I'm writing this to Clark Strand, after reading (and pondering on for some weeks now) his article on Green Meditation in the latest Running Tide.
I have as you know found much value in your writings, both before and after the watershed of 'Turning out the Lights'.
As before, then, I found much that was good and helpful in your Running Tide article - thankyou.
Sometimes I trip up over what feels like a dose of (mischievous?) devil's advocacy...such as the suggestion that the emergence of ideas like Heaven and Nirvana are clear symptoms of our anthropecentric insanity, of our longing for an idealised alternative to reality, made in the image of our ill-informed wish for a sanctuary from the real (my words here, from memory).
I'm sure that Heaven, Nirvana and Pure Land can indeed be understood, used, that way...but I suspect too that you don't really mean that they necessarily imply any such thing? In fact I would say I find the notion of Amida's Pure land (loosely considered) a beautiful metaphor for the all embracing, nothing-ever-wasted Earth that you speak of so well.
Anyway, I wrote down alot about this a couple of weeks back, and it got far too complicated...then fortunately I lost the file somewhere.
So here it is again, simplified this time:
Would you consider offering a Green Meditation commentary on Honen's parting message?
As we spoke of before, I found your discussion of this much loved text (in your Forward to Honen's biography) very moving. Especially where you say that for you the text, with Honen's own handprints on it, embodies the essence of all religion: rather than any magical spiritual power, something (that seems to me) much more existential:"This is the truth I have lived for, and the truth I lived".
Reading through more recent pieces by you, it feels like alot of have things have shifted for you since you wrote that. Including, perhaps, your understanding of what both Amida Buddha and Pureland mean.
But I wanted to ask you about your understanding, now, of the man Honen, and of the way of practicing that he passes on in that short passage, rather than the iconography of the traditional stories that framed that practice.
I don't know if there's any meaning in that distinction, but I think that's what I wanted to ask you.
Many best wishes,
What a wonderful invitation. I will be happy to comply. Honen's Ichimai-kishomon (or "One-Page Document") has been my contant companion for the past decade, one I often recited daily. And although my understanding of that final testament has, as you guessed, changed during that time, my belief in it (and Honen) has not wavered. I will explain why shortly in a commentary I wrote a year or so back while staying in Cummington, Massachusetts, with some friends, one of whom asked a very similar question. It may take me a few hours to find it...
Until later, then...
Well, I found the commentary in a notebook from a couple of years back, but it's a book-length work (albeit a short one) and I only typed the Preface into my computer. Really, it ought to be published somewhere as a short book, so I hesitate to put it all here. In any case, I won't have time to type it all up. Instead, I'll offer the Preface, followed by an outline of the major points related to each line of the Testament. I hope that will be enough to answer your question for now. Here then is the Intro. More to come later....
The One-Page Buddha
The following short book contains thoughts on Honen’s Ichimai-kishomon, or “One-Page Testament,” a document composed on January 23, 1212, by the founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. “The One-Page Testament” was written by Honen at the request of a disciple who wanted a final clarification of his master’s teaching. Honen’s reply, written just two days before his death at the age of 80, was not simply a clarification of his lifetime teachings—or even a summary of Pure Land Buddhism. It was the whole teaching of the Buddhadharma expressed in language so simple that it was impossible to veer aside from it. In the Ichimai-kishomon Honen set his disciples face to face with the fundamental truth of life itself, in a way that has rarely been equaled before or since.
I discovered the “One-Page Testament” at a time when I was restlessly searching for spiritual answers. Specifically, I was looking for a religion that recognized the fundamental unity of all planetary life—a religion of ecology, a religion that left nothing and no one out. When I found Honen, I realized that at last I had hit paydirt. Subsequently, I discovered the writings of Genshin, Ippen, Shinran, and other great Japanese Pure Land masters. From there I backtracked through ancient Chinese Buddhism, then turned the clock forward to explore modern teachers and traditions throughout Asia to take in the whole of Pure Land tradition past and present, but these ultimately all led back to Honen. Thus, my study ended right where it began.
The book which follows is meant to accomplish two goals. The first is to put Buddhism on the same page with the modern environmental movement, making it clear that Buddhism is, and has always offered, an ecological model of salvation which includes all beings, forsaking none. The second is to offer a spiritual foundation for the modern environmental movement so that it can remain stable, grounded, and joyous in facing the challenges that lie ahead. This is work that Honen would have appreciated, given foreknowledge of modern ecological principles. Actually, he intuited these well enough, even 800 years ago, and in the end articulated a Buddhist teaching wholy consistent with them, using language and symbols that were familiar to the people of his time.
Just like to say thank you to Clark and Mat for what I have just read.
Great to see this discussion developing. Just off the cuff my thoughts: There seems to be two elements to how I see things. There is the existing world in which we live, with all its incredible diversity, beauty and ugliness and all the rest. Next, there is what is included in the phenomenal reality of the planet - the inner world of our spirituality.
I begin to sense that the often implied dichotomy between our hearts response to the words of great spiritual teachers and the world within which we abide, the rocks, trees and lizards, doesn't really exist. Isn't this something of what Buddhism is about? To honour the world in this way, to touch the earth reverently, in gratitude, is entirely appropriate. Even if this is not how things were understood historically, given what we know of ecology today, surely it is time we returned to the roots we share with the trees and all else.
My response to what Clark is saying is to take it as meant. (And no coyote tricksterism or devils advocacy!) It feels the only place I can stand with any confidence. None of this detracts from our reverance for Amida, or Christ, or Kuan Shi Yin - our hearts and what moves them are as real as anything else.
I have yet to read the text under discussion - Honen's One Page Document. I shall have a look on line for it.
Namo Amida Bu
I can save you the trouble. Here's the original above, and the translation I'll be working from below.
The One-Page Document
My Buddhism is not a religious practice like those taught by the sages of China and Japan. Nor does it come from study. It is just saying namu-amida-butsu, knowing that if you do, you are certain to be born in the Land of Bliss. That is all. The Three Minds and Four Modes of Practice are all included in this. If you think there is some special wisdom apart from saying the nembutsu and being born in the Pure Land, you will be lost to the compassion of the two buddhas and slip through the embrace of Amida’s Original Vow.
Though you master all the teachings of Shakyamuni gave during his lifetime, it will not matter in the least. Better to entrust yourself to the nembutsu, becoming like those ignorant devotees who, unable to read even a single word of scripture, without any pretension whatsoever devote themselves wholeheartedly to reciting Amida Buddha’s name.
I hereby seal this document with the imprint of my hands. The faith and practice of the Pure Land School are fully imparted here. I, Honen, have no teaching but this. To prevent misunderstandings after my death, I make this final testament.
I've just spent an hour replying to you both here, and then - somehow - lost the lot. Too late now to write it all again, but never mind!
Thankyou Clark, you as prompt as you are generous. Every now and then I hear of a book I would really, really like to read - this is one of those times. For now, I read what you say about Honen opening out he territory of Earth centred spirituality precisely in that 'Just as you are' existential simplicity of his (and Shinran's) teaching. I greatly look forward to reading more.
Meanwhile the two goals you speak of are an eloquent summary of what I feel I have been groping towards over the years, and more importantly of the ground my (environmentalist) wife Rachel and I stand together on, simply and fully, in way that is never wholly (if at all!) the case in other contexts relating to Buddhist teaching. It has been a joy to find her response to Turning out he Lights to be one of recognition and delight.
Richard, I really liked what you said about the 'only ground you can stand on'. In that sense turning towards Green Meditation, just as with Honen's nembutsu teaching, feels less like a choice than an admission of what, when ignored, persistently and quietly undermines all other attempted 'choices' until I once again acknowledge its presence.
Looking forward to more Clark, as and when, here or in print.
After an inexcusably long delay Richard, I have bagged up and stamped those Fr Ramon Pannikar tape,s along Clark's Forward spoken of earlier, and am - finally! - sending both in the morning post.
Namo Amida Bu,
many thanks both.
Oh i hope this book does get published Clark. Murray Bookchin wrote his book towards an ecological society back in the 1980s hoping to infuse the spririt of anarchism into the ecological movement, a spirit that already existed and now I reflect on how Honens one page testament cuts into such intellectual approaches.
Many green activists, particularly those so misunderstood by society and who are known here as ferals, are embracing Amida's spriit. A book giving voice to this and to them would be wonderful. Namo Amida Bu
Thanks for this Clark.
I love the succinctness of it. Just give yourself to the recitation.
However, I too am curious about how you regard the nembutsu in the light of a 'green' perspective, even though my questioning here seems to fly in the face of what Honen is saying.
I guess in some ways the nembutsu is so bare a practice, the faith espoused so complete, that I search for what will confirm my intuitive sense of what religion is about. I recall what you say elsewhere about trying to "finesse" your way into the Pure Land. But still - Namo Amida Bu!
The version that we use in our liturgy is Summary of Faith and Practice - page 2 of our Nien Fo book.
The One-Page Document
Ichimai-kishomon means "One-Page Document" or "One-Page Testament." It is the greatest and best-known example of a genre of writing popularized by the hijiri, or "wandering Pure Land monks" of medieval Japan. One of the more famous hijiri, Kyobutsu, summed up the spirit of all such works when he said, "Words of the dharma for those aspiring to the world beyond shall not exceed a single page."
The teachings of these monks tended to be aphoristic or anecdotal, much like the logion ("words") of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, or the saying of the Desert Fathers. These were men (perhaps some were also women) who held words in suspicion, but they respected practice. They had little use for fine robes. For the most part they lived on little and spent most of their time either traveling or practicing at temples and practice centers along the way. They spent a lot of time on the road, much of it in wild regions, and were competent outdoorsmen. These were all-weather monks who, often without consciously realizing it, tested every teaching with their bodies as the moved from place to place.
We could say that Honen was the de facto leader of this group, since most traced their teachings to him. But there were nembutsu devotees long before Honen who lived and practiced in much the same way. One of these was Kyoshin of Kako.
Kyoshin was a highly respected scholar monk at an important temple who abandoned his priestly robes one day and began to wander, saying the nembutsu constantly. Eventually he came to Kako, where he married, had children, and hired himself out as a porter and field laborer. The Ichigon-hodan ("Plain Words on the Pure Land Way") tells us that Kyoshin "built no fence to the west--to the Land of Bliss the way lay open. He kept no sacred books, nor befittingly did he enshrine an object of worship. He faced the west constantly, uttering the nembutsu, and was as one to whom all else had been forgotten." The Pure Land monk Ippen was traveling to Kyoshin's gravesite when he died, and Shiran once said he had modeled his whole life after Kyoshin, who was neither a monk nor a layman, but something in between.
To all of these forebearers, contemporaries, and successors, Honen gave expression in writing his Ichimai-kishomon. It is the prefect expression of their philosophy and their way of life.
Many thanks for this, which fills in many gaps in my thin understanding of the tradition.
What is so striking for me about the Pureland path is its radical simplicity, but like Richard I am intrigued and as yet unclear what it is exactly about that simpliciity that particularly lends itself to the Environmental movement.
The Dark Mountain Project speak very well about the problems of that movement fixating on the goal of 'sustainability'. It could be said in many cases to have led environmental groups to abandon the very root of the movement, which arose historically through the love of place - be it ancient Redwoods, marine ecosystems, English Downland - and the wish to protect those places from human despoilation.
In place of a reverent connection to specific places, comes a new wave of sustainability-driven 'Green Development', that at a local level often overides all such NIMBY niceties, in the name of a greater urgency - the big numbers....carbon, above all.
On the other hand, there is an acknowledgement creeping into the margins that such large-scale sustainability may be a fantasy based on ever more strenuous denial of the science. What then? Here Greens are ever greater prophets of apocalypse - maybe we can scare the herd into action. Unfortunately it tends to scare us more into despondency (and overstates the certainty of the data as almost much as the deniers do.
These are very very oversimplified statements I know, and open to question, but for me it comes back to what Caroline touches on in the book I mentioned. I think the word that comes to mind for me is 'unconditionality' - as in, it is not in fact my immediate concern whether or not the climate will warm by 2 or 6 degrees. I have no idea what will happen anyway, and even if the worst were true, in a very real sense, ultimately "there's nothing I can do".
What I can do, is seek to live in a way that becomes a positive response to these dillemmas, not a burying of my head in the sand, nor a histrionic despair. A light to others...or better, a joining of my own energies with that light.
A large part of which in this context, for me, comes back to love of place. Hands in the earth, feet on the ground, head in the air.
None of this describes my attainment of anything. Here I am at the keyboard, in the house, in the car. I mean it as an acknowledgment of a need, rather than any kind of achievement.
The wandering Pureland monks certainly sound a good role model in this respect.
Thanks Mat, Richard, Robert. Before going into the text proper, I'll offer a thoughts on a couple of points you've brought up.
Richard, you wrote: "Even if this is not how things were understood historically, given what we know of ecology today, surely it is time we returned to the roots we share with the trees and all else."
That is extremely well and succintly put. I may steal it. Yes. I believe there is a kind of ecological imperative for reading traditional spiritual texts in this way (Robert has just reminded me in a response to an older post I made that this issue in an integral part of the current discussion). I do think, however, that from the beginning (however you date that) human beings have been trying to square their experience of Nature with their spiritual thoughts, feelings, and aspirations, and this is reflected in their scriptures once you know what you're looking for (Job is a good example, the Bhagavad Gita is another). My point these days is simply that the accounts must now finally be balanced. We must be spiritually and ecologically solvent at last--meaning that we cannot continue to create culture, philosophy, economy, or religion that exceeds what the Earth can provide. At the risk or repeating myself one time too many, I will simply reiterate that when the Buddha touches the Earth at the moment of his enlightenment, his finger isn't a pointer but an equals sign.
Robert, you wrote about Murray Bookchin's book "hoping to infuse the spririt of anarchism into the ecological movement, a spirit that already existed and now I reflect on how Honens one page testament cuts into such intellectual approaches."
You're right that there is a spirit of anarchy at the heart of this movement, but I would like to suggest another way of looking at it based on a deeper reading of human history.What today we would call anarchism is mostly just a reaction to the stupidity and intractability of modern governmental, religious, and social institutions. The anarchist's cry generally proceeds out of frustration with these, becoming a determined and stubborn refusal to go along with attitudes, beliefs, and practices they know in their hearts to be wrong--if not for everyone, then at least for them. It makes sense that a lot of green activists take this stance, given how little support they see coming from most social institutions. But I believe that frustration doesn't make a good foundation for the kind of sustained efforts that are required in this case. I believe it is important to define ourselves and our movement on much older and more solid ground.
When we consider the deeper history of our species (what most people call its pre-history), we can begin to recover the basis for that "good foundation." What today people might call anarchy, because it resists the prevailing social order, human beings would originally have just called "the way we live." If we look at the way ape societies are organized we see a lot of dominance heirarchies. Not all great ape societies are organized this way all the time, because some flexibility pertains, but in general they are. A dominant male or female "rules the roost," determining how resources are to be allocated and who will be able to successfully reproduce. There is reason to believe that this is how we once lived, and it is clear to most of us that it is increasingly how human societies have been organized since the dawn of agriculture. Our lives are dominated by social forces and institutions beyond our control. But this is not how we always lived.
For millions of years human beings (defined broadly to include our hominid ancestors) lived in "reverse dominance heirarchies," where social groups (of hunter/scavenger/gatherers) were organized around the principle of preventing any one person or group of persons from leveraging control of the group. People lived cooperatively, and cooperative living seemed to have been the point of their culture. For millions of years, this was a sustainable way of life for humans and their ancestors--not in the modern sense that I know Mat has alluded to, that of sustaining levels of insane consumption and reproduction, but in the sense of remaining in flexible harmony with the Earth and one another.
Today we see this kind of social organization in Twelve Step recovery groups, which is one of the main reasons I want to model our groups and their efforts off that tradition. To a great extent, AA and its many offshoots help people recover for a reason that is often acknowledged but seldom examined from a deep history point of view: It restores a saner way of relating to one another that you can actually build on to create a new life for yourself.
This is the foundation I am talking about, and which I believe Honen intuited as well. It is based on the joy of recovering a saner relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the Earth.
Sorry to go on and on...but much of what follows will make better sense if we start here.
Down millennia, I would have thought the rigours of daily living would make cooperation essential. An egalitarian system going some way toward ensuring stability in times of hardship.
I appreciate the reference to Twelve Step recovery groups, as I can see how Sangha might work in much the same way: our being unable to affect change by will power alone and our dependence on a higher power. Mentorship providing encouragement and support as we bump and stumble along. How many mistaken directions must our ancestors have taken, gradually learning the skills and knacks of working with the land.
Sadly, for whatever reason, perhaps we got too comfortable, complaisance set in and we began to exploit, rather than living in a respectful way. David Abram speaks of the estrangement caused in part by the invention of the written word, books coming between us and the storied living landscape. It was living as a part of the world and not detached and merely on it that allowed us to survive the considerable hardship and unpredictability of existence.
I find this discussion exciting because whether or not we are, as a species, beyond pulling back from ecological ruin - Dharma still offers hope, direction and community.
I look forward to what is to follow. Namo Amida Bu