Holy is a word derived from the Old English word “haleg” or “hal” meaning whole. It’s also related to the Old English words for wealth and health. To be holy then is to be whole, and healthy.
In spirituality, the journey to wholeness begins with a decision made within the individual. Regardless of the circumstances, no matter if the person is turning his or her life over to God or resolving to uncover Buddha Nature, the decision is always arrived at through self-reflection, over either a short or long period of time.
At that point, the individual can go in only two directions, continue looking inward or look outward, there is no third unless you consider a combination of the two to be a path.
Japanese Buddhism categorizes these two divergent ways as jiriki, own-power, or tariki, other-power.
Other-power or other-reliance is primarily associated with Pure Land Buddhism, which asserts that anyone can be reborn after death in the Western Paradise that lies beyond the setting sun if the person believes in a mythical Buddha named Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and chants his name with sincere faith. Well, almost anyone. Some “sinners” are excluded.
And everyone is a sinner. Pure Land maintains that this is a degenerate age in which the minds of the people are so defiled that any effort based on own-power or self-reliance is impotent and only a complete dependence on other-power can offer salvation.
This school has a fine tradition of scholarship, and the two leading figures of Pure Land in Japan, where other-power philosophy reached its zenith, Honen and Shinran, both devised complex rationales for this faith-only set of beliefs. However, as Daigan and Alicia Matsunaga, in Foundation of Japanese Buddhism Vol. II, explain, “Other-power merely descends to the role of the deity at the relative level, and in most cases becomes another mask for the ego.”
Fueling Pure Land faith, and all forms of other-power religion, is the false belief in a self, ego or soul that not only exists in the present but also lives on after death. The historical Buddha did not offer any teaching along those lines. He taught the opposite, that there is no self, no ego, no soul. In another post, I explained that the Buddhist concept of rebirth is not one where the same person or the same soul goes anywhere or is reborn again.
Some scholars have speculated that faith in the Buddha of Infinite Light has a connection to Persian sun-god worship, and that a similar connection exists in the case of Christianity. Constantine, who was the person primarily responsible for transforming Jesus the teacher into Christ the Lord of Light, was a sun-god believer who never renounced that faith even after he supposedly converted to Christianity. Constantine was also responsible for changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sun-day.
The doctrine behind Pure Land is completely antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings. He did not direct his followers to any higher, holier being or force, he directed them to look within themselves.
One Japanese Buddhist compared seeking enlightenment or salvation outside of oneself to the case of “a poor man who spends night and day counting his neighbor’s wealth but gains not even half a coin.”
“You yourself must make the effort,” says the Dhammapada (an early Buddhist scripture), “Buddhas only point the way.”
It may appear paradoxical to deny the existence of a self and then insist on own-power or self-reliance. But we should not get caught up in the semantics. No-self belongs to the ultimate truth, while self-reliance is in the realm of the conventional truth. On one hand “self” refers to the ego or soul, and on the other, it implies the physical mind and body of the individual.
At times, it seems as though we are hot-wired to look outside of ourselves for happiness. We’re constantly searching for the right mate, the right job, the right car and so on, to make us happy. How often have we thought: if this person or that one would just leave me alone I could be happy, or if my partner would just change, if my kids could be more like this . . .
And yet, we all recognize on some level that true happiness come from within.
The Buddha said, “It is just within this body, with its intellect and insight, that I say there is the universe, the origin of the universe, the end of the universe, and the path of practice leading to the realization of the universe.”
At this very moment, as you read this, you are a coming together of the physical and the spiritual, a finite being touching the infinite.
Chih-i, the Chinese Buddhist who founded the T’ien-t’ai school, developed the doctrine of “i-nien san-chien” or the universe in a single moment of thought. One of his disciples wrote, “Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind and the self and environment of all sentient beings . . . as well as all insentient beings . . . including plants, sky, earth, and even the minutest particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena.”
All possibilities for good or evil, happiness or suffering lie within us. Rather than looking endlessly for things outside of our lives to bring peace and salvation, we should look inward, specifically within the depths of our mind.
It’s all in your mind, as the old saying goes. Well, where else? And where can you find your mind? You can stare into the sun for eons and you will never find your mind there. Only within. The Pure Land that is supposed to be behind the sun exists nowhere else but within.
