. What I represent to myself as my goodwill turns out in fact to be a function of neediness and manifests in the end as greed and hatred, demanding that the other fulfil demands that they never contracted into in the first place. Out of scenarios such as this there flow rivers of blood, and the tears that carry down the generations.

By this little, oh so common, scenario I hope to convey the ubiquity of delusion, of avidya, which is the driving force of psychic mortality. The chain of dependent origination that Buddha speaks of in detail begins with avidya and ends with marana, death. Let us, therefore, go back over the example. I began by saying that one person meets an other, but what commonly happens, and what I have described really, is that we do not allow ourselves to meet what is truly other, for what is truly other is unknown. It is a mystery. What we want to meet is the known. We are all prepared to meet the known and so we involuntarily substitute the known for the unknown. In this way we ensure that the unknown other remains doubly unknown.

I propose, therefore, that the idea of non-self be taken in a third way, which seems fairly self evident. Non-self may refer, not only to the advice that we are unwise to engage in the construction of a self. It may also refer to the fact that what is real in our experience of life is that which is not self, i.e. what is other. Anatma means other. It is the other that is divine, not the self. But it is divine only if we allow it to retain its mystery, not if we propose only to subsume it to our projections, thereby reducing it to an extension of self. Now, to meet an other without succumbing to the need to reduce them to a mere resource for expectations is an act of faith.

If we can allow the other to remain a mystery, a dark interior, then, like a window pane that has dark behind it, they become also a mirror. To stand before the mirror that they hold up to us and see in it all our bottomless irrationality - our horrible reflection - also takes that kind of faith that we generally call courage. To look into that mirror is to risk being turned to stone. Yet, if we take that risk, will we not be impelled to do something about the reflection?

So, by this little analysis of the interpersonal situation, I hope I have illustrated the functional aspect of the fact that, even at a mundane everyday level, training follows the dawning of faith rather than being a way to attain it. Training that is real training is virtually involuntary. In this sense training is a consequence of the arising of faith. It is faith that sets up the condition in which the impetus for it is released. Yet faith itself is not something we can obtain like a commodity purchased in a shop, nor even something we can earn by dint of long labour. It is rather something that arises spontaneously when we have nowhere else left to go.

DHARMAVIDYA: I have been asked about "Shan Tao's famous allegory". Do have a look at this link for further information on this. Also note that Shan Tao is called Zendo by the Japanese:

http://www.bca-ocbc.org/Messages/Harada/HaradaMay2002.htm

Namo Amida Bu
Dharmavidya

RESPONSES

Student One: I found this piece to be very moving in its account of the personal faith of the author. I also found that it cleared up some misconceptions of the Pureland way. I think I can best express my thoughts by describing my recent experience.

Recently I finished writing a thesis which will count towards the award of a PhD. The individualistic society I live in would tell me to be proud of finishing the thesis within a given deadline, to set myself above those who have not finished and to look down on or harshly judge those who have failed the thesis. This is one logical interpretation of the facts; by some criteria, I am indeed in a "superior" category. I would liken this situation to those aspects of Buddhism that advocate intense striving and classifying people into the wise and the foolish.

However, there is another interpretation of the completion of the thesis. While writing the customary acknowledgement to the various people who had helped me over the course of the study, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to the very long list of contributors. Various professors and colleagues lent me books and gave their time freely to discussing my ideas. The people in my research group rallied round and supported me when I needed it, both technologically and in less tangible ways. My friends took pity on my relatively impoverished state and treated me to food and trips to the cinema, while providing willing shoulders to cry on. Other students helped me to work more efficiently by sharing their experiences. My supervisor dedicated himself to making my thesis a successful piece of work. My parents and step-parents lent me money and paid for holidays and treats.

When viewed from this perspective, the thesis became a collective creation. While I was at the hub of the action, driving the thing forward and translating advice and ideas into applications, all those who supported me acted as the spokes of the wheel, without whom I might have given up. The work would not have appeared without people who, without realising it, averted crises and provided encouragement at crucial moments. This chain of conditions stretches further back in time to the sponsors, the people who kindled my interest in the subject, my grandparents for providing me with a good education, the nameless ancestors from whom I inherited an aptitude for the subject.

This is the Pureland perspective. It helps me to be aware of the individualistic perspective of pride, which requires an adoring audience to be satisfied. Without the gratitude I feel, I am sure I would go around irritating all and sundry by constantly seeking attention and approval for "my" achievement. At the same time, I feel a healthy sense of accomplishment from viewing my contribution as the central part of a wide network of effort. From gratitude spring two important Buddhist characteristics. The first is compassion for those who may not have finished on time or failed the final examination. Perhaps they possessed the ability but did not have a dedicated supervisor and supportive family and friends. The second is a deep-rooted confidence; in answering criticism of my thesis, I feel that, since I can see my contribution in proportion, I can be objective and distinguish between malicious and constructive criticism. A very proud attitude would also make me unscientific; possibly I would sacrifice objectivity to defend my conclusions simply because they are mine.

As Dharmavidya says, this is one instance where the undertone is that of rationality: striving to produce the best possible thesis and defend it as well as I can. The dominant note, however, is that of gratitude for the chain of conditions that have resulted in my contribution, and the blossoming faith that all can be made well when my work is eventually critiqued.

With thanks for the teaching,

Student Two: To have faith is to have inner strength. For some it is an intrinsic wealth, for many they have to start out by depending on others until they have enough faith or inner strength to stand on their own. The mind will progress in line with its strength, just as the body will decay.

As a child I gave myself to asking. Why was I born me? Why wasn't I someone else? I wondered if everyone else was asking this same question? The self was a puzzle, and the idea of having a soul not said to be present in my cat an irritation. Yet I had faith in something, in not wanting others to suffer for they must feel pain the same as me, and it had meaning. This faith once arisen gave me self-respect and has not really changed much. Just this week I received an e-mail, "have you considered snail or worm farming? but I know you have an animal issue." My reply was that I have no animal issue - I just accept that I am one.

Faith in a religion can make not harming acceptable. Today I can write to my daughter's biology teacher that as Buddhists we do not involve ourselves in dissecting lungs obtained from a butcher's. The name of a religion is a support that I did not have, prior to my becoming a follower of Siddhartha Gautama's philosophy, and Buddhism has made me more tolerant to those with totally divergent viewpoints and behaviour. It also makes me feel grateful when I am given something and I know I must work at being worthy of these gifts, and any that I might receive in the future. Rarely do I forget that I am a Buddhist, but religious practice and meditation is another thing. I did practice Samatha for many years – I could have dental work like root canal fillings without anaesthetic, but I only meditated on the days of reporting to my teacher so that I had something to say. It could remove my response to pain but did nothing to cure the gross suffering of beings in this world to which I have dedicated all future lives. On the one hand I was lazy and on the other feared to become too skilled and zombified.

