Dharma Wheel symbol Buddha and Bill
The Dharma &
The Twelve Steps
gold pyramid in gold circle

Step Three of Twelve

Step Three of the Seven Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."1

Recall Step Two:

"Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."2

A Higher Power: Some Buddhist Perspectives (Take Two)

In the webpage Step Two of Twelve, under the section in their titled "A Higher Power: Some Buddhist Perspectives (Take One)," some basic points were made about what a Buddhist might choose to regard as his Higher Power. Assuming that the reader has at this present time read all of the webpages listed prior to the present one ("Step Three of Twelve") in the Table of Contents, it is now time to go back into that same topic but to a greater depth.

I cannot speak for all Buddhists. In the span of forty years I have practiced Zen Buddhism in the Soto tradition, Pure Land Buddhism in the Jodo Shin school, and Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu tradition. I have not had any experience of practicing Buddhism under the guidance of a Theravadin teacher. So my practicing experience is limited to a cross-section of Mahayana Buddhism. Even so, there are many westerners besides myself who have been involved in both Alcoholics Anonymous and Mahayana Buddhism, in one or more of the same traditions that I have experienced, who have a different way of identifying their Higher Power than I do. That said, I will speak only from my personal experience because that is all I have to go on.

My Own Experience

When I first began to attend AA meetings, in the Spring of 2006, I thought I might have to become what I imagined to be a Gnostic Christian in order to practice the Twelve Steps. But I made a personal commitment in my heart to practice moment-to-moment Right Mindfulness—that is to say, to keep my awareness in the present moment as much as I could and as well as I could throughout my daily life. My Zen training under the guidance of Suzuki Roshi at San Francisco Zen Center for two years, from 1969 to 1971, had taught me the great importance of that. I strongly felt that Right Mindfulness must be a part of Gnostic Christian practice.

So, I began to practice mindfullness with the notion that all that I was aware of was also being observed by my Higher Power—whatever THAT might be. As an aid in maintaining Mindfulness, I began to employ the Tranquility Prayer advocated by AA:

God, grant me the tranquility to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I was doing a lot of walking and bus travel. Consequent to my DUI, my driver's license had been suspended. One major hindrance to maintaining mindfulness while traveling about in this manner was anxiety over getting to meetings and appointments on time. For example, it was sometimes difficult to keep my temper"let alone my mindfulness" when, just as I was about to reach a bus stop, the bus I wanted to board there would pass me, stop at the bus stop, and then zoom back on its way before I could reach it running as fast as I could. Those were appropriate moments to apply the serenity prayer. And it established for myself the practice of appealing to the grace of my Higher Power for the tranquility to maintain or re-establish mindfulness.

I also made the basic sitting, breathing meditation as practiced by Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhists part of my daily prayer and meditation routine, practicing this especially after waking up in the morning and before going to bed at night.

I began to re-study Buddhism, Gnostic Christianity, Christian Mysticism, Vedanta Hinduism, Kabbala, and Sufism in the light of what I was learning from AA. Within a month, I realized that I need not depart from Buddhism in order to practice the Twelve Steps. Indeed, what I was learning from AA was greatly revitalizing my understanding and appreciation of the Dharma.

During the early 1990's, I had been involved with Jodo Shinshu, a school (Japanese, shu) of Pure Land Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu is more commonly known in English speaking countries as Shin Buddhism. Through my involvement with Shin Buddhism, I had learned of "other-power" (Japanese, ta-riki) as opposed to "self-power" (jo-riki). The Pure Land teachings are based on three Mahayana sutras collectively called the Pure Land sutras: The Larger Sukhavati Sutra (the "Larger Sutra"), the Smaller Sukhavati Sutra (the "Smaller Sutra"), and the Meditation Sutra. According to the three Pure Land sutras, the Buddha named Amitabha (Japanese, Amida; literally, "Boundless Light") dwells in a realm called the Pure Land of the West, Pure Land of Bliss (Sanskrit, Sukhavhati; Tibetan, Dewachen; Japanese, Jodo), or just the Pure Land for short. Most, if not all, schools of Pure Land Buddhism today recognize the Pure Land not as a location but as a state of consciousness. According to the Larger Sutra, Amitabha Buddha was a bodhisattva named Dharmakara before he became a Buddha. Dharmakara vowed that, after he attained Buddahood, there would be a land in which he dwelled where it would be easy for anyone reborn there to attain full enlightenment. Dharmakara actually made 48 vows in all. The 18'th is regarded by the Pure Land schools as the "essential vow." As interpreted and translated into English in the principle Jodo Shinshu collection of scriptures, the Shinshu Seiten, Amitabha Buddha's 18'th vow states:

If after obtaining my buddhahood, all the beings in the ten quarters who, with sincerity of heart hold faith and wish to be born in my country, repeating my name perhaps ten times, are not so born, may I not achieve the highest enlightenment. Excluded only are those who have committed the five deadly sins and those who have abused the Dharma.3

