Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
September 25, 2011
The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra
By Ming Zhen Shakya
Especially in The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra we find what we most admire and what we most deplore about Buddhist scriptures. We find originality, charm, and theological profundity, just as we are confounded by the bizarre additions of naive scribes, the often contradictory beliefs, the endless repetitions, and the variety of styles all purporting to have been composed by the same person.
Usually, we find many versions of a sutra, some so different that we can barely recognize them as recordings of the same text. The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra is not an exception. When renowned orientalist Max Muller decided to include the sutras sacred to Japan's Pure Land sect in his fifty volume tome, Sacred Books of the East, he apparently could find no acceptable version among the extant editions and sought in vain for a manuscript in the original sanskrit. An associate of his, J. Takakusu, informed him that he possessed an old Chinese translation of the sutra and offered to create an English version, and Muller gladly accepted the offer. He later admitted, however, that while he did not doubt the integrity of the Takakusu translation, he was so disappointed by its contents that he did not want to publish it. Only his promise to Japanese friends that he would include the three sacred books of the Pure Land sect in his collection induced him to include it.
We tend to confer reliability upon the written word, especially religious works which, additionally, are regarded with reverence. The Old Testament, The New Testament, and the Koran were recorded by literate prophets and teachers who lived in literate societies. Scholars may debate modern translations of old words; but the laity generally accepts whichever version is in customary usage. Yet each text passes through many hands before it is held up as an official document. Nevertheless, while there may be misprints and production errors, no additions or deletions are permitted. The New Testament, for example, which consists of various recordings made close in time to the life of Christ, has numerous translations. The classical version commissioned by King James some four hundred years ago is not exempt from publishing error. A 1631 edition records the commandment, "Thou shalt commit adultery." A 1795 edition quotes Jesus as directing, "Let the children first be killed" instead of "filled." Another version had Judas, instead of Jesus, pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Errors of this sort are the least of Buddhism's scriptural problems. In the Buddha's India, by law and by custom, all religious teachings were the province of the Brahmin caste. A priest was forbidden to allow sacred words to enter the ears of outcaste persons; and these persons could pay with their lives if they positioned themselves to be within earshot of a sermon. The Brahmins made it their life's work to memorize the teachings, and Buddhist monks attempted to do likewise. For several centuries the Buddha's new message had not become "scripture." When finally it was written down it was already contaminated (if that is not too strong a word) by old established views, principally those of the Jains. Once the words were committed to print they were carried throughout Asia and, by the proselytizing efforts of the Emperor Asoka, all the way to the Mediterranean.
As the monks entered lands where languages alien to their own were spoken, they found it necessary to trust persons who may or may not have been qualified to effect an accurate translation. It also was necessary to inject explanatory and descriptive passages into the text to clarify objects, flowers, and fauna that were unfamiliar to the audience. We can understand the problem if we imagine how much explanation would be necessary to describe a blizzard to people who lived on a tropical island.
Additionally, there were problems with the recording media's fragility. Books were thin slats of organic material - wood, stiffened silk, pressed palm leaves or papyrus stalks, animal skin parchment, bamboo, tree bark - most of which were bound by leather or silk cords much like the rings of a loose leaf book. But silk and leather are not steel. The bindings wore out quickly and when they finally broke, the unbound text might find itself scattered on the ground like so many dropped playing cards. The accuracy with which the slats were reassembled could rarely be assured, especially since the writing on them was so often faded. Worse, the organic nature of the recording media invited mice and hungry insects to dine on sacred words.
Of all the hazards a text encountered, the most pernicious were the clerical addenda. Along with necessary descriptions, a proselytizing monk was free to insert passages that skewed the meaning of the text until its new slant conformed more favorably to his audience's viewpoint or to his own opinions. Usually, the text suffered less from deletions than it did from additions that garbled the message, often to inanity. The absence of central control made it impossible to establish "a sanctioned version" of any scripture.
Aside from these corruptions, the priestly reluctance to convey sacred information to those who were considered insufficiently advanced to comprehend it caused them to employ a vast - but unwritten - vocabulary of "Twilight Speech" - euphemisms and innocent-sounding substitutions for sexual words.
The Mahayana Canon was compiled in the first few centuries of the Christian era and is generally considered to have a "western" origin. The three sutras sacred to the Pure Land sect are The Larger Sukhavati-vyuha (The Land of Bliss), a rambling text which gives interminable descriptions of the jewel encrusted western Paradise. According to the text, to enter this Land, a person must achieve a high degree of morality and devotion. He must attain the Six Paramitas and perform an assortment of meritorious deeds; along with the daily practice of reciting the Buddha Amitayus' name.
The Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha, the most popular of the three sutras, is not a smaller version of the Larger as the name suggests. Following its instructions, a devotee finds it considerably easier to enter heaven. It gives a description of the exquisitely jeweled landscape, and also of the melodic chants and music - principally bells and birdsongs that sweeten the atmosphere, and specifies that good works will not determine who shall enter the Land of Bliss. Instead, a true believer who repeats the Buddha Amitayus' name in a sincere and prayerful attitude has accomplished all that is necessary to be admitted to the Blessed Land.
