Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

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doublerepukken
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Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by doublerepukken » Wed Sep 06, 2017 6:29 pm

Hello All,

I had a couple questions regarding the Pure Land practice as I just got back into it. I used to recite Amida's name without really much thought because it always helped calm me down, but now that I'm getting more into Buddhism I've been reading more about the Pure Land tradition.

1) Is the Pure Land considered to be a real place after death or is it more of Amida being your own inner-light that you're bringing out through
the practice? Does it matter?

2) If I rely wholly on Amida's other-power, I don't have to follow precepts anymore like not eating meat and right action? Seems kind of like a cop-out lol.

3) Pure Land practice seems to calm me down and make me feel a lot better, but how do I know this is actually do to Amida's grace and not just the physical effects of regular breathing in a calm environment? I feel like I could just as easily say "Michael Jackson" and I would get the same effect.

4) If I follow the Pure Land path, is there literally no hope of reaching awakening in this life?

Sorry if these questions are misguided or naive lol, and I appreciate you all taking the time to help me.

Thank you! :yinyang:

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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by Admin_PC » Wed Sep 06, 2017 7:06 pm

doublerepukken wrote:1) Is the Pure Land considered to be a real place after death or is it more of Amida being your own inner-light that you're bringing out through the practice?
Both. Neither. In Mahayana nothing's substantially real. Furthermore, part and parcel of the second interpretation is the idea that all experiences are shaped by mind, including how one interacts with the world. That's what they mean by "when the mind is pure, the land is pure". It's no minor thing to have a completely purified mind, in fact it's quite a drastic shift in perception and most people really aren't capable of it. That's why for most, the Buddhafield of Amitabha is an appropriate destination.
doublerepukken wrote:Does it matter?
Only if one's interpretation of the second of those two involves trying to rule out the possibility of the first. Saying there is no Buddha and there is no Pure Land; while considering other things to be real, is one of the few provisions left out of the grasp of the 18th Vow. In the case of Pure Land doctrines, the former would be considered the primary interpretation, not the latter.
doublerepukken wrote:2) If I rely wholly on Amida's other-power, I don't have to follow precepts anymore like not eating meat and right action? Seems kind of like a cop-out lol.
You're touching on perhaps the most often-misunderstood doctrine of Pure Land Buddhism. The 18th Vow is about being accepted just as you are ("Sonomama de" - "just like that"). That doesn't mean you go out and do bad stuff on purpose. It means if the best you can do is still not good enough, don't worry - you're still deserving of compassion. Arguably, it's more about not blowing smoke up your own butt by thinking doing good deeds makes you a better person, more deserving of compassion.
doublerepukken wrote:3) Pure Land practice seems to calm me down and make me feel a lot better, but how do I know this is actually do to Amida's grace and not just the physical effects of regular breathing in a calm environment? I feel like I could just as easily say "Michael Jackson" and I would get the same effect.
Michael Jackson is/was definitely not a Buddha. So no, it would not be the same effect. "Thinking of a Buddha" aka "Buddha anusmirti" aka "Buddha anussati" aka "Nembutsu" aka "Nianfo" in its original sense, is an important practice of all Buddhist traditions. Mind does not recognize itself - our minds especially, because they are clouded by afflictions. Buddhas have achieved Supreme Perfect Awakening and have perfected minds. By focusing on one with a perfected mind, our minds gradually recognize their true nature. Recognizing the true nature of mind is awakening.

Not sure what you mean by "grace." Amida's "grace" merely refers to the boundless compassion of all Buddhas towards sentient beings and the idea that through the 18th Vow, Nembutsu practitioners are never abandoned to fall into "states of woe" (the 3 lower levels of rebirth) and will continue towards Buddhahood without retrogression. Amida's probably not going to give you a pony for Christmas or help you win the lotto if that's the type of "grace" you're referring to.

As far as regular breathing in a calm environment, isn't that all most seated meditation is?
doublerepukken wrote:4) If I follow the Pure Land path, is there literally no hope of reaching awakening in this life?
In the Buddha's time and afterwards, people awakened upon hearing a few words, looking at a flower, or hearing a teacup shatter. So no, it is not impossible. Most of us have no idea whether or not we encountered or practiced Buddha Dharma in previous lifetimes. I think more important is the question of whether or not you think you can achieve awakening in this life without the Pure Land path. The Pure Land path requires a level of brutal self honesty and self awareness that most (in the west at least) are just not capable of. If you still have fantasies of going up into the mountains, meditating for 40 days, and coming down a Buddha - it may not be the right path for you. If you look at the bad you've done and realized that it was the best you could do, or if you look at the good you've done and realized that you ultimately did it for selfish reasons - then maybe it's appropriate.
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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by doublerepukken » Wed Sep 06, 2017 9:14 pm

Thanks for your insightful replies admin. Deep down I think that I am a very selfish person, and I think pure land might be right for me for this reason. The whole thing though about being 'saved' etc feels to me much like the religious tradition I was running from (evangelical Christianity), I'm sure this is common though for people new to the path. I have a hard time believing in the Pure Land.

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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by shaunc » Wed Sep 06, 2017 11:33 pm

If I may add to your question regarding the precepts. You're right in saying that it's not necessary to practice the precepts to be saved by Amida. But I choose to follow them as best I can for 2 reasons, the first isn't really necessary but it's my way of showing thanks and gratitude to Amida, the 2nd is that it makes my life right here and right now a lot easier and less complicated to live.
Good luck and best wishes.
Namu Amida Butsu.
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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by Admin_PC » Thu Sep 07, 2017 12:18 am

I think it's fine to look at the doctrines one way, while you build confidence to look at it another way. If it's not too time consuming, reading, reciting, and studying the Pure Land sutras can help. For starters, if the 15 second elevator pitch narrative ("say some words and be saved") isn't doing it for you, at the very least they can give you something else to dive into to keep your interest.

Breakdown of the sutras:
Half of what I wrote above can be gleaned from Chapter 2 of the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra - probably the only sutra I know of that uses the idea of dreaming about prostitutes to teach a Buddhist lesson. My personal favorite is the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra, it's kind of like a cheat sheet with bullet points on the 37 limbs of Awakening and a lot of fundamental points of Buddhism. As you dive into the topics it covers you learn a lot about the core of Buddhism. The Larger Sukhavati Sutra expounds on a lot of the bullet points in the Shorter Sutra, it contains the vows of Amida, and a lot of other teachings as well. The Visualization Sutra is another one of my favorites - it's really deep and profound as you dig into it.

A note about Mahayana sutras:
They tend to use flowery language and mind-blowing imagery to convey profound truths. They're not meant to be read once or twice. It's reading them over and over that helps you peel away the onion and figure them out. They're like a movie that suddenly takes on whole new meaning with repeated viewings as you unlock more of what's going on.

A final note:
There are some very fundamental differences between Pure Land and Christianity. The first and foremost is that in Pure Land being "saved" isn't the end of the story. Once "saved", the next step is paying it forward and helping others. "Anybody can go to the Pure Land, but nobody stays there" is a famous quote. It's a college or university where you take what you've learned and go out to help others - not a final resting place.

The next fundamental difference is that there's no wrath of Amida. We don't have to worry about him smiting us. Amida doesn't control our circumstances. We don't have to beg his forgiveness. Amida's not a creator. He didn't make you. You don't really owe him anything out of the gate. The relationship with him isn't built on fear and subservience. He's a teacher. He provides a place to be educated without distraction. He teaches us how to become teachers ourselves, exactly like him, creating Pure Lands of our own.

Another fundamental difference is the very nature of the way things are. In Christianity, souls are created & destroyed as per God's discretion. Everything's created by God and can be destroyed by God. Followers can never be God. Buddhism's completely different. Emptiness of self rules out the possibility of us being permanent, fixed, substantial entities. Emptiness of phenomena rules out the possibility of anything anyone else being a permanent, fixed, substantial entity either. Nothing created, nothing destroyed, everything comes about due to causes & conditions and is dependent upon them. Our minds fashion all of our experiences and they too are empty. The potential to realize this experientially is the potential to become a Buddha. Followers of Mahayana are encouraged to become Buddhas. In fact, the whole mechanism of Pure Land is based on this potential.
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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by shaunc » Thu Sep 07, 2017 1:11 am

:namaste:

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Re: Questions regarding Pure Land (beginner)

Post by Monlam Tharchin » Thu Sep 07, 2017 7:13 pm

PC's answers are great and thorough, as usual! :) I'll add a few things from my perspective. I follow the Jodo-Shu school.
doublerepukken wrote:1) Is the Pure Land considered to be a real place after death or is it more of Amida being your own inner-light that you're bringing out through
the practice?
Buddhism in general does not teach annihilation at death. "Real" in the sense of a deli on the corner, i.e. this physical realm? No, once the body comes apart, where could it go? To call the physical "real" is also something of a misnomer. "Real" in the sense of experienced? Yes, absolutely. According to many Pure Land schools, the Pure Land is experienced after bodily death, while Amitabha can be experienced to some extent while still alive. See the many everyday benefits enjoyed by nembutsu practitioners, as described in the Benefits thread.

Regarding inner-light or our buddha-nature, it's possible to become calmer, more patient, grateful, happier and so on through any Buddhist practice, including nembutsu. But enlightenment in Buddhist terms is something very specific called anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. It is nothing short of the complete freedom from every way we make ourselves and others suffer, down to the subtle ignorance which caused us to be born here.

I recommend reading more about anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. It might clarify why a core teaching of Shan-tao's lineage is our inability to "rescue" ourselves or completely remove obscurations of an inner light without some form of help.
Does it matter?
It does and it doesn't. On the one hand, our views guide our practice. How can you end up in Paris if you don't think it exists or have no idea how to get there, or receive instructions for how to get there but decide to use your own? That is why study and asking questions and reading books are so helpful, to help us not only benefit while alive but to set ourselves on the path towards awakening in the future.

