Buddhism 6

Buddhism 6


To close out our unit on Buddhism, we’ll
turn to two Buddhists sects, both of which have become pretty popular in the modern period.
The first we’ll talk about is Pure Land Buddhism, which is a widespread form of Buddhism
that challenges many common assumptions about Buddhism. Pure Land is a devotional sect. The goal in
Pure Land Buddhism is to reach heaven in the next life. For this goal, faith, together
with humility, is sufficient. The idea is that there was a time when the pure dharma
could be taught, but that time is passed. In this sinful, corrupt age, the age of the
decay of the dharma, a latter-day dharma has evolved. The world is such that, and humans
are such that, teaching the true dharma is beyond our current capacity. It’s just too
hard. We need help, the help of a god. So Pure Land Buddhism was spread quite a bit,
around the globe, but it was introduced in China as early as the 1st or 2nd century CE.
The most prominent teachers appeared in the 6th and 7th centuries. What you see in this image is a popular form,
a picture of Amitabha Buddha (known as Amida in Japan, Amita in much of south-east Asia)
in his Pure Land, or Western Paradise, known as Sukhavati. Amitabha is one of the contemplative
Buddhas, and presides over Sukhavati, this paradise to which devotees would like to go. Bodhisattvas are still present in this tradition,
but while bodhisattvas are seen to answer to present need, Amitabha is undertood to
ensure future bliss. Some say that faith in Amitabha Buddha, coupled with humility, is
a sign of already having been saved. And so it makes sense that his mantra – Namu Amida
Butsu, or I take refure in Amida / Amitabha Buddha – is said not out of desire, not
in petition, but in gratitude. Some believe that one is guaranteed rebirth
in Amitabha’s Western Paradise if, when one dies, his mantra, or even just his name,
are the last words to cross one’s lips. And this is part of the mantra tradition,
that one wants to make the mantra such a part of one’s life, that it is as inbuilt and
natural as breath. Saying it comes as easily, and as constantly, as breathing. As a tradition, Pure Land Buddhism (known
in Japan as Jodo Shu, or, in an offshoot, Jodo Shinshu, the “true pure land”) de-emphasized
celibacy. Remember, this is a very popular, devotional tradition that recognizes in an
increased way the frailty of humans, our utter inability to live up to standards that are
set too high. The world is corrupt, the true dharma has not in any complete way survived.
People need to be able to depend on divine assistance, on a salvation model, where Amitabha
is worshiped as a god into whose realm one can only hope to be reborn. It’s a tradition
that is in this way both optimistic and pessimistic in its realism. So, we’ll look at a few images of Pure Land
in action, before we move on to the final group of Buddhists we’ll look at. This is
a Pure Land temple in China, and what you see here at the main shrine is a statue of
Shakyamuni, or Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Behind that statue, elevated over
it and dramatically backlit, is the statue of Amitabha Buddha. And we can tell a few
things from this image: these statues are situated on an altar, on which devotees leave
offerings. And the two Buddhas highlights the place of Pure Land Buddhism within the
larger historical context and traditional development of Buddhism: Siddhartha Gautama
is honored, venerated, as the Buddha who brought the dharma to the Earth, who turned the wheel
of the dharma in this, our own realm. And Amitabha, also a Buddha, is less earthy, more
celestial. He is the shining light to whom devotees direct their highest attention. And this is a recently completed statue of
Amitabha Buddha, in central China. It’s huge, and one thing to note is the number
of devotees who are crawling up the stairs in step-by-step prostrations. This sort of
practice comes as a surprise to many, especially in the West, who think of Buddhism as a meditatively
calm philosophy, more than as a devotional religion. Of course it’s both (really, just
like any other tradition we’re looking at). Now, moving on to Japan, where Pure Land is
the most widespread sect of Buddhism. This is the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, at the Kotokuin
Temple. It is Amitabha, and the Buddhism practiced here is Pure Land. And finally, we’ll shift on over to Vietnam,
where these laypeople are gathered to chant the name of Amitabha. Though they’re often
mixed up, as everything in this life, Pure Land is at something like the other end of
the devotional spectrum from Chan, or Zen. And what it can highlight for us is the internal
diversity of the Buddhist world, which, from the perspective of American bookstores and
metaphysical libraries, can often look like it is all and only a particularly lay version
of Zen. Now, the last sect of Buddhism that we’ll
look at is Nichiren Buddhism, named after its founder, who’s pictured here. Though
it has made its way to the States, and to some degree across Europe, Nichiren is a distinctly
Japanese form of Buddhism. Remember that Buddhism made its way to Japan, from Korea, in the
middle of the 6th century CE. Nichiren Buddhism was founded during the very
tumultuous 13th century, when the Japanese emperor was struggling with the increasingly
powerful feudal lords and needed more religious backing to help buoy up his claims to a more-than-mundane
power. Now, Nichiren was himself a young monk, son
of a fisherman, who fell completely for the Lotus Sutra, already a favorite among other
Buddhist groups. Nichiren was a vocal advocate for moral purity, and an equally vocal critic
