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My Smile Reminds Me of The Face I Had Before I was Born

One day an aged Zen master met an old lady who was unlike most that he'd encountered.

While most old people were glum and gloomy, this lady was happy and lively. On her arm was basket filled with pretty flowers.

"Hello, Ma'am," he said. "How are you doing?"

"Hello, honoured master. I am fine."

"Why are you so bubbly and full of cheer?"

"Well, though I am old and grey, I know that soon when I am gone, I shall be reborn in the Pure Land and will meet Amida Buddha, all my deceased relatives, and perhaps even Saint Shinran, too."

"Ah, but where is this Amida Buddha?"

"Right here," replied the old woman, pointing to her heart with a smile on her face. Then she gave the Zen master a flower, and went merrily on her way.

To himself, the master exclaimed, "Now that woman knows the Pure Land intimately."

One Zen koan that is posed to a Zen practitioner is the question, "What is the face that you had before you were born?"

While "Mu" would be the stereotypical Zen answer, I feel that the smile of peaceful bliss, constitutes the Shin Buddhist's answer.

In the Pure Land of Bliss, Buddha-essence incarnates as a bodhisattva. That bodhisattva receives instructions from Amida to prepare for the wonderful journey in the human realm.

In the human realm, that bodhisattva is transformed into Buddha-essence which is incarnated in a human being as a karmic seed being nurtured by positive life events in preparation for the spiritual mission which all Buddhists undertake: to be of service to others.

Thus it is the prime objective of a Shin Buddhist to be reborn in the Pure Land so that the Buddha-essence incarnated within is reborn as a bodhisattva to prepare for future rebirth in the human realm. Furthermore, the aspiration of a Buddhist is to be reborn in a Buddhist family.

Is this the same as reincarnation? No, because the Buddha-essence is not a soul. It is but a karmic seed which is nurtured by the positive life experience of the person within whom it incarnates. Most of the life experience is spiritual in nature, and suitably ought to be Buddhist.

If the Buddha-essence is incarnated in a person born to a family who is not Buddhist, then the karmic seed lies dormant until that person hears of Amida Buddha and his 48 Vows, and aspires to become a Buddhist. Otherwise, that seed lies dormant.

If, after hearing those 48 Vows, a person aspires to be reborn in the Pure Land, then iss there anything that he does to prevent rebirth? Because his aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land is activated on hearing Dharmakara's 48 Vows, it still requires sincere practice on his part to prepare for rebirth. Therefore, the Buddhist is still required to practice the Five Precepts (non-violence towards other sentient beings, refraining from theft, appropriate sensual conduct, speaking the truth, and refraining from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness).

However, reciting Nembutsu is supposed to generate spiritual merit and sow seeds of good karma to help undo failure to follow the Five Precepts, provided that the Buddhist practitioner follows the precepts.

Returning to the question "What is the face I had before I was born?", if the answer is "peaceful bliss", then the question then becomes, "What is the face of peaceful bliss?" The answer is, a smile.

To quickly achieve such bliss, the Buddhist practitioner is advised to practice the Name-that-calls (the Nembutsu) with utmost devotion and sincerity.

This makes it easier to visual the thirteen contemplations found in the Amitāyus Meditation Sūtra. However, not everyone is able to complete the contemplations without a visual guide.

Such a visual guide is found in the Taima Mandala.

Since the thirteen contemplations are not for the average layperson, usually the Nembutsu suffices, provided that the practitioner knows why: to hear Amida's call to be reborn in the Pure Land of Bliss. This is why it is called the Name-That-Calls.

In Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, the Nembutsu is known as as Nianfo, and the practice of reciting the Nianfo is called Buddha Remembrance.

Since this Pure Land is the Buddha world of Amida Buddha, it is both a state of mind (peaceful bliss) and an afterlife (the Pure Land of Bliss). Knowing that I go there after my death relieves me of all anxiety about death. Being relieved of such anxiety, I still recite the Nembutsu to achieve the state of mind called "peaceful bliss".

For a mind bathed in the calm waters of such bliss is freed of anxiety about death. Being freed of such anxiety, I am able to realize that happiness is a journey, not a goal. Knowing happiness is a journey, the practitioner is free to enjoy life as it is.

What is life as it is? Well, for one thing, it surely is not life as it is supposed to be, which for most people is disappointing. If life is supposed to be easy, then people experiencing hardship would be disappointed. If life is supposed to be hard, then people should be relieved that it is sometimes easy. In any case, life as it is supposed to be is a life that is so unsatisfactory that a person may wish for a life more satisfactory. In the end, experiencing life as it is is satisfactory.

For life as it is is a life which is enjoyed, and the path to such a life is obtained by reciting the Nembutsu mindfully, with the aspiration of being born in the Pure Land.

Returning to the question, "What is the face I had before I was born?", I can only answer "peaceful bliss" and claim not to know what that face looks like. It is not the Nembutsu's purpose to know that.

Yet, on deeper examination of the question, it becomes possible to see the only similarity between my face and the face I had before I was born is a smile!

When I smile while reciting Nembutsu and when I smile while meditating, my mind is becalmed and peaceful bliss arises.

For the smile is the result of bliss.

So the more precise answer to the question "What is the face I had before I was born?" is to smile and hand the Zen master a flower.

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