Today my faith is strong and I am ready to die for it, but it is still a puzzle – sorry I don't have any clue what this Amida Buddha is or what kind of death I will have. All I have is faith in the goodness of the lifestyle Siddhartha Gautama established which generates compassion, generosity, loving kindness and joy of the holy life. It gives hope to five billion selfish animals to become enlightened beings, or trying to improve the way it is – five billion something in the middle.

Student Three: Dear Dharmavidya:

Thank you for your excellent essay. I find a lot of personal resonance with your ideas.

I have studied Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and Thai/Burmese/Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism. I decided Pure Land Buddhism is for me. Pure Land Buddhism is popular in China and Japan. It is taken for granted by the Buddhists in the Far East but is hardly practised by Westerners. Indeed when I read Buddhist books in English by Western Buddhist scholars or even practising Buddhists, little space is given to the exposition of Pure Land Buddhism.

I can understand that Pure Land Buddhism may seem different to other schools of Buddhism. I find the exposition given by Dharmavidya is most wonderful and relevant to contemporary life. This is an exposition based on deep knowledge of all major schools of Buddhism and psychology of the human mind. It is also based on an insight of life (existence/reality). I find that I have very little else to add.

Student Four: Nonetheless, from the Pureland perspective, though karma is inexorable, I am already saved by the seemingly miraculous power of Amida. Even if I am on a downward path, Amida will pluck me up. So some will say that this Pureland Path is the very picture of irresponsibility. This is, indeed, a charge that has been laid at its door. Unlike other Buddhists, the Purelander does not say "I will take my fate into my own hands". He believes that his fate is already taken care of. "Then there is no point in doing anything", or "Then you could wilfully sin and still be saved. How terrible!" say the critics, but they say this from their position of doubt.

What do we understand by "saved"? When I hear the terms "saved" or "salvation" used in this text, my experiences (not vague doubts) in so-called Christian groups are recalled and I start to feel my hair stand on end!

There was an ancient "Christian" sect who took the view that since Jesus had died to atone for their sins, they could do what ever they liked. Their "sins" had already been paid-for in advance. I do find this a worrying aspect of this doctrine.

One cannot say such a thing from the position of faith. If there really is faith that the future is assured, what is there then to do? Only the very things that the Buddha described and practised as the Eightfold Path. We should remember that the Buddha himself did not practise the Eightfold Path in order to become enlightened. He did not discover the path until he was enlightened. Salvation comes first. Practice follows. He became enlightened by reaching a point where the practice he was doing failed. This failure came on top of a series of others. His marriage, his family, his career, his membership of previous spiritual communities, his friends - everything failed for him. His singularity lay in facing his failure, not in pursuing the Eightfold or any other path to the point of consummate success.

We, of course, are in a different position - hearing the Dharma before we set out towards enlightenment, however we define that term. I feel that the ethics of Buddhism are both a natural aspect of climbing the path to higher values and a self-reinforcing trend towards more enlightened lives, hence a form of training. Following the Path seems to help make the world a better place, even if I fail often.

Siddhartha Gautama's family and marriage did not "fail for him". He took the decision to leave his family, wife and child. For better or worse, the split was conditional mainly on his autonomous decision.

The dominant tone, however, is something quite different. It is something quite irrational. It is faith. It is represented in the idea that Amida Buddha has already accepted me just as I am now. If I die today it will be fine. I can express this by saying that Amida will receive me and take me to his Pure Land and it is a fine way to describe it. You cannot explain this sort of thing in any way other than by clothing it in a mythology. Such mythology speaks from and to the subliminal level of the human mind that our cultivated rationality systematically represses, but which, nonetheless, is the holder of our life-force. To speak at this level, however, is a leap, not a logical progress, primarily. Pureland is the Buddhism of the unconscious, of the irrational, of enbarking upon the white path which initially looks to be as doomed as any of the other options, as Shantao describes it in his famous allegory.

I need a reality check here. I strive to learn from myths. I will not strive to believe them. The distinction matters to me. If Pureland Buddhism is an irrational aspect of unconscious processes, clothed in mythology, I doubt that it can rightly remain a part of my life's frame of orientation.

Things are not "fine". I am not "fine" or even acceptable by my own values, still less those of an enlightened being.

I am mortal. Siddhartha Gautama was a mortal human being who died 2500 years ago. He never knew me, could not "accept" me or have anything more than a vague idea of 21st century life. I do not accept that his merit will somehow transfer to my life, except as a role model. He will not "receive me and take me to the Pureland" when I die, because he died 2500 years ago and because my death will be the end of my existence. Why should that be so hard to accept as a simple reality?

How can we claim to seek out truth and growth, yet live in denial of our mortality? Death is simply the inevitable extinction of our lives. We need to deal with it skilfully. The last chapter in Caroline Brazier's Buddhist Psychology is very helpful.

I am not trying to systematically repress some subliminally remembered myth. If it were subliminal, I would not be aware of it to seek to repress it. My life does not hang by some thread of mythology. I live by virtue of a complex web of improbable past circumstances, the chance hazards of living, and by my present decision to accept life rather than choose death.

When Siddhartha Gautama died he left us a beautiful vision of how life could be, together with a record of his life and struggle to live out and promote that vision. That record is subject to distortions and cultural accretions, clouding his original wisdom. Perhaps, one day, another such fully enlightened teacher will walk the earth (it's hard to type with your fingers crossed!). Perhaps there is a similar figure living in an enlightened society on another planet and we are just a failed experiment, who heard the call from our many prophets and turned our backs upon it.

In the absence of such a powerful living guide, the vision and the task of building the Pureland is in our hands, both Buddhist masters and apprentices.

I am reminded of a few weeks back, holding a friend's one-day-old baby, Emma, in my arms. For those moments, that tiny precious scrap of beauty and hope was safe in my care. Who knows what she will become. In twenty years she could be building a just peace in the Middle East. Or she could be flipping burgers in MuckDonalds.

The true, direct, beautiful vision of a Pureland is similarly in our hands. Whether it will grow and thrive, or remain just a fuzzy mirage, is a task in our hands. Like Emma's parents, we hold an awesome responsibility. If we are up to it, we need to anchor our lives to reality, not to myths.

