A-mi-tha-ba. A-mi-tha-ba. A-mi-tha-ba.
The Buddhist faithful repeated the sacred name like a fast-clicking metronome.
The two dozen Chinese-Canadians at Gold Buddha monastery in East Vancouver were gathering in the middle of the work day to chant the name of the most well-known of what they believe is an infinite number of celestial Buddhas: “Amithaba.”
The nuns and lay people are among those who gather daily to recite “Amithaba” to the rapid beat of a drum, because they believe it is the quickest way to gain entry after they die to the blissful realm known as the “Pure Land.” (View video of Pure Land ritual)
That is why their path is known as Pure Land Buddhism.
Pure Land Buddhism, according to specialists, is the major school of Buddhism practised in Metro Vancouver, mostly by people with roots in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.
Globally, Pure Land is also arguably the largest arm of Buddhism, accounting for roughly 200 million of the Eastern religion’s 500 million adherents.
In Japan, the social and economic clout of the biggest Pure Land denomination, known as Jodo Shinshu, has been compared to that of the giant Sony and Toyota corporations.
But, in Metro Vancouver and throughout the West, Pure Land is not what most people think about when they hear about Buddhism.
That’s because, as some scholars are increasingly emphasizing, there are two broad and distinct streams of Buddhism now being practised in North America.
THE TWO STREAMS
One stream of Buddhism in North America, represented by Gold Buddha monastery and the Pure Land school, tends to fly below the radar of mainstream Canadian media culture.
It is often called “ethnic Buddhism.”
It’s practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English. They generally meet in large, extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.
Pure Land stands in sharp contrast to Westernized Buddhism, to which many non-Asians have in recent decades been drawn. It focuses almost entirely on meditation as a technique to calm the mind.
Westernized Buddhism is now followed by tens of thousands who blend “mindfulness” meditation with the teachings of psychotherapists, like California’s Jack Kornfeld and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
This Western Buddhism is also associated with two immensely popular monks – Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama – who were born in Asia, but who have over past decades become highly adapted to the socially liberal, secularized ways of Europe and North America.
Most Asian immigrants follow a more traditional Buddhist drummer.
These “ethnic Buddhists” have a more supernatural bent. They are much more likely to bow
reverentially before sacred Buddha statues in faithful prayer for good health and fortune.
They are more likely to yearn, after they die, to escape this Earth-bound world of karmic “suffering” through rebirth into an otherworldly realm, the Pure Land.
These two loose Buddhist streams – of Pure Land Buddhism and Westernized Buddhism – are not necessarily antagonistic. But they have little to do with each other, either as communities or as spiritual world views.
Paul Crowe, a Simon Fraser University professor and specialist in Chinese religions, says many Buddhists with no Asian heritage often misunderstand Pure Land practice “and even dismiss it as superficial.”
As they sidestep Buddhist teachings about karma and rebirth, most Western Buddhists tend to highlight meditation as “true Buddhist practice,” says Crowe, director of SFU’s David Lam Centre.
“This divide can create two solitudes, and is unfortunate.”
In other words, Buddhism is a house divided in North America.
In that way it’s much like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has evolved and fragmented since being founded by Siddhartha Gautama in sixth-century B.C.
Here is how the two main streams of Buddhism contrast in Metro Vancouver, where roughly 100,000 people have told the Canadian Census they are Buddhists.
“We want, at the end of our lifetime, to go to the Pure Land,” says Heng Jung, a shaved-headed lead nun at Gold Buddha monastery at 248 East 11th Ave. in Vancouver.
The Malaysian-born ethnic Chinese woman says the people who chant “Amithaba” while kneeling and bowing are doing so because they yearn to help themselves – and deceased loves ones – to “cross over” from this pain-filled world to the celestial Pure Land.
Scholars believe Pure Land Buddhism came into existence in the 2nd-century AD as a path for lay people. As Jung, 44, says, Pure Land Buddhism is for non-monks – for those who are not spiritual “geniuses,” able to reach enlightenment on their own.
