The Other Buddhism: Amida Comes West
By Caroline Brazier
Publisher: Winchester, UK: O Books, 2007.
A major theme in Caroline Brazier’s The Other Buddhism: Amida Comes West is that we ordinary mortals are incapable of successfully practising spirituality on our own and need the help of some enlightened being to achieve salvation. Pureland Buddhism’s answer to that need is nembutsu, the practice of calling on the name of the Buddha Amida, “the immeasurable expression of Buddha in the universe”. Brazier presents an in-depth exploration of the implications of a spirituality that relies not on the efforts of one’s self – which, though appreciated, are ineffective – but relies instead on what she broadly terms ‘the Other’.
The Amida school of Pureland Buddhism is the predominant form of Buddhism in Japan, although Zen Buddhism, also rooted in Japan, is better known in the West. Pureland and Zen teachings are often presented as mutually exclusive, but this is more an intellectual assessment rather than the reality on the ground. In fact Amidism is often practised in the same temples and by the same practitioners as Zen. Caroline Brazier, an engaged Buddhist and an active practitioner of Pureland Buddhism, writes in the preface:
This book offers a simple exploration of Pureland Buddhism. It is an attempt to convey something of the flavour of this rich tradition and to offer a way to practice in the Western context. The central message is one of hope that comes from an approach to faith which is both open and joyous. The core values of gratitude, humility and wonder, community and love speak to our condition.
Brazier begins with a discussion of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths. This fundamental teaching, accepted by all schools of Buddhism, “shows how we react to afflictions (dukkha). When we are faced with loss or affliction, feelings arise in us (samudaya) which are uncomfortable. One immediate reaction is to seek ways in which we can distract ourselves from this feeling. We develop craving for distraction (trishna).” Our sense of self, while illusory, is maintained and solidified through continual occupation with distractions.
According to Buddhist psychology, the sense of self can be seen as a way in which we attempt to control an apparently uncontrollable universe. In building our identities, we attempt to hold onto a feeling of permanence and continuity in the face of constant flux.… If building an unassailable sense of self is our aim, its constant erosion by reality creates distress and fear and this in turn drives us to want to create a more secure and rigid sense of self.
The Buddha’s teachings suggest that people “can unhook themselves from the object of their craving”. As the author expresses it, in the Four Noble Truths Buddha teaches that:
If we are able to interrupt the cravings that are taking over our lives, then the energy embedded in the feeling responses that arise in us can be harnessed (nirodha) for the spiritual path (marga). Our grief can become the fuel for our spiritual life. Once harnessed, we will naturally live in a way that is in tune with that way of being.
Brazier comments that this teaching “sounds good in theory, but the difficulty arises when we ask ourselves how we should go about putting it into practice”. We may try to break out of our deeply embedded mental patterns, but, she says,
The undercurrents of unconscious processes, of unrecognized manifestations of greed, hate and delusion, the three poisons that lie at the core of all mental afflictions according to Buddhist theory, pull us back into old habits. Our minds have unfathomable depths. We are as leaves on the surface of a pond, drifting with the currents that the wind whips up.
So far this dilemma is common to all forms of Buddhism. As Brazier explains it, Pureland Buddhism’s response to this dilemma is, in a nutshell, that “we are not of the nature to save ourselves through our own efforts”. Human nature is called bombu, a Japanese word with a derogatory meaning of ‘foolish’ or a ‘common person’. For many practitioners, the recognition of their own bombu nature does not come until after making great efforts to reach perfection and, on confronting complete failure, plunging into despair. Then, Brazier says, “We come face to face with our imperfect nature and drop our façade of competence. The despair that accompanies such an experience is the springboard for a more solid approach to life.”
According to Brazier, “The connection with what is not-self is the central message of the Buddha’s teaching.” In Pureland Buddhism, the Buddha Amida is ‘other’, a reality beyond the confines of the illusory self. But, the author clarifies, everything that is not-self is also ‘other’. In our unenlightened state, we believe that only our self is real, and do not even see other people or things as real. “We use each other as props to our psychological structures. In doing so, we do not respect others or recognize them as having existence in their own right. We incorporate them into our own agendas and viewpoints. Doing this we subtly undermine the integrity of life.”
Pureland Buddhism points us towards a deep appreciation for what is other… It sees the person as caught in a morass of deluded thoughts and perceptions. It sees how we are rescued time and again by the others in our lives. We are held and supported by our environment. We are cared for by other people. We live through grace.
But as we begin to awaken to our helplessness, our bombu nature, we begin to see that:
Despite all our limitations and failures, we are still wonderfully looked after. Despite our incompetence and lack of imagination, bigger processes of life go on. Beyond the messy realities of our individual lives, the great stories of history unfold. Despite all the problems of humanity, the sun still rises, and often the world is a beautiful place. All this we take for granted. Yet on it we ground our lives.
The author explains how “we are in a state of great dependency. We need food in order to stay alive, but the crops do not need us. We need sunlight, but the sun does not need us. We need air to breathe, but the atmosphere is not dependent on human activity to maintain its oxygen levels.”
With the dawning of such realizations, our awareness of non-self begins to develop.
Brazier points out that “gratitude is a fundamental aspect of Pureland Buddhism”. Opening up to gratitude is not easy. It “involves facing our pride and letting go of some of the defensive structures which we have created in order to protect us from knowing our vulnerability and dependence.” Through gratitude, even for ordinary gifts in our everyday lives, we begin to “allow ourselves to see the hidden workings of the universe, the compassion that surrounds and maintains our lives. This is both moving and difficult. There can be many tears.”
At a spiritual level, this willingness to allow other-power to take over from self-power is a moment of renunciation. It is the act of taking refuge.… Recognizing our limits brings us to the point where we no longer struggle. We are willing to let go and to allow ourselves to be rescued. It is often only when all else has failed that we go for refuge.
Thus, we develop “an attitude of appreciation that goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent”. As Brazier writes, “Although we may take refuge in other people, in physical objects and places, ultimately it is our relationship to the transcendent which sustains us.”
The author ends her book confessing the darkness of human nature and affirming the light: “For we are bombu. Our bombu nature has brought us to the brink. Not recognizing our limitations, we have forgotten how to sing in gratitude. We have lost our connection to the great, the wonderful and the immeasurable. Let us remember before it is too late. So in the dark times, will we dance in the light.”
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