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 From the Convent to the Pure Land

By Householder Jingchou

(English translation by Fojin)

My elder sister Fojin suggested that I should tell my story -- the story of how a Catholic nun turned into a Buddhist practitioner of the Pristine Pure Land school. I agreed at once. The fact that I jumped at the idea of putting pen to paper about this wonderful experience doesn’t mean that I am confident about my writing skill in Chinese. Quite the contrary. But what I did know was that I was merely acting as a tool, a kind of messenger for Amitabha Buddha who will take care of everything.

I was born and brought up in Hong Kong and migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area of the United States thirty years ago, spending more of my life there than in Hong Kong. I use English both in college and at work. My husband is American and doesn’t understand Chinese. So English is our common language. I pray to Amitabha Buddha to bless me so that I am able to write from the bottom of my heart in Chinese, my native but now rusty language, about my spiritual journey.

Thirty-odd years ago, I was a Catholic nun who had spent nine years in a convent. Today, I practice the Buddhist Pure Land tradition founded by Master Shandao and recite “Namo Amitabha Buddha” consistently and single-mindedly.

I had been a Catholic from birth to the age of nearly forty. I went to a Catholic primary school and was active in the local parish when I was a teenager. After completing secondary education, the idea of devoting myself to the Church by entering a convent sprouted in my mind. I was only 18 years old then and felt a kind of calling. The Catholic Church calls it the vocation of religious life. I still remember that, at the time, I simply wished I could stay in the convent all my life and pray for humankind. What a noble thought! With sincerity and perseverance, I managed to persuade the Mother Superior of a convent to admit me, a young person who was legally not yet an adult.

At our first meeting, Mother Superior asked me, “Why do you want to enter the convent?” “To become a saint!” I replied without hesitation. How vain I was. Mother Superior chuckled, “How about trying to be a good ordinary person first!”

Life in the convent was not too hard, but not easy either. Being a Catholic sister, although similar in some ways to being a member of the Buddhist sangha, was drastically different in many other ways. The convent to which I belonged had certain vows which must be taken. They included poverty, chastity and obedience. Observing the vows relating to poverty and chastity was not a problem to me. Obedience (obeying orders strictly), however, posed the greatest challenge. The spirit of this vow is to subdue our egos and forget about the “self.” It requires that we defer to our superiors absolutely without any questioning. It also means that we should just get on with our lives quietly and without fuss, and dedicate ourselves totally to serving the Lord Jesus Christ.

My overriding belief at the time was that Jesus would receive us in Heaven. This simple faith has led numerous monastics to dedicate their entire lives to the Church. In my case, I endured monastic life for nine years with this faith. And endure it I did. I was confused in the convent. Naturally, I never became a saint after nine years. Although monastic life meant that I was sheltered from the mundane world, spiritually I benefited little and was still parched.

A passer-by in this Saha world, I had been showered with a lot of favors by the Catholic Church to which I am very grateful. It’s a great shame, though, that the long time I spent in the convent did not seem to lead me anywhere. I did think of quitting many times. But I couldn’t pluck up the courage to do so each time. Perhaps it was due to the fear of the uncertainty ahead or, perhaps, a lack of the right conditions. At last, the timing was right and I returned to the lay world at the age of 27.

A sense of helplessness and loss consumed me immediately after I left the convent. I felt like a piece of driftwood in the ocean. My elder sister (Fojin) kindly put me up for the time being. Although well provided for, I felt totally empty. I was also ashamed of returning to laity, an affliction that haunted me for the next twenty years. I often dreamt of myself still being dressed in the nun’s habit, but desperately trying to evade the look of the other sisters in the convent. In retrospect, although I was physically quite busy in the convent (what with working full-time in the school attached to the convent, praying, meditating, reflecting and preaching, etc.), and the days appeared to be full, life was actually hollow and depressing. I was without any roots. It’s not surprising that I often dozed off during meditation.

