Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, another perspectivePosted: August 13, 2008 | Author: Doug | Filed under: Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Language, Religion, Vietnamese, Zen | 10 Comments »
After recommendation by someone I know, I started reading the Buddhist book “Finding our True Home” by the famous Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I have to admit my feelings on TNH are somewhat ambiguous. I think he writes some really good books, and some that are not so good.
So, I was kind of skeptical about this book at first, but it has been a pretty interesting read. To begin with, TNH is interpreting the Pure Land and Amida Buddha from a more Zen-like, mind-only perspective, which is one of a few ways to look at it. I wrote before how the Zen monk, Hakuin, had a similar interpretation. He quotes from a famous Vietnamese King named Thái Tông, who founded the Trần Dynasty in Vietnam. King Thái Tông was a devout Buddhist, and wrote the Khóa Hư Lục which in English means “Instructions on Emptiness.
(note: I’ve added pronunciation notes below under the post script section)
King Thái Tông writes on the different kinds of Pure Land disciples, beginning with the most basic, or “lower-level” practitioner:
As far as the practice of the lower level is concerned, our lips should constantly recite the name of the Buddha [Amida], our mind should want to see signs of the Buddha, and we should aspire to be born in the land of the Buddha…After we die, on account of our mindfulness of what is wholesome, we shall be born in the land of the Buddha. [The Pure Land]
Of the middle-level:
The middle-level practitioner has not yet been able to see that Amitabha [Buddha] is his or her own mind and needs to practice recollecting the Buddha in order to return to the present moment.
The highest-level practitioners again are not mentioned, but TNH’s alludes to them being those who awaken to see Amida within and the Pure Land being here and now, again quoting from King Thái Tông:
The Dharma body and our own body are not two different bodies, they are silent and enduring, going beyond every thought, and therefore called the living Buddha.
Here, King Thái Tông is talking about the interdependency of all things, something found throughout all Buddhism, but strongly emphasized in Zen/Thiền. Instead of an external Buddha, Amida Buddha, there is a deep interdependency, an intertwined existence. This is also a theme that comes up a lot in Japanese Buddhism, but King Thái Tông does a nice job of summarizing the different approach of Pure Land and Zen Buddhism.
Anyways, I think what both TNH and King Thái Tông are getting at is a sense of convergence of the Zen and Pure Land schools, where people start out thinking they are very different and almost mutually exclusive. However as one deepens their practice, they begin to see one in the other.
I think there is a lot of truth in this, but my only concern is that if you start treating Pure Land Buddhism as a mind-exercise, then it loses its effect. If you recite the nembutsu thinking “I am practicing mindfulness” or “I am trying to see Amida in myself by saying the nembutsu”, then you are just asserting your ego and a sense of accomplishment. Instead, you should forget all notions of what you are doing and just trust Amida Buddha, recite the nembutsu, and work it all out. That’s what Honen, Shinran and others were trying to get at.
It’s tempting to fall into this trap of contriving some result from reciting the nembutsu, I do it sometimes, so just be aware.
I just try keep it simple, recite the nembutsu and strive to be born in the Pure Land. If the Pure Land is real, then hopefully I will be born there. If the Pure Land really is an expedient means toward enlightenment, then that will arise sooner or later. Either way, it’s a good practice.
P.S. In this post, you get to see me dust off 2-years of college-level Vietnamese (plus months spent studying in Hanoi). All pronunciations are given in official Northern Dialect, which is the dialect I learned. Others may pronounce slightly different and that’s fine. Just be aware of the differences.
In case you’re wondering, in Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Amida Buddha is called A di đà Phật, which sounds like “A zee da fut”. The nembutsu is called niệm phật, or “nee-em fut”. When recited in Vietnamese it is pronounced as “Nam mô A di đà Phật”. There is little information on the Internet about Vietnamese Budhism, so it’s good to get the word out. East Asian Buddhism is a lot more than what you see in Japan/China, though they’re all deeply related.
For Thái Tông the “Thai” is pronounced as you would expect. The “Tông” is harder. The “T” here is actually like a harder “D” sound. I had the worst time pronouncing this right in school, my strict, but wonderful teacher caught me on it many times. The “ô” is the English “o” sound as in “home”. So the king’s name is more like “Thai Dong”, where “dong” sounds more like “home”.
As for the Trần Dynasty this is one of these examples of differences between Northern and Southern Vietnamese. The Northern dialect pronounces “tr” as “ch”. But the Southern Dialect stays true to the “tr” sound. The “â” is pronounced like “uh”, not “a”. So, the Dynasty’s name is more like “chun” or “trun” depending on which dialect.
Meanwhile, the book Khóa Hư Lục sounds like “Kwa hoo look”, but the “ư” sound is definitely not found in English. It’s said like “oo” but while smiling with your teeth clenched. Try it.