Today, to start off the new year, I just want it to be a new year of infinite light. For those who are on our e-mail list, I sent you a three-page guided visualization based on a very famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and I have just adapted it for our sake.
You can actually take any enlightened being, or any figure, and use them as a symbol of that ultimate reality. It could be Amitabha, it could be Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion), it could be Jesus--It could be anyone. Anyone who is a transparent soul to see clearly through them, to the ultimate reality. For many Buddhists, we like to use Amitabha as a symbol of this ultimate reality. Amitabha, historically, has had different meanings--especially mythological meanings. I just want to share with you my understanding of Amitabha.
If you are not on our e-mail list, you can get on our e-mail list by signing up on the sheet out there in the hallway. In the meantime, you can always just download it online, because it is on the little box on the homepage that says, "Letters to the Sangha," and also, "InterMindful News" for January 1, 2014. You can always download this as well. It is a really beautiful meditation, and not only is it a meditation, it is a teaching, and it really clearly shows you what I am going to be teaching about today.
So, historically in Buddhism, there are many different schools that have developed. One of the schools of Buddhism that developed maybe around the first century about 400 or 500 years after the Buddha started Buddhism—it was part of the Mahayana movement of Buddhism. The "MahaYAna" or "MaHAyana," as it is actually pronounced, means, "Great Vehicle." And so, that movement within Buddhism was a part of a movement of many, many Buddhist practitioners who felt the need to revitalize and renew Buddhism so that it wasn't just kind of stuck and just a literal kind of one way of doing things. So it opened up the possibility of new, fresh insight.
In early Buddhism, they were trying to follow what the Buddha said, literally (to human ears), for as many years--as best as they could. Of course different people have different versions of what the Buddha actually taught, but when Mahayana Buddhism developed, it was trying to understand that not only did the Buddha teach in words to humans, but the Buddha also taught in other realms, and that the Buddha taught in other states of consciousness.
Even early Buddhism admits they understand that this happens sometimes, because sometimes the Buddha would transport himself to another realm and talk to different beings like devas and angels, and other beings in different realms. Even early Buddhism understood that "yes, that did happen", but in Mahayana Buddhism they really took this seriously, and they started with the monk's meditations and all of these other peoples' meditations--they started to get in touch with other realms of consciousness.
In those realms of consciousness: they gained insight, and wisdom, and fresh, new, understandings of the Buddhist teachings. [They learned] that words may be transmitted in the recordings of literal Buddhism, but they were a development--a deeper understanding based on them, not in contradiction of them. So it was okay in Mahayana Buddhism to have new teachings; new scriptures were written based on these enlightened experiences of these monks and nuns. You have the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra as examples that were developed in this movement, with beautiful insights and new insights--not in contradiction of the foundational teachings, but a more expansive understanding.
One of the insights was to emphasize not solitary enlightenment, and liberation from suffering—I am going to
"practice, practice, practice" until I am liberated from suffering, and I can just go off and "be emptiness (or whatever)". The emphasis was that: no, we practice so that we become like bodhisattvas, beings who are practicing for enlightenment--not just for ourselves, and to be liberated from suffering, but in fact it may even require that we do suffer to help all beings. Which is a very different attitude.
The first attitude is, "oh my gosh, I have to get out of this suffering as soon as possible". Rather in this new attitude, it is like: "no"--we are going to be enlightened; not for ourselves, but for others--and it may require for us to suffer along the way as we help other beings. There is no longer this fear of suffering. Even if we've done all of our work here and learned all of our lessons and cleansed all of our karma, and we are ready to just be liberated...but a bodhisattva still comes back--chooses willingly to come back into this world, or other worlds or lower worlds, to help beings there.
Amitabha was one of the first teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, and it was in the form of a story, in the form of mythology. All of the later Mahayana teachings are the same teachings of Pure Land teachings, but the first teaching was in the form of a story. The other teachings had stories too, but they were more about doctrine and more about emptiness and non-duality and things like that.
Truth isn't always just expressed in logical, scientific ways. Sometimes truth is really beautifully expressed in poetic ways. The Pure Land Buddhist tradition, which speaks of Amitabha, is one of those traditions that emphasizes trying to transmit the truth through a story, through mythology, through a poem, through imagery. The Amitabha Sutra, if you ever read it, don't try to read it as literal only. Read it as if it is a visualization meditation manual. Whether or not you believe that there is some realm with all the beautiful trees of light and whatever; think of it more as a practice.
If you practice this visualization, it will help you get in touch with certain realities. The symbol of Amitabha Buddha. The story is... that a long, long, time ago in a faraway galaxy, there was a monk named Dharmakara—and by the way, it is a nice symbolic name. Dharma is the truth; Kara means a storehouse. In Buddhism, the storehouse consciousness is likened to our deepest consciousness that holds all of our memories, and all potentialities.
