We cannot become Buddhas based on our own efforts

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

In my previous post, I wrote:

We cannot become Buddhas based on our own efforts.

I had promised to unpack this previous post. I’ll tackle this first assertion first, since it may be the most problematic for Buddhists.

I’m not going to dive into much abstraction and speculation about the “dharma-ending age” which the Japanese Pure Land giants, Honen and Shinran have done extensively. Rather, I’m going to speak from personal experience and study.

Becoming a Buddha means that we are totally free from all negative mind states and dwell in nirvana. Many Buddhists debate and disagree about this topic. Some say that negative mind states may still arise, but being a Buddha means that they arise to “no one” — that is, a Buddha is one who has realized non-self. Negative states arise, however, they arise to nobody in particular and aren’t taken personally. This is generally how the zen tradition views awakening. I’ve never heard a zen teacher claim that negative mind states no longer arise. On the other hand, Theravadans clearly state that the non-arising of negative mind states is a pre-requisite for total release.

Again, the problem with this topic is that there are many different definitions of Buddhahood, awakening, enlightenment, etc. Theravadans, Zennists, and Tibetans (even amongst their own five schools) disagree exactly what these words mean. So, let me state what I mean, and let’s go from there.

Becoming a Buddha means that all our karmic afflictions have been extinguished and that we abide in nirvana, even here on Earth. Realizing no-self is merely one step to Buddhahood, and from my perspective (I agree with the Theravadans on this one) this realization is merely stream-entry, that is, we are on the sure track to full enlightenment, from which we will never fall back. It does not mean, however, that our work is done and/or that we cannot go further in our development.

I contend that we cannot achieve complete liberation on our own. According to the Buddha, this achievement was extremely rare. When I say we cannot achieve this, I recognize that there may be somebody, somewhere who can and has achieved perfect Buddhahood. However, this is so rare, that it is not worth mentioning. We need to be realistic and take an honest assessment of our lives. We need to recognize that we live in a spiritually dark time. It’s so dark that most of us don’t even know it is dark! Most spiritual folks run around, ala Eckhart Tolle, claiming that humanity is waking up in droves. While I would agree that many of us are recognizing the problematic nature of our minds and that our thoughts create our suffering, this is a far cry from becoming a Buddha. This is merely the first step on the path! These practitioners, if I may use that word, haven’t even realized the first Noble Truth. Generally, they are too busy reciting bromides to themselves, hoping to convince themselves that this is a wonderful world. There could be nothing further from authentic Buddhist teaching.

If we look at the social data of the developed world, the scene is dismal. It is dark. It is beyond comprehending just how bad it is. Numerous addictions on an unprecedented scale. Constant distraction. Sexual obsessions. Playing with the occult. I could go on and on, but no need to. We all know it; now we have to face it.

How do we become Buddhas in a world like this?

How many of us can even control our minds for a minute? An hour? A whole day? Nobody.

We’ve never been in such need of help. We’ve never been in such need of Amita Buddha. Let us call on him while we still have time and settle this great matter of life and death.

Maybe you remain unconvinced. The Buddha did say, in the Pali scriptures, that we can become Buddhas ourselves — that we must become Buddhas ourselves, that nobody can do it for us.

Ah, but he didn’t say that nobody could help us! Amita never said he’d make us Buddhas. He said he created a Pure Land in which we could be reborn. In his world, we would finally attain Buddhahood, after wondering for millions of years in samsara, suffering incredibly.

Let’s call his name and hope in the Buddha’s unfailing promise.

I Dwell in Amita’s Land of Bliss

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Seated cross-legged in meditation,
I dwell in Amita’s Land of Bliss
on a blue-hued lotus
extending up from a placid, sapphiric pond

Gazing down, I wonder at the golden sand;
Looking up, I marvel at the countless pavilions
bedecked in jewels, gold, and diamonds.
Everything is even more wonderful than the sutra stated!

My heart rests at ease,
bliss encompasses my mind

At home on my lotus, I finger the lapis mala,
giving to me by him, intoning his name,
when I was born here in this wondrous world

All around Bodhisattvas diligently practice:
They are beautiful, men and women,
donning various colored monk’s robes.
Some are in deep samadhi, others chanting the Name —

Fools like me can’t wait to offer countless bouquets of flowers
to the Buddhas here and in other Buddhalands
to which we travel instantaneously
riding the waves of merit created by Amitabha

My mind rests in total concentration,
free from all worry and concern.
wandering and distracting thoughts have ceased
drown out by the peace
saturating this Land of Bliss

Getting Buddhism

September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Driving in the rain in Jeollanamdo

Driving in the rain in Jeollanamdo

In order to get Buddhism, you need to have undergone a strong dose of suffering or be awake to the suffering around you.

My first zen teacher always said that people won’t practice until life has kicked them around for awhile.

When I was younger, in my twenties, I practiced zen. While I had passed through a considerable amount of anxiety and suffering, I hadn’t experienced enough. The first Noble Truth hadn’t struck me as a realization. It was more like a theory. Frankly, I found it depressing, as I saw life as a source of pleasure.

Of course, back then, I was young, handsome, had lots of girlfriends and parties. What was this dukkha of which cranky old Gautama spoke?

No doubt, getting the first Noble Truth has never been more difficult than now. For tens or hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors knew dukkha intimately. Up to half all babies died at birth. Half of the people born never even made it to adulthood. Common colds, flus, and tooth aches were killers. There was no electricity, running water, heat, or wifi. All people spent their entire lives in almost constant discomfort and outright pain. They knew dukkha.

When I look around today, I see people completely unaware of the burning furnace into which they’ll soon be thrown. Worse still is the constant parade of positive-thinking slogans. Instead of fleeing the burning house, we’re plastering up bromidic posters on the scorched walls. It is almost as if we could merely think away reality.

