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  A Reply to a Tiantai Practitioner


Q: A Tiantai Buddhist asked of Master Honen:

       There are many pathways in Buddhism, not just one that leads to the emancipation of samsara. The Lotus Sutra of Sages-schools has several enlightening statements such as, “After a single hearing, one will instantly achieve Buddhahood,” or, “Enlightenment may be attained as easily as flipping one’s hand.” Even we put aside these illuminating opportunities, by the teachings and rules of the sect, it clearly defines the stages of advancement and orders to progress. For instance, from the stage of Tenth-Faithful to the stage of no-arising no-annihilating,[1] the Bodhisattva must cultivate for ten thousand kalpas. Now, the school of Pure Land Buddhism (PLB) tells us that iniquitous beings, who have committed the five abominable offenses and the ten wickedest transgressions, utter the name of Amitabha Buddha ten times, even once will be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, enjoying all the benefits of the Reward-land, and immediately attain the 8th Ground stage of Bodhisattva. This is astounding and highly unlikely. How can the six-character name[2] possess such an incredible power surpassing all other Dharma pathways?

       Comments by Master Jingzong:

       The questioner was a Tiantai practitioner, who based on The Lotus Sutra, doubted the validity of the claim by PLB that nianfo[3] surpasses all other Buddhist pathways. It should be understood that the statement in the sutra, “After a single hearing, one will instantly achieve Buddhahood,” refers to those with exceptional roots and dispositions of sudden epiphany after long-period cultivation of the way of Bodhisattva. And the next statement, “Enlightenment may be attained as easily as flipping one’s hand,” is not applicable to the general practitioners. We are not the kind of “roots and dispositions of sudden epiphany.”

      According to The Lotus Sutra, when a practitioner achieves awakening, it is only the beginning to cultivate merits; for without first being awakened, practicing is a vain and blinded effort. The orders and the steps of progress are specified, and the first step is to achieve the Ten Faithful of Bodhisattva, the so-called “Outer Mortals.” After the Tenth Faithful, the practitioner has only crossed the threshold onto the way to enlightenment, which will take him ten thousand kalpas to the stage of no-arising no-annihilating. So, at what stage are we mortals now? Nothing. We are just iniquitous mortals, entrapped in the karmic ocean of transmigration, having no chance to be free from samsara.

       The pathway, as explained in the Lotus Sutra, is indeed extraordinary, but it will still take the Bodhisattva of the Tenth Faithful a very, very long time to progress to the stages of Ground. In comparison, the Pure Land pathway is obviously superior to that of The Lotus Sutra. Because here, the reciters are no longtime cultivators but “nefarious mortals who have committed the five abominable offenses and the ten wickedest transgressions.” All they do is following the teaching of a learned Buddhist teacher. And it is simple. All we have to do is chanting Namo Amituofo, one time, ten times… every day. Upon death, we will be reborn in the Buddha’s Reward-land, immediately achieving enlightenment and the stages of no-arising no-annihilating.

       The reason for it is truly difficult to comprehend because the power of the six-character-name is beyond anyone’s comprehension. It requires no longtime cultivations, no Ten Faithful. Even the worst kind, the extremely evil beings, as long as they recite the Buddha’s name once or ten times, they are instantly reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. How can one make the comparison of nianfo to any other pathway? Simply incomparable.

       On the one hand, there is no way to imagine or compare the virtue and merit of a Bodhisattva of Ten Faithful to that of a mortal, not any mortal but the one who has committed the five abominable offenses and the ten wickedest transgressions. Their difference is not merely by ten thousand kalpas or a million kalpas. On the other hand, the difference in their achievements cannot be accounted for by ten-thousand, or a million, or a trillionfold. Taking all aspects into consideration, nianfo is an surpassing and extraordinary pathway.

