Two Dharmic Visions of Buddha Reality

by Paul Roberts

If we're going to speak of orthodoxy of the Mahayana, and the True Teaching of the Pure Land Way (Jodo Shinshu aka True Shin Buddhism) it is very important to say this: there is nothing that makes one body or manifestation of a Buddha any more or less absolute than another. The truth is, living as plain people in the Age of Dharma Decline, we have no direct experience of what absoluteness might be like from a Buddha's perspective - or even the perspective of a Bodhisattva who has reached the stage of non-retrogression.

I stress this point because of the tendency today, among many Shin Buddhist teachers, as well as among other Buddhist teachers, to subtly or overtly lessen or devalue the reality of Amida Buddha in his transcendental form (Sambhogakaya Buddha Body). Ask a bunch of Shin Buddhists at a conference about this, and youll get all sorts of answers that diverge wildly from the basic truths taught by Master Shinran. And, unfortunately, that is just as true for some teachers who claim to be disciples of Master Honen rather than Master Shinran, as well.

Of course, this isn't true of ALL Shin Buddhist teachers. When I first met Eiken Kobai Sensei, I questioned him closely about the reality of Amida Buddha from his own perspective. I became satisfied that his own perspective was exactly the same as Master Shinran's, Master Rennyo's, and Master Honen's - and ALL the Pure Land Masters who form the backbone of our Dharma school.

And I know there are other Shin teachers who are of the exact same mind.

But I also know that MANY Shin Buddhist scholars - and their students - have a very uncomfortable relationship with the BASICS of Shin Dharma. They have trouble accepting the plain sense of the discourse of the Larger Sutra - so they've been taught to avoid it, and to talk instead in terms that leave the whole question of transcendental Buddha figures like Amida Buddha aside.

Said in Buddhist technical language - they cannot accept the reality of SAMBHOGAKAYA - the idea that there are countless real, true, individuated Buddha figures in transcendental form reigning over countless Buddha-lands, emitting countless Buddha-fields - even though this is precisely what Shakyamuni teaches everyone that fateful day on Vulture Peak, as described in the Larger Sutra.

So instead, they retreat into esoteric discussions about DHARMAKAYA - the non-dual Buddha body of ultimate reality.

Of course, you can't possibly explain even the idea of DHARMAKAYA - the non-dual Buddha body of ultimate reality - to someone who doesn't have a background in the intellectual propositions of Mahayana Buddhism. It's just not something for the man (or the woman) in the street. You couldn't explain it to your kids - or to an adult who suffered from mental retardation.

The deeper truth is that you can't explain it properly to ANYBODY - including yourself.  There is an inpenetrable wall that separates us plain people from a complete and accurate understanding of the DHARMAKAYA vision of reality.  We will only understand it fully and truly when we ourselves become Buddhas, too.

But, because these teachers are not people of the same SHINJIN as Master Shinran - they just can't talk about Amida Buddha as a True Transcendental Buddha in the same terms Master Shinran does - or Eiken Kobai Sensei does - or I do. They just don't believe it's true Dharma, and that Amida Buddha is a true Buddha, in the same way people of true SHINJIN do.

What is troubling many of these folks - even when they are well intentioned in their efforts - is the APPARENT dualism in classic Shin Buddhist teaching. Theyre not comfortable with the idea of a savior (Amida Buddha) saving people who need to be saved (plain people, ignorant people, evil people). It makes them wonder if Shin Buddhism sounds too much like Western religion, which is based on the duality of creator and created, in the abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

So part of what we need to do is set the record straight, in order to answer these modern divergences from the true teaching.

To do that, lets look at an apt analogy from the discoveries of quantum physics, an idea familiar to high school students these days - the example of the dual nature of LIGHT:

In quantum physics, we know that light can be perceived as either a particle or a wave. Both realities are equally true: light behaves as a series of discrete, individuated particles when measured one way - but as a non-discrete or unitive wave function, when measured another way.

It appears as a dualistic function - and as a monistic one.  But here's the important point:

Neither is more true than the other. Neither is more or less an accurate understanding of the true nature of light.

