Manchester Buddhist Centre newsletter Feb-Mar 2013
THE BUDDHALAND – A HEAVEN WITH A DIFFERENCE …
The Lord Buddha, thus surrounded and venerated by these multitudes of many hundreds of thousands of living beings, sat upon a majestic lion-throne and began to teach the Dharma. … the Lord Buddha shone, radiated, and glittered as he sat upon his magnificent lion- throne.
Thereupon, the Licchavi bodhisattva Ratnakara, with five hundred Licchavi youths, each holding a precious parasol made of seven different kinds of jewels, came forth from the city of Vaisali and presented himself at the grove of Amrapali. Each approached the Buddha, bowed at his feet, circumambulated him clockwise seven times, laid down his precious parasol in offering, and withdrew to one side.
As soon as all these precious parasols had been laid down, suddenly, by the miraculous power of the Lord, they were transformed into a single precious canopy so great that it formed a covering for this entire billion-world galaxy. The surface of the entire billion-world galaxy was reflected in the interior of the great precious canopy, where the total content of this galaxy could be seen: limitless mansions of suns, moons, and stellar bodies; the realms of the devas, nagas, yakshas (mythical beasts) … all the great oceans, rivers, bays, torrents, streams, brooks, and springs; finally, all the villages, suburbs, cities, capitals, provinces, and wildernesses. All this could be clearly seen by everyone. And the voices of all the Buddhas of the ten directions could be heard proclaiming their teachings of the Dharma in all the worlds, the sounds reverberating in the space beneath the great precious canopy.
At this vision of the magnificent miracle affected by the supernatural power of the Lord Buddha, the entire host was ecstatic, enraptured, astonished, delighted, satisfied, and filled with awe and pleasure. They all bowed down to the Tathágata, withdrew to one side with palms pressed together, and gazed upon him with fixed attention. The young Licchavi Ratnakara knelt with his right knee on the ground raised his hands; palms pressed together in salute of the Buddha, and praised him with the following hymn:
(The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture, Trans. Robert A F Thurman, 2006)
Building the Buddha Land is the title of a lecture in a series by Sangharakshita on the Mahayana Buddhist scripture called the Vimalakirti Nirdesa. A Buddhaland is the sphere of influence of a Buddha, and in the Mahayana conception of things there are many world systems and, correspondingly, many Buddhas overseeing them. Dayamala in her talk introduced this vivid text from the Vimalakirti Nirdesa (see text above).
In this text it is as if the youths are proud of what they aspire to, which is why they offer it to the Buddha. And the Buddha is saying in a way that, yes, it is good to have individual spiritual aspirations, but there is something it is even better to aspire to, and that is the other- regarding vision that runs through all Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, which is represented by the canopy. It is even better if we work to foster the spiritual aspirations of all the beings in the universe, or at least those within our sphere of influence. This is the cosmic vision of the Buddhaland. After the offering of the parasols Ratnakara offers a series of beautiful verses in praise of the Buddha after which he asks, for the benefit of the youths, how the Buddhaland should be built.
From descriptions of Buddhalands it seems that they are like a kind of heaven: to the extent that they seem to give living beings what they desire. For instance, in the Buddhaland Sukhavati – the ‘happy land’ – if you want the water you are standing in to come up to your ankles, it comes up to your ankles; if you want it to come up to your knees, it comes up to your knees. Everything – trees, houses, gardens – is made of the seven precious substances: gold, silver, pearl, sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond (the list varies in different scriptures.) This isn’t like King Midas’s nightmare where everything he touched turned to gold and he couldn’t eat anything. It is best to see it as a poetic represention of everything in our experience appearing precious, magical and completely meeting all our needs. But there is a difference between a Buddhaland and heaven. To see how, we need to look briefly at the story of the historical Buddha.
Buddhism began in India around 2500 years ago. Prior to the Buddha many religions involved the practice of fire worship and the practice of ritual propitiation of local gods and spirits: like the gods of the earth, the sky, the wind and the rain. The main religion in India at the time of the Buddha has been called by scholars the Vedic sacrificial religion – its rituals were based upon sacred texts, called the Vedas and it involved animal sacrifice. Though changed in some ways. a form of it exists in the modern world as Hinduism.
Vedic priests – called Brahmins – tended their sacred fires and performed the tightly proscribed rituals that, it was believed, fended off misfortune for those who commissioned them. In the recently screened BBC documentary series on India (episode 2 – ‘The Power of Ideas’) the presenter Michael Wood showed such a sacred fire, which, it had been claimed, had been burning continuously in the city of Varanasi for 3000 years. I may see that fire next month on the pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy sites I am undertaking with a small group from Manchester, if we get to Varanasi.
The Buddha began life as a young prince called Gautama. Seeing that sickness, old age and death could not be overcome by massaging life’s circumstances, but perhaps by undertaking a spiritual quest, he left home and went in search of teachers and spiritual practices.
The first teachers he came across were Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra. According to recent scholarship (Alexander Wynne The Origins of Buddhist Meditation) the form of meditation that they taught him seems to have been based upon the Vedic religion, and was a form of Brahminical meditation. Brahminism evolved the philosophy of the doctrine of atman. It proposed that every living being had a fixed self, or soul, called in Sanskrit atman. And that there was an equivalent permanent transcendental essence in the universe, called Brahman, which we might think of as ‘the Divine’ or God. Briefly, in Vedic cosmology the universe begins with pure being or sat. Then out of sat arises the various elements of the cosmos: firstly fire; then out of fire, water; then out of water, earth; and so on.
