Image © Michael S. Wertz
Image © Michael S. Wertz

Togetherness is perhaps the one word that moves me most about the Pure Land tradition. It is expressed in the canonical stories as the desire to be born together with all beings—people, bugs, critters, whales, and so on—in Amida’s realm. We don’t just seek our own salvation—we are only fully happy when we can be born together with all others. No one is left behind by Amida, no one is left out. This does not sound like the sort of society that we live in today, but it does give us something to aspire to. Amida’s vows include that all people in the Land of Bliss will have an appearance of gold—that is, that regardless of what we look like, we will all be highly valued. This togetherness has a technical term in Pure Land Buddhism: kyosei, which translates as “co-living” or “symbiosis.”

Specifically, kyosei is the application of “born together with all beings” to our present, imperfect world. I don’t believe that this difficult, stressful world of ours can ever fully become a Pure Land in the sense that it will be free of all problems. Yet even so the Pure Land is never apart from this world, and we have the ability to work to alleviate more of the world’s suffering. Thankful for the blessings we receive, we can try to be kinder, more open-minded, and more accepting of one another. And we can work to eliminate barriers between people, so that our togetherness is brought to light and honored.

During my time in Japan I encountered something that seemed to drive home the fundamental heart-feeling of togetherness in Pure Land Buddhism. Chionji is a temple in northeastern Kyoto, belonging to the Jodo Shu school, which was founded by Shinran’s teacher, Honen. The temple has a very unusual artifact: the largest Buddhist rosary (nenju) in the world. The nenju is made out of large wooden beads about the size of a person’s fist, strung together in a string so long it loops around and around the inside of the large worship hall. But the nenju is more than just an incredible artifact—it is also a practice. On the 15th of every month, laypeople and priests come together to collectively chant one million nembutsu while holding the nenju as a group.

I was very stirred by this giant nenju and the million-nembutsu practice, because to me it expresses the deep feeling of Pure Land Buddhism. Everyone, monk and lay, gathers with one another and holds onto the nenju—thus they are all equal and connected. The nenju is a huge circle, so there is no beginning or end to the nembutsu and the people who embody it, and no one higher or lower. Although they each have an individual encounter with the Buddha, they are expressing a wish to be born together. Thus even as they sort out their own awakening, they acknowledge the importance of the community and the relationships that they hold dear. This seems like togetherness given concrete form, in a commonly held nenju, in a shared nembutsu chant, and in hearts beating as one in the wish to embody and express our fundamental togetherness. ▼

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