The third is The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra, commonly called The Meditation Sutra. The question, then, is what was so objectionable about The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra that Max Muller did not want to publish it?
The principal objection a scholar of Max Muller's caliber would have is its obvious pastiche of contradictory characterizations and theologies. The sutra reads like the conclusions of several committees who did not speak a common language. Muller, being an honest scholar, could not tamper with the text. It was what it was; and if it was corrupted by alien ingredients, there was nothing he could do but to verify, line by line, the accuracy of the translation. Persons with religious experience would automatically follow the Great Swan's example and, when presented with such an adulterated beverage, simply drink the milk and leave the excess water behind. In Buddhism, this is often a necessity. The discrepancies in The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra are so flagrant that the Swan can take little credit for its work.
There is mixing, but not compounding, of several fundamentally different Buddhist schools. To be consistently Mahayana, most of the text, particularly in its middle to ending sections, could and should be stricken.
Picking up where The Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha left off, the Sutra expounds upon the expressions of love and adoration that inform the prayerful utterance of Amitayus' (Amitabha's) sacred name. How may that love be actualized in the devotee's religious life? The answer made clear in its allegorical way is by ritualistic participation in the mysteries of Communion in all of its exalted forms. And this, as we shall see, is the Mahayana's contribution to the document.
Whenever possible, a teacher who desires to present a truth in a more interesting and memorable fashion, will frequently use parables and allegories. In this latter case, historical persons often fill the roles of the characters in the allegorical dramas. We readily understand this not only from Biblical references but from ordinary childhood stories. To illustrate the virtue of telling the truth and of taking responsibility for our actions, we are told, for example, that young George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. Washington's exemplary service to the nation supplies the story's character with the necessary meritorious reputation. Naturally, when Washington's angry parents demanded to know who had chopped down the tree, he replied, "I cannot tell a lie. I did." George Washington's existence is fact. The cherry tree story is fiction. For the purposes of the allegory, it is never necessary to tell us why he chopped down the tree in the first place.
Throughout history many princes have deposed their fathers in order to seize the throne for themselves. In the Max Muller version we are following, Prince Ajatasatru of Rajagriha, having been prodded by the Buddha's troublemaking cousin, Devadatta, is recorded as having imprisoned his sixty-seven year old father, King Bimbisara. The motive for such an egregious act is of no more importance to the story than Washington's motive for chopping down a cherry tree. Allegories and parables are created to illustrate a truth; they are not inquiries into the psychological predispositions of the characters. It is sufficient to be told that Prince Ajatastru did this to his father, King Bimbisara, and that his mother was Queen Vaidehi, chief consort of the king.
In this version, the sutra illustrates three different stages of personal Buddhist belief: Queen Vaidehi was well-established in her faith - a vessel pure enough to contain sacred food; King Bimbisara was in the process of converting to Buddhism; and Prince Ajatsatru was not a believer but, as history records, would eventually become one. Positioning a female in the vanguard of the Illuminated might not have been well received in areas in which it was assumed that a woman would have to be reborn as a man before she could even imagine entering Nirvana; nevertheless, this is how the spiritual states of the three characters are, in fact, described.
To illustrate the importance of devotional practice, of ritual, and, in particular, of receiving the spiritual sustenance of Communion, these characters are given symbolic roles. It must be noted that "prasada," a form of partaking of the essence of divinity through the medium of food, was, since the timeless days of the Vedas, an integral part of many liturgical practices.
The Sutra consists of four parts containing a total of thirty-three sections. The first five sections seem absolutely authentic in their relation of the allegory. As the sutra opens, Prince Ajasatru has placed his father in a seven walled prison cell. This immediately suggests the marvelously efficacious Yoni Mudra in which the mind's seven apertures are closed.
(According to tradition: The thumbs are pressed against the ear canals. The index fingers are gently pressed against closed eyes. The middle fingers are pressed against the nostrils. The fourth and little fingers pushed against closed lips, pursing them. Inhalation is facilitated by releasing the pressure on the nostrils. The sound of "Ommmmm" is pronounced by beginning it as "Ahh in the back of your mouth, and let it roll deep into your throat as it begins to form an "Oooo" and then, as the syllable is finished, by releasing the pursed lips just enough to allow the "mmmmm" sound to vibrate on the lips.)
Since the sutra encodes the sacred food of a Communion ritual, Prince Ajasatru further orders that his father be starved to death and that no one be permitted to attend or to visit him. But Queen Vaidehi, "true and faithful to her Lord," at great risk to herself, penetrates these seven barriers to feed the starving king. She accomplishes this by performing her ablutions, and then by covering her body with gluten (wheat flour), ghee (clarified butter), and honey - a eucharistic recipe derived from the Mithraic "Hot Cross Bun" on which appear Mithra's Crossed Swords inside a circular Sun symbol are decorated. She also brings him "the juice of the grape" which she has hidden within the garlands she wears.
After each of her daily visits, the king calls for water to be brought to him so that he can wash down the salvific food, leaving none of it in his mouth. Then he prays to the Buddha, asking him to cause the saintly Mahamaudgalyayana to appear in his cell to teach him the Dharma. The Buddha consents, and each day "with the speed of a falcon or an eagle" dispatches Mahamaudgalyayana along with the disciple, Purna, to the king's cell in order to convey the Dharma's message.
