By Enkei Joseph Mendyka
Summer has officially come to a close in the past few weeks and if you’re reading this in the northern hemisphere, you’re probably experiencing the shift toward the close of the year. Endings are often hard for people, regardless of what form they come in. The end of the summer is no different. The winter months are dark and cold. From shoveling driveways to slogging commutes, seasonal blues to holiday hassles, the winter is a long way off from those summer memories we worked hard at creating and are already anticipating during the summer to come. Winter is, also, a time of year that foreshadows the end of our life in this precious human existence.
As I drove up through Boulder Canyon this afternoon, though, I reflected on the lessons that autumn has to teach us about Buddhist practice and preparing for the end. As Doko has shared with us in the past, mindfulness of the Buddha Amitābha (Sanskrit for Infinite Light, Amida in Japanese) is one very important practice in preparing for the end of our lives. For advanced students of Tendai this is a practice of body, speech and mind. The general practice involves the practitioner engaging in a period of walking meditation while visualizing the Buddha Amitābha dwelling in his pure land, Sukhāvatī (Sanskrit for Land of Bliss) and chanting a mantra praising this buddha.
Many have dismissed this practice of buddha-smṛti (Sanskrit for buddha mindfulness,nembutsu in Japanese) as simply an act of popular piety. The several sutras that discuss nembutsu explain that the Buddha Amitābha has vowed to establish a pure land where those who practice nembutsu with sincerity and faith be reborn. On its face and without any understanding of Mahāyāna Buddhism, it would be easy to mistake this profound devotional act as simply a superficial act for the unlearned masses to feel engaged with a sophisticated religion.
This view, however, fails to recognize the intimate relationship between these practices and the yogācāra teachings. Writings throughout Buddhist history have recognized how mindfulness of the Buddha can transform the practitioner’s mind leading to a direct experience of the mind of the Buddha. In the Indian master Vasubandhu’s Sukhāvatīvyūha-upadeśa, a commentary on the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, he explains that the nembutsu practice culminates in āśraya-parāvṛtti. This is a Sanskrit term familiar to those who have studied yogācāra that translates as, “conversion of the base.” The base that is referred to hear is the ālaya-vijñāna (Sanskrit for storehouse consciousness), a collective unconscious inside that contains the karmic seeds that serve as the cause for the cycle of painful existence for all beings. To put it rather (perhaps too) simply, according to yogācāra teachings, it is the transformation of our experience of this consciousness from the deluded view of possessing characteristics of good, bad and neutral to tathata (Sanskrit for suchness) or the universe just as it is, that constitutes the attainment of enlightenment. In this conversion, the practitioner’s inherent enlightenment is revealed as having always already been a part of her or his potential.
This inherent enlightenment, often referred to as Buddha-nature, is not something that is created or attained. Instead, it is something that is allowed to appear once our own discursive thoughts and conceptualizations are replaced with a remembrance of the mind of the Buddha Amitābha. I find it powerful to consider that the word that is translated as “mindfulness” also connotes a sense of recollection. It is not that we become aware of some perspective that we never held, but rather, that return again to a way of seeing that we enjoyed once before in the primordial past. Such an experience of revelation can occur only when, in faithful dedication to one’s practice, there is a total relaxation and surrender into the buddhas. When one experiences the mind of an enlightened being—a being who does not experience a discrimination between inner and outer, body and environment—one also experiences the pure land of that buddha. As Zhiyi explains in his Ten Doubts About the Pure Land, to enter into the pure land of any buddha is to enter into the pure lands of all the buddhas. When we entrust ourselves into the vow of the Buddha Amitābha and practice the nembutsu, we are offered the chance to encounter this sublime state.
It was this sublimity that came to mind during my canyon drive today, chanting the mantra and bringing to mind this wonderful being. You see, because of Buddha Amitābha’s vow to create a pure land where all who express their faith in him can be reborn, he is particularly associated with the final moments of life. It is this period that Mahāyāna Buddhists are often led in nembutsu practice to encourage a clear vision of this cosmic guide into enlightenment in his great golden splendor.
Yet, the end is always upon us in some way. Whether it is the end of our life, our year, a relationship, a period of our lives that we especially cherish or just the end of the day, things come to a close. We dread that intermediate period when we don’t know where we’ll land and what the next thing will look like. We can become so anxious about what is next that we forget to enjoy the amazing moment that is happening right now. And then a burst of golden beauty shines along the roadside from an aspen gracefully preparing for the winter. Not resisting, but simply being in a world of changing seasons, the tree experiences the world just as it is. This encounter reminded me that the nembutsu gives us an opportunity to notice and to have our whole attitude about past, present and future turned upside down. Trusting in the vast wisdom of the minds of the buddhas, we can relinquish our storylines about good and bad, victimhood, poverty, success and achievement. In the bliss of the space in between all of our labels, the beauty of things just as they are reflects back to us as a still, mirror-like mind. In the flash of a tree full of quivering aspen leaves, the “end” is no longer the end of anything, but an encounter with eternal peace.
For more information on the theology of nembutsu, see:
Kiyota, M. “Buddhist Devotional Meditation: A Study of the Sukhavativyuhopadesa.” In Mahayana Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice, Minoru Kiyota, ed., 1978, 249-296.
Payne, R. “The Five Contemplative Gates of Vasubandhu’s Rebirth Treatise As a
Ritualized Visualization Practice.” In The Pure Land Tradition: History and Development. James Harlan Foard, Michael Solomon, and Richard Karl Payne, eds., 1996, 233-266.
Tâm, Thiền. Pure Land Buddhism: Dialogues with Ancient Masters. Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, 1992.
For more information on whether nembutsu practice is appropriate for you, consult a qualified meditation instructor.