Monday, July 21, 2008

The Pure Land; A Buddhist Digression

I promise I'll get to the Pre-Raphaelites, and I'll try to go easy on them, but in the meantime, here's something completely different (sorta).

Above is one of the most famous and celebrated Buddhist temples in Japan, the Byodoin Temple in the Kyoto suburb of Uji. It was built in the 11th century on land donated by the then powerful Fujiwara family. Housed inside is a major masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture that set the standards for later Buddhist art in Japan, an image of the Buddha carved in wood by the great busshi, or Buddhist image maker, Jocho (seen at the top of this post).
This is a side of Japanese art that may be unfamiliar to most of us Westerners. It is something very different from the tea house aesthetic of wabi and sabi created by Sen-no-Rikyu, or the sandgardens of Zen Buddhist temples such as the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. The Byodoin and Jocho's sculptures are part of the liturgical art of early Japanese Buddhism. We are not in the realm of koans and silent meditation with Zen masters on tatami mats in bare rooms looking at bare gardens. We are in the florid realm of high church bells-and-smells Buddhism; Buddhism the religion, and not Buddhism the philosophy.
The Buddha carved by Jocho housed in the center of the temple is not the Buddha of history. He is not Siddhartha Gautama, the historical prince who found Enlightenment under a tree in a deer park near Banaras 2500 years ago. This Buddha is the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise (or as it's known in Japan, the Pure Land), one of the 5 Buddhas that form the center of Mahayana Buddhism. Like all forms of Buddhism, it had its origins in India and found its way gradually into Japan through China and Korea. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that whoever says the name of the Amida Buddha in all sincerity will go straight to the Pure Land, a paradise, after death. It is Salvation-by-Grace Buddhism. Because of this similarity to Christianity, Westerners tend to see this type of devotion to Amida Buddha (and Mahayana Buddhism in general with all its mystical cosmologies) as a corruption of original Buddhist teaching. We generally prefer the plainer more demanding forms of Buddhism like Zen (Ch'an in China), or the more esoteric forms of Tantric Buddhism. This is not entirely just. Pure Land Buddhism comes right out of something central to Buddha's teaching that the other more demanding forms sometimes forget, compassion.  This school of Buddhism emerged out of compassion for the poor, the suffering, and the dying; for the least of people.  This form of Buddhism was always popular with the poor and outcast classes of China and Japan. It was made specifically for those who could not hope to attain Enlightenment even with a thousand lifetimes. It remains the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan today.
Pure Land Buddhism has a heaven and a hell, as well as salvation by grace, but beyond that, the similarities to Christianity end. Pure Land Buddhism is Buddhist. The ultimate goal is not paradise, but Nirvana, release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The punishments of hell (which are as grisly as anything dreamed up by Christians) are not the result of some final judgment, but of the mechanical workings of karma where good and evil are rewarded or punished as part of the order of the cosmos. Hell is not forever. It can last millions of years, but its torments are finite. Likewise, heaven is not forever either. It is the place where the faithful departed go, not for rest, but to finish their salvation in peace, to finally reach Nirvana.
The whole Byodoin Temple was built to be an image of the Pure Land, the Western Paradise, promised by the Amida Buddha to the faithful. Jocho's image sits in the center of a temple built to look like a palace. That palace is set in the middle of a beautiful garden full of trees, flowers, and lakes just as the Sutras describe paradise. A visit to the temple was meant to be a foretaste of the rewards of paradise, a paradise that was easily accessible simply by chanting over and over again while looking at the image of the Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu (All praise to the Amida Buddha).

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