Mahayana Buddhism: Images of Liberation, Acceptance, and Adaptation to the Needs of Others
A Report on the lecture given by Dr. Luis Gomez at the Higashi Honganji Betsuin

On June 12, 2010, the distinguished scholar of Buddhism, Dr. Luis O. Gomez, delivered a highly unique and yet also universally resonant presentation which focused on the deep meaning contained in Buddhist teachings. Dr Gomez’s education is impressive: he holds a B.A. in philosophy (University of Puerto Rico), M.A. in clinical psychology (University of Michigan), Ph.D. in East and South Asian languages and literatures (Yale University). For many years, he was Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan. Dr. Gomez is arguably most well-known as one of a very small handful of scholars who have translated the Sukhavativyuha Sutra (also known as the Larger Sutra), the most important sutra in the Jodo Shinshu tradition. His 1996 book, The Land of Bliss: Sanskrit and Chinese Versions of the Sukhavativyuha Sutras, is a must-read for serious students of Pure Land Buddhism.

A good audience of about a couple of dozen people gathered in the downstairs social hall at the Betsuin. The introduction was by Bishop Akinori Imai, who warmly introduced his longtime friend by remarking, “I always appreciate listening to his way of interpreting Buddhism.”

As someone who lives in Mexico—Dr. Gomez currently teaches at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico—he often hears what he called, “Catholic questions” about Buddhism; i.e., people steeped in Catholic liturgy often ask questions about Buddhism from that viewpoint. For example, they are often very concerned with karma, which they see as their “burden” for wrongdoing. Also, in describing the Buddhist landscape in contemporary Mexico, he said “People there are very confused,” not only apparently because of the deep-seated Catholic liturgy, but because most teachers of Buddhism don’t stay very long in Mexico. They come teach their particular tradition for awhile then leave. Thus, over time, people end up with a kind of “hodgepodge” of traditions. But general confusion about Buddhism is not unique to Mexico; he also warned us in America about our assumptions about what Buddhism is. “These assumptions are usually off,” he said. One of the tendencies he sees in America is people are interested in Buddhism primarily because they want a quick solution to their problems; “It’s all about me, me, me,” he said. It is rare, he said, to find people with a serious interest in the actual teachings of Buddhism.

In his fascinating talk, he gave a PowerPoint presentation with a series of about two dozen images of various buddhas and bodhisattvas from many different traditions. He wanted us—the audience was predominantly Jodo Shinshu, but a handful of monks of other traditions were present also—to see the “many faces of the Buddha.” His first image was a central Asian image of a scroll with the Buddha in the center and with two other buddhas or bodhisattvas looking up to this central figure. “This is an image of the Buddha because of the obvious expression of reverence by the two smaller figures.” However, one point he made here was that, while the expression of respect is certainly natural, the real challenge is to not just to respect the Buddha, but to ask, “How can I become a buddha?”

His second image showed the figure of a singular meditating buddha; this figure was looking inward with eyes half-closed. This was a painting of Vairocana, and illustrates the importance of inward reflection in Buddhism. The third image was a well-known image of the fasting Buddha, very severly emaciated. “This illustrates the emphasis in Buddhism on effort and self-denial.” Of course, later in his life, the Buddha rejected ascetic practice and his earlier luxurious lifestyle in favor of the Middle Way, the path between extremes.

Other images followed: a Burmese statue of the Buddha covered in pure gold. Dr. Gomez commented that he’d actually visited this particular statue in person: “As a form of offering, of building merit towards buddhahood, people are invited to purchase a small piece of gold leaf and apply it themselves to the statue. The gold also symbolizes that the Buddha is a treasure,” he said. Next, we saw the image of a statue of Amida Buddha seemingly simultaneously meditating—looking inside—and yet also looking out at others. Dr. Gomez commented that this illustrates that the Buddha is both self-aware and attentive to others.

Another series of images illustrated the point that “Sometimes a buddha is not a buddha.” For example, he showed images and statues of Maitreya, who as represented in the Larger Sutra, is not “the Buddha” but the “next Buddha,” the buddha of the future. Also shown was the image of a Theravadan arhat. One important point Dr. Gomez made here was that, contrary to common Mahayana belief, arhats can be every bit as compassionate as Mahayana bodhisattvas. He cited the case of Ubasok, who is said to have pledged to stay around in the world until all sentient beings are saved. This “vow” is very much like Dharmakara’s famous 18th vow in the Larger Sutra (”If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”).

