Harold Stewart on Faith

Faith has been repeatedly mentioned in these pages, and the reader may well ask what meaning this word has for Buddhism in general and for the Pure Land sects in particular. Faith is the conditio sine qua non not only for the spiritual quest but for accomplishment in any field of endeavour.

Read more of this extract from Harold Stewart’s, ‘By The Old Walls of Kyoto.’


Harold Stewart on Faith

6 responses »

  1. Thank you for this post and introducing us to Harold Stewart’s writings. Such a great Australian Buddhist poet and writer and I never even knew he existed!

    This is a little unrelated to Stewart’s essay on faith, but I would also like to ask about the nature of gratitude in the pure land path based on some questions I had during my recent reading of Jeff Wilson’s Buddhism of the Heart. I’m not sure if my understanding of what Jeff is saying is right, but in some chapters he seems to suggest a thanking of Amitabha for for a very broad array of things, for example he describes his practice of saying the nembutsu before eating to remind himslef to be grateful for all the causes and conditions that come together in his food. I can easily see that we should be grateful to Amitabha for the dharma, for his efforts to awaken all beings and for his infinite compassion, but does it also apply, that being a representation of the dharmakaya and the fundamental nature of reality, that we should be grateful towards Amitbha as the basis for all existence and therefore for everything? If this is the case, then shouldn’t the sight of a dank alleyway, a rotting apple or an overcast day also remind us of gratitude towards Amitabha? How could we draw any boundaries on what we are or aren’t grateful for in existence if Amitabha is the root of all of it?

    At other times, I have also got the sense that gratitude is given to Amitabha specifically when good things happen in one’s life. But from our limited perspective, how can we know which events in our life, good or bad, we should be grateful for? It seems that often bad turns of fate can lead to more growth than good ones (as you have also suggested in the past). I’m not sure if this way of thinking about Amitabha and gratitude is perhaps a remanent of a perverse sort of Christian approach to relating to God where we say “thank god” when the car just misses us or if we decide to randomly buy a lottery ticket that wins the jackpot. On this point, I also wonder should we even be thinking of Amitabha as some sort of active agent trying to steer ourselves and life conditions?

    I ask all of this because I have noticed that recently when I feel particularly happy, walk outside to a lovely day, or have something particularly good happen, I say the nembutsu as a kind of thanks for such nice things, but I wonder if this is really correct practice of gratitude?

    • While Jeff Wilson’s book has much of value in it, I am not in agreement with Mr. Wilson on numerous points. That said, I have not taken the time, as I should, to go and find the specific reference to which you are responding in order to ascertain whether your recounting is an accurate depiction of his stated views. Therefor take my response as being made in regard to the points you raise rather than a critique of Mr. Wilson’s book.

      We, of course, should be grateful for everything … and nothing, for as you correctly indicate, one would have to know the ripened fruit of our relationship to each and every thing, person or event in order to be able to properly value it. It is well that we value all such alike and that we treat each with equal respect and deference, though the respect we give to a venomous snake and to a glass of tepid tea may be different in quality, they need not differ in quantity, and a negative happenstance or abrasive person may teach us as much, each in their own way, as a pleasant encounter or agreeable person.

      Be that as it may, it is perfectly fine to continue to say the nembutsu whenever you feel the desire to do so as this makes use of the Pure Land upaya to connect (or reconnect) with formless Dharmakaya through efficient affective focus on the Sambhogakaya. The simple fact of the matter is that subjectively positive experiences more readily initiate such gratitude leading to a re-connection. Let them. But do be mindful, as you seem to be, of the limitation of focusing only on the subjectively positive, just don’t let that stop you from expressing gratitude. You will find that, as the arising of shinjin approaches, naturally, without effort or contrivance, this focus on the merely positive will broaden and deepen so as to be more inclusive.

      You ask: “I’m not sure if this way of thinking about Amida and gratitude is perhaps a remnant of a perverse sort of Christian approach to relating to God where we say “thank God” when the car just misses us or if we decide to randomly buy a lottery ticket that wins the jackpot.”

      Be careful of religious snobbery (something very common among Buddhists of all stripes). There are many Christian’s quite well aware (and many more so than yourself) of the otherwise accurate distinction you are making.

      You also state: “I also wonder should we even be thinking of Amida as some sort of active agent trying to steer ourselves and life conditions?”

      This is one of the pitfalls of a personalistic, dualistic upaya. The answer is, no, we need not. Notice that this is not the same as saying: no, we must not.

