11 September 2007

Zen and Pure Land

So I’d heard of Zen Buddhism before but all I was certain it involved was meditating and koan or riddles to derail conventional thinking. I didn’t know that Zen was just a sect within Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two main divisions in Buddhism. The other main strand of Buddhsim is Theravada Buddhism which calls itself the original Buddhism in that it came first and is built on the words of Buddha while Mahayana puts more emphasis on the historical Buddha's actions. Theravada encourages each of us to work hard on our own enlightenment, period. Mahayana suggests that the purpose of enlightenent is to help others.

While it’s possible to find both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism here and most other places in the world, Theravada Buddhism has over 100 million followers primarily in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Philippines, and Malaysia, while almost 200 million people practice Mahayana Buddhism - mainly in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism (whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama) comprises a much smaller group of about 20 million people who practice a form of Buddhism that’s a bit different than the two more populous sects.

But the Hsi Lai Temple says the kind of Buddhism practiced there is a combination of Zen (in Chinese: Ch'an) and Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land? I’d never heard of it. And yet this sect of Mahayana Buddhism is one of the most popular and widespread. In the book Huston Smith wrote with Philip Novak, Buddhism, he says the Pure Land school of Buddhism is often overlooked by Westerners because "when Westerners began tio be interested in Buddhism, its Pure Land school looked too much like Christianity to seem interesting." Zen Buddhism requires you to spend time. a lot of time, in meditation. In Pure Land, meditation is considered a good practice but there's no need to do it.

Pure Land, according to Huston Smith, says that, because so many people have become liberated in the past, they "have together produced nothing short of an infinite treasury of merit, a storehouse of salvific energy" that we regular folk can turn to for "unlimited help." This is why, for example, the Hsi Lai venerables taught us to say "Amituofo" - the Amtitabha Buddha's name - before everything. That name alone has the power to liberate and that idea is an example of the Pure Land part of the practice at the Hsi Lai Temple. Pure Land is much more popular than Zen in Japan, for example. It takes much less personal effort. In Zen, there's no being who can give you anything.

The historical Buddha was a real person named Siddartha Gautama who "woke up" then spent his life teaching others how to do it for themselves. He made no claims of divinity or even that he was the first or last "Buddha." In fact, "Buddha nature" is something everyone has, even you, even me. Zen Buddhism stays focused on that, on "waking up." In Zen, the task is to realize that, not to know it but to realize it. Pure Land says that's really hard and so you can apply for help from a Amitabha Buddha, a divine being whose name means Infinite Light.

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