Make no mistake about it: this world is a “heap and mass of suffering,” the Buddha’s unmistakable phrase. If you’ve discovered that, then no doubt you’ve been searching for some sense, meaning, and direction through this inferno. Most will settle for god, however they might conceive of him. Chances are they’ll take the god their parents gave them. Many of us awake to the intense and all-pervasive suffering of this cosmos, however, cannot accept a deity at the wheel.

With this rejection of a Creator, comes the chance to see what Buddhism has to offer. First and foremost, it offers a toolbox: 84,000 tools, to be precise. Any of them will do the trick. The key, of course, is to use them.

In the Amita Sutra, the main tool is Buddha recitation. Reciting the Buddha’s name, even if you don’t believe in all the tenets of Pure Land Buddhism, brings peace. It concentrates the mind. It generates merit. It prevents the arising of anger and lust. Last but not least, with a little faith, it leads us to Pure Land – both available here and now and at death.

Essentials of Pure Land Buddhism

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

We live in samsara, the Buddhist word for existence, which is constantly cycling. Beings, including humans, are born, age, get sick, and die. This process repeats itself for an undetermined amount of time, thought to be billions of years. Beings are born in one of six spheres of consciousness: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, celestial beings (angels/titans/demi-gods), and gods.

Beings don’t necessarily have to be flesh and bones. Beings can also be consciousnesses. While scientism, the dogmatic belief that only science can answer all meaningful questions, claims that our brains create our consciousness, there is no proof of this. In fact, if we study the near-death experience literature, there are thousands of reported cases in which people were declared dead, and yet their awareness still continued at even heightened states. These experiences, many near-deathers often claim, seem more real than their normal waking states.

Thus, heaven and hell are not necessarily geographical places but rather states of mind. In fact, we can find heavens and hells right here on Earth. But, the Buddha wasn’t just talking about Earth. He claimed 2600 years ago that there were countless worlds which beings habitate. Modern science seems to confirm that there are habitable planets in billions of galaxies. There may be thousands – tens of thousands of Earth-like planets. However, again, whether a planet resembles the Earth is irrelevant, since awareness can habitate anywhere, in any realm.

While debate has raged for centuries on what exactly Buddhism is, my claim is that Buddhism is best thought of as an escape plan. Sure, it can be a religion or a philosophy or a therapeutic tool or anything else we can reasonably conceive. However, the Buddha showed little interest in metaphysical questions, questions like: when did time begin, what is the origin and meaning of life, etc. He called such questions “unskillful” and leading to a “thicket of views”. Basically, he said, they were a waste of time. That being said, Buddhism does have something to offer just about everyone, whether they’re devotional, rational, skeptical, or just plain screwed up.

The Buddha was most interested in what is plain and obvious: that we here and now are suffering. And not only we humans, but all beings are suffering, driven constantly by fear and desire. They are either food or feed. Take a moment to reflect on the constant fear animals. Observe a squirrels and birds in the park. There’s never a second that they are at peace and rest. They could become a meal at any moment and they never know where their next meal is coming from.

In short, samsara is a “heap and mass of suffering.” This is the starting point of the Buddha’s teaching, namely, the first Noble Truth. Now, let’s talk about what Pure Land Buddhism has to offer.

Pure Land Buddhism, among all of the schools and sects of Buddhism, proposes a sure way out. Amitabha, or Amita, will help us out of this burning house of cyclic existence. He was a man, like any other, who through great determination and practice became a Buddha. But before he became a Buddha, he made 48 vows. The 18th vow is the one we are most interested in. He asserted that

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

Shakyamuni Buddha in reciting the Amita Sutra to Sariputra affirmed that Amita did indeed become a Buddha and is now residing in the Western Pure Land, ten billion worlds away from here. He, and all of the Buddhas in the six directions, confirmed that when we contemplate Amita or recite his name with faith and a strong wish to be reborn in his pure land, we will be reborn there, a place free from all suffering, after this life.

Pure Land Buddhism is so wonderful, because it meets us where we are. Amita knew that karma-bound beings like us could never attain Buddhahood on our own. He made a “land”, a world-system in which those who wish could visit and stay to attain Buddhahood – Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Once we become Buddhas, then we will truly be useful for others.

Pure Land Buddhism in a Nutshell

September 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

We cannot become Buddhas based on our own efforts.

Since this is the case, we should aim for rebirth in Amita’s Pure Land.

To be reborn there, we only need faith, vows, and practice.

  1. Faith that the Buddha’s words are true.
  2. Vows, or the wish to be born in Amita’s Pure Land.
  3. Practice is reciting his name, knowing that he will respond by bring us there after our departure from this world.

I hope to unpack these assertions more in future blog posts.


Buseok Temple in Gyeongbuk, Korea

Bow all the time

September 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s a wonderful, little article published over at tricycle.com

Heng Sure: “How can I get rid of my arrogance?” someone asked the Master at Gold Mountain.

“Bow. Bow all the time to anything and everybody you see. Can you do that?”

Bow not for something—to get something for yourself. Bow to empty yourself, to repent and clean out your mind. With no thought of self, all benefit. With a thought of self, all suffer. Bow to the Buddha-nature in all beings, sentient and insentient. With no self the Buddha appears. Can you do that? Heng Ch’au?

You can read the rest here.



What’s the use of all that noise and money?

September 16, 2014 § Leave a comment


It’s just me and the nembutsu

In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place –

Bird paths, but no trails for me.

What’s beyond the yard?

White clouds clinging to vague rocks.

Now I’ve lived here – how many years –

Again and again, spring and winter pass.

Go tell families with silverware and cars

“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”

– Han Shan


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