Dharmavidya David Brazier is the Spiritual Teacher and Founder of Amida-shu Pureland Buddhism
What are the Basic Teachings of Amida-shu Buddhism?
Amida-shu is a form of Buddhism that affirms (together with all Mahayana Buddhsim) the threefold nature of Buddha (ultimate Buddha, spiritual Buddha, Buddha in the world), adheres to the Pureland Buddhist emphasis upon the ‘bombu’ nature of the practitioner (that we do not have the power to become enlightened unaided), and adopts as its core practice the ‘nembutsu’ (calling upon Amida Tathagata).
These three constitute the core teachings of Amida-shu. Different members of Amida-shu may interpret these teaching in different ways. Amida-shu is in favour of personal spirituality and regards these three teachings as a framework within which individuals pursue their spiritual quest. The nature of faith, the real meaning of a ‘spiritual Buddha’, the value of particular practices, and so on are things for the practitioner to find out through experiential immersion, experiment, and reflection. Amida-shu is thus a school of Buddhism with much scope for enquiry and is not a ‘hand-me-down’ set of dogmas, even though it does provide a simple frame within which enquiry can proceed.
Broadly, Amida-shu differs from many other schools of Buddhism in seeing many of the elements of Buddhist teaching as ‘outcomes’ rather than as ‘means’. Thus, it is common for Buddhism to be presented as a means to attain enlightenment and the ‘eightfold path’, for instance, will then be presented as the method by which one can practice so as to arrive at the spiritual goal, whereas in Amida-shu the eightfold path will tend rather to be seen as the outcome of a spiritual life. This gives a particular 'flavour' to this kind of spirituality making it celebratory rather than goal oriented. The emphasis on 'bombu nature' similarly eliminates any kudos in being 'spiritually advanced' and facilitates a spiritual relaxation into a sense of assured grace.
The Amida-shu understanding of ‘faith’ is ‘other power’ but not passive. We believe that by associating ourselves with a Buddha we become part of that Buddha’s work. The outcome of ‘taking refuge’ is therefore an active life, not ‘in order to’ gain salvation (Buddha will look after that for us), but rather as a result of one’s affinity to a Buddha whose sole wish is to benefit all beings. Amida-shu thus offers an ‘engaged’ Buddhism in which the engagement flows naturally from the basic teaching. To be a Pureland Buddhist is to be engaged in creating Pure Lands wherever one may be.
Amida-shu asserts the value of Buddhist ethics and encourages non-killing, vegetarianism, honesty, sexual responsibility, non-theft, abstinence from intoxicants and a scrupulous life generally. These are seen as intrinsic goods. The more spiritual a life a person lives the more likely they are to conform broadly to such standards. Pureland, however, is by no means puritan and does not assert either that it is possible to keep such precepts completely nor that it is possible for an individual to achieve a life that is pure or free from implication in the troubles and evils of this world. Pureland is aware of the richness of life, the joy of experience and the necessity of being involved in a robust way if one is to do any good. Creativity inevitably implies some destruction.
The Pureland perspective is essentially pluralistic. Mahayana Buddhism, of which it is one form, asserts the existence of many Buddhas. By associating with one Buddha - Amida - we do not exclude the merit for others of associating with other Buddhas - whether ‘Buddhist’ or not. Pureland thus offers a frame within which one can be at ease with the diversity of relgions and religious practices in the world and Amida-shu generally supports inter-faith harmony and co-operation.
How Does Pureland Differ from Christianity or other Religions?
On the one hand, Pureland has, as just mentioned, no difficulty with accepting Christianity or any other religion as a ‘valid’ means of spiritual practice. On the other hand, we would assert that what matters is whether or not what one puts at the centre of gravity of one’s life is what we call a ‘Buddha’ or not. If the God or being or messiah or avatar or saint that one worships is compassionate and wise then that may be a Buddha. If he, she or it is warmongering, condemnatory, exclusivist or punitive, then that is probably not a Buddha. From this perspective, some Christians might seem to be engaged in a wholesome spiritual path while others might seem to be in spiritual danger from a Pureland perspective.
We say that there are three fundamental teachings in Amida-shu:
The threefold nature of Buddha
The twofold nature of the practicer
The singular nature of the practice.
The Buddha is the object of refuge and source of grace in three ways: as absolute truth, as spiritual presence and as physical manifestation.
The practicer is 'bombu' in being fallible and vulnerable.
The practice is singular in that nembutsu encompasses all.
Taking refuge in Buddha we choose the nembutsu as our single practice and, when we have done so, all practice becomes nembutsu.
