The Buddhism of Faith

Some readers are familiar with the term “Buddhist modernism,” used by David J. McMahan in his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. This excellent book makes a significant contribution to the discourse on the process of modern Buddhism. However, there was one area which was not covered, an aspect of Buddhism that is a very potent force in present day dharma, which is the matter of faith; the kind of faith that is belief in supernatural beings who offer help and salvation to human beings.

I don’t intend to deal with the subject comprehensively in a blog post, rather I am going to offer a few snapshots together with some observations. Nonetheless, there are some questions I think readers could keep in mind as they read the material. When there is an apparent preoccupation on rebirth and karma, which could be considered more as matters of doctrine rather than superstition, is the  religion vs. philosophy debate concentrated on the right issues? Are we closing the gap between the two Buddhisms (“ethnic” and “convert”) or widening it? Do convert Buddhists have an accurate understanding of the role that supernatural beings play in the lives of the majority of the world’s Buddhists? Is faith-based Buddhism authentic dharma? Is there a place for faith in modern Buddhism? For prayer?

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

I once gave a series of talks to the Cal-Poly Buddhist Association. The faculty advisor, a Caucasian professor of Biological Sciences, was concerned that since 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, they took the teachings on O-mi-tuo-fo (Amida Buddha) too literally. I devoted one of my talks to debunking Amida, the idea of faith in Buddhism, and so on. I thought I was pretty good, too. Clear, logical, and 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, made a conscious decision to become Buddhist. Our Buddhism had nothing to do with faith, prayer, or supernatural beings. Ours was a pragmatic approach to dharma, based on meditation and philosophical study. But we really were in the minority, for faith and prayer is precisely the orientation for the majority of Buddhists in the world today.

In his book, David. J. McMahan states,

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, for Asian Buddhists, 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-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 still retain human qualities, but they are essentially gods and they are worshiped by Buddhists because they are 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 two Buddhisms mentioned above have morphed into a different two Buddhisms, described by Charles Presbish in the late 1970’s as “ethnic” and “convert.” Even though 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 two Buddhisms would come together under one temple roof and for the most part remain separate, the twain never meeting. Ch’an at the temple was made up of an eclectic group of Caucasians and Chinese-Americans, while Pure Land was all 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.

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 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’s 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.  I have made a point of sampling as many of these different tastes of dharma 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 dharma is based on the notion of the Three Periods: the Former, Middle and Latter Days of the Dharma, 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) Shakyamuni’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.”

This is Amida Buddha, 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. There is no significant daylight between this and, say, Christianity. And in Pure Land we find a real tension between their approach and the teachings of the historical Buddha, who obviously did not teach this kind of faith. 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 sympathetic to 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. The Soka Gakkai describes their brand of faith, this way: “Faith means to believe in the Gohonzon, or the object of devotion.” The Gohonzon is the “mandala” inscribed by Nichiren (It used to be called “the object of worship”). Nichirenism is presented as the antithesis of “other-power” and Pure Land, however I have long felt that Nichiren originally intended to create a virtual carbon-copy of Pure Land and that his mandala actually represents a Supreme Being. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.