Returning Home: A Pilgrim’s Journey to the Land of Bliss
By Householder Jingxing
My altar to Amitabha Buddha
My Buddhist journey began with an experience in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., when I was 15 years old. Having been given a day pass to the Smithsonian Museums by my parents, I wandered into the Freer completely by accident. No sooner was I through the door than I was confronted with images, large and small, of Mahayana Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I knew nothing of Buddhism, but immediately felt drawn to the exhibit. I stayed, and spent the next couple of hours walking through the museum in a kind of trance, soaking in the energy of the place. The Buddhism of East Asia featured heavily in the collection, and I now know that this, my first encounter with the Dharma, was practically a virtual tour of the Land of Bliss. It would be many years before I again heard the name of Amitabha Buddha, but a seed had been planted. When a voice on a loudspeaker announced that the museum would be closing in ten minutes, I ran to the gift shop and spent all the money I had on books about Buddhism.
I spent the next eight years experimenting with the practice of meditation. In my early twenties, I began studying Soto Zen with a teacher. I was sincere in my efforts, and soon established a daily meditation practice. It was a heady period for me. I believed that meditation was the cure for all the world’s ills, and that I had found the here-and-now path to enlightenment. It’s perhaps not surprising that I became more than a little evangelical. I started a meditation group. I hosted Buddhist events that featured speakers on meditation. I garnered local media attention. Zen Buddhism seemed the jewel of all wisdom, and I felt that it would be wrong not to share it with the world. I even secretly harbored aspirations to become a teacher of Zen myself. But of course, the Buddha had other plans for me. Contrary to my expectations, my Dharma path would be one leading from “wisdom” to ordinariness.
I can’t remember the first time I encountered Pure Land Buddhism in my reading, but I know for certain that I was unimpressed. It was obviously a corruption of the Dharma – just another version of dying and going to heaven, a concept familiar to me from my Christian roots. No serious Buddhist would be seeking “pie in the sky.” Buddhism was about being enlightened, here and now. And who was this celestial Buddha, Amitabha? Clearly, a fabrication. I was a disciple of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and that was that.
In the midst of life’s messiness, it can be difficult to appreciate how we are being led. When I began studying Buddhism, I still hadn’t fully broken with my family’s Christian tradition. When I did spiritually separate myself from Christianity, I quite naturally retained a notion of a “higher power,” but I no longer knew what to call it. I began to call it the Mystery. As my study of Buddhism deepened, I experimented with superimposing Zen concepts such as “emptiness” onto the Mystery, but it was difficult to square this with the relational aspect I experienced with this higher force. How does one have a relationship with emptiness? Little could I guess that this Mystery did, in fact, have a name; and it would not be long before I would come to utter that name with my own lips.
It was through the teaching of a Zen master who spoke favorably of Pure Land Buddhism that I was first willing to take a closer look at the tradition. Naturally enough, it was only possible for me to view it as another form of Zen, but suddenly there was something magnetic about the name of Amitabha Buddha. (Perhaps it was the same magnetism that drew me into the Freer Gallery as a teenager?) As a student and writer of poetry, I have long had a sense for the “flavor” of words, and the name Amitabha was delicious. But more than any aesthetic consideration was the stirring in my heart that I felt when I pronounced it. I can still remember doing thought experiments in which I “pretended” to be a Pure Land devotee, just so I could say the name and feel flooded by that goodness, that luminosity. In spite of my lingering prejudice, I felt I was being seduced by a tradition that I had long disregarded as “devotional Buddhism for the masses.”
I’ve always said that once I started reciting the name, my Zen days were numbered. The attraction I felt to Amitabha and his Pure Land was palpable and deep. So palpable and deep was it that I was forced into a crisis: should I commit myself to Zen, or to Pure Land? For a while, I tried resolving the issue through a “combined” practice, but this was hardly a satisfying answer. Treating the name of Amitabha as Zen meditation undermined the very foundation of Pure Land teaching: that we are sinful, ordinary beings in desperate need of the Buddha’s rescue. So which was it? Was I a Zen student accumulating wisdom towards a future spiritual breakthrough? Or was I, in fact, a little less wise than I imagined . . .
Eventually, I knew that the only way to resolve my crisis was to investigate Pure Land Buddhism directly. It was perhaps inevitable (given its adherents’ relatively high profile) that my formal study would begin with the Jodo Shinshu tradition of Japan, a school which has long had an active presence in the West and has produced a modest body of literature in English. As is so often the case when we begin something in earnest, the openness, ease and joy I felt as a seeker who was flirting with Pure Land teaching was slowly replaced with the seriousness of a “hearer of Dharma” who was set on realizing “the mind of shinjin.” (In Jodo Shinshu, shinjinmeans “faith mind,” the indestructible, doubt-free mind of trust in Amitabha that signals settlement of birth in the Pure Land.)
From the beginning, I was a little bewildered by how the Shinshu used the concept of shinjin; it seemed to me an unnecessary crystallization of a process that should be fluid, natural and free of any kind of objectification. After all, how can faith be quantified or grasped? But I was a good student and wanted to wrestle with the teaching on its own terms. Bewilderment, however, was soon replaced by intense frustration as my doubts proliferated in the wake of my unconscious efforts to generate a mind-state impervious to doubt.
This frustration lasted several years. Without dwelling on the difficulty of this period, I can say that I went to all lengths to realize the peace of mind of settled shinjin; I even formally joined the Shinshu in the hope that making a firm commitment would catapult my mind to realization. It didn’t. It did for a brief period land me in a state resembling neurosis. I simply couldn’t understand why, after long and careful listening to the Dharma, the Buddha would not bestow on me the adamantine mind of faith. I persisted for a while longer, but eventually opted to seek the Dharma elsewhere. While I am grateful to the various Jodo Shin teachers who guided me and showed me much kindness, I finally had to conclude that, for me, Jodo Shinshu was not the promised “easy path.”