At the end of twenty one days (a woman's "clean" time of the month. (the final menstrual week being considered "unclean"), Queen Vaidehi ceases to visit her husband.
The Prince, assuming that his father is dead, casually asks the warden about the old man's condition. The warden tells him that the imprisoned king is actually doing quite well. Incredulous and indignant, the Prince asks how this is possible. The warden reveals that his mother has been bringing food to the prisoner and also, he adds, two shramanas (ascetics) come through the sky to preach the Law to him. "It is impossible to prevent them from coming," he says defensively.
The prince is furious and draws his sword intending to kill his mother for consorting with shramanic rebels who have obviously used magic spells of illusion and delusion in order to delay his wicked father's death. As the prince brandishes his sword, determined to slay his mother, two of his ministers declare that they will not countenance such an act. They warn him about the consequences of matricide, insisting that he will bring disgrace upon his own class and be regarded as the lowest kind of human being if he commits such an unpardonable act. Meaningfully, they take a step backwards, "each with his hand placed on his sword."
Intimidated, the prince lays down his sword, repents, and asks for mercy. "He finally ordered the officers of the inner chambers to put the queen in a hidden palace and not to allow her to come out again." This, of course, suggests a tabernacle. Thus, in the ancient meaning of the word "host," she is both the sacrificed and the sacrificer.
Alone, the Queen now seeks permanent residence in the Land of Bliss. She prays to the Buddha, reminding him that in former times he had sent Ananda to her "for enquiry and consolation." She asks him now to send Ananda and Mahamaudgalyayama to her "to come and have an interview with me." But the Buddha knows that she wants to see him, too. He, therefore, complies by sending his two exalted disciples, but additionally, he personally appears before her. "When the Queen raised her head as she finished homage to the distant Buddha, she saw before her the World-Honored Buddha Shakyamuni whose body was purple gold in color, sitting on a lotus flower which consisted of a hundred jewels: with Mahamaudgalyayana sitting on his left and Ananda on his right. Indra and Brahman and other gods that protect the world were seen in the midst of the sky, everywhere showering heavenly flowers with which they made offerings to Buddha in their worship."
The Queen removes her garlands, prostrates herself on the floor before the Buddha, and peculiarly asks him a rather mundane question - but one that we all ask, sooner or later. "Lord, what did I ever do to deserve such a rotten son like Ajatasatru, and, since Devadatta is a relative of yours, how did it ever happen that you share blood with the likes of that troublemaker?" (Actually, she says, "What former sin of mine has produced such a wicked son: And again, O Exalted One, from what cause and circumstance hast thou such an affinity by blood and religion with Devadatta?") This may mean simply that she is acknowledging that we all sin although we may not know just how or why we did so.
We'd like to hear the answer to those questions; but as Max Muller points out in a footnote, "those two questions, although appropriate, have not, after all, been answered by Buddha in this sutra."
Vaidehi then tells the Buddha that she is not satisfied with the world of depravity (the material world) and asks if he will tell her how she could be born anew in a place where such depravity does not exist. "Now I throw my five limbs down to the ground before thee, and seek for thy mercy by confessing my sins. I pray for this only that the Sun-like Buddha may instruct me how to meditate on a world wherein all actions are pure."
The Buddha immediately shows her images of seven different worlds and invites her to take her pick. The seven worlds are: 1. filled with jewels; 2. filled with lotus flowers; 3. one like the palace of Shiva; 4. a mirror of crystal with the countries in the ten quarters reflected therein. Aside from the mathematics, Vaidehi says that while there are all very nice indeed, she prefers to be reborn in the realm of Buddha Amitayus or Amitabha. "Now I simply pray thee, O World-Honored One, to teach me now to concentrate my thought so as to obtain a right vision of that country."
This ends Section #5 of Part 1. Section #6 is a complete fabrication. We are told that the Buddha smiles gently at her request and that, as he smiles, rays of different colors come out of his mouth and shine all the way to the head of King Bimbisara. And immediately the King spiritually advances from the point of needing to learn the Dharma to having attained Anagamin - the third of the four stages of becoming an Arhat.
Sections #7 and 8 are also flagrant attempts to superimpose Old School Buddhism upon the new version. The Buddha instructs her in the fundamental rules of deportment. People who want to get into Paradise first "should act filially towards their parents and support them; serve and respect their teachers and elders, be of compassionate mind, abstain from doing any injury, and cultivate the ten virtuous actions. Secondly, they should fulfill all moral precepts, and never lower their dignity or neglect any ceremonial observance. Thirdly they should give their whole mind to the attainment of Bodhi (perfect wisdom), deeply believe in the principles of cause and effect, study and recite the sutras, and persuade and encourage others who pursue the same course as themselves." It therefore contradicts completely the Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha and imposes on the laity all the rules and regulations of the old school.
Then he speaks to her as if she were a child - and not the recipient of visits and personal instruction from no less than Ananda; and who has been favored by the ethereal presences of the Buddha, Mahamaudgalyayana, and Ananda; and whose personal spiritual powers are sufficient to pass through the seven walls of her husband's prison. It is as if she requires a beginner's catechism.
