From Susthama – Head of the Amida Order
8 March 2021
The Third Vow
Oh Blessed One, may I not come to the complete awakening if, when I have done so, beings born in my land should not all be of one colour, the colour of gold.
Not long after my father passed away, I went to South Korea to learn about my ancestral roots. I knew that it was a mountainous country but I didn’t realise how the mountain peaks would be home to Buddhist temples. I used to go hiking in the mountains with friends without realising that many Koreans go hiking not just to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, but to make offerings and reconnect with their ancestral religion. We would arrive at the top of the mountain, enter through a very old gate, be greeted by a row of Buddhist statues, and then enter a compound with a place for people to make prostrations and light incense. Some temples were grand and others were modest, but they all had the quality of being a museum. Rich with artefacts and visited by many people including tourists like myself. My friends explained that they built the temples at the tops of the mountains because it is symbolic of spiritual purity. One was far away from material distractions found in the worldly realm below. The temples are in and of themselves a Pure Land. It is easy to see why we place spiritual cultivation on the vertical axis and the materialistic one on the horizontal one. If worldly attachments are the cause of suffering, then liberation might be found somewhere far away from the dazzling lights and material madness of the city centres. To climb a mountain requires a bit of shedding – any extra weight would make it exhausting work.
The third vow, however, challenges the spiritual notion of going up. It is saying that Amida’s light embraces everything, not only those at the top of the mountain but those half way there and especially those stuck at the foot of the mountains. Instead of the spiritual path being on the vertical axis it is on the horizontal one. The word Amida can be broken down to “A” which means without in Sanskrit and “mida” which is close to the word metre, so Amida means without measure. Amida Buddha doesn’t measure and is measureless. Human beings on the other hand, spend most of their time comparing and measuring. We set targets, we ensure that the best science is measurable and evidence based. All good, except perhaps, when we don’t live up to our own standards. We are the ones who measure and judge. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. I remember seeing a picture of business men and women climbing to the top of the tree. This is what it is like for many of us living in a competitive world. The caption said, “To get to the top you have to step on others and kiss the ass of the one in front.”
The spiritual path is one that is flat – maybe there are those more experienced in front and we lag behind, but no matter where we are, are all equal in Amida Buddha’s eyes. The Buddha’s dharma is the foundation on which we can build our spiritual lives. It is below us and it is supporting us while Amida’s light shines down on us with this glorious, radiant light, like facing the sunset during the golden hour before it disappears below the horizon. Sinking down into the Dharma realm.
If we want to go to Amida’s Pure Land, if we want to keep the Buddha in mind, if we want to walk that narrow white path then we can do that, and not because of our own efforts but by a mixture of calling out for help and creating conditions that might help. When Saint Honen asked his disciples whose Nembutsu was better, his or the newcomer, everyone had no doubt that Honen’s was because of his spiritual progress, but Honen rejected that straight away and said that even if a person was new and said it just once, there is no difference between his Nembutsu and the novice’s.
Amida is associated with the setting sun, so part of our practice is about turning to the West, and if we are indoors, then to visualise the sun setting. If we are lost or confused and not sure which direction to go in life, then there are some practical things that we can do. We can stop and turn to the setting sun. You look around and everything is golden in colour. Whether it is a broken fence, a run down house, rusty bicycle chain everything’s as if it is transformed into gold.
Just like Shinran’s verse in The Essentials of Faith Alone:
“That Buddha in the causal stage, made the Universal Vow:
When beings hear my Name and think on me, I will come to welcome each of them,
Solely making beings turn about and abundantly say the Nenbutsu, I can make bits of rubble turn to gold.”
When we are transformed into gold then whatever we do will be beautiful.
26 February 2021
The Second Vow – No Unfortunate Rebirth
Oh Blessed One, may I not come to the complete awakening if, when I have done so, beings born into my Pure Land should be liable to die from there and thereafter be reborn in hellish, bestial, tormented or warring realms.
This vow is about what will happen to us after we have been reborn in the Pure Land. Dharmakara wishes to ensure that we continue to have a good rebirths. In Buddhism there is a theory of rebirth. It isn’t the same as reincarnation as in Christianity because what passes on from this life to the next one isn’t a fixed soul. Instead it is a spirit that is always changing.
