Allow me to quote a small poem by the Vietnamese Buddhist, Tue Trung (1230-1291):*
The original reality of Amitabha [Buddha]
is our own Dharma body,
It shines out brightly everywhere,
in the South, North, East and West,
It is like the autumn moon
that lies in the high, vast sky,
In the silence of the night its brilliance
shines far over the ocean.
Often times, when people interpret Pure Land Buddhism, with its devotion toward Amida Buddha and aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land, their first reaction to find a more symbolic meaning behind it. You’ll hear something about “Amida Buddha is you” or talk about the “buddha within” and that the Pure Land is reality now through the eyes of someone Enlightened. Thich Nhat Hanh, a contemporary master of Thiền Buddhism** takes this approach.
I can see why people would say this, and I don’t disagree with it, but I am kind of leery of expressing it this way. Someone without a mature understanding of Buddhism may take this to mean they are already Enlightened and grow complacent. Instead, when I read this, I see it a slightly different way. Take a look at this poem by the Jodo Shinshu follower, Asahara Saichi (1850-1933):
…Namuamidabutsu is truly mysterious.
What is mysterious is that
Sea, mountains, food, lumber for building houses,
And everything else related
to the life of an ordinary man,
All these are an embodiment of Namuamidabutsu.
Everyone, please understand this well.
This is the compassion of the Parent.
The Tathagata [Buddha] possesses
a truly mysterious power:
The means to turn Saichi into a Buddha.
Saichi talks about how throughout his life he’s uplifted and carried along by Amida Buddha, who is the “Dharma body” in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, like Tue Trung says. Everything that’s related to his life is another form of Amida Buddha. Even his own body doesn’t really belong to himself in a sense.
As there is nothing within us that’s intrinsic or separate from the rest of reality, there’s nothing we can rightly call our own body. Instead, our face, appearance and upbringing are due to external forces, and thus Saichi says that we are all embodiments of Amida Buddha’s compassion. So, when Tue Trung says The original reality of Amitabha is our own Dharma body, I think this is the message: that we owe our existence to a staggering array of causes and conditions that have created us, uplifted us, and supported us throughout our lives. There’s no separate body to call our own, we belong to everything. We don’t have anything magic or holy within us. It’s just that our existence here and now is just such a rare and amazing thing.
The second half of the poem is even better I think. It reminds me of Honen’s poem Moonlight, and both use the common Buddhist symbol of the moon as wisdom. The moon shines quietly over the ocean, just as wisdom shines everywhere. It doesn’t hit people over the head and expect you to believe it. It’s something to discover and be drawn to. In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida Buddha draws beings to the Pure Land, where people become Bodhisattvas or enlightened Buddhas. In the same way, when we see the moon, we’re drawn to its light.
Again, this is just my own interpretation, but that’s how I read Tue Trung’s excellent poem.
P.S. Post inspired by an excellent post at the Singaporean Humanist. Sino-Korean-Vietnamese Buddhism is still under-appreciated here in the West, so it’s good to get the word out.
* – Tue Trung, in addition to being a famous poet and Buddhist, was the older brother of the famous Trần Dynasty general, Trần Hưng Đạo. His name in Vietnamese is Tuệ Trung Thượng Sỹ or “Tue Trung the Superior Person”. For pronunciation it sounds roughly like “Doay Choong Tih-ung See”. The ˜ over the “sy” makes the tone broken in Northern Dialect, so it sounds like “See-ee”, with a noticeable pause in the middle. In Central and Southern dialects, the ˜ is more smoothed out, and “trung” is pronounced more like “troong”, not “choong”.
** – Pronounced like “Tee-yen”. It’s the Vietnamese word for Zen.