Condescendingly he asks both Vaidehi and Ananda (who was despised by the "old school,") "Listen carefully, listen carefully! Ponder carefully on what you hear. I, Tathagata, have now declared the pure actions needful for entering that Buddha country."
He then proceeds to insult Vaidehi. He turns to her and says, "Thou art but an ordinary person; the quality of thy mind is feeble and inferior. Thou has not as yet obtained the divine eye and canst not perceive what is at a distance."
Part II, Section #9, of The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra reverts to the original presentation. Vaidehi has asked for ways to meditate and the Buddha now advises that she should keep her thoughts concentrated on the image of the western paradise. Also, "All beings, if not blind from birth, are uniformly possessed of sight, and they all see the setting sun. Thou shouldst sit down properly, looking in the western direction, and prepare thy thought for a close meditation on the sun. Cause thy mind to be firmly fixed on it so as to have an unwavering perception by the exclusive application of thy thought, and gaze upon it more particularly when it is about to set and looks like a suspended drum. After thou hast thus seen the sun, let that image remain clear and fixed, whether thine eyes be shut or open - such is the perception of the sun, which is the First Meditation.
(MZS Comment: This meditation should not be performed unless the sun can be seen at sea level. Also, because of the salutary effects of light as, for example, in the Ganzfeld response, it is probably better to perform this meditation at dawn. Once the sun has cleared the horizon and there is sky completely around the disk of the sun, the attempt is made to mentally push the sun back 93,000,000 miles - so that instead of it being a small sphere close to the earth (the way we normally perceive it - it is seen as a huge sphere far away. This is an extremely powerful meditation.)
The Second Meditation, Section 10, is a Water meditation. The meditator should position himself before a body of water that is clear and pure. He should fix his attention and all his thoughts on the water. When he achieves that steadiness of attention, he should perceive the water as ice, shining and transparent, of the color of lapis lazuli blue.
At this point the meditations become elaborate exercises in frustration, impossible to perform. Section 10, for example, would have the meditator see the blue ice as the ground "consisting of lapis lazuli, transparent and shining both within and without. Beneath this ground of lapis lazuli there will be seen a golden banner with the seven jewels, diamonds and the rest, supporting the ground." Max Muller footnotes this oddity, "A banner supporting or lifting up the ground is rather strange, but there is no other way of translating it." The sutra continues, "It extends to the eight points of the compass, and thus the eight corners (of the ground) are perfectly filled up. Every side of the eight quarters consists of a hundred jewels, every jewel has a thousand rays, and every ray has eighty-four thousand colours which, when reflected in the ground of lapis lazuli, look like a thousand millions of suns, and it is difficult to see them all, one by one. Over the surface of that ground of lapis lazuli there are stretched golden ropes intertwined crosswise; divisions are made by means of (strings of) seven jewels with every part clear and distinct. Each jewel has rays of five hundred colours which look like flowers or like the moon and stars. Lodged high up in the open sky these rays form a tower of rays, whose storeys and galleries are ten millions in number and built of a hundred jewels. Both sides of the tower have each a hundred millions of flowery banners furnished and decked with numberless musical instruments. Eight kinds of cool breezes proceed from the brilliant rays. When those musical instruments are played, they emit the sounds: "suffering," "non-existence," "impermanence" and "non-self;" - such is the perception of the water, which is the Second meditation."
Immediately, however, Section #11 opens, "When this perception has been formed, thou shouldst meditate on its (constituents) one by one and make (the images) as clear as possible, so that they may never be scattered and lost, whether thine eyes be shut or open. Except only during the time of thy sleep, thou shouldst always keep this in thy mind. One who has reached this (stage of) perception is said to have dimly seen the Land of Highest Happiness (Sukhavati). One who has obtained the the Samadhi (the state of supernatural calm) is able to see the land (of that Buddha country) clearly and distinctly: (this state) is too much to be explained fully; - such is the perception of the land, and it is the Third Meditation."
As tedious as this alleged meditation is, it is not finished. The conclusion is worth the additional irritation: "Thou shouldnst remember, O Ananda, the Buddha words of mine, and repeat this law for attaining to the perception of the land (of the Buddha country) for the sake of the great mass of the people hereafter who may wish to be delivered from their sufferings. If any one meditates on the land (of that Buddha country), his sins (which bind him to) births and deaths during eighty millions of kalpas shall be expiated; after the abandonment of his (present) body, he will assuredly be born in the pure land in the following life. The practice of this kind of meditation is called 'right meditation.' If it be on another kind it is called 'heretical meditation."'
Sections 12, 13, 14 are more of the same exponential increases that delight children: It is an unpleasant variation on the theme of "As I was going to Saint Ives, I met a man with seven wives. The seven wives had seven sacks. The seven sacks had seven cats. The seven cats had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives. How many were going to Saint Ives?"
Max Muller's patience has been exhausted and he footnotes Section #15, "Hereafter, for brevity's sake, I take the liberty of omitting several passages which seem to be unnecessary repetitions." He is too kind. The Sutra has devolved into a spiteful, taunting propaganda piece created by an ignorant proponent of the Old School.
