One day during our recent trip to Japan we escaped the heat and bustle of Kyoto for the tranquil town of Ohara, about a 45-minute bus ride into the mountains to the north. Among the rice paddies and frogs and cedar forests we came across a trio of wonderful temples: Sanzen-ji, famous for its moss gardens (Victoria put this at the top of her list of favorite places), Jikko-in, where shomyo chant has been taught for 1200 years (my Gregorian-chant-loving self was delighted to be in this place), and Shorin-in. This last temple is focused on a statue of Amida Buddha, and there I had the encounter I want to reflect upon now.
Amida Buddha, or the Buddha of Infinite Light, is the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, which is the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan today (though it’s not very well known in the West). Put simply, Amida is a savior – a figure of infinite benevolent intention who makes it easy as possible for all humans to reach enlightenment. In the Buddhist scheme of things, that means being reborn in a Pure Land, where everything is tuned to awakening – even the birds sing teachings from the dharma. Here’s a quote from the Amida Sutra:
“Shariputra, should good men and good women hear of the teaching of Amida and assiduously recite the nenbutsu invocation, “Namu Amida Butsu” (Homage to Amitabha Buddha) for one day, two days, three, four, five, six, or seven days, or more, then at the end of their lives, Amida Buddha will appear before their very eyes with his entourage of bodhisattvas and saintly disciples from the land of Ultimate Bliss. For that reason, in their last moment they will be without anxiety and Amida will bring them forthwith to be born in Amida Buddha’s land of Ultimate Bliss.”
Slightly adapted from http://www.jsri.jp/English/Pureland/SUTRAS/amidatrans2.html
It’s simple: just call on Amida’s name and you are propelled into awakening in the next life.
When I climbed the steps of Shorin-in, and came in under the eaves out of the bright sunshine, a monumental gold statue of Amida, perhaps 15 feet tall, sat blissfully across the space from me. A gold cord was suspended from the ceiling; one end was attached to Amida’s hands, gathered in a meditation mudra, and the other hung very near a meditation cushion where one could sit. (In the photos to the right you can clearly see the cord, as well as the meditation station in the lower photo.) The practice on offer was evidently to grasp that end of the cord and thereby connect oneself to Amida and his saving power. There was something unavoidable about that statue – and that cord. I was drawn back to it. I took it in my hand.
I won’t say that I had any visions or immediate insights. But something important did shift for me in that moment. Though I didn’t know why, it felt astonishingly good to hold that cord. It has taken a few weeks of reflection, and an entirely different encounter, for me to begin to understand it well enough to offer an explanation. But to do so, I need to share another story first.
Yesterday I went to visit my 93-year-old father in Portland. He sang for me, as he does whenever I ask him, the gospel song “Into My Heart”, which he performed as a boy at a Billy Sunday revival meeting in Kansas in the early 1930s. The relationship between me, Dad, and Christianity has always been complicated, and we have spent decades sparring about it. (Though his memory is failing and those conversations are all in the past now.) But the secret truth is that we are both deeply devotional men. We both love our wives in the fiber of our being. We both love to sing songs of praise and gratitude to the Divine Spirit. And we both know that “I am loved by the Universe” is the most important reality of all, even though our experience of it may flicker from day to day.
But his rendition of “Into My Heart” also reminds me of something even more specific that we, despite our history of theological feuds, also share. We do in fact have a devotional relationship with the same loving Savior. When I was four years old, too young even to remember the exact circumstances, I too invited Jesus into my heart. It was many years later, after uncounted riotous and absolutely necessary excursions to the boundaries of planetary spiritual consciousness, that I came to realize that he has never left me. Completely patient, completely understanding, completely present to my journey, Jesus is still there in my heart, and is still my root guru.
This reality emerged successively through many chapters. Most recently, as I have traveled the shamanic path these last three years, Jesus has appeared to me dozens of times while in trance state and has been perhaps the most central and consistent sacred presence in my journeys. I do not claim this as any special revelation: it’s just the natural process of my imagination finding its point of connection to sacred intuition. I trust Jesus (a good old evangelical formulation) and know that these experiences are valid and genuine. They have been essential for helping me open up to the depths of wisdom and blessing and healing that are unfolding for me and through me.
Through all those experiences, Jesus has been for me a wise counselor and teacher, a mentor and even a friend (another good evangelical word). But “Savior” has not really been part of that story. That word has conjured up for me more difficult and painful childhood memories, instigated not by my parents but by the churches we went to, of guilt and most importantly of shame. I knew intuitively early on that those emotional threads did not conduct light but darkness and so, once I found the courage, I severed them. That was the right thing to do for the care of my own soul, and it opened up possibilities to find spiritual nurturance from a multitude of sources (which I have been happily exploring ever since). But by leaving behind Jesus-as-Savior, I left behind also the spiritual community of my birth, and in that one important way I put a significant constraint on my connection with my parents.
And this is why the touching of the cord of connection with Amida Buddha at Shoren-in was so moving and liberating for me. Down that golden cord came to me a reconnection with the purest and most light-filled saving grace (Amida Buddha means “Buddha of Infinite Light”). Perhaps it was the exoticism of the moment that allowed me to let go of the resistance I had acquired in youth and have held in suspension since then. Perhaps it is the deeply wise underpinnings of the Buddhist philosophy that contains the Pure Land teachings. But there was something else: a Presence of something real beneath those explanations. It brushed aside all objections, touched me in my heart, and healed me. It felt very much like a long-forgotten aspect of Jesus, reawakening and offering itself in service to the highest good.
In Buddhism there is a distinction between “self-power” and “other-power”. Self-power means that you do the work to attain enlightenment. Other-power means that you have, and almost certainly need, help to attain enlightenment. There are many permutations and points along a spectrum between the two, but simply put, Zen embraces self-power and Pure Land embraces other-power. It is fundamentally the debate between
You have to walk that lonesome valley
You have to walk it by yourself
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
The Jesus I have known and walked with through the years is very much a “self-power” Jesus, one who reminds me that “the kingdom of heaven is within you”, and “what a man sows, that’s what he will reap”. Self-power has drawn me to Buddhism (the Tibetan Buddhism I studied for a few years placed a great emphasis on this personal responsibility). Self-power is also a big part of what attracts me to shamanism; helping spirits and teachers are there to assist, but you as a practitioner need to determine how to proceed on the path. This orientation has always felt true and right to me. (I have some further reflections on this dynamic in the post Odysseus Builds His Raft.)
Ever since grabbing that cord, I find myself confronted with the reality of other-power. I am reflecting on the help I need, the limitations I have, the brevity of my life. I am remembering my father’s joy when he told me about his conversion experience and how it was the first time he realized that he was really loved for who he was, without conditions. I’m hearing Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace.”
I came back from Japan full of inspiration to bring Buddhist practice back into my life. That is happening in some wonderful ways – and part of the practice is recitation of the nembutsu mentioned above, the act of “calling on the name of the Lord” in devotion, in trust, in gratitude, in recognition that I can’t do it all on my own. “Namandabu” is the phrase in Japanese, and it is the phrase I am using. Deep in my heart, though, this practice is also shifting something in that long-standing relationship with Jesus, waking up old memories and new spiritual possibilities. While I’m uncertain how these inner movements will affect the work I do and how I do it, the path I walk and who I walk it with – I’m open to grace. I’m open to the working of other-power.
Thank you to you, Amida Buddha, for your grace bestowed at Shonin-in, through that golden cord!