Amida Shu Buddhism: Taking Refuge

A short essay about the nature of Amida Shu Pureland Buddhism as an expression of taking refuge.

In Mahayana Buddhism, we vow to help all sentient being to attain complete awakening and, in order to do so, we vow to transform all our negative passions into love and compassion, to master all the Buddha’s teachings and to fulfil every step of the Buddhist path. These bodhisttva vows stand like a kind of heroic gesture. No matter how many lifetimes it takes, I will overcome all the harm and suffering in the world and bring all beings to the land of bliss. When we look at the vows from the ordinary perspective they seem like a personal challenge. How shall I do it? Where must I begin? In our morning service we recite these vows. We re-enter the bodhisattva path each new day. Then immediately after doing so we recite the refuges which in our tradition begin with taking refuge in Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the highest Buddha, representative of all Buddhas, past, present and future, in this and all possible worlds.

We take refuge in those Buddhas. This provides us with the means to fulfil the bodhisattva vow. By our own power alone we could not do it. We will not do it by our own determination alone. We can only do it by relying upon the Buddhas. When we entrust ourselves in this way, the task looks completely different. It is no longer oneself who is helping all beings and overcoming all passions – it is Amida Nyorai. We are carried along by Nyorai, guided and held. As we take refuge in Nyorai who represents all Buddhas, so we recognise the need to take refuge in Shakyamuni, the particular Buddha of the age that we happen to have been born into. As we take refuge in Shakyamuni we see the need to take refuge in his Dharma. If taking refuge in Dharma means anything it is that we enter into and take refuge in sangha. And if refuge in sangha means anything it become refuge in the vision of a Pure Land since this is the full realisation of sangha. Thus, in practical Buddhism, there is a constant going back and forth between self-power and other-power, but, in the end, it is other-power that sees us through. At the heart of all Buddhism is the act of refugeThere are thus two basic approaches to Buddhism, commonly referred to as self-power and other-power, or, in Japanese, jiriki and tariki. When Shakyamuni Buddha died his disciples wanted to keep the Dharma alive in the world. Some felt that this meant following the example given by Shakyamuni while others emphasised expressing their love for him. The first group saw the Dharma as a matter of learning methods based on the way that Shakyamuni practised. By perfecting those methods they hoped to emulate the founder and become Buddhas themselves in due course. That approach is called self-power because it assumes that each person has the power within him or herself to become a Buddha and that that is what is required. Such an approach emphasises the “Buddha nature” of the individual. Other disciples took a different view. When they reflected upon the experience that they had had, they realised that the Buddha had come into their life unbidden. He came to them. The arrival of Shakyamuni in their village was not a product of long years of training or practice on their part. The Buddha came into their lives and they were changed, not by their effort, but by their encounter with him. He inspired them, won their affection, saw through their delusions, had sympathy for them, accepted them and cherished them. For this they felt enormous gratitude. Their hearts were touched. They felt that the Buddha had cared about them and had put them in touch with the deep meaning of life. This second type of attitude is called other-power because it is essentially a matter of gratitude for what has been freely given. As it has been passed down to us it has become the practice of mystical encounter with Nyorai – with the spirit of the enlightened one. This is a truly religious approach that can change people in the core of their being quite suddenly. The presence of the Buddha entering into one’s heart produces a sudden and dramatic inner disarmament and a release of energy into an active life of service and dedication.

An important feature of this faith centred Buddhism is an emphasis upon what can be done by the ordinary person. The encounter with Nyorai is not a function of having reached a particular mind state, spiritual level, or degree of virtue. It is something that can happen to anybody. The Pureland master Inagaki wrote a short poem:

Just as you are…
Just as you are

This expresses very well the spirit of Pureland. The Buddha is enlightened and that means that he has universal compassion and that, in turn, means that Nyorai does not discriminate. Whoever is willing to open their heart to it can have this great love.

Amida literally means measureless. Pureland is about having the faith to live in conscious relation to the limitless love of Nyorai, all the while knowing that one is simply an ordinary person of no special worth. In other-power Buddhism there is no qudos in appearing virtuous or enlightened. We recognise that we are all vulnerable, all have failings, and none of us is capable of overcoming all our karmic hindrances by ourselves. We need help. At the same time, this means that we do not feel that we have to have reached some particular spiritual level before we can be of use in the Buddha’s scheme of things. The influence of Nyorai is constantly tending toward the emergence of a better world, a Pure Land, where love, compassion, joy and peace prevail. As members of Amida Shu we become part of this movement toward the emergence of a better world. This is a natural expression of the gratitude that the practitioner feels for the grace that Nyorai brings.

These teachings are not dissimilar from the core principles of most major religious traditions. To live in relation to something greater than oneself, in gratitude and modesty, touched by the love and compassion of the ancestral sages, working together in a sense of communion, with hope of a better, kinder world to come… this is the wisdom of ages. Pureland does not claim any exclusivity. It simply points out what is at the heart of the human religious quest and actualises it in the context of its own particular tradition that has come down to us directly through India, China and Japan and is also augmented by parallel streams in all the other countries that have been substantially influenced by the enlightened wisdom of the gentle Buddha.

The spiritual life is both a singular matter in which each person walks alone with Nyorai and, at the same time, it is completely social, being concerned with the development of the fullness of community and mutual support. The Buddha emphasised both dimensions. At the foundation of all Buddhism is the act of taking refuge. To take refuge in Buddha is to acknowledge the direct, solitary encouter with Nyorai. To take refuge in Dharma is to acknowledge the universal implication of doing so. To take refuge in sangha is to acknowledge that the result is a completely new kind of harmony between individuals, between peoples, even between species.

Pureland as practised in Amida Shu gives a thorough grounding to the individual in the timeless wisdom of Buddhism and in the ways of the Buddhist community. It is a spirituality of religious feeling and communion. It expresses itself in deep practice and in social engagement, in the unity of faith and action