By Ivan Latham
There is a certain misconception about Buddhism in the West which often seems to relegate it to the self-help section of the bookstore or library.
The banquet of the Dharma—the corpus of discourses and teachings given to us by the Buddha—is all too frequently reduced to a watery porridge of motivational quotes. Buddhism often finds itself grossly misrepresented and popularized by life coaches as some kind of psychological sticking-plaster to help us muddle through life. But the truth is far greater, and more ontologically far-reaching than the latest self-help bestseller riddled with Buddhist references often suggests.
There is a famous quote, erroneously ascribed to Shakyamuni Buddha, which says: “I teach nothing less than suffering, and the end of suffering.” But though the literal quote may be wrongly attributed to the Buddha, the spirit of it is absolutely on the nail. The bottom line is we are all deluded and incapable beings. We’re all suffering in the Samsaric cycle of birth, death and rebirth caused by our attachments, frustration, and ignorance (the Three Poisons).
Although in times past it was possible to escape suffering and cultivate merit through self-power practices of mindfulness and meditation, the Pure Land Buddhist tradition teaches that we now live in the third of three so-called Dharma Ages when liberation through self-power is practically impossible. For those unfamiliar with this Buddhist dispensationalism, the first Dharma Age—known as the Former Day of the Law, or the Age of Right Dharma—lasted between 500 and 1,000 following Shakyamuni Buddha’s ministry. It was a Golden Era, so to speak, when adherents of Shakyamuni’s teachings could attain enlightenment and liberation through their self-power practices of mindfulness and meditation.
The second Age—the Middle Day of the Law, or Age of Dharma Semblance—was the subsequent 500 to 1,000, when it was still possible, though increasingly harder, to put Shakyamuni’s teachings into practice. And now, we have entered the last age, the ten thousand year long Age of Dharma Decline, or Mappo. Tradition states that there are 84,000 Dharma gates, or practices, to enlightenment; these are now either closed or closing, and the purely self-powered practices that enabled those in former ages to achieve enlightenment are increasingly impotent.
So what now? If it is now virtually impossible to implement the Buddha’s teachings and put them into practice in the hope of attaining liberation, are we doomed to wander Samsara forever?
To answer this question, we will first consider the Buddhist Dhammapada, verse 44, where a question is posed:
“Who shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods? Who shall bring to perfection the well-taught path of wisdom as an expert garland-maker would his floral design?”
A good question indeed in this Age of Mappo. It is as though the hopelessness of our present age was foreseen. But verse 45 goes on, insisting, “A striver-on-the path shall overcome this earth, this realm of Yama and this sphere of men and gods. The striver-on-the-path shall bring to perfection the well-taught path of wisdom, as an expert garland-maker would his floral design.”
The Three Poisons are rife.
Craving, anger, and the root poison of ignorance are in evidence every which way. It requires effort to overcome the delusion, to live mindfully, to abide by the Five Precepts and follow the Noble Eightfold Path. But in an age when our own foolishness increasingly disables our individual efforts, the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path have thus become to us a light that reveals our inadequacy to abide by them in our own power. Our karmic debt is too great and too heavy, and all our striving is ever more in vain.
But all is not hopeless for there is a Striver; One whose efforts earned liberation not only for himself but for those like us who are bound in Samsara by an inability to balance our karmic dues. This so-called “other power” teaching will doubtless be news to those who associate Buddhism strictly with individual effort. In the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, Shakyamuni Buddha reveals how, eons ago, a king-turned-monk by the name of Dharmakara saw our plight, vowed to save us, and over vast swathes of time practiced and stored up an incalculable store of merit to cancel out and transform our own karmic afflictions. Outlining his aspiration in Forty-Eight Vows, the fundamental promise is contained in Dharmakara’s 18th or Primal Vow:
“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.”
Shakyamuni revealed that Dharmakara spent eons contemplating his Forty-Eight Vows, and then passed through myriad lifetimes engaged in practices to build up his vast Dharma store. This round of rebirth itself lasted an incalculable span of time. The lifespan of Lokeshvararaja—the Buddha to whom Dharmakara expressed his aspiration to save all beings—is said by Shakyamuni to have been forty-two kalpas in length. To put this in context, a kalpa is roughly five billion years but can be even longer. The sheer vastness of these timescales alone is staggering. It defies our imagination to even grasp their extent.
And then, on top of this, to try to grasp the extent of that Bodhisattva compassion that drove Dharmakara to endure the Samsaric wheel for the sake of us all. Bombus, spiritual inept individuals of blind passions that we are, we are incapable of generating sufficient merit within a trillion lifetimes to secure even our own liberation. But Dharmakara’s resolve was so great, so intense, so fueled by a compassion that is a blazing galaxy of stars beside the dim embers of our own, that he refused to enter into Nirvana in order to accrue an immeasurable store of virtue wholly sufficient to cancel the karmic debts of all.
Having attained enlightenment, Dharmakara became Amida (Amitabha), the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light, and now resides in His Sambhogakaya form in His Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. All who realize their need of Amida’s other power and say the Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu) are reborn there. This message of the Larger Sutra is Amida’s symphony to all sentient beings, and the Primal Vow is its crashing finale that resounds throughout Samsara, from the pinnacle of its highest heavens to the foundations of its deepest hells.
It is not coincidental that the Larger Sutra speaks of the earth being shaken “six ways” in testimony to the Vows of Dharmakara. I believe that this signified the shaking of each of the six realms of rebirth, the crumbling of their walls and the release of their occupants for the joys of Pure Land Bliss.
We can never know just what Dharmakara endured, nor the magnitude of his task. But we can realize the boundless light that shines to all corners of all universes as a consequence of Amida’s resolution. The light that reveals our own inadequacy to save ourselves, and opens our eyes to the Pure Land Amida has prepared for us. The light that ignites the flame of sincere faith and causes us to respond with a joyful, “Namu Amida Butsu.”
Our Samsaric world can often threaten to overwhelm us with its suffering, hatred, and delusion evident every which way we look, both without and no less within. Amida’s Primal Vow offers us a peace and assurance that suffering can end, that this can be our last stop in Samsara before Ultimate Bliss and enlightenment. This promise is beautifully and succinctly summed up in the following verse from Pure Land text, the Tannisho:
“The moment you entrust yourself thus to the Vow, so that the mind set upon saying the nembutsu arises within you, you are immediately brought to share in the benefit of being grasped by Amida, never to be abandoned.”
May all sentient beings realize Amida Buddha’s all-embracing light and the assurance of rebirth in His Land of Bliss. Namo Amida Butsu!
“The radiant light, unhindered and inconceivable, eradicates suffering and brings realization of joy; the excellent Name, perfectly embodying all practices, eliminates obstacles and dispels doubt. This is the teaching and practice for our latter age; devote yourself solely to it.” – Master Shinran Shonin; Passages on the Pure Land Way
Ivan Latham is a writer, blogger and Pure Land Buddhist in the Shin tradition. He is also the founder and administrator of the online Sangha of Joyful Entrusting. Originally from the UK, he lives in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, with his wife, Julia, and their three children.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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