Birth in the Pure Land (which means spiritual liberation experienced in this life) is one of the most important issues in Shin Buddhism. I want to talk about this issue by discussing Shinran Shonin's (1173-1262, the founder of Shin Buddhism) view of the two types of birth in the Pure Land.
In the Pure Land scriptures the Pure Land is presented as a place that consists of three types of "adornment" (which is defined as "symbolism" by Rev. Ryojin Soga, a famous Shin scholar): 1) the adornment of Amida Buddha, the teacher of the land; 2) the adornment of bodhisattvas, the seekers of Buddhahood; and 3) the adornment of environments, such as lands, buildings, and trees. The Pure Land is also presented as a place that is devoid of suffering and full of happiness.
Shinran talks about the two types of birth in the Pure Land: "preliminary birth" and "true birth." When people suffer, they, on the basis of their dualistic ideas, usually hate suffering and desire to be born in a happy land, either in this life or in a life after death. Shinran calls this type of birth, the type that people usually seek, "preliminary birth." He believes that people should move from such birth to another type of birth, "true birth," where they transcend their dualistic ideas and experience onenesswhere they can accept the reality of human suffering and see deeper meanings in it.
According to Shinran, since people initially cannot think of any ideal place without using their deluded (or dualistic) ideas, Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) gave them symbolic descriptions about the Pure Land which conform to their deluded (or dualistic) way of thinking, as an expedient means to guide them to a deeper experience of spiritual liberation. But if people take the symbolically described Pure Land literally as a physical reality, and desire to be born there, such a birth is "preliminary birth." However, Shakyamuni's real intention was to guide them to "true birth"to true liberation in which they transcend their deluded ideas and realize true oneness. Now let me explain "preliminary birth" and "true birth."
What Is "Preliminary Birth"?
According to Shinran, the best example of "preliminary birth" is found in the Meditation Sutra, one of the three basic sutras of the Pure Land tradition. This is the story of a tragedy that takes place in the city of Rajagrha. Vaidehi, a queen in the story, experiences tremendous agony; she desires to be liberated from her suffering by seeking birth in the Pure Land.
Vaidehi's suffering starts when Ajatasatru, her son, imprisons the king, his father, with a desire to kill him and usurp his kingdom. Having discovered that Vaidehi, his mother, is carrying food to the king in prison, Ajatasatru gets angry and imprisons her, too. Now, having experienced great despair, she calls upon Shakyamuni for help and says, "I do not want to live in this world filled with all kinds of evil. I want to be born in a place where no suffering exists." Then Shakyamuni teaches practices, such as visualization and chanting, which are designed to bring about her birth in the Pure Land.
Shinran considers the type of birth that Vaidehi desires "preliminary birth." The above words she uttered to Shakyamuni express both her hatred of this world of suffering and her longing for a land that does not have suffering. Although her desire for birth is quite sincere, it is still based on her deluded (dualistic) ideas, on her self‑centered desires and expectations. Here, her attachment to her deluded ideals is not yet challenged or negated.
We are no different from Vaidehi. When we have difficulties in life, we long for a world, either in this life or in the life after death, where no suffering exists. But such a world is always a projection of our egoistic desires. Many Buddhist teachers point out the mistake contained in this orientation. They point out the mistake in our idea that the Pure Land is a place where we can have our individual comfort and pleasure. For example, T'an-luan (476‑542, the third Shin patriarch) says, "If people hear that they will constantly experience pleasure in the Pure Land and desire to be born there because of it, they will not be born there." With these words, T'an‑luan indicates that the kind of birth in the Pure Land that is conceived on the basis of our deluded (dualistic) human expectations is "preliminary birth," not "true birth."
What Is "True Birth"?
What then does Shinran mean by "true birth"? Shinran believes that "true birth" in the Pure Land means "birth in the spiritual realm of the Innermost Aspiration." He believes that the descriptions of the Pure Land found in sutras are actually symbolic expressions of the contents of the Innermost Aspiration. Since a good understanding of the meaning of the Innermost Aspiration (Skt. purva‑pranidhana; Jpn. hongan) is indispensable for our understanding of Shinran's view of "true birth," let me discuss it.