I remember feeling lost and confused, as well as obsessed with death, when I came across Buddhism. When I was little, I believed that we would go to God up in heaven. It was a glorious white fluffy place, always situated up in the clouds. In my teens, after having rejected Christianity, I adopted the atheistic position of believing that nothing happened after one dies. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s existential purple light and a hum. All that mattered is living a fun, pleasurable life now. I was definitely hedonistic and on the surface it looked like a lot of fun but I still couldn’t shake off wondering whether I would see my deceased parents after I died. My idea of heaven never went away and I liked the idea of reuniting with loved ones after I died.
At my lowest point, when I no longer found any reason to live, I thought about what might happen afterwards. That was when I found Buddhism. I learned about the 4 noble truths, karma, and rebirth in the first week of my new Buddhist life. The message that I was taught was the common version of 1. there is suffering 2. the cause of suffering is desire and craving, and 3. the end of suffering is by extinguishing craving and finally 4. we do step 3 by following the 8-fold noble path. Easy. It made sense. If we crave something and we don’t get it then we will suffer. If we crave and get it we will suffer. Like the Chinese curse “May your dreams come true.” Craving was to root of all suffering and must be rooted out.
The way that I understood it was simple. Everything is connected in a linear way, one thing leads to another. I could see where I went wrong in the past. I craved a fun life with my friends. We partied, danced, laughed, and drank, sometimes too much and while drunk did foolish things that a drunk person would. I would wake up the following morning with a hangover. I would follow good advice on what to eat to cure a hangover but I would never think about stopping myself from hanging out with my friends, and never thought about not getting drunk in the first place.
Even though Buddhism made things much clearer I was still pretty depressed. I felt guilty about all the hurt I had caused my good friends. I was worried that I would hurt other people. All I could think about was ending everything. My life stank and I was a petty person. What stopped me was the idea of being reborn into another life based on my present state of mind. If the theory of rebirth meant that I would carry over my feelings of guilt and worry then I might end up in an even worse place but with the same awful feelings. This idea of karma and rebirth left me with no choice but to stay put and to do everything possible to liberate myself in order to break free from this horrible cycle of samsaric worlds.
I moved from being an atheist to a Buddhist nun in two weeks. I went from thinking there was one Buddhism to understanding that there are as many denominations in Buddhism as there are in Christianity. I found myself in a tradition that is popular in the far east and very rare in the west. Most of all, I learned that it was impossible not to crave. I met friends in the Theravadan tradition who told me stories about craving a new robe, or a new bowl, or better food. I met other Buddhists from other traditions who told me that they went on retreat to eliminate their attachments and as soon as they came out of retreat would go to Macdonald’s or eat bars of chocolate. I met others who told me stories of Zen retreats that would finish with a celebration of drinking alcohol to demonstrate that they were not attached to non-attachment itself.
Could we ever achieve the pure bright mind that would ensure a good rebirth? For many of us, the answer is no. Unless we accept that we cannot do this alone. Amida’s second vow is the key to attaining enlightenment. So long as we keep the Buddha in mind, and sincerely call out his name, then we will die well and therefore have a good rebirth. What’s more, it is because we are selfish, self-centred, and awful that Amida will come to our aid so that we are reborn in a field of merit; an abode of loving-kindness; joy; compassion, a true refuge.
From Amida’s land of utmost bliss, we will be liberated and enlightened. In Japanese Pureland Buddhism there is a theory of how beings born into a Pure Land then become Bodhisattvas. Once enlightened, one feels for the suffering of others, one forsakes enlightenment in order to return to this world to help.
In effect, we want to be like the Buddhas in the bubbles in each of the 6 realms of samsara, assisting the afflicted, demonstrating an alternative, and showing a way out as depicted in the Wheel of Life. There is only one problem. When we are reborn in this life we forget where we have come from. We grow up adapting and reacting as we have learned from our parents, friends, relatives, and educators. We forget that we are Bodhisattvas. We grow up wondering what is our purpose?
