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 Master Shandao Speaks of the Sole Purpose for which the Buddha Appeared in the World

 II Master Shandao taught that the sole purpose for which Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world was to expound the truth of rebirth (in the Pure Land) through Nianfo.[1]

The Praise of Dharma Practice reads,

The Tathagata incarnates himself in the age of five turbidities;[2]

for the sole purpose of rescuing sentient beings with his perfectly relevant and expedient teachings.

Sentient beings may be liberated by hearing many of his discourses, or

by hearing few but concentrating on attaining the Three Insights, or

by cultivating wisdom and merits to eradicate the two karmic barriers, or

by engaging in Chan meditation and contemplation.

All these practices will lead to emancipation;

None are comparable to Nianfo and rebirth in the Western Pure Land.

Recite the Buddha-name for a lifetime, or as little as ten times.

Even three or five times, and upon your death, the Buddha will come to receive you.

It is because of his great vows that

Those who recite his name will be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

       As we have just said, during the Dharma-Ending Age, the doors to the Sagely path are closed, leaving open only the Pureland Path, which will never shut. We now turn to another matter. Since Shakyamuni Buddha has expounded Pure Land Buddhism as well as various Sagely ways, the question arises as to which Dharma path best embodies his fundamental intent. That is what we seek to prove.

        Master Shandao believed that the Buddha’s fundamental intent is universal deliverance through Nianfo.

        The Praise of Dharma Practices is a work by Master Shandao. Let us study each passage in detail.

     “The Tathagata incarnates himself in the age of five turbidities.” It denotes that Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in the world during the periods of five turbidities.

       “(To) rescue sentient beings with his perfectly relevant and expedient teachings”

       The Buddha chooses the teachings that are most fitting and advantageous with respect to the audience, the place, the time, and the need.

      “(To) be liberated by hearing many of his discourses.” Some of the disciples favored hearing many of the Buddha’s lectures. Nowadays, a lot of Buddhists also prefer listening to various Dharma lectures and seeking all sorts of information, and they become well-versed. The best-known hearer among the disciples was the revered Ananda, who, we would say, was well-learned, and possessed profound knowledge. To such disciples, the Buddha teaches in accordance with their different capacities to help each one broaden his knowledge and achieve liberation.

     “Or, by hearing few but concentrating on attaining the Three Insights.” The capacity of these Buddhists is different from the hearers. They cannot comprehend many of the Buddha’s teachings; they rather concentrate on accomplishing the Three Insights and Arhathood. The Three Insights are the supernatural insight into previous lives, the supernatural insight into the future, and the nirvana insight into the present to overcome all afflictions. Arhats possess all these insights.

       “Or, by cultivating wisdom and merits to eradicate the two karmic barriers.” Many Buddhists prefer cultivating merits and transcendent wisdom, especially the merits, like the alms-giving to the Three Jewels,[3] disaster relief, and poverty alleviation. All of these are karmic habits. Even the “hearing-many,” the “hearing-few,” and “practicing of Chan-meditation,” in the end, are karmic habits. The two karmic barriers in the above verse denote the barriers that are caused by a lack of wisdom and merits and can be eliminated through cultivating transcendent wisdom and merits.

     “Or, by engaging in Chan meditation and contemplation.” To those who prefer practicing Maha-Zhiguan, the Buddha teaches them the One-Mind Three-Visualization meditation, and the Three-Fold Truth[4] to achieve Samadhi.[5]

       The four kinds of practice, “hearing-many, hearing-few, wisdom and merits, and Chan meditation,” are selected from the countless Buddha teachings. The Buddha always teaches in accordance with the individual’s roots and capacities, follows the will of sentient beings, and never teaches things contrary to their interests.

        Of course, there are times when the Buddha expounds on what he intends to say. In The Sutra of Amitabha, the Buddha does not wait for questions; he begins, “In the far west, passing a billion buddha-lands, there is a land called Ultimate Bliss. In that land, there is a Buddha whose name is Amitabha, who even now is preaching the Dharma.” That is the fundamental intent of the Buddha.

       What does “to expound on what he intends” mean? It is, while

All these practices will lead to emancipation;

None are comparable to Nianfo and rebirth in the Western Pure Land.

       If you possess superior roots and practice any of those Dharma-paths hard and long enough, you will achieve liberation. However, none surpasses the way of Nianfo and rebirth in the Western Pureland. 

       Why does Nianfo surpass all other Dharma paths?

       Firstly, it is easy. All you need to do is to recite “the Buddha-name for a lifetime or as little as ten times. Even three or five times, and upon your deathbed, the Buddha will come to receive you.” As simple as reciting the Buddha’s name three or five times, and you will be liberated. How much simpler can it be?

       Secondly, the Other-Power. It is easy “because of his great vows.” It is due entirely to the power of the Buddha’s vows—the Other-Power. Therefore, no other Dharma paths may match the power of Nianfo.

        Thirdly, mortals attain buddhahood. “So that all mortals who recite his name, will be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.” In our last lecture, we discussed the Sagely Path. To be liberated through that path, one must possess exceptionally good roots and capabilities. But for ordinary mortals, they must practice various ways to achieve sagehood first; only then may they begin the path to buddhahood.

       Of course, the above three reasons are interrelated. Basically, it is the Other-Power that enables mortals to attain buddhahood. That is why it is so easy.

      Such an easy and simple path to buddhahood that relies entirely on Amitabha Buddha’s power represents the fundamental intent of the Buddha by guaranteeing liberation for all.

       Let’s think about it. What kind of people are more common in the Saha world, sages or mortals? Mortals, undoubtedly. Are we sages? No. So, if the fundamental intent of Shakyamuni Buddha to come to this world was to preach the Sagely Path, how would we feel? Disappointed and hopeless, of course. Therefore, the Buddha’s intent must be to expound a Dharma-path that accommodates everyone. If not, it would not be in harmony with his fundamental intent to liberate all beings

       Because of that, Shakyamuni Buddha, in his forty-some years of discourse, often speaks of Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Ultimate Bliss. It happens, for instance, in the Lotus Sutra that the Buddha tells a story about a woman who, by reciting the Buddha’s name, was reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss; in the Sutra of (Medicine) Buddha, he says that whoever recites the name of Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, upon death, eight Mahasattva Bodhisattvas will come to escort him to the Land of Ultimate Bliss; in the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha speaks of Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta’s perfect enlightenment through Buddha recitation. In the Great Tripitaka, over two hundred of the more than six hundred volumes, speak of Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Ultimate Bliss. The Infinite Life Sutra states the purpose of the Buddha to appear in the world is to rescue the sentient beings and “to endow them with the true and real benefit,” which is Nianfo and rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Isn’t that proof enough that the Buddha’s fundamental intent is to promote the Dharma-path of Buddha Recitation and Buddha Remembrance? 

       Nevertheless, sentient beings are born with narcissistic, capricious and obstinate tendencies. Their natural belief is that they know better than others and so must do things their own way. If the Buddha teaches Nianfo first, they might not be receptive to relying entirely on the Other-Power. So, he chooses the expedient means in accordance with their roots and capacities such as “hearing-many” or “hearing-few but concentrating on the Three-Insights.”

      When I was in elementary school, one day, my uncle came to see my father to borrow money. He began with casual talk. After a while, he asked about the family business of selling vegetables, the children and their school work, etc. Finally, with embarrassment, he asked for a loan because he had just bought a house and was now penniless—the so-called “unfolding the map, exposing the knife.”[6] All the small talk served as a segue into the real motive. Otherwise, it would be rude and offensive to proper moral sensibility.

       When the Buddha speaks of Pure Land Buddhism, he takes a similar approach. Like Taiji, he begins with the teaching that depends entirely on Self-Efforts, gradually shifts it to partial Self-Efforts and partial Other-Power, and finally to Other-Power. The Buddha has to teach progressively in keeping with the middling-to-meagre capacities of sentient beings.

       Let me read some passages of Master Yinguang’s instructions:

If relying on Self-Power, one cannot expect to be free of the three-domains until severing all afflictions, including vexations, delusive views, and delusive thoughts.

If relying on Other-Power, with faith and aspiration, one will be reborn at the highest of the nine lotus grades in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Nowadays, it is the only way to emancipation; there is no other way.

       The key is the last sentence. Master Yinguang is telling us that liberation from the cycle of birth and death can be achieved only through Pure Land Buddhism, and that means Nianfo.

       Some might find his words “too absolute to allow any leeway.” Really? But this is the harsh reality. Why do we say that? Some time ago, our Editorial office published a book, “By Way of Chan without Pure Land, Nine out of Ten Practitioners Are Lost,” in which a number of such cases are recounted. Several of them in previous lives were great monks but did not achieve liberation. Because of their cultivated merits, they were reborn as either highly respected imperial court ministers, or great scholars, and enjoyed rich lives. Yet, their lives degenerated after each rebirth in the mundane world; some even stopped cultivating merits. These cases illustrate the true and uncontestable facts. On the other hand, “By Way of Pure Land Buddhism without Chan,” everyone will be liberated and born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. All one needs to do is faithful Nianfo. It is so simple and easy that everyone can and should nianfo.

       The above is the first passage we quoted from Master Yinguang. Let’s now take a look at the second passage.

