Little Faith and Great Faith
This teaching is most immediately prompted by what we all see happening in the Middle East, but it has application in many parts of the world and in our own understanding and practice. There is "little faith" and there is "great faith". Little faith is the kind of faith that unites a practice community by separation. The community could be a branch of any religion or it could be an ideological group of some kind. Little faith is essentially about identity. It says, "We are X" with the implication that "We are X and not Y". Little faith always relates to an out-group from which people are distinguishing themselves and, implicitly, condemning. It says, "We are the true believers who are different from the infidels," or "We have the right practice unlike those others," or "We are the virtuous and we oppose the sinners."
Many faith groups operate in this way. Membership cements a person into a way of practice and belief and provides strength and courage to face a difficult world. Even humanistic and supposedly progressive groups can be in the same kind of mentality. How many progressive groups do you know that thrive on petitions and campaigns to condemn this or that idea or practice that is different from their own? One might then ask… But should one not condemn what is bad, cruel or corrupt? Isn't progress a function of eliminating the bad? It is easy to see how an oppositional way of thinking comes readily to the human mind and appears to be self-justifying. Yet, it is not our way to condemn. We are not in the business of demolishing Hell; we are in the business of building an alternative; yet we cannot do such building alone and unaided; we need the help of the Buddhas.
As Amidists we seek refuge in the cosmic Buddha Amida. Does that not separate us from those who take some other refuge or those who do not understand refuge at all? Surely, when we recite that the sacred vows are the unique path to enter the Pure Land, are we not making such an exclusive claim? These questions have troubled some people. Yet to take refuge in one Buddha is to take refuge in all Buddhas and it matters not at all what those Buddhas are called or how many skilful means they use in order to appear in all worlds in guises acceptable to the people there. The vows in the Larger Pureland Sutra categorically enjoin us to praise all Buddhas in such manner as suits them. The Buddhas are always working for love, peace and wisdom and doing so in all worlds in all manner of ways and it is our work to assist them and to open our hearts so that they can work through us.
It is important, therefore, to understand great faith. Great faith is faith that transcends difference and does not rely upon rejection. Great faith encompasses faith in great compassion and great love, great peace and great equanimity. Great love is the love of Buddha who loves all sentient beings. We might not be able to manage that personally, but we have faith in it. We have faith that that is the way of the Buddhas and it is to them that we look for refuge.
This means that while we express our faith in a particular form, such as saying Namo Amida Bu, we do not understand that expression as excluding other expressions, but as embracing them. The hundred names of Allah are simply more names for the same great faith. The prayers of Christians and the dancing of Sufis, the rituals of Confucianists, the hopes of Humanists and the sitting of Zenists, are ultimately expressions of the same essential heart. The actual practitioners of this or that approach may or may not be enmeshed in small faith just as members of our own congregation may be, but true refuge is not exclusivist. True refuge is an expression of faith on behalf of all beings.
When we say Namo Amida Bu, we are also saying "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner", we are also saying "Hari Krishna" and "By the mercy of Allah, the compassionate." This is not to say that all these different faiths are really the same. They evidently all have different forms and customs and different ideas. Yet there is a parallel between the spectrum from bigness of heart to littleness in all groups, and to say Namo Amida Bu is to celebrate the prevailing of bigness of heart and bigness of faith not only in one's own group but in all.
In Buddhism we have the teaching of truths for noble ones. The first truth for noble ones is dukkha. Dukkha includes having difficult neighbours. Sometimes this even means having neighbours who throw bombs over one's borders. One might be tempted to throw bombs back. When things reach this degree of animosity something has already gone badly wrong. Too much little faith has been going on for too long already. Yet, from the perspective of great faith, one knows that there are people of good heart on both sides and those who are lost in littleness are only so because of their fear. One, therefore, prays for and takes refuge in a bigger faith that can encompass both sides. One seeks to take away the causes of fear.
The reason for dukkha is so that we can find liberation by liberating one another. Liberation starts in our hearts, extends into our open arms and finds fulfilment in expressions of love, or, it starts in expressions of love, extends into open arms and finally lodges deep in our hearts. All true religion is a reminder of this inner and outer movement. In Buddhism, we say that our neighbour is our teacher. It is through such relations that we find the barriers to our own freedom and if we find them then we can take them down. This is, perhaps, a never-ending task in our own case, but it is sustained by that greater universal love in which we find refuge and take faith. Let us, therefore, not condemn little faith, but seek always to go beyond it into that great faith that encompasses all sentient beings and is the unique and sacred vow of all Buddhas everywhere, no matter by what names or forms they present themselves.
Namo Amida Bu
Pilgrimage: "In the Footsteps of the Buddha"
March 15 - 30, 2015: a unique opportunity to visit the key pilgrimage sites in North east India and Nepal in the company of Dr. David Brazier (Dharmavidya), Pure Land Priest and teacher, writer and authority on Buddhist psychology, who will guide the tour with Maarten Olhof, engaged Buddhist, author and teacher of Zen Buddhism.
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Other - Power: Why Self-mastery is self- defeating
Tricycle, Summer 2014
The logic of morality is often based on a wish, an assumption, or an aspiration toward self-mastery in service of a spiritual or worldly goal. Buddhists in the West, for instance, often present morality as the necessary basis for meditation, as a means of gaining a personal stability that allows one to practice beneficially. Another kind of moral logic is based on calculation. This might manifest as fear of retribution, whether in terms of karma or as sin against divine law, or, conversely, as hope for a reward. Even secular morality often has this attitude: if I am good to others when they need help, then I’m creating social capital for when I need help. Modern Western Buddhists often include in this kind of logic of morality a calculation about gaining happiness: if I am good to others, I create the conditions for my own mental well-being.
Pureland Buddhism has a different starting point. Pureland moral logic starts with the recognition that self-mastery sets the self against the self and thereby undermines the very thing it is attempting to do. Pureland instead aims to undermine the calculation involved in trying to master oneself. It does this by directing us to be grateful for the support of others for whatever good we are able to do. Our meritorious actions are only possible because of countless others who conspire unknowingly to guide us, help us, and create the conditions in which our typically confused and ambiguous efforts to do good don’t backfire on us. Pureland’s faith in other-power and nembutsu (keeping Buddha in mind) lays a basis for a radically different approach to spiritual practice than what many meditators bring to it.
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