Easy religion

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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?"

5 comments:

Gary said...

You know, this reminds me of the law vs. grace distinction. The law enslaves one to rules; grace liberates one to freedom. One system is based upon an impossible morality; the other is based upon boundless love that does not require rules. Christianity has had the tendency to moralize love, and when it does so it misses the mark big-time. Love is risky and wild and is not easily tamed, yet is so much more powerful than moral principles. As Jesus said, love is the fulfillment of the law.

OneSmallStep said...

**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.**

Hmm. I think expressing gratitude is a huge demand on anyone. It's easy to be grateful when things are okay. It's not as easy when things aren't okay, or even when there's a bunch of little annoyances that pile up in one day. Sometimes, we have the habit of focusing on the one little bad thing at the expense of all the good things, and it can be difficult to focus on the good.

Not only that, but a sense of gratitude is usually accompanied by a sense of satisfaction. If we were all more grateful for what we had, rather than working towards what we don't have ... how much better would the world be?

Matthew said...

It seems Pure Land Buddhism shares a great affinity with Christianity- in it's devotional approach. Of course, not all Christians devote themselves to Christ, they may focus more on God, the father...but if they are Trinitarians I suppose it all 'reaches' the same place ;)

>>Pure Land Buddhism teaches that through devotion alone, to Amitābha Buddha, one will be reborn in the Pure Land, a perfect heavenly abode, in which enlightenment is guaranteed.<<

Seeker said-

"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."

You're on the right path with 'self' Seeker. Self is generated from belief in concepts. Krishnamurti commented often about thinking...the less a person was 'involved' with thought, the closer that person was to the spiritual 'goal' (Jesus' 'perfection', or 'compassion').

“Meditation is the emptying of the mind of all thought, for thought and feeling dissipate energy. They are repetitive, producing mechanical activities which are a necessary part of existence. But they are only part, and thought and feeling cannot possibly enter into the immensity of life. Quite a different approach is necessary, not the path of habit, association and the known; there must be freedom from these. Meditation is the emptying of the mind of the known. It cannot be done by thought or by the hidden prompting of thought, nor by desire in the form of prayer, nor through the self-effacing hypnotism of words, images, hopes, and vanities. All these have to come to an end, easily, without effort and choice, in the flame of awareness.” Krishnamurti

It would be great if it were 'self-defeating', as you say (Zen)...sadly it's usually self-adjusting. Eckhart Tolle, in "The Flowering of Human Consciousness", commented that what he was 'teaching' wasn't about self-improvement, rather something more akin to self dissolution.

It's not even about shifting our focus onto others (or externals), since that continues the alienated way of seeing things...the 'us vs. them' mentality.

The 'way' to freedom is submission, or complete release from seeing 'multiplicity'. One of the central statements of Judaism is the Shmah-

"Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

Notice the ONE...very important distinction from saying 'Our God is greater than yours', or 'Our God is this or that'.

The commitment to discursive thought that gets scientist and theists all worked up over the concept of God! You noticed how many die-hard atheists are convinced theists must believe in an anthropomophic expression of God, some 'giant, white haired old man, sitting on a throne is the 'heavens'...how silly!

Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

Christianity has had the tendency to moralize love, and when it does so it misses the mark big-time. Love is risky and wild and is not easily tamed, yet is so much more powerful than moral principles.

Gary, I totally agree. Well put.

It's not as easy when things aren't okay, or even when there's a bunch of little annoyances that pile up in one day.

One Small Step,

That's a really good point. Having a true sense of gratitude requires a sense of proportion and an ability to appreciate on a transcendent level even when the little things drive us crazy. I am often not very good at having a sense of proportion, and I end up being upset over things that are really not important in the long run.

It seems Pure Land Buddhism shares a great affinity with Christianity- in it's devotional approach.
Matthew,

That's my take on it as well.

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