There have been some who wonder about the longevity of the Order. Will there be anything left after Dharmavidya steps down? Others have questioned the purpose of the Order?
The Order is very young, so young that we know how it was born. We are fortunate that Dharmavidya is still amongst us and has shared the origins story of the Order. Before the rise of the Amida Order, there was a group of Buddhists who were part of Thich Nat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing group. They were interested in applying their practice in the community and the world at large. As time went on the group of people changed but the group was still committed to doing socially engaged Buddhism. Dharmavidya and his ex-wife were part of that group, and together, they ran an activists week in what is now Dharmavidya’s home in France back in the 90’s and a woman called Linda Dhammika who then became Amrita, along with Louise who then became Modgala plus a few others attended and it was at this event that Modgala, Amrita, and Prasada took vows and precepts which became the foundation of the Order of Amida Buddha.
I joined The Buddhist House community in 2003 and experienced three kinds of activities, quite distinct from one another but of equal worth. 1. Fully engaged Buddhism, 2. Buddhist Psychology Counselling training, and 3. Pureland services and study.
1. Amrita was working and living in Zambia, as a fully engaged Buddhist. She had been running Tithandizane, a primary healthcare project, which she started before ordaining. She cared for the sick, the dying, the animals, and the young. Ordaining as a priest meant that she could conduct weddings and funerals, provide spiritual counselling and education in addition to the wide range of public health services that she had already put in place. Modgala was also very much active in campaigning and setting up projects under the umbrella of fully engaged Buddhism.
2. Dharmavidya and Caroline were teaching Buddhist Psychology to students interested in working as therapists from a Buddhist perspective.
3. The group of people living at the Buddhist House were not all Pureland Buddhists. Dharmavidya, Prasada, and Modgala had emerged from a zen background, Amrita from a Theravadan one, and so all of them were learning and changing their identity to a more overt Pureland one. I joined at a time when there was a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in discovering the works of Honen and Shinran. The services that once resembled Thich Nat Hanh’s slowly changed to reflect and communicate an orientation towards Amida and Other Power.
Bhaktika, Sundari, Sujatin, and Andrew joined not long after the founding members. Andrew left not long after I joined. The year that I moved into the community, Jayata, Sahishnu, and I joined at the Bodhi retreat in December. We were a small group of people in the Order, and even a smaller group that lived at the Buddhist House.
Looking back over the years, I can understand many things that I never did before. We were a group of people who wanted to change, what we wanted to change will depend on who you ask. I wanted to change myself, others had more nobler causes. I wanted to train as a Buddhist contemplative at the time, while the others wanted to travel the world and engage themselves in good causes. I lived at the Buddhist House while others lived in their own home or at the centre in London, or in Africa running a project. This small group, diverse and different as the colours in the rainbow, radical and religious, was what appealed to other people and what made us different. It also caused conflict and arguments.
Over time, as we developed a stronger Pureland identity, we started to attract others who had a similar religious sentiment. The Order grew in size but the members were so spread out that getting to know everyone became a challenge, but the glue that kept us together, no matter where we lived, was the Nembutsu and Amida.
I feel that the Order itself doesn’t have a purpose. It’s like a family. We don’t get to choose who is in our family, and yet, there is a bond that is karmic and ties us to each other. What we can choose is how to relate to each other. As we encounter each other, we see how meaningful the Buddha’s teachings are and perhaps, we may even come to the conclusion that the purpose of the Order is to bring greater meaning into our lives and then from that, we as individuals may find the purpose for living and being here. Perhaps, in seeing someone take the precepts and make their vows, it might fill one with enough aspiration to join such a group and commit to a spiritual path.
All the ceremonies that we do in the Order, taking refuge, taking the Bodhisattva precepts, joining the Amida School, ordaining as minister or Amitarya are skilful means. They remind us about what is important in life. They help us to reduce our self-importance. They teach us how to live a meaningful life. They point us toward engaging with the world around us, whether that be campaigning for a greener community, animal rights, teaching the Dalits, conflict resolution in our community, working with homelessness, educating children, or simply spreading the Dharma. Whatever activity or ministry we choose, the Order acts as a support. It is a group that listens and also challenges, and that grows through relationships.
Longevity depends on how well we can adapt and change as an Order. We can learn a lot of good lessons from this current pandemic and the virus itself. The virus needs people to survive. The closer people come together the more chances it has to spread. As people stop coming together the virus changes and evolves into something that can hook onto people better. The Dharma doesn’t need us to survive, however, we, foolish beings depend on the Buddha’s teachings for refuge and spiritual growth.
The Order, as I see it, is both a means and an end. To commit to a path of on-going spiritual maturity, and of going out there in the world and demonstrating an alternative, is what a Bodhisattva does.