Words of Exhortation Concerning Nianfo
1. As Master Yinguang said, gaining rebirth in the Land of Bliss is easier than being born as a human being again in the next life. Why? Rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss is assured, without conditions, for anyone who recites Amitabha’'s name. However, to return as a human being in the next life, one must accumulate sufficient merits from practicing the Five Precepts, which is extremely difficult. Therefore, it is much easier to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss and become a Buddha than to be reincarnated as a celestial or a human being.
2. Two things may happen to an Amitabha-reciter if he loses faith in his practice. He may be troubled and get anxious, or he may give up on the Pure Land path and practice a different Dharma path instead. If he does that, he would then really let down Amitabha Buddha. The Buddha reflected deeply on his forty eight vows over five kalpas and, over inconceivable, countless eons, he cultivated and accumulated the incalculable virtuous practices of the Bodhisattvas, all for us iniquitous beings in the ten directions. If an Amitabha-reciter were to practice a different Dharma path, wouldn’t he let Amitabha’s compassion, aspiration and cultivation all go to waste?
3. The modern Buddhist scholar Ouyang Jingwu was an established master in Buddhism, specializing in the field of Yogacara Buddhism. He was considered the top Buddhist scholar in the northern part of China. However, he suffered greatly when he was dying. Revealing his feelings to the people around him, he said, "Alas! I am not even as smart as a country bumpkin who recites Amitabha’s name. What I have learned all my life does not help me to face death.”
4. The great Song Dynasty scholar and poet Su Dong-po was a Buddhist. How did he feel on his deathbed? He was scared and anxious. Someone asked him if Pure Land existed, and did he aspire to be reborn to the Pure Land. He replied, "Yes, there is a Pure Land, but I have no idea how to get there.” The great scholar, hands on heart, believed Pure Land did exist but he was ignorant of the path to it. Su had never cared much about the Pure Land path, caring only about the Chan practice (Zen). At the end of one’s life, the indicator to show if one’s life-long practice can really bring peace and liberation from samsara is one’s feelings at that moment. Su Dong-po showed us that he could not feel peace when dying. In this regard, he was surpassed by any illiterate simple-minded person who has practiced nianfo all his life. Such a person is able to gain rebirth in the Land of Bliss, feeling comforted and peaceful. He can even predict the timing of his end.
5. Amitabha-recitation is an extremely easy and simple Dharma path. One should not complicate it by adding other practices or seek ways that are supposedly very deep, esoteric, difficult, clever or unusual, just trying to be different. Otherwise, we will end up getting lost, like a sheep that has gone astray. We will be easily deceived and get stuck in samsara, unable to be reborn in the Pure Land. None of the above practices or different ways is requisite for rebirth in that Land.
6. A person who can predict his own death is someone who - “knows his time is up when he is near death; his body is free of pains from illness, he has nothing to crave for, his mind is clear, not confused at all, just like someone in a deep meditative state.” This is a person who recites the name of Amituofo often, whether he’s busy or idle. He is focused and mindful in his recitations, with very few distracting thoughts. He is able to have “pure thoughts in succession” while reciting Namo Amituofo. Such a person can often predict the time for his rebirth.
7. Although a positive response from Buddhist practice is a phenomenon of cause and effect, Buddhism does not advocate it as a goal. A positive response serves to enhance our faith in what the Buddha says, believing that when we recite the name of Amituofo we will be reborn in the Land of Bliss. If our aim is simply to experience a positive response from the practice, and only believe the Buddha if there are auspicious resonances, we will easily become obsessive and get carried away. Without understanding the Buddhist principles, we cannot tell what is right or wrong, and will be misled by non-Buddhist indoctrination. It will work against what we strive for. Therefore, do not be fixated with achieving resonance, and do not seek it blindly.
8. Some Pure Land practitioners strive to develop “deep faith [in the Buddha’s salvation] through recitation by relying on self-power” but to no avail, so they give up the practice of Amitabha-recitation, obsessively pursuing that state of faith. However, life is impermanent. If you were to die now, you would be forever transmigrated in samsara. We should know that faith is already there when we recite the name of the Buddha. One thing we should be wary of is the misconception that practicing Amitabha-recitation alone is not enough for our salvation. We would end up abandoning the Pure Land path and practicing some other Dharma paths instead.
