The Fragrance of Light, A Journey Into Buddhist Wisdom
An excerpt from Immeasurable Life
The fundamental purpose of Pure Land Buddhism is to provide a vehicle for the spiritual needs of ordinary people who are not capable of special attainments and who find themselves burdened by the limitations and problems imposed by everyday life. It addresses itself directly to the person who is unable to do anything to fulfill the traditional requirements of practice imposed by the older Buddhist schools which are largely geared towards the observation of austerities, meditation and other requirements that are more easily pursued in a monastic context. It is the only Buddhist path for flawed, trouble and confused people who, doubtlessly, represent the great majority of humanity today.
So what is it that makes this path so accessible and how does it justify abrogating what we often considered the normal expectations of Buddhist practice? Firstly, it conveys the traditional teachings concerning reality through tangible forms that are attractive, compelling, intelligible and in conformity with the actual capacities of people in the world. This, precisely, is what has accounted for its great and enduring popularity for many centuries.
As we have seen earlier in this work, the highest reality in Buddhism is often depicted in negative terms. That is to say, we read that it is formless, intangible, empty and beyond words. However, it is very difficult-impossible for most in fact- to come to terms with this way of viewing it even if, intellectually, we may understand why such a reality needs to possess attributes largely based on negation. Nevertheless, Buddhism teaches that there is not only a “wisdom” dimension at the heart of all things but also one of “compassion.” The latter aspect has vital implications for how it becomes disclosed to us.
The passages we encountered earlier in this work did not just focus on the ineffable and transcendent features of this reality. They also tell us that it is the highest good, complete happiness and supreme enlightenment. As it is also intelligent, such a positive spiritual force must seek to reach out to those who are not enlightened, in a way that its blessings can readily be made known. This is its compassionate response to the needs of our benighted condition, full of affliction, contradictions and tribulation.
Therefore, what we find in the Pure Land sutras is a portrayal of ultimate reality clothed in forms that express its compassion in the most direct and vivid manner. We are told about Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitābha) and Immeasurable Life (Amitāyus), who makes a “Primal Vow” to take, to his Pure Land adorned with the utmost bliss (Sukhāvatī), anyone who calls his Name. We also read about the extraordinary features of that realm (for example, trees made of jewels, ponds filled with gem stones and wondrous light-emitting lotuses, celestial music constantly playing, beautiful flowers descending from the sky, and birds communicating the Buddha’s teachings and melodious song). Some are taken aback by these accounts, which strengthen as merely poetic and difficult to accept as anything other than stories concocted by enthusiastic writers simply projecting their own spiritual fantasies.
This might seem an understandable response at first glance, but it fails to comprehend the deeper significance of these descriptions. Given the prominence of compassion in Pure Land Buddhism, especially in light of the degraded state of humanity in the present age, it is paramount that it be conveyed to ordinary people in a way that is easily understood and made compelling for them. Therefore, this compassion takes the initiative towards us making itself known in the form of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land-it is the highest and most exalted level of personification that the ultimate reality, or Dharma-Body, can assume. Seeing as it has had to adopt an appearance in order to communicate what is, “Light” and “Life” are the most perfect expression of what Amida represents, whose name means “Infinite.” Considered in this way, Amida is perfectly real in the sense that the presence, wisdom and compassion inherent in Enlightenment itself are also very real and, therefore, capable of being known and experienced by us in this life.
To be continued.
The Fragrance of Light, A Journey Into Buddhist Wisdom Compiled and edited by John Paraskevopoulos. Sophia Perennis, an imprint of Angelico Press. www.@angelicopress.com