By Rev. Jon Turner
In religious studies, there are two competing or perhaps conflicting concepts. One is the idea of transcendence. Transcendence is used to describe something that goes beyond our world or is beyond our normal way of thinking. The other is the idea of immanence which describes something that is all around us. It is everywhere. You might even say it is the very ground of our being. In the West, these two ideas are generally presented as in opposition to one another.
Transcendence is to go beyond or be beyond our reach while immanence means within everything everywhere. It is ubiquitous. This something fills everything with it presence. But what is this something we are trying to describe? It is usually what Buddhists might call Infinite Wisdom or Ultimate Reality while for Christians this might be called God.
These two words are difficult to reconcile for both religious traditions but in different ways. For Christians, if God is truly transcendent and Not Of This World, like those NOTW bumper stickers say, then it is this very transcendence that makes God unavailable to us. So for God to come in contact with us, “he” must give up some of “his” transcendence, the very thing that makes him godly. This is a very difficult choice to make. God is either unavailable to us in “his” transcendence or God has had to shed some of this transcendence to achieve immanence. One of my favorite quotes on this immanence states that
The kingdom of the Father is spread across the land and men cannot see it.
This is from The Gospel of Thomas. One of the books not included in the New Testament. I always wondered if it was quotes like these that might be the reason why.
In the Buddhist tradition, we have an analogous issue concerning the Pure Land. Is it in the Here and Now or is it in the There and Then. This debate is usually characterized as a difference in reading. There are modernist who read The Pure Land Sutras as merely myth while the more traditionalists read it a bit more literally. I have never been comfortable with how this has been framed. The modern reader always sounds so much superior to the traditional reader. Modern is new while traditional is old.
This debate is not unique to Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhists also have differing interpretations. Thich Nhat Hanh tends toward the modernist/mythical readings while Cuong Tu Nguyen, a Pure Land practitioner and scholar, does not care for Nhat Hanh’s interpretations. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now. And his poem Here is the Pure Land from the same book,
Here is the Pure Land
The Pure Land is here
I smile in mindfulness
And dwell in the present moment
The Buddha is seen in an autumn leaf
The Dharma is a floating cloud
The Sangha body is everywhere
My true home is right here.
But these modernist and traditional readings can also be somewhat selective. For example, in The Larger Sutra, page 21, the Pure Land is said to be found very far way, reflecting its transcendence.
The Buddha replied to Ānanda, “Bodhisattva Dharmākara has already attained Buddhahood and is now dwelling in a western Buddha land called ‘Peace and Bliss,’ a hundred thousand koṭis of lands away from here.”
While in The Contemplation Sutra, page 67, we find that the Pure Land is not very far away at all, emphasizing its immanence.
Then the World-honored One said to Vaidehī, “Do you know that Amitāyus is not far away? Fix your thoughts upon and contemplate that Buddha land.
So which one is it? Is it far away or not far away at all? How do Buddhists choose? I often say that the answer to all Buddhist either/or questions is “both.” Buddhism lives within the excluded middle and it thrives on paradox. For Buddhists, we can wiggle out of this false choice by appreciating the Pure Land as both transcendent and immanent. The Pure Land is an enlightened realm that is far beyond our normal way of thinking. It is very far way. And yet it is right in front of our eyes and yet we cannot see it.
Ultimately there is only one reality though we experience it as suffering. Because the Pure Land is very far away, we yearn to be born there. To live a life of transcendence in which the There and Then can be experienced in the Here and Now. So as my grandmother might say, arguing over where is the Pure Land – well that is Neither Here Nor There.
Rev. Jon Turner