That realm cannot be attained while living an easy and indifferent life – Ippen
River of Fire, River of Water
Between the river of fire and the river of water a narrow path leads to the West
This image derives from Shan Tao (613 – 681), one of the great teachers of Pure Land Buddhism. The river of fire represents hatred and the river of water greed. The West, for a Chinese Buddhist, represented the source of Buddhism (India) and, through the teachings of the Pure Land Sutras, the Pure Land created by Amida Buddha. For our purpose here the Pure Land may represent world peace. We can envisage ourselves as on a journey toward it. Behind us is Shakyamuni Buddha whose voice urges us onward. Ahead we see the Light of Amida in the distance. We are travelling toward that Light. Even though the two rivers sometimes come perilously close or even wash over the path, wetting or burning us, we still must go onward toward that Light.
This image gives a fine picture of the spiritual path. It is not so much that we proceed in the knowledge that “We shall overcome some day” as that even if we are doomed to failure there would be no other course open to us. Even if world peace were impossible, we would still have to conceive it and nourish it and work toward it. World peace is, therefore, an object of faith and a fitting description of the goal of the Dharma.
The Gate of Contrition
Contemplating the sun of wisdom we see dark clouds trailing across its pure drum-like disc.
A common form of Pure Land meditation is to visualise the white disc of the setting sun. As we do so we are aware of trailing clouds obscuring part of its radiance. These represent the obscurations in our own nature (kleshas). The main obstacle to our ability to bring peace to others is the lack of peace within ourselves. We would like to bring peace to all sentient beings, but often enough, we cannot even bring peace to our own family or even to ourselves. Some other schools of Buddhism, therefore, assert that one must become enlightened before one can be any use to others. This, however, is a doctrine of despair. The Amida Buddhist is well aware of his or her own imperfect nature and sees no immediate likelihood of entering into supreme enlightenment by his or her own efforts, Yet, in the meantime, all around, beings are “drowning in samsara’s ocean”. To put off compassionate action even for a moment cannot be in accord with the Buddha way. We have to accept, therefore, that we are going to work for world peace even before we have achieved peace within ourselves. In order to do so, however, we must be acutely aware of the clouds across the sun: we must realise that our wisdom is far from perfect and even our best efforts are going to be flawed in many ways. To the best of our ability we will try to assist the work of the Buddhas as though we were bottom grade apprentices just beginning to learn the bodhisattva trade from the example and instructions of those who have gone before us on the path.
Shan Tao therefore advocated the supreme importance of contrition. Since we have been wandering in samsara we have accumulated untold karmic obstacles. We ourselves are part of the problem. Accepting the reality of the state we have been bequeathed by our past, we can voluntarily take responsibility for it, and yet, in accordance with the teaching of Shakyamuni, realise that “I am not that”. The way to make an act of contrition is as follows:
All the harm committed by me
Is due to beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
The work of my body, speech and mind:
I now confess everything wholeheartedly
And resolve to begin anew.
The way to realise “I am not that” is to give up reliance upon self and resolve, instead, to live in faith. Just as greed, hate and delusion flow through the world like the wind and the tide, so wisdom and compassion are also ever present like the sun and the moon. Just as our little nature is always at work in its hurt and meanness, so the vows of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are measureless, inexhaustible and reliable. We can turn to them even while knowing that we ourselves are still far from the state of purity.
Clouds and mist of greed and enmity
Perpetually obscure the heaven of truth and faith
Clouds and mist obscure the sun
But the light is still there behind them
And even below the cloud
We still have the benefit of the light.
World peace already exists. Just it is hindered by war and oppression. This odd way of putting it has advantages. The Pure Land already exists. Its appearance in our midst is obscured by our greed, hate and delusion. Nonetheless, even though we are not bathing in bright sunshine, it is not pitch dark. We are living in the light even when we cannot see the sun directly. Indeed, looking directly at the sun may be too much for us. It is only at dawn or sunset that we can bear to do so. It is not so much that world peace needs to be invented from scratch as that it needs us to have the confidence to live in it, not just at our moments of enlightenment (dawn) and our moments of tragic extremity (sunset) but day in day out even when there are many clouds in the sky. Let us be citizens of the Pure Land now, no matter what may be going on all around. We are only beginners at world peace. What do we know about it? Not much. Nonetheless, we still benefit from the light of those who have known better than we. The Buddha organised his community in a way that was conducive to the greater appearance of the Pure Land in our midst.
