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.


35 thoughts on “The Buddhism of Faith

  1. Hello David, I appreciate your attempt to shed light on Pure Land Buddhism. Although, as you say, Pure Land is the most common and mainstream of Buddhisms, ironically it is the one that newer Buddhists outside Asia know the least about. Many haven’t heard of it; among those who have, many mistakenly believe they understand it based on their experiences with Christianity, rather than actual substantive experience with or as practitioners.

    This essay is quite good, and I don’t have quibbles with most of it. But, as is the sad fact of the Internet, I’m mainly prompted to respond to the few bits that I disagree with or for which I wish to add an alternate perspective. Sorry about that 🙂 It’s less about correcting you, who have your own experiences and perspectives to draw on, as it is about offering further information to the non-Pure Land crowd you’re trying to educate.

    One of the most crucial things to understand about Pure Land Buddhism is that it is diverse. Staggeringly diverse. How could a stream of religion so old, so large, so widespread in so many quite different cultures not be diverse? Almost anything we say about Pure Land Buddhism needs to be clearly marked with caveats and modifiers because there are substantial exceptions or alternate concepts/practices/viewpoints for just about every element. For example, your experience is with a particular Taiwanese-based form of contemporary Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, which is itself a form of the modernist Buddhism that David McMahan describes (I can’t recall if he says as much in the book, but he and I have agreed on this point in personal conversations). One would find quite different phenomena among, for example, Pure Land Buddhists of the Jodo Shinshu school, Japan’s largest Buddhist tradition.

    Separating Pure Land so decisively from the historical Buddha is tricky. On the one hand, our knowledge of what the historical Buddha taught and practiced is quite partial, and 100% inflected through both sectarian scriptures (there are NO non-sectarian Buddhist suttas from the pre-modern period) and modern perspectives entirely alien to the Buddha’s own time and place. Our recently reconstructed “historical Buddha” is as mythological as any other Buddha in the tradition, but because he meets our biases so neatly, we do not dwell on his inventedness (this is a point McMahan tries to make). Nonetheless, if we take the sutta and agama literature as containing some sort of broadly accurate window into who and how the Buddha was, then it would seem that daily-meditation-for-unordained-noncelibate-laypeople-who-don’t-believe-in-karma is AT LEAST as far away from what the Buddha taught as Pure Land Buddhism, which retains all of the major motifs, practices, and concepts of early Buddhism.

    On the other hand, and again taking those sectarian suttas as more or less correct, we find in the Pali and related early sources clear examples of the Buddha performing miracles, recommending that people place their faith in him, teaching about invisible or intangible realms and entities, prescribing chanting practices (including ones with magical effects such as protection and healing), describing the “salvific” power of the Buddha’s own body, his relics, monks, and so on. All of that occurs precisely alongside the bits that strong modernist Buddhists prefer to translate into English, and all are elements of every single major historical form of Buddhism, from Theravada to Zen. So Pure Land only looks odd when held up to an imaginary Buddha and an imagined Buddhism that did not exist in the past (but the latter has become a partial reality in very recent years).

    As for the similarity to Christianity, I agree that there is a superficial resemblance, just as there is a strong resemblance between Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, and a close similarity in appearance between Zen Buddhism and Anglicanism (that is, if one has seen the mainstream forms in Asia, not the highly reorganized forms sometimes seen beyond Asia). But we need to look more closely to make sure our views are based on full information and not just surface impressions. As you know, Christianity is itself tremendously diverse, encompassing everything from Orthodox monks to Quaker meditators to Baptist firebrands to skeptical Unitarians, so it doesn’t easily lend itself to accurate stereotypes. If by “Christianity” though we mean a basic structure of reliance on a monotheistic deity, then we need to examine how this relates to Pure Land Buddhism. That’s difficult to do, since as I already noted Pure Land is tremendously diverse. But we can make a few basic observations. First, Christians most often understand God to be the creator and judge of the world, two roles that Amitabha Buddha never plays. Second, Christians most often understand themselves to be radically separate from and inferior to God in a fundamental ontological sense, but for Pure Land Buddhists the ultimate goal is typically to become identical to Amitabha and the other buddhas (in some Pure Land traditions, this is accomplished through meditation that reveals oneself and all others to have always been the same as Amitabha, who is buddha-nature itself). Third, Christians most often believe that some portion of humanity (and, typically, all non-human lifeforms) are excluded from final achievement of the religious goal, whereas in Pure Land Buddhism the basic default position is that all people and beings are on their way–faster or slower–to buddhahood.

