Excerpt: Sangha of Boundless Life, by Jeff Wilson

An excerpt from Jeff Wilson’s new book, “Living Nembutsu: Applying Shinran’s Radically Engaged Buddhism in Life and Society” — reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma.

Jeff Wilson
27 May 2024

This excerpt from chapter 6 of Jeff Wilson’s new book, Living Nembutsu: Applying Shinran’s Radically Engaged Buddhism in Life and Society — reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Sumeru Books. We thank Sumeru for sharing this with Buddhadharma‘s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

Sangha of Boundless Life

The Pure Land way is the path of sangha. In our tradition sangha means community, and it is within, through, and with the community that we progress toward awakening. This contrasts with more individualistic forms of Buddhism, which concentrate on heroic solo practices or one’s own accumulation of merit. For us, practice is always communal and relational: with Amida Buddha, with the local community of practitioners, and with all sentient beings. It is from the Buddha that we receive awakening; it is with the community that we achieve awakening; it is for all beings that we share awakening.

Jodo Shinshu philosopher Nobuo Haneda made a very important point:

No matter how capable a seed may be, it cannot sprout by itself. If a seed is placed on a rock, it will never sprout. It must have conditions such as heat, moisture, and light. The Pure Land (the Sangha) is the condition that enables us to sprout. It is by receiving power from the Pure Land, from the Sangha, that we can sprout and eventually bear fruit.

Realistically speaking, among the Three Treasures (i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), the Sangha is the most important. Becoming a member of the Sangha, of a living tradition, is the most important thing in Buddhism. It is the Sangha that enables us to gain insight into the Buddha and the Dharma. Thus, Shin Buddhism says that birth in the Pure Land (the Sangha) is the most important thing. Our birth in the Pure Land, our becoming part of the Sangha, is our liberation.

When we are born in the Pure Land, we are born into the sangha of Amida Buddha. The name “Amida” literally means “Boundless”—it is a contraction of one of the Buddha’s original Sanskrit names, “Boundless Life.” This Boundless Life exists endlessly to help liberate all beings. Because it is boundless, it includes us and all forms of life: if our lives are not included, then there would be a boundary, an exclusion zone.

Our participation in the sangha of Boundless Life occurs in three stages. First, all living things are included in the sangha of Boundless Life, without exception. Since beginningless time, this Boundless Life has been embracing us. However, we are usually ignorant of how Great Compassion is working upon us, and we cling to ourselves while seeing others as problems.

Second, when the trusting heart is awakened within us through contact with the Dharma teaching, we join the ranks of those who know they are part of the sangha of Boundless Life. Our load becomes lighter, our hearts become freer, and gratitude wells up, gushing forth as nembutsu (“Namo Amida Butsu,” our central practice, which means “Thank you Boundless Life Buddha”). As our lives continue, we soak in the Dharma and seek to spread happiness and release from suffering to others.

Third, when we die, the tight knot of elements that we clung to as our “selves” unravels and submerges completely in the reality of Boundless Life. From there we return as Namo Amida Butsu, as wind, as light, as birdsong, as any form necessary to help those who still need to awaken and be freed from pain and stress. The Pure Land teacher Ippen put it well: “Among all living things—mountains and rivers, grasses and trees, even the sounds of blowing winds and rising waves—there is nothing that is not the nembutsu. It is not human beings alone who share in the all-surpassing Vow.”

One thing that the Pure Land sutras teach is that there is not a separation of people from the surrounding environment. The beings of the Pure Land are part of its adornments, just as the trees and pools are. They aren’t visitors to a space that is fundamentally other than what they are. They are part of it, part of its charms and wonders. On Earth, the same is true. We shouldn’t say that there are humans and the natural environment. We are not interlopers, visitors, or trespassers. We are of the Earth and there is no land environment where we have not always been for many thousands of years. The idea of pristine Nature is a myth, born mainly of colonial arrogance and urban romanticism: there has never been an unpopulated, undiscovered country where there are only animals, plants, and pure water and sky, where we can go to escape the din of industrial cities. Every inch of the so-called New World was walked by Indigenous people who altered it by their presence for generations beyond counting: cultivating gardens and forests; hunting animals whose shifting behaviours changed the course of streams; practicing controlled burns that renewed forests and prevented disastrous wildfires; and so on. So too in Europe, Africa, and everywhere. In the North, Inuit and other Indigenous people roamed as far as life could be sustained; surely even Antarctic waters and perhaps the continent were visited by hunters and explorers following the fish and whales. Only the deep seas have ever been unwalked by humans, and even there they were hardly unconnected to us in the interdependent web of life.