Speaking of the Vajjian tribe, the Buddha said: “As long as the Vajjians meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline. As long as they do not depart from their ancient traditions… As long as they honour, revere, respect and salute the elders among them and listen to their counsel… As long as they do not abuse wives and daughters… As long as they honour, revere, respect and salute their shrines at home and abroad… As long as they make proper provision for the safety of arahats so that such arahats may come in future and live among them and those already there may dwell in comfort… As long as they do these things, the Vajjians may be expected to prosper and not decline.” [Digha Nikaya 16, Mahaparinibbana-sutta] He then went on to draw similar conclusions about the life of the sangha community, offering a wealth of advice for the proper conduct of social life. in particular the Buddha recommended that we show acts of loving kindness to one another; that we share with others whatever we receive; that we avoid all actions that will lead to sow strife in or or others’ hearts and that we continue in a noble view of life. Such is Buddhist faith. World peace depends upon healthy community life.
The Fruit of Faith
The Buddha said to Ananda: “The bodhisattvas born in that Buddhaland expound the right Dharma whenever appropriate and, because they are in accord with the wisdom of enlightenment, their expositions are infallible and free of error. In regard to the myriads of things in that land, they have no thought of possession or attachment. Whether going or coming, proceeding or remaining, their hearts are unattached, their acts are in accordance with their will and are unrestricted, and they have no thought of discrimination… In them there is no idea of self or others, no idea of competition or dispute. With the heart of great compassion to benefit all living beings and with tenderness and self-control they bear no enmity of grudge against anyone. Free of mental hindrances, they are pure in mind and without indolence. Unbiased, noble-minded, sincere and tranquil, their hearts can revere, appreciate and enjoy the Dharma.
In this approach to Buddhism we do not say that you must first behave in this wonderful way and then you will get your reward as a place in nirvana. We say, rather, that the ability to act in this way is the reward. Those who enter the Pure Land act this way naturally. They enter the Pure Land through having faith. In this case we may say, having faith in world peace. Our ability to work for world peace depends upon having faith that peace is already in our midst even while having knowledge of our own inadequacy. It is precisely because we know our own inadequacy that we will abandon the tendency to work by our own self-will and turn instead to reliance upon the Buddhas, the bodhisattva-arahats and their great vows. If we rely in faith upon their inspiration , then some of their great ability to bring peace to others will flow through us. The more sincere, deep and longingful our faith the more completely we will naturally partake in the description given by the Buddha of those who dwell in the Pure Land. In this way, the Pure Land of world peace will appear in this existential world.
Why has the leader of the world emitted this great ray of light far and wide from the white tuft of hair between his eyebrows, raining down mandarava and manjusaka flowers and gladdening the people with the fragrance of sandalwood? That the earth may be adorned and quake in six ways; that the fourfold assembly may be enraptured, delighting in body and mind.
– Lotus Sutra, ch 1
World peace will come through the words and deeds of inspired people. Inspired people are not a different species from ourselves. They are those whose appreciation of this short existence has been lifted by the vision of universal harmony offered by great sages. Without the kind of inspiration that imparts faith, our lives can be easily wasted, frittered away in trivia and distractions. The Buddha, therefore, as his life and ministry matured, more and more often relied firstly upon opening people’s eyes and imaginations to the Pure Land rather than instructing them immediately in morals and doctrines. World peace depends upon good will and reconciliation and these come out of faith in and vision of the bigger picture.
Go forth, oh bhikkus, far and wide, for the blessing of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit, the happiness of gods and humans. Let not two go by one way. Teach Dharma that is lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in its end. Explain in the spirit and in the letter the brahma-faring completely fulfilled and pure. There are those with little dust in their eyes who are languishing, who, if they learn the Dharma will rise up.
– Mahavagga 1