In her book The Other Buddhism: Amida Comes West, Caroline Brazier writes of a religion that is grounded in gratitude. Pureland Buddhism understands that the struggle to become perfect through one's own efforts is a trap, resulting in an endless cycle of frustration and failure, because none of us will ever be perfect. Perhaps even worse, once one identifies with this struggle towards self-perfection, this becomes part of the image that one tries to project to the outside world. This image, however, is just a public facade, and one's humanity becomes distorted by the fear of allowing others to see one's own imperfections. As Caroline Brazier puts it, "'Saints' are often hard to live with in private."
Accepting our own humanity is a kind of liberation. With acceptance comes gratitude.
In her book, she writes:
The experience of Pureland Buddhism is that we develop appreciation. This is not just for what others have given us, or for the world we inhabit, though these things are important. The central practices and teachings are grounded in an attitude of appreciation that goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent. The practice is deeply rooted in the sense of other-ness, and appreciation of the reality of a measureless expression of Buddha in the universe. It is a practice that expresses deep joy and gratitude, that reaches out in the wistful longing expressed by yugen, and that gratefully allows the practitioner to rest in the knowledge that despite their imperfection, they are blessed.She puts her finger on what makes gratitude in this case a religious response. It "goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent."
Some would say that this makes religion too easy. Pure land Buddhism is often called the "Easy Path" to Enlightenment, because it makes no demands on its practitioners, other than to express their gratitude. There is no rigorous discipline of meditation and self-perfection. Instead there is just the nembutsu, the expression of thankfulness to Amida Buddha.
I wonder if one problem with the pursuit of self-perfection is to be found in the "self" part of that concept. If we are focusing on self-perfection, we are focusing on the self. If we instead shift our focus to others, on building a more loving community and a more just world, perhaps we will more effortlessly fulfill our human potential in ways that we never could by simply trying to will ourselves into measuring up to some standard we have set for ourselves. As long as it always comes back to being about ourselves, then it becomes self-defeating.
Any religion that offers grace to its practitioners can be accused of being too easy. Christianity frequently emphasizes this notion of grace, and in fact, the Apostle Paul has been criticized (by the author Barrie Wilson, for example) for offering an "easy" religion that placed few demands on its practitioners--no need for adult males to get circumcised, no need for strict Sabbath observance, and so on. Unfortunately, in practice, many forms of Christianity have ended up imposing a lot of demands of their own on their practitioners. If you want grace, we are told, you must have the right theological beliefs; you must undergo the baptism ritual before you will be invited to the table; you must express your sexuality in a certain way before you will accepted into our community. And so forth.
Is "easy" religion really such a bad thing? Is there anything wrong with a religion that says, "You are accepted for what you are? Come and join us?"