We may see small acts of kindness every now and then that just so happens to move us. We may feel angry at injustices around us. Perhaps, we have a spiritual experience that leaves us with a feeling of some sort of familiarity like a an old song long forgotten. When eventually, we come across the Pureland teachings and we feel a sense of relief. We are ok just as we are. The practice is both simple and hard. Just say “Namo Amida Bu” and have faith that you will be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land. Once there, one experiences enlightenment, sees through the eyes of the tathagatha and then vows to come back to the human realm to help sentient beings and so the cycle goes for these Bodhisattvas.
When I found myself living in a Pureland tradition, I didn’t have much confidence in myself, or in others, or in religion. I found myself chanting because that was what the group did. It didn’t make much sense to me back then but I did it anyway. I was told, ‘Fake it til you make it.’ So I did. I was relieved to know that I am acceptable just as I am. Even with my dull and unsteady mind, I can still trust something greater than myself, and in that spirit, I can make someone a cup of tea and show that person kindness just as I was shown kindness.
20 February 2021
(1) If, when I attain Buddhahood, there should be in my land a hell, a realm of hungry spirits or a realm of animals, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
The first of Dharmakara’s 48 vows has to do with the three lower realms. These lower realms are part of our cycle of existence, very much linked to our karma. One can view them from a psychological point of view as well as places where one might experience the horrors of life.
They are depicted in the Bhavachakra painting which is an illustration often found painted on temples in Tibet and India and elsewhere. Bhava is sanscrit for worldly existence or birth, chakra means wheel or cycle. Combine the two and we get a complex picture called the Wheel of Life. It is a mandala that shows the reasons why we go around and around in circles. The inner circle is encircled by another circle, which is encircled by another one, and so on until we get to the outer rim which shows the 12 links of dependent origination. It shows the causes and conditions that give rise to our sense of who we are, complete with all the passionate emotions of a foolish human being, either going down into the hell realms or up into the Godly realms until we get to Yama, the God of Time or Death. Glancing quickly, one might feel a sense of despair and hopelessness, however, if you look closely, you will see the Buddha pointing beyond Yama to a moon. Thankfully for us, there is a Buddha found in each of the 6 realms, in a little bubble, showing a way out of this samsaric world.
As with many stories in Buddhism, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the Bhavachakra but the depiction of the wheel of life is found in an ancient story about King Bimbisara who was an old friend of the Buddha’s. The king who has received a magnificent jewelled robe from King Rudrayana is worried that he has nothing of equal worth to offer back, so he goes to the Buddha to ask him for advice on what he can give in return. The Buddha tells him to paint the wheel of life as an offering.
At the very centre of the image, you will see a rooster, a snake and a pig. They are chasing each other and almost biting off the tail of the animal in front of it. These represent the three poisons found at the heart of all human existence; the pig is ignorant, the rooster is greedy, and the snake is full of spite and anger. Circling around this is a circle of people in which half of the circle is in the dark and the other one is in the light.
Around these two inner circles are the 6 realms of samsara; three godly realms, and the three lower realms. If it is our behaviour that is the cause of going around in circles then it is not impossible to think that we are also responsible for the existence of these realms. One would think one hell would be enough but no, in this illustration it is clear that the three realms are distinct and characterised by particular attributes.
Here we find a realm for hungry ghosts, greedy individuals whose thirst and cravings are never satisfied. The hell realm is a place for those who are angry and hateful. They experience burning fires of rage in addition to the freezing cold of indifference. The animal realm is for those who are ignorant or weak. There is never a moment’s rest in this realm for the animals are constantly chased and hunted down by either humans or other animals.
Here is a stark characterisation of the reality that we have to live with, and yet, there is hope. We can find a way out to nirvana at any point even from the very centre of the hub. If only we get rid of the three poisons then we are free. However, our experience from life and many different situations, even from the Buddha’s own life, teaches us that this is not easily accomplished. In fact, the Buddha’s own story of his encounter with Mara shows us that the way to liberation is not by ‘getting rid’ of them but by accepting them and being very clear in oneself when they are rising and when they are passing away.
Accomplishing this as the Buddha did is not an easy feat. Observing toddlers can help us to see the ways into the lower realms. We can see greed most clearly when two year olds play with other children. Children are known to love their toys and so it is natural for them to feel worried or scared that another child will take their toy away. If they haven’t got a toy or they see another child playing with a better toy then it is natural for them to want what the other child is playing with. I’ve also seen a contented child change in the blink of an eye as soon as they see another child playing with their favourite toy.
