A Matter of Perspective

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, courtesy of Wikipedia
An image of the Pure Land of the Medicine Buddha, Yuan Dynasty China, courtesy of Wikipedia

On the heels of my last post, I was thinking about a passage from the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra regarding the Buddha’s Pure Land with italics and explanations added:

When living beings witness the end of a kalpa [an aeon]
and all is consumed in a great fire,
this, my land, remains safe and tranquil,
constantly filled with heavenly and human beings….

My pure land is not destroyed,
yet the multitude see it as consumed in fire,
with anxiety, fear and other sufferings
filling it everywhere.
These living beings with their various offenses,
through causes arising from their evil actions,
spend asamkhya kalpas [great aeons]
without hearing the name of the Three Treasures [i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha].
But those who practice meritorious ways,
who are gentle, peaceful, honest and upright,
all of them will see me
here in person, preaching the Law [i.e. the Law of Existence, the Dharma].

Translation by Burton Watson, cited from here.

To provide some background on this long, difficult chapter, the Buddha explains that he never left Vulture Peak (sometimes called Holy Eagle Peak), a real, physical location in India where it is said the Buddha frequently gave sermons. Instead, as a kind of plot twist, the Buddha explains that he has always been there, but beings who’s eyes are obscured and do not see the Dharma cannot see the Buddha.

The point of this chapter, and this surprise reveal, I believe is that the Dharma (and the Buddhas who preach it) is unchanging. In good times and bad, the Dharma is always there.

If one hears the Dharma, not just physically, but with their hearts and through their actions, then they may see the world differently, and thus even when others around them see the world burning down, they will see that nothing has really changed. This isn’t a kind of blissful ignorance, or putting your head in the sand, but more like piercing through the noise and commotion to see the bigger picture. Even in terrible times, life goes on. Bad times inevitably give way to better ones, change is often painful, but not all of it is negative, and it’s not like you can expect good times to last anyway.

But it’s hard to see all this when one lives a life of greed, anger and ignorance. Hence the Buddha warns that beings who live this way don’t see the Buddha’s Pure Land. Not because they don’t “deserve” it, but because their perspective is so skewed by their self-centered views that they completely overlook it. Further, self-centered, selfish actions go on to cloud things even more, like a feedback loop.

Hence, sometimes it’s good to step back, even shut off news and social media for a while, slow down, and cultivate a healthier perspective.

A hundred years ago, when World War I and the Spanish Flu raged across the world, it probably felt like the end of the world, but now hardly anyone remembers it now. The Bronze Age Collapse of 12th Century BC, including its related environmental disasters, must have felt like the end of the world to the Hittites, Greeks, and Egyptians who lived it, but there’s hardly any trace of this catastrophic time now. People speak of the Mayan civilization “collapsing“, but in reality population trends just shifted away from major cities to more rural lifestyles.1

This is not to downplay the genuine suffering and anxiety of past events, or current ones, but if nothing else, life does go on.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Also a reminder that Mayan people are still around and thriving in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. A particular phase of their history is done and gone, but the people still carry on.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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