Rather, depending on the observer and the observation, he (or she) will be able to see one or the other of its manifestations.

Here's how this analogy applies to the True Teaching: both the monistic, non-dual, unitive vision of DHARMAKAYA (Buddha as suchness, Buddha as voidness, etc) and the explicitly dualistic vision of SAMBHOGAKAYA (individuated Buddhas of transcendental bodies, like Amida Buddha) and NIRMANAKAYA (individuated Buddhas of enfleshed bodies, like Shakyamuni Buddha when he walked the earth) are equally correct - equally true - and equally absolute.

Let me say that again: both visions are equally correct - equally true - and equally absolute.

The monistic vision is not more true or absolute than the dualistic vision (as it is in some monistic eastern religions and their modern descendants) - nor is the dualistic vision more true than the monistic vision (as it is in western religions).

So much for reconciling apparently disparate paradigms.

But here's the REALLY important question: what do our Dharma masters teach in the Shin Sangha - and why?

The truth that Master Shinran asserted over and over again - which he heard from his teacher Master Honen - and was repeated by Master Rennyo 200 years later - was that the correct teaching for the Shin Sangha was the dualistic vision teaching - the teaching of the SAMBHOGAKAYA (transcendental Buddhas) and NIRMANAKAYA (enfleshed Buddhas).

Why? Because that is what is appropriate for us - plain people living in the age of Dharma Decline.

Why? Because only those who can climb the mountain on the Path of the Sages - who are capable of heroic discipline - who have the ability to concentrate their minds mightily - who are not subject to the thousands of distractions that plague us - can really apprehend, even a little, the non-dual vision of DHARMAKAYA.

For the rest of us plain people, were just talking through our hats, really and truly.  We're up against a wall of UNKNOWABILITY that we shall not pass until we awaken in the Pure Land, and become Buddhas at long last.

That is just as true for the Buddhist scholar as it is for the average person.  And it is just as true for the mystic as well.

Of course, with the internet, with Google, with the spread of intellectual knowledge, with the availability of programs that can get you a Ph.D. in Buddhism, people can sit around and talk about the absolute.

People can talk ENDLESSLY - and many do.

But what we cannot do - from our lowly perch here in Samsara in this age of Dharma Decline - is KNOW the Dharmakaya Buddha Body the way a Buddha knows it.

And KNOWING is everything.  Not talking, not philosophizing, not speculating - but KNOWING.

Now here's the critical part of this discussion:  While I cannot KNOW anything real, true and useful about the non-dual vision of Dharmakaya, I can know what is real, true and useful about the dualistic vision of SAMBHOGAKAYA and NIRMANAKAYA.

To say it in the plainest possible language:
I can know all this - and I DO.  And so do countless others.  That's what happens when a plain person received Amida's inconceivable gift - the gift of SHINJIN.

But many do NOT know it - even within the Shin Sangha. And - for too many of them - the reason they do not know it is that there is no true teacher - no person of the same SHINJIN as Master Shinran - who is able and willing to explain the dualistic SAMBHOGAKAYA vision of Shakyamuni Buddha given that day on Vulture Peak, in response to a question from his cousin, the monk Ananda.

"Why are you shining with such an unearthly glow?", Ananda asked.

This was the single most important question ever asked of Shakyamuni Buddha during his earthly sojourn.

And what we need in the Sangha today is 100 - or 1000 - or 10,000 who can give the SAME answer to that question today as Shakyamuni Buddha gave back then.

Who can answer that question?  Only those who  have received the revelation of the SAMBHOGAKAYA Buddha named Amida. Only those who are people of the same SHINJIN as our Dharma masters.

It is answered today as it was back then, as Amida's own revelation in the human heart that listens deeply to the historic Dharma of Master Shinran. It is NOT answered in some watered down, polluted hybrid Dharma that Master Shinran himself would not even recognize, much less approve of.