The Innermost Aspiration means the most ancient desire, or the ultimate desire, which is the basis of human existence. It means the desire to become a Buddha, an awakened being. The meaning of the Innermost Aspiration, the desire to become a Buddha, is explained in the personal symbol of Dharmakara (or Amida Buddha) in the Larger Sutra. Dharmakara shows us the process by which the Innermost Aspiration is first awakened and eventually fulfilled.
Although Dharmakara takes up various practices to realize his Buddhahood, the practice called "visitation” (Skt. puja; Jpn. kuyo)" most clearly shows us the contents of the Innermost Aspiration that Dharmakara symbolizes. In this visitation practice Dharmakara goes out to revere innumerable Buddhas in the ten directions. The number of Buddhas he worships increases as he intensifies his practice. This way, he eventually comes to view all sentient beings as Buddhas, having transcended his dualistic ideas, such as “enlightened and deluded,” “good and evil,” and “pure and impure.” Through the visitation practice, Dharmakara fulfills his Innermost Aspiration, becomes a Buddha by the name of Namu Amida Butsu (Bowing Amida Buddha), and realizes the Pure Land. The Pure Land is the spiritual realm in which the Innermost Aspiration is perfected; this Aspiration pervades every corner of the land.
Now let us see how "true birth" in the Pure Land is described in the Tobo‑ge ("Verses about the Eastern Direction") in the Larger Sutra. The Tobo‑ge verses describe innumerable bodhisattvas who are born in the Pure Land from the eastern direction. When those bodhisattvas are born in the Pure Land, Amida tells them that they share the same Innermost Aspiration that he has. He tells them that they will unfailingly fulfill their Innermost Aspiration; they will become Buddhas and create their Pure Lands that are no different from his own Pure Land. Then in order to perfect the Innermost Aspiration, these bodhisattvas engage in the visitation practice, the same practice that Dharmakara performed to become Amida Buddha, and go out of the Pure Land to visit innumerable Buddhas. After having visited and studied under them, they return to Amida's Pure Land. This way, they perfect their Buddhahood by traveling back and forth between Amida's Pure Land and innumerable Buddhas.
Amida, whose essence is an ever-expanding spirit, does not allow bodhisattvas to make their comfortable dwelling place in the Pure Land. He encourages them to forget about their dualistic ideas, to go out of the Pure Land, and to learn from all sentient beings, regarding them as Buddhas. This way, the Larger Sutra talks about "true birth" as birth in Amida's Innermost Aspirationin the spirit that endlessly goes out of the Pure Land to seek oneness with all sentient beings.
In the volume called "Attainment" in his Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran talks about the powerful lifestyle of a person who has experienced "true birth" (whom Shinran calls a shinjin person). Shinran says that the shinjin person is equal to the highest bodhisattva (that is, like Maitreya), whose main concern is to leave the Pure Land and return to the world of human suffering to realize oneness with all sentient beings in it.
Mr. A's Entrance into Professor B’s Mind
In order to further explain the two types of birth, let me tell a story about Mr. A, a high school student who desires to enter a college. The college which Mr. A desires to enter is famous for Prof. B. Mr. A has heard of the professor's reputation, and he desires to study under him. Mr. A believes that the college is a wonderful place where he can perfect his knowledge. Then, Mr. A passes the entrance examination and enters the college.
Now the school begins and Mr. A goes to Prof. B's class. Mr. A is thinking that Prof. B's instruction in the class will perfect his knowledge. But, as soon as Prof. B comes to the class, he tells his students, "The ultimate goal in learning does not exist here in this class, in this college. The most important thing that you students must learn about is the reality that exists outside the college. Here you must learn the importance of your fieldwork. You must go out of this college and appreciate the things and people in the real world. Although you may think that this college and the real world you have left behind are two different worlds, that's not so. If you truly understand my instruction, you will understand that the real world is part of this collegeit is an extension of this college. The only important thing about your education here is that you can learn the importance of fieldwork. So you must travel back and forth between this classroom and your fieldwork."
