Pure Land

While Buddha taught that spiritual awakening is available to anyone who quietly looks inside, years down the road, some who practiced his techniques reached the opinion that the teachings—called the “dharma”—were not necessarily realistic for everyone. One such person was a Buddhist monk named Shinran Shonin who lived in 12th century Japan. He was similar to Protestant reformer Martin Luther in that even as a devout monastic, he did not feel satisfied with his religious accomplishment.

Shinran understood intellectually what he was supposed to do during his regular meditation—stand apart from the activity of his mind, observe the stream of thoughts, recognize them for the illusory stories they are—but in practice this seemed nearly impossible to achieve. If this was so difficult for someone like him, who lived away from society and spent countless hours on the task, what about regular people who held jobs and raised families? Was the ultimate goal of attaining “nirvana” during their lifetimes realistic for them? How could they hope to benefit from what the Buddha taught?

This line of thought gave birth to a new variation of Buddhism called Pure Land. In some Asian countries, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, Pure Land is the most popular type of Buddhism. While this isn’t the case in the United States, it is still a widely practiced version of the faith, as evidenced by the local temple whose services, held on Sundays, I decide to attend.

Pure Land offers a unique interpretation of the Buddha: he was the human incarnation of an immeasurable entity, sometimes called “Amida Buddha” or “Eternal Buddha of Light.” This vast Buddha purposefully took human form to inspire humanity and someday, once the teachings of this human Buddha are forgotten, the eternal Buddha will once again walk the earth. The name “Pure Land” is a reference to a place that appears in the recorded teachings of this human Buddha, a fantastic setting where jewel-encrusted trees grow and lotus blossoms reach the size of city blocks. In Pure Land Buddhism, this location is an afterlife destination, a nirvana for anyone and everyone who maintained faith in the immeasurable Buddha during their lives.

Today’s Pure Land service takes place in a mid-century building lined in hedges trimmed with bonsai-precision. Though it is listed as a “temple,” it is part of a network of “Buddhist Churches of America,” so I suppose it is something of a bridge between two worlds. An Asian woman with a thick, swingy bob hair cut welcomes me with the day’s program. Inside looks and feels like a church with pews and an altar, though the elegant simplicity evokes the Japanese design aesthetic. It may have a church-like shape, but the program reveals a filling that is decidedly Buddha flavored. The congregation is called “the sangha,” the choir is the “sangha singers,” and kids attend “dharma school.” We won’t be singing hymns, but we’ll chant verses of dharma—repeated, handed down, and later written by Buddha’s followers—called “sutras.” A dharma discussion will take the place of a sermon.

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Sangha

Tonight I’m participating in a group, or “sangha,” that meets regularly to meditate. Like Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of people coming together to practice. Whether this speaks to the transformative alchemy of multiples or the importance of learning to put up with the guy with sniffles, or both, is hard to say.

Many sanghas are formed by the regular meditation periods held at the various Buddhist centers, but others are less formal groups of ordinary people who assemble on their own. I’m surprised to learn how prevalent these gatherings are—at the coffee shops and Buddhist establishments I visit around campus I pick up half a dozen little flyers advertising the different sanghas in the area. Some groups cater to a specific demographic, or life-experience, such as age range or gender or interest.

Others, like the one I select, are more general. Anyone who wants to meditate is invited to this one. It is held once a week, hosted in the office space of a nonprofit organization during off-hours. When I show up, about 20 people are already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a big circle. The majority here are males who appear to be in the first few years after college. They have that particular dishevelment of young men newly introduced to the regular work week. A smattering of young women breaks up the monotony of bedhead.

I join them on the floor. For several minutes, as we wait for a few stragglers to arrive, I feel exceedingly awkward wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between two strange boys. I fear that at any moment someone will pull out an empty bottle, place it in center, give it a whirl and I will be forced to endure the most uncomfortable game of Spin the Bottle known to humankind. Thankfully, this does not happen. The facilitator, a young man whose crisp shirt lends him an air of authority, announces that it is time to begin. He claps together two wood rods and everyone settles into stillness.

The soft focus of my gaze falls mid-circle; I can make out my fellow meditators along the periphery. It’s a new challenge to see those bodies, but not let them distract me from the task. I watch my thoughts approach and recede, resisting the urge to let them sweep me away. I start to enjoy the rhythm of my thinking, how the ideas rise and fall, rise and fall, like the surface of water.

I’m so relaxed. I’m floating on the sea. I think of the popular Buddhist analogy of the ocean: each of us is like a wave. We think of ourselves as distinct and separate entities but we come from, and return to, a common source. At this exact second, I understand this sentiment not just as an objective concept; I feel the absolute truth of it at the core of my being.

But it’s too big a thought and suddenly it scares me. A tingle of panic moves from my belly to my chest. It begins to block the air to my lungs. I think I’m about to pass out. Maybe I’m dying. I’m on the verge of grabbing the guy on my left and begging for help. He will understand. He will tell me to lie down and put my feet up. Everyone will stop meditating and come to my aid. One will fetch a cup of water; another will say it’s going be fine. The thought of the aid from my fellow meditators is enough to slow my pulse. I hang on another few seconds and the anxiety eases. I take a deep breath and the lightheadedness lifts. I’m going to be okay. Tears of gratitude come to my eyes; they don’t even know how much they helped me.