    Those are just three important differences that immediately spring out as soon as we go beyond the cursory surface investigation, but there are many others besides. For that reason, I don’t find it helpful to frame Pure Land Buddhism in terms of Christianity when teaching my students at university, as it misrepresents as much or more than it reveals, yet leaves students with the impression they genuinely understand what is going on in this separate form of religion.

    Thank you again for tackling a subject of much ignorance in some Buddhist circles. I’m looking forward to your comments on Nichiren Buddhism (which is a tiny fraction of Buddhism compared to Pure Land, both inside Japan and outside, but is nonetheless interesting and worth contemplating).

    1. Thanks, Jeff, for your comment. I believe you have left comments here before and I always welcome differing points of view, as long as they are civil, which yours certainly are. I also seem to remember that you are a Pure Land believer yourself.

      As I mentioned in the piece, I didn’t intend to present a comprehensive review. It’s a blog post and I can’t throw everything under the sun into and expect that folks will have the patience to read it. The post was long enough as it was.

      My experience with Pure Land is no way limited to Chinese Pure Land. While I liked McMahan’s book, I had my disagreements with it. I would say that yes, Fo Guang Shan as a sect represents Modern Buddhism, but the Pure Land practice of the average believer there is very traditional. I also think that McMahan’s concept of Buddhist Modernism is too broad. He spends a great deal of time on Carus, for instance, and Western Buddhism from that era is what I would call “Pre-Modern Modern Buddhism.” Modern “Modern Buddhism”, in my opinion, doesn’t really start until the 1950s.

      I’ve been with Japanese Pure Land practitioners. I used to know some of the priests at the Jodo temples here in Little Tokyo, both denominations. I invited the man who is now the Bishop of Higashi Honganji to come to speak to the dharma group I used to have. I don’t recall how he got roped into it, for it not the reason I invited him, but somehow he ended up giving meditation instruction. I remember at one point he remarked that if his superiors knew about it, he would be in trouble. So, I don’t know what you mean by diversity, but diversity of practice does not seem to be part of the mix.

      Now, these priests had the sort of understanding that you have, but once again when it came to the average believer, they took it all literally. And I think that is the general tendency across the board, and in fact, because it can be taken in such a literal way, and is based more on belief that reason, is a big part of why Pure Land became and remains so popular.

      I agree with you that there is a lot of supernatural stuff in all the sutras, and that we do not have a accurate picture of the real historical Buddha. Even if all the early suttas contain but a tiny fraction of what he actually taught, it is still very clear that he did not teach anything about seeking salvation for higher, holier beings. He did not teach other-power.

      With Christianity, I say the only difference between God and Amida is the creation aspect, they are both supernatural being who offer salvation in exchange for faith, and it is other-power, which is not what Buddhism is supposed to be about, and sorry, you can’t change that. It is what it is.

  2. David, there’s a way in which this analysis looks at the difference between Zen and Pure Land through an either/or dualistic perspective. Zen would reject this dualism. Dogen would have said that when we sit zazen we are sitting together with all things, including all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas past, present and future, and that there is no demarcation line between our Buddha nature, the Dharmakaya, and the thousands of Buddhas existing in a blade of grass. It is not true to say that we are reaching enlightenment through our own effort without the assistance of all things. Modern dualistic thinking may posit that Amida Buddha is really a representation or projection of our own inner Buddha Nature, but even seeing that Buddha Nature as “our own” misses the mark, as does thinking of things in terms of inner/outer or self/other. Even the most hard core supposedly “self-power” Zennies (Don’t chant “Namu Amida Butsu,” just sit!”) see “Celestial” Buddhas and Bodhisattvas assisting us, encouraging us, and meeting us in our efforts.