We take refuge because we realise that we are fallible and vulnerable and incapable of saving ourselves from spiritual danger by our own power unaided.
We are able to take refuge because we attain faith by perceiving with our own senses, by having that faith enhanced by spiritual realisation, and by grounding it upon the intuition of absolute truth that lies beyond our immediate comprehension.
This summary encompasses the whole doctrinal and practice basis of Pureland.
Namo Amida Bu
Everything in life depends upon causes and conditions. Set up the right conditions and the right things happen. Buddhism teaches the right conditions for spiritual growth. A person is what they do. If a person acts with right intention they transform spiritual dangers into opportunities. Buddha taught that times of change (birth, illness, loss, gain, conjunction, separation, and encounter) are occasions of danger that can also be opportunity. However, a person is seldom able to take hold of such opportunity by their will-power alone. Will-power alone tends to be self-defeating because even when it achieves something it gives rise to pride over and attachment to those results. There is a more effective and subtle path to wholesome transformation via the deeper mind and the most effective way of activating such change is to chant.
Actions are conditioned by mind and mind by actions. Since actions are conditioned by mind and mind is also conditioned by its objects, holding a wholesome object in mind conduces toward a wholesome life. Since the most wholesome object is a Buddha, keeping a Buddha in mind is the key to transformation. Since mind is conditioned by actions, the action of calling the Buddha deeply impresses this most wholesome object upon the mind, like a seal pressed into wax. The Buddhas are constantly trying to help us, but generally we resist their help. By calling out to them we open the door to our inner being through which they can help us and, through us, help others.
Actually, the Buddhas are always calling to us. Amida Buddha is calling each of us. Amida’s light penetrates the deepest part of us, but unless we also call we remain closed. Once we begin a practice of chanting, however, a process of transformation begins. Something subtle starts to happen. Each person who chants becomes a vehicle for Amida’s compassionate work in the world, whether they are aware of it or not. Mostly, in fact, one is not aware of Amida’s action until one looks back over a period of time and sees that one’s life has changed. One has become more positive and more effective in many ways and obstacles that used to seem big now seem manageable or small. We do not chant in order to change. We do not chant in order to help others. We chant in order to call the most loving presence into our life and to make ourselves available to it, but the effect is that we do change and others are benefited.
Auxilliary Practices: Nei Quan and Chih Quan
The primary practice of Amida Pureland is nembutsu, the verbal utterance of "Namo Amida Bu" or its equivalents. Nothing else is required for salvation. Nonetheless, the auxilliary practices of Nei Quan and Chih Quan do have intrinsic merit and they can expand one's appreciation, both intellectually and exprientially, of the importance of the nembutsu in our life.
Nei Quan (inner reflection) derives from vipassana and refers to the first half of the nembutsu, that is, to reflection upon "Namo" - what is the nature of this creature that calls out? it is of 'dependently originating nature' - we therefore reflect upon 'What have I received?' 'What has supported me?' 'What burden has my existence placed upon other things and other beings?' 'What have I done in return?' This kind of reflect can be targeted on a particular relationship or upon a situation or a time period. In a nei quan (Naikan in Japanese) intensive one might review one's whole life bit by bit - 'What did I receive from my mother in the first five years of my life?' '... between five and ten?' etc '...from my father...' and so on. Gregg Krech (also on ning) has written a nice book called Naikan. The practice generates many emotions and insights. It does not require formal meditation posture (in fact formal posture may hinder). Some people like to write or draw as part of the practice. It is a spiritual exercise that is not aimed at generating a particular state of mind but rather a shift in one's orientation to life and feeling for others. It tends to generate gratitude, generosity and fellow-feeling.
Chih Quan (reflection on cessation) derives from samattha and refers to or experience of the second half of the nembutsu, Amida's grace. In this practice one imaginatively offers everything to Amida - all feelings, thoughts, sensations, imaginings, circumstances - whatever comes up. If one does Chih Quan after Nei Quan then one probably starts with feelings and thoughts generated by one's inner reflection. Offer them to the Buddha. Imagine that the Buddha receives them with a smile, joyfully (which is not actually just imagination). Whatever we offer to the Buddha, whether it is something that we think is good or bad, worthy or shaemful, whatever, the Buddha has a way of using and transforming it. So we can give to the Buddha in a sense of confidence and assurance. There is no judgement from Buddha, only delight. As Buddha receives, so we feel peace - the Buddha's grace - descend through our being. We experience that joy and ease of which the sutras speak. As we feel that joy and ease we can simply dwell in it. Dwelling in that joy and ease, or deep peace, we are actually in the second (or a higher) dhyana. If something (a thought, sensation etc.) comes along that disturbs that peace, then we simply offer it to the Buddha and so continue.
