My Journey to Sukhavati
PRACTITIONER'S PROGRESS: FROM GERMANY TO THE PURE LAND
By Householder Jingde
Among the newest international practitioners welcomed into the Shandao Pure Land lineage is Householder Jingde (淨徳居士). Born and schooled in Hong Kong through secondary level, Chris Richardson had long since settled in Germany, developing a career with a top multinational company and raising a family there.
Chris was exposed early to the suffering that characterizes our Saha world, during his mother's prolonged, losing struggle with cancer. After seeking and failing to find answers in other major religions, he came upon Buddhism and became a serious practitioner, starting with the Theravada tradition and eventually settling on a Tibetan path.
In the account below, Jingde traces his decades-long encounter with the Dharma -- and the karmic circumstances that led him eventually to adopt the Pure Land tradition of Master Shandao as his personal practice.
In the process, Jingde incidentally became the "triggering karma" for the ongoing English-translation project of our lineage. While discussing Pure Land Buddhism in 2010, he asked for recommendations of some "good reading materials" in English on the thought of Master Shandao. We found none. The thought then occurred that perhaps we should start helping make Shandao's authoritative teachings better known to international audiences, by doing English translations. With the approval and support of the lineage's senior masters, the project began shortly thereafter.
-- The Editorial Team
As a small child, I was scared of the dark and could not sleep. Only when my Mother’s Guanyin statue was placed near my bed was I able to fall asleep. I felt protected by Guanyin, although at that time I neither knew that she was Guanyin nor that she was a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
My childhood and youth in Hong Kong were overshadowed by my Mother’s battle with cancer. It cast a dark cloud over our whole family. One question preyed on my mind: “Why, why my mother?” I did not dare ask the adults for an answer.
The years went by. I suppressed these feelings of fear, sadness and powerlessness. After completing secondary school in Hong Kong, I left for the United Kingdom in 1970 for further studies. In 1974 my Mother died. I was relieved that she no longer had to suffer pain, but I felt the loss deeply. I was 23 years old and her passing was my first direct experience of death. I sought relief in worldly pleasures which offered no release from my suffering.
Towards the end of the 1970s, I decided to look for answers in the world religions. I read books on different types of Christianity. I read materials on Judaism and Islam. They offered no answers. I became angered by this unfeeling creator, who leaves us to suffer! My readings led me to Buddhism. I believe it was a book by Alan Watts, titled The Way of Zen, which opened my eyes. I had found the answer to “why” in the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is dukkha (suffering). The other three Noble Truths encouraged and inspired me. I tried to practice meditation from Watt’s book. I wanted to learn more about the Dharma and read Nyanatiloka’s Word of the Buddha, which is a text from the Theravada tradition. I practiced meditating on the breath for a couple of years. This had a calming effect on my mind, but I could not see how this would lead to enlightenment. From Theravada, I moved on to the Mahayana. I found the aspiration of achieving Bodhisattvahood very inspiring.
By 1980, I had relocated to Germany. I could not find much information on Buddhist groups. There were some practitioners of Theravada from groups founded in the 1920s. I could find nothing on Mahayana Buddhism. I read Lama Govinda’s book, The Way of the White Clouds, and found his portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism attractive. Inspired by this book, I wrote a letter to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in India. I asked them if they knew of any Dharma groups in Germany. They sent me two addresses. I wrote to both, but only received a reply from the Aryatara Institute, founded by students of Lama Yeshe.
I attended teachings by Tibetan masters hosted by this group. I will never forget one occasion. It was during a teaching given by Geshe Jampa Lodrö, who was then living and teaching in Switzerland. It was on the Eight Worldly Dharmas (preoccupations). Towards the end of the lessons, I posed a question in my mind: “Do I have to give up everything in order to practice the Dharma?” A few minutes later, Geshe’s translator spoke the following words, “To practice the Dharma, one has to change one’s attitudes to the Eight Worldly Dharmas.” A door opened in my mind and I knew that my way was to follow the Buddha. I took refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
In the following years, I was at first very active in our local Dharma group. Tibetan Buddhism gained popularity in Germany and I believe that His Holiness The Dalai Lama was encouraging Dharma masters to relocate to Europe to teach eager students. A few years on, I and a few of my Dharma friends attended a lecture given by Dagyab Rinpoche. His talk was on Tibetan Astrology, but many of us in the group felt a strong karmic bond with him. We asked him to accept us as his students. This Dharma group is still flourishing.
I threw myself into learning Buddhist philosophy -- subjects such as sunyata (“emptiness”) and mental factors. I took an empowerment to meditate on Avalokitesvara as I felt a karmic affinity with this Bodhisattva. The years went by and by then I had become a householder with a young family. I had less time to attend teachings but continued to read and meditate. This continued for about 20 years, during which time I experienced a few situations where I wanted to help some people but found that I was powerless to do so. I never knew what to do or say. I also found that I could not understand many concepts of Buddhist philosophy. Books like Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) only confused me. I tried to follow the logic of the Tibetan Gelug school’s Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka (中觀派) without success. I was confused by all this theory. My meditation practice was not progressing as I had hoped. Visualization is a practice much used in Tibetan Buddhism. I tried, but I had no success, at it. I did not believe that this practice would lead me to enlightenment. I did not want to spend kotis of kalpas reincarnating in this realm of suffering.