    1. Seth, you’re looking at this from the ultimate point of view, whereas I am discussing more from the relative side. If the average Pure Land practitioner saw things in the way you describe, where Amida is a tool (which is how Honen and Shinran often described it) and the Pure Land is merely the flip side to samsara (as in “samsara is nirvana”), that would be fine. But they don’t, and that is the whole point. Many of them see Amida and the Pure Land as real. No one seems to be getting that.

      Evidently, Dogen had some tolerance for Jodo teachings, and I believe that he and Shinran once met and had a meeting of the minds. But I also recall that in one of his writings Dogen says chanting nembutsu is worthless. On the other hand, I’ve seen folks trying to explain Dogen’s Buddhism as other-power more less because he advocates “forgetting the self.” But I think he was using self in a different context, and that one’s of the reasons why I prefer to say “own-power” to “self-power.” Also I doubt that Dogen agreed with the idea that the minds of the people were utterly defiled. I seem to recall he didn’t think much of the Mappo model. But I could be wrong about that.

  3. @ Seth Segall: I’ve been thinking about your above comment, and if I understand you correctly, you are basically saying that to consider other-power and self-power as separate things is dualistic. And I have seen it said elsewhere that tariki and jiriki are but two sides of the same coin. But the more I think about it, I cannot see how that can be the case. I’ve always thought that Dogen’s thinking, as you describe it with the inclusion of all buddhas and bodhisattvas, etc., must have been influenced to some extent by the Tendai concept of ichinen sanzen, the entire universe contained in one’s own mind during a single thought. Since it is one’s “own” mind we are talking about, and since Zen has often been described as using the jiriki approach, this would seem to be position self or own power as non-dualism.

    Other-power, however, has to be dualistic or else it would not be possible to have an “other” that is external to one’s own mind. Honen was the first to make the distinction between tariki and jiriki, and this thinking was so widespread in Kamakura Buddhism, especially in the Tendai school, that I think so teachers made allowances for it so as to not alienate people. Nichiren was the only one who stood up against Honen’s doctrines, and it is one of the few matters of doctrine I think he had right.

  4. Hi David! I don’t know all that much about Chinese Tientai. I know that early Huayan Buddhism was idealistic, a variant of the mind-only school. Later, Cheng-guan distanced Huayan somewhat from this idealistic perspective. In my reading of Dogen, he seems to have avoided getting caught up in this mind matter dualism, so far as I can tell. I could be wrong. His main point is the unimaginable unobstructed interpenetration of all dharmas. He believed in the reality of innumerable Buddhas and that they existed in the world, per the Lotus Sutra, to bring beings to enlightenment, and that they did so. He also plainly saw practice/enlightenment as an expression of the entire dharmakaya, and not as the result of unaided individual effort. We had to sit as if our hair was on fire, but everything helped us in our practice/enlightenment — innumerable Buddhas, mountains, rivers, pebbles, columns, lanterns even broken wooded ladles, among other specific objects mentioned in his Dharma talks. And the enlightenment we experienced affected not only “us” and “our” “minds” but all of time and space as well.

    1. “He also plainly saw practice/enlightenment as an expression of the entire dharmakaya, and not as the result of unaided individual effort.” I get the first part of that, but I guess I will need to do some further study of Dogen to the get the latter part.

        1. Thank, Seth. I actually read this article recently, I think after one of our last exchanges, when I was looking around on the Net to see what I could find on Dogen and Other-power. I can understand how Dogen’s teaching may not fit into the standard definition of Self-power, but that does not make it Other-power. Naturally, we rely on external things to support and encourage our practice, especially teachers both present and past, and the author of the article makes it clear that he is not talking about Other-power as in relying on a supernatural being like Amida, so I have to wonder what’s his point? It seems to me he was bending over backwards to present something a Shin audience could relate to.

