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The Question of Exclusivism: Amidism is not monotheism

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      Dharmavidya:

      For some people, I notice, Amidism is close to being a monotheism. We come from a culture where monotheism has dominated for a couple of thousand years and wars have been fought over which is the correct monotheistic deity and even over fine points of how he is to be worshipped, so it is not unnatural that some people carry over some monotheistic attitudes. Furthermore, there are statements in Honen that can be taken as a basis for exclusivism. Among the Four Modes of practice that he includes in Ichimai Kishomon, for instance, is exclusive devotion to Amida Buddha, with the seeming implication that this excludes other Buddhas.

      However, in the Smaller Pureland Sutra – Amida Kyo – which Honen revered as one of the Three Pureland Sutras, it is apparent that there are Buddhas in all directions and in the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra, which is not on Honen’s list of three, but which was the first Pureland sutra translated into Chinese and was long the foundation of Pureland practice in China, the samadhi consists in perceiving Buddhas everywhere. Furthermore, the Amida Kyo makes clear that what beings in the Pure Land actually spend their time doing is visiting the Pure Lands of other Buddhas and making offerings and worshipping them in ways appropriate to those Buddhas. This, therefore is a manifesto for respect between all Buddhist denominations and, by implication, between all true religions. In this latter sense, a religion would be true if its primary deity had the characteristics of a Buddha.

      It is apparent, therefore, that in the Pure Land of Suklhavati, one of the main modes of revering Amitabha is actually the worship of other Buddhas in accordance with the styles appropriate to those Buddhas. Denizens gather the flowers that fall from the sky and take them as offerings.

      Flowers falling from the sky, means, in Buddhist parlance, results emerging out of shunyata. The image derives from the assault of Mara upon the Buddha-to-be on the night of enlightenment when Mara’s hosts are turned into celestial flowers. The point is that the Dharma-farer does not live within the normal samsaric round. In normal mentality, “nothing comes of nothing”, as King Lear disastrously affirms. However, in the way of noble ones, everything comes of nothing, which is to say, is done for love.

      Therefore, citizens of Sukhavati gather the fruits of love and offer them indiscriminately to innumerable Buddhas.

      As soon as a person gives rise to “a single moment of true faith” (ichinen) they are naturally accepted as a citizen of Sukhavati. This will become their destiny after death, but it is also their identity here and now in this life, rather as if one might have got one’s passport to travel The activity of Pureland Buddhists here in this life is, therefore, naturally, to anticipate life in the Pure Land. Although this world is full of problems – social, political, ecological, and so on – Purelanders are natural bodhisattvas, “springing from the earth”, as it says in the Lotus Sutra, to assist Shakyamuni in his work of transforming this very world. We are not going to succeed in making this world perfect any day soon, but we have a direction.

      Monotheism and exclusivism is dangerous, especially in the context of our Western culture where so much blood has been spilt and where, even today, powerful nations seek to impose their way of life upon others by force, which is as much as to say, “You will worship our god” even if it is only a coca-cola deity.

      Amidism is a path for those who serve all sentient beings, not merely an exclusive segment. We are simply foolish beings, but, nonetheless, we can use our secondary faculties to do what good we can, and it is clear enough from this examination of the sutras that doing good essentially means performing intentional acts of gratuitous kindness. It means that we are not bound by precedent conditions, nor by a need for results, but proceed in faith. Our actions, embedded in faith, naturally speak the Dharma, no matter how foolishly we enact them.

      It is clear from innumerable Mahayana sutras that the path to Buddhahood is the making of offerings to innumerable Buddhas. It is clear from the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra and the Amida Kyo that these Buddhas are to be found wherever one is and in all directions. There is nothing exclusive here in the sense of exclusivism that we are accustomed to in the West. Honen made his point about exclusion in order to simplify the practice, not in order to exclude beings from the beneficence of the Buddhas. First choose nembutsu, then everything becomes nembutsu, is the core of the message.

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