By the time I left the convent, my mother had already settled in the United States with her second husband and my younger sisters. With my mother’s help, I emigrated to the States. This move represented a new milestone in my life. My faith in Catholicism started to wane, something that just happened naturally and there was no struggle at all. What followed was a period of void: no faith or interest in any religion. At about the same time, Fojin started learning the Buddhist Dharma. She would try to impart some Buddhist philosophy to me every time we chatted on a long distance phone call. But I just hummed and hawed, and what she told me just ran off me like water off a duck’s back.

Then about four years ago I met a very zealous Buddhist lay person who was a Mandarin teacher in a university. I enrolled for her classes during the summer holidays. When the course was over, she invited me and my family to visit a Ch’an (Zen) monastery in the outskirts of town. I couldn’t say no because she was very persistent. It was the first time my husband and our two daughters visited a Buddhist monastery in the States.

Some years previously when my husband and I went to mainland China to adopt our two girls, we were taken to a temple to receive the blessings of a Buddhist monk. The temple was jam-packed, noisy and smoky (from a lot of incense burning). By contrast, this Ch’an monastery, perched on a hill, was quiet and tranquil. I felt at peace there. The monastery was occupied by bhikkunis (Buddhist nuns) only. They were all very friendly and kind. I went to this monastery a lot during the following two years -- working as a volunteer, learning the sutras, attending ceremonies and retreats, meditating as well as teaching children some basic Buddhist knowledge. Since then, I have become a vegetarian out of compassion for animals. I also took refuge in the Three Gems and received the Five Precepts.

I was thirsty for more information on Buddhism. From the internet I came across a multitude of materials relating to different Buddhist schools and their respective practices. Although I couldn’t cover all of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings, I skimmed over many of them. However, the more I read, the more lost I became. Shakyamuni Buddha, our teacher, told us not to believe blindly in what he said, but that we should validate it from our own experience. To me, it was a totally alien yet amazing notion. My attitude towards religious faith changed in a flash. For decades, I had been subjected to the deep-rooted religious doctrine that one should just believe and not seek corroboration of what you are told.

Shakyamuni Buddha’s words were like “the shout and the stick” applied by a Ch’an master to enlighten his students. They woke me up. I found the magnanimous and broad-minded Buddhist philosophy admirable and I started to identify with it. The law of karma also answered the question which used to baffle me all my life: “Why does God allow all the terrible things to happen?” I now understand. It is our own doings: cause and effect, karma! What happens to us has got nothing to do with God. It is the karmic consequence of our own deeds. There is no need to beg for God’s mercy because God cannot eliminate our karmic effect for us. I was determined to find a way to free myself from the sufferings of the cycle of life and death. This has motivated me to learn the Dharma and practice diligently.

I became very conscientious in meditating and reciting the sutras. However, the harder I tried, the more anxious and frustrated I got. I became judgmental about the people and things around me. The world had, all of a sudden, turned horrid. I was appalled and disappointed by everything. The rather cumbersome and highly embellished rituals in the monastery also irritated me. Not only did I not have any good teacher to guide me, I didn’t even have a single fellow practitioner to turn to. Although the nuns and householders in the monastery were all very cordial, there was no connection between us and I felt unable to confide in them. I was alone and insecure. I found that I could not be virtuous all the time, something which I expected of myself as a Ch’an practitioner. As a result, I got really cranky and was disheartened about Buddhist practice. “Well, maybe the cultivation can wait,” I said to myself.

Just as I was despairing, Fojin seemed to have read my mind and called me from Hong Kong. This long distance call was like a ray of light dispelling the darkness in my mind. She told me, excitedly, about her meeting with Professor C.K. Poon (former President of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University), an encounter which started her practicing Amitabha-recitation, the Easy Path. I learned that Prof. Poon had done a lot of soul-searching as well. He had practiced the Ch’an and the Vajrayana Schools (esoteric Buddhism). He realized that we, ordinary beings, are accumulating bad karma all the time, with every act, every speech and every thought. Given this defiled nature of ours, the chances of our attaining enlightenment are like looking for a needle in a haystack. He told Fojin that he was lucky to have finally found his way -- it was the Pure Land school!