These challenging words of the professor come to Mr. A as a surpriseas a shocking and challenging lessonbecause Mr. A has been thinking that the college is the only place where he can perfect his knowledge and the world outside the college is not the place for learning. Now Mr. A must revise his view. According to the professor, the real world that he has left behind is actually the most important place for learning and it is to that world that Mr. A must return.
I have composed this story in order to explain the two types of birth. In this story, "preliminary birth" means Mr. A's initial entrance into the college. Mr. A mistakenly thought that his goal was to be found in the college and his knowledge would be perfected there. "True birth" means Mr. A's second entrance, the entrance into the mind of Prof. B. It means Mr. A's appreciation of Prof. B's view that the most important thing is fieldwork outside the college. Although Mr. A initially thought the goal was to be found in the college, he now realizes that it is to be found in fieldwork.
Samsara Is Nirvana
Now let me talk about our issue from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism, whose basic teaching is "samsara is nirvana." The true Pure Land is a place where we learn that "samsara is nirvana"this reality of suffering is actually an ideal. When we start to study Buddhism, we think nirvana exists outside samsara. Thinking this way, we seek nirvana outside samsara. But Shinran calls such an escapist approach "preliminary birth." It is a birth that is based on our dualistic expectations.
But when we meet Amida Buddha, or more specifically, when we meet historical human beings who embody the Innermost Aspiration, they challenge our desire to settle in a comfortable land: they teach us that we should move out of our type of pure land (i.e., "preliminary land") and appreciate this world of suffering as part of the true Pure Land. They teach us that samsara is the only place where the Innermost Aspiration can exist and work. The Innermost Aspiration is the spiritual force that is continuously transforming the world of suffering into the Pure Land. It is the spiritual force that is continuously Pure-Land-izing impure lands.
One common Buddhist joke is as follows: A person visits the Pure Land with a desire to meet Buddhas and bodhisattvas. But when he arrives at the Pure Land, he is disappointed because he cannot find any Buddha or bodhisattva there. He is told that all Buddhas and bodhisattvas have gone to impure lands, since they are interested not in staying in the Pure Land, but in visiting impure lands. The minds of impure lands, of deluded people, are interested in going to the Pure Land. But the minds of the Pure Land, of awakened ones, are interested in going to impure lands.
Initially we are taught that Buddhism is a way of intense self‑examination. When we are told that, we think that we must be alone and self‑focused, and that we must seek our individual liberation. Thus because of our dualistic ideas, we imagine a wonderful place where we can enjoy individual comfort, pleasure, and happiness. Then in order to attain birth in such a place, we take up various practices, such as meditation and chanting. Shinran calls this kind of birth "preliminary birth." Many people stay in this orientation throughout their lives and never recognize the deep self-love that is at the basis of this orientation. We must recognize the mistake in this approach and move to "true birth."
"True birth" means our birth in the Innermost Aspirationin the spirit that endlessly goes out of the Pure Land. Amida is a symbol of the humble person who endlessly bows his head before all sentient beings, regarding them as Buddhas. His mind is so humble and empty that it can encompass all Buddhas in the ten directions. His mind is filled with his adoration for all Buddhas in the ten directions.
Thus in one of his verses Shinran says, "Taking refuge in Amida's Pure Land means taking refuge in all Buddhas [in the ten directions]" (Jodo Wasan, no. 46). Here, Shinran is talking about "true birth." He says that taking refuge (or being born) in Amida's Pure Land means taking refuge in Amida's Innermost Aspiration, where Amida is humbly revering all sentient beings as Buddhas. The content of Amida's Buddhahood is nothing but all Buddhas in the ten directions. This also means that those who attain "true birth" in the Pure Land will emulate what Amida did to become a Buddha; they will endlessly go out of the Pure Land and revere all sentient beings as Buddhas.
To Shinran, "true birth" means receiving the power of the Innermost Aspiration and going back to the reality of human suffering. It means discovering new and deeper meanings in the reality of human suffering. The reality of human suffering becomes, for him, a wonderful place in which he can witness the working of Amida's Innermost Aspiration, and in which he can transcend his dualistic ideas, such as good and evil, and secular and religious, and appreciate the oneness with all sentient beings.
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