Change of subject

One person meets another. They are mysteries to one another, but this mystery is not experienced fully. Rather the unknown is obscured by the projection of what is known. Thus what we see is not the other in all their mystery, but something supposedly known. What is supposedly known, however, is no more than a function of desire for wish fulfilment. In other words it is a matrix of expectations. The greater my needs are, the greater my expectations of the other, and many of my expectations are mutually contradictory. Of course, I am likely to represent this to myself as my thinking well of the other because it involves me believing that they can indeed do the miraculous, namely meet my every need, and my assessment that I think well of them gives me a sense that I am well-meaning and a good person. At the same time, the greater my expectations are the more likely the other person is to fail to fulfil them and I am likely to hold them accountable for this failure. What I represent to myself as my goodwill turns out in fact to be a function of neediness and manifests in the end as greed and hatred, demanding that the other fulfil demands that they never contracted into in the first place. Out of scenarios such as this there flow rivers of blood, and the tears that carry down the generations.

So true. As a social species, we tend to make a right mess of close relationships.

This reminds me that someone mentioned in this group the interesting concept of a ninth (or first) limb of the Noble Path: "Right Association". This might include both Siddhartha Gautama's first social action after his enlightenment - choosing, forming and training his first Sangha - and also the ethics of skilful interpersonal contacts. This might be an interesting and rewarding area of debate. Perhaps the Amida Sangha, with its dual emphasis on engaged Buddhism and psychology, might be well placed to address it.

May you all find happiness and freedom from suffering

Student Five: There was much in this essay that I found fascinating and deeply comparable to my own beliefs. One bit that made me smile sort of illustrates this, I quote:

When we say that we are beings of fathomless blind passion, we are just facing the reality of our existence. I cannot really fully explain it. It would be like a fish trying to explain the sea. We really are completely immersed in an ocean of blind passion.

The reason I smiled was because one of my favourite hymns from very early Christian writings (c. 200AD) uses this analogy exactly about God. Again I quote:

"He is like the sea,
In that all creation moves in Him.
As the waters beset the fish in all their movements,
The Creator is clad with everything which is made,
Both great and small."

I have two main questions about what was written. If faith is a product of conditions, then how close is this moving to the notion of given-ness which of course is fundamental to Christianity? My question for Dharmvidya is unless one is happy to keep on tracing these conditions back and back ultimately to blind, chaotic forces then one has to have the idea of agency.

The other observation I found excellent was the idea of otherness. That Pureland has the notion of otherness I find enriching rather than the non-duality in other forms of Buddhism. But again the question I have has to do with this otherness, I quote

we do not allow ourselves to meet what is truly other, for what is truly other is unknown. It is a mystery.

But can anything ever be completely "other"? Because if it were completely "other" we could not relate to it, it would be so utterly other that we would not have the conceptual, physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual etc categories with which to define it and hence to know it.

Kind Regards

Student Six: Dear all, I am 28. I first learnt about Buddhism when I was 18 and I have been trying to practice it, sometimes sincerely and sometimes (or perhaps, many times) not so sincerely. However I began to realise that there is a narrow path always existing. But most of the times, I am not at all aware of this narrow path. My Buddhist journey has seen many ebbs.

Taking the image of the two rivers and a white path further, I think, 24/7, we are in the existential paradox. Always threatened by the Bandits-forms, sounds, touches, tastes, smells and thoughts. They keep me in Saha world or rather I create Saha world for myself, by getting threatened by the bandits who carry me back to their realm-Kamaloka-the sphere of sensual desires!

Even in the Kamaloka, the choice is available, the narrow white path is still available. We have to always however chose to walk the path and not to let the fire or water touch it. I find it difficult and I think that unless we are trapped or aware of this existential paradox, we will not be able to tread the path. When we tread the path, we ourselves are the path. When we fall into the river of fire or water, we ourselves are river of fire or water. We ourselves are the bandits.

Whenever, in my opinion, we become aware of Amitufo, we are already there. But as we can not sustain the awareness, we fall back.

Student Seven: This weekend MOTHER, that is Mother Teresa from Calcutta was beatified. It just so occured to me that I asked for a dharma name, right after meeting with her work and herself. She gave us a blessing, of course it was catholic, but the slums of Calcutta, her work for dying people convinced. I was just two years into buddhism, it was 1995. I was still calling myself a writer and a journalist, though I had mostly worked serving Latin America, in Europe and in Latin-America. My teacher, the Tibetan Lama Healer, Dr. T.Y.S. Lama Ganchen Rinpoche, tricked me into meeting up with her, by saying "you can interview her."

Now because I am also doing the buddhist psychology course with Prasada on-line, and on topics like unlearning and how we learn and therapy, it just occured to me that Mother Teresa is an inspiring role model, and by no means could I dream of comparing myself to an inch of her, but she is inspiring, like a Catholic bodhisattva. Some people transcend even nations and even religions.

As I am going through a phase of difficulties and mourning and loss in my personal life, which have a lot to do with a higher awareness and lettin go of the past, there is always light, the light of practice. In this crazy, difficult summer, we had a massive attack of black magic in our dharma centre, what had been hidden came up, village people had felt the visitors to the centre had taken over their village, which is of course very catholic in northern Italy, and personal issues between people, one of which I became involved in myself, exploded.

This has been both traumatic and real. My world view has been scattered. I could see my weak points through others' eyes. For five years I had tried to be a bridge between the Dutch and the Italians, and somehow everyone saw me as their mother, and I felt insufficient. I understand both.

Now I have returned to the Netherlands, and decided to be a therapist, which is more functional. This involves a toughness. And as a healing factor I rediscovered new and old friends, like for five years I had been "on duty", doing what I was asked to do, squeezed in a situation, by karma, by my teacher, by my husband, my family and myself. Now I feel I have grown up, I rely on my practice with a different sense of responsability. Also my copy of Zen Therapy, very interesting how, arrived with our group from Italy, to the Netherlands, this sunday. And I was crying, as I read the part where I recognized that I had been crying like a therapist for the world. Something bigger than us. The ecological crisis Prasada mentions in RUNNING TIDE, THE VOICE OF AMIDA deeply affects all of us. A world view is shattered for most of us. There is a new sense of responsibility, completely without Doubt and in reverence. And occasionally irreverent.