Once a child has got it in her mind that they want their toy back, her greed can quickly change to anger and hatred. Parents like to think that we can placate this child easily by giving them any old toy but most times nothing except the desired object will do. They reject all other toys and remain bad tempered and inconsolable until they get what they want.
This child has instincts and processes that are so quick that we don’t even notice how she has gone through all the lower realms again and again in the space of 5 minutes. From “I want” to “I don’t like that” to “it’s mine, Mine, MINE!” And then back to “I want”…
If we look closely in each of the six realms including the three lower ones on the Bhavachakra mandala there is a Buddha in a circle in each of the lower realms. In the animal realm, the Buddha is often seen holding a sword. The Buddha is teaching them to use the sword of wisdom to cut through delusion. As soon as one’s ignorance is destroyed then one can find the way out of that realm. In the hell realm, the Buddha is teaching the condemned to use water to clean and wash; symbolic of love and patience washing away our anger, cooling our passions and applying patience. In the realm of the hungry ghosts, the Buddha is teaching the hungry ghosts to make offerings, to be generous and to make sacrifices.
Dharmakara’s vision starts with a place where there are no lower realms. This first vow points us to the antidotes to the three poisons. If we want something, then there are many things we can do about it. We don’t have to act on every impulse of ours that says, “Mine, mine, mine.” We can practice visualising a place where people are generous and helping others. We can imagine what acts of loving-kindness, patience, and cutting through delusion might look like in our own lives and maybe even try them out.
12 February 2021
An Introduction to Amida’s 48 Great Vows
9 February 2021
A lovely poem by Saigyo (1118-1190)
|’Tis all the same-
Blossoms in profusion
And on every mountain’s edge
White clouds hang.
This is how it is to be living with Amida’s grace. Even we foolish beings can experience blossoms – everywhere; and yet we are still foolish beings, deluded, greedy, and angry.
As you all know, I have been Dharmavidya’s disciple for a long time and I, just like you, are getting used to the idea of Dharmavidya no longer being the Head of the Order. He is the visionary behind the Amida Shu and has been spreading the dharma to anyone and everyone who is interested. The Dharma is limitless and boundless, the sentient beings in the universe are numerous and the ways to reach out to people are also innumerable. He has not left the Order and is still very much active in the sangha.
When the health pandemic forced countries into lockdown, I suggested that Dharmavidya, who has been living alone managing his place in France, make some 5 minute podcasts. If you receive these podcasts then you will know how well received they were at the time, and still now, remain an enjoyable and thought provoking source of Dharma. This led to some people wishing to take refuge and soon developed into an online sangha community. It has been and still is open to all members of the Amida Shu and others. One need only be interested to meet like minded people from different parts of the world. We are all friends along the Dharma path and are fortunate to have the technology that allows us to meet, albeit on a screen, but meet all the same.
The term global sangha became the best term to describe the multi-cultural, international make up of the group and is the Amida Shu’s outreach programme led by Dharmavidya.
Our western Pureland group has always been international. We are a small niche and when people who have a karmic affinity with Amida come across our particular form we form a very precious bond even when we are halfway across the world and very rarely have the chance to be in each other’s company. Our faith in Amida is a settled one and some of those members can often be found doing engaged Buddhist activities of a Bodhisattva in their locality. Every now and then we get a full report from Order members and what they are doing and the report is a treasure trove of love and compassion being enacted out in society.
Perhaps one of the shadows is our fear of that which is different. However much we rejoice our differences there is also the discomfort or shock when we encounter someone or something that is new and alien to us. In the 12 links of dependent origination, one of the stages, is ignorance. It is often depicted as a blind person. Our natural response to not knowing, not seeing, is to proceed in a defensive way, it is part of our need to survive. One of our koans as a sangha therefore is how to encounter the other power in our midst, seeing that the other will be a mystery and a force that might not be familiar to us.
If there are any doubts or concerns about the global sangha then please come and join one of the meetings. If you have a pre-existing group that now meets online and you would like others to join in then please let me know and we can include those meetings on the Amida Shu webpage and also in Dharmavidya’s newsletter that he sends out to the global sangha.
There are so many meetings run by different members of the Amida Shu. There are some practice sessions, some discussion ones, some study groups, and more. If you would like more information then please let me know.