of corruption, wherever he saw it. Twice he was banished from Japan, and twice he was
recalled. The second time, he was banished when he said that because of Japan’s moral
weakness, it would be invaded. Then, he was recalled when the Mongol descent upon the
south coast seemed to prove him right. (The Mongols were fortuitously crushed by a kamikaze,
or divine wind.) This is an image of him during his exile. And, as the story goes, exile didn’t bother
Nichiren. He was staunch in his commitment to what he saw as righteousness, and preferred
solitude to the company of the morally suspect. And the morally suspect was, for him, a pretty
large group. Everyone, even other Buddhists, were fair game. Nichiren attacked the Pure
Land Buddhists for neglecting the needs of this world for the wants of the next. As long
as there was injustice or need or corruption here, he argued, then chanting one’s life
away for the hope of heaven was inexcusable. And, notably, he also said that women could
achieve enlightenment. The mantra of Nichiren Buddhism is Numa Myoho
Renge Kyo, or I take refuge in the sublime scripture of the lotus. The mantra is itself
known as the Daimoku, and is understood within the tradition to be a distillation of the
Lotus Sutra, in its entirety. The next few images we’ll look at are drawn
from Soka Gakkai Internations, known as SGI, which is one of many Nichiren sects. It happens
to be a very popular and wealthy one, especially here in the US. So this is a typical home
shrine, and you can see a video demonstration of how they’re set up and used at the website
www.nichiren-shu.or/boston/pages/home. Some points about the shrine: generally, one must
set up one’s shrine in such a way that when one kneels and chants before it, the shrine
is higher than one’s eyes. It’s a point of positional respect, that the practitioner’s
eyes always look up, when chanting. Another thing, that points to the constant
evolution of religious experience. Not long ago – 10 years ago – it would not have
been acceptable to take a picture of an open altar. It would have been considered disrespectful,
sacrilege. Increasingly, SGI has found that outreach and education are successful modes
of mission, and so not only are pictures allowed of an open altar; they’re posted to official
SGI websites in video form. Things change. SGI understands itself to be a Value Creating
Society, and, along with the other Nichiren sects, they emphasize sociopolitical activism.
They are socially engaged, and not shy of using popular media forms to spread their
message and attract new followers. The next couple images illustrate that. Remember that
Daimoku is the name of the mantra. And this is an ad, clearly aiming at retro-hip.
AS is this one, geared to the ladies. Buddhism is not always monks in
a bare room in deep meditation. Most Buddhists in the world don’t spend a lot of time meditating. And you might think that these ads are tacky,
or pandering to a facebook audience, or unbefitting the dignity of Shakyamuni Buddha. And maybe
that’s true, I don’t know. I’m sure plenty people think so. But they have been
shown to work, and that right there is something with a longstanding history of respect in
the Buddhist tradition. So I want to close here with one more concept,
upaya, or “expedient means.” The image here illustrates a story told in the Lotus
Stura, one of the most revered of Mahayana scriptures, dating to right around the turn
of the common era. It is also the central sacred text of Nichiren Buddhism (though it
is a Mahayana sutra, important to many, many Budhhists who are not Nichiren). So in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha tells this
story. There’s a wealthy man, with many material goods and also three healthy, young
sons, whom he loved dearly. One day, the sons are playing in the palace, and a fire breaks
out, endangering each of their lives. What does the father do? Does he try to explain
to these small children that, if they don’t leave their toys behind and follow him, they
may die? Does he try to convince them of life’s preciousness, of how very important their
survival is to his own well-being? Does he try to reason with them in this way? No, says
the Buddha, he does not. You see, his primary, maybe his only motivation
is to get his children out of the burning house alive. So he says to them, each in turn:
son, I have a magnificent ox-cart for you, waiting right outside, with everything you
want in and on it, and it’s like a turbo-charged ox-cart with every upgrade imaginable. And
what happens? The sons, one after the other, runs from the burning house, without argument,
and so they live. Now – and here’s your Marxist reading
– it’s a nice setting for the story that the father happens to be rich, and so it’s
no problem at all for him to – after the fact – get each of his sons just the amazing
ox-cart he promised. Things are different if you aren’t independently wealthy, and
can’t back up your well-intentioned fibs with a big fat checkbook. But that’s not the point of the story. The
point, for the Buddha, is that if you know your goal, if you know what you want to convey
or achieve, then you do it. How you do it is largely beside the point. Because again,
the point is to get the arrow out of the ass of a suffering man. And this is called expedient
means, or upaya. The SGI ads might be forgiven their kitsch, if they work. And, for the Buddha,
we all figure out a way to do what we know is good and right and just, and if we’re
skillful, we do so in the most expedient means, without, of course, compromising in any way
the foundation of what we know
to be moral.

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