Pure Land Buddhists believe they can be spiritually transported into a perfect celestial existence, she says, “just by reciting Amithaba.”
As long as Pure Land practitioners chant with sincerity and behave morally, Jung says followers can free themselves from the negative karma they have built up in this and past lives.
Jung believes Pure Land is more challenging than meditation alone.
“Mostly the Western person is interested in meditation. But reciting Amithaba is more work than meditation. You must have faith. You must have belief. And you must recite it yourself. You earn the blessing.”
The Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism says Pure Land is by far the largest form of the main Buddhist branch known as Mayahana, which has about 350 million adherents.
Accepting that “Buddha” is the title of any enlightened person, the Dictionary of Buddhism says, Pure Land followers believe anyone who repeats the name of the Buddha known as Amithaba “could come into the Pure Land without first becoming pure and enlightened themselves.”
However, the dictionary warns the key ideas of Pure Land, known as “the easy way” to eternal salvation because it relies on an “other” power, offend some kinds of Buddhists.
Many Buddhists reject the belief that a literal Pure Land realm exists outside the practitioners’ own mind.
Despite criticism, Pure Land appears to be the dominant mode of Buddhist expression in Metro, including for many seniors, says Crowe, a contributor to the book, Asian Religions in B.C. (UBC Press).
Pure Land is taught, typically in Mandarin or Cantonese, at the largest Buddhist temples in Metro Vancouver – including the Tung Lin Kok Yuen temple on East Broadway; the Ling Yen Mountain temple on No. 5 Road in Richmond and the International Buddhist Society temple on Steveston Highway.
Jung says Gold Buddha Monastery, located in an ordinary-looking four-storey building in East Vancouver, is one of the few Metro Vancouver Pure Land temples where English is routinely spoken.
Gold Buddha is one of 23 large Dharma Realm Buddhist Association centres around the world; mostly on the west Coast of North America, as well as in Taiwan, Malaysia and China.
Gold Buddha monastery, which opened in Vancouver in 1984, permanently houses 15 nuns, both ethnic Chinese and Caucasian. It offers chanting rituals throughout the week in its large sanctuary, which features five eye-catching gold Buddha statues.
With a big smile, Jung, who has managed the monastery for more than a decade, says she has nothing at all against North Americans who mainly follow Buddhism for its meditation practices.
“A lot of people have a lot of pressure. They’re too much running around. So it’s a way to calm down and have good energy.”
But Jung says meditation is easy compared to Gold Buddha monastery’s emphasis on hours of chanting, on strict vegetarianism (excluding also onions and garlic) and on adhering to a set of virtues.
“Meditation is no work. You just sit,” said the nun.
During Gold Buddha rituals, followers are urged to free themselves of all greed, self-aggrandizement, deceit and the desire to find fault in others.
Pure Land Buddhists, says Jung, teach that everyone needs to “clean up the (negative) karma from their previous lives” so that they can be reborn in the celestial Pure Land.
Asked whether Caucasian converts to Westernized Buddhism tend to ignore the religion’s ancient teachings about how to avoid accruing bad karma, Jung says: “I’m not saying they’re not interested in karma. They just don’t understand it.”
REBIRTH AND KARMA
Brian Ruhe, a former Buddhist monk in Thailand and now a popular teacher of Buddhism in B.C., is more blunt about the approach most Western converts take to the religion.
Many predominantly Caucasian Buddhist groups in Metro and the rest of North America, says Ruhe, “teach really good meditation,” combined with “transpersonal” psychology.
“But it tends to be an American brand of Buddhism that’s being marketed. And it’s somewhat innocuous. Traditionally, meditation makes up just one third of Buddhism.”
The two concepts of rebirth and karma are just as important to Buddhism as meditation, says Ruhe, who follows Theravadan Buddhism, the world’s second largest branch of Buddhism.
Western Caucasian Buddhists, he says, often don’t talk about “anything beyond this life, because they don’t want to offend people. However, without karma or rebirth, it’s not Buddhism.”
The author of A Short Walk on an Ancient Path has been teaching for 15 years in B.C., maintains a website at www. theravada.ca and attends Birken Buddhist Forest Monastery near Kamloops.
Over the years, Ruhe has grown concerned that Western Buddhists, following vipassana and other forms of meditation, don’t put enough emphasis on the tradition’s stress on virtue. For instance, Ruhe was present when noted Seattle Insight Meditation Society teacher Rodney Smith came to Vancouver.
When asked about practising virtue to avoid creating negative karma, Rue said Smith told his large contemplative audience: “‘I don’t discuss karma. It just makes people feel guilty. And there’s enough guilt already in the world.’”
Vancouver physicist Pierre Zakarauskas, who sometimes teaches at the B.C. Insight Meditation Society, is one of those Western Buddhists who is skeptical about so-called ethnic Buddhism.
An adherent of “scientific materialism,” Quebec-raised Zakarauskas is a friend of Ruhe. But they disagree on many Buddhist topics.
In the 1980s, Zakarauskas said, he was turned off Buddhism by its teaching about rebirth, also known as reincarnation.
But, many years later, Zakarauskas was drawn to Buddhism when he heard the Dalai Lama claim that Buddhism would still be valuable even if rebirth were unable to be proved.
Being an atheist, Zakarauskas does not support the Buddhist tradition’s paranormal claims about humans having memories of previous incarnations, or past lives.
As a result, Zakarauskas calls himself “a Buddhist with an asterisk.”
Zakarauskas has contributed to research projects at the University of B.C., which show meditation has beneficial effects on the brain’s sensory cortex, no matter what kind is practised.
The 53-year-old researcher/ businessman says “there’s quite a range” of beliefs among the predominantly Caucasian Buddhists (roughly two out of three of whom are female) who show up at a host of meditation retreats in Metro.
Some of those who follow popular Western Buddhist teachers, such as Kornfield, are convinced of the reality of karma and rebirth, Zakarauskas says.
But many more are not.
For his part, Ruhe believes Western Buddhists are much like early Protestants. They have felt it necessary to break away from Roman Catholicism “and basically start new churches.”
There is nothing inherently bad, Ruhe says, about creating new schools of a religion. But people curious about Buddhism should know it exists in dramatically different and even contradictory forms.
Interfaith dialogue is often necessary to bring out the surprising differences and similarities among religious paths, Rue says.
Even though not an adherent of Pure Land, Ruhe respects Chinese friends who “worship Amithaba kind of like a god.
“It’s a bit like traditional Christianity, which says there is salvation in Jesus if you have faith in him.”
There are many other parallels between Pure Land Buddhism and Biblical religions.
Liberal Christians, such as American theologian Jay McDaniel, founder of jesusjazzbuddhism.org, point out that Pure Land Buddhists revere Amithaba as a divine reality, akin to the one embraced by Jesus.
“Pure Land Buddhists speak of a heavenly Amithaba – who receives and listens to prayer, and who is filled with love,” says McDaniel.
“I believe that what Christians mean by ‘God’ is similar to what Pure Land Buddhists mean by Amithaba.”
Experience the chants … hear an interview.
THREE BIG SHIFTS IN METRO VANCOUVER SPIRITUALITY:
SERIES: THREE BIG SHIFTS IN METRO VANCOUVER SPIRITUALITY:
The largest religions in Metro Vancouver are undergoing major transitions because of gender and ethnicity.
Christianity, Buddhism and Islam are being transformed. They are changing because of the rise of women in society and as a result of Canada’s high immigration rates. Over the next few weeks, Vancouver Sun religion writer Douglas Todd explores just how dramatically these religions have evolved since the 1970s in Canada and beyond. Metro Vancouver, with its liberal attitudes and incredible ethnic diversity, is turning out to be at the heart of the new experiments in three religions; creating possible lessons for the rest of the world. The series started Dec. 8th.