The Buddha Appears through the Individual

The Buddha Appears through the Individual
Talk At The 48th London Eza

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The title of today’s talk, The Buddha Appears through the Individual, actually comes from something my master, Venerable Chimyo Takehara, said at one of the daily meetings held at our temple in Japan.

It is not, therefore, a learned, academic pronouncement, just something culled from ordinary, everyday talk. I feel, however, it reveals something important of our daily experience. The word individual in Japanese is kojin which can also mean human or person. In my translation I have chosen the word “individual” in its ordinary sense, meaning a single person or human being. By ‘individual’ in this context I mean a human being with self-awareness or self-relatedness. In Buddhist philosophy, as you know, a human being is never an indivisible entity. I will go into this latter point in more detail later on.

Buddhism teaches that a human being becomes a Buddha. In Buddhism all sentient beings are believed to have the possibility of attaining Buddhahood. Seen from this perspective there seems to be nothing special about the statement that the Buddha appears through the individual.

In Buddhism, however, there are many different schools that appeared in the course of this religion’s long history and each of them has its own interpretation of the instructions given by the Buddha. Although they are all confident of the basic teaching that a human being becomes a Buddha, their interpretation of this crucial point does reveal subtle variations.

In Shin Buddhism, the tradition to which Three Wheels belongs, people do not say “I am a Buddha” or “I have become a Buddha,” during their lifetime. What they believe is that, on attaining Birth in the Pure Land, they will become Buddhas.

In Pure Land Buddhism in general, Birth in the Pure Land refers to Birth that takes place at the very moment of death. According to Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), the founder of Shin Buddhism, the phrase “Birth in the Pure Land” has two meanings: 1) the attainment of faith in this life and 2) birth in the Pure Land at the moment of death. What is all-important in Shin Buddhism is the attainment of faith whilst living in this world. This is called the instantaneous attainment of Birth in the Pure Land, based on a phrase from The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life: “When they desire to be born in the Pure Land, they will immediately be born there and abide in the stage of non-retrogression.” This phrase is considered to be the most important phrase to describe the attainment of faith in the here and now. Once faith, the first Birth in the Pure Land, has been attained, there is no problem about the second Birth to be attained at the moment of death. The latter is believed to take place very naturally, no matter how the person may die, insane, agonized, unconscious or mindful of the Buddha.

Why is the experience of attaining faith called ‘Birth in the Pure Land’? It is because the faith-experience includes a sort of mental death. Faith-experience is birth after the death of a selfish way of living. In the course of my talks I have been saying faith is awakening in Buddhism and with this awakening our selfish lives are brought to an end and we begin a new way of living, living by the nembutsu. Saichi (1850-1932), a devout Shin Buddhist poet, declares:

Having finished his death and funeral,
Saichi lives in this world with Namuamidabutsu.
Saichi is Amida,
Amida is Saichi.

Amida’s Name having come to Saichi,
And finished my last moment,
How relieved I am in the nembutsu-
Into which I’ve been called, taken by you.

Buddhism says that we should go beyond our selfish lives in order to live our lives more happily. At the start of his book entitled An Open Heart the Dalai Lama declares: “I believe that every human being has an innate desire for happiness and does not want to suffer. I also believe that the very purpose of life is to experience this happiness. I believe that each of us has the same potential to develop inner peace and thereby achieve happiness and joy.”

I very much agree with him about this. Buddhists, because of their desire for inner peace and happiness, are acutely conscious that life is full of suffering, something that prevents inner joy and happiness.

There are many kinds of suffering or distress that make us unhappy and frustrated. If you examine all these forms of suffering carefully with calm and deep contemplation, you will find that their main cause lies in your attachment to your own self, to your selfish desires or your self-centered views, based on those desires. If you continue to be attached to your own world and insist on your opinion, it will make not only you but also others unhappy and distressed. The more selfish attachment you have, the more afflictions there will be in your life. Such an agonizing life will hurt those around you too and the damage you do to yourself will be further magnified through the harm it does to others. Sufferings based on our attachment give rise to negative feelings such as anger, hate and revenge, leading eventually to quarrels and wars. No war born out of hatred and the desire for retaliation can ever be approved and such a war will only bring about more misery for mankind.

How can we free ourselves from this sad situation? Firstly we should recognize the reality of suffering; secondly we should become aware of its cause. A clear understanding of the reason for our suffering is the way to abolish it.

There are innumerable paths in Buddhism that will lead us to this end and Shin Buddhism is one of them. In Mahayana Buddhism they are closely related to the philosophy of Emptiness (sunyata in Sanskrit).

I am afraid I have no time to get into anything but the barest details regarding the philosophy of Emptiness. Roughly speaking Emptiness can be explained in the following three ways: 1) Nothing has any intrinsic existence, 2) Subject and object originate [or disappear] interdependently and 3) All the phenomena of this world are interdependently related.

1) Nothing has any intrinsic existence and everything is made up of different elements. What is called the self, for instance, is not an eternal entity but a composition of the five aggregates (skandhah in Sanskrit): form, perception, mental conceptions, volition and consciousness. Not only the self but also the five aggregates that compose it are without substance. The self is empty of substance or intrinsic existence. There is no eternal entity like atman or soul. What we call the self is only a lable.
2) Concerning the eye-consciousness that there is a rose, for example, this consciousness is a result of the interrelation between a sense-organ (the eye) and a sense-object (the rose). If either of these were missing there would be no such consciousness. So it is said that because there is A (the eye) there is B (the rose) or because there is B there is A and at the same time because there is not A there is not B or because there is not B there is not A. Emptiness is the realization of this truth. Emptiness is the Vacuum where all the phenomena of the world originate and disappear interdependently.
3) Based on the philosophy of Emptiness, the philosophy of perfect interpenetration was developed, as seen in the Avatamsaka Sutra: in an interdependent and interpenetrating relationship each phenomenon bears a dynamic relation to all other phenomena and each experience contains within itself all other experiences. For instance there is a formula: All is in all, all is in one, one is in all and one is in one. It should be understood that this dynamic interpenetration all takes place simultaneously.

