The Buddhism of Faith

Courtyard and steps leading to the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai Temple

I once gave a series of three lectures to the Cal-Poly Buddhist Association. The faculty advisor, a Caucasian professor of Biological Sciences, was concerned that too many of the members of the club, almost all of whom were Chinese-American and went to Hsi Lai Temple, a predominately Pure Land temple in Hacienda Heights, took the teachings on O-mi-tuo-fo (Amida Buddha) literally.  Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism believe in a mythical Buddha, Amida (The Buddha of Infinite Life), and they are taught to summon up deep faith in him, ceaselessly chant his name, so that after they die they will be reborn in the Western Paradise, a kind of Heaven.

I was sympathetic to the professor’s concern because I also have found in my interactions with Pure Land believers that most are convinced that Amida is a real being, rather than seeing him as a representation of inner rebirth or inner revitalization, the transformation of mind and spirit.

I devoted a talk debunking Amida, the idea of faith in Buddhism, and so on.  I thought I was pretty good, too.  Clear, logical, convincing. Immediately after the talk a young woman, an engineering student, stood up  and said, “Your talk was nice, but when I pray to O-mi-tuo-fo with sincerity, my prayers are answered.”

Another student got up and testified how he had strong faith that his earnest chanting of Amida Buddha’s name would result in his salvation and rebirth into the Pure Land.  Someone else said pretty much the same thing only in relation to Kuan Yin.  And so it went.

These young people were very different from the professor and me.  They were born into their “faith,” whereas for the two of us, we had each rejected the faith of our parents and through a process of investigation and experimentation, and made a conscious decision to become Buddhist. The kind of Buddhism the professor and myself engaged in had little to do with faith, prayer, or supernatural beings.  Ours is a pragmatic approach to dharma, based on meditation and philosophical study.  This, I believe is more in accord with the original teachings of the Buddha than schools like Pure Land.  But we are in the minority, for faith and prayer is precisely the orientation for the majority of Buddhists in the world today.

In his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David. J. McMahan writes,

Yet, as noted, while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening, only a small minority of Buddhists actually practice it in any serious way. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists have practiced the dharma through ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha.”

This is changing, but on the whole McMahan’s assessment is valid.  Furthermore, there has always been two kinds of Buddhism: one for the monks and the educated elite, and another one for the masses. The former has been meditation and study based, while the latter, faith-based.

The ritual McMahan alludes to includes rites such as celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, alms giving, lighting incense at shrines, as well as a good deal of worship, directed at devas and/or celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. “Deva” means “deity.”  According to Buddhist cosmology, many devas were human and retained human qualities, but they are essentially gods and they are worshiped by Buddhists because they are supposed to be capable of rendering help to human beings in times of difficulty. For a good overview of deva worship in Theravada Buddhism, read “Worship of Devas” by A.G.S. Kariyawasam here.

Now that illiteracy in the world has been significantly reduced, the gap between these two Buddhisms is slowly closing.  However in the West, we have two new classifications of Buddhism, described by Charles Presbish in the late 1970’s as “ethnic,” meaning Buddhists of Asian heritage and “convert,” or native Westerners.  While Prebish’s model is over 30 years old, I think it still stands.

I used to go to the same temple the students from Cal-Poly attended, Hsi Lai, which describes itself as “Pure Land/Ch’an.” There, the ethic and convert Buddhism would come together under one temple roof and for the most part remain separate, the twain rarely meeting.  Ch’an at the temple was made up of an eclectic group of Westerners and Chinese-Americans, while Pure Land was predominately Chinese.  On Sunday mornings, the Ch’an folks practiced qigong and meditation in a conference room, while in the main temple the Pure Land group chanted Amida Buddha’s name and Buddhist sutras.

This to me is a microcosmic representation of the state of Buddhism today, East and West.  I could be wrong, but in America, I doubt if most meditation-based Buddhists have much knowledge about, or have had much interaction with, faith-based Buddhism. There are many reasons for this, such as language, culture, location, and inclinations.  For many of the same reasons, the faith-based “ethnic” Buddhists rarely venture out of their comfortable environment.  That, in any case, is what I have noticed in my experience, living in a metropolitan area where all the major Buddhist schools and nearly all ethnic traditions can be found.  And I have made a point of sampling as many of these different tastes of Buddhism as I can.

Shakyamuni, Amida and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai
Shakyamuni, Amida, and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai

World-wide, the largest faith-based Buddhism, and indeed, the largest of any Buddhist branch, is Pure Land. This form of Buddhism is based on the notion of the Three Periods: the Former, Middle and Latter Days of the Dharma (teachings), which did not become a fully realized concept until the 5th century CE. The Former Day of the Dharma (Jp. Shoho) is the first thousand years after the historical Buddha’s advent, when people can attain enlightenment through their own effort and the teachings flourish. During the Middle (Zoho) Day, the second thousand years, the Dharma continues to spread but begins to lose its power. In the Latter Day (Mappo), the current age, the Buddha’s dharma is almost completely degenerated and the minds of Buddhist practitioners are so deluded that they can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, they must rely on the saving grace of some “other-power.”

For many Buddhists, this would be Amida Buddha, as I noted above, an entirely mythical being who promises salvation and rebirth in his Pure Land for all those who take faith in him and chant his name.  To me, there is no significant daylight between this and, say, Christianity, and it seems quite remote from the original teachings of the historical Buddha.

The Buddha did not offer teachings that even slightly resemble other-power.  Indeed, he was rather critical of spiritual practices that depended upon faith and mysticism.  He did not direct his followers attention to any higher, holier beings or forces, instead, he called upon them to look within themselves, to be “a lamp unto yourself” and in this respect, the Buddha’s teachings fall under the category of “self-power”. [I really prefer to use “inner-power”.]

Regarding this, Roger Corless, in his essay “Pure Land Piety” (included in the anthology Buddhist Spirituality) says,

Pure Land Buddhism, however, is not ambiguous.  It speaks explicitly and often of reliance on Amita Buddha as “Other Power” . . . This has led some scholars to claim that Pure Land is not, or is not fully, Buddhist . . . charging that Pure Land Buddhism is a corruption of “true” Buddhism.”

I am inclined to support this point of view, yet at the same time, given its noble history and fine tradition of scholarship, I feel it is a bit unfair to deny Pure Land full status as a branch of Buddhism.

The second largest faith-based Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism. They describe their brand of faith, this way: “Faith means to believe in the Gohonzon, or the object of devotion.” The Gohonzon is the “mandala” or “object of worship,” inscribed by Nichiren.  They maintain that fiath in the Gohonzon and chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra is the only path to enlightenment or Buddhahood.  This form of Buddhism is presented as “inner-power,” but when one looks at Nichiren’s teachings “between the lines,” it’s obvious that this is nothing more that another version of “other-power.  That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

That’s all for today.  My intention for this post was to clear up misunderstanding and inform.  I hope readers will find it helpful.