In 2004, I visited Hong Kong after an absence of many decades. Over the years, I had occasionally Googled the names of some of my friends from my youth in Hong Kong. I was lucky and found the email address of Householder Jingtu (Tom Polin). He was searching for his own spiritual path. We talked about Buddhism and sutras, which play an important role in Chinese Buddhism. In the ensuing years, I read parts of the Avatamsaka and Lotus sutras.
Around 2006, I had an inspiring dream. I was in a grove with trees bearing lapis lazuli leaves. There was a multitude of people gathered there and in the distance, there was a bright light pervading the whole area. I knew that this was the Buddha. Looking around the multitude, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize my dear friend, Householder Jingtu. What I did not realize was who this Buddha was! Since I had been reading the Avatamsaka Sutra, I assumed it was Vairocana Buddha. It was only years later that I learned that Amitabha means “Infinite Light.” The Buddha in my dream could only have been Amitabha Buddha.
Despite my efforts at sutra reading, I still felt lost and hopeless. I could see no chance of my ever achieving enlightenment. The chances of a rebirth as a human is very rare and precious, so there was no time to lose in finding an effective practice. In 2013, a friend suggested that I read Taitetsu Unno’s River of Fire, River of Water. On page 43, I came upon this passage: “Finally, when one’s religious practice, no matter how committed and dedicated, becomes ineffectual and unproductive, self-power has reached a dead end. It is at this time that the self is opened up to the working of Other Power that is all-pervasive and all-sustaining.” I realized that I had reached this point. From Unno’s book, I also learned about self-power and other-power.
By then Householder Jingtu had found his way to the pristine Pure Land lineage of Master Shandao and I contacted him for more information. My first “contact” was reading the translation of a talk by Master Huijing -- The Pristine Pure Land School. This discourse was an eye-opener for me. For the first time, I read about a Buddha who had created a Pure Land (Sukhavati) for sentient beings. All one had to do was to have faith and to practice the nianfo (recitation of Amitabha's name)! What could be simpler! My first reaction was disbelief. The second was a question: “If the method is so simple and efficacious, why doesn’t everyone practice pristine Pure Land?” (I later found out that the Japanese Shin schools, which have certain similarities with the Shandao lineage, have a large following.)
The next discourse I read was What Kind of Buddha Is Amitabha? In this talk, Master Huijing also spoke about the Easy Path. I next read the Infinite Life Sutra; I wanted to “check” the primary source. Japanese scholar Hisao Inagaki translated the relevant passage as “think of me even ten times.” In a footnote, he mentioned the traditional Chinese and Japanese reading, which is “call my name even ten times.” I compared this with Luis Gomez’s translation -- “for ten moments of thought.” Scholars may debate the issue but for a layman like me, the nianfo is a practical method of thinking about Amitabha Buddha. Still, I was hesitant. In hindsight, I am convinced that self-power methods can provide fuel for the ego.
One day I mentally pictured myself standing at the edge of a cliff, which symbolized everything that was before. I was scared. Reciting Amitabha’s name, I threw myself off this mental cliff -- and at the same instant I was free. I felt as if Amitabha Buddha had caught me in mid-air and gently carried me to the ground. It was a liberating moment! The hardest part of the Easy Path is to abandon the egoism of self-power! From then on, I continued reading the translations of Master Huijing’s teachings. I joined the Facebook discussion group, “Pure Land Buddhism: The Shandao Lineage.”
I felt a great wish to take refuge in the Shandao lineage, as it has given me new perspectives and direction. I contacted Householder Jingtu about this. I did not have any expectations of taking refuge with Master Huijing, with whom I believe I have a karmic connection. After all, reading his teachings has taken me to the thought of Master Shandao. I was very fortunate to be accepted by Master Huijing. He gave me the Dharma name of Jingde. The “de” (徳) part of my name is the same as the “de” in the Chinese name for Germany (Deguo). This I have taken as my mission -- to make the Shandao Pure Land tradition available to German-speakers. My first step was to create a German-language group on Facebook called “Amitabha Buddhismus -- die Shandao Überlieferung.” I also plan to translate the teachings of Master Huijing into German.
Before returning to Germany earlier this month, I was able to meet with members of our Pure Land sanghas in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as listen to Macau’s Master Foming speak. Their hospitality and dedication were touching and inspiring, capping an unforgettable chapter in my spiritual search.
My journey to the Western Pure Land has begun. I look forward to meeting you there!
Hong Kong and Germany
- Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
- Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
- Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
- Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime
The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings