(Delivered at UUSF on April 23rd, 2017. Listen to the audio here.)
I've mentioned before that my family is what I call Chinese Buddhist - a mixture of Zen, Pure Land, and indigenous traditions. Most of you likely know about Zen, but you might not have heard of Pure Land.
The ultimate goal is still nirvana, as it is with all Buddhism, but Pure Land adherents believe in the existence of a Western paradise, created by the beneficence of the Amitabha Buddha. If one is fortunate enough to be reborn into this place of bliss, free from the distractions of suffering, one will easily attain nirvana. And one becomes so fortunate by praying to Amitabha for help. In his compassion for our suffering, he intervenes when we would not have made it by ourselves. One could call it grace.
And one can see why this flavor of Buddhism gained traction in China, particularly among the laboring class who struggled to feed their families. Pure Land says that 1) you are not alone - there is help, and 2) while conditions may be too difficult to attain nirvana now, there will be a time in the future, when we’re in the Western Pure Land, when things will be good.
Contrast that with Zen where we are taught that we are all already Buddhas; we just need to remember it, to wake up, which can happen at any instant. Enlightenment is right here and now.
Zen and Pure Land might seem at odds with each other, and yet both exist in Chinese Buddhism for people to draw upon.
Last Sunday was Easter, which in traditional Christianity is thought of as the remedy for the Fall of humanity in the story of Eden. Adam and Eve, who represent us, lived in paradise, which was lost when they transgressed. Due to Jesus intervening for us, many Christians look forward to regaining paradise, heaven, in the future.
Now, most UUs would probably reject the idea of a Western Pure Land as most reject the idea of heaven. We Unitarians are known for focusing our attentions on this life and the needs of this world. As a dying Henry David Thoreau famously quipped when asked if he could see what's next, “One world at a time.”
And that is my take too. To me, the bodhisattva's vow to not cross over until every sentient being is free is a call to social action. Because the world is full of hardships that distract people from being able to attain enlightenment, we need to remove those hardships - such as racism, poverty, war, and environmental destruction - so that people have the space to practice. We need to create the Pure Land on earth, otherwise known as what Rev Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.
It was this desire to create a better world that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the EPA, and passing of key environmental legislation to protect our air, water, land, and sibling species. This life, this world.
Yet recently I've realized that even though my focus is in this world, I've still been holding onto a notion of a future mythic paradise. Perhaps you are too. Not a paradise in an afterlife, no, but when I think of the Beloved Community or the Pure Land on earth, I catch myself thinking of the future, not the present. A future where humans live in harmony with each other and with Mother Earth, and all beings have enough. We just need to keep working, keep educating, keep advocating for change until we achieve it.
I call this a mythic paradise because in my more rational moments I realize that such a future cannot exist. Not as a steady state. To think that someday we’ll live in a utopia with no more social ills is a belief with little more basis in reality than belief in heaven or a Pure Land. I'm not saying that we can't succeed in fighting climate change and racism, etc. I believe that we can and will prevail. But even as those social issues are resolved, others will arise. The work will always be ongoing. That's just the nature of things. Eden didn't “fall” because of some moral failing in humanity. “The Fall' was inevitable because change is inevitable. Because we are conditioned beings subject to impermanence. Because, entropy.
So, if the Beloved Community, or the Pure Land on earth, isn’t a state that can be achieved, one might despair and ask what’s the point? Well, aside from the fact that without the efforts of people who care things would be worse, there is this. In Chinese Buddhism there is both Pure Land and Zen. Pure Land says enlightenment will happen in the future, and Zen says that enlightenment is right here and now for us to see. We work for a better future, as our ancestors did for us, AND, every time we meet the Other with loving kindness, we create the Beloved Community at that moment. The Pure Land, paradise, already exists here and now, created by us over and over again.