Sections #16 continues the exponential increase of details. But in the Sixteenth Meditation, we finally are given the mantra, "Adoration to Buddha Amitayus" (Namo-mitabhaya Buddhaya" or, "Namo-mitayushe Buddhaya." "Having uttered the name of the Buddha, he will be freed from the sins which would otherwise involve him in births and deaths for fifty millions of kalpas."
Sections #17 and 18 contain more of the same inane thousands of details of leaves, jewels, trees, rays, colors, thrones, lakes, streams, flowers, and so on.
Curiously, when describing the numerous marks of the form of the Buddha Amitayus in Section #18, the Sutra emphasizes his blue eyes. But again, so many thousands of details are given that beyond a few characteristics of his face and form, the meditation is impossible to perform. Yet the threat remains: if certain meditations are not completed succssfully, the meditator will be condemned to endless transmigrations.
Section #19, orders that when the meditator has seen the Buddha Amitayus distinctly, he should further meditate upon Avalokitesvara in the same impossible way. (Since the Old School did not recognize Bodhisattvas, it would seem, then, that some references from the original document have been allowed to stand.) The characteristics are more of those exponential increases of details... rays... colors... jewels... dimensions.. On and on the details pile up into an insurmountable mountain.
Section #20 continues the details, ad nauseam.
Section #21 recommends that a huge image of the Buddha Shakyamuni be visualized as sitting on a lotus flower in that lake of the Water Meditation.
Then comes the truly bizarre Part III. Sarcasm begins to drip from the lines.
Section 22 divides those who aspire to enter the Pure Land into three categories: the highest of the highest (the compassionate); the midlevel of the highest (those who study and recite the Sutras; and the lowest of the highest (those who practice the Sixfold remembrances). But then the text specifies that they need have "accomplished any of these meritorious deeds for one day or even for seven days." At any rate, the highest of the highest will be offered a diamond throne.
Section #23, the midlevel of the highest, who don't necessarily learn, remember, study, or recite the sutras, but understand the meaning of the truth in them, and deeply believe in the principle of cause and effect (i.e., karmic retribution,) and seek to be born in the "Country of Highest Happiness" will, when about to die, encounter Amitayus, surrounded by the two Bodhisattvas "Aval. and Mahas." and an innumerable retinue of dependents. Amitayus will praise him, saying, "O my son in the Law! thou hast practised the Mahayana docrine; thou hast understood and believed the highest truth; therefore I now come to meet and welcome thee." He (Amitayus) and the thousand "created" Buddhas simultaneously extend their hands. It is interesting to note that the names of the Bodhisattvas are irreverently abbreviated and that suddenly other Buddhas referred to are "created" as if to say, "made up."
Section #24 introduces the lowest form of the highest grade, and the sarcasm thickens. When someone of this class, who hasn't slandered the Mahayana doctrine and who does believe in "cause and effect" simply likes the idea of being born in the highest Bodhi, dies, "Amitayus, with Aval., Mahas., and all the dependents, will offer him a golden lotus-flower; and he will also miraculously create five hundred Buddhas in order to send and meet him." These "created" Buddhas will, all at once, praise him for having cherished the thought of attaining Bodhi, and after a few weeks of apparently being inside a budding lotus, will, upon its opening, be able to dimly see, and after only three kalpas (eons), will become an arhat., etc.
It should come as no surprise that Section 25 concerns itself with persons in the highest form of the midlevel grade. A voice will come out of the clouds saying, "O son of a noble family, thou are indeed an excellent man," and so on. Although of lower status, he has lived an exemplary life and believed what he was supposed to believe, and he immediately obtains "the fruition of Arhatship.
Section 26, naturally, deals with the middle form of the midlevel grade. These persons "who either observe the eight prohibitive precepts, and the fasting for one day and one night, or observe the prohibitive precept for Sramanera (a novice) for the same period (a day and a night) After a few days he comes out of his lotus and sees Nirvana; and in only half a kalpa becomes an Arhat.
Section #27 are the lowest form of the middle grade. They have been good to their parents and have been compassionate towards the world, etc. As they lay dying, they "will meet a good and learned teacher" who will describe the Buddha country of Amitayus, etc. They will quickly die and be born into the World of Highest Happiness in the western quarter. A week later they'll meet Aval. and Mahas., and in only a lesser kalpa they will attain to the fruition of an Arhat.
Section #28 informs us that someone of the highest level of the lowest grade can have committed many evil deeds - and is obviously a very stupid man who is "neither ashamed nor sorry for all the evil actions that he has done," and who, providing he did not speak evil of the Mahavaipulya Sutra (The Avatamsaka Sutra), will find someone to read the "headings and titles of the twelve divisions of the Mahayana sutras." This will free him from the greatest sins which would involve him in births and deaths during a thousand kalpas (eons)."