          Nonetheless, I liked the author’s comments on how Dogen’s practice was a “celebration of awakening already present,” but I do think they would be more interesting if he hadn’t tried to make a rather convoluted connection between this aspect of Dogen’s thought and other-power.

          When Dogen comments on the line from the Hoben chapter (“Only a buddha and a buddha can thoroughly master it,”), by saying “Buddha-dharma cannot be known by a person,” I don’t see this as necessarily “starkly clarifying the limitations of self-power.” Rather, I see this as speaking figuratively to the idea that we are already Buddhas, a metaphor for the Tendai concept of “original enlightenment.” Again, what seems lacking in studies of Dogen I’ve read is a full acknowledgment of the Tendai influence, and I would go so far to say that I don’t think it is possible to really understand Medieval Japanese Buddhism without an appreciation that influence.

          In any case, Dogen’s Buddhism may not have been Self-power, but neither was it Other-power, for it is possible to be devotional and have a sense of faith without relying on an external being for liberation. And certainly Dogen recognizes that some self-effort is involved, for the author quotes him: “it is not manifested without practice, it is not attained without realization.”

  5. Cultures/Societies naturally develop and evolve their own practices, buddhism is no different. I think this is unavoidable due to several factors – illiteracy, human personalities (not everybody is logical, some more emotional), access to teachers, state (or kingdoms) enforced policies/politics, funding to certain kinds of teachings, etc.etc.

    But I do agree with Jeff regarding the differences between buddhism and other religions regarding “faith”. He summarized well the “three important differences”. One critical difference in my view is that of the notion of salvation in one’s earthly life (current or future, not some heaven.) – i personally think it applies to current life itself.

    Buddha’s whole thing is about one’s suffering and its cure, this is the core teaching as agreed by all sub-sects of buddhism.

    Faith is a powerful tool, I will not deny that. But, I think it can be a huge roadblock if one wants to explore/stretch their minds. In a way, everybody even the modern non-faith buddhists, start of with a pseudo-faith (never the less, a “faith”) in buddha’s core teachings, in their beginning. As they evolve their “faith” parts fall-off as they start to see/experience the results. In case of pure-faith-only buddhists, they probably attribute their gains to objects of the faith, or “faith” itself.

    I actually think it does not matter…faith or non-faith, they are both “tools” in the same sense. Dharma is dharma, suffering is suffering, and karma is karma. Either way. Use the tool that most suits you, or easier.

    I personally prefer non-faith approach…i come from different religion, read about too many religions, mingled with people from other cultures, … in a way I am exposed to too much stuff…I cant stay in the dark (faith) alone. Non-faith approach is more appropriate in current times (from last ~100yrs or so, since the scientific revolution. and Exponentailly more so the last ~20-30 years, due to the information/tech revolution).

    1. Thanks, Red. Once again, when faith is seen as only a tool, that’s one thing. But the point I’ve been trying to make is that many people in these faith-based group see (and are told) that faith is more than a tool. I was in the Nichiren tradition for many years, a faith-based approach, and faith was not optional, never presented as a tool that one could choose to use, and if not, well then some other approach is cool. When you strip all the Buddhist trapping away, faith is absolute faith necessary to achieve oneness with the Mystic Law or Amida or for Christians to have communion with God or to receive God’s grace. There is the more theoretical approach that Jeff articulates, but it is not the approach of the average practitioner in my experience.

      1. Agree with your point that people in faith do not see it as a tool – its “faith” after all.

        It is just like people in non-faith can (and do) sometimes loose the point that it is just a “tool” also, not the salvation itself.

        This is a common human issue – taking what ever they believe is the absolute reality…cant blame them, they “live” it.

        I am suggesting either way it does not matter. There is not much difference between a person with faith who sees it as tool, and someone who sees it as absolute. In the end, both are after the same thing – salvation. Even the one’s with non-faith approach.