The eminent Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki, in his book about Shin Buddhism, Buddha of Infinite Light, gives a somewhat different version:

If, upon my obtaining Buddhahood, that is, obtaining enlightenment, all beings in the Ten Quarters should not desire in sincerity and truthfulness to be born in my country, and if they should not be born there by only thinking of me for, say, up to ten times—except those who have committed the five grave offenses and those who are abusive of the true Dharma—may I not obtain the highest enlightenment.4

Note that the major difference between the two translations just quoted above is that, where the Shinshu Seiten has "repeating my name perhaps ten times," D. T. Suzuki has "only thinking of me for, say, up to ten times."5 I read both of these translations in 2006 when I was beginning my sobriety and the Twelve Steps. The first translation, the one in the Shinshu Seiten, is more in keeping with the practice reciting the nembutsu. In Japanese, Nembutsu literally means "to think of Buddha."6 But in the context of the Japanese Pure Land schools, nembutsu is the name or title given to the specific phrase, "Namu Amida Butsu." The phrase, "Namu Amida Butsu," is a Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit phrase, "Namo Amitabha Buddha," which literally means "Hail, Amitabha Buddha!" But it also is interpreted as essentially meaning "I take refuge in Amida Buddha!"7 or "I place my faith in Amida Butsu."8 The main practice of the two Pure Land schools of Japan is recitation of the nembutsu in the belief that this will guarantee one's rebirth in the Pure Land in accordance with Amitabha Buddha's 18'th Vow.

But for those who really get involved with Jodo Shinshu, there can be more to devoutly saying the nembutsu than securing rebirth in the Pure Land. Rev. Kenryu Tsuji, a Jodo Shinshu priest, writes in his webpage article "Jodo Shinshu: A Brief Introduction":

"The recitation of the Nembutsu -- Namu Amida Butsu (I place my faith in Amida Buddha) is an outward verbal expression of thanksgiving and gratitude for salvation assured. This thanksgiving and gratitude for Amida's Compassion becomes a vital spiritual force in the lives of all who follow the Nembutsu."

In his book, Shin Buddhism: Bits of rubble turned into gold, the Shin Buddhist scholar Taitetsu Unno writes:

"In Shin Buddhism the ultimate goal of transformation occurs in the saying of nembutsu, NAMU-AMlDA-BUTSU. What does this mean? In brief, the nembutsu is the flowing call of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, coming from the fathomless center of life itself, as well as our response to that call without any hesitation or calculation. Thus, it is not a petitionary act, a mindless, mechanical repetition, or a mantra with magical powers. This requires some explanation.

"This calling of nembutsu awakens us to a liberating power that sanctifies all life, because it comes from beyond the small-minded self that is always engaged in calculating life only in terms of gain or loss, winning or losing. Sooner or later we will respond to this call, if we are ever to know a sense of security and well-being. If I were to translate nembutsu into English, it would be the 'Name-that-calls,' for it calls us to awaken to our fullest potential to becoming true, real, and sincere human beings."9

In her interview titled "The Great Compassion," by the quarterly Buddhist journal Tricycle, published in the Summer 2011 issue, Rev. Patricia Kanaya Usuki says:

"In Shin Buddhism, one of our texts is the Larger Pure Land Sutra, in which there's a story about Dharmakara Bodhisattva. He makes vows, as all bodhisattvas do, and he has to fulfill them in order to become a buddha. The most important one is the 18th vow, which we call the Primal Vow. In the story, Dharmakara refuses to become a buddha unless all other beings can be liberated along with him, no matter how evil or attached or ignorant they may be. He stakes his own freedom on our freedom. This is the central point of Shin Buddhism.

"According to the sutra, Dharmakara became Amida Buddha, so his vow has been fulfilled and it operates for us. This is Sutra language, symbolic language. The Primal Vow is really the innermost aspiration of all beings. Remember that this is a Mahayana tradition, and we hold to the bodhisattva ideal that all beings will become liberated together. The working of the Primal Vow means that all beings have this innermost aspiration for all other beings to find liberation and lasting peace of heart and mind. So when We talk about Amida Buddha, we're really talking about the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of all life.

"When I describe it that way, It sounds like a pretty concept, but in Shin Buddhism we come into it from the back door of living our own lives and doing our practice of self-awareness. We realize the nature of our our true selves as we realty are, with our imperfections and so on, and at the same time we understand that we are the recipients of this immeasurable wisdom and compassion of life that sustains us and embraces us at all times, regardless of the kind of people we are, regardless of the fact that no matter how hard you might try, you are never going to reach .he state of ultimate purity. We can't understand our innermost wish until we live our lives, experience our lives, see ourselves as we really are within this life—and also see the reality of ourselves within all life and enjoy the benefits of life that we receive. Then we can begin to understand this concept of an innermost wish or Primal Vow. Dharmakara Bodhisattva becoming Amida Buddha is something that only becomes true for each person when they themselves awaken to their karmic reatity and are aware of their limitations within the larger scheme of reality."

According to the Pure Land teachings, Amida Buddha is a "power greater than ourselves" that can restore us to sanity. In his book on Shin Buddhism, Buddha of Infinite Light, D. T. Suzuki writes:

"Other-power is tariki in Japanese, and self-power is jiriki. The Pure Land school is known as the Other-power school because it teaches that tariki is most important in attaining birth in the Pure Land, whether understood as regeneration or enlightenment or salvation. Whatever name we may give to the end of our religious efforts, that end comes from Other-power, not from self-power. This is the contention of Shin Buddhists..."10

"In Shin teaching we can say that it is only by the power of Amida that our liberation and freedom are assured. We don't add anything to Amida's working. This doctrine of Other-power, or monadism, is based on the idea that humans are relative beings, and as long as we are so constituted there is nothing in us which enables us to cross the stream of birth and death. Amida comes from the Other Shore, carries us on the ship of the Primal Vow, and delivers us on to the Other Shore.

"A deep chasm exists between Amida and ourselves. We are so heavily burdened with karmic hindrances that we cannot shake them off by our own power. Amida must come and help us, extending the arms of help from the other side. This is what is generally taught by Shin people. But from another point of view, unless we exhaust everything we have in our efforts to reach the ultimate end, however ignorant and helpless, we will never be grasped in Amida's arms.

"It is all right to say that Other-power does everything by itself. We just let it accomplish its work. Nevertheless, we must become conscious of Other-power doing its work in us. Unless we are conscious of Amida's doing work in us, we shall never be saved. We can never be sure of the fact that we are born in the Pure Land and have attained our enlightenment. To acquire this consciousness, we must exhaust our efforts. Amida may be standing and beckoning us to come to the Other Shore, but we cannot see Amida until we have done all we can do. Self-power is not what is really needed to cross the stream of birth and death, but Amida will extend his helping hand only when we realize that our self-power is of no account.

"Since we cannot achieve the end of our endeavors on the path of enlightenment, Amida's help must be recognized. We must become conscious of it. In fact, recognition comes only after we have strained all our efforts in crossing the stream by ourselves. We realize the inefficacy of self-power only when we try to make use of it and are made aware of its worthlessness. Other-power is all important, but this truth is known only by those who have striven by means of self-power to attempt the impossible.

"The realization of the worthlessness of self-power may also be Amida's work. In fact it is, but until we achieve self-awareness we do not realize that Amida has been handling all this for us and in us. Therefore, striving is a prerequisite of any realization. Spiritually speaking, everything is finally from Amida, but we must always remember that we are relative beings. As such, we cannot understand things unless we first try to do our best on this plane of relativity. Crossing from the relative plane to the absolute plane of Other-power may be logically impossible, but it appears to be impossible only before we have tried everything on this plane."11

In the interview titled "The Great Compassion" for the Summer 2011 issue of Tricyle, Rev. Patricia Kanaya Usuki is asked:

"This idea of being accepted just as we are relates to the idea of naturalness, which is a very prominent part of Shin practice. Can you say something more about the place of naturalness in Shin Buddhism?"

She replies:

"In Shin Buddhism, we contrast to self-power or self-effort with the idea of focusing on the whole of life, the interdependence of all life. When something comes about, it's not due to one's own effort to attain something. The idea of naturalness is that no-working is true working. It's the understanding that things don't happen due to your own calculation and effort. You don't sit there thinking, 'All right now, if I'm able to follow the eightfold path and do everything the right way, then I will attain awakening.' That's your own deluded, ego-based effort. I did this, I am able to do that—the moment you start thinking that way, your ego mind comes into play.

"Yet when the karmic conditions are right, when your causes and conditions come together, you can progress along the path. It's not 'I' doing this or 'I' saying the nembutsu. When I say 'Namu Amida Butsu,' it's not 'I' doing this or 'I' saying it but what we call other-power—I like to call it Buddha-power. That other-power has come together in my causes and conditions and my karma to bring me to say, 'Namu Amida Butsu.' It leads me to feel gratitude, joy, peace of heart, and peace of mind-qualities that Shin Buddhism values. So naturalness is the opposite of calculating, of making an ego-based effort to try to attain something on your own—supposedly independent—power. If you're truly aware you'll notice that you cannot achieve it with your own effort and your own calculation."

The next question that Rev. Kanaya Usuki is asked is:

"Is the Primal Vow for Shin Buddhists only, or does Amida embrace others as well?"

She replies:

"It has to extend to all beings. The Primal Vow talks about sincere mind, deep mind, and the mind that aspires. You have to be awakened to that aspiration first. That doesn't mean that you have to be a Shin Buddhist in order to have that kind of aspiration. The moment the important questions arise in someone—Who am I? Why am I here? What's the purpose of my life?—I think that's the kind of aspiration with a sincere heart that really wants to understand how things are."

I find that the apparent discrepancy in the two translations of Amitabha Buddha's 18'th Vow, one in the Shinshu Seiten and the other in Buddha of Infinite Light by D. T. Suzuki, is delightfully resolved in the following poem composed by the talented and devout Shin Buddhist poet Seichi (1850-1932):

I don't say any nembutsu.
It is not necessary.
Saved by the Buddha's compassion,
how grateful I feel.
it is ever with me.
I am ever with it.
While asleep, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU.
While awake, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU.
While walking or resting,
while sitting or lying, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU.
While working, NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU.

After re-discovering Shin Buddhism at the beginning of my recovery, I made the decision to make Amitabha Buddha my Higher Power—to turn my will and my life over to him, as it is put in Step Three of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

One of the first modifications that I made in my practice was to occasionally say the nembutsu in place of the Serenity Prayer. This works especially well when I find myself madly chasing after a bus. In such situations, it takes too long to say even the first part of the serenity prayer. But I continue to say the Serenity Prayer—with the name "God" simply left out (as when I say the prayer with others at the beginning of AA meetings) or replaced by "Amida."

Some Buddhists will criticize Pure Land practice as being dualistic by positing an Other verses a Self as in Other-Power verses Self-Power. But, in the true practice of nembutsu, this dualism is transcended. There is a Japanese pun that is sometimes involved in the Japanese interpretation of the nembutsu, "Namu Amida Butsu." In Sanskrit, Namo is a salutation such as the English salutation, "Hail" as in "Hail, Ceasar!" But, in Japanese, Namu literally means "myself;"12. D. T. Suzuki in his book, Buddha of Infinite Light, tells of two ways to Japanese meaning of namu in interpreting "Namu Amida Butsu":

  1. "Amida-butsu is Amida Buddha. Namu expresses the taking of refuge. Thus, "I take refuge in Amida Buddha." It is a simple formula. There is nothing, mysterious about it, and you may wonder how such a name, or such a phrase, could have such a wonderful power for all beings. But love and compassion are experienced when NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU is pronounced with singleness of heart."13
  2. "When we say NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU, namu is self-power, or ki. Amida-butsu is Other-power, or ho. Thus, NAMU-AMlDA-BUTSU is the unity of ki and ho. This unification is the oneness of Amida and ordinary beings, Other-power and self-power, this world and Pure Land. So, when NAMU-AMIDA-BUTSU is pronounced, it represents or symbolizes the unification of the two. Unification is not an adequate term, but its meaning will become clear."14

This is explained more clearly in the webpage SacredTexts.com—Notes on 'Namo-amida-butsu'"":

"The interpretation the Shin people give to the "Namu-amida-butsu" is more than literal though not at all mystical or esoteric. It is in fact philosophical. When Amida is regarded as the object of adoration, he is separated from the devotee standing all by himself. But when Namu is added to the Name the whole thing acquires a new meaning because it now symbolizes the unification of Amida and the devotee, wherein the duality no longer exists. This however does not indicate that the devotee is lost or absorbed in Amida so that his individuality is no longer tenable as such. The unity is there as 'Namu' plus 'Amidabutsu,' but the Namu (ki) has not vanished. It is there as if it were not there. This ambivalence is the mystery of the Nembutsu. In Shin terms it is the oneness of the ki and the ho, and the mystery is called the incomprehensibility of Buddha-wisdom (Buddhajna). The Shin teachings revolve around this axis of incomprehensibility (fushigi in Japanese, acintya in Sanskrit).

D. T. Suzuki writes:

"...we believe in Amida Buddha as our Oya-sama, or Oya-san, as it is sometimes called. It is the term used to express love and compassion. Oya means parent, but not either parent, rather both father and mother; not seperate personalities, but both father and mother united in one personality. The honorific san is the familiar form of sama. The latter, Oya-sama, is the standard form. In Christianity, God is adressed as the Father—'Our Father who art in Heaven'—but Oya-sama is not in heaven, nor is Oya-sama Father. It is incorrect to say 'he' or 'she,' for no gender distinction is found. Oya-sama is a unique word, deeply endearing and at the same time rich with religious significance and warmth."15

One of Seichi's poems includes this pair of stanzas:

The Oya-sama who never fails me
Has now become myself,
Making me hear his Name--
The "Namu-amida-butsu."
I am a fortunate one:
Oya-sama is given me,
The Oya who turns me into a Buddha--

In his webpage article, "The Buddha Appears through the Individual", Kemmyo Taira Sato states:

"In Pure Land Buddhism in general, Birth in the Pure Land refers to Birth that takes place at the very moment of death. According to Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), the founder of Shin Buddhism, the phrase "Birth in the Pure Land" has two meanings: 1) the attainment of faith in this life and 2) birth in the Pure Land at the moment of death. What is all-important in Shin Buddhism is the attainment of faith whilst living in this world. This is called the instantaneous attainment of Birth in the Pure Land, based on a phrase from The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life: 'When they desire to be born in the Pure Land, they will immediately be born there and abide in the stage of non-retrogression.' This phrase is considered to be the most important phrase to describe the attainment of faith in the here and now. Once faith, the first Birth in the Pure Land, has been attained, there is no problem about the second Birth to be attained at the moment of death. The latter is believed to take place very naturally, no matter how the person may die, insane, agonized, unconscious or mindful of the Buddha. Why is the experience of attaining faith called 'Birth in the Pure Land'? It is because the faith-experience includes a sort of mental death. Faith-experience is birth after the death of a selfish way of living. In the course of my talks I have been saying faith is awakening in Buddhism and with this awakening our selfish lives are brought to an end and we begin a new way of living, living by the nembutsu. Saichi (1850-1932), a devout Shin Buddhist poet, declares:

"Having finished his death and funeral,
Saichi lives in this world with Namuamidabutsu.
Saichi is Amida,
Amida is Saichi.
Amida's Name having come to Saichi,
And finished my last moment,
How relieved I am in the nembutsu—
Into which I've been called, taken by you."

Unlike the Shin Buddhists who strictly follow the teachings of Shinran (1173-1263), the founder of Jodo Shinshu, and the Jodo Shu Buddhists who follow the teachings of Shinran's Pure Land Dharma teacher, Honen (1133-1212), I have not abandoned the practice of Buddhist meditation. Nor I have I abandoned any other practices of Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism. But when I sit down to do meditation, I usually say in my mind at least one nembutsu. By doing so, I am taking refuge in Amida Buddha. The mindfulness that comes with meditation is the mindfulness that comes by the grace of Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is my Buddha Nature, the very same Buddha Nature of all sentient beings, the Buddha Nature of everything.

I also meditate frequently by visualizing Amitabha Buddha above me in the lotus position with his hands folded in front of him in the meditation mudra as he is so often depicted in statues and pictures. At the same time, repeatedly chant NAMU-AMITABHA-BUDDAH. When it seems right, when I have no distractions,I let the image of Amitabha merge with myself as I do when visualizing the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan, Chenrezig) just before chanting the mantra OM-MANI-PADME-HUM as part of the Four-Armed Chenrezig sadhanna as I was taught to do by my Tibetan Buddhist teachers.

I find that my Pure Land practices are well supported by two widely renowned Mahayana Buddhist philosophers—Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd or 3rd century CE) and Vasubandhu (ca. 4th or 5th century CE).

Nagarjuna is most well-known as the founder of the Madhyamika tradition in Mahayana Buddhism. Madhyamika was once the core of an independent school of Buddhism which was named "Madhyamika." Madhyamika itself is a philosophical system of logical analysis that rigorously supports the Mahayana doctrine of sunyata (emptiness) as expounded in the Prajnaparamitta sutras. Madhyamika is a key part of the teachings of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism headed by the Dalai Lama. In the Zen (Chinese, Ch'an) tradition, Nagarjuna is regarded as the Fourteenth Patriarch of the Indian lineage of that tradition. Shinran considered Nagarjuna to be the First Patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism. The Shinshu Seiten explains why:

"The work of Nagarjuna which is most often cited in connection with Pure Land Buddhism is the 'Chapter on Easy Practice' in 'Sastra on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages.' In this work, Nagarjuna distinguishes two ways-difficult and easy-which lead to the first stage of Bodhisattvahood, the state of Non-Retrogression. The Difficult Path is way of the cultivation of the Six Paramitas-giving, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom. It is the way guided by transcendent wisdom and compassion, and requires strenuous effort in diverse practices through many lifetimes. For those unsuited to the Difficult Path there is the Easy Path, in which one calls the names of the Buddhas, practicing a denial of attachment to self through reliance on the Buddhas, practicing a denial of attachment to self tnrough reliance upon the compassion of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and through the operation is transformed into corresponding good through the operation of Emptiness. Included in this path are the Name and the Vow of Amida Buddha.