All of the 84.000 Dharma doors enumerated by the Buddha, while differing in scope, in skillful expedience, or in practicability, all his teachings are to guide the sentient beings to sever their delusions, to be enlightened, and to attain buddhahood. Since people’s roots and capabilities greatly differ in quality, the Buddha thus shows them a variety of Dharma-paths accordingly.

        This is in agreement with Master Shandao’s admonition to  “conform to the occasion and need.”

Yet, the sentient beings, after countless rebirths in samsara, are pervaded by erroneous views and delusive thoughts. Unless their good karmic roots are ready to bear fruit, it is impossible for them to cultivate the merits and virtues leading to emancipation by their own efforts. Indeed, none can. Of those who pursue this self-powered  path, a thousand out of a thousand will fail; fewer than three or four out of hundreds of millions might succeed. The consequence of failure is endless rounds of rebirth in samsara.

       The great majority of these practitioners regress generation after generation — none progress.

Relying on one’s own effort to achieve enlightenment in the three studies of precepts, samadhi (meditative absorption), and transcendent wisdom is very difficult, and it opposes the Buddha’s  intent to deliver all sentient beings universally. Still, the Buddha’s great compassion would empower each and every sentient being to be free of samsara and attain buddhahood. He thus initiated the Pure Land path of rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss through faith, aspiration, and Nianfo; which is a path driven by the vow-power of the compassionate Buddha, allowing everyone, no matter how elevated or inferior one’s roots and capabilities may be, to attain liberation in this lifetime.

       This clearly agrees with the fundamental intent of the Buddha as expounded by Master Shandao.

       Here is the third passage:

In today’s Dharma-Ending Age, people, especially educated persons, are opinionated and bigoted, thinking they are always right. These people, scorning the simplicity of the Pure Land path, are presumptuous and arrogant. Even if they possessed the good roots necessary to attain enlightenment through Chan meditation and realize the Buddha’s wisdom, they would still remain as mortals, not sages (as these individuals have not yet eradicated affiliations and delusions).

       As I have said before, enlightenment and attainment are not the same things. Coveting enlightenment without accomplishing sagehood one remains a mortal; it is only the first step on a long cultivation path to sagehood and Buddhahood.

       Here is another passage of Master Yinguang.

Take a look at The Avatamsaka Sutra, King of Tripitaka. Its final chapter declares that all Mahasattva Bodhisattvas vow “A Return to the King of Vows” – Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Ultimate Bliss. The Lotus Sutra, profound and abstruse, the crown of all sutras, speaks of “Rebirth by Hearing, Achieving Equal Enlightenment,” which is one birth away from Buddhahood. It is proof enough that hundreds of sutras and thousands of discourses point the way to the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

       The final chapter of The Avatamsaka Sutra also addresses the Land of Ultimate Bliss in the section of “On Entering into the Inconceivable Land of Ultimate Bliss by the Practice and Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.”

Bodhisattva Manjusri aspires, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra urges; they both vow a rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. The Tathagata states in the Mahāsamghāta Sutra that in the Dharma-Ending Age, it is the only way to emancipation.

       Which is the same passage quoted by Master Daochuo.

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, in his Dasabhumivibhasa Sutra, advises us that the Easy-Path is the quickest way to liberation from samsara. Naturally, it was cherished by the sages and wise men of old. The entire corpus of the Buddha’s teaching finds its most complete expression in the path of Nianfo.

 

(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Jingxin)

 

 

[1] Nianfo in Chinese pinyin: nian means to recite vocally or mentally, Fo means Buddha. Nianfo means Buddha recitation and Buddha remembrance. Here, it is to recite vocally.

[2] Five Turbidities. The five kalpas (kaşāaya periods) of turbidity are: the kalpa of abode, the kalpa in decay, the kalpa of deteriorating view and egotism, the kalpa of passion and delusion, the kalpa of increasing human misery, and the kalpa of diminishing human lifespan. The 2nd and the 3rd are about the turbidity itself, and the 4th and 5th its results.  

[3] The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

[4] The Three Visualizations are the visualization of the emptiness (truth), the visualization of the mundane realness, and the visualization of the Middle-Way. The Three-Fold Truth refers to the Emptiness, the Conditional Existence, and the Middle Way. which comprises the teaching of Tiantai School. Maha Zhiguan means the Great Calming and Contemplation.

[5] Samadhi is a meditative state of absorption or trance; it is a Buddhist concept of equanimity and pure mental state cultivated on the Buddhist path to nirvana.

[6] A Chinese proverb based on a story about an assassin who attempted on the life of Emperor Qing. He offered him a map of Yan which would help the emperor to conquer. The emperor was pleased. As the assassin was unfolding the map, a knife was shown, so goes the saying. It means: When things have developed to the end, the true object is revealed.

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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