A friend recently asked me to describe the “inner logic” of Pure Land Buddhism. I was confounded. It seemed like a kind of koan, rather like “Please enumerate the contents of an empty box.” Pure Land is other power Buddhism. It does not have an “inner” logic. That is the point. From the Pure Land perspective, such is the original message of Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama strove for many years to solve the great existential problem of birth, affliction, and death. He achieved many things, but it was never enough, could not be enough. In the end all his striving for salvation proved futile. Yet something was given to him when he gave up.

Delusion has an inner logic, many inner logics. Salvation does not. Salvation, in Buddhism, is to be seized in a manner that pulls one clear, like a child pulled clear of a burning house, or lured out by devious device.

So what was I to say? I thought again. The pursuit of self-advantage and gain has a clear and pervasive logic. It can enter into every crevice of one’s life, not excluding one’s spiritual path. This is what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described with the potent phrase “spiritual materialism.” So when we look at our inner logic, if we are honest, that is what we see. Everywhere there is self-seeking. Indeed, so ubiquitous is it that even being honest with ourselves is extremely difficult. We seem only able to do it partially and in brief spurts, like a person diving under water. A brief dose of honesty, and then we must come up for air. So it seems.

And what does that honest looking come up with? What trophies does it glean from the seabed and haul to the surface? Ancient amphoras. The broken pots of our earlier strivings. Shards of self-seeking in myriad forms, now strewn across the bottom of our ocean. Fragments of all the empires we have sought to build, the wars we have fought, the pride and dejection our ego has suffered. Collect them. Piece them together. They reveal our inner logic: greed, hate, and delusion. It has a long history. Aeons long. We are delusion all the way through. From this penetrating awareness there is absolutely no inner logic of salvation. Salvation, should it occur, is a grace entirely.

The inner logic of Pure Land Buddhism, if it can be called that—and calling it so is surely extremely dangerous—is defeat and defeat only. There is nothing. There is no saving grace in ourselves. Even when Siddhartha had mastered all the yogas of his day, he knew it was not enough. However many hours of meditation, however much personal discipline, however much abstruse philosophical understanding, however much technical know-how—nothing serves. If there is an inner logic in Pure Land, it is found in the example of Siddhartha and of others like him who have given their all in a vain search for mastery and in the end have had to give up. That is not really the logic of salvation, however; it is the logic of the self-defeating nature of self-seeking, the logic of dependent origination. The ego cannot achieve freedom from itself.

Yet the buddhas have declared the dharma, have declared nirvana. This wheel is turning in the world now without cease. That is something to be grateful for. Whether I am saved or not, I am grateful to the buddhas for their power, their perspicacity, their generosity, their love; for their compassion, their joy, and their equanimity. I who live a conditioned life shot through and through with inescapable delusion at least from time to time raise my eyes, open my ears, bring together my hands in a gesture of true prayer and, prompted by a mysterious grace, utter the name of a buddha. Am I saved? I do not know. It is their affair. If they will save me, so be it. If I am headed for hell, so be it. I cannot help myself. In this darkness the dharma has appeared and I praise it. I cannot own it, I did not make it, I cannot make it mine, it is not part of me nor am I, as I find myself, part of it. But it is glorious, and I am grateful that it is in the world doing its work, and I am, at least a little bit, willing to be part of that work. Yet if that is to be so, it will have to work through me in a manner that I do not get too much knowledge of, or I will surely hijack it for my own selfish purpose.

So I pray, “Stay until samsara ceases and turn the dharma wheel for us.” The logic of other-power belongs to the buddhas, not to myself. In myself there is only the logic of folly.

It is said often enough that Shakyamuni was a human being just like us and we can be just like him. Really? How many of us are willing to abandon money, home, relationships, sex, and security about where our next meal is coming from, and go forth on a search for self-salvation with such ardor and desperation that it will cost us absolutely everything and land us finally at death’s door with the realization that all that we have done up to this point truly has been “vain, ignoble, and useless”? I do not see many takers. And even if we were to do so, there is no guarantee that we would emerge from it one wit wiser.

As it happened, a woman chanced upon Siddhartha’s starving body and nursed him back to life. As it happened, he was thus cast into a night of turmoil in which he was confronted by all the demons that, despite all his efforts, had never left him. He certainly knew the inner logic of delusion then. As it happened, he then realized that he was saved from what he had been, but following an inner logic that, phoenix-like, sprang up unbidden, he knew that his new state could never be understood by anybody else. Yet because of the intervention of the devas, or heavenly beings, he went forth to declare the dharma, lovely in its origin, lovely in its proceeding, lovely in its consummation. As it happened, there was nothing else he could do. For that we can all be extremely grateful.

We can be grasped by the dharma, but we cannot grasp it. It is not that we have fallen from a state of grace, for we never were in such a state and we do not have it in us. Nonetheless, there is a power of buddhas at work somehow, and if through that power we are granted an ounce of faith, then once in a while we shall raise our hands and voices in thanks. And if not, so be it. We cannot appropriate this power. It is not me, it is not mine, it is not myself. It is other.

So what is the inner logic of Pure Land Buddhism? The question returns like the proverbial iron ball in the mouth of the fish, too big to swallow or to spit out. Perhaps that within ourselves there is nothing to find other than the conviction of our own folly and that only from the point where a primal cry screams out, “I cannot!” can one discover the emptiness of all this. Nonetheless, as Nagarjuna [the influential Buddhist philosopher and founder of the Madhyamaka school] said, there is both an easy and a difficult path. One can cross the mountains on foot, as did Siddhartha, or you can hop a ride on the great dharma vehicle that he subsequently launched. Trusting in ourselves, we are headed for the mountains and probable failure. Trusting in Buddha, we just might find ourselves gliding effortlessly into the field of merit that he has so graciously spread out to receive us.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters