Seeing the Way Vol 2 - Buddhist Reflections on the Spiritual Life

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Without an adequate demonstration that vocal nembutsu held such power, Pure Land praxis would remain an supplementary discipline within the existing schools of Buddhist tradition, one supportive practice to be performed in combination with a range of other methods. In other words, Amida, through his vow and the salvific virtue of his own already completed performance of endless aeons of bodhisattva practices, established the saying of the Name as the medium by which his own compassionate working actively reaches each being.

Thus, the nembutsu has been prepared for beings as effective practice—already fulfilled by Amida as the act resulting in birth in the Pure Land.

Japanese Pure Land Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

This salvific activity is particularly appropriate in the present age, when the accomplishment of praxis as ordinarily understood in Buddhist tradition has receded beyond the reach of beings. Nevertheless, the major formulation of his religious thought followed customary models, dictated by his formidable role in Buddhist history. The former manifests self-power, the latter Other Power. In other words, concretely, how should persons of the nembutsu carry on their lives?

This view, however, sometimes shaded into ethical and eschatological concerns. If, because it is taught [in the Larger Sutra ] that birth is attained with but one or ten utterances, you say the nembutsu heedlessly, then faith is hindering practice.

As your faith, accept that birth is attained with a single utterance; as your practice, endeavor in the nembutsu throughout life. The master, in short, failed to achieve a clear doctrinal resolution of this issue of religious life. Above all, the emergence of such issues within the context of a thoroughgoing application of the general Mahayana critique of self-attachment in religious praxis gave rise to the most innovative philosophical reflection in the Japanese Pure Land tradition.

Let us turn here to several basic issues in Pure Land Buddhist thought that 1 emerged from problems of practical engagement but were given characteristic treatment specifically in Japan, and 2 may be considered to have received philosophical attention in the sense that, regarding them, Japanese Pure Land Buddhists were forced, by intra-sectarian debate, to seek a degree of intellectual self-understanding distinct both from scholastic Buddhist discourse and from the kind of realization achieved through religious engagement.

In addition, for convenience, I will discuss these issues under the headings of metaphysics, anthropology, hermeneutics, and ethics. In fact, the four headings are best understood as slightly differing perspectives on essentially the same central problem: the apprehension of what is true and real from within a stance of radical conditionedness. What enables such apprehension?

1. Introduction

What is its significance for human existence? How does it come about? And what implications does it hold for the conduct of life? This thinking characterized by the discriminative perception of the world of beings rooted in the nondiscriminative apprehension of reality may be seen in relation to the question of the real existence of beings born in the Pure Land in the following passage from the sixth century Chinese Pure Land thinker Tanluan — :.

We see that from very early in the East Asian tradition, as well known in Japan, Pure Land thinkers applied the Mahayana logic of the nonduality and interpenetration of discriminative and nondiscriminative realms to Pure Land concepts. Regarding the nature of Amida Buddha, perhaps the most natural approach for the modern mind is to focus on the relationship between Amida and Sakyamuni.

It is common to say, therefore, that Sakyamuni belongs to the realm of historical fact and actual existence, while Amida is fictive. This view is supported by the modern understanding of the relationship between the two buddhas. Amida Buddha has never appeared directly as a historical personage, and there are no teachings or words that can be attributed to him.

Thus, it is common to view the story of Amida as a narrative fashioned by Sakyamuni or a later figure to express the content of his own religious insight. In this view, Amida is a fiction whose origins lie in the experience of Sakyamuni. In fact, there is basic continuity in the perspective on Amida among the Mahayana schools, and it stands diametrically opposed to modernist assumptions.

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For Mahayana Buddhists, reality resides not fundamentally with the historical existence of Sakyamuni as such, but rather with that for which he is recognized as buddha, or that which is the motive-force for his appearance in the world, his attainment of buddhahood, and his teaching of dharma.

Reality assumes form in order to emerge into the consciousness of sentient beings and thereby guide beings beyond the attachments and compulsions of their discriminative, reifying, conceptual grasp of their own existence and the things of the world around them.

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He states:. Concerning the central purport [of the Larger Sutra ]: Sakyamuni discarded the supreme Pure Land and appeared in this defiled world; this was to expound the teaching of the Pure land and, by encouraging sentient beings, to bring them to birth in the Pure Land. Amida Tathagata discarded this defiled world and emerged in the Pure Land; this was to guide sentient beings of this defiled world and bring them to birth in the Pure Land.

This is none other than the fundamental intent with which all buddhas go out to the Pure Land and emerge in the defiled world.

Meeting your patients spiritual needs

Without Sakyamuni, Amida would remain unknown to beings in this world and his work of leading all to his buddha-field would go unapprehended; without Amida, Sakyamuni would have no effective means of liberating beings and his teaching mission would be futile. In place of a linear chronology, we have a motif of movement between the timeless and mundane time, by which the temporality of karmic causation and discriminative thinking is broken.