 Dr. Gomez also showed images of what he termed “absent buddhas,” for example, certain relics which are not themselves images of buddhas, but which, in the case of ancient casket relics from India or Southeast Asia, signal that “a buddha is inside.” He also showed an ancient burial container relic from Pakistan said to contain the actual hip bone of the Buddha. Also, he showed a picture of stupas (burial monument) in Nepal, said to be the oldest stupas in the world.

 Next, Dr. Gomez went on the talk about “images of liberation”; here, he was actually discussing Buddhist doctrine or concepts not directly, but by discussing certain conflicts or paradoxes. One conflict is, if liberation can be described as “desirelessness,” and as Buddhists, we of course seek that goal, how in fact can one “desire desirelessness?” He then clarified however that this is not really a paradox. For example, an analogy could be made to a young person desiring to be a great athlete, or great musician. Along the path to being able to play effortlessly, great effort and practice is of course required. “Effort is needed to achieve efforlessness,” he said. Interestingly, an important point was made when he responded to the question of why he often uses images to discuss Buddhism in the various lectures he gives. It is because “We can get stuck on words,” he said. Many of the common terms in Buddhism are from an ancient time and need to be redefined for our time. “We need to put Buddhism into our own words,” Dr. Gomez stated.

Another topic he discussed was what he called the Five Contrasts or Five Dilemmas. One common mistake Buddhists make—actually, he added that followers of all religions tend to make this mistake—is to get hung up on finding “that one authoritative voice”; for example, Christians might preface a statement with “but God said…” when needing to validate the authenticity of some concept or belief. But in Buddhism, there really is no such authority. Even the Buddha said not to take his words as the absolute truth, but to test them with our own experience. The fact is, as he put it, “Many voices exist.” Second, regarding the contrast between scientific doubt and traditional wisdom, Dr. Gomez said in Buddhism, “Doubt helps us understand wisdom.” Third, he discussed the contrast between modernity and premodern tradition. He said for example that in modernity, the monastic tradition is not as valued as it had been previously. However, this doesn’t mean that “modernity is an across-the-board curse; rather it’s an issue we need to reflect on.” Fourth, he discussed the contrast of “reality vs. hope.” Though for example, someone who takes monastic vows is doing so hoping for an ideal monastic life, “The reality however is that even in a monastery, the monks argue.” Upon hearing this statement, the five or so monks in the audience were the ones who laughed the loudest. “And that’s why the Buddha created the Vinaya rules for monks and nuns,” he said. ”Imagine a monk coming up to the Buddha and saying, ‘so and so just criticized me,’ to which the Buddha probably said, ‘Oh no, not again…OK, from now on, let’s make the rule that monks do not criticize other monks.’ Thus, reality has to be part of any authentic hope.” Fifth, Dr. Gomez talked briefly about effort and trust. Real trust, as in our trust in the Buddhist teachings for example, does not simply just come because someone “decides” to trust. “Great effort is required on the path; there is no simple trust.”

Next, Dr. Gomez went into some detail about what he called “dichotomies,” or two seemingly conflicting ideas. However, he clarified that contrasting ideas are not the same thing as a contradiction. For example, on the one hand, we’d probably agree it is a good thing to always tell the truth. However, what do you do if someone is dying from an illness? Might it be better not to tell the complete truth, depending on circumstances? What Dr. Gomez was getting at was that the “ultimate truths” of life are often full of paradoxes, that to see the true reality, we have to see beyond what are apparent contradictions. Another well known example of a Buddhist paradox is the saying attributed to Nagarjuna that “Even emptiness is empty.” In other words, if we were to get attached to the concept of emptiness or non-self, we would miss the reality itself. “Contradictions are good; they make you think deeper about things.” He also discussed dichotomies like “truth vs. happiness,” “authority vs multivocality,” “inner life vs. public life,” and “tradition vs. freedom.”

One important dichotomy he discussed was “science and religion.” He said, at least in Buddhism, there shouldn’t actually be a problem here because Buddhism endorses free inquiry and learning from empirical evidence. At the same time, there should be doubt, or questioning: “You need doubt, especially if you think you are already a buddha or bodhisattva.” Basically, we should always question even so-called authority. However, he was quick to clarify that he wasn’t condoning youthful petulance. Rather, “We should always look behind for the deeper meaning.” Another important dichotomy was the “tension” between premodernity, modernity, and post-modernity. He discussed for example the major shift in Christianity that was brought on by the Reformation. In 16th century Germany, rejecting the Catholic Church’s emphasis on good works (e.g., donating money to the Church) Martin Luther emphasized the need for personal faith, and to find God within, “There was an increased focus on the inner self, and this is in line with Buddhism’s focus on the inner self.” One current trend Dr. Gomez sees is what he called “religion ala carte.” While not being totally opposed to “shopping around,” he observed that, “it’s good to have some kind of stable tradition to guide you.” Also, he was critical of the widespread prevalence of sectarianism; “Spirituality in modernity is trying to transcend sectarianism,” he said.