We must not think of ourselves as monsters or cancers doing grievous harm to an innocent Nature. That mentality is wrong. It already separates us from Nature, which is the source of the problem in the first place. We are of Nature and will always have the right to be here. Earth is sick without us. We are part of it and should remain. But we need to stop making our Earth sick by our behaviour. We need to adjust our thinking and ways of living so that we fit better with the other living things around us, acknowledging that we are just one part of the sangha of Boundless Life. In the Pure Land, the beings and the trees, birds, and pools all exist in absolute harmony, and that is why it is pure and beautiful. We need to return to harmony, for the health of ourselves, the trees, birds, and waters of this Earth of which we are a part. A good example of this awareness is found in Winnipeg, where the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhists inducted an elm tree outside the temple as a member of the congregation.

Environmental concerns have been part of the Jodo Shinshu temples in North America for decades. One of the recent manifestations is the EcoSangha movement within the Buddhist Churches of America. EcoSangha recognizes our role as members of the sangha of Boundless Life and the responsibility this entails. Local participants work to educate their temple about how to follow sustainable practices, and host events exploring the intersection of Buddhism and ecology.

The BCA’s EcoSangha movement was founded by Jodo Shinshu minister Rev. Donald Castro, with important organizational support from lay leader Karen Akahoshi. As part of his Buddhist ecological ministry, Rev. Castro teaches a unique form of naikan. Naikan is a Japanese psychotherapy, derived from Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. In EcoSangha naikan, the practitioner is encouraged to ask themselves three questions every day and reflect on the answers: What have I done today for Mother Earth? What have I done today to Mother Earth? What has Mother Earth done today for me? From this comes deepened awareness and commitment.

We can extend this to the level of the sangha, so that the temple reflects: what have we done for Mother Earth? What have we done today to Mother Earth? What has Mother Earth done for us today? This stimulates a desire to make the practices of the sangha as ecologically sustainable as possible, and to make the temple as positive a presence in the land as possible. Naturally this leads on to the wider community level, where we as citizens ask what we have done for, done to, and received from Mother Earth, and thus with awareness and gratitude work to reshape society’s impact on and relationship to our environment.

Rev. Castro places particular emphasis on the classic image of the seated Buddha reaching down to touch the earth with his hand. When the Buddha touches the Earth, it speaks and says he has a right to be here, on the seat of enlightenment. It is a moment of mutual recognition: the Buddha recognizes that the Earth has been his partner in awakening, and the Earth recognizes that the Buddha has struggled against his greed and ignorance to reach a point of genuine understanding and compassion. It is Buddha and Earth seeing each other, after a long journey of awakening together. Nor is it the only or first touch. Even before the Buddha extends his hand, he is touching the Earth with his legs and body. He is touching the Earth’s air with his skin and hair. He is touching it constantly because it is constantly supporting him. But perhaps until that hand reaches out, he is not fully in touch with the Earth and the interdependent web that supports and nurtures his life and awakening. It is only at the moment which leads to buddhahood that he discovers the depth of his debt and interwovenness, and reaches out in kinship to all that supports him. This gesture is undertaken by all bodhisattvas as they near awakening. Dharmakara Bodhisattva too, in the process of becoming Boundless Life, touched the Earth and was affirmed by it.

According to the sutras, the Pure Land is filled with music. It’s basically a non-stop concert or rave, as music fills the air. Not only are there musicians, but the wind in the trees also makes delightful music. And then there are the birds. As the Smaller Pure Land Sutra describes: 

In the Pure Land there are always many kinds of rare and beautiful birds of various colours, such as swans, peacocks, parrots, mynah birds, kalavinkas, and gumyochos. Six times a day birds sing with melodious and delicate sounds, which proclaim such teachings as the five roots of goodness, the five powers, the seven practices leading to Enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. On hearing them, all the people of that land are mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha…. These birds are manifested by Amida so that their singing can proclaim and spread the Dharma.

So, there are six types of birds that are named as species that live in the Pure Land. And they are more than just animals: they are themselves teachers, who demonstrate the Dharma to us.

The last bird on the list is the gumyocho, which is not an ordinary species. We can see carvings of it on the altar tables placed before the statue of Amida Buddha in Jodo Shinshu temples. It’s unmistakable: it has two heads. This is part of its teaching function. There’s a famous story about this bird. The two heads had their own personalities and, being self-centred like all of us, they often quarreled. One head became extremely angry at the other, seeing it as an enemy. So it gave some poisoned food to the other head to kill it. Of course, since they shared a single body, they both died. As the first head was dying, it realized the utter foolishness of its actions and was awakened, and Amida Buddha placed the bird in the Pure Land so that it could teach its insight to others. The meaning of this story is pretty clear: it illustrates the Buddhist principle that we are all connected and that what hurts another person also hurts ourselves.

Another bird that is mentioned in the sutra is the peacock. This shouldn’t surprise us, as peacocks are widely viewed as one of the most beautiful kinds of birds. But there’s a further significance to peacocks for Pure Land Buddhism. Not only are they birds of the Pure Land, but it’s also said that Amida Buddha rides on a peacock as his personal mount.