"Nagarjuna does not advocate the general abandonment of the Difficult Path of Bodhisattva practice in favor of the Easy Path of faith; yet, we can see in his writings, at the very wellspring of Mahayana thought, a clear exposition of the significance of Amida's Vow, and of the working, and not only practicing, aspect of absolute compassion."17

Vasubandhu is most well-known as a co-founder, along with his half-brother Asanga, of the Yogacara tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. But he also integrated the methods Buddhist contemplation with the Pure Land Teaching. The Shinshu Seiten explains:

"Vasubandhu (c. 4th cent. A.,D.) was one of the founders of f the Yogacara School, which became the second great stream of Indian -; Mahayana Buddhism and provided counterbalance to the systematic . negation of the Madhyamika philosophy. The Yogacarins started from a basis in the Madhyamika School, but found the logical formulation of Emptiness to be inadequate when confronting the immediate : problems of practice and realization, which center about the motions of the mind. Out of this concern, they developed the philosophy of Consciousness-only (vijnanamatrata), in which phenomena are not simply rejected as empty, but are analyzed as ever-changing modulations of consciousness. Although the phenomenal forms are transitory and illusory, consciousness itself, and consciousness alone, must be said to be real. Beneath the levels of sensory perception, which, when defiled, give rise to the illusion of the real existence of things, and beneath the deeper level of consciousness from which the illusion of a self acting upon object arises, there is a basic subjectivity which, prior to all phenomenal expressions, imparts to them their being, though free of all attachment. It is the realization of this consciousness, undefiled by objectivity, which the Yogacarins sought through the practice of meditation.

"Vasubandhu's contribution to Pure Land Buddhism lies chiefly in formulation of a Nembutsu thinking on the Buddha practice by adopting the methodology of Buddhist contemplation to Pure Land 1 eachings. Contemplative practice is normally expounded in terms of Concentration (samatha) and Insight (vipaWana), When the mind is made tranquil and insight arises, one attains complete realization. In his Treatise on the Pure Land, Vasubandhu professes singlehearted Faith in Amida and teaches the Five Contemplative Gates as a practical method by which one can attain Birth in Amida's Pure Land. The Five Gates are: worship of Amida; praise of Amida; aspiration for Birth in the Pure are: worship of Amida; praise of Amida; aspiration for Birth in the Pure all sentient beings.

"In this practice, aspiration for Birth corresponds to Concentration and contemplation on the Pure Land corresponds to Insight. When one fixes one's mind without distraction on Birth, one enters a state of samadhi, and there arises spontaneously the wisdom with which the Pure Land can be observed. Vasubandhu derived, from the Larger Sutra of Eternal Life, descriptions of the Pure Land, Amida Buddha, and the Bodhisattvas, and organized them into twenty-nine aspects, including, for example, 'water, earth, and space perfected,' 'Amida's body perfected,' and 'reaching out everywhere without moving perfected.' These aspects represent the fulfillment of Amida's aspiration to create a Pure Land for all sentient beings; they are, then, the embodiments of undefiled consciousness, and, as objects of practice, allow the practicer to recognize his own true being in Amida's Vow-Mind.

"Thus, visualization of the pure Land, in itself the fulfillment of contemplative practice, inevitably involves not only personal salvation, but also working for the salvation of others. This is represented by the Fifth Gate of Merit-Transference. To fulfill 'self-benefit-benefit of others', wisdom, and compassion, is to attain supreme and perfect en\ightenment. We still see, then, in Vasubandhu's formulation, the outlines of the Difficult Path of Bodhisattva practice. Nevertheless, in clearly determining a method of practice for Pure Land Buddhism, even though it is not an accommodation for the 'common being', Vasubandhu laid the foundation for the later developments of Nembutsu."18

But the greatest encouragement for my integration of "Other-Power" Pure Land practice with "Self-Power" meditation practice is the discovery that a tradition which combines Zen with Pureland has existed in Vietnam for centuries and has been brought to the United States to some degree. Unfortunately, the two most well-known Vietnamese Zen masters, Thich Thien Anh and Thich Nhat Anh, do not say much about this in their published writings. But the The International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles founded by Thich Thien Anh has two web pages that discuss the integration of Pure Land with Zen: "The Reconciliation of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism" by Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma and "My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha" by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna. (Unfortunately, there seems to be no linkage to these pages, direct or indirect, from IBMC's home page. I found them via a web search.)

It is most encouraging that the web page "My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha" by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna contains a description of the second meditation technique that came to me without any external input other than what came from Amitabah Buddha himself. Here is the relevant passage from "My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha" by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna:

"So, what does Amitabha mean to my own life? I can state categorically that without the influence and inspiration of Amitabha I would not be here today. I accept the doctrine of Anatta or no permanent soul and realize that lacking any essence of my own, I only function as a channel through which Amitabha may send his healing, enhancing, nourishing energy to all other living beings. If there is any merit in my work, it is because Amitabha Buddha is expressing himself through me.