In some ways, meditation is like an inner-dialogue, but this is a dialogue of silence. The first step is to know yourself. It is easier to have a dialogue with someone you know than with a stranger.
People often tell me that this inward approach resembles Gnosticism, which flourished during the first two centuries of the Common Era. The Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian gospel not included in the Bible, says “The (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
The difference in what I am describing, which is the Buddhist approach, is the presence of a discipline, a practice that enables one to go beyond mere introspection or self-reflection and into a profound realization of true identity.
This is something more than simply facing ourselves in the mirror and seeing the blemishes on our face, and too, looking into our heart and recognizing the love and compassion that has always been there. Those aspects are not ignored, and indeed, they are critical to progress, but this sort of knowing oneself is really a journey to discover the nature of consciousness.
In 1997, during a four day teaching on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA, the Dalai Lama spoke about this:
“I can say that from one’s own meditative experience, there is a possibility of getting a glimpse of what consciousness is. For example, when one enters into a deeper level of the mind by maintaining a degree of focus of consciousness, with an attempt to insure that your thoughts, or mind, is not swayed by thoughts of past memory or thinking about this happened or that happened, and also insuring that your mind is not swayed by thoughts of the future, such as anticipation or hopes or fears, rather trying to remain in the state of that present or just mere presence, once you are slowly able to do that, then you notice that previously in your normal state of consciousness, your mind is always consumed with competing forces or thoughts and sensory perceptions, which are all to a large extent driven by object orientation, always outward-looking, driven by chasing after objects.
But if you are able to isolate your mind from such object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.”
John Lennon cut it to the bone; “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, it is shining.”
But where is it shining? Only from within. There is no guiding light other than your own luminous mind to lead to your true identity, your true self.
In the discovering the nature of consciousness, we find that we are continually clinging to notions, preferences, judgments, and that we are seeking to serve and promote a self or ego that is only a fiction of the mind. Meditation is a tool for stopping and calming the active mind, and removing discriminating and delusional thoughts. It is also observing the mind, and developing greater awareness. When the mind is at rest, it is called peacefulness, and when the mind is seeing clearly, it is called insight.
As for this ego that engages in various, often self-centered acts, it is transcended. Selfishness is transformed into selflessness. Instead of thinking of ourselves all the time, we think of others. We see that the ego or self is nothing permanent, immobile, rather it is mutable and transient. When we see that we do not stand alone, that we are a part of everything and everyone, we cannot then cling to self-ish-ness. Under this scrutiny, the ego dissolves into the void. That is what we mean by knowing yourself.
The next step is training the mind. We learn to take responsibility for our thoughts, words, deeds, feelings. We can mold our mind into a new shape; send our thoughts off into more positive directions.
Then, we free the mind. Let go of attachments. Stop clinging to the false ego, pleasures, preferences, and most importantly, stop searching for external things to make us happy, healthy and whole.
The Japanese Zen master, Dogen, said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.”
All people innately posses a physiological base for empathy, the ability to comprehend and feel another person’s experience. Many reputable studies have shown that individuals demonstrate an amplified level of empathic reaction when in a state of meditation. Through the meditative process, we can learn to increase our capacity for empathy. Meditation also increases awareness, focus, and information processing.
I think that at this point it is suffice to say that the inward approach to spirituality is not introspection on the mundane level, nor is it the merely some sort of egocentric dialogue.
Freed from the burden of relying on a force or being outside of ourselves, we are empowered to be our own light. We find salvation through our own efforts, the only way. We learn to do the right thing, not because a Buddha or a god told us to, but simply because it is the right thing to do. All the veils are lifted. All the walls between our self and ourself, and ourselves and others crumble.
The journey to health, holiness, and wholeness can be powered only by our self-effort. Relying on an external power cannot take us where we need to go. Believing that we possess a soul that is independent from others, permanent, enduring after death to travel to some Pure Land is nothing more than a dead end.
Self-knowledge and mindfulness are important in in order to maintain a life-style that is within the bounds of an ethically disciplined way of living. When we talk about own-power and self-knowledge, we are not always talking about being self-conscious, but rather an underlying awareness through which we are able to keep a sort of vigilance, so that when we are confronted with situations that demand an ethical response, we instinctively respond in the right manner.
The idea is not to go looking for the Pure Land behind the sun. The pure land is in our own hearts and minds.