Through Nei Quan we gain a deeper sense of ourselves as bombu, dependently originated beings. Through Chih Quan we receive a taste of the Buddha's grace bestowed. Insight and grace make up facets of the nembutsu. When they are totally unified it is called nembutsu samadhi. This unification, however, is not something one can work at or achieve. From one's own side one can merely utter the nembutsu in faith. The two auxilliary exercises, Nei Quan and Chih Quan can, however, give one a stronger sense of oneself as bombu and of the Buddha as gracious and this makes utterance of the nembutsu more meaningful for the practitioner. These two exercises are not salvation nor do they lead to salvation, but they are the joy and ease that is the rightful heritage of practitioners, given to us by the Buddhas, that have been treasured by the faithful throughout the ages.
Q: What is Amida-shu
A: Socially engaged Pureland Buddhism, a generic, religious spirituality animated by the energy of Amida Buddha. Amida-shu has three basic teachings: the trikaya nature of Buddhas, the bombu nature of adherents and the nembutsu as principle practice. The core teachings of Amida-shu are found in the Larger Pureland Sutra. Amida-shu is an other power spirituality.
Q: What is other power?
A: Other power refers to the Buddha's teaching of 'dependent origination', according to which all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. This means both that the causes in our karmic history will always cause us to be bombu and also that there are other causes that can, nonetheless, empower our spiritual life. All of these - our own karmic history and our openness to the healing power of Buddhas - are outside of ('other' than) our present self. We are both victims and beneficiaries of other powers. When we take refuge in the healing power of a Buddha it is as though a seed were planted within us that will then grow by itself. We then become a tathagatagarbha, or 'buddha-womb' within which the seed of Buddha gradually matures. Calling upon Amida Buddha is thus like allowing oneself to be impregnated by the Buddha's healing power which will then grow of its own accord. Amida-shu thus relies upon a subliminal process of spiritual growth.
Q: What does the Larger Pureland Sutra say?
A: In brief, it is the story, told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his disciple Ananda, of a bodhisattva called Dharmakara who establishes a Pure Land and thereby becomes Amida Buddha. Included are Dharmakara's prayers that describe the nature of that land as a place where there are no hells or places of punishment, no discrimination or disadvantaging of particular social groups, no war or oppression, only opportunity for spiritual advanement and enjoyment. Dharmakara also promises that he will bring to his realm anybody who sincerely calls upon or takes refuge in him. The beings in Amida Buddha's Pure Land are all either shravakas or bodhisattvas. Thus the sutra specifies the calling of Amida's name as the means by which an affinity is created between oneself and the Buddha and also provides an archetypal example of how, in the case of Dharmakara bodhisattva, such a connection eventually ripened into the creation of a Pure Land and full Buddhahood.
Q: What is a shravaka?
A: The word means 'listener'. Somebody who listens to the Buddha's teaching and enjoys the benefit. Merely listening is enough for the Buddha seed to become lodged within one. All shravakas will eventually be Buddhas after many lifetimes or after a long period in Amida's Pure Land..
Q: What is a bodhisattva?
A: Somebody who 'serves all Buddhas' and thereby dedicates their life to the spiritual assistance of others. Those who are powerfully inspired by Buddhas, but are not yet Buddhas themselves, are called bodhisattvas. Bodhi is the vision of things that is held by a Buddha. While bodhisattvas do not yet fully embody that vision, they have some of its spirit at work in their lives.
Q: What does trikaya nature mean?
A: Tri means three. Kaya means body or manifestation. Trikaya is a Buddhist teaching that Buddhas have concrete, spiritual and absolute manifestation. A Buddha acts in the mundane world, appears in our spiritual life and embodies the absolute truth of unconditionality. This means that Buddhism is a spiritual, not merely a moral teaching.
Q: What does 'bombu' mean?
A: This is a Japanese term referring to the fact that we are vulnerable, limited, unenlightened beings subject to conditions. We have various delusions, are affected by greed, hate, and a variety of other wayward passions. To recognise one's bombu (or 'guchi') nature is to adopt a realistically modest assessment of what it is to be an ordinary human being.
Q: What is nembutsu?