This monk, who represents our potentiality, all of us, our collective reality, was helping to serve one Buddha in another realm, and he really had this desire—he wanted to make it easier for beings to enter into the path of enlightenment and realize enlightenment. So he asked permission from the Buddha he was serving to please go off and explore other Buddhas and ask them for advice and look at what they have been doing. So, he goes off in this story to all these other realms.
In Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, it is taught in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism that every Buddha has a Buddha-field, a buddha-ksetra, a Pure Land. Later on, the Chinese translated it as Pure Land, but Pure Land is too literal. It is really a "field of enlightenment". You can imagine that every Buddha radiates a field of enlightenment and it can manifest into a visible form just to help people. It can also simply be an energy, the energy of love, compassion.
In a way, all of us, since we are all "baby Buddhas", have our own Pure Land, our own Buddha-field that radiates. It might be small, but that's okay. Then collectively--when we come together as a sangha, or community, we create a collective energy field of enlightenment. It can realize itself like in this particular building, right? So, Pure Land can be a literal place, but also, it can be a field of collective energy.
Someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who is an enlightened teacher on the planet, has a very large Buddha-field. I have experienced it, and many people do-- and when you go to retreat with him, you can feel that collective energy-- and not only coming from him, but from all of the practitioners, monks and nuns, all the laypeople together create this healing energy field. It is very palpable, and of course that collective energy field has now literalized itself in the monasteries in California, in New York, and Plum Village (as well as other places).
Pure Land has the literalized meaning, but it comes from the energy field, because if there wasn't that energy field, they wouldn't build these centers, these monasteries, right? This energy field, every Buddha has this energy field, not just Amitabha. Dharmakara visited all of these places, all of these Buddha fields, all of these Pure Lands of all these various Buddhas. Why? He was trying to find out what it is that they did to make their Buddha-fields so beautiful and special. What were the qualities, and what skillful means did they use to help other beings in this story?
When he found out about all of these various ways that different Buddhas did things to help beings, then he came back to his particular Buddha, and he made 40-something vows (and you can read about these vows); basically, it was that he vowed that he was going to become a Buddha, but he would not be a Buddha unless all of these things could be done, fulfilled, because he wanted all beings to be helped.
And so, one of the vows was that "unless anyone, with a sincere heart, who calls upon my name to ask me for help—if they do not receive that help, they will not become a Buddha. He was putting his own Buddhahood at stake with these vows. [Almost like] "I refuse to become a fully enlightened being--unless that when someone calls my name, they are helped sincerely".
This is a symbol not just of Dharmakara and Amitabha, but all true myths are symbols of us. It is a way of looking at
ourselves, but through a story or a poem. When you meditate on it, you realize that this is just trying to say that a true
bodhisattva is someone who does their best to learn from the best, so that they can use as much as possible to help
This is sort of my story too, because I have gone to different retreats and different monasteries and different teachers to learn what it is they are doing that is so helpful. Then I took all of what I learned and, and I created the Dallas Meditation Center. I really love this story because that inspired me to do that too-- to create a Pure Land here so that people are helped. Even the children are helped through all the people who help with the children's program. The way we do our meditation, and our format, and our style makes it more relevant for people, and easier and more accessible, and less scary.
But that is just one way I am doing it. It might not reach everybody, but that is just what I am trying to do, and others hopefully are doing the same thing. You also can do the same thing. You are a baby Buddha creating your own Pure Land through your words and actions, relationships, your work. There are so many different ways we can learn how to be better bodhisattvas, and this story helps us.
When you meditate on all the beautiful things in the Pure Land; the Pure Land, to me, is an embodiment of the invisible qualities of love and compassion and peace and wisdom which radiates from all Buddhas. When we meditate on Amitabha as one story, eventually you get to a state of consciousness where you are going beyond the story and you touch the source of reality.
I had that experience a few years ago, where I was meditating, and I was just breathing in, "Ami," breathing out, "Tabha." "Ami," "Tabha." I did this for a few years, and all of a sudden one morning, it was as if a breeze blew right through my room and just washed over me and all of my anxieties and fears or worries or struggles about trying to get money just completely melted off of me. In that instant, I realized this is the meaning of Amitabha and of Sukhavati, the Pure Land--the true source of happiness. It was just this realization, "wow, so all of these years I have been trying to practice it. Now I realize this is the reality". It was such a peaceful feeling. It was a feeling of complete non-struggle.
That's one of the wonderful things about Pure Land practice is it helps us to get in touch with the quality of non-struggle. In Thich Nhat Hanh's community, he doesn't always explicitly teach about the Pure Land, but once in a while, if he gives a hint, because he says, "Here is the Pure Land. The Pure Land is here," to remind us that the Pure Land is not just a myth or some faraway galaxy. It is a reality here and now that we all co-create. And he has expressed it in Vietnamese, and in the monastery in California he has this big giant circle that says, Vo Su. In Vietnamese, busylessness. Busy-less-ness: Non-struggle.