About this time I began to investigate Chinese forms of Pure Land Buddhism. Despite combing the English-speaking web, I was able to find only those schools that taught self-power forms of devotion to Amitabha. This was discouraging, for I knew I simply couldn’t make the grade: despite a number of sincere attempts, I had never made the transition to vegetarianism due to the vigorous protestations of my body; and after years of Zen practice, I knew that my mind was incapable of sustained, one-pointed concentration on anything – whether my own breath or the name of Amitabha. The entire Chinese tradition appeared to me to be a blind alley. Alas, the karma that was to facilitate a decisive turn in my spiritual pilgrimage was still ripening.
The next several years found me practicing in the tradition of Honen Shonin of Japan. The Jodo Shu has a much stronger emphasis on practice than the Jodo Shinshu does, and in the act of simply reciting Amitabha’s name for long periods of time, the whole “problem” of faith receded into the background of my mind. It’s not that I discounted faith’s importance, but more that I was getting out of my own way and allowing faith to develop naturally, nurtured by the vow and name of Amitabha.
I never formally joined the Jodo Shu, as there was no physical community within a reasonable travelling distance, nor did I feel the need to. My practice was strong, and I knew I would continue with or without fellow practitioners. Though I was keenly aware of Honen’s indebtedness to Shandao, it never occurred to me to investigate Shandao on his own terms. I associated him with the self-power forms of Chinese Pure Land I had already encountered, and assumed that Honen was a reformer who had stripped away or deemphasized most of Shandao’s self-power teachings. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but through Honen I was moving ever closer toward the taproot of the entire Pure Land tradition.
It was in mid-2013 that I first encountered the Shandao school through its English-language website. I was intrigued, but anticipated more of what I had come to expect from Chinese Pure Land: an almost impossibly high standard of adherence to the precepts, and an insistence upon Buddha-recitation samadhi. My surprise cannot be overstated when not only did Master Huijing’s discourses perfectly accord with the teachings of Honen Shonin (whose thinking I had come to revere as “the gold standard” of Pure Land Buddhism), but actually restated Honen’s teachings with a depth that I had never before encountered. I quickly devoured all the content on the website, and came away with a feeling of profound awe and reverence: the Buddha’s tenderness and care for me was deeper and more complete than I ever dared imagine! For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was getting a glimpse of what truly unconditional love might look like.
It seemed too good to be true. I began returning to the website often, looking for the fine print. There had to be some catch that would make the teaching of this school untenable for me. When I couldn’t find it, I began to correspond with Householder Jingpu and gently pester him with questions. I remember asking him about whether or not the Buddha would accept “prayers,” or transfers of merit, for worldly needs – on behalf of a sick family member, for example. (It should be noted that Jodo Shinshu proscribes all such forms of petition. Jodo Shu, as an institution, is more tolerant of it, though Honen clearly counseled against the practice.)
Jingpu responded that so long as we don’t demand a certain outcome from Amitabha (who perfectly sees when and if a person’s karma can be altered with merit), appeals for loved ones and unselfish worldly needs were fine. I was dumbfounded. Not only did Amitabha care about my postmortem existence, but also about my cares in this life! This was new . . . Or was it old? If this was something Shandao had taught, why was it lost in the later tradition? Whatever the reason, the Shandao school seemed to teach a vision of Amitabha that far surpassed in compassion all other visions of the Buddha I had previously encountered. At every turn, the teachings of the Shandao school exceeded my expectations with their wisdom and compassion. Step by cautious step, my heart was struggling to contain its joy. It wasn’t long before I knew that my deepest spiritual aspiration was to practice according to the teachings of this school.
I joined the Shandao school in October of 2014. Master Huijing compassionately bestowed on me the Dharma name Jingxing, which means “pure practice.” Since committing myself to these teachings, I have felt that my spiritual pilgrimage, while by no means over, has entered a final phase of great ease and joy – just as one traveling homeward after a long journey can finally relax upon entering the borders of his own country; he is not home yet, but he is safe. The playfulness and delight I first felt when flirting with the Pure Land teaching has also returned; I can rely wholly on Amitabha no matter my mood, and no matter what I think or feel, without worrying about whether my mind is pure or not. When my heart is dark, Amitabha’s light and name are always there to protect and comfort me. The seed that was planted those many years ago in the Freer Gallery of Art is now issuing a miraculous, fantastically-colored lotus blossom.
Religious faith is a funny thing: we human beings live and die by it, and yet we must hold it carefully and with a great measure of humility. Even though we might have supernatural or mystical experiences, we must always be mindful of the fact that we believe; we do not, in this life, ultimately know. (Our relationships with non-believers should especially be informed by this realization.) But this bare, existential fact coexists with a confidence that is alive, life-giving and active in one’s consciousness – and, mysteriously, in the world. For persons of faith, the presence of Amitabha is indisputable; he is the secret joy and strength that we carry into the samsara of our lives. He is the great vow of love that allows us to face life and death with a measure of serenity and peace. It is his name that is the cure for both our wisdom and foolishness.
For me, deciding to practice in the school of Shandao is what has allowed me to hold both of these realities – human ignorance, and passionate religious faith – in a state of dynamic and fertile tension. The profound, generous and realistic teachings of Masters Shandao and Huijing are what made this possible. Through this Dharma door, I have at last found peace of mind. I have found my way home.
Namo Amitabha Buddha!
- 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