9. There is an inner chatter that constantly goes on in everyone’s mind. When we are reciting Amituofo’s name, the Buddha’s light emits from us. At other times, our mental chatter gives off a dim gray light.
10. According to Master Honen, nothing is more important than practicing Amitabha-recitation. We should abandon all things that hinder Nembutsu (nianfo), and practice all things that help it. This is the criterion Amitabha-reciters should adopt when dealing with worldly affairs.
11. As the saying goes, "What you think is manifested in what you do.” What’s in your mind shows up in your actions and words. Similarly, a person who totally believes in and relies on Amitabha Buddha, and wishes to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, naturally does not care much about things in the Saha World. He would even be totally nonchalant about them. On the other hand, he would take the issue of rebirth in the Land of Bliss very seriously. He considers it a very important matter, even treating it as his entire life. Everything he does is for that purpose.
12. If one truly wishes to be reborn, and recites Namo Amituofo exclusively and resolutely, his lotus flower in vibrant color will appear in the Western Land of Bliss. "To truly wish to be reborn" means to aspire from the heart to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha, not just paying lip service to this. If you aspire to go to the Pure Land but, when you are dying, your spouse can’t let go of you and you say, "Amitabha, I don't want to go. If I go with you, what will my partner do?" That is not a true aspiration for rebirth.
13. The Pure Land path is a Dharma which is difficult to believe. If one can’t appreciate the benefits of reciting the Buddha's name, one’s words regarding this path won’t convey its complete meaning, and will easily get misunderstood.
14. The Dharma of Amitabha-recitation should not be presented in a way that is too complicated, deep, mysterious, or difficult. Nor should it be given new meaning just to be different or baffling. Present it in a plain, simple, friendly and natural way so that even illiterate and unsophisticated old folks can understand and practice it. Otherwise, it is better not to talk about it, so as not to violate the Buddha's intention and mislead sentient beings.
15. To recite Amitabha’s name is the principal karma of assured rebirth to the Pure Land of the Buddha, and all other practices are supportive karma or just miscellaneous practices which do not help rebirth. Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will come, uninvited, to meet those who aspire to go to the Pure Land at their deathbed, and to "bless them with compassion, so that their minds will not be disturbed." The mind of an ordinary person is like an ape, with not a moment of stillness or steadiness. However, the faith arising from Amitabha-recitation is unwavering, just as "the moon’s reflection does not get washed away by the torrent of the river, the Buddha dwells in our ape-minds always." If you want to teach others the Pure Land path which you are practicing, you can study scriptures relating to the Pure Land path according to your ability. Countless other irrelevant Buddhist writings should not concern us. After rebirth in the Land of Bliss, we will gain supernatural powers and understand the innumerable Dharmas spontaneously. Even if we know by heart thousands of quotes from the Buddhist scriptures, none of them will be of help to us when we are at the end of our life. At that moment, Amitabha Buddha is our only hope.
16. Stuck in countless old habits which die hard, ordinary beings have strong attachment to worldly desires but only a weak resolve to recite the name of the Buddha. Therefore, we must be vigilant and exercise self-discipline. When we are sleeping or busy at work, it’s alright to put aside Amitabha-recitation for the time being, but we should pick it up again at other times. If your voice is gone, you can recite the Buddha's name in your heart and think about the Buddha's compassion.
17. Generally speaking, it is not easy for beginners in Buddhism to accept the pristine Pure Land path at once. They believe that the Buddha’s teachings are broad and profound and they can't help but dabble in them. After exploring extensively, they will gradually discover their limitations and what they want. Only then will they practice the Pure Land path exclusively. There are also those who have studied Buddhism for a long time, seen a lot, heard a lot, learned a lot, visited many Dharma centers, and finally encountered this path. By then, they are reluctant to give up all the things they have learned before, thinking that “I managed to memorize the Diamond Sutra, Shurangama Mantra and Great Compassion Mantra, and I recite them several times a day, but now if I have to put them all down and just recite the name of one Buddha, what a waste that would be! The fact is, one must let go of all these things before gaining great benefits. [You can’t fill a cup with a different beverage without emptying it first.]
18. Practitioners of the Pure Land path should not seek anything fancy, