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 Faith and Doubt as Skillful Means

By Householder Jingxing

Introductory Note

Earlier this month Master Jingzong made his first visit to a Western country, giving a series of Dharma discourses in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada. Householder Jingxing, the first Western person to take refuge in the pristine Pure Land lineage of Master Shandao two years ago, flew from his home in Norway to meet Master Jingzong and hear the Vancouver talks.

In the following essay, Jingxing shares his experience, including an insight into an important and oft-raised issue: How can a modern seeker, accustomed to using the worldly intellect, develop faith in the Pure Land path -- and ultimately achieve liberation from samsara through rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss?

I recently had the honor of meeting Master Jingzong in Vancouver, Canada, on the occasion of his first visit to North America. Naturally, the main focus of the master’s visit was spreading the teachings of the Shandao lineage to the Chinese diaspora living in the greater Vancouver area – the foundations for this having already been laid by the work of Householder Jingpu and the Vancouver Amitabha-Recitation Association. Over the course of three public lectures in three days, I had the pleasure of witnessing many Chinese (and two Westerners) transform from newcomers to our tradition, to refuge-takers at the conclusion of the third lecture. It was a moving testament to the ways in which Amitabha Buddha is using the masters of our school as vehicles for spreading the liberating teaching of Master Shandao.

Regrettably, I needed to return to my home in Norway before Master Jingzong traveled onward to Toronto and another series of discourses. But before I left, there was one last public event: a discussion group for English speakers who were interested in learning more about Pure Land Buddhism. It was held at a small, upscale Chinese grocery and tea house in a suburb of Vancouver. The turnout was small, but the intimate setting allowed the participants to discuss the teachings and question Master Jingzong in a relaxed, informal manner.

In attendance was one woman who was a student of world religions. Her question was typical of most modern people encountering Pure Land Buddhism for the first time, and can be paraphrased as follows: “The teaching is beautiful; and I would love to believe that there is a transcendent, cosmic Buddha who wishes to ferry me off to his Pure Land at the end of my life. The problem is my intellect, which tells me that this teaching can be fully explained as a psychological phenomenon, and as a response to parallel trends in other religious traditions. I guess I’ve read too many books. I would love to simply believe, but I simply can’t. How is it possible for one like me to accept the Pure Land Dharma?”

Master Jingzong smiled. What he said next was not unfamiliar to me, as I had read similar statements in Master Huijing’s lectures. But hearing it spoken aloud by one of the masters of our lineage affected me in a way that reading it had not. Looking at the woman with great tenderness, he said, “We cannot ultimately understand what the Buddha is. The sutras are a pointing finger – not the moon – and all the myriad teachings are skillful means to induce us to utter Namo Amitabha Buddha. That is all. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, or whether you’re a Buddhist or not. Amitabha Buddha is one with his Name, and his Name is simply the truth. Just speak the truth, which lies totally beyond the realms of belief and disbelief, and you will be reborn in the Pure Land.”

I think the woman was moved by this answer; I know I was. I couldn’t help thinking that, once upon a time, such an answer to the question of faith might have saved me years of doubt and struggle. My own condition had been not unlike this woman’s: possessed of a hungry intellect that wanted to believe, but was hindered by its own accumulated knowledge. What I found remarkable about Master Jingzong’s statement was that it reversed what is considered by many to be the standard, linear progression: from faith to aspiration (to rebirth in the Pure Land) to practice (Name-recitation). He basically said, “Don’t worry about your lack of faith. Just start practicing and secure your rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Faith will come later.”

But if this is the case – if one can simply recite the name of Amitabha without faith and attain rebirth in the Pure Land – then why bother talking about faith at all?

Let us consider the question of faith more closely. The understanding of faith in the Pure Land school’s Shandao lineage is based upon Master Shandao’s definition, in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, of the two kinds of deep faith:

The first kind of deep faith: I am an iniquitous ordinary being subject to endless rebirth. Since time immemorial I have died and been reincarnated, without hope of leaving the cycle of rebirth.

The second kind of deep faith: Amitabha Buddha embraces and receives all sentient beings with his 48 Vows. Without doubt or fear, we are certain of rebirth in the Pure Land by relying on the power of his vows.

Contained within these two statements is all the faith we need for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. The first contains belief in karma, the cycle of rebirth, and our status as ordinary beings. The second contains belief in the Pure Land, Amitabha Buddha, and the salvific efficacy of his vows.

Most often, commitment to the practice of Amitabha-recitation – especially lifelong, exclusive recitation, cited by Master Shandao as the karma which unfailingly assures rebirth – is based upon the arising of these two kinds of faith. Perhaps one reads a Dharma talk by one of the masters of the Shandao lineage, or encounters the Pure Land sutras themselves. One’s interest is sparked, but there still is doubt. If one’s virtuous roots are strong, then one begins to read and study further, and question teachers and fellow practitioners until, slowly, the doubt is erased. Soon, it is possible to practice with an easy, joyful mind. This is the usual order of things. But how does someone like the woman in Vancouver, for whom this process presumably failed, attain the Pure Land?

Master Jingzong’s (and Master Shandao’s) answer is to simply begin practicing. This seems like a contradiction, as it is taught that faith, aspiration and Amitabha-recitation are the causative factors of rebirth in the Pure Land. But can any of these elements be said to exist independently of “Namo Amitabha Buddha”? The answer is no. Neither faith nor aspiration can exist separately from recitation. If one is sincere in uttering Amitabha’s name (even if only in the hope it might be true) then faith and aspiration are both implicit in that utterance of Namo Amitabha. It naturally contains the other two causative factors, and all the pieces are in place for rebirth in the Land of Bliss to be realized.

This teaching reflects my experience as a fledgling Pure Land practitioner of a decade ago. As an educated, modern person, my questions were too numerous for me to practice with any sort of peace of mind, and my faith lay in my own ability to reason it all out rather than in Amitabha’s ability to deliver me. Several fruitless, frustrating years passed in the pursuit of faith until I resolved to simply practice. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the turning point in my journey to the Pure Land. Just as running water can wear away stone, the name of Amitabha began to erode the rock of doubt that blocked my path. Instead of progressing from faith to practice, I went from practice to faith. It almost felt as if I had found the “back door” to the Pure Land. Once I discovered the teachings of the Shandao lineage, I understood that this was indeed the case.

Of course, faith is the securest platform on which to engage in the lifelong, exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. (Again, this is what Master Shandao called “the karma of assurance,” and is what determines our rebirth in the Pure Land with 100% certainty.) That is why faith is emphasized in the lineage of Master Shandao. But at the same time, Amitabha Buddha will never turn away someone who wants to have faith, but whose virtuous roots are still maturing. What a pity it would be if such a person were to reject the Dharma, believing that they are excluded from the Land of Bliss! If one who doubts begins to practice, and is sincere in their wish to realize the mind of faith, they will not only attain rebirth in the Pure Land, but will eventually come to possess the two kinds of deep faith taught by Master Shandao – even if only at the last moment of their lives when Amitabha Buddha appears before them to take them home.

I don’t know whether the woman in Vancouver began to practice. I hope so. I am still moved by the memory of Master Jingzong’s response to her question, and can’t help but feel my heart leap for joy at the thought of the Dharma’s compassionate nature. It is inconceivable, but true: both faith and doubt, ultimately, are skillful means used by Amitabha to bring us all to rest safely in the arms of Namo Amitabha Buddha!

November 27, 2016

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Characteristics

  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime

Amitabha Buddhas

The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha

If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.

Guiding Principles

Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings