Lately, another interesting book I have been reading is a biography of 13th century Buddhist monk, Myōe Kōben, and his advocacy of an esoteric practice called the the Mantra of Light, titled Shingon Refractions. Similar to the book I have been reading about Jōkei, a thirteenth century contemporary of Myōe, this is about another oft-neglected figure who also helped to revive traditional Buddhist institutions while taking to task the new Pure Land movement. But the book covers the latter subject only very briefly and talks more about Myoe’s approach to Buddhism and the Mantra of Light, a Shingon Buddhist practice, on his own terms, just as the Jokei book talk about Jokei on his own terms.
One of the interesting bits I wanted to pass along from the book was this quotation from the famous Japanese Buddhist text, the Ōjōyōshū, written centuries before by the famous Tendai Buddhist monk, Genshin, and a seminal text on Pure Land Buddhism. Trouble is, no one has done a comprehensive translation of the text in English as far as I can tell. But when I occasionally find quotations, I try to put online as much as I can, including this one:
One who seeks the Land of Bliss does not necessarily focus on the nembutsu. Each should abide in the realm of pleasurable ease by illuminating one of the other practices in a sustained manner. For example, there are practices of such dhāraṇīs as the Zuigu (Following Desire), Sonshō (Victorious), and [the Mantra of] Light of the Unfailing Rope Snare. By receiving, maintaining, invoking, and intoning them, all of which are within the various Mahayana teachings, one may attain birth in [Amida's] Land of Bliss.
As stated previously, recently, I’ve developed some disagreements1 with the exclusive-nembutsu practice advocated by Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. My contention is that the orthodox interpretation by Japanese Pure Land Buddhism leads to a limited, sectarian view of Buddhism, while ignoring so many other treasures it offers. The irony is that Genshin mentioned above is considered one of the patriarchs of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, and yet he advocates a more holistic approach.2 Even in the Pure Land Buddhist texts themselves, it frequently advocates a more comprehensive approach where one puts their whole being into it: moral conduct, prayer (e.g. sutras, nembutsu, etc), and study of the dharma.
What I find interesting about Genshin’s quote above is that he advocates other recitations alongside the nembutsu, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, but keeps it open-ended so people can use what works, or what fits their situation. The Mantra of Light, called the Mantra of Light of Unfailing Rope Snare here, is just one of many options, and as the book stated later, Myōe was somewhat unusual in teaching that it was in fact the best way (i.e. over the nembutsu). But as the book points out, Myōe was a firm believer in the Buddhist notions of expedient means and emptiness, and felt that that particular mantra fit his era and society best, without falling into an absolutist mind-set.
Pure Land Buddhism, to me, seems to work best when you think of it as a buffet. You can stick with one entreé, and it will satisfy hunger, but you’re missing out on the experience. Instead, one has a more rich experience when you try many entrees and see what works, while the goal and end-result will be the same. Everyone will have different tastes, but after trying a few entreé one settles down into a pattern that fits them, and chows down. For us Pure Landers of all stripes, the goal is rebirth in the Pure Land and encountering Amitabha Buddha’s light (wisdom and compassion), and ultimately Enlightenment. How we strive toward that goal shouldn’t run against any sense of orthodoxy or doctrinal hindrances, so long as it is well-rooted in basic Buddhist and Mahayana teachings. The Buddhist texts tend to speak for themselves rather well, I think.
So, enjoy that buffet, however much or little you prefer. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strive endlessly to save and assist all beings, so it is up to us to determine how to make the most of these excellent teachings and practices. Nothing short of the Pure Land and Enlightenment awaits.
P.S. I’ll dig up some more Ojoyoshu quotations later. I have them bookmarked elsewhere, but need time to sit down and parse things out.
P.P.S. Looks like this post somehow got sent out too early. Apologies to anyone looking for it.
1 Respectful disagreements ableit. A lot of wonderful people I know in that community deserve credit for their sincerity in putting the Dharma to practice.
2 Thanks to reader “Rory” for the “holistic” description.