The Pure Land Buffet

Lately, another interesting book I have been reading is a biography of 13th century Buddhist monk, Myōe Kōben, and his advocacy of an esoteric practice called the the Mantra of Light, titled Shingon Refractions. Similar to the book I have been reading about Jōkei, a thirteenth century contemporary of Myōe, this is about another oft-neglected figure who also helped to revive traditional Buddhist institutions while taking to task the new Pure Land movement. But the book covers the latter subject only very briefly and talks more about Myoe’s approach to Buddhism and the Mantra of Light, a Shingon Buddhist practice, on his own terms, just as the Jokei book talk about Jokei on his own terms.

One of the interesting bits I wanted to pass along from the book was this quotation from the famous Japanese Buddhist text, the Ōjōyōshū, written centuries before by the famous Tendai Buddhist monk, Genshin, and a seminal text on Pure Land Buddhism. Trouble is, no one has done a comprehensive translation of the text in English as far as I can tell. But when I occasionally find quotations, I try to put online as much as I can, including this one:

One who seeks the Land of Bliss does not necessarily focus on the nembutsu. Each should abide in the realm of pleasurable ease by illuminating one of the other practices in a sustained manner. For example, there are practices of such dhāraṇīs as the Zuigu (Following Desire), Sonshō (Victorious), and [the Mantra of] Light of the Unfailing Rope Snare. By receiving, maintaining, invoking, and intoning them, all of which are within the various Mahayana teachings, one may attain birth in [Amida's] Land of Bliss.

As stated previously, recently, I’ve developed some disagreements1 with the exclusive-nembutsu practice advocated by Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. My contention is that the orthodox interpretation by Japanese Pure Land Buddhism leads to a limited, sectarian view of Buddhism, while ignoring so many other treasures it offers. The irony is that Genshin mentioned above is considered one of the patriarchs of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, and yet he advocates a more holistic approach.2 Even in the Pure Land Buddhist texts themselves, it frequently advocates a more comprehensive approach where one puts their whole being into it: moral conduct, prayer (e.g. sutras, nembutsu, etc), and study of the dharma.

What I find interesting about Genshin’s quote above is that he advocates other recitations alongside the nembutsu, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, but keeps it open-ended so people can use what works, or what fits their situation. The Mantra of Light, called the Mantra of Light of Unfailing Rope Snare here, is just one of many options, and as the book stated later, Myōe was somewhat unusual in teaching that it was in fact the best way (i.e. over the nembutsu). But as the book points out, Myōe was a firm believer in the Buddhist notions of expedient means and emptiness, and felt that that particular mantra fit his era and society best, without falling into an absolutist mind-set.

Pure Land Buddhism, to me, seems to work best when you think of it as a buffet. You can stick with one entreé, and it will satisfy hunger, but you’re missing out on the experience. Instead, one has a more rich experience when you try many entrees and see what works, while the goal and end-result will be the same. Everyone will have different tastes, but after trying a few entreé one settles down into a pattern that fits them, and chows down. For us Pure Landers of all stripes, the goal is rebirth in the Pure Land and encountering Amitabha Buddha’s light (wisdom and compassion), and ultimately Enlightenment. How we strive toward that goal shouldn’t run against any sense of orthodoxy or doctrinal hindrances, so long as it is well-rooted in basic Buddhist and Mahayana teachings. The Buddhist texts tend to speak for themselves rather well, I think. :)

So, enjoy that buffet, however much or little you prefer. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strive endlessly to save and assist all beings, so it is up to us to determine how to make the most of these excellent teachings and practices. Nothing short of the Pure Land and Enlightenment awaits. :)

P.S. I’ll dig up some more Ojoyoshu quotations later. I have them bookmarked elsewhere, but need time to sit down and parse things out.

P.P.S. Looks like this post somehow got sent out too early. Apologies to anyone looking for it.

1 Respectful disagreements ableit. A lot of wonderful people I know in that community deserve credit for their sincerity in putting the Dharma to practice. :)

2 Thanks to reader “Rory” for the “holistic” description.

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6 Comments on “The Pure Land Buffet”

  1. Kyōshin says:

    Hi Doug, At the end of the day surely Myōe Kōben and Jōkei, though advocating a wider range of practices than the senju-nembutsu folk, surely still did so within a defined teaching framework of teacher-student transmission? As such they or their colleagues would have monitored the progress of their fellow practicers so that they only ‘ate’, to use your analogy, what was appropriate for them within the context of their practice at a given time. If so that’s rather different than exhorting people to “enjoy that buffet, however much or little you prefer” isn’t it?

    Best wishes.