"However, practically all of my training in Buddhism has been here at I.B.M.C., which considers itself to be a Zen temple. Therefore, in addition to my faith in Amitabha, I believe that every sincere Buddhist devotee should have a meditation practice if he is mentally equipped to do so. My channel through which Amitabha flows is partially obstructed and the flow of Amitabha's grace is impeded by the accumulated sludge of defilements which I have allowed through ignorance, anger and delusion to creep into my consciousness. I know of no better way to scour, cleanse and unblock my channel than by the daily practice of meditation. Is it possible to be both a Zen Buddhist and a Pure Land Buddhist at the same time? For the answer to this question I refer to the inspiring book Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, by our esteemed founder Dr. Thich Thien-An. He states that certain eminent scholars who advocate the exclusive development of Zen style 'self power' do not consider reliance on the 'other power', meaning that they rely only on the Zen master who teaches them how to sit, discipline the mind , work with a koan and practice shikentaza. Dr. Thien-An asks the question, 'Without the constant prodding of the master how many people would reach satori?'

"This question leads to the inescapable conclusion that if a Zen master who has realized only a limited amount of wisdom and compassion can be of such enormous assistance to his students during their quest for enlightenment, then Amitabha Buddha who has reached a state of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion, undoubtedly can help them infinitely more.

"Dr. Thien-An states categorically that belief in the 'other power' of Amitabha Buddha helps us develop our 'self-power'. In fact, he strongly recommends a practice which combines the development of Zen-style 'self power' with reliance on the 'other power' of Amitabha Buddha. In other words, the student should combine formal meditation with the chanting of the mantra 'Namo Amitabha Buddha.' The meditator and the Buddha become fused together in a mystical union. No longer is there any distinction between Zen and Pure Land, self-power or other power, wisdom or compassion, for everything has become transformed into the brightness of Infinite Light. Samsara becomes Nirvana. All the bliss and purity of the Western Paradise are realized in the here and now of every day life. Here the Zen and Pure Land schools meet in that common center from which they both emanate, the One Mind of Buddha, which is our true and permanent Essence of Mind."

(For emphasis, I myself made the characters in the last paragraph of the last excerpt above bold-faced.)

Now, here are some of the most relevant passages from "The Reconciliation of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism" by Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma:

"First, I should mention a little about the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. Buddhism came to Vietnam from India by sea in the first century of the common era, during the time of King Asoka, India's great Buddhist emperor. They brought, of course, Hinayana Buddhism, today known as Theravada Buddhism. Two hundred years later a Chinese community was well established. From a description of a Chinese convert, who wrote that the monks wore saffron robes, shaved their heads and ate only one meal a day, it is clear that Theravadan monks were serving their community.

"As you know, Bodhidharma came from India to China in 520 C.E. and introduced Zen (or the meditation school) to them. In the latter part of the sixth century (580 C.E.) a monk came from India, bringing Zen to Vietnam. His name was Vinitaruci (Ty ni da lu chi in Vietnamese). Two hundred fifty years later a Chinese monk entered Vietnam to fulfill his Bodhisattva vows, to save all living beings. This school became known as Vo Ngon Thong school. The third Zen school arrived at the beginning of the eleventh century and was known by its founder's name, Thao Duong. This school was a union of Zen and Pure Land.

"It was the seventeenth century when Lam Te Buddhism reached Vietnam. The founding master of this school is the famous Lin Chi, better known by his Japanese name, Rinzai. This school became known by the Vietnamese master who popularized the school, Lieu Quan. It became the most important school in Central Vietnam, and all Buddhist monks ordained at this temple are in the Lieu-Quan lineage line. Now, the lineage line does not necessarily tell you what their practice is. For example, Rev. Thich Tam-Thien's (Kusala) practice has a lot of Theravada elements in it. Rev. Thich Tam-An (Ruja) is totally a Theravada practice. Rev. Thich Tam-Tue (Rev. Tri Ratna Priya) practices more of the Zen-Pure Land tradition. Probably the only disciples here who practice primarily the Lieu-Quan form of Buddhism are myself, Thich Tam-Tri (Vajra) and Br. Jnana (Lynn). This mixed practice is typical of Vietnamese Buddhism itself where monks of different traditions practice together in the same temples: Theravada, Pure Land and Zen, with a little tantra mixed in for good measure. This is, I believe, also common in China and Korea.

"At any rate, the lineage of this temple is Lieu-Quan, a totally Zen tradition, coming directly from Lin Chi of China. It was popularized by monks who felt that Zen had become too polluted by Pure Land, and who wanted to revert to pure Thien or Zen."

"So, you see, this temple was founded by a man who identified himself as a Zen monk. In fact, I did not learn much of Pure Land until the refugees arrived from Vietnam. Dr. Thien-An, understanding Americans, taught us pure Zen, and that was his point of departure. To the Vietnamese, his point of departure was Amitabha Buddha and Pure Land thought. Now how could such divergent attitudes be found in one man and taught by him?