The philosophy of Emptiness is the profound thought process by which an Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna (born around 1st or 2nd century), tried to explain the truth of Buddhism, the content of Gautama Buddha’s Enlightenment, based on his own experience. Emptiness stands for the way things are or for the truth known as tathata, which is usually translated as True Suchness, Thusness or As-it-is-ness. This is the spiritual world of infinite light.

Usually we ordinary beings live our lives beset by illusion far removed from this fundamental truth. As mentioned before, at the core of our illusions is our tenacious attachment to the self or to our self-centered view of the world. The reality that we consider to be true is nothing but illusion. If you would like to use the word reality, you can call it reality but only in the sense that it is the reality of our illusions. Everything is impermanent in the flux of change, but we tend to think of things around us as being ever-lasting. All that we can understand about an object is just one tiny part of the object, because of the limitations of our cognitive abilities, our five sense organs and our intellect, but we think and indeed insist that our understanding is not illusory but true and that what we understand exists quite definitely with its own intrinsic substance. The structure of our self-centered consciousness prevents us from realizing the importance and vastness of the invisible part of an object.

Because of our attachment to our selves and our self-centered views of the world, we are ensnared in darkness by negative feelings such as suffering, agony, anger, hatred, revenge and violence. Eventually we end up hurting both ourselves and other people too in this world so full of discrimination and opposition.

How then can we escape from this dark world of duality and reach the spiritual world of infinite light where we can share happiness with others? How can we leave this world and reach the other shore? These two worlds seem very different. Is the spiritual world, the land of infinite light, very far away from the world we inhabit? In as long as we are suffering in this world of illusion, the world of Enlightenment or Emptiness appears infinitely remote. But it is a kind of mental distance. This world of illusion has its being inside the world of Emptiness and the latter is the foundation of the former, because Emptiness is the principle by which to explain our illusions. Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form, as expressed in the Heart Sutra.

As mentioned above, there are many ways to reach Enlightenment. In Pure Land Buddhism it is Amida Buddha that connects the dark world of illusion and the spiritual world of Enlightenment. In other words Amida Buddha is the working of Emptiness that emerges from the spiritual world to save us from suffering in this world of illusion.

In Mahayana Buddhism there are two kinds of Buddha-kaya (Buddha-body): 1) One is rupa-kaya and 2) the other is dharma-kaya. Shakyamuni Buddha is a good example of rupa-kaya (form-body). Whilst rupa-kaya refers to a Buddha who appears in this world by taking on form, dharma-kaya (Dharma-body) refers to the content of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, which is formless and synonymous with Emptiness. This dharma-kaya is further divided into two: “Dharma-kaya as Dharma-in-itself and Dharma-kaya in its manifested form” (The Commentary on [Vasubandhu’s] Treatise of the Pure Land by Tan-luan (476-542)). In this context “Dharma-kaya in its manifested form” stands for Amida Buddha and is also called sambhoga-kaya (Recompense-body) in the sense that it is a Buddha-body in recompense for the Buddha’s Original Prayer. Let me quote from The Commentary on the Treatise of the Pure Land: “The two modes are distinguishable in the Dharma-kaya, whose manifestations are Buddhas and bodhisattvas. One mode is the Dharma-kaya as Dharma-in-itself; the other is the Dharma-kaya in its manifested form. The manifested form exists depending on the Dharma-in-itself, and the Dharma-in-itself is known by expressing itself in its manifestations. These two modes are distinguishable but are not to be regarded as two independent existences. They are one and yet not to be identified. Therefore, they are to be understood as the interfusion of the general and the particular under one word, Dharma. If the bodhisattva fails to understand this interfusion, he may not be able to work out the self-benefiting and the others-benefiting.”

This quotation is perhaps a bit too long and too technical for today’s talk. My intention in reproducing it, however, is simply to show that Amida Buddha is a manifestation of the Dharma itself. D. T. Suzuki states in the Buddha of Infinite Light, “Amida Buddha is shown to represent this altruistic impulse that is deeply rooted in human nature, perhaps rooted in the cosmos itself.” Amida Buddha is a manifestation of the Dharma as the working of unconditional love that comes from Enlightenment.

In Shin Buddhism we take refuge in Amida Buddha in order to free ourselves from the misery of this world. With great penitence for our grave karmic offences when we have hurt both ourselves and others, we entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha. At the moment of entrusting ourselves the wall of our self-consciousness collapses and Amida’s light comes pouring in and pierces through our consciousness. The Meditation Sutra states: “It embraces us all and abandons none.” One who attains faith in Amida Buddha is filled with joy at being freed from selfish attachments. All this is the natural working of Emptiness itself or the Dharma-body. It clears all the selfish attachments from our minds and leads us to realize that we are all interdependent, in other words, through the experience of Emptiness we come to understand the reality of interdependent origination. We become aware of how much has been done for each one of us. It fills our minds with pure light. Thus, when we see a person attain faith we also see the Buddha appear through that individual person.

If we are happy to have attained faith or Enlightenment we will want others to become happy too, so we try to be altruistic. But I feel very sad to find how difficult it is for me always to love others. Nevertheless on this path to the Pure Land I am very happy to find myself surrounded and supported by good friends and good relatives. Although interpersonal relationships are never easy to perfect, I am sure that through true encounter with a single individual, whether teacher or mental friend, we can come to find those around us as Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Kemmyo Taira Sato