This passage is directly from the Holy Teaching of the Vimalakirti. It highlights compassion, also known as karuna, which is the fundamental discipline of the Vimalikirti. An important concept to note here is that compassion does not incorporate empathy in its meaning. Instead, it mirrors what the bodhisattva feels and experiences. Due to the suffering of the world and the living beings that inhabit it, Vimalikirti grew ill and due to his great compassion this sickness wouldn’t be alleviated until the suffering of the world departed. Furthermore, compassion is the catalyst behind practice.
This compassion is directly correlated with the love of the Buddha in the Mahayana teachings. Love is described as harmonious, liberated from strong emotion and one with existence. It is understanding, knowledgeable, free, ethical and ultimately joyous because it introduces those who chose to follow to the overwhelming love of the Buddha. When put in to perspective, the great compassion described here is insignificant once compared to the Buddha’s love. To achieve enlightenment or nirvana one must fully grasp the true meaning of what love and compassion are.
Once this is achieved, suffering and illness go hand in hand with the people of the broken world. This excerpt is directly from a parable told in the Lotus Sutra, a very famous one to be exact known as the “burning house”. In this parable there are three “toys” used to draw his “children” out of a burning house. The first is the ox-drawn carriage, which represents the vehicle of the bodhisattva (also known as the bodhisattva-yana).
The second is the goat cart, which represents the vehicle of the solitary Buddha – individuals who reach enlightenment without the help of a teacher (also referred to as the pratyekabuddha-yana). The third is the deer cart, which resembles the vehicle of the disciples, those that required the help of a teacher in order to reach enlightenment (also known as the sravaka-yana). The purpose of this parable is not to distinguish a difference amongst the three yanas; instead it serves as a method to show that they work together as one serving a greater overarching purpose (luring the children out of the burning house and leading them to safety). The “children” here represent all conscious, self-aware beings on earth and the “burning house” is a representation of samsara. Together, the yanas form the one great vehicle ideology (the Mahayana), which is a vehicle of virtue.
I’m going to focus on Pure Land and Zen Buddhism in this response by highlighting their overarching ideologies, their different forms of practice and their approaches to death. To begin, Pure Land Buddhism, which is considered to be the dominant form in Japan today is seemingly less austere than Zen Buddhism. The sutras emphasize the importance of Amitabha and the notorious Pure Land paradise. Many westerners correlate this paradise to heaven because of their similarities in nature.
The fundamental belief of Pure Land Buddhism is that enlightenment or nirvana is no longer attainable on earth due to its brokenness and corruption, therefore our full attention should be set on Amitabha. By devoting ourselves to him, we will gain enough credibility from a karmic sense to enter the Pure Land. It’s here that one reaches enlightenment. As stated before, Zen Buddhism has a much more regimented path to towards enlightenment. I believe it is necessary to begin by introducing the four noble truths given to us by the “Awakened One” (the Buddha). The first noble truth states that suffering is inevitable and quite frankly, life is suffering.
This is a direct result of our desires and craving which are often times unfulfilled. The second noble truth focuses on the origin of where exactly this suffering comes from. According to the Buddha it is our attachment to worldly things that’s leads us to anguish. The third noble truth states that the cessation of suffering is attainable.
The Buddha argues to end suffering we must control our craving, desires and attachments through spiritual practice. Once this is completed we’ve reached nirvana. The fourth and final truth says that in order to truly achieve nirvana you must lead an equitable life, which is blueprinted in the Eightfold path. The main and most important practice of Pure Land Buddhism is the recitation of the name of Amitabha, also referred to as nianfo. By repeating his name it allows for the channeling of the mind to be focused on the Buddha and the Buddha only. This practice takes different forms, some recite it out loud where as some internalize it for none to hear.
Another similar form taken on by Pure Land Buddhists is the recitation of a specific mantra, the Dharani. This allows for the unanimity of the mind. Lastly, visualization techniques are used in order to see the Pure Land in their minds, which assists in the karmic rebirth of individuals. In contrast to the Pure Land Buddhists, Zen Buddhists pride themselves in their practice without a heavy reliance on doctrine. It is a difficult yet intimate process where learning is passed down from teacher to disciple. First and foremost, attention to detail regarding posture and breathing is essential because it allows for thoughts to come and go without difficulty.
The purpose behind assisted meditative practice is to become awakened, to be able to understand that reality is a delusion and we are innately oblivious to it. Through meditation we become aware of this. Once enlightened, it is eternal, but the process to become enlightened takes time.
Pure Land Buddhists have an interesting take on death. Their practices actually prepare them for this transitional period. I call it a transitional period because they never truly die; instead they enter the Pure Land. Once in the Pure Land, they do not always remain there forever. They attain full enlightenment and have the option to reenter any of the six realms of existence as a bodhisattva, helping humans with the suffering of the world and showing them the way. They also have to option to remain in the Pure Land until they reach Buddhahood. It is believed that each Buddha then has his own Pure Land. In contrast to Pure Land Buddhists, Zen Buddhists do not put much of emphasis on the afterlife.