We don’t depict Amida that way in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, but it’s common in the art of some other forms of Buddhism. The reason we don’t use this image is because Jodo Shinshu is very strict about proper Buddha images in temples. We only use a standing Amida Buddha, leaning slightly forward. There is a genuine purpose behind this. Sitting buddhas, whether on a lotus or an animal or whatever, are relatively passive. But in Jodo Shinshu images, Amida is standing up, springing into action to help others, and even leans forward as the Buddha comes rushing to liberate us all. We don’t have to go to Amida and beg for entrance into the Pure Land, like in other forms of Buddhism. We understand that Great Compassion comes to us, just as we are, entering our ordinary foolish stressed-out lives to provide comfort and relief from suffering.

That’s an important point. But it’s still interesting that some other Buddhists prefer to depict Amida Buddha riding on a peacock. Why is there such an association of peacocks with Amida and the Pure Land?

In the wild in Asia, peacocks are fierce enemies of snakes. They won’t allow snakes to live in their territories, and when they encounter a poisonous snake such as a cobra, they kill and eat it. This is why peacocks are significant: they signify the Buddhist principle of transforming poison into medicine. The peacock encounters a deadly snake, but instead of being defeated by it, the peacock consumes the snake and is not affected by its poison. Using the snake as nourishment, its body is strengthened and it is able to grow beautiful feathers. The incredible plumage of a peacock is a product of the poison that it ingested and transformed.

This is a Buddhist idea because it illustrates how the Dharma works. The Buddha points out that we suffer, and suffering poisons our lives. But by learning how suffering works and immersing ourselves in the Dharma, our suffering becomes the cause for our awakening and liberation. Thus, the poison of suffering is used as the medicine to relieve suffering.

Life provides us with many opportunities to turn poison into medicine, which is to say, to turn bad circumstances into something positive. For example, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was a terrible experience for most of us. Many people died, many more got sick, and we suffered from job loss, disconnection from our friends and relatives, and all sorts of difficult disruptions to our normal lives. The coronavirus has certainly been a poison for us.

But at the same time, the pandemic lockdowns also presented us with opportunities. In the past, our temples never had the capacity to create online Dharma services, and we were isolated to listening to the same speaker each week, or spending a lot of money to fly in occasional guest speakers. But during the pandemic we managed to coordinate an online service with all the Jodo Shinshu ministers of Canada chanting together as one. We learned from guest speakers across the world on our screens and found ways to recreate some sangha-feeling in the virtual world. People who couldn’t come to in-person services due to disability, age, or geography were enabled to hear the Dharma. All of this was only possible because we came together and were determined to eke some medicine out of the poison of our times. The hard times of the pandemic were the stimulus for creativity and solidarity.

This doesn’t mean that the suffering of the pandemic was worth it. The point is that suffering is always going to happen, whether there is a pandemic or not. That’s the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. When suffering occurs, when something poisons our lives, we can take it as an opportunity to try to produce something good out of the situation.

Beyond the music and birds, another of the adornments of the Pure Land are the dazzling flowers and refreshing waters. One of the favourite lines from the Smaller Pure Land Sutra, which ministers love to quote in their Dharma talks, is this description of the flowers of the Pure Land:

In the ponds are lotuses as large as chariot-wheels—the blue ones radiating a blue light, the
yellow a yellow light, the red a red light, and the white a white light. They are all marvelous
and beautiful, fragrant and pure.

As with all things in the Pure Land, this isn’t just a nice description of a lovely place. The Pure Land is not a vacation spot: it is a form of teaching, and all aspects of the Pure Land are illustrations of important Dharma lessons.

The flowers of the Pure Land are accepted and valued just as they are. The lotuses have different colours, but each one is marvelous, beautiful, and pure just as it is. No matter what colour they are, that colour shines out from them to beautify the world. For Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, this is a teaching about us. Whatever colour we are, whomever we are, we are all beautiful, we are all accepted, we all shine.

No colour is superior to any other. Thus, no race or ethnicity is superior to any other. All flowers are equal to each other. Therefore, all genders, sexualities, and types of people are equal to one another. All add value and wonder to our world. No light outshines any other: all shine in harmony in the waters of the Pure Land. They are all beautiful just as they are, and are all beautiful with one another. This is the vision of the Pure Land, the vision we are enjoined to bring to our everyday interactions with all the beautiful different people of our world, our fellow members of the sangha of Boundless Life.

Excerpted from chapter 6 of Living Nembutsu: Applying Shinran’s Radically Engaged Buddhism in Life and Society (Sumeru Books, 2023)

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Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson is an ordained minister in the Hongwanji-ha tradition of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and a professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. He is the author of Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness, among other books.