  2. rory says:

    Kyoshin; in those days, there were no sects, simply study circles. If you wanted to study with Myoe, yes he was your sensei & you the disciple, but you could {and this was the norm study with other teacher}s. So you could learn different philosophies; Kegon, Hosso, etc various sutras, dharanis, methods of meditation, observing precepts.
    Instead of a buffet, I would call it ; a balanced meal.

  3. Doug says:

    Hi guys,

    Kyoushin: Jokei was a pretty eclectic fellow and records show that depending on his audience or which temple lectured at, his sermon was tailored for the appropriate “deity” or practiced, though a common theme was restoration of Shakyamuni’s central role in Buddhism and a blend of practice and faith.

    Myoe was a little different though as Rory pointed out, he was ordained in two traditions and relied on both depending in the occasion.

    I highly recommend both books if you get a chance. :-)

    Rory: to be honest, my buffet analogy is terrible and falls apart easily. I like the balanced meal idea though. Good point about the study groups though, because we tend to apply sectarianism discoourse to Japanese Buddhism and this breaks down when applied to Nara Buddhism.

  4. Stephen says:

    Yes, a balanced meal Honen enjoyed, he did travel to Shingon and the Nara Sect teachers before he took up the Nembutsu exclusively. Exclusively??? He kept the precepts, he gave the precepts, he recited the Amida Sutra everyday. His student Shoko Shonin every 4 hours (night and day) did prostrations while reciting Shan-tao’s devotion to the six hours of the day, he also recited the Amida Sutra, then he recited the Nembutsu 10,000 times (so six Amida sutra’s 60,000 Nembutsu) and he kept the precepts.
    A previous head of the Kamakura Komyo-ji wrote an excellent book called “Zazen and the Nembutsu” (sorry no English translation). I perform all sorts of esoteric ceremonies, I write bon-ji, opening the eyes, removing the spirit, purification, giving offerings to hungry ghosts and pretty much what happens in China and around the world. I transfer merit, do extended periods of prostrations, I have done Sutra copying, and we even beg (takuhatsu).
    I am lucky, I have the time, teachers and teaching: the great thing about Honen’s teachings is not the exclusiveness, but the inclusiveness, anyone can do it. But I started out with the basic stuff, cleaning. I raked gardens for years before I was taught the Nembutsu. I raked many more before I learnt how to bow properly.
    The buffet is out there, Honen enjoyed it, I enjoy it.
    Just watch out you don’t get diabetes.
    A bowl of rice is all that is needed to fill a stomach, the Nembutsu is all that is needed to get to the Pureland. A bit of flavour is nice too, just make sure your buffet is a balanced diet.
    Just some thoughts from someone who is trying to walk a thin white path…

  5. Kyōshin says:

    Rory, I didn’t make any mention of ‘sects’ nor did I say anything about whether or not people should or could study with a variety of teachers. My point was that surely some kind of guidance over what teachings and practices one should attend to is important. Personal curiosity, or emotional or aesthetic affinity aren’t in themselves reliable guides as to what will be the best path for us. As Unno points out the ‘Mantra of Light’ is an obscure practice in the West unlike in Myoe’s day. Whilst acknowledging yours and Doug’s comments, supported by Unno’s book, that Jokei and Myoe, had a somewhat different attitude to transmission than the one I cited, there was it seems a movement in which the ‘Mantra of Light’ was being widely propagated. Where is the equivalent support today? No doubt it is possible to receive initiation into the practice if you search hard enough but generally speaking I would imagine that it is not easy. This has implications. It’s not so much a buffet out there but a wilderness which contains a myriad fruit trees and bushes and in most cases we have no one to tell us whether we can eat safely from them or how we should prepare their fruits.

    I have huge respect for the ecumenical outlook that Doug and others show on this blog, and I also think it is harmful to slavishly follow tradition if it means compromising one’s own insights or instincts, but I nonetheless feel that eclecticism in practice is when pursued without any guidance is dangerous as it can easily diffuse the necessary energy and tensions of practice and give the ego-self opportunities to avoid the difficult patches of practice which, though challenging, are often the most fertile ground for development and insight.

  6. Doug says:

    Hi guys,

    Stephen: Input greatly appreciated, and you’ve brought up some interesting points: Jodo Shu seems to have evolved and changed over time since it’s inception. Perhaps you could speak on that more?

    Kyoushin: +1 on the need for structure. I totally agree. :) Here in the West, if you don’t like the church you go to, you can pick up and go down the street. Harder to do with Buddhism, so sometimes you just have to take advantage of the sanghas where you can, and if you have some variety, all the better. But within a given tradition, it’s only right to take full advantage of it.

    Cheers everyone!

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