What is most astonishing is that at this point the sutra says "A wise man also will teach him to stretch forth his folded hands and to say, 'Adoration to Buddha Amitayus (Namo-mitabhaya Buddhaya, or, Namo mitayushe Buddhaya'). This is the first time the mantra is mentioned. Sarcasm continues to infect the lines as the text continues, "Having uttered the name of the Buddha, he will be freed from the sins which would otherwise involve him in births and deaths for fifty millions of kalpas. Thereupon the Buddha will send a created Buddha, and the created Bodhisattvas Aval. and Mahas., to approach that person with words of praise, saying: "O son of a noble family, as thou has uttered the name of that Buddha, all thy sins have been destroyed and expiated, and therefore we now come to meet thee."
But then, after seven weeks of instruction by these bodhisattvas, "in a period of ten lesser kalpas (eons), he will gain entrance to the knowledge of the hundred divisions of nature, and be able to enter upon the first (joyful) stage (of Bodhisattvas)."
Section #29, as expected, regards the midlevel of the lowest grade. Any person who "transgresses the five and the eight prohibitive precepts, and also all the perfect moral precepts; he, being himself so stupid" that he is a thief and also impurely preaches the Law and is neither ashamed nor sorry for his impure preaching of the Law, but instead magnifies and glorifies himself with many wicked deeds: - such a sinful person deserves to fall into hell in consequence of those sins. At the time of his death, when the fires of hell approach him from all sides, he will meet a good and learned teacher" who will explain the virtues of the Buddha Amitayus to him. "After having heard this, he will be freed from his sins, which would involve him in births and deaths during "eighty millions of kalpas." He'll be born inside the jeweled lotus in the lake, and after only six kalpas the Bodhisattvas will show up and preach to him and he'll immediately attain "the highest Bodhi."
Section #30 informs us that the beings who will be born in the lowest form of the lowest grade can commit even those deadly sins that were considered unpardonable in the Larger Sukhuvati Sutra ( killing one's father; mother; an arhat; injuring a Buddha; and creating schism in the sangha) and deserves to fall into a miserable path of existence and suffer endless pains during many kalpas," shall, nevertheless, "meet a good and learned teacher who will soothe and encourage him in various ways, but, being harassed by pains, he will have no time to think of Buddha. Some good friend will then say to him: "Even if thou canst not exercise the remembrance of Buddha, thou mayest, at least, utter the name, 'Buddha Amitayus.'" Naturally, he'll then remember the formula, "Namo mitayushe Buddhaya" and if he says it ten times, expiate the sins which involve him in births and deaths during eighty millions of kalpas. Then after only waiting 12 greater kalpas he'll meet Aval. and Mahas. etc.
Part IV, Section #31, seems to return to the original text since the Buddha is once again addressing Queen Vaidehi and her Ladies in Waiting.
Section #32 has Ananda ask the Buddha what to call this teaching and is told, "The meditation on the Land of Sukhavati, on Buddha Amitayus, Bodhissattva Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva Mahastama, or otherwise be called "the Sutra on) the entire removal of the obstacle of Karma, (the means of) being born in the realm of the Buddhas."
Section #33 provides the complementary closing expression.
Finally, we are able to address the relative ease by which a Pure Land devotee experiences salvation. Is it sufficient simply to believe in the Buddha's divine goodness and to repeat his sacred name?
In the Smaller Sukhavati, sections are inserted which name the numerous Buddhas of each of the four directions, the nadir, and the zenith, which Muller notes are given in the Pali (Old School) versions (and that not even the Buddha Amitabha's name appears). This celestial roll call is intended to cover the various languages spoken in distant countries. Then a more Mahayana tone is heard as the Buddha clearly states, "Every son or daughter of a family who shall hear the name of that repetition of the Law and retain in their memory the names of those blessed Buddhas, will be favoured by the Buddhas, and will never return again, being once in possession of the transcendent true knowledge.... They will be born in that Buddha country."
The repetition of the mantra is no different from any prayer said on a mala or rosary and should not be denigrated in any way.
We are able only to compare this "relative ease" with Christianity's requirements. Among the many similar assertions in the Bible, we find in Acts 16:31, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." From Romans 3:28, "...a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law." And Jesus says in John 6:40, "And this is the will of him that sent me: that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."
When it comes to soteriological considerations, it would seem, then. that The Smaller Sukhuvati imposes no more conditions on Mahayana devotees than the Bible imposes on Christians.
The belief and the faith of a sincere devotee who invokes the sacred name of the Buddha of Infinite Light and Time is sufficient to assure deliverance to the Land of Bliss; and the specific form of that mantra may be Namu Amida Buddha or Amitofo as in any of the Chinese, Japanese, or Sanskrit chants dedicated to the Buddha Amitabha/Amitayus.
In this world, we sin and we are sinned against. Knowing that the Buddha's mercy is infinite, we need only be sincere in our regrets and voice our desire for Salvation.
We can quickly consider the nonsensical stories that were created to fill in the gaps that exist when someone regards the allegory as if it were a true history.
In some versions, the venomous Devadatta told Prince Ajatasatru the circumstances of his birth. He says that King Bimbisara and Queen Vaidehi, desperate to have a child, asked a soothsayer if they would ever be successful. The answer was that a certain hermit lived in the forest; and that three years after this hermit died, the Queen would have a child. The King impatiently ordered the hermit to be murdered, and the Queen became pregnant. When, however, the King was told that the boy would grow up and commit regicide in order to usurp the throne, he ordered the Queen to throw the baby out the window of a high tower. She did, but miraculously, the baby (Ajatsatru) suffered only an injury to his little finger. When the Prince received this information from Devadatta, he decided to kill his father.
