By Daniel Scharpenburg
The best thing about Buddhism is also the thing that makes it confusing—it’s an evolving culture of awakening.
The most unique thing about Buddhism is that it is more changeable than any other religious (whatever that means) belief system. And that makes it wildly diverse.
I’ve noticed a big argument recently. It’s not new. It’s an argument that’s been around for a long time. There was this quote attributed to the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that said that Buddhism isn’t a religion, and because it isn’t a religion, people should feel free to practice whatever religion they want and also practice Buddhism.
I think that’s lovely. I don’t want people who are Christian or Pagan or any other religion to think they can’t practice Buddhism.
The thought of telling someone that they aren’t allowed to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha because of some other beliefs they have is not something I like. I want to build bridges, not tear them down.
That being said, it occurred to me that “Is Buddhism a Religion?” could be a whole series.
Today I am writing about the controversy. There were some people who scoffed at the entire question, people who said things like, “Of course it’s not a religion!”
And I want to address that today.
I’m not talking about things that are a little blurry. In Vajrayana temples there are bows, supplications, and prayers to spirits (but not god). And the Dalai Lama, along with hundreds of other teachers, are said to be reincarnations of famous teachers from the past. I’ve heard people bend over backwards (intellectually, not literally) to say these things are metaphors and the spirits and things aren’t real. I know Vajrayana Buddhist teachers who are very skeptical of the idea that spirits are real.
And then there are Pure Land Buddhists, also called Amidists.
We don’t talk about Pure Land Buddhism much because it’s barely come to the West, although, there are Pure Land temples in immigrant communities in some parts of the country (immigrant Buddhism is another thing we rarely talk about). There’s an organization called Buddhist Churches of America that is Pure Land for westerners, but it’s not all over the country. I think it’s only in a handful of places on the West Coast.
But in eastern countries Pure Land is huge. Those of us in the West think of it as a small, minor sect because here that’s what it is. In the East it’s as big as Zen. There are a whole lot more Amidists than there are Vajrayana and Theravada Buddhists. There are a lot of Pure Land Buddhists in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and other places. And in many of these countries there are households that practice Zen and Pure Land at the same time (you know, just in case) or Tendai and Pure Land at the same time.
There are several sects of Pure Land Buddhism: Jodo Shu, Jodo Shinshu, BCA (Buddhist Churches of America). When people say with confidence that Buddhism is not a religion, I think they’re ignoring Pure Land. Imagine if someone ignored Catholicism and said, “Christians don’t believe in Popes.”
That’s the same idea we’re talking about here.
Pure Land Buddhism is centered on a being called Amitabha Buddha. The historical Buddha really has a secondary, much smaller role and that’s probably what really sets Amidism apart. There are those that say it’s not even Buddhism.
You’ve definitely seen pictures of Amitabha Buddha before, you might just not have known it. His appearance is almost indistinguishable from Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. The main difference is his hands are almost always in the cosmic mudra, making a bowl with the two thumbs touching. The way we hold our hands in the Zen tradition is the way he holds his hands. The Great Buddha of Kamakura, that famous statue in Japan, is a statue of Amitabha Buddha.
Pure Land Buddhism has its roots in the Bodhisattva Path, just like most Mahayana traditions. There is a set of texts called the Pure Land Sutras and the story goes that these were discovered by Nagarjuna, the same legendary figure who discovered the texts that are the basis for the Zen, Huayan and Tendai traditions. That was the way things were back then. The founders of most of the branches of Buddhism had a favorite sutra and based their teachings on it. Zen came from the Lankavatara Sutra. Huayan Buddhism came from the Avatamsaka Sutra.
Some principal sutras in the Pure Land tradition include the creatively named “Amitabha Sutra” and the awesomely named “Infinite Life Sutra.”
Now, try to stay with me here. It’s going to get really weird.
It could be argued that Amitabha became a god. In the same way that some Christians say that all you need for salvation is belief in Christ, some Amidists say that all you need for enlightenment is belief in Amitabha.
The simple version of the story goes like this. Amitabha was a monk on the Bodhisattva Path. He was so wise and virtuous that at the time of death he was able to create something called the Western Paradise. If you engage in Pure Land practices (which aren’t difficult) then at the time of your death you will be reborn in the Western Paradise too. In the Western Paradise, not only can you receive teachings from Amitabha, but also there is no suffering and the dharma is everywhere. The people preach the dharma, the animals, trees, and even rocks preach the dharma. So, at the time of your death in the pure land, enlightenment is assured.
Now, outside of the Pure Land sects, the Pure Land Sutras are still studied, but it’s thought to be metaphorical. We are in the Pure Land already if we think in terms of relating to our Buddha nature. Ikkyu said, “Listen to the songs of the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon.”
If you’re in a dharmic state of mind, you can see the dharma in anything.
The Pure Land practices are threefold.
1. Reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.
2. Chanting the Dharani of the Pure Land (essentially singing a mantra)
3. Visualizing Amitabha Buddha.
That’s it. What’s missing here?
Meditation. Pure Land Buddhists do not meditate. The story is that Amitabha saw how much people struggled with meditation and he wanted to create a simpler path to enlightenment. So he did.
So, just by wading into Pure Land Buddhism a little, it begs the question. Is Pure Land Buddhism a religion? If it is, should we not reject the idea of Buddhism being a religion? And what about secular buddhists?
Can it be sometimes a religion, yet not for some people? I don’t know.
What do you think?
Editor: Dana Gornall