Everyone who is of the same SHINJIN as Master Shinran can be totally comfortable and have no intellectual embarrassment whatsoever in affirming the dualistic vision of our Dharma masters - the manifestation of ultimate reality in the form of the SAMBHOGAKAYA BODY Buddhas - Amida and Shakyamuni.  As plain people in this age of Dharma Decline we simply cannot apprhehend ultimate reality in any other form.

Master Shinran tells us that ALL the Buddhas in the ten directions continually praise and honor Amida Buddha because of his supreme work on behalf of each and every sentient being.   Once again - an affirmation and confirmatin of the deliberately dualistic vision of Buddha reality taught by the founder of our school, Master Shinran.

Shakyamuni Buddha tells us that Amida's own Pure Land is a true and real place - the very EPICENTER of the great work, constantly being visited by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, even as Shakyamuni Buddha was visiting it that day on Vulture Peak, when his face shone with an unearthly glow that Ananda saw, and which provoked his questioning of Shakyamuni Buddha.  Once again - a dualistic vision of Buddha reality from the direct teaching of the great World Turner, Shakyamuni Buddha Himself.

Here is Master Rennyo's comment on this same subject. From Fascicle IV:6 - ON THREE ITEMS:
The thanksgiving services this month are held as an annual ceremony of long standing, marking the anniversary of the death of our founder, Master Shinran. Consequently, followers of our tradition in provinces far and near are filled with eagerness for the pilgrimage, and wish to express the sincerity of their gratitude on this occasion.
And so it is that, for seven days and nights every year, they concentrate on and devote themselves to Nembutsu services. This is precisely why practicers of true and real faith are flourishing. Indeed, we might almost say that the period of firm practice of the Nembutsu has come.

Among those who make pilgrimage during the seven day period as a result of this, there may indeed be some who come to worship before the revered image of the founder only in imitation of others. These people should promptly kneel before the revered image and, through a turning of the mind and repentance, enter into the true purport of the primal vow - and attain true and real faith with the awakening of the one thought moment of entrusting.
We must realize that Namu Amida Butsu is the essence of the settled mind for Nembutsu practicers. This is because Namu means to take refuge. We must know that, for ordinary beings like ourselves who lack good and do evil, taking refuge expresses the entrusting mind that relies on Amida Buddha.
This entrusting mind is none other than the mind of Amida Buddha, who receives sentient beings into His great light of 84,000 rays - and grants to sentient beings the two aspects of the Buddha's directing of virtue: outgoing (from birth and death), and returning (into birth and death). Thus, faith has no other meaning than this. Everything is encompassed within Namu Amida Butsu. Recently, some people have been thinking otherwise.
In regard to this, among the followers of our tradition in various provinces, there are many who confuse the meaning of the Dharma by propounding obscure teachings not prescribed in the scriptures designated by our founder. This is indeed ridiculous. 
In brief, people like these should certainly take part in this seven-day period of thanksgiving services, reverse their mistakes, and ground themselves in the right teaching. 

The monistic vision of classical Mahayana Buddhism - a prominent feature in the Path of the Sages - is simply not for us.  As Master Rennyo so clearly states, such obscure teachings are not prescribed in the scriptures designated by our founders.

So...if you want to go to Buddhist graduate school, thats fine. If you've come to Shin Buddhism from one of the countless other paths within Buddhism that  stresses the monistic vision of Buddha reality, that's fine too.

But when we stand up in the Sangha - and preach and teach the Dharma - and try to listen to it, and to help others listen as well, we who are TRUE teachers are 100% committed to sticking with the Dharma message that is appropriate for US - and not for others who are people of different capacities than we are.

The whole point, after all, is not to gain knowledge, or even wisdom. It is to become a Buddha at the end of this life.

And for us, to become a Buddha, we need to attain SHINJIN - true faith - in this life. That happens in the very moment that we truly believe in and depend on the simple dualistic vision Dharma that Master Shinran and Master Rennyo taught to the learned and unlearned alike. Everything else is unimportant.

Thats why the Shin Sangha needs to get back to Master Shinran's fundamentals - and STAY there - so it can fulfill its mission to all who are being called by Amida Buddha in our day.