On the other hand, at some point our practice must be greater than our thoughts and feelings, which are so unpredictable and unreliable. That is, we can't constantly be picking it up and putting down our practice just because we feel doubtful for a while or find a question we can't yet answer. At that point, that's following thoughts and feelings, not our practice.

At the end of the day, while experiencing the endless games of doubt/faith, foolishness/wisdom, we have to actually do the practice. And that's nembutsu. That's why the kernel of Honen's teaching is "just say nembutsu and be saved by Amida."
2) If I rely wholly on Amida's other-power, I don't have to follow precepts anymore like not eating meat and right action? Seems kind of like a cop-out lol.
That would be a cop-out. PC's answer was great.
3) Pure Land practice seems to calm me down and make me feel a lot better, but how do I know this is actually do to Amida's grace and not just the physical effects of regular breathing in a calm environment? I feel like I could just as easily say "Michael Jackson" and I would get the same effect.
I have a document where I gather some helpful quotes and answers to frequent doubts I come up with. This is exactly one of them. Here is my own answer. I hope it helps you too:
Question – Isn't Amitabha just another mental object like any other? If I thought “red apple” thousands of times a day, wouldn't I see a red apple in my mind?

Answer – Amitabha can function as a mental object. When he does, the mind turns from the unwholesome to the wholesome, a reminder of the positive qualities of a buddha: unconditional compassion (the Vows are specific examples), unimaginable effort for others, putting an end to myriad sufferings. He is also easy to think of and brings to mind golden light which dispels depression and anger. As far as “just another” mental object goes, Amitabha is an excellent one.

Aside from being a mental object, however, Amitabha is also a buddha, an embodiment of Dharmakaya. This means in the throes of misery, he can and does appear unimpeded in the mind, in stark contrast to the prevailing thought or emotion. This is an unparalleled benefit, especially for beings overcome by suffering, e.g. at the moment of death. Not only this, but taking refuge in the Dharmakaya through the specific, conceivable form of Amitabha is in fact taking refuge in the luminous aware nature of the mind, which remains clouded for beings in samsara. This nature is unstained, unbeholden, unrestricted by phenomena that come and go. The spontaneous freedom with which nembutsu appears in contrast to “heavy” suffering shows that the true refuge, the “True North” is not in objects of mind but in Amitabha, who simultaneously appears as separate yet not separate from us.

At all levels, one benefits from a relationship with Amitabha: as a skillful mental object; as his Sambhogakaya revealing the peace, freedom, and “pure” enjoyments of a mind unbound by becoming (e.g. in the 33rd Vow); and as his Dharmakaya, inseparable in nature from our own buddha-nature, meaning to see Amitabha in his Pure Land is to be assured of awakening.

Finally, even if we fail in other practices, unable to realize the teachings, caught offguard by a sudden death, we are still born in Pure Land through Amitahba's help.
So Amitabha being a "symbol" is only useful to the extent that you realize how much of your life is actually symbolic: your appearance, your ideas, your relationships, your body, your friends, etc. These are phenomena imputed with a reality or an enduring story they do not have. The risk of a symbolic Amitabha is to equate "symbolic" with "imagined/false" while still being controlled by pain, hopes and fears, death and birth. That merely removes importance from Amitabha while giving it to all our other stories. It would be like abandoning the raft before you've crossed the river, to use an old cliché.

You may also find some clarification in this section of Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith. The specific question "the Saha World being illusory, so is the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Why not enter directly into the True Original Mind instead of seeking rebirth in an illusory world?" may help clarify the interplay of form and emptiness as it relates to Pure Land practice. That whole section (and book!) are a good read too.
4) If I follow the Pure Land path, is there literally no hope of reaching awakening in this life?
I think full and complete awakening is sometimes understated in what it entails and how long the timeline is traditionally presented. The principle benefit of the Pure Land is that, rather than progressing a little, dying, being reborn far from the Dharma, taking eons to encounter it again, practicing a little, dying, falling back... on and on for who knows how long, we go directly to the Pure Land where there is no retrogression, i.e. sliding back in practice. In fact, it's described as an ideal environment, both in terms of teachers (Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, Mahasthamaprapta), sangha (countless sages and bodhisattvas), and environment (no Three Evil Realms, no bodily decay, good deeds are easy to perform, etc.)

So it's not so much a matter of giving up hope about ourselves, but in coming to honest terms with the extent of the obstacles we face: our confusion, our pervasive suffering, the difficulty of realizing the Buddhist path, yet our urgent need to realizing that path to be free. After all, how many times have we been reborn until now, and we still struggle with anger, doubt, sadness?

The most compassionate thing to do is to free this poor being, myself, one among many, from pain as quickly and reliably as possible. And for me, that means birth in the Pure Land.
Sorry if these questions are misguided or naive lol, and I appreciate you all taking the time to help me.
Not in the slightest :) This forum is kind of slow sometimes, so it's always nice to meet new people when they wander in! Don't be shy in posting your most basic or most complex questions. You can rest assured someone has had the same question or doubt before.

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