Namo Amida Bu

Student Eight: My early experience of Buddhism was in a "rational, achievement oriented, worldly" approach which emphasised purifying mind, meditation, ethical conduct and loving kindness. I greatly benefited from this approach, and found both my choices and my ability to make the right ones, becoming clearer. Family and acquaintances were astounded by the change in my outlook and behaviour - from selfish and narrow-minded to more generous and positive. This is not to say that I had "made it" in terms of not worrying about what clothes I would have to wear - far from it - though there was a significant development which I believe was to the good of both myself and those around me.

Equally, I have greatly benefited from the "other power" Pureland ideas that I have encountered. I now believe that my/the strengthening as described was fundamentally nothing to do with me. Rather it was the working out of the positive conditions that have supported my life, and in particular my good fortune in living in a situation where I can hear the dharma. I could never, of course, ever say that I deserved to have been born in such positive circumstances - I was just born. And no matter how refined my ethical conduct became, or how many beings benefited, I could never say that I deserved to live and experience this unforgettable, unrepeatable life with all its joy and pain.

The two elements outlined - ethical behaviour and seeing it from what I understand to be an other-power type perspective - complement each other. One is about what you do, and the other is to understand the self-less context of why you are doing it. I don't really mind which is the dominant tone - they are both just there. Neither am I interested in how close to "enlightenment" we are, or even whether or not it exists in the commonly held format. All that remains to do is to live our lives, with confidence in the dharma, and faith in the process of life.

Namo Amida Bu.

Student Nine: I've spent quite a long time reading and thinking about this piece. My response is in two chunks.

First, the Thank You

...One person meets another...

and projecting what is known onto the unknown, and all the problems that it causes; all the stuff around the last page or so. Blindingly obvious, and unseen by me in 47 years of stumbling around my world. Maybe now I can do some things differently?

And then the rest. I don.t know why I write the rest; I don't know what its point is, but if there is to be any more than the Thank You, this is it. And if there isn't, then there's not much point in being in the Group, so...

The core questions?

The key question, as I read it, in the piece is practice (e.g. the eightfold path) - the means to an end, or the natural result of a specific faith?.

There are other questions:
Does it matter? As far as engaged Buddhism (or any kind of engaged life) is concerned, isn't it the practice that really matters? If the Amida Pureland view is correct, does it mean that someone who is following the eightfold path has "knowingly or not" received Amida.s grace? Is it impossible to follow the eightfold path unless one has? Can I not do "real training" until "I have nowhere left to go"?

Other questions

The Buddha says that "for a person who still has the slightest attachment to sensual pleasure to aspire for enlightenment is like somebody trying to make fire by rubbing wet wood." Does this mean it's impossible, or just a long, hard job (eventually, the wood will dry?)

"As a Pureland Buddhist, I feel completely accepted as I am."

By what/whom? Is Amida Buddha a myth, or something/somebody that is experienced and/or believed as real? as immanent? as existing somewhere?

"You cannot explain this in any way other than by clothing it in a mythology."

I.m not sure that clothing something in a mythology is an adequate way of "explaining" it, although it might be very adequate as a way of expressing something or describing something or communicating something. Anyway, I am constantly and consistently confused by the contexts in which the Amida Buddha is presented; sometimes it seems like parable, sometimes it seems like a statement of reality. In the latter case, it feels as though, in the two statements "I believe in God" as said by a Christian cleric, and "I believe in Amida Buddha" as said by a member of the Amida order, the words carry exactly the same meaning (other than with regard to their object). Which is it? Why cannot this be made clear?

Coming at this from a different direction, who is it that needs to "know and" accept me as I really am? Somebody or something outside me? Or me myself? Is saying "Amida accepts me" a way of saying "I accept me" that is acceptable to people who see it as a way of avoiding the spiritual catastrophe of pride? I don't currently see accepting myself, in all my foolishness etc, as a cause for pride, but as a source of humility.

Karma and Determinism

Another area of confusion for me is around how Karma isn't determinism. This confusion has been, if anything, heightened by the piece.

"Subjectively it (faith) seems to be something that one chances upon, but it must, in fact, be an outcome of karmic conditions... ..karma is inexorable... ...nothing is predestined... ..there are no guarantees.. ..as we sow, shall we reap..."

This seems to me to be a string of contradictions. If I choose, I can interpret the words so that they can stand more easily together, but where is the truth in that?

Buddha Nature and Dependent Origination

I don't know whether Buddha Nature is conceived as "inherent perfection". Where I had got to was more around saying that if all the learned, foolish layers were somehow stripped off, then what's revealed would be loving and giving, somehow an opposite view of the world to original sin. But it doesn't matter, the core of the idea is that there is some basic nature inherent in (at least) most people. The question is whether dependent origination really implies that there is no predetermined nature.

What is the predetermined nature of a tree? Does dependent origination really imply that an acorn may "often enough for it to matter" turn into a chestnut, or a conker into an oak? They may turn into handsome trees or twisted trees (for all sorts of reasons, genetic and environmental), but still trees, and still oaks or chestnuts. So, is there nothing that is somehow "core" to being a human being? Something of which all humans partake to a greater or lesser extent (and whether or not they know it or display it)?

Poetry, rhetoric or philosophy?

Part of the problem here, it seems to me, is that the essay is, at the same time, covering topics which, as far as language is concerned, are only susceptible to poetry or rhetoric, alongside topics that are susceptible to rational, logical argument. Maybe this is unavoidable. I don.t know. However, for me, the two get mingled, and sometimes the result is neither a sound, logical exposition of a theme, nor a poetic communication of some real, valuable, and irrational experience or belief. I think that this is a problem that I have also had with previous pieces.

Thanks,

Student ten: Dharmavidya wrote:

We really are completely immersed in an ocean of blind passion.

This kind of over-generalisation is what upsets me about the essay in particular, and the essayist's style generally. It is, I think, a very depressing and pessimistic outlook on humanity, and quite unjustified by my experience of my fellow-man/woman.

I think Dharamavidya generalises his personal experience to everyone, and I must personally resile from this attributed position he seems to put me in.

It is not my experience of others, by any means. I don't truly know whether I "need" to see others as generous, warm, gentle, perceptive, courageous, noble, kindly, funny, dedicated and self-sacrificing. Is this merely, as Dharmavidya would have us believe, we want to feel we are good chaps ourselves? And is it all destined inevitably all to blood and tears. What a melancholy prognosis.

