I have no wish to slander anyone. What I wish is to share my experiences of the so-called ‘Shandao lineage’ (or tradition), that claims to teach ‘pristine’ Pure Land Buddhism.
[Note 1: If what shared is genuine and out of good will, there is no slander or harsh speech at all. To claim to be pristine also indirectly claims (or even slanders) that all other post-Master Shandao and/or pre-‘Shandao lineage’ Pure Land teachings are not pure. This cannot be as there are countless cases of successful Pure Land practice after Master Shandao’s era, and prior to existence of this group – which rides upon and misrepresents the teachings of Great Master Shandao.]
In 2014, I came across this relatively newly established group, while searching for a Pure Land Buddhist school to follow. I read some of their publications, corresponded with the group’s representative, and found their way of interpretation and practice convincing. Also, taking refuge through this group was extremely easy, as it is offered by ‘remote’, without seeing the teacher or him seeing the applicant. Without deeper investigation, I asked for refuge, which was promptly granted.
[Note 2: Proper taking of refuge is in person, unless the nearest monastic is really too far away. Taking refuge in person is highly encouraged, as it expresses sincere commitment, while creating substantial and lasting karmic affinity with the Triple Gem, and allowing its blessings to be shared and experienced directly. Of course, there should be adequate investigation first, to check that the teacher taken refuge through is authentic in lineage, conduct and teachings.]
I had no problems with the group’s ways at first, but started feeling some frustration due to several minor instances on their Facebook page. Some inquiries, should they be even slightly challenging, were disregarded and even muted. Being educated in the framework of open and non-sectarian understanding of the Buddhadharma (i.e. the Buddha’s teachings), this was somewhat alarming.
[Note 3: The Buddha himself encouraged active enquiry, to doubt the doubtful, to question even his own teachings. As such, if so-called ‘Buddhist teachers’ discourage asking, they are going against the Buddhist method of teaching and learning. They cannot be considered qualified to teach at all.]
Once, I witnessed a flagrant case of muting on the page, when a rather distinguished priest of another Pure Land school attempted to engage in doctrinal discussion, which resulted in his posts being entirely deleted without any explanation. Naturally, he expressed indignation for such unfair treatment and left.
[Note 4: It is actually better to leave groups that are not adhering to the Buddha’s teachings and his way of teaching, so as to avoid being confused by them.]
On another occasion, a question was raised by someone on whether it is acceptable to offer prayers from the highly revered Bodhicharyavatara (Guide To The Bodhisattva’s Way Of Life), for which he was reprimanded. Such a sincere call of the devotional heart was branded as a ‘Self-Power approach’, that is only allowed for Bodhisattvas of very advanced levels, and not for us, who are deemed so hopelessly defiled and ‘sinful’.
[Note 5: The mentioned text is the favourite teaching of teachers such as H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, which he also taught for the general masses. It does not contain teachings only understandable and practicable by advanced Bodhisattvas. In fact, familiarising with its teachings helps one to advance on the Bodhisattva path. The fact that there are those interested in its teachings means there are some who are not so hopeless as claimed. The actual Pure Land path is a Self-AND-Other-Power path too; not a wholly Other-Power path.]
Thus, those with such inclinations are not welcome within the group. I felt this was truly wrong, and voiced my support for the enquiry, which immediately caused the group representative (through whom refuge was taken) great dissatisfaction, along with some other members. As a result of some further polemics, I was removed, and I distanced myself from the ‘lineage’.
[Note 6: If both parties were equally open to gentlemanly and harmonious discussion, with the open option to agree to disagree if needed, there should be no conflict. Of course, it takes only one party to be unreasonable, for there to be conflict. As above – ‘It is actually better to leave groups that are not adhering to the Buddha’s teachings and his way of teaching, so as to avoid being confused by them.’]
About a year and a half passed, and I was still not fully sure of how I should practise the Pure Land path. As some may have experienced, it can be rather difficult to find a school to follow when geographically far away, with nearly all Dharma information only from the Internet, without any community. So, I returned to the group, with hope that things might have changed, that there is now more broad-mindedness and less fanaticism.
[Note 7: Being far away from an ideal Buddhist community is exactly why we should all the more learn and practise the Pure Land path sincerely and diligently, so as to reach Pure Land, where the ideal community is, with the Triple Gem of Buddha(s), Dharma and Sangha to be encountered – up-close and personal!]
At the same time, I was active in a non-sectarian Pure Land Buddhist Facebook group, as its administrator. Not so long ago, I posted some non-sectarian sentiments, appealing to all Pure Land Buddhists to not only preach and glorify their own particular school, but to seek unity in the various ways the Pure Land path is being delivered to different types of people. I was immediately ostracised by the same group representative, and was removed from their Facebook and WhatsApp group. That was of course, truly the end.
[Note 8: Non-sectarianism is important as basis for inter-traditional harmony. Even if there is doctrinal disagreement, it should be discussed about. to foster greater understanding, without needless censorship or animosity – which only sows ill will. This not only does not truly propagate even what one adheres to, there is also no more learning, of what others have to offer.]
Undoubtedly, everyone has the full right to follow a particular spiritual tradition, or one of its schools, and to support its promoted practices. At the same time, the very nature of Buddhism in general, and Mahayana Buddhism in particular, is based on the concept of Skilful Means (Upaya), which was masterfully exemplified by Sakyamuni Buddha in his numerous discourses. I daresay that Skilful Means is the foundation stone of Mahayana Buddhism, as it is through this tool, that immeasurable compassion of the Buddhas becomes manifest in the universe.
[Note 9: Indeed, most do end up with focused Buddhist practices (and other supportive practices) of personal choice. Yet, such focus arose in the first place, as the result of the great Skilful Means of the Buddha, which exposed us to the variety of means for practice. Without such compassionate Skilful Means, most would not be able to encounter teachings that are appropriate for them.]
At the core of Skilful Means is understanding that various approaches to the Dharma are naturally designed to suit various beings, according with their karmic inclinations and spiritual capacities. To insist that there is only one correct way suitable for everyone is to go against this fundamental understanding. Likewise, within Pure Land sutras, many ways of reaching Pure Land are described. Though always with the Three Provisions to connect with Amitabha Buddha, some prefer emphasis on Faith (e.g. 18th Vow); some on Aspiration (e.g. 19th Vow); and some on Practice (20th Vow). Amitabha Buddha did not ask to recite his Name for the sake of recitation, but to be connected with him, which can also be done through various ways, as perfectly outlined in the sutras.
[Note 10: As the Pure Land path is the Dharma door that is the most skilful for beings of our era, of course, it must also have various Skilful Means, for reaching out to various kinds of potential Pure Land practitioners. To insist on promoting only one form of its Skilful Means, while claiming all the other Skilful Means are not adequate is to become less skilful, resulting in connection of less beings to Pure Land. This surely cannot be what all Buddhas wish. After all, the Pure Land path ‘universally covers the three roots’ (三根普被), which includes all beings, be they with higher, medium or lower spiritual capacities!]
Arkady Fayngor, MA in Buddhist Studies
30 Dec 2017
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