        I actually think the absolute faith people may have genuine, raw, experiences. Unlike the non-faith, who carry lot of burden with all that knowledge/wisdom. I wonder if that quote “ignorance is bliss” comes from this. What ever works, I guess. The issue though, is you cant stay for ever in the “ignorance is bliss”/faith state. Too many questions in our modern human world. All questions get answered, which is the salvation itself.

      2. Hello David,
        While I agree many that follow the Pureland p as path simply see it as away to “heaven” and a “afterlife”, or a means to pray to Amida Buddha for material things
        It is much deeper and profound a teaching.
        On a precursory reading of the 48 Vows it might be easy to overlook “When I obtain Buddhahood, if…..then may I not attain the enlightenment”. However, upon deep reading of Vows 14 and 34 Amida Buddha ( The Buddha of infinite light and life) must fulfill a
        Countless number especially when applied to the 18th, 19th and 20th Vows as those yet to hear in the worlds of the “10 Quarters” have not yet been born.
        Yet, Amida Buddha is a Buddha. Only a Buddha can take such Vows. Yet again, it would appear as if Amida Buddha is, a “Buddha before time”.
        “According to Manshi Kiyozawa, it is not that we believe in the Tath?gata because of his existence but the Tath?gata exists because of our faith in him. 9 This is basically true of the relationship between the Tath?gata’s existence and the practice of nembutsu: It is not that we practice the nembutsu because of the Tath?gata’s existence; the Tath?gata exists because of our practice of nem- butsu”.
        Alfred Bloom,
        Living in Amida’s Universal Vow
        I can find no better written expression of True Shinjin than, Saichi Asahara
        “1. NYORAI 1 AND SAICHI 2
        I exchange work with Amida:
        I worship him who in turn deigns to worship me–
        This is the way I exchange work with him. 3
        “O Saichi, who is Nyorai-san?”
        “He is no other than myself.”
        “Who is the founder [of the Shin teaching]?”
        “He is no other than myself.”
        “What is the canonical text?”
        “It is no other than myself.”
        The ordinary man’s heart has no fixed root,
        Yet this rootless one takes delight in the H? [i.e., Dharma];
        This is because he is given Oya’s heart–
        The heart of “Namu-amida-butsu.”
        I understand when, “Tatha, shinyo, sono mama, thusness” is understood,
        Then one can relax into “just as it is”.

        1. Seem to me it’s simpler and more effective to cut out Amida as the middleman and go straight to “just as it is.”

  6. Though I usually enjoy reading your blog, this particular blog post is a misrepresentation of Pure Land Buddhism. Traditionally, the understanding of Amitabha as a literal Buddha outside yourself, the Pure Land as a literal place like a Heaven, and the Nembutsu as a form of petitionary prayer is the lowest level of understanding:

    To illustrate this point, Buddhist authors in late-medieval China and Vietnam frequently describe Pure Land Buddhism’s practice of reciting the Buddha’s name in terms of three levels:
    Mundane, regular level: reciting the Buddha’s name to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
    Middle-level: reciting the Buddha’s name to “bring out” the Buddha within the practitioner.
    High-level: reciting the Buddha’s name with the understanding that there is no Buddha outside the mind.

    I recommend reading Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh. Anyone who claims that Pure Land Buddhism isn’t true Buddhism is sadly ignorant of history. The original meaning of Nembutsu is mindfulness or recollection of the Buddha, a practice which goes as far back as the Pali canon.

    Please read the following and tell me where it’s incorrect:

    Popularly, Amitabha is somebody else. He is some great compassionate being who looks after you. Esoterically, Amitabha is your own nature; Amitabha is your real self, the inmost boundless light that is the root and ground of your own consciousness. You don’t need to do anything to be that. You are that, and saying Nembutsu is simply a symbolical way of pointing out that you don’t have to become this, because you are it.

    Watts got these ideas about Amida and the Pure Land from D.T. Suzuki, and Suzuki got these ideas from the mind-only interpretation of Amitabha that’s been around as far back as ancient China.