In Chinese, we call it, "wu wei," non-action, which basically means we do action, but it is with the spirit of not doing it: like no struggle. It is just effortless, effervescent effortlessness. And that is just another way of saying the same thing as this Pure Land practice that helps us to get in touch with the quality that you in the Christian tradition call "grace". Grace. And this was important because sometimes Buddhists in the more Zen and Vipassana traditions tend to get a little bit more serious, and sometimes it is even kind of a little dry.
So the Pure Land practice can help complement this. In fact, in Chinese Buddhism, it is very common for the practitioners to blend Zen and Pure Land together so that the Zen gives you the discipline, and the seriousness, and the follow-through, and the Pure Land practice helps to put ease and grace and busylessness, basically, the quality of just knowing that it is "going to be okay in the end"; all is well. At the end of the whole story and journey, all is well. And if things are not well, then it is not the end of the story yet--but at the end of our story, our journey; all is well.
When you feel like all is not well, just remember it is not over yet. It is not yet over. There's still more to come. Iin Pure Land practice, it helps me to remember that, and what I experienced was, "Ah. I don't have to struggle to be enlightened. Enlightenment is already my birthright and my destination. There is nothing that can stop me from becoming enlightened." Now, depending on my choices, it may be longer or shorter, but nothing can stop me from that.
In the Christian tradition, you say it like this: "Nothing can stand in the way of the love of God for me. No power, no
principality, no being, no person, no kings, no whatever, no sword, no calamity: Nothing separates me from the love of
God." That is the Christian way of saying the same thing. Nothing can stop you from becoming the Buddha that you
are meant to be, but it might take a little longer depending on your choices; but even that is okay, because even when
you make yourself take a longer time, you learn so much in hell. [Audience:laughter] You learn so much in purgatory
that you created for yourself. [Audience:laughter]
Even the sufferings of the crazy bad choices we make actually keep teaching us. That is the genius of this universe. Everything is useful. The good experiences of course are always nice, but even the bad experiences teach us. So nothing is wasted- and everything is created in such a way to lead us to enlightenment. And so I realized that enlightenment is really ultimately a gift and not just part of my self-effort. Yes, of course, I do self-effort and I have to keep at it, but that does not even come from my "so-called me".
Where did I even get the idea of wanting to practice meditation and become enlightened? I didn't come up with that. It came from somewhere else, from my teacher, and their teacher, who passed it on from the Buddha. And where did the Buddha get that idea from? From the universe, from his own true nature, from our true nature. It is like—and then I was sitting on this cushion—well, not this cushion, but somewhere at home—well, I didn't create that cushion. Someone else made that cushion. Some practitioners over centuries were like, oh, it is so nice to have a cushion.
Then how did I know how to meditate? I didn't come with that. I got that from others, from my teacher and other teachers, and what about when I am breathing in and breathing out? I didn't create the air I am breathing-- this oxygen that comes from the plants and from earth. What about this body that I am sitting here in meditation with? I did not make this body. This body was transmitted to me from my parents and all of my ancestors as an evolution of the planet, which of course came from the source of all things.
There is nothing that comes from me, even as the "me" that is practicing and working hard (which it needs to). Even that ability to work hard does not come from me. It is a gift of the universe. Everything is great; everything is a gift. And so why do we worry so much? Why are you struggling so much? The universe is conspiring for you. It took billions of years to make you right now. You think the universe is going to give up on you right now after the billions of years invested in you? No. You are so important and so beautiful and so precious.
Do not give up on yourself, because the universe is not giving up on you. You have a great birthright. You have a great destiny. And in this lifetime, you can be enlightened—maybe not fully enlightened, but at least initially enlightened. You can do it. So, you can use—oh wow--I have a lot more stuff to talk about. [Audience:laughter] I might have to do part two. Okay! Anyway, you can do it, and you can utilize whatever methods work for you: Zen, Pure Land, Vipassana, Tibetan style, yoga, qi gong, Christian meditation-- whatever. But don't just believe in it. Do it!
That is my goal for 2014, because I realized last month that as I was meditating on it, I believe in eating nutritious food, I believe in vegetarianism, I believe in qi gong, and I believe in yoga, I believe in meditation, and I believe in going to retreats: I believe in all of these wonderful things, but I don't do it all the time. There are a lot of good things I believe in, but that is not going to do me any good--unless I do it.
So my goal this year is to do it more, really do it more. You know, all the good things all I know are good for me, like massage. I know massage is good for me, but it has been like half a year since my last massage. I know it is helping me, so I need to do that. And so many other things. So that is my goal, and I hope that you will examine your heart and see your true intention for 2014. Don't just believe in the path. Practice it.