      The real value in establishing a firm connection (taking refuge) through gratitude for everything and nothing is in being able to accept what arises instead of believing something should have, or even could have, been different – or that we could have or would have made more of a certain type of opportunity rather than another. Were we competent to know such things with any degree of certainty we would all have mastered the Path of Sages long ago.

      Thank you for bringing up these issues.


      Namu Amida Butsu

  2. Thank you so much for your reply! It helps clarify a lot.

    In regards to the analogy you make of our respect for a venomous snake and a tepid cup of tea not differing in quantity but only in quality, is this to say that while we should respect the venomous snake, if we see one sliding up to our door we should still get up and close the door, lest we are bitten, but if we are bitten by one while bushwalking we should let go of any anger, ill-will or feeling of ‘I wish that didn’t happen’? Just wanted to clarify that I understand the distinction between quantity and quality here.

    What you mention about the real value of establishing a firm connection through gratitude for everything (and nothing) laying in being able to accept whatever arises, sounds familiar to developing a state of equanimity, which I know is also highlighted as an essential part of the path in other Buddhist traditions as well. Thinking about this though, I realised that I haven’t seen or heard equanimity talked about as much in the Pure Land material I’ve come across, and while this may be because I still am fairly new to Pure Land practice and its material, I was wondering if there was any other reason, or if gratitude serves a similar function in the Pure Land tradition because it is less of something you ‘cultivate’ or ‘do’?

    Also thank you very much for pointing out my religious snobbery there. It is definitely something I have (and still do) fallen prey to in the past, but I have found your site to very helpful in rectifying this, especially your contra polemics post.

    Many many thanks


    • With regard to the analogy: Yes, that is about right. What we respect and value and honor equally is our relationship to an event or being, or (to broaden the scope) the whole web of relationships that led to our being conscious of the event or being. [And that is probably what Mr. Wilson (whatever his language use and to whatever degree of accuracy) was pointing at.] But each relationship is unique and how we respond to it must also be unique. If it is a cup of tepid tea, we are careful not to spill it, break the cup, or inhale it. If it is a venomous snake we are careful to make sure that it does not hurt itself, ourself, or other beings that are not similarly ‘wild’ animals (those it has no innate need to do so). Whatever happens, we do not devalue the relationship, we simply respond appropriately as the relationship changes and the need arises with no preconceived screens projected onto the situation nor any filters preventing us from seeing the reality of the relationship as it is. Without projections and screens each relationship is able to be enjoyed for what it is throughout its changes. [Really there is not a single relationship that changes, but rather an infinite series of relationships unique to each and every moment – but we don’t process it that way].

      Regarding equanimity: Yes, that too is correct. In the Pure Land (easy) Path the very concept of praxis is stripped down to its most essential and simple, but not simplistic, core. That being so, explicit mention is not made of every individual aspect as this would defeat the point of the upaya and turn it back into the Holy (hard) Path for which few are qualified even amongst those currently on such paths. The value of focusing on Buddha-Nature (via Amida) is that, as the transference of merit (from Buddha-Nature to self-nature) progresses and we are brought to the arising of shinjin, we naturally cease to focus on ourselves so much. The effect of this is that we open to the full scope of our relationships and without effort cease to project onto or filter from those relationships based on preconceived subjective bias. All of this happens without calculation – it is simply the natural (meaning here: dharmic and karmic) response to our focus on Buddha-Nature (as Amida).

      I have often been guilty of intellectual pride and I thank all my relations for helping me to learn the error involved in devaluing relationships in that way. It is only natural to return the favor by paying it forward (as they say).


  3. Thank you very much for your comments!

    I found your comment about relationships actually being made up of an infinite series of momentary unique relationships to be particularly illuminating!

    Also thank you for the resounding reminder that comes through many of your replies that all the unfolding of the Pure Land path happens naturally and with out calculation. I often find I try to force things to move quicker, both in my everyday life and in my practice of the path and this is a much needed reminder.

    Thank you


  4. After my previously implying that in his book Buddhism with Heart, Jeff Wilson perhaps shows some limitations in his view on gratitude, I felt I should share something from his book that I have recently read that makes it pretty clear that this view of mine was based only on my own misinterpretations and selective reading of his writing.

    In his chapter ‘Namu Death’ (pg. 122) Mr Wilson writes:

    “So somehow when I say “Namu Amida Butsu” out of gratitude for all I receive, I have to include thankfulness for death along with thankfulness for life – otherwise, my gratitude is incomplete.

    Namu life, namu death, namu all that sustains me and everything that lives and dies.”

    Thank you for your encouragement to always maintain humility and impartiality, and my apologies for misrepresenting Mr Wilson’s views.

    Namu Amida Butsu

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