Long Way to the Easy Path
by Daniel Mariner (Householder Jingyao)
Below is a brief account of what led me to the pristine Pure Land school.
The first exposure I had to Buddhism was in college, when I started to sit with a Zen group occasionally. The main thing that I learned at that time was that meditating was painful! I can’t say I ever had any really positive experiences, just a lot of physical pain. Although at the time, I felt troubled by the idea that I was going to die eventually, and I wanted to find some meaning in my life. I didn’t stick with the Zen practice. Things eventually shifted, and I drifted away from that group. My interest in Buddhism faded to the background.
Some years went by. Eventually, this idea of my own impermanence and searching for the meaning of life came to the forefront again. This, combined with my reading some translations of Tibetan texts, had me convinced that I needed to pursue Tibetan Buddhism. Not only did I understand that this life was impermanent, but I also began to fear the cycle of rebirth. And here within this Tibetan tradition were some people who had felt how I felt, then renounced this life and attained realization through extraordinary effort. This was it!
I found a Tibetan teacher with a small group of devoted students. Although he was not famous, he did have some accomplishments (siddhi), and I felt like I was in the right place.
By this time, I had finished with college, but I didn’t have any real direction career-wise. I ended up getting a retail job and spending all of my free time practicing Tibetan Tantra. I completed the preliminary practices in under a year, then moved on to the main practices. I recited mantras millions of times (yes, I counted), and completed retreats in which I’d sit for 10-12 hours a day.
Yet, nothing happened. I did not have a single experience indicating that I was progressing. No signs, dreams or visions - nothing. Just a huge struggle with visualizing, in addition to completing the enormous amount of required recitations. Just a drive to finish one practice so I could move on to the next one, then the next one. In the meantime, I felt rigid and uptight. If I couldn’t practice as much as I thought I should, it would ruin my day. Somehow, it made me feel like I was no good. Even in everyday life, this seemed to be carrying over, with my getting less patient and developing a number of bad habits. At the same time, it just seemed like there was forever a carrot dangling in front of me: finish one practice then another, then another…Eventually, I would reach the most advanced practices, and that’s when things would really take off (so I thought). On top of that, I was getting more caught up in mundane concerns - learning sutras or pujas to fix this or that “problem” in daily life, thereby moving further and further away from my original intent of pursuing Buddhism. Concerned with mundane things, I even went so far as to travel to Thailand to have yantras tattooed on my body.
My teacher died after some years, and I started to move away from the practices. It was about ten years in total that I had spent in that tradition. I began to think that my energetic health was what had been holding me back from having any sort of meditative experiences. So, I pursued qigong, eventually aiming to move towards internal alchemy. This period lasted for maybe a year. But, at the back of my mind, eventually, the thought crept in: I’m still subject to birth and death. Even if I make some progress with these practices, what good will that have done me? People in these traditions admitted that very few made it to the end of that path. Even if I were to, would that ultimately lead me to the liberation from the endless cycle of birth I was looking for?
These thoughts led me back to the wisdom in Buddhism. This time, I wasn’t interested in looking for any sort of “experiences.” I just wanted to make sure that this is my last life here. I had been exposed to the idea of various pure lands previously. In my time within Tibetan Buddhism, I had recited aspirations for rebirth in a different pure land (not Amitabha’s) and even practiced a teaching to eject the consciousness at the moment of death in order to be reborn in a pure land. But I had no confidence in my ability with these. So, I resorted to reciting a variety of dharanis and sutras that were said to lead to birth in the Pure Land. But it was hard to find much supportive information or accounts of success, so I kept reading. From the dharanis and references to Amitabha’s Pure Land, I eventually came to writings on the Pure Land tradition. I’m not sure which I came across first - the writings of Master Honen (who quotes Shandao extensively) or those of Master Huijing - but I probably found both around the same time. And this changed everything.
I felt like they were saying exactly what I needed to hear. Guaranteed rebirth in Sukhavati through the mere recitation of Amitabha’s name. No need to stress about not being able to concentrate, and no need to visualize. No need to strain to accumulate recitations so that I could finish one practice and move on to the next. Not using the dharma for mundane concerns and missing what really matters. No need to get down on myself because I’m not good enough.
Just reciting, just as I am. I think if I had come across this teaching a number of years ago, I would have just overlooked it, thinking it was too simple. I had to go through these other practices and come to terms with my capacity before I could take the pure land path to heart.
Deciding to practice according to Master Shandao’s teachings, as taught by Master Huijing, I accepted the fact that I would essentially be practicing on my own. My thinking up to that time was that Pure Land groups would be inaccessible to me. Here I was in the U.S. far from southeast Asia. I was ready to go it alone.
At this same time, my wife and I were in the process of moving from the midwestern United States to North Carolina. Somehow, I ended up on social media, which I rarely do, and looked up Pure Land Buddhism. Eventually, through a series of encounters, I found out that there was actually a group of Pure Land practitioners of Master Shandao’s lineage in the town to which I was moving! I would never have imagined this happening. I feel like this was showing me I was on the right path.
I was put in touch with Brother Fochen, who is one of the board members of the group. In addition to answering my many questions, he let me know that they were about to begin a weekly group chanting using LINE, due to being unable to meet in person because of the current pandemic. So, for the past few weeks, I have been joining this group, led by Master Jinghe in Taiwan. This has been really great; it’s been beneficial for me to be part of structured group sessions. And I hope to meet the local practitioners once the pandemic has passed, and it is safe to do so.
So here I am. At this point in time, I’ve abandoned practices other than reciting Amitabha’s name. I sit and recite morning and evening. The length of these sessions varies according to my circumstances; sometimes they are very short, sometimes a bit longer. I also try to recite while doing other things during the day. Some days I’m very distracted while reciting and sometimes I’m full of deluded thoughts. But, I now know that that’s all ok. Having come to terms with my own capacity, I’m no longer expecting anything to come by my own effort. Instead, I’ve chosen to rely on Amitabha’s fundamental vow, just as I am.
(Edited by the Pure Land School Translation Team)
- 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