But "the wondrous creation" is indeed my experience of the people I have met along the way, although we all have flaws and imperfections, and lots of us are "damaged goods". I have done things which I wish I hadn't, and I accept responsibility for them, but I don't "blame" myself any more than I blame others for the harm they may have done to me. Blame is an immature emotional response, and many of us grow out of it, and can sometimes restrain its worst effects in others. But are we all "completely immersed in an ocean of blind passion"? I can't agree.

The dominant note is a feeling that all is well, just as it is.

This also appears in the same essay, being the main theme of PLB. How does this accord with the ocean of blind passion (OBP)? If complete immersion in tthe OBP is "just as it is" (presumably it must be), is that "all well" too? Sounds a bit contradictory to me.

Unless "all is well" because Amida Buddha has "accepted us". That, to me, is very far-fetched indeed, rather superstitious stuff. Why locate the source of this acceptance outside yourself? Surely that is a projection of your mind?

Altogether I find the essay a rather tortuous and overlong testimony to a faith that doesn't accord with my understanding of buddha-dharma, though of course I don't doubt Dharmavidya's sincerity, nor his undoubted intelligence and style.

It occurs to me that his views may eventually incline him to Orthodox Christianity, but wherever it goes may it go, so long as it affords him some contentment, a compassionate embrace for his own failings, and a rather more ready and generous acknowledgement of his fellows being made in the image of God (or Amida Buddha, if you like).

Student eleven: Dharmavidya's essay has made me stop and think. I don't think I've ever considered whether faith comes before practice, I've just assumed that practice develops faith. This relationship between practice and faith I can see is important, because if I practice without having faith in other power I'm just wasting my time and energy, as all I succeed in doing is to strengthen my sense of self. I found Dharmavidya's sentence about the Buddha on pg 4 very helpful

His singularity lay in facing his failure, not in pursuing the Eightfold or any other path to the point of consummate success

Facing my failure (most of my life I've tried to achieve perfection but, of course, have failed miserably) I've had the choice of either despairing or placing faith in other power. At the moment my faith is being put to the test due to ill health. It is helping me to contain the many feelings involved in being ill and to face and accept my vulnerability and the impermanence of my health. Believing in Amida, that there is something permanent and unknown to me stops me from despairing and gives me courage to accept things as they are. In placing my faith in Amida I can see that practice springs from faith – the rare moments when I entrust myself to other power I spontaneously feel gratitude, love and compassion. But I find that if I don't practice and just repeat old patterns of behaviour this doesn't last long and I usually tell myself off for failing. Pureland Buddhism is teaching me to accept the actual - I'm a foolish human being getting caught up in habitual reactions but also to have faith in the ideal. Learning that both can exist at the same time, and that it is not a matter of moving from one to the other, I feel that there really is nothing to solve or achieve. To me the sentence on pg 2

The dominant note is a feeling that all is well, just as it is

is also very helpful. I find that if my main concern is making changes in my life I just strengthen my identity and if I succeed in changing anything I can feel powerful and important where of course I'm not. This essay has also started me thinking about the relationship between faith and self. The sentence

Faith is the opposite of self

on pg 3 rings true to me – I've often felt that they don't come from the same place at all. I've noticed that I can't experience faith in Amida through my own efforts but, on those rare occasions, when I see and accept my foolishness and trust in the unknown I can make the leap.

Namo Amida Bu

Student twelve: I would like to thank Dharmavidya for once again providing me with so many ideas to contemplate; the thought of commenting upon this text in 500 words is daunting. I have attempted to look at what I feel is a common theme in the first few paragraphs of the text.

These sections seem to speak to me about the problems of attempting to live the spiritual life, and the disappointments of either making little progress at all or what progress there is seems to be slow and hard won.

I wonder if we expect too much of ourselves and set our sights too high, is this the reason for our anguish in the face of adversity in our mental training? My own efforts in this direction seem to have been fraught with these same difficulties. The lessons I have learnt from this is not to expect or look for any gains, I am content to practice the mindfulness of breathing twice daily and attend those retreats I can find time for in my busy schedule without looking for any great gains or end result. I try to follow the eightfold path because it seems to be the right way to live my life not because I am looking for enlightenment. I have never really thought about it before but does this mean my practice is aimless and undirected, lacking in rigour. This lack of ambition is a common feature in my life, when I am at my most successful I am the most discontented. When I was much younger I was a keen chess player but I hated the winning of the game and would prolong checkmate if I could - sometimes cost myself the game. It was the game itself I enjoyed not the victory at the end.

Another problem with trying to lead the spiritual life is that we forget that we are tied to our physical bodies, as much as we try to reassert ourselves over our flesh we seem doomed to fail. We remain the product of millions of years of evolution, trapped by our animal instincts which have allowed us to survive and flourish throughout those millennia. If our guard should slip because we have become lazy in our training or through physical illness or mental despair we become prone to anger and aggression. Dharmavidya mentions in his text that one of his teachers abandoned the spiritual life and ran off with one of his parishioners; the need for the company of those we find sexually attractive is another such animal instinct which may dog our spiritual lives. The Catholic Church is faced with the problems of its priesthood forgetting their vows of celibacy, and the Anglican Church whilst allowing marriage is being split over the needs of otherwise "good" to indulge in gay relationships.

It is hard to deny what we truly are. I am reminded of a scene from a movie in which an old Indian shaman told the story of a woman who was working in the fields when she came across a wounded snake in the grass. Gently she picked it up wrapped it in her shawl took it back to her hut and nurtured it back to health. When it had fully recovered she took it back to the field and released it, before it slithered away it turned around and bit her on the hand. As she lay dying because the snake was venomous, she said. "What did you do that for I saved your life; I nursed you back to health?" The snake turned and replied. "Look, I am a snake what did you expect?" The spiritual life is one of struggle to control these instincts, but we shouldn't be surprised when we fail.

I hope I have not sounded too pessimistic in this assignment, I feel it is our ability to continue to wage this struggle no matter how difficult, or how many times we fail, which makes us stronger and raises us above existence on an instinctual level.

Student thirteen: I loved this essay! I loved the idea that salvation is first & training follows. It allows me to approach training with an enthusiasm for trial & effort rather than with an expectation about my own shining performance. It allows for mistakes & fears, failures & restarts!

I do find it difficult to buy the idea of being saved by Amida, however. It seems too much like a "belief" in a God or Higher Power or whatever. I'm not sure if I believe or understand what Dharmavidya means by "Amida will pluck me up." This does sound very Christian, like "the Lord will raise us up".

I have experienced the "timelessness" brought about by my gaze at the wind in the willows, too. On solitary retreat, watching the changing skies & cloud patterns over the ocean, watching animals such as seals swimming the cold ocean & seemingly so effortlessly capable of sustaining their lives, or watching blue dragonflies over a pond, have allowed me moments of being transported into a state of timelessness. There is my evidence that conditions can create such a thing! For me, one of the indicators that I'm in that state, is the thought I usually have, something like, "if I died right now it wouldn't matter, I would be dying happy, without any regrets, without cares." I feel as if I could die without regrets because I have connected to the deep stillness of timelessness. I can be taken to this place through the act of sketching in the natural world, in that moment there is only seeing & being "over there," where that which is seen, exists. In those moments, no past exists, only a series of moments that spanned into lives exist as historical moments & lives gone. My past does not exist. Only existent is my breath & body function & the awareness / alertness to the experience of the moment.

Only when I expereince this, can I appreciate the PLB perspective of "feeling that all is well, just as it is." When in touch with nature I have the miraculous experience of everything around me being just perfect as it is. However, I do not experience this globally, i.e., in general. For example, when I'm stopped in my car at a traffic light in front of a skidrow hotel, I do not experience this peaceful timeless when I watch the drunks lurching & the addicts doing their twirling, twitching dances out the hotel's gaping black doorway.

Only when I'm in the presence of beauty, such as nature, art, painting, sculptures, singing, or sunshine do I experience this. Obviously, my training will consist of broadening my ability to experience that "all is well, just as it is."

Metta,

Student Fourteen: I've had something of whirlwind week getting ready to leave for England and The Buddha House. This, then, is a limited response to Dharmavidya's essay. At this stage, I don't feel that I have completely absorbed all its implications.

For me, there are at least three levels of response: the emotions that were stirred up, the thoughts that I have had about the content and reflections on my own faith.

For a while I have been curious about Dharmavidya's personal journey through the dharma. In reading this essay I experienced a mixture of appreciation, alarm, embarrassment, and an impetus to clarify my own faith. It turns out that having a teacher deliver a lecture about the Pure Land is very different (at least for me) to having a teacher tells us that this is what he personally believes about the Pure Land.

My appreciation stems from Dharmavidya's frankness in describing his journey through Buddhism and the shortcomings of the approaches that he has embraced. As ever, I appreciate his lucidity.

My alarm is triggered by the need to have teachers who are certain, who know the truth, the one right way. I don't feel that I know this for myself but I find it reassuring to know that there are those who do. Of course, I know that there are many "right ways" but for some reason the notion that a teacher can migrate from one right way to another is disturbing to my need to believe that someone has the answer.

My embarrassment stems, I think, from personal expressions of faith that are similar to those that I rejected or, at least, drifted away from in my youth. I am uncomfortable with statements such as "Amida will receive me and take me to his Pure Land" or "I am already saved". As Dharmavidya points out, it sounds very much like old fashioned Christianity.

With regard to the content, I'm not at all sure that it is a matter of "before and after" faith but more a matter of "before and after" the arising of a particular kind of faith, or faith in a particular conceptualization of the workings of the cosmos. Dharmavidya uses the phrase "subliminal faith". I had rather come to the conclusion from our earlier reflections that we all have faith, that we can't get through life without it. The question is, faith in what? On a related point, I totally agree that "faith is not something that I can generate by act of will" nor "something we can obtain like a commodity purchased in a shop". I also agree with the "ubiquity of delusion" and though not, at this point, a "believer" in the Amida Buddha in the way that Dharmavidya describes, I don't believe that I view the practical task of living a life so very differently. One thought I have is about his final example of viewing the other as a mystery, as divine. The other, presumably, views me as a mystery, as divine. I am not at all sure about being "divine" but I do believe that I and the whole of life is the most extraordinary mystery. Meditation, it seems to me, is one way to get a little closer to it.

Student fifteen: In his essay, Dharmavidya makes the following two statements:

It matters where we situate the divine, the sublime, the ideal, not so much in terms of an assertion about ontology or metaphysic but more in terms of the need to orient ourselves; and it is important that whatever divine there may be situated outside of self, because of the spiritual catastrophe of pride that follows from situating it inside……

..That we will not free ourselves from the religion of self-worship by lauding the self. Humility is necessary. Unless we can see ourselves as foolish, passion ridden, and ordinary, we will not function in a spiritually mature way.

I find these comments very helpful. This is what I find so appealing about the pureland path (and, probably, will exasperate some of the other group members!). It goes to the heart of the human condition. Taitetsu Unno describes this well

– "As long as our thoughts, feelings, and intuitions come from a limited, finite, and karma-bound being, they are delusions. It is not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad; this is our naked reality. They are delusions because they make us see the world from a deeply self-centered perspective – a fact that eludes our normal conscious awareness. Our myopic vision distorts reality; hence out thinking, doing, and saying are invariably flawed and defective, even though we may not admit it. Religiously speaking, delusions arise from the darkness of ignorance (avidya), producing insatiable greed (trishna), and manifesting as blind passions (klesha). This is the cause of suffering (dukkha)".

But just as it is important to situate the "divine" outside of self, I think it is also important that one situates it within this world. When Cupitt talks of how traditional organised religions have fostered "an unbridgeable gulf between Holy God and the sinful human being", I think one need to read this in the context of what Cupitt has described as "outsidelessness".

As Cupitt sees it, the world before us is all there is. There is no God, no heaven, no mind and no language that exists outside our human biological sphere. In short, the world is "outsideless". Traditionally religions have presented the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition (and the world) and so have offered solutions to attain "salvation" and enter the better state to come (e.g. heaven, Nirvana etc.(. However for Cupitt this world is not a preparation for something better. It is all there is and as such we should, "live as if these were the last days". (He says elsewhere that, "Earth is already heaven").

Just as it is, just as we are.

Cupitt also talks of "faith", but not "having faith" in unprovable religious dogmas and doctrines. He does not set up "faith" against reason, as a metaphysical religion tended to do, nor does he use it as a synonym for blind belief. Faith for him is the trust that it is possible to give value and meaning to life: we can't prove it, but we choose to live by that faith, to trust to it, much as we choose to have faith in our friends and lovers. In this sense every world-view which offers value, purpose and meaning is a "faith", whether "religious" or not. I find this description of faith helpful.

I think if Cupitt were to look at Pureland Buddhism, he would reject the idea of a "pure land" we enter after death. He would not be interested in Amida Buddha as a saviour figure. But I think he may value the existential flavour of some pureland teachers, past (e.g. Shinran) or present. He would find the idea of the pure land being here, located right here, in this present moment, in the midst of our ordinary lives, not too far from the position he argues in his book "emptiness and brightness".

"There is nothing for it. We should say plainly that what we most need is to learn to love life, just this life…. We need an immediate religion of transience – that is , a religion that does not look to the future but which verifiably delivers eternal happiness in the here and now. (By "eternal" happiness I mean a happiness that we can turn to and rely upon however bad other things get to be. I personally associate this kind of happiness with sunlight.)

Amida's light perhaps?

For more information on the "sea of faith" movement see www.sofn.org.uk

Student sixteen: Self Power and Other Power: Both are in my life!

I can calm myself down. With much effort, when my body was much younger and stronger, I even had an experience in which gratitude pervaded my whole being. However, even for this experience to happen to me, I was supported by many other beings and the circumstances of a very strict Zen Sesshin.

As I continue to do Iyingar Yoga in very small increments I am beginning to be able to flex fragments of my body and quiet my mind. On the other hand, during most of my daily life my mind is fragmented, flitting here and there, while my body works as one piece.

On the flip side, the universe is here supporting me. For this I feel much gratitude. I frequently cause trouble by my wants/needs that I feel must be met. The universe continues to provide for these "needs".

Last night at 2:00 a.m., my mind was racing. We had been to hear a lecturer, Paul Ehrlich, a brilliant scientist who has received many honors including the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, given in lieu of a Nobel Peace Prize in areas where tie Nobel is not given, including Ehrlich's field of biology. Ehrlich is best known for his book The Population Bomb. Dennis and I had read his more recent book Human Natures and were impressed with his thorough thinking drawing from many disciplines, biology, anthropology, environmental sciences. His talk was wide ranging: Darwinism, what science does, the scientific consensus around global warming, that now leading academic economists are beginning to collaborate with leading environmentalist, and that in the past there have been a few instances when social change came about rapidly. The examples he gave of rapid social change included the civil rights changes in the USA and the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union.

What was quite disturbing to me was that in the question/answer period following the lecture, there were three repetitious questions, from three different members of the audience, out of about ten questions, which concerned Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design is an issue that the religious Christian right is advocating the teaching of Intelligent Design or creationism as an alternative to evolution in science classes in our schools. Almost universally scientists, including Paul Ehrlich, strenuously oppose this stating unequivocally that Intelligent Design is not science. Another of the ideas he explained in his responses to these questions was that nowhere in the world was this an issue except in the USA.

Ehrlich answered these questions skillfully each time, adding more information. Yet, it seemed to me as similar questions were asked three times, these questions kept him from helping us become more aware and informed of grave issues we in the USA need to face and which was the subject of this lecture.

The fact that so much of the time I had in the presence of this knowledgeable, brilliant man was used up by these persistent Intelligent Design questions by people who seemed to be from the religious right greatly bothered me. Why did they dominate this intellectual event and change the focus to their agenda? My mind raged on about this. Plus the hotel room was slightly warmer than my body desired. These two in combo, led to my feeling anxious and having definite insomnia experience. My breathing was rapid. So ......I did about 20 minutes of Iyingar restorative poses and was able to fall asleep. I can calm myself down....... usually.

The wake-up call woke me up. My body felt grumpy for it wanted to keep sleeping. Dennis and I were in a hotel room in Oberlin, Ohio, to spend time with Beth, Dennis' daughter who attends Oberlin College, although Erlich's lecture the previous evening was actually at nearby Ashland University. We washed up and pull on some clothes and went downstairs for the agreed upon time had arrived. Beth was there already. So was the coffee! We had quite a pleasant time chatting with Beth.

Now as I write I reflect on how this cup of coffee came to helped my body and mind wake up. The china, white, must have been made in a factory. I wonder where. Since it is an older established hotel, the china cup may have been made in the USA. If it was new, then it undoubtedly would have been made overseas in a third world country. Almost all manufacturing jobs have been moved away from the USA. The coffee was probably grown in Central American. Someone picked the beans. I hope they were paid a living wage for their efforts. The coffee beans were shipped to the USA, packaged, put into a wholesale store. Someone who works for the restaurant in the hotel purchased the coffee beans, someone ground them. Someone put the ground coffee beans in a coffee machine to make liquid coffee. The waitress was quite attentive and kept my cup filled.

All this happened to take care of my little concern for coffee, which took away my grumpy physical feelings.

I am grateful that the universe supports me. At moments this is a pervasive feeling and a truth for me. It seems more questionable that I can calm myself down.

Student seventeen: I find myself speaking more and more about faith nowadays. Or hearing it as I speak, or as I connect with another person. As this happens I feel a warm glow and still a sense of wonder that at last recognition of it has awakened in me.

A couple of years ago I was despairing of finding what I (this little I) called real faith. The more I struggled to improve my ways the more I failed. The old tentacles of despair and delusion - Mara still engulfed me all too often despite my efforts. In the previous years I had found some faith . in the Buddha.s teaching, in Dharmavidya.s guidance, in some other people, in the fact the world is beautiful alongside the afflictions. But I knew something was lacking and none of my own efforts helped me take that further step into the thing I could not understand.

I know here I am trying very inadequately to explain, and when speaking of it I struggle with words too, but when I am with another the truth shines through. I did find something two summers ago. I found it when I realised my absolute failure to clean up my act on my own and at the same time realised more fully the Buddha.s love in giving these teachings of Amida, and Dharmavidya.s in passing them on. Something in me just melted as I heard Dharmavidya give the teachings on the Larger Pure Land Sutra in France two summers ago.

The effect lasts, I still am tempted by the old tentacles of Mara; I fall into old ways, but a little less often and not for as long. And I feel that glow and know that even when all seems dark Amida.s light is there. That the Buddha.s teachings are there, that this world is beautiful even though the mists of my delusion hide it from me. I know I just have to wait, stop, be patient. However the most wonderful effect is this sense of gratitude and awe that envelops me, making the most mundane things appear in their beautiful reality.

In this sense of faith I start to see how the mundane existential reality of my life is not separate from the awesome beneficence that gives us life. I learn to walk the knife edge that encompasses both, struggling and often failing when I rely on my little self, and living more fruitfully when I rely on Amida. I do not know what this life will hold and what is beyond it, and somehow that is OK. Life now is wonderful and full of awe, when I fall into faith.

Student eighteen: I would like to comment that I think the only thing that I really agreed with in Dharmavidya's essay is that we are all immersed in an ocean of blind passion. How can it be otherwise? You only have to consider the things that interest the majority of people , like football teams, pop idols, fidelity of partners, bingo and characters in soap operas. Even if we try to live non-harming, purposeful lives, we are all obsessed with something. It might be valuing our own children above others, praising God or chanting Namo Amida Bu, or where we go on holiday. They can all come with some greed, hatred or delusion.

Student: I am a later entrant to this topic group.

I have recently been at the Buddhist House for the Fully Engaged Buddhism course and had the opportunity to experience some of the reactions of other members of this group to Dharmavidya's essay.

I realise the risks of talking about one's faith, which is such a personal and intimate thing, especially if one is the Dharma teacher. One of the consequences is that statements of the experience of faith are taken as statements of doctrine – this is THE way to experience faith from a Pure Land Buddhism perspective, rather than, as I read it, this is how it has manifested in my own journey thought the richness of events that we call our life.

For example, Dharmavidya states "I can express this by saying that Amida will receive me and take me to his Pure Land".

Others have reacted to this, and I must say I do too, but perhaps not so strongly because I didn't have a strong Christian upbringing, it was more of a cultural background, so perhaps I have less to react to. But I do react to a statement about Amida that sounds like "God loves and protects you", and it is hard not to project that into some sort of 'super-being' who will look after me. And my reacton to that is "nice delusion".

When I first heard Dharmavidya's Pure Land teachings in France in the summer of 2002 I remember saying to him something like "I can relate to the self/other power distinction, but if I was describing the PL teachings to someone else I don't think I could put faith at the heart". I'm pleased to say, some 15 months later, I've had a complete turn around on this! Why? Well maybe the penny has dropped; and to do so I needed to let it settle and find its place in my deeper experience (whatever that is!)

Over many years I've cultivated a sense of 'trusting the process', which has served the situation well at times of challenge and doubt. And the 'process' seemed to be 'life' or 'nature' or 'the universe as it is and is becoming' or some such. (I have Taoist leanings.) I realise now this IS 'faith'.

I have a meditation practice in which I invoke the universe (now held in my mind by 'Amida') to guide me and act through me, and for myself (ie the foolish being that is an ego with fixed ways, and doubting reactions) to 'get out of the way'. I invoke this particularly when I am about to face something that I expect will be a big challenge. In this sense I am offering my being up to Amida to be used as a conduit for the infinite wisdom and compassion that I can barely imagine.

Recently I've developed another practice that forms part of my meditation, and which currently has superseded the other one, but maybe I will use each from time to time, I'm still pondering on that. This is to use a 'rupa' that represents my work (a small piece of drift wood) and to place this in front of me as I sit before the Buddha, and to 'offer' this to Amida, to let Amida take the 'burden' as I am experiencing it, and to let Amida of infinite light do the work, while I play my part in whatever way I seem to be directed. The effect is to create more space around the work, and to give me a place to sit with the work, that is less driven and reactive, but no less committed and engaged, but perhaps more so, because 'ego I' is less in the way, and I am more able to see things as they really are (well maybe). In one sense 'I' am not doing the work, Amida is.

So these are my musings on faith – was that the question? I'm pleased to have joined the group – and thanks to Ray for encouraging me, when I was feeling I didn't have time.

Namo Amida Bu

Student: I just came back to Hawaii after a very meaningful visit to the Buddhist House.

My initial reaction Dharmavidya's sharing of his spiritual journey was fear based and comprised of thousands of intellectual questions including: this is not logical, this is not consistent with this etc…

But after a few days of inner struggle, Nien Fo practice with our Amida Sangha at the Buddhist House and conversation with other Sangha members, I understood that Dharmavidya's sharing of his spiritual journey was just that, his sharing of his own personal spiritual journey. I then was inspired to experiment with Faith, instead of running away from it by arguing intellectually with what was presented in Dharmaviday's essay.

Since then, when I wake up in the morning, instead of rushing out of bed, I have been staying quiet a little longer and reminding myself that because of "Just as It is, just as you are", there is nothing that I need to do today to "save" myself. As a result, I have been experiencing a gradual relaxation and surge of joy instead of the varying degree of anxiety and dread that usually grip my heart at the start of each day. I am grateful to be able to experience a little of what it is like to come from a position of Faith instead of Doubt. I have no idea how long this is going to last, but for now, I am immensely grateful and inspired to practice faith in the tradition of Amida Order.

Student: I would like to thank Dharmavidya very much for his lucid and heartfelt essay. The notion of faith presented in this essay feels like home to me; in other words, I recognise it and feel something similar in my own heart. This has not always been the case, and I thank Dharmavidya for helping me to awaken to the faith that I carry within myself.

Namo Amida Bu

Student: Before and After the Awakening of Faith

When I try and develop more faith, better attributes, qualities, I tend to fail. But this doesn't mean I don't find training, practise, helpful. What always spurs me to practise is a memory of having felt in touch with something bigger than me, alive and happy. If I'd never had glimmers of experiences like that, I suppose I would lose hope and not bother practising. You could say that it was these strong memories and experiences are what makes me think there's more to life. So Dharmavidya's account rang true with me - experiences seem to come first, seem to be the spur to carry on, and such experiences don't seem to come about as a result of my own volition.

Pleasant as all that sounds, transferring such pleasant experiences into daily mundane life is something I find difficult. Meeting someone as they are without expectation and preconceptions is such an enormous thing I barely know where to start. I think I find it overwhelming because it brings me back to that sense of deep aloneness and fear.

On a brighter note, I know that times of break through, clarity and positive change in my life have been when I've looked such fear in the face, as it were. They seem to be moments or periods of letting go, not of building myself up into some 'more developed' person.

DHARMAVIDYA: Thank you. There is an interesting paradox here about whether faith is something we can develop by effort or not. Certainly, I agree, that inspiration helps and that this comes from experiences and although we cannot plan to have inspiring experiences, we can shape our life in such a way that they are more or less likely. Being part of a sangha helps. Regular practice - with nembutsu, say, - helps. There are aspects that are outside our control and others that we do play a part in. And the "glimmers" are important. The emphasis that the Buddha puts on mindfulness is related to this. The word smriti, which is translated mindfulness, is closer to the meaning of "remember" than to "be aware". The Buddha knows we are helped by remembering the times we have been inspired. Whether we "develop" or not, we can always be strengthened by remembering such times.

Namo Amida Bu - Dharmavidya