Introduction to an Amida story
The love story below – 'Amida abandons no-one' – comes from my period of interest in Pure Land Buddhism. I am still interested in it, but not as actively. I wrote a few stories and essays on Pure Land Buddhism from a personal perspective, this one was originally published in Jim Pym's small magazine 'Pure Land Notes' in 1997, I wrote it just after Easter that year. Jim, a very modest and unassuming man who is also a Quaker, wrote the book 'You don't have to sit on the floor'.
When I was a member of his Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship I once received a surprise package all the way from Japan. A man in Hiroshima had kindly donated a sum of money to send copies of Hisao Inagaki's translation 'The Three Pure Land Sutras' to interested westerners. The book was signed by Inagaki. It was an appreciated gesture and I wrote to the man in Hiroshima, whose address Inagaki had enclosed, to thank him for his generosity.
For all I am no longer actively involved in Pure Land Buddhism, I doubt a day has gone by in the past decade without me saying the nembutsu. For those interested, I followed Ippen's stream rather than Shinran's. I thought about illustrating this story with an Amida Buddha statue from the web, but I think I'll wait until I can take a photograph of my own garden statue, seeing as that is mentioned in the piece.
During the time I refer to, when I was trying to regain my peace of mind after I split up with a lover, I had incense sticks burning all over the garden almost continuously for a week and played over and over again very loudly outside a tape of Seung Sahn chanting 'Namo Amita-bul' in Korean and the Heart Sutra. It was like my own private festival site, incense ash on the soles of my feet, it was sunny weather, I was sad as hell and full of despair, but at the same time my consciousness was expanding tangibly beyond these confines and I carried on in expectation of breakthrough. I could see the neighbours wanted to ask me if it was some sort of Buddhist ceremony, but they kept their distance and did not break my concentration. The comet Hale-Bopp was visible at this time as well. There was an election too, all the Labour and Conservative supporters up and down the street had signs in their windows saying 'VOTE THIS GUY' or 'VOTE THAT GUY', so I mocked up one in the same typeface reading 'VOTE HALE-BOPP' and stuck it in my window.
Joel Biroco (2003)
Amida abandons no-one – a love story
The last six months I have wondered if the Pure Land still retained any interest for me. Still my painting of the Buddha looked down at me in my living room, still the nembutsu slips I put up on the wall remained. These are small slips of paper with the six Chinese characters of the Name, which I cut as a lino-block and printed on a hand-press to give out to friends and people I came across. The symbols of my practice remained, but my practice itself had dwindled. Some days I only said the nembutsu once, when I glanced at a wall and the utterance arose in me. Often it didn't.
Life was going swimmingly. I was deeply in love, it was the real thing. I had committed adultery and got the woman I wanted, though I was deeply perturbed by the deception that had taken place and the pain I had caused her husband.
She was everything I wanted, I no longer seemed to need the Pure Land. What was it for? Life was fine. Then there were the arguments over nothing. The way she sometimes unthinkingly treated me cruelly, the way I fumed in silence for hours waiting for her to come to me to make up. Her fantasies about other men whilst pledging undying love to me. The unkind way I always threatened to leave her on her own, unsupported, unless she treated me more kindly. Were these the actions of two people who loved each other deeply? Perhaps they were, at least as far as I was concerned I did love her and she loved me. But it still went sour.
I won't bore you with the details, you'll have heard stories like this many times before. She found someone else and broke my heart, she abandoned me at my most vulnerable just as she had her husband. I know now what he had felt first-hand. I've been explaining to people who've asked me lately what karma means that the simplest way to put it is 'What goes around comes around'.
It's strange I can't remember the first moment I again called on Amida to help me pick up the pieces. Probably I glanced at the wall and the utterance arose in me. I do remember, however, the first ritual action I took. My world collapsed on Good Friday night when she first slept with her new lover, a week and a day ago as I write. The Easter weekend was a nightmare of not knowing, hoping against hope in order to cope. Easter Monday I was yesterday's news. Out in the cold, all alone. On Thursday I wrote out a list of all the things I was going to forgive her for, my writing getting smaller and smaller as I approached the bottom of the page, there seemed such a lot. On the other side things I was going to forgive myself for doing to her. Then I called upon the universe to bestow Grace upon me and wrote out what I wanted to happen. I took the piece of paper out to the statue of the Buddha I have sitting in a little grove at the bottom of my garden at nine o'clock at night and burnt it up in an old blackbird's nest I had been saving for some inexplicable reason (reminiscent, I thought later, of the top line of hexagram 56 in the I Ching: 'The bird's nest burns up' – symbolic of the loss of one's resting place). I said the nembutsu with what I realise now was true feeling.
Since that time I now know that Amida has never left my side, I realise deeply in fleeting glimpses that this Saha World of suffering and endurance that we gladly inhabit out of ignorance is itself the Pure Land. Suffering is an illusion entirely intended to enable us to expiate our karma. We find atonement through distressing experiences that in the end turn out to be infused through and through with a totally benevolent natural justice. Oddly enough, it was after a mutually healing phone-conversation with her husband after she had left me that this began to dawn on me. He for five years had nursed a guilt that he didn't really love her and knew some day something would come along to break the situation and release him from his burden. Six months down the line he accepts that it had to happen to cleanse him.
I have always had an interest in the twists and turns of Fate. One particularly interesting dimension to this story is that I have remembered a little incident from back when we met and I was first getting to know her. We were sitting in the park and I gave her a nembutsu slip. I distinctly remember saying to her something amazing, after I had explained what the Pure Land was all about in text-book terms. I jokingly said I was Amida here to take her to the Pure Land. I recall so well the words coming out of my mouth after we had said the nembutsu together for a while in the sunshine, I remember thinking then that it was really Amida talking. I had forgotten all about it.
And now, though we have had to part, and I have accepted it in my heart and am trying to let go of clinging, I have written 'I forgive you' on a nembutsu slip. At first I had it paperclipped to one of her books which she is coming to collect on Monday when I am out. But then the thought came to me to take this slip out into the garden, lift up my Buddha statue, and place it underneath. Now the Buddha sits on it. I don't know whether it's a trick of the light as the sunny days are coming, but this Buddha statue, which has had a reproachful scowl on its face since I first got it, is now smiling all the time. Periodically, as I think of all that has happened, I seem at first to be plunging into despair but instead I burst into tears of joy tinged with the sadness I have felt before that is something to do with compassion. I have resolved that in future I will try to act as I think Amida might act, and be careful not to cause any suffering wherever I go. Amida is for real.
First published in the May 1997 issue of 'Pure Land Notes: The Newsletter of the Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship', edited by Jim Pym.
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