I, too, had found an oasis in the desert – the Easy Path has brought me hope. I looked up a lot of materials relating to Master Shandao’s pristine Pure Land school on the internet. I realized that as long as we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha single-mindedly (it is so easy to do!), we are assured in the present lifetime to end the cycle of life and death and gain rebirth to the Pure Land. The most reassuring thing is that we will never go backwards in this lifetime on our path to Buddhahood. It is called non-retrogression. (I learned that retrogression is something that is typical and very dangerous for most practitioners). Our rebirth to the Pure Land is certain even if we are able to recite Amitabha’s name just once on our deathbed. In Pure Land, there is forever blissfulness and no suffering at all. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that this life would be my last one! This thought really blew my mind. I was overwhelmed with intense emotions: excitement, joyfulness, and gratitude. My feelings beggared description.

From then on, I have been practicing Amitabha-recitation. I only read the series of books by Master Huijing and Master Jingzong, and also learn from fellow Dharma friends of this school. Over the last 18 months, I have developed greater tolerance and become more compassionate for other people. I now live with a sense of serenity, harmony, gratitude and letting go. I know for sure that these changes are not due to my own efforts. They are the results of Amitabha’s blessings. With every single recitation I make, Amitabha Buddha beckons, I respond and am delivered. How incredible!

Last year, one of my cousins was hospitalized in Hong Kong for terminal liver cancer. He was an atheist his whole life and was hostile towards his wife being a Buddhist and practicing Amitabha-recitation. He even slandered the Buddha. However, shortly before he passed away, he had a complete turnaround in attitude after his wife told him about the compassionate deliverance by Amitabha Buddha who would receive him to the Pure Land. He was reciting Amitabha’s name most earnestly on his deathbed. He also took refuge in the Three Gems and was given the Dharma name of Fojie (meaning “received by the Buddha”) by Master Zonghong of Hongyuan Monastery. In great relief and joy, he departed. Before his last breath, he told his family that he saw Amitabha Buddha coming to receive him and that he really regretted not having faith in the Buddha earlier. My cousin’s amazing resonance with Amitabha Buddha touched me deeply. I decided that I should also take refuge in the Pure Land school. With the kind assistance of a Dharma friend, Householder Jingmiao, I took refuge with Master Huijing and my Dharma name is Jingchou, meaning the practice of the Pure Land tradition and Amitabha’s deliverance are my companion. It is truly wonderful!

Religions generally encourage people to cultivate virtues and avoid evil deeds. Invariably they exhort us to have faith in their gods whom their followers would depend on as the pillars of their lives. I was also led by such a faith for half of my life. The trouble was, no matter how eager I wanted to be upright, my life just kept being dragged down into the pit by some karmic forces beyond my control. Most of the time, I wasn’t even aware that it was my ignorance that was the culprit. When I was in great anguish, I implored God to come to my relief. But it was in vain. I will never forget the sense of helplessness that tormented me in my darkest moments when my cry and desperate pleas were not heard by a single soul. I now realize that no god can end my suffering and bring me happiness. Our lives in this world are filled with more afflictions than joy. It is terribly hard to bear these even though our lives are fleeting. Imagine what suffering we have to endure in the endless cycles of life and death. Oh how dreadful had we not come across Amitabha Buddha and his great Fundamental Vow to save us defiled ordinary beings!

As I am writing this, my heart nearly jumps out knowing that after I have left this troubled and pain-stricken world I will never return to it to suffer. And what is more, after I have become a Buddha in the Pure Land, I can deliver others. Since my life is nearing its end and my lotus in the Land of Bliss awaits me, I can let go of all worldly cares and just go along with the flow of things. I am so grateful to Amitabha Buddha. I can't praise him enough! Now that I have great faith in Amitabha’s deliverance, I will definitely share this belief with others. This will be my mission for the rest of my life.

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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