For Shinran, it is the motive-force of wisdom-compassion that underlies the historical existence of Sakyamuni—that in fact made him buddha—and this wisdom-compassion is itself the life of Amida Buddha. Shinran focuses on the pattern in the sutras by which, prior to expounding dharma, the Buddha enters a profound samadhi and delves to the nondiscriminative wisdom that transcends words and concepts.


On emerging from the samadhi, he reemerges into the realm of words and responds to questions from his disciples. While his words are those of ordinary human discourse, they give expression to the samadhi he attained. Sakyamuni proceeds to deliver the teaching of Amida Buddha.

From the perspective of this sutra, were it not for Amida, whose Buddhahood lies at the heart of the samadhi of great tranquility, Sakyamuni himself would not be Buddha. At the same time, were it not for Sakyamuni, the teaching of Amida would not be disclosed to the world. Thus, the relationship between Amida and Sakyamuni is not that between two distinct figures, or between the religious symbol taught and the teacher.

It may be said that while meditative traditions in Buddhism tend to emphasize the elimination of delusional thinking and the apprehension of formless reality free of the imposition of egocentric discrimination, the Pure Land tradition is attentive to the compassionate working of reality to awaken beings incapable of eradicating conceptual thought. It does so by manifesting itself in forms and approaching beings. Since beings cannot attain such wisdom, reality as such cannot be grasped. Because the Pure Land path is not based on such praxis, the use of such terms is unnecessary.

There are two aspects.

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One is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. Second [of the three minds] is deep mind, which is true and real shinjin. One truly knows oneself to be a foolish being full of blind passions, with scant roots of good, transmigrating in the three realms and unable to emerge from this burning house.

Three points may be noted here. First, the self-awareness of the practitioner indicated by Shan-tao is that of a human being wholly incapable of fulfilling Buddhist practices. In other words, the self-reflection implied in deep mind is, in its opposite aspect, at the same time deep trust in the salvific power of Amida.

The third point is that while human being and Buddha stand thus as thoroughgoing opposites—the being filled with afflicting passions and lacking any goodness that might lead toward enlightenment, on the one hand, and the Buddha freely exerting the power of wisdom-compassion, on the other—deep mind arises as a unitary awareness out of the interaction of being and Buddha.

Self-reflection and trust arise simultaneously.

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Without the approach of Amida, not only trust, but also genuine self-awareness is unattainable. Although Buddhism is vast, in essence it is composed of no more than the three learnings [of precepts, meditation, and wisdom. In meditation, I have not attained even one. In wisdom, I have not attained the right wisdom of cutting off discriminative thinking and realizing the fruit…. Shinran, for example, distinguishes various types of bodhi-mind and identifies that of the true Pure Land path with his conception of shinjin. If they have the ability to give rise to trust, can they not perform other practices also?

That which is real suchness, thusness, nondual reality, buddha-nature, etc. The question of the nature of the relation leads to the problem of hermeneutics. Issues of hermeneutics are central to the Japanese Pure Land tradition because of the discontinuity it asserts between the ordinary awareness of beings and the enlightened wisdom-compassion of the Buddha, which is the source and ultimate content of the teaching. The narrative settings of the Pure Land teachings in the sutras were regarded as particularly significant in this regard.

From her cell, Vaidehi beseeches the Buddha to teach her a way to be born in a world free of such treachery and turmoil. Shinran emphasizes the distance between this world and the realm of enlightenment by asserting that at the point in history when conditions were ripe for teaching and reception of the Pure Land path, the entire drama of regicide and betrayal was played out by incarnated bodhisattvas precisely to allow for the introduction of the Pure Land teaching. It is, therefore, the condition of self-reflection and repentance that allows for the reception of the Pure Land teaching.

In the latter view, the various contemplative exercises and the disciplines and study taught by the sutra are meant to reveal the wisdom-compassion of the vow, which grasps all beings without discrimination, whatever their capacity. In other words, the sutra teachings are not to be taken literally, but as means to awaken beings so that they entrust themselves to the vow. In Shinran, the activity of the vow is more direct, for he asserts that shinjin in beings is itself the mind of Amida and that Amida gives his mind to beings. This oneness manifests itself as the nembutsu. Precisely how it was given remained an issue.

The effects of the oneness are manifested not only in the occurrence of birth in the Pure Land at death, but also in various ways in present life.

The Peaceful Stillness of the Silent Mind

One should not pursue such benefits for their own sake, but they naturally come about for the person of the nembutsu whose birth in the Pure Land is settled. He speaks, for example, of the elimination of the effects of past evil acts through repentance zange metsuzai. As seen here, ethical behavior is not prescribed and undertaken as another form of praxis, but Other Power may function of itself in the life of the nembutsu practitioner to suppress evil and manifest compassion action.

Shinran CWS I: The people who are trying to obstruct the nembutsu are the manor lords, bailiffs, and landowners in the local areas ….