It can be said that Zen Buddhist to believe in death as a transitional period, a process of rebirth solely dependent upon ones karmic nature. They chose to put a strong emphasis on the moment of now. Regardless this cyclical nature pertaining to death can be escaped once reaching nirvana. Samsara is what this cycle is referred to as and enlightenment is seen as a means to end suffering. All in all, Pure Land Buddhism can be described as route to enlightenment through the heart, whereas Zen Buddhism can be described as route through the mind. To begin I will discuss the most common ways in which Buddhists across all schools and forms that we’ve studied tend to approach the idea of practice and meditation.
Although different, similarities can be found throughout these meditative methods and they will be identified later. First, I will start by touching on arguably the most strenuous and stern approach, Zazen meditation. Often times assistance of a teacher is necessary because it requires great attention to detail from both a physical and mental standpoint.
It is said that three essential factors must be taken in to consideration prior to engaging: the regulation of your body, your breath and your mind. If these three are not controlled, you will lose the ability to reach your intellectual capacity. More importantly, the end goal of Zazen meditation is achieving a unified mind, also referred to as Samadhi (Yen 30). To achieve this, there are four methods one must follow and trust in: walking, half walking, half sitting and neither walking nor sitting. Samadhi is a unified state of mind in which there is no distinction between self and environment, no sense of time or place (Yen 32). Regardless, this is not a state of mindlessness for there still is an awareness of self-experience.
If one lost their sense awareness, they would not be able to experience this meditative ecstasy. One quote to keep in mind when attempting to grasp the idea of Samadhi is mention in a Tao-hsin text, “one should contemplate the five aggregates as originally empty, quiescent, non-arising, non-perishing, equal, and without differentiation. Constantly thus practicing, day or night, whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down, one finally reaches an inconceivable state without any obstruction or form. This is called Samadhi of One Act”.
It can be confusing due to its simplicity, but the quote above makes it much clearer. Another note to make that is of great importance is the fact that Samadhi is not the same as enlightenment or nirvana. This comes later; Samadhi is simply the result of ones mind becoming one through Zazen meditation. Lastly, once an individual reaches nirvana or even Buddhahood, the Zazen meditative practice is still used. The next form of meditation id like to dissect is that known as Nianfo or the mindful recollection of the Buddha. It can also be seen as intonation of the Buddha’s name. This is arguably the most prevalent component of Pure Land practice. Its primary ambition is to “forge the karmic connection of circumstances that will eventuate in ones birth in the pure land” (Stevenson 368).
It’s composed of a seemingly endless recitation of Amitbhas name. This process occurs every day for extensive periods of time. It holds such great importance because it goes hand in hand with ones deliverance to the Pure Land. Nianfo abides by two concepts, “on the one hand, one may focus on thirty two marks. Through concentrating the mind meditative concentration (Samadhi) is achieved, whereupon one continually sees the Buddha, regardless of whether the eyes are open or closed. On the other hand, one may simply intone the Buddha’s name and strive to seize it firmly without letting the mind stray. Through this practice one will also be able to see the Buddha in this very lifetime” (Stevenson 369). Ultimately, single-mindedness is used to achieve Samadhi, which allows one to see the Buddha.
What may seem repetitive and frivolous has a subterranean purpose that ultimately leads to the emancipation to the Pure Land, enlightenment and potentially Buddhahood. The last form of meditation I’d like to discuss is chanting and its importance in Buddhist practice. Although this importance is subjective to the person and the environment they’re in, some truths remain: “1. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem, the Buddha, dhamma and sangha: this activity, both communal and solitary, is performed by the monastic orders and the laity as a part of daily practice in most schools of Buddhism, with variation in content and method according to school.
2. Monastic patimokkha: this communal chant of the monastic code of discipline for the ritual purification of the monastic order is conducted on a monthly basis. 3. Textual preservation: chanting conducted for the repetition of the siitras/ suttas and to sustain the basic texts by the monastic orders. 4. Generally magical and protective: chanting practiced for blessings and protection at festivals and ceremonies, both in the home and in the temple. It is usually conducted by monks and nuns, but lay practitioners.
5. Meditative: the repetition of a mantra or collection of attributes for the purposes of private meditation. While secluded meditative practices of this kind are often conducted largely by the monks and nuns, such forms of chanting have historically provided a route for any lay practitioners, particularly in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, to undertake activities regarded as salvific in themselves” (Shaw 92).
All five of these elements are the ways in which chanting is used in the Buddhist practice. Chanting, what is the stereotypical trademark for westerners unfamiliar with the Buddhist religion, holds and importance that exceed what most would think. After taking a closer look at a few of the main types of meditative practices in the Buddhist religion, it becomes apparent that they do have similarities regardless of their different origins. For example, the concept of one mindedness and achieving Samadhi. Because all three have a similar aim and goal through meditating, the weight of the concept grows and the importance of being able to reflect external interferences from invading your thoughts and the ability to think of the Buddha and his brilliance only while doing so says a lot.
Although this may not always require help and assistance across the three, it still is a pivotal goal in intellectual transcendence and durability. Another important concept I noticed is the fact that even after achieving enlightenment and Buddhahood, these meditative practices do not stop. I believe this goes to show that those higher up in the religious rankings do not consider themselves above their disciples and followers. It is just as important for Buddha’s and bodhisattvas as it is for lay practitioners and those that don’t even follow the religion. All in all, the importance of meditation across these different forms is upheld, which only goes to show the necessity of it despite their various end goals.