One interesting dichotomy discussed was what Dr. Gomez described as the “tension” between the First Noble Truth, which states “There is suffering,” and the Third, which states “Suffering can be overcome.” “In reality,” he said, “There is no overcoming suffering without suffering. And actually, it’s incorrect to talk strictly about ‘overcoming suffering’; Instead, you look at it, accept it, and live with it.” Dr. Gomez essentially echoed the statement of contemporary Jodo Shinshu teachers who say, for example, ”Samsara is nirvana,” in other words, that life must be understood to ultimately be beyond dualism. Thus, the end goal of religion is actually to get beyond religion and “Just live life as it is.” Finally, Dr. Gomez discussed the dichotomy that contrasts are actually part of the Buddhist tradition. This is like his earlier statement that to be buddhas, we have to “Desire desirelessness,” or that we have to both “trust and doubt.” Ultimately, “We need trust, doubt, and of course, perseverance,” he said.

Next, Dr. Gomez outlined the core canonical doctrines of Buddhism, those doctrines common to all traditions. He identified these as the Three Marks or Three Seals. The word “seal” is used in the sense that a “seal” identifies what’s within as truly “being Buddhism”:

-Impermanence or Sanskrit anitya: here, he clarified that actually, “anitya” doesn’t strictly mean “impermanence” but more accurately, “instability”; “Everything is constantly shifting,” he said.

-Sorrow, suffering, or Sanskrit duhkha, also referred to by some teachers as “discontent” or “longing.”

-No-self, or Sanskrit anatman. There is no permanent soul or self-identity in Buddhism, and he further clarified that truly, “Nothing is mine, not even ‘my enlightenment.’”

-He also stated that sometimes four marks or seals are discussed, in which case the fourth is of course, nirvana, the extinguishing of all desire.

Of course, Dr. Gomez clarified that seeking to become a buddha, “giving up everything” and seeking the state of no-self, is extremely difficult. “Yet, the core of the Buddhist paradox is that you still need aspiration,” the deep desire known in Jodo Shinshu as hongan.

After noting that the Mahayanists distinguished arhats from buddhas or bodhisattvas because the former did not vow to save all sentient beings, but were “only” concerned with their own buddhahood, Dr. Gomez discussed what he called a kind of “Mahayana joke”: “Rather than seeking to be a bodhisattva, it would be better to be a arhat because it’s much easier. You should think twice before you take the bodhisattva vows—you have to save all sentient beings!” Dr. Gomez added, “Thus the essential paradox of Mahayana is that there must be a strong quest for inner peace but at the same time, because we live in a confused, messy world, there must also be a strong commitment to be of service to others.”

Speaking more about this commitment to service, he showed on a slide the well-known four bodhisattva vows:

However innumerable all beings are, I vow to save them all;
However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to extinguish them all;
However immeasurable the dharma teachings are, I vow to master them all;
However endless the Buddha’s way is, I vow to follow it.

One of the most important aspects of the bodhisattva is that they don’t stay either on “this shore” of our everyday world or on the “other shore” of enlightenment, but instead move back and forth in their efforts to save all sentient beings. In order to do so, they must “adapt to other’s needs.” This is one of the most important points Dr. Gomez made; “This is why there are so many different images of buddhas and bodhisattvas.” What does it mean to adapt to other’s needs? One memorable example he gave was describing what a mother does when their infant cries. If the mother says “’Shhh, shhh, shhh,’ ‘That doesn’t work.’” Instead, he said, if the mother looks her baby in the eyes and says (in gentle baby talk), “Ohhh…what’s the matter?,’” that the baby doesn’t understand the words of course, but will in fact get the sense that “Mom cares and is listening to my needs. This is adapting to others.”

But how do we adults exemplify these kinds of actions? “The key, he said, is “You must be calm and serene; being calm resolves all the paradoxes. Being calm is how you mirror others and mirror the Buddha,” he said. “Being serene requires effort and practice and yet—here are the paradoxes again—in its actual expression, it must be spontaneous.”

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