    1. Matthew, thanks for commenting on this. I didn’t mean to misrepresent. I will admit Pure Land is not my cup of tea but I try to be fair, especially with the question of authentic Buddhism, and I think I was. My strokes were broad, perhaps too much so, but as I wrote, you can’t always be comprehensive in a blog post.

      Traditionally, there has been a gap between Buddhist theory on one hand and the understanding and practice of average layperson on the other. Watts is not incorrect, but I don’t think it is incorrect either to say that Pure Land became popular because of the aspect of blind faith in the magical power of the name, a mystical element that continues to dominate the understanding among many adherents today. And that’s all I’m saying.

      I hope you will enjoy most of my posts and if you read something that doesn’t seem right, let me know.

      1. Thank you for your response. The power of the name is Buddha-nature itself, which is both within you and within all things:

        “The Dharma body is the ultimate truth of all things. It is awakening itself, the supreme reality, the cosmic consciousness that subsumes and includes everything in the universe. The Dharma body is completely pure. It is the union of reason and wisdom. It is omnipresent. To attain awakening and the Dharma body is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice. The Dharma body is beyond all duality.”

        If you are a sincere Mahayana Buddhist, which I believe you are, then I hope you can see that concepts like Dharmakaya and Buddha-nature are not just mystical fluff. There is something very real behind all of this, and as Pure Land Buddhists, we encounter this reality through the Nembutsu.

        1. I don’t think Buddha-nature is mystical fluff at all. There are more sincere Buddhists than me who have been critical of Pure Land. We don’t have to see value in all the same things. It’s a matter of have differing points of view, remembering that views are ultimately empty.

  7. There are 84,000 paths to enlightenment, and saying the Nembutsu is one way among many for awakening to Buddha-nature. Anyone who uses the Nembutsu as a form of petitionary prayer to obtain material things has missed the point of it. In fact, the Nishi Hongwanji forbids it:

    Guided by the teaching of Shinran Shonin, we shall listen to the compassionate calling of Amida Tathagata and recite the Nembutsu. While always reflecting on ourselves, amidst our feelings of regret and joy, we shall live expressing our gratitude without depending on petitionary prayer and superstition.

  8. Please keep in mind that everything I am sharing is out of a desire to help others in the best way I can, not to attack you. For Shinran, the Pure Land is not a Heaven or an escape from the world of Samsara. Instead, birth in the Pure Land is a symbolic way of saying that, at the moment of death, we will immediately attain Buddhahood and return to this world of suffering to help others:

    “At the end of life, we will be born in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood, returning at once to this delusional world to guide people to awakening.”

    As a former Tendai monk, Shinran was well read in a vast array of sutras and commentators from throughout Buddhist history, who he often quoted or alluded to in his writings. In one instance, he even praised Nagarjuna for crushing the views of being and non-being. Shinran has been named one of the hundred greatest thinkers of all time:

    For Shinran, to entrust in the Nembutsu is to entrust in Buddha-nature itself as symbolized in Amida, not a theistic God:

    “The Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood. Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of Dharmakaya-as-compassion (Amida Buddha), this entrusting is none other than Buddha-nature.”

    As there are 84,000 paths to enlightenment, Nembutsu recitation is one of them, as the great Pure Land and Cha’an masters throughout history have attested.

  9. If you read the Pali scriptures, which are believed to be the earliest written account of what the Buddha taught, and take him at his word, he teaches that there are other world systems with intelligent life, and that other Buddhas came before him. He also describes his own past lives, going back many kalpas, and the Pure Abodes, which are a realm in between this world and Nirvana. It’s not too much of a stretch that, within this cosmology, there are many other Buddhas on other worlds, including Amitabha, who vowed that he would not attain Buddhahood unless he could lead all other beings to Buddhahood.

  10. The earliest identified Mahayana inscription refers to Amitabha, “the blessed one.” Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists who disparage Pure Land as somehow an inferior form of Buddhism don’t know what they are talking about. In fact, Amitabha is mentioned so prevalently throughout Mahayana literature, including the Lotus Sutra, Zen texts, Tibetan texts, etc., that one could say there wouldn’t be a Mahayana without Amitabha.

