SMART ENOUGH TO GNAW THEIR WAY STRAIGHT THROUGH
by John Blofeld
A GENERAL EXPLANATION OF THE BUDDHA SPEAKS OF AMITABHA SUTRA by Tripitaka Master Hua, Buddhist Test Translation Society, p. xx, 159. Paperback $6.95
The Mahayana sutras classed as Pure Land sutras teach that the Buddha, foreseeing that, in the degenerate age of Kaliyug which is now upon us, it would be increasingly difficult for ordinary sentient beings to practice the profound teachings set forth in the earlier sutras, spontaneously revealed an easier path well within the capability of all. In modern terms we may say that, since the psychological make-up of human beings has very wide variations, it is necessary to have a number of different techniques for approaching enlightenment, that the devotional approach which is anathema to so many of today's young people is precisely what is needed by people of a different temperament less fiercely in revolt, against the teaching of their Christian and Jewish forefathers. I do not mean that Pure Land Buddhism does in fact closely resemble Christianity, as some people usually its strongest critics have supposed, but only that they and a great many other religions are alike in being devotional rather than intellectual or supra-intellectual, and that they thus respond to a religious need as old as man himself.
Master Hua's book on the Amitabha Sutra is in some respects traditionally Chinese in its approach. Opening with a number of sections of an introductory nature wherein the teachings and methods expounded in the sutra are set forth under the headings. Name, Substance, Principle, Function, etc. (a very Chinese arrangement), the Master devotes a short chapter to Kumarajiva, the famous T'ang dynasty translator who rendered the sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese. He then proceeds to discourse upon the text of the sutra sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, explaining not only the general sense but also the meaning of each "technical term" and the significance of each of the Bodhisattvas and disciples mentioned by name as being present among the gathering to whom the sutra was first delivered.
What has been said so far, though intended to be an econium, may suggest that Master Hua's work is rather formidable. Well, it is certainly not intended as light reading material with which to beguile an idle hour, but nor is it either heavy or devoid of humor. The language of the American translators is refreshingly modern and down-to-earth and the substance is pleasantly varied with poems, amusing anecdotes and sage aphorisms. Chinese
Buddhists, like their Tibetan counterparts, have never been influenced by the dreary view that, since religion is a supremely serious matter, there is no place in it for humor. One may search these pages in vain for any hint of the dreadful solemnity that characterizes most commentaries on the Christian Bible. In that sort of work one can hardly imagine coming upon any laughter provoking passages, unless the humor is unintentional, whereas Master Hua's text, though intensely serious in purpose, is full of gaiety.
This work differs from similar commentaries in Chinese mainly in that, since it is intended for Western readers, the author has made good use of his firsthand knowledge of Western ways of putting things. It affords us an opportunity to savior traditional Chinese Buddhist wisdom without fatigue for the language is as simple and contemporary as could be desired and the way of teaching, direct. In a sense, this is no innovation; the works of Chinese Buddhist writers, who lived well over a thousand years ago, such as Huang Po and Jui Hai, may seem antique to us, but the style was thoroughly up to date to the people for whom they were written, for literary Chinese was eschewed in favor of a racy T'ang dynasty colloquial. All down the ages, this has been the tradition followed by Chinese Buddhist writers, their aim being to teach something useful rather than to win admiration as literati.
There is one aspect of the book, which may have an adverse effect on some Western readers. The peoples of the East have never doubted the existence of all sorts of fabulous beings and miraculous happenings. For example, not long ago a Tibetan of great erudition in Buddhist matters, on arriving in Japan, asked to be taken to the zoo to see some dragons. Disappointed to hear that there were none, he exclaimed: "But surely it is in China and Japan that most dragons in the world make their home?" Many Buddhist writers who hope that Buddhism will make its mark on the English-speaking public tend to play down references to dragons, nagas, garudas, rakshashas and so forth, rightly regarding the notion that such creatures exist as being merely peripheral to the subject of Buddhism. I recall the case of a publisher who recommended the translator of a Chinese biography to omit a passage referring to dragons seen sporting in the ocean around Kuan Yin's Potala Island (P'u T'ou Shan) off the southeast coast of China, lest readers unable to subscribe to a belief in dragons might on that account withhold credence from the really important subject matter of a most excellent book. The translator's pointblank refusal to omit the dragon episode would, I am sure, have won the approbation of Master Hua, who is quite uncompromising in such matters. I believe Master Hua would think it highly improper to omit references to anything acceptable to Chinese Buddhists merely on the grounds that some Westerners might find their belief somewhat strained. In this work, for example, we are told that at the time of Manjusri Bodhisattva's birth, horses gave birth to unicorns and elephants with six tusks appeared. In my view, this approach is absolutely right. In presenting Buddhism in its Indian or Chinese form, one must not presume to decide that its texts need to be edited, to accord with Western beliefs. Indeed, I believe one reason for the decline of some branches of the Christian church in recent years has been a tendency to "throw out the supernatural elements" in an effort to please modem taste. One can scarcely do that without throwing out the baby along with the bath water! Besides, who is in a position to say that dragons and unicorns do not exist? One may perhaps be able to prove that there are no flesh and blood creatures of that kind, but who said they are flesh and blood creatures in the first place? Certainly not the Chinese, who aver of unicorns (ch'i-lin) that they only appear on highly auspicious occasions to herald the arrival in the world of some kind of stupendous good fortune. From this it may be deduced that they are spiritual creatures not amenable to laboratory research.
As an example of the poems sprinkling the work, I offer the following:
In movement there is stillness,
In stillness, movement.
Both movement and stillness
Are still and moving, (p. 104)
These simple words convey a profound truth propounded by ancient Taoist philosophers and elaborated by followers of Ch'an (Zen). Besides being thought provoking, they exemplify the thesis that within Prue Land philosophy are to be found concepts in no way inferior to those put forward by Zen.
In this review, I shall not presume to sum up the Pure Land doctrine set forth in this book. A teaching so widely misunderstood in the West cannot he made acceptable in a paragraph or two. Those interested should read the book; whether they can accept its doctrine or not, they will surely be satisfied that it lacks none of the profundity to be found in Mahayana works sacred to other sects, including Ch'an (Zen).
Pure Land and Ch'an Dharma Talks is a slighter work consisting of the substance of some lectures on two apparently divergent paths of Buddhism, of which each set was delivered separately to suit particular occasions. In a way this is unfortunate, because no effort is made lie re to show that those paths are much closer to each other than might at first appear or to indicate how one may, as many Chinese do, pursue both of them together. In the Pure Land section, the Master expounds the advantages to be gained from recitation of Amitabha's name and makes it clear that this method of achieving one-pointedness of mind is not inferior to the more difficult method followed by Ch'an (Zen) adherents. Two typical injunctions are: "Recite single-mindedly and sincerely without erroneous thoughts. Pay no attention to worldly concerns (during the practice period). When you don't know the time and don't know the day, you arrive at a miraculous state"; and "The most important point of recitation is to melt the drift of false thoughts so that one becomes pure and spotless like driven snow". (p. 2 & 8)
Master Hua goes on to point out that, whereas the adherents of other sects must proceed step by step like an insect advancing down the length of a long bamboo stalk. Pure Land adepts are "smart enough to gnaw their way straight through the side of the stalk." He completely disposes of the false notion that the Pure Land approach is put forward by some Japanese iconoclasts and subscribed to by a very few Chinese. Readers with a deep knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism will recognize the truth of Master Hua's saying
that "on the day when you entirely forget yourself, the Amitabha of your own nature (Italics mine) will appear!"
What is said in the relatively short section devoted to Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism may appeal less to Western Buddhists because much of it will be familiar to them already. Nevertheless, his exposition is well worth studying, for he rightly emphasizes the difficulty of the Ch'an approach and makes it clear that a great deal of hard work is required of Ch'an adherents if they hope to attain much benefit. In this part, too, there are some amusing anecdotes and some kindly admonishment of the foibles of certain disciples of whom the Master is obviously very fond. It also touches upon the concessions that need to be made by those trained in the Chinese tradition to Buddhists in the West.
Of these two books, the second is rather sparsely illustrated, whereas the first contains many illustrations of Chinese origin, some of them simple line drawings with a great deal of charm. Here and there, one may perhaps find fault with the language in which they are presented, but in the main the translators have been absolutely right to present the Master's highly colloquial disquisition’s as literally as possible. They are to be congratulated.
Both books are highly recommended.
John Blofeld. Author, translator, teacher, John Blofeld has spent forty years living and traveling in the Far East. Be was Cultural Attaché to the British Embassy in wartime China and later worked for the U.K. He now teaches at Kesetsart University, Bangkok. His numerous books reflect his deep interest in all living Far Eastern traditions. Meaning of Mantras, a work now in progress, will soon be released by Button.
SOON TO BE PUBLISHED...A General Explanation of the Thousand-Handed Thousand-eyed Great Compassionate Heart Dharani Sutra. A Secret School Sutra containing mantras and methods of curing illness which is connected with Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. A simple direct explanation by the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hua. With illustrations.