We started lockdown almost a year ago and for many of us, we are still in lockdown. All of the online sangha meetings have been a lifeline for many of us living in isolation or in remote areas. Please come and visit again for more wonderful information about what is going on in the Amida Shu.
31 January 2021
Even though we are in a time of uncertainty within the Amida shu, I still feel a lot of love. This love was there when I first joined the community in 2003. It was there when my urge to leave was at its peak (18 months after joining). It was there when the training community moved out of the Buddhist House and it is still there now, as we experience a seismic shift happening in the Order.
About 15 years ago, I used to go along to the dances of universal peace with some of my friends in Leicester. There is one particular dance that is about love and structure, faith and practice, and self and other. I will try and describe it in words, and hopefully, as soon as we get a chance to meet in person, I can show you this dance and we can dance it together.
This spiritual dance involves all of us holding hands. We start off in a large circle, with arms stretched out but holding the hands of the people on either side of you. Then the person at the front who is leading the dance, lets go of one hand and starts to walk, taking one step inside the circle and pulling the person behind her who is then leading the person behind her and so one until everyone is moving around and pulling the next person, who pulls the next one, and so on, until everyone is walking, very slowly, in a circular direction. The leader takes another small step into the middle and keeps walking around into the circle so that the circle is now a spiral of people, and it gets smaller and smaller until eventually, the leader is in the middle and the people are circling all around like a spiral. As soon as the leader is in the middle, she makes a very small turn in the opposite direction, and starts to work her way back out of the circle, still holding hands and pulling the person behind her to follow exactly in her steps. There are now people on either side going in different directions but still holding hands. As you work your way around, it’s like going through a maze, but with people as walls, and the walls are moving, until eventually, the last person makes her way to the middle and follows out along the same steps. Everyone is moving, slowly, back around the spiral to form the larger circle that we started off in. The form that was there for those at the front is not the same form as the one for people at the back. Depending on where you are in the line of joined hands, your experience of the structure that this dance creates as one moves into the middle of the circle will change.
When there is trust and patience, then everyone will get to the middle of the circle, whether or not you are at the front or at the back on the line. If not, then only a couple of people at the front of the line go into the middle. The reluctance and resistance to stay in a big circle is strong if the people are new to this dance or each other.
The Buddha teaches that the Dharma, Amida, the unborn are always there. Our part in this relationship is to awaken to them, to discover or perhaps rediscover them. Structures can help us create conditions in which love can be seen and felt. Rituals and worship bring Amida to life. Meetings and discussions can help us to understand each other better. But how are we to understand and grasp the unborn? Furthermore, how can understanding it help us?
The Buddha carried on living a long time after giving this talk about the unborn so he couldn’t have meant taking one’s life. Dharmavidya teaches us to understand this psychologically. What is being born is our identity and in order for us to feel secure we invest in certain objects so that who we think we are is reinforced by what we see around us, what we hear, and so on. When forms and structures reinforce the kind of person we think we are then we feel safe and happy. In this process, our sense of who we are as fixed and permanent is born, or more precisely, the self is born and we know it, especially when we are outside of our comfort zone. You could say that everything outside our comfort zone is unborn, but the things that we gave birth to can also be unborn if we can see that they are all dharmas in and of themselves that have nothing to do with who we think we are. We just give birth to them as and when it suits our identity.
Structures that govern the Amida Shu are all dharmas, however, they can also be used to reinforce the self. Like the movement of the dance, the structure can create the conditions for love to manifest and they can also make people feel uncomfortable. In order to dance well with others, one needs time and familiarity, faith and practice, and a certain amount of willingness to let go of oneself. Whether we do or not, the unborn, the dharma, and Amida will still be there to love and support us.
23 January 2021
The Order is currently in transition. After Dharmavidya stepped down from being the Head of the Order on 31 December 2020, we started the process for electing the next Head of the Order. We have completed the nominations stage and I am honoured and humbled at being nominated. Not only was I the only person nominated but I was nominated by several people. So here I am, ready to step up to the challenge which is a testament to how life changing Buddhism and the Dharma have been in my life because I used to leave my job, my relationship, my life, whenever I was given more responsibility or asked to commit more before I came across Buddhism.