  11. If Buddha-nature is within all things, and if all things are empty of inherent existence, and if a fully awakened Buddha is beyond the duality of self or non-self, and if refuge is taken in the enlightened qualities of a Buddha rather than the gross physical form, then asking if Guanyin or Amitabha have a literal existence is like asking if a drop of water in the ocean has a literal existence. Dharmakaya is within you, all around you, and IS you.

  12. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jodo Shinshu is the right sect of Buddhism for me, because I learned from how Zen understands the Nembutsu. That may sound contradictory, but it isn’t on an ultimate level. Daisetz Suzuki was famous as a popularizer of Zen, yet his heart belonged to Jodo Shinshu.

    Suzuki taught that Amida is your inmost self, and when you say Namu-Amida-Butsu once and for all, you awaken to your true nature. Westernized Zen, with no tolerance for devotional practice whatsoever, is not true Japanese Zen.

  13. As a white convert to Buddhism, I think it’s better for Westerners to remain non-Buddhist, while having respect for what a majority of Asian Buddhists believe and practice, than for Westerners to claim to be Buddhist, while being disrespectful and ignorant of Asian Buddhism.

    Meditating and reading Eckhart Tolle doesn’t make you a Buddhist any more than smoking cannabis and listening to Bob Marley makes you a Rastafarian. As a Westerner, calling yourself a Buddhist while being ignorant and disrespectful of what a majority of Asian Buddhists believe and practice is called appropriation.

    How did Western scholars come to believe that the Mahayana sutras are unhistorical fabrications, rather than the teachings of the historical Buddha? The answer is Orientalism, the tendency of Western scholars to believe they understand Asian history and culture better than Asians do.

    It’s a double standard to assume that the Pali scriptures are historically reliable while the Mahayana sutras aren’t, since neither were written down until hundreds of years after the events described. Ancient India was an oral culture, and important religious texts like the Rigveda were passed down for hundreds of years before taking a written form.

    1. I have heard the Dalai Lama express the same sentiment a number of times, that Westerners should stick to their own traditional religions and so on. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s like saying that only Asians should be allowed to eat egg rolls or something. Buddha-dharma is not the exclusive property of Asia. It belongs to the world.

      Likewise, a shallow understanding of the teachings and the history behind them is not exclusive to Westerners. During my 30+ years of experience with Buddhism, I have met plenty of Asians who don’t have a very deep understanding of what they believe and practice.

      Modern scholars have not come to “believe” anything. However, the majority have reached a conclusion, based on access to various translations from different places and time periods, that the Mahayana sutras cannot represent the direct teachings of the historical Buddha. To not understand this point while making your earlier point seems a bit strange to me.

      I am not sure, and many scholars have their doubts as well, that the Pali Canon is all that historically reliable.

  14. As a white convert to Buddhism, what I am saying is that it’s wrong for someone claiming to be Buddhist to condemn a majority of the world’s Buddhist as somehow not being “true Buddhists.”

    Regarding the Mahayana sutras being less reliable than the Pali sutras, none of that can actually be proven:

    Most Theravada Buddhists do not recognise the Pure Land Sutras as been taught by the Buddha as they are not found in the Pali Canon. However, there is no solid evidence that everything the Buddha taught is found only in the Pali Canon, because the Buddha taught for many (45) years, while the Pali Canon is not that big (as it can be easily read many times over in a lifetime) in comparison to the Mahayana Canon. There is also evidence that parts of the Mahayana Canon can be more accurate than the Pali Canon…
    It is almost natural that different texts are passed down by oral teaching differently, ending up in different Canons.

    We understand that some monks recognized only the Pali Canon as valid because they were supposedly the first of the Buddha’s discourses to be written down, while others considered the Mahayana and Pure Land sutras as being genuine as well. Each group put into written form their own basket (pitaka) of recognized sutras, some earlier and some later. But no one can prove by documentary evidence that his school’s basket of sutras were actually preached by Shakyamuni while the others’ were not.

