Most early forms of Buddhism were in the category of Jiriki. The earliest forms in a catagory called the Hinayana focused entirely on reaching enlightenment for the ”individual” by only the efforts of that same “individual”. There was no external force or power. The Buddha’s first disciples such as Ananda, Sariputra or Mahakasyapa understood that only through their own practice and perseverance would they achieve Enlightenment as the Buddha had before them. In the Zen tradition they believe that the Zen way began when Mahakasyapa suddenly reached Enlightenment seeing the Buddha twirl a flower in his hand while giving a sermon. Although the Buddha actions triggered Mahakasyapas Enlightenment it was Mahakasyapa’s own practice and understanding of the Dharma that made him ready for his Enlightement to take place.
What about those Buddha images? The first Buddha images did not come into being until long after the Buddha’s death. In fact the Buddha himself expressed that he did not want any images made of him after his death. He also did not want to appoint a successor to lead the Sangha. He wanted the Dharma (in this case his teachings) and the Vinya (the monastic rules) to be the teacher of those that followed his path after his death. I say “his path” because during his life there wasn’t a spiritual path called Buddhism. The Buddha and the vast majority of his followers were Hindu. The Buddha’s teaching was both a reinterpretation of the Hindu faith as well as many of his teachings based on his discoveries from his own practice. His followers were trying to reach enlightenment by following the same path and practices the Buddha had followed himself.
So why did his followers not adhere to his wishes? I believe that at first people created Buddha images to just show reverence to the great teacher. They had such respect for him and just wanted something tangible to feel his presence. The first images were of the wheel of the Dharma or a Parasol with nothing under it signifying the loss of his physical presence. His followers were trying to keep true to his wishes but eventually they could not help themselves and then made images of the Buddha himself. He did not want them to do this because he knew that they would naturally become attached to the image itself and wrongly start to think that it held some kind of power in and of itself.
Today in Asia many people go every day to the nearby temple to pray to the Buddha image for something they desire, good luck, good fortune, or maybe a new car! They also have all sorts of customs where women cannot touch a Buddha image or others about the image having to be only at the highest point in the home. They give money to the temple or go to feed the monks just because they want something in return. Generating merit nowadays is not about doing what is right, it is an exchange. You do something good because you want something good to happen to you. The list goes on and on and I think that most of these practices come from a lack of understanding of the Dharma and the mixture of the local religions and traditions that get passed on from generation to generation.
In Japan they have a festival, which in English is called, Burn the Buddha. They take an actual wooden Buddha image and burn it in a fire. You may ask why they would do such a thing. Isn’t this irreverent or dis respectful? They do this to avoid becoming attached to the image and thinking it is anything more than what it is, an ideal or example to strive for. I am not suggesting that Buddha images are in anyway bad or that they should not be treated with respect. But it is clear to see that what the Buddha originally feared about the image being created of him has in fact come true. This is one of the ways, that what I believe to be incorrect understandings and practices, have crept into Buddhism over time. The Japanese today are very much like many Christians in the west where the sum total of their practice is going to church on Easter. Many Japanese people profess to be Buddhist but the extent of their practice is to go to the temple on New Years eve to ring the bell, again with the idea of gaining good luck or good fortune.
I have used the analogy before of someone starting a sea journey across the ocean. If they are but a degree off when they start their journey they can find themselves miles away from their intended destination at its conclusion. So it is true of your Buddhist journey. I believe that this can be minimized whenever you are in doubt by taking the core teachings that all Buddhist schools follow and compare them to what is in question. If it doesn’t line up then there is a problem. A word of caution on this. You need to be sure that you have a good understanding of the topics before you discard anything as being untrue. Otherwise you may think something is false due to your own lack of understanding when it in fact agrees with the Buddha Dharma. If you think of things in this way you are really following the Buddha’s original wish and are letting the Dharma be your teacher. Clearly many of the practices that I have presented so far are not truly Buddhist but sometimes it can be a bit deceiving trying to sort it all out.
In the year 402 the monk Hui-Yuan started a new form of Buddhism called Pure land. He was part of a group called the “White Lotus Society” which would later play a part of the founding of the Japanese martial art called Shorin-ji Kempo. They revered the Amitabha sutra which said that you can recite something that later would be called the Nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese) and you would be reborn in Sukhavati, the western pure land or western paradise. From Sukhavati it would be much easier for someone to reach Nirvana. In this sutra it told the story of Buddha Amida who made a vow to save all sentient beings and so he created this western pure land for them to go. This style of Buddhism is in the category of Tariki because one relies on the power of the Buddha Amida to save them. This style appeals to many westerners because of its perceived similarity to many western faiths with the idea of some sort of Heaven that we can go to after a good life lived.
As I have already mentioned the word save or salvation is a very loaded word. It implies saving you from something. In order to save you from something there has to be something to be saved from. In the west the something to be saved from is sin and drifting away from God. In Buddhism the only thing there is to save you from is your deluded “self”. But because the “self” is a false notion in reality there isn’t anything to save you from as we all have everything we need right now. All we have to do is wake up to the reality of what we really are. So we don’t gain anything because we already are what we really are (which is not individual and is connected to everything else) and we don’t lose anything because all we give up is a false notion of what we are. The Buddhas teaching on Anatta (Not-Self) tells us that there is no abiding permanent self. If that is correct who is it that the Buddha Amida is saving? Who or what is it that is going to Sukhavati, the western Paradise? So you see if you just take this one teaching and apply it against the notion of the Pure land it all falls apart. The Buddhas teachings on Impermanence and Emptiness also go against a notion of someone going to a Pure land after death. Simply put there is no one to go there! Does this mean that anyone who follows the pure land teaching is wasting their time? No not really.
The Buddha used something called Upaya (Skillful means) to communicate his teachings. There are teachings that are considered Exoteric and those that are considered Esoteric. Exoteric means that these teachings convey a conventional truth. Esoteric teachings are those that convey an absolute truth. Exoteric teachings can lead the practitioner to an awaking to absolute or Esoteric truths even though these teachings are not ultimately true. By believing in the Pure land teachings and the vow of Amida to save all sentient beings the Pure Land practitioner has faith. Faith in the validity of a particular practice is what drives someone to devote time and effort to it. In Zen the primary practice is Zazen. In Pure Land the primary practice is the Nembutsu. When practicing the Nembutsu you create a vision of Amida in your mind and while holding and counting on a Juzu (Rosary) you recite “Namu Amida Butsu” over and over. By forming a vision of Amida in your mind you are visualizing something pure and positive. By reciting the Nembutsu and counting on the Juzu you are concentrating and focusing the mind. In other words you are performing another form of Zazen! So while you may believe this has a whole different purpose in reality it is just another form of meditation. Many Buddhist scholars believe that Sukhavati or the Pure Land may just be a state of mind that you reach through the practice of meditation obtain through Nembutsu practice. This differs greatly from the idea of praying to a Buddha image in the hopes of getting a new car. The Nembutsu can lead you to a absolute truth whereas the praying for a new car can lead you miles away from the truth.
To be continued in part III.