Just because I am the only one nominated does not automatically mean that I am in though. There still needs to be a vote whether the Order wishes me to be the next Head. Elections will take place next week and the results will be announced thereafter.
Here is my statement of intent:
I am Deputy Head of the Order and have been working together with Dharmavidya in this role for a few years. I feel that I have been blessed by Dharmavidya’s teachings and pray that I may continue to inspire people in the same spirit. Since the grievance was issued in November, a process had started that led to this election, however, this election is not the end of the process. There is still important and necessary work to be done in relation to the findings. I feel that it is important to address the report and recommendations for the benefit of all.
I would follow Amida’s 48 great vows to guide me, whether it be to improve the ways in which we communicate and how we communicate, to how we organise ourselves. I vow to listen and learn how to create conditions so that there is room for teachers to lead and transmit the Dharma, whilst enabling others to express their concerns and ask questions without fear of any kind.
We all know that dukkha happens, but when it happens in our sangha, it can be very hard to maintain an even keel. I would like to focus on how best to provide a container for us so that the dukkha samudaya can be transformed into spiritual maturity.
When I joined in 2003, I was in a deep and dark place. I was under a boulder, stuck at the top of a hill, but refused to roll out from under it. I got a great sense of pleasure of not being engaged, of burying myself in chanting. As Dharmavidya and other members of the sangha tried with their might to shift my boulder. I, eventually, experienced a moment of inertia. Amida’s love had found its way into my heart, and after 18 months of resistance, somehow managed to get my boulder to move, and slowly, I learned how to roll down the hill. I am now at ease with engaging in campaigns, teaching Buddhism, and still love chanting. Rolling is now easy even though I feel the bumps and challenges and see even bigger obstacles ahead, but they are not enough to stop me. Instead they interest me and if I can do anything to smooth out the ride for others then I will.
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 Nhat 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 Counseling 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.
The order has grown and is still growing. We are very fortunate to have a sangha that is as diverse in so many ways as ours. We now have three distinct generations: the founders and pioneers of the Amida movement, the maintainers and ‘gardeners’ – that’s most of us – who are working very hard locally to provide a refuge to new members, as well as meaningful engagement in our respective communities, and now the offspring and children of Sangha members who will benefit from being welcomed to feel like they belong in such a community.
The wisdom that has come down to us from the older generation is invaluable. To witness how they have handled illness and loss as they age has been uplifting and refreshing and a teaching in and of itself. When Dharmavidya collapsed he approached it with a kind of embrace that required a complete change of lifestyle which would leave most people at a loss. When Modgala lost her near and dear friends, there was heartfelt grief and an acceptance of the pain of losing such good friends so young. When Sujatin suffered a stroke, she did not fall into the kind of resentment that one so often sees in today’s society of entitlement and there was never the question ‘why me.’ And when other older Sangha members have noticed a change in their abilities, they seem to find a way to learn from it and see it as a teaching. They are all great examples of Mahasiddhas.
But I would like to say a few things about our one and only ‘official’ Mahasiddha. Mahasiddha means a great adept who cultivates and embodies the siddhi of perfection. I am pretty sure that Modgala would shake her head and insist that she most certainly has not, so why is it that Dharmavidya has given her this highly accomplished title.
There have been a many Mahasiddhas in Buddhism and they are as different from one another as planets and stars in the galaxy, but the one trait that they seem to have in common is their great faith and love towards their teacher. When Modgala joined the Order of Amida Buddha, there were only two Amitaryas living and working full time in community. They were a married couple and they had a tiny group of students. She joined this twosome, which was a huge risk at the time.
Not many Buddhist groups had heard about Pureland Buddhism and not many Buddhists trusted this, as some saw it, upstart so-called new religious group. Furthermore this was a training in which personal weaknesses would be the area for training, so it wasn’t exactly an ego stroking move. Nonetheless, she left her family and job and gave her life to this new fledgling group. Slowly a few more people joined, but mostly people participated without full commitment. It seemed that going from one to two was easy, and two to three was a huge risk but going from three to four took a lot longer. But in that time, the three of them generated a strong message and a very strong core practice.
They were campaigning, running retreats, leading a full Dharma study program, and running a complete training programme in Buddhist Psychology. They were at best a team of ten people but came across as an organisation of 10,000. That was until I came along.