One night, as the Prince furtively entered Bimbisara's room with a knife, the palace guards caught him and the king discovered the plan. The good King did not punish the Prince, but instead used the opportunity to go into a religious retreat. He therefore abdicates in the Prince's favor.
The ungrateful Prince, upon receiving such royal power, ordered that his father be thrown into the darkest, coldest dungeon in the palace. "Let him have no visitors other than my mother," he says, "and give him no food so that he will starve to death."
But since the Queen secretly brought him food which she had hidden in her hair knot, Bimbisara did not die. When the Prince found out how she brought him food, he made her loosen her hair. But then the Queen bathed her body and covered it with a mixture of honey, butter, ghee and sugar. "By licking this food off her body, the good king survived." When the prince learned of this, he forbade all visits to the king. Now the king had no food at all to sustain him and would surely die.
Days passed and still the king did not die. The warden reported that the king slowly walked back and forth in his cell, praying. Ajatasattu shouted out in rage, "Call the barber."
He directed the barber to cut open the soles of his father's feet with his razor, to tear the skin away, to put salt and vinegar on the raw flesh, and to force the king to walk on burning charcoal until he died. His orders were carried out and his father died in great pain.
"On that very day," Ajatasattu learned that his wife had given birth to a son. Overjoyed, he began to wonder about his father's feelings toward him. He asked his mother, "Tell me. Did my father ever love me?"
Then, to quote the story, "His mother replied, 'When you were in my womb, I wanted to drink blood from your father's hand. When he found this out, happily he cut his wrist for me to drink his blood for you. When the fortune-tellers predicted that you would be your father's enemy, I tried to have a miscarriage, but he prevented me. Again I tried to kill you when you were born; he stopped me even though he knew that one day you would kill him. Is that not love?
"'Do you see that scar on your thumb? That was a boil you had when you were small. You were crying from so much pain that nobody could put you to sleep. When your father heard this, he stopped his royal duties and came running to see you. Gently he took you in his lap and sucked the boil until it burst open in his mouth. Oh my son, your father swallowed it out of love for you — that pus and blood. Would you do for your son what your father did for you?'
"When he heard this, Ajatasattu was choked with tears. He ordered his guards, 'Run, run and release my father before he dies.' But it was too late. His father had just died. Ajatasattu fell to his knees and cried until his body jerked violently, uttering over and over, 'Forgive me, father. Please forgive me.'"
As for King Bimbisara, "He was reborn as a deva (god)."
Other accounts paint an opposing motivation. The king is so good that even though he knows that his son will one day murder him, he loves him unconditionally and does not complain when the Prince orders him to be starved to death in a diabolically heated cell.
These maudlin and grotesque versions succeed only in satisfying a wretched sensationalism as they obscure or trivialize the Sutra's serious purpose.
Communion, that is to say, the ingestion of the flesh and blood of the beloved, has nothing whatsoever to do with cannibalism. Atheists and other opponents of the ritual are fond of equating religious Communion with dining on a freshly killed human being - preferably one that has been tenderized by hatred. The Communion ritual enacts a fundamental expression of love and devotion as is possible for a human being to achieve.
For mammals - humans and even most herbivores - our first meal is flesh. Whether or not there was a time that human mothers routinely consumed the placenta (placentophagia) after giving birth, the fact is that in many cultures the human placenta is eaten. The organ is extremely rich in iron and other vitamins, minerals, and hormones that assist the uterus to return to its normal state and also to promote lactation. It is also said, with some controversy, that it contains other chemicals that ward off post partum depression. Dried and pulverized human placenta is commonly prescribed in Chinese medicine; and in most areas where the placenta is consumed, it is either cooked outright like a big hamburger, or dried and ground and put into gelatin capsules.
We can observe this ingestion at the birth of puppies. There is also strong licking of the newborn's anus and genitals to stimulate elimination and to provide the mother with the nutrient-rich meconium - the contents of the fetal digestive tract. Usually this substance is black and sterile and is completely different from subsequent fecal material.
The baby's first meal is, of course, its mother's milk. The mutually adoring expressions exchanged between the baby and its mother as it nurses are enhanced by the intense emotion of giving and receiving human flesh.
Every mother on the planet has playfully nibbled on her baby's feet or belly and cooed "Momma's gonna eat you up!" Teenaged girls in the first rush of sexual attraction will gush, "Oh, I love him so much I could just eat him up!" just as a desirable female is often referred to in gastronomic terms. Although it is rarely alluded to, in that first euphoric love phase lovers will drink each other's urine (urophagia) to accomplish that same melding and absorption of their bodies. Even the verbs we use to describe eating are virtually the same verbs we use to describe love-making.
The Communion ritual, then, of body and blood, is an expression of overwhelming adoration and sacrifice. Through the miracle of Transubstantiation we cease having to worship the Divine Beloved from a distance, but rather are privileged to take Him or Her into ourselves, to assimilate the Divine Substance and make it a vital, sacred part of our body and mind. We are raised up and made aware of the Interior Presence that now is privy to all that we think and do. We strive, then, to be worthy of the sacred food.
There is another form of Buddhist Communion observed in Zen Temples. Since, in antiquity, it was believed that amniotic fluid nourished the fetus, altar boys pour water into a goblet and by various mudras and mantras, the officiating priest consecrates it; then, through the miracle of Transubstantiation, the water becomes sacred amniotic fluid. The goblet or chalice is passed around for each cleric present to sip. When there are too many persons present, the priest, alone, will consume the water, or he may use sprigs of willow as an aspergillum and sprinkle the water by an underhand flick of the dipped willow sprigs upon the clerical congregation. (For some reason the palm must be kept down during the sprinkling process.) Zen Buddhist rituals of this gravity require that the non-clerical members in the congregation first be "dismissed" - which also happened to be the practice in early Christianity - and the reason the Mass is still called the Missa. These rituals, however, are undoubtedly Persian in origin, the fetus in question being Maitreya, the Future Buddha, who is elsewhere called Miroku or Mithras.
The life-or-death importance we give to merging with the Divine Beloved is nowhere more clearly illustrated in Buddhist literature than in the allegory given in The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra. It is a natural conclusion. The Queen is functioning as Guan Yin whose self-sacrificing love can save those who are spiritually starved.
A broader interpretation of the Communion ritual's Eucharist is given by Thich Nhat Hanh: “When we hold a piece of bread to eat, if mindfulness is there, if the Holy Spirit is there, we can eat the bread in a way that will allow us to touch the whole cosmos deeply. A piece of bread contains the sunshine. That is not something difficult to see. Without sunshine, the piece of bread cannot be. A piece of bread contains a cloud. Without a cloud, the wheat cannot grow…without the wheat the baker cannot make bread. One thing contains everything.
"Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this loaf of bread will be possible? No, without sunshine, nothing can be. And if we return the baker to his mother, then we have no bread either. The fact is, that this bread is made up only of 'non-bread elements.' And if we return these non-bread elements to their sources, then there can be no bread at all. As insignificant as this loaf of bread is in the universe, it contains everything in the universe. All the universe is within it.” (TNH Going Home)
There is another ritual involving unleavened bread which is not a Communion ritual. This is the "Feeding the Hungry Ghosts" ceremony during which the officiating priest tosses handfuls of unleavened biscuit-like pieces of bread onto the temple floor. This ritual is of an entirely different order.
For individuals and sanghas who desire to conduct a Communion ritual, a recipe for Eucharistic bread can be found on the internet and in most bread books. The recipe I use is based on a bread machine's standard whole wheat bread. My recipe is as follows:
3 cups of whole wheat flour
1 cup wheat gluten flour
2 packets of dry yeast.
1/4 cup of honey
1/2 stick (1/8 pound) softened butter
one and a half cups of skimmed milk.
These ingredients are tossed (dry ingredients first) into the bread machine and 3 to 4 hours later
there is delicious bread. Any spice that was present two thousand years ago - such as cinnamon - may be added before or after baking.
The individual pieces of bread may be decorated with an X inside a Circle. (Cross swords inside a Sun symbol.) Icing can be made from butter, honey, cinnamon, and water stirred together over gentle heat until the desired consistency is achieved. It is then carefully dribbled onto each piece.
The bread should be served with grape juice and then, after the Communion ritual is concluded, tea may be served.
The ritual is a solemn dedication. In temples it may be public as when a temple building is being consecrated; or within a sangha at the time of ordination; or as a regular once a month meeting of the sangha; or as a personal act of devotion and reaffirmation of an individual's Buddhist vows at any time the person desires.
The following prayer may be quietly read before or during the ceremony.
Lord, I was a beggar who,
Like like a man who thought himself
The monarch of his kingdom,
Found himself standing alone
As in a prison cage.
All that he could see beyond the bars
Were the smoking ruins of his life.
He searched in vain for something to sustain him,
To shelter and feed him,
And keep him warm through the bitter nights.
Like him, all I could see was desolation;
And I knew that what I saw was what I, myself,
Had squandered or destroyed.
I betrayed and was betrayed.
I schemed and was schemed against.
I loved and cast aside my love.
I loved and was abandoned.
Starving, in the midst of my isolation and misery,
With the last of my strength,
I cried out for Thy mercy.
And then Thou sendest the loveliest of the Good,
The most fearless of the Compassionate,
Thy Bodhisattva Kannon.
She came to me in my darkest hour.
She brought me light and nourished me with Her sacred body.
And then I saw Thy Light shining from within me,
Illuminating the Real, the True, the Eternal,
The World that was pristine in its Beauty;
And I knew that through Thy Grace, I was saved,
Liberated, and exalted among all men.
As Her food strengthened me
And the veil of delusion fell from my eyes,
I, at last, could see. Then the bars melted away,
The deadly earth around me swelled with life,
Green, blossoming, and filled with fruitful trees.
Now, as I again eat the food She brought me
And sip the sweet drink she delivered to me,
Bringing Her divine presence into every cell of my body,
I thank Thee. The well of my gratitude is deep.
It shall never be exhausted.