    1. I don’t think I am condemning anyone, just exploring the question “Is there a place for faith in modern Buddhism?”

      As far as the sutras and the history of the Buddha is concerned, no one can prove anything. Still, I don’t think you will find any objective scholar who will agree that the Mahayana sutras represent authentic teachings of the Buddha because there is too much circumstantial evidence pointing the other way. The Mahayana canon were the first sutras transmitted to China and that is one reason why a direct connection to the Buddha was established. But those ancient Chinese scholars did not have access to all the evidence. As far as I know the only folks who still maintain that the Mahayana sutras are authentic are the Pure Land and Nichiren sects. That said, it does not mean that those sutras do not have value. Personally, I would take a Mahayana sutra over a Pali sutta any day.

  15. What actual evidence is there of the Mahayana sutras being less authentic than the Pali sutras?

    The opinions of Western scholars, no matter how popular those opinions happen to be, don’t matter without actual evidence. In fact, the oldest available Buddhist manuscripts are of Mahayana sutras:

    Please let me remind you again that you don’t need to be a Pure Land Buddhist in order to be respectful of Pure Land Buddhism. The oldest Mahayana inscription is in homage to Amitabha, who is featured prevalently throughout the Mahayana sutras.

    How can you claim to follow Mahayana Buddhism, while being dismissive and disrespectful of what a majority of Mahayana Buddhists have believed and practiced for at least the last 2,000 years?

    There are 84,000 paths to enlightenment, so I don’t care about which sect or school of Buddhism you find is best for you. Can you please also show the same respect for other Buddhists?

    1. I don’t know where you are getting this ‘disrespect’ thing from. Did you not read the piece I wrote? Did you not see these words: “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.” I think that is being respectful. I can be respectful and at the same time harbor doubts about genuineness.

      1. I think it’s disrespectful to paint Pure Land Buddhism as petitioning Amitabha for material favors based on a few anecdotes. Regarding its authenticity as a school of Buddhism, mindfulness of the Buddha is endorsed even in the Pali canon, and the Pure Abodes are in the Pali canon as well. The Pali canon also teaches that there are other worlds with intelligent life, and other Buddhas on those worlds as well.

    2. I don’t claim that the Mahayana sutras are word-for-word the teachings of the Buddha. I do believe that their central themes and teachings go back to the Buddha himself:

      All sentient beings can attain perfect enlightenment – that is, buddhahood – and nothing less than this is the appropriate final goal of believers;
      The Buddha is eternal, having existed from the infinite past and appearing in many forms throughout the ages to guide and succor beings through the teaching of the Wonderful Dharma; and
      The noblest form of Buddhist practice is the way of the bodhisattvas, those who devote themselves to attaining enlightenment not only for themselves but for all sentient beings.

  16. I believe in the authenticity of the Lotus Sutra because of what the sutra says about itself, and the lack of evidence to actually disprove the sutra’s authenticity.

    As a Mahayana Buddhist, I believe the sutras are innocent until proven guilty. This doesn’t mean I believe the sutras are word-for-word inerrant, but I trust that they faithfully convey the Buddha’s actual teachings.

  17. According to the Contemplation Sutra, one of the three canonical Pure Land sutras, the purpose of Pure Land practice is to awaken the Buddha-nature within:

    Then the World-Honored One said: ‘Now do you not know, Vaidehi, that Buddha Amitayus is not very far from here?…
    Consequently, when you have perceived Buddha, it is indeed that mind of yours that possesses those thirty-two signs of perfection and eighty minor marks of excellence which you see in a Buddha. In conclusion, it is your mind that becomes Buddha, nay, it is your mind that is indeed Buddha. The ocean of true and universal knowledge of all the Buddhas derives its source from one’s own mind and thought. Therefore you should apply your thought with an undivided attention to a careful meditation on that Buddha Tathagata, Arhat, the Holy and Fully Enlightened One.

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