Looking back, I see that I gave Modgala a very hard time. I think her sense of belonging at that time was that she belonged to this group in a way that makes one want to do everything imaginable to ensure that I know that it is up to me to make sure that this group survives. And my own sense at the time was that I didn’t really feel like I belonged, and I didn’t really believe that they wanted me there, so unless they made it clear that they approved of me then I would always be an outsider and ready to leave.
Needless to say we clashed, time and time again. Her authority in the community against my ignorance and loathing of authority made us into the worst Dharma sisters. I remember the intense training summer in Amida France when she was trying to teach me to bow to every single Buddha statue we saw. My back stiffened to the point where I wasn’t able to stand up for three days. But there were always gatherings and sessions to look at what had happened, and to understand what was going on at a deeper level that brought us all closer over the years rather than further away. Even so, year after year, she and I often butted heads. Yet, fortunately, as years have passed, we have found a heartfelt softness and respect for each other.
It is in such an order, that a Mahasiddha grows. The first steps were full of risk, and then after we were a community of four Amitaryas, the Order seemed to grow and flourish rather quickly. Members from overseas started coming over to see if they could transplant our culture in a new environment like Hawaii. The next steps weren’t as risky but were about growth in a particular direction, one that was organic and cutting edge and so the challenge was how far to let the local culture take hold without losing the Amida quality.
This is a challenge that still holds to this day. We are now at the point where our Mahasiddha is no longer doing any of the activities that she was doing ten or so years ago. In fact, nothing that was in place back then exists now in the UK, but then so many other projects and groups now exist that never existed back then. So one could ask how we are doing as an Order and is there a future for us?
So, my answer is this. Yes, Modgala has retired from most of her Amida duties but she is still turning the Dharma wheel, still in loving relationship with other members. Our relationships with each are such an important aspect of the Amida life. Our projects and engagements provide us with activities that bring us together, but our involvement is a great deal more than supporting one another’s roles. Roles come and go with the projects that they participate in, but the commitment of Dharma companions to one another goes much deeper. This is what builds the future of our sangha.
The Buddha urged his disciples to go out and spread the Dharma, and also to come together at a designated place during the rainy season, to practice and train together as a community. This practice of gathering is the vital key to the continuing growth and health of our rich and vibrant community.
Dharmavidya has the best and worst job in this world. At the Bodhi retreat at Amida Mandala, Malvern, I made a mistake during the Shu ceremony. Completely ignorant of what I had done, he and Modgala came up to me smiling and laughing, with that knowing look, you know, the one that says I know something that you don’t. Chuckling, he went on saying that I had left out taking refuge in the Dharma, but even though I had missed it out, I had conducted the ceremony in the correct spirit so it was still legit. Embarrassed, I gasped, and said, ‘You should have stopped me and said something!’ I could have then backtracked and included it. But he laughed and then frowned sternly and shook his finger and said, ‘That is exactly what I should NOT have done.’ It was then that I felt a huge sense of love, and then and there everything was full of Amida’s light, shining on me and everything around me.
On one hand, he is in touch with the greatest source of light and love that one can imagine and his job is to help other people shine. However, it is impossible to know what conditions any one person needs in order to shine, and most people do not enjoy being put on the spot, so to shine can sometimes feel like torture. He can only reflect it and trust that he has done his bit. Given that we foolish beings of wayward passion, then that is hard work, especially for those of us like me who once upon a time would have cried for not getting it right and felt criticised for being told that my suggestion was wrong. Rather than seeing Amida’s light everywhere I would have felt broken and wishing the earth would open up and swallow me.
There was a time not so very long ago when I thought I was broken on the inside and I did everything I could to reinforce that image. But, at that time, I did not know about Amida nor the Dharma. I never saw the light and seemed to dwell in a sort of darkness. I could easily identify with the Sufi mystics poems about being cracked and though I loved the idea of seeing the light better, it was more of a longing than a real and felt experience. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I just felt like the misfit, and the odd one out. Forever, hovering around the edges of a group, pretending to act like a member and taking steps to learn what ropes there were to learn until I felt like I was being pushed into the centre of the group, with more awkward experiences and more opportunities to fail, and I would feel so overwhelmed that I had to leave and find somewhere else where I could be the outsider, the foreign alien, and forever broken inside.