"Since Zen is more a methodology than a system of thought, although it certainly does have a system of thought, the self-power of Zen, contains the other power of Pure Land. Once you have self power, you must have other power. After all, the Recitation of the Buddha's name is used as a concentration exercise. This is where Chinese/ Vietnamese Pure Land differs from Japanese forms. The Vietnamese Pure Land adherents also meditate whenever they have the time to, whereas Jodosinshu says that meditation is a mere psychological trick, where you think you are capable of saving yourself. They say we must drop meditation and all thoughts of saving ourselves, and rely only upon Buddha Amitabha to save us. Their practice is to realize exactly who and what they are, without any rosy constructs placed upon their realization.

"If your practice is to devoid everything in your mind, does it matter is you use a koan, shikentaza or recreating the Buddha in your mind? All of these techniques work if they are done with great diligence and bring the meditator to the same point, to the satori experience (that is to insight, which Theravadans praise so much.)

"When you begin Pure Land practice, you think of the Buddha and his Pure Land as being apart from you. But as you practice it, slowly you come to realize that you and Amitabha are one and the same. You can experience the Pure Land right here and now."

(For emphasis, I myself made the characters in the last three paragraphs of the last excerpt above bold-faced.)


1Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Edition (c. 2008), p. 59 (See Alcoholics Anonymous—"The 'Big Book' Online" From this website, you may download a free copy of the "Book Book" in the form of a PDF file); Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (c. 1958), p. 34. (See Alcoholics Anonymous—"The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions Online" From this website, you may download a free copy of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in the form of a PDF file).

2Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Edition (c. 2008), p. 59; Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (c. 1958), p. 25.

3Shinshu Seiten: Jodo Shin Buddhist Teaching (San Francisco, California: Buddhist Churches of America, c. 1978), p. 11. The use of italics in the quotation is my own.

4D. T. Suzuki, Buddha of Infinite Light (Boston: Shambala Publications, c. 1998), p. 31. The use of italics in the quotation is my own.

5Very recently, in this year 2011, there was published for the first time in English the book The Promise of Amida Buddha: Honen's path to bliss translated by Joji Atoni and Yoko Hayashi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, c. 2011). The main text of this book consists of writings by Honen (1133-1212) who founded Jodo Shu, the Jodo school of Pure Land Buddhism. His disciple Shinran (1173-1263) inadvertently founded Jodo Shinshu after his death. The second part of the introduction to this book, titled "The Historical Development of Nembutsu: From Meditation to Recitation" gives (on page 8) another translation of Amitabha's (Amida's) Eighteenth Vow:

If, when I [Buddha Amitabha] am to attain buddhahood, all sentient beings in the ten directions who rejoice in faith with genuine hearts and who wish to be born in my buddha-land are not born there within just ten moments of mindfulness of me, I will not realize enlightenment.

This last translation is directly from the earliest Japanese translation from the original Sanskrit of the Large Sutra. The phrase "ten moments of mindfulness" is from the translation, from Sanskrit to Japanese, of the Sanskrit term dasacitta which literally means "ten minds." The author of the introduction explains: "Faced with this, the Chinese Pure Land patriarch T'an-luan (476-542) interpreted the term dasacitta in this way: 'The term citta here does not indicate a span of time but rather mindfulness of Buddha Amitabha...Dasacitta does not indicate a specific number but indicates the perfection of mindfulness of Buddha Amitabha.' It is still uncertain what the 'ten' alludes to in the context of the Larger Sutra, but the Sanskrit denotation of citta as well as T'an-luan's interpretation of the term concurs that it signifies a mental action. It was Shan-tao [613-681] who later interpreted dasacitta to mean ten recitadons. His Methods of Contemplation on Buddha Amitdbha illustrates this view : the essential vow of the Larger Sutra as follows: 'If, when I (Buddha Amitabha) am to attain buddhahood, all sentient beings in the ten directions who wish to be born in my buddhaland recite my name at least ten times are not born there through the power of my vow, I will not realize enlightenment.' Thus, Shan-tao changed the statement, 'just ten moments of mindfulness of Buddha Amitabha' in the Larger Sutra to 'recite my name at least ten times.' This transformation of nembutsu from mental to vocal offered by Shan-tao and Honen[1133-1212] was a key shift for Pure Land Buddhism."

6See SacredTexts.com—"Notes on 'Namu-amida-butsu'".

7See D. T. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 26.

8See Shin Dharma Net—"Jodo Shinshu: A Brief Introduction" by Rev. Kenryu Tsuji.

9Taitetsu Unno, Shin Buddhism: Bits of rubble turned into gold (New York: Doubleday, c. 2002), pp. 23-24.

10D. T. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 55.

11Ibid., pp. 56-58.

12See ibid., p. 9.

13Ibid., p. 26.

14Ibid., p. 28.

15Ibid., p. 25.

16See the webpage SacredTexts.com—"Rennyo's Letters".

17Shinshu Seiten: Jodo Shin Buddhist Teaching (San Francisco, California: Buddhist Churches of America, c. 1978), p. 207.

18Ibid., pp. 208-209.


On the Web