A: Answers from Master Honen:

       In his causal-land, Bhikkhu Dharmakara (Amitabha Buddha) cultivates the Way of Bodhisattva for uncountable and immeasurable kalpas. He channels in his six-character name all the cultivated merits and virtues, including those practiced by Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. That is the reason the name is the supreme and unsurpassed Dharma pathway. So comments Master Genshin (Yuanxin 942~1017) of Japan: “The Buddha dedicates to sentient beings his name that contains the foremost and infinite merits as the results of his endless practice of Pāramitās Bodhisattva in his causal lands. The name thus embraces altruism as well as self-benefit, the principal, and accompanying rewards. With the name, he attains perfect enlightenment; with the name, he delivers sentient beings. The name encompasses all the Dharma pathways, uncountable as the sands of the Gange. And the name also encompasses all the merits of Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. That is the reason the merits of the name is supreme and foremost, limitless and boundless.”

       [Ven. Jingzong] The above paragraph explains the merits of the Buddha-name being all-encompassing and all-inclusive, that of Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the ten directions of the past, the present, and the future, and that of Dharma-pathways and Samadhi Dharani, from mortals to Buddhas. Hence, it is called “the name of ten thousand merits,” “the supreme and unrivaled Dharma,” praised by all virtuous masters, from ancient times to the present: “Liberation by virtue of the six-character, traversing across the three Asamkhyeya.[4]

Master Honen continues:

Of the forty-eight vows proclaimed by Bhikkhu Dharmakara, the primal vow says:

I vow that if, when I attain buddhahood, I shall come with bodhisattvas to receive sentient beings who recite my name and aspire rebirth into my land. Should this vow is not fulfilled, may I fall into hells with the beings and never attain buddhahood.

       Since he is Buddha now, he has met all his pledges. Consequently, anyone, even the worst evil one, who pronounces his name, will obtain the Buddha’s merits and induce his presence to escort him to his land. And in the Buddha reward-land, he will instantly achieve enlightenment. That is the reason why the power of Amitabha Buddha’s primal vow is so incomprehensible and inconceivable.

       [Ven. Jingzong] The PLB Dharma-path is truly beyond the grasp of mortals’ reasoning, or the notion of Self-effort according to the Sages-way. There are several statements in the Pure Land sutras praising such an extraordinary pathway: “Not Arhats, not Bodhisattvas, but only Buddhas can comprehend.” Or: “Sravakas or Bodhisattvas cannot perceive the Buddha’s mind, just like a blind man cannot be an enlightener.” When facing the complete and perfect compassion and wisdom of the Buddhas of all directions and ages, ordinary people should give up all their worries, concerns, and misgivings to establish the faith and desire for rebirth. How else can we figure out something only Buddhas can? So, let’s focus on nianfo, for it is the only way all ordinary mortals can be reborn in that Pure Land and attain perfect enlightenment to become Buddhas.

       Master Tanluan (476-542), the second Patriarch of PLB once said: “Extraordinary words are not meant for ordinary ears.” It is not surprising that the extraordinary pathway of nianfo is not comprehensible for ordinary people. How can they believe that rebirth is achieved by the nefarious beings who simply recite the Buddha-name one time, ten times? Not only are they reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, but also, they would soon be Buddhas! To their ear, it sounds preposterous, utterly impossible.

       Master Ouyi (1599-1655), the eleventh Patriarch, said too that even Bodhisattvas of Equal Enlightenment, with their superior power and wisdom, cannot fully comprehend the brilliance and supremeness of the primal vows of Amitabha Buddha. That is why nianfo is called the “hard-to-believe” Dharma. Indeed, it too unbelievable to believe.

       How then can we explain that there are still people who actually believe the hard-to-believe nianfo pathway? Is it because of our super wisdom? Or, our relentless cultivations? Neither, of course. There is only one way to explain with one word, yuan,[5] the karmic relationship. When our yuan is mature, faith arises through nianfo; when it is not, faith cannot develop, no matter how one tries.

       The factor of yuan is particularly important in Pure Land Buddhism. According to Master Shandao, the Fourth Patriarch of PLB, there are five kinds of benefits and three sorts of karmic yuan of the reciter with the Buddha: the intimate, close, and augmentative yuan. He also said that by the power of the Buddha’s vows as the affinitive yuan, all five vehicles[6] may be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.”

       If you ask an ordinary old lady: “How come you believe that nianfo ensures rebirth?” She might find it strange that you would not believe it, and ask you, “Buddha says so, why don’t you believe it?” It seems a hopeless situation to argue with such an obstinate woman. And if you press her further, she might not be able to explain and reply instead: “I don’t know why. I just believe in Amitabha Buddha.” It is kind of synchronic yuan—I just believe it.

       The same may be said of those who hold incorrect views. We tend to believe that people who have high education and scholarship, even well-respected professors, can be fooled into believing a false prophet. Everyone can see he is a swindler. Nevertheless, there are faithful followers of the charlatan. It is their yuan conduced by past karmic inter-relationship. As they meet in this life, they are connected to form a cult.

       That is why Bhikkhu Shandao said: “The practice that I love is the one with which I have the yuan, not the one you seek. The practice you love is the one with which you have the yuan, not the one I seek. For this reason, if each of us carries out the practice that accords with his or her own love and desire, we all shall attain emancipation most assuredly and quickly.” Furthermore, “If one chooses to practice, one should rely on his/her own yuan to choose the Dharma-path that gains the greatest benefit with the least amount of effort.”

       Different Buddhists practice different Dharma-paths, which is fine as they correct views. People whom he respects and cherishes because they share the karmic yuan. Those he does not respect they do not have the yuan. All due to their preceding causes, affinities, and roots opportune. Of course, there are also the differences in yuan and binding forces: strong or weak, deep or shallow, great or small, superior or inferior.

       If we select a practice relying on our own choosing, that kind of yuan is dependent on and limited by the circumstances, called “conditional yuan,” and the practice “assorted and manifold.” On the other hand, nianfo imbibes and builds a deep yin-yuan with the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha. Because it is the merits of Buddha’s vows cultivated in casual lands over innumerable and immeasurable eons. It wasn’t until ten kalpas ago that he fulfilled his promises. He has since been embracing us, protecting and fostering us, along with all Buddhas and Mahabodhisattvas of the ten directions, and the yin-yuan through uncountable kalpas with our master Buddha Sakyamuni.

       On the surface, it seems we just chant Namo Amituo Fo. Underneath it, is an enormous and inconceivable project, involving the efforts of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Only then can rebirth by nianfo become a reality. It is said that the yuan with the Buddha encompasses all merits in heavens and earth.

       Once we understand it, we will honestly and conscientiously bent on reciting the name of Namo Amituo Fo, experiencing real comfort and satisfaction. At the same time, we will make an effort to help others to establish the Dharma-yuan with the six-character name. If they cannot accept nianfo, we will understand that their yuan is not ready to act. All the same, we should feel fortunate that we do.

       We will now conclude this discussion here.

       Thank you all.

       Namo Amituo Fo.

(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team)


[1] There are 51 stages of bodhisattva, ordered by the Ten Faithful, the Ten Abodes, the Ten Practices, the Ten Dedications, and the Ten Grounds. From the First Abode onwards are called Dharmakaya Bodhisattvas, who begin to realize their Dharma-Body. The stage of no-arising no-annihilating is about the 7th or 8th Ground. The 51st is Equal Enlightenment, which is only one birth away from attaining Buddhahood.

[2] In Chinese pinyin, the six characters are Na-mo A-mi-tuo Fo.

[3] In Chinese pinyin, nian means to recite vocally and/or mentally, Fo is the Buddha. Nianfo means Buddha-recitation and Buddha-remembrance.

[4] Asamkhyeya is an ancient Indian measurement; one estimate gives 1065 earth years. According to the Sages-way, it takes three asamkhyeya kalpas to cultivate merits and wisdom to achieve perfect enlightenment. Kalpa in Sanskrit means a period between the creation and recreation of a world, estimated to be 4.32 billion earth years.

[5] Yuan (緣) in Chinese pinyin means the predestined conditions or relationships, or as “a co-operating cause, the concurrent occasion of an event as distinguished from its proximate cause (Max Müller).” For instance, yin (因) being the cause is the seed, yuan the soil, rain, sunshine, etc. With proper yuan, it leads the seed to fruition, which is the consequence or guo (果), and the reward/retribution is bao (報). Yin-yuan-guo-bao, the law of causality, is a basic concept in Buddhism.

[6] The five vehicles refer to the five groups of sentient beings: Bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, sravakas, heavenly beings and humans.

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Master Huijing

Master Huijing

Master Jingzong

Master Jingzong

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