A: The thought of Buddha. To conceive of the unconditioned and make it sacred in your life makes one a Buddhist. This is called taking refuge. The unconditioned is embodied by Buddhas, described in their Dharma teachings, and works itself out in the life of the Sangha. All Buddhists take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These are called the Three Jewels. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the act that makes one a Buddhist. This refuge may be focussed upon a particular Buddha. In the case of Amida-shu the particular Buddha is Amida Buddha.
Q: Why Amida Buddha?
A: Amida Buddha is the Buddha that most completely manifests unconditionality. Amida Buddha made a paradise called Sukhavati for everyone who calls upon him. This means that if we put Amida Buddha at the centre of our life we shall create a karmic connection with that Pure Land and this will be so irrespective of what spiritual or moral level we have reached. Amida loves us unconditionally, just as we are, already.
Q: What is social engagement?
A: Social engagement means to resist oppression, assist the afflicted and demonstrate an alternative, individually and/or collectively, and to apply Buddhist ethics at a social as well as a personal level. It includes social action, relief work, education, psychological and pastoral assistance, community building, alternative lifestyle, eco-awareness, life simplificaion, and participation in specific projects, campaigns, communities, or programmes intended to contribute to a Pure Land in the world. There are many ways of being socially engaged and different people contribute in different ways. Shravakas listen to the Buddha's teaching and put it into practice in their personal life, thereby allowing the seed of the teachings to grow secretly. Bodhisattvas more openly dedicate their lives to the cause taking on the task of assisting all sentient beings. Both are welcome in Amida's Pure Land.
Q: What is sangha?
A: Sangha is the term for the Buddhist community - all those who have taken refuge in the Three Jewels. The sangha aims to be the ideal community that demonstrates an alternative way of life and faith that avoids the extremes of consumerism and self-indulgence on the one hand and those of fundamentalism or puritanism on the others.
Q: What is Pureland Buddhism?
A: Buddhism is the spiritual tradition deriving from Shakyamuni Buddha who lived in India 25 centuries ago. It is a religion of personal and social peace and harmony based upon the creation of karmic affiliation to a Buddha or Buddhas through an act of 'taking refuge'.
Q: What is a Buddha?
A: A being who is awakened to the power of the unconditional: unconditional love, unconditional wsidom, unconditional goodness, unconditional generosity, unconditional patience, unconditional energy, unconditional presence. Buddhas support the unconditionality of one another - Buddhas are inspired by Buddhas. We who are not Buddhas are also inspired by Buddhas.
Q: What is meant by the unconditional?
This is the principle of willingness. A Buddha loves each person just as he or she is. A Buddha does not condemn. Ordinary people are not capable of doing this, but they can grasp the principle.
Q: What is spirituality?
A: Spirituality has a number of meanings. Amida-shu is spiritual in being (a) a relationship with what is sacred, (b) a personal and individual form of devotion and religious exploration as well as a collective one, (c) a relationship to Amida Buddha who is commonly experienced as spirit, appearing in dreams and at death, not merely as a historical existence, and (d) centred on religious feeling and devotion.
Q: What is meant by religion?
A: Amida-shu is a religion inasmuch as it is an organised communion of fellow spirits. Religion generally refers to the institutional aspect of the spiritual life. Buddhism takes a middle position on religion - not too organised and not too anarchic. A degree of organic organisation is necessary if a group of people are to have any effect in the world. Since Amida-shu has an acknowledgedly utopian vision to creat 'Pure Land in this world' some organisation is necessary. Amida-shu is therefore a communion of people of common faith working together for a better world, supporting one another as a mutually caring family, and thereby demonstrating an alternative way forward in which diverse people care for one another and co-operate in the service of a better vision.
Q: What is meant by saying it is a 'generic' spirituality?
A: The basic principles of Amida-shu define a simple structure within which a person can live a spiritual life. All that they have to do is recognise their own limitations, recognise the unconditional ideal, and adopt a practice that relates the two in their consciousness. This latter, whatever form it takes, will be a form of nembutsu. The framework of Amida-shu is thus of more or less universal application for people with a spiritual outlook. Thus, it is easy for an Amidist to relate to the other major religions by simply assuming that their gods are Buddhas. So long as your god is a Buddha - i.e. embodies unconditional love - then your religious practice is a form of refuge and parallel to Buddhism. Buddhism claims no exclusivity. (Problems in inter-faith dialogue generally derive from claims to exclusivity, but Buddhas do not claim exclusivity because what they teach is universal.) So Amida-shu is universalistic both in the sense of recognising the validity of other spiritualities and being able to talk about them in its own language as well as theirs and also in being a simple structure of doctrine that persons of any faith background can readily utilise.