According to Wynne, the Brahminical meditator identifies themselves with and then dissolves each of these elements in turn, in the reverse order to the way that they evolved in the cosmos: namely earth, water, fire, etc. In this way they ‘reverse the flow’ of Vedic cosmology and end up experiencing their unchanging self or atman in union with the unchanging essence of the universe or Brahman. For the Hindu this is the ‘supreme bliss.’ We might call it the Hindu heaven. Heavens in many religions often take a shape like this. They are a place where our soul goes after death if we have been good, and once there we experience permanent happiness. There can though be an unfortunate consequence to this idea of a pure unchanging self. If the view becomes ‘calcified’ and institutionalized so that the idea of purity attaches to a person rather than the quality of their actions, some people can be seen as inherently more pure than others.
In Hinduism that atman doctrine stratified the society into castes, which were hereditary, which therefore the individual could not escape. The yogi and the hereditary Brahmin priest, being thought to be ‘closest to Brahman’ were given preferential treatment in the society. The lower castes were thought incapable of religion and it was believed they brought pollution to the higher castes solely by their presence, so they were barred from practising religion altogether. Many of the dalit, or ‘suppressed,’ community, who were so low as to be branded as untouchable, escaped this situation by converting to Buddhism under Dr. Ambedkar in the 1950s. But the Western world has its own version of a preoccupation with purity that has created harm with the establishment of slavery, institutionalized racial discrimination, poor attitudes towards animals, and, in the worst cases in the twentieth century, the various holocausts.
All of this is far from the Buddhist view. The Buddha’s vision, which is that every living being in the universe is equally precious, is represented by the glittering canopy covering the universe. All beings desire happiness and so not one of them should be barred from it.
In his Brahminical meditations though he matched the skill of his teachers, Gautama never found an atman and so he left them, joining a group of five ascetics – called sramanas – practising self- mortification. Again the same pattern emerged: he became very accomplished at asceticism but, again, it led to a dead-end. He then remembered an incident from his youth – which later came to be called the ‘rose-apple tree experience’ – and this was the turning point in his spiritual career. He had been sitting under a rose-apple tree watching his father plough, and he had spontaneously entered into a blissful meditative state called a dhyana.
The common view among the ascetics was that because it beguiled the mind – pleasure had to be avoided at all costs, hence their practice of asceticism. But Gautama saw that some pleasures were natural and indeed ought to be encouraged. Though it was a bad idea to rely upon the world being a certain way before you could be happy – and he called such feelings worldly – if you were content with whatever life presented, then this was a good thing. Such feelings he called spiritual. So in the meditation that he developed he looked inward for his satisfaction. The dhyanic states he developed were ‘secluded from sensuality and unwholesome mental states.’ The idea too of mental states being unwholesome/unskilful or wholesome /skilful was a new invention.
Though one might get pleasure from a mental state, if it caused suffering in the long run, it should be avoided. By definition these states were unskilful. An example might be being pleased to see your enemy suffer – as that only increases your disconnection with them. Or, being pleased when you satiate your greed – as that only leads to addictive habits. But when pleasure came from a mental state which only brought happiness, such mental states should be encouraged. These, by definition, were skilful. So pleasant feelings that came from being relaxed, or from seeing yourself or others do well, or from a satisfaction with having less, were to be encouraged. So happiness came from being skilful. And with this insight he developed a path of increasing skilfulness – the Threefold Path: of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom – which led eventually to Nirvana.
It is this view about the real source of happiness that perfumes the Buddhaland. We experience a Buddhaland when we experience the collected fruits of living beings being skilful. The Buddha describes how the Buddhafield is created. It is created by a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist with the altruistic vision of the Mahayana) and:
“…the Bodhisattva embraces a Buddhaland to the extent that he causes the development of living beings … to the extent that living beings become disciplined … to the extent that, through entrance into that Buddhaland, living beings increase their spiritual faculties … why so, because a Buddhaland of Bodhisattvas springs from the aims of living beings.”
The Buddhaland arises from the collective aspiration or vision of living beings, and that is a vision to act skilfully in relation to all beings in the cosmos. It is a place where living beings seek to actively create the conditions for happiness for themselves and others in this life, through qualities like the six perfections: generosity, ethics, energy (in pursuit of the good,) patience, meditation and wisdom.
In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa the Buddha outlines the Buddhist philosophical position, and this turns out to be the antithesis of the atman doctrine. He says that the Bodhisattva builds the Buddhaland ‘in spite of the fact that it is not possible to build or adorn anything in empty space.’ What he means is that because all things are subject to the Law of Conditionality (they arise in dependence on conditions) they are subject to change or impermanence – in Sanskrit anitya. Because of this there is no permanent self in living beings – the Buddhist doctrine of non-self or anatman – nor is there any permanent essence inherent in the universe. Everything in the universe is empty of inherent existence, or shunya.
The Buddhist equivalent to the iconography of Brahman is the infinite blue sky. What this represents is the fact that things appear and disappear into the blue sky depending on conditions: the Law of Conditionality. And while this means that whatever we create will not last – there is no permanence in the Buddhist ‘heaven’ – because things usually depend on impermanent conditions, it also means that, because nothing is ever fixed, the blue sky can be a font of rich new development, depending on what living beings create. And, at its height of creativity, what appears in the blue sky is the enlightened figure of the Buddha or Bodhisattva, as seen in Tibetan thankhas. So the rich imagery of the Buddhaland appears in the blue sky when living beings control their mental states and views and make them endlessly productive of happiness. It’s not a passive heaven but an active font of creativity.
View in the Manchester Buddhist Centre newsletter.
- ‘Building the Buddhaland’ shrine at the Manchester Buddhist Centre