That was until Amida saved me from myself. Amida was my last chance at living life and the light was intriguing. Dharmavidya and a few others had a twinkle in their eyes that I can only put down to their faith. Incidents like the one in December were pretty common for me but I think it took about 7 years for me to really believe that I was still loved even though I kept on getting things wrong and messing things up.
Now, I can laugh easily about my foibles and I can laugh with others’ brokenness. When others, mainly my own children, get things wrong, I have learned to take the opportunity to smile and laugh at our foolishness, in order to minimize the emotional scarring that can come from scolding them for not being perfect. Apparently laughing 8 minutes a day has the same positive benefits that sitting and meditating for 45 minutes has on us, so you can only imagine how amazing and loving we could be as a society in general if we all learned to laugh at mistakes rather than swear or cry.
When awful things happen and we get burnt or we lose hope, it is Dharmavdya’s job to continue to encourage us to have faith and to continue to go forth passionately. When compassion dries up and wisdom slips away the last thing one feels is love. All our cracks feel raw and to expose oneself feels too vulnerable and yet he is always there reassuring us to turn toward the light and offer ourselves as we are with all our cracks and eventually we will hear Amida answer us with a question, ‘Cracks, what cracks?’ Just, “Namo Amida Bu.”
Happy Bodhi Day! Phase one of Christmas is now done and dusted and we are now on to the next festive period.
I thought that I would re-kindle the idea of occasional pastoral letters that Dharmavidya used to write to the Amida Shu about a decade ago as a gentle way for me to start to get used to my new role as deputy Head of the Order. He would send out a message of hope and love to all of us walking along this path. Some of us were living together under the same roof and practicing as a full training community which we referred to as a monastery without walls while others were half way across the world, on their own, with one or two people, or somewhere in between doing ministry work in a developing country, and every now and then these letters would provide inspiration and connection. Reminding us that we are all links in Amida’s golden chain, so that no matter where we were, we were never really on our own.
We are very blessed to have Dharmavidya back to his old healthy self. He has spent a full year on retreat, in his hermitage in France recovering from his illness.
His first assignment abroad was to teach his South Korean students Buddhist psychology and although he was a bit nervous about working with a group of students after a hiatus it was probably the best course yet. So much so that they have asked him to return and teach every August for the next three years.
His next engagement was the ITZI conference in Belgium which, due to great efforts by Jnanamati and other members of the organising group, attracted a wonderful collection of presenters from many countries including Russia, China, USA and Israel as well as many parts of Europe. We are hoping to hold the next one in two years time. probably in Netherlands.
Then Dharmavidya came to Amida Mandala Temple in the UK for the Bodhi gathering. I call it gathering rather than retreat because it felt more like a reunion between friends and with all the ceremonies and announcements there was a lot of celebrating. The temple is thriving and attracting more and more locals which is not surprising given the vows that Acharya Kaspalita, and Reverend Satya made when taking on the temple. We are definitely at a point where there is a strong core of people spread out all around the world spreading Amida’s message and engaging with our three slogans: Resist oppression, Assist the afflicted, and Demonstrate an alternative (RAD).
Amida Hawai’i deserves a bit of spotlight given their steadfast dedication in making their faith manifest as socially engaged Buddhism. They have a group of young Buddhists, known as Bodhi Buds, and a big congratulations to Ananda, who has taken on The Running Tide as editor (from Sanghamitra), and who is working with others to try and eradicate homelessness on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Keeping in touch with the wider international sangha, I also recently had some lovely Skype chats with Vimalishri and Pundarika in Israel, and Prajnatara in Canada, whose connection with Amida by a very strong chain link is as close as when I first met them at the Buddhist House 10 years or so ago. I’d also like to send greeting to our friends in India who I have not had the opportunity to meet yet: Suvidya and the sangha in Delhi and Siddhartha and the group in Bangalore. How admirable taking on the task of restoring Buddhism in the birth country! It has come full circle. So we have many links in the golden chain, not only with each other around the world, but to all the Buddhas of the past, present and future.
There isn’t space here to mention everybody, but it is a great experience to be part of this wonderful sangha in which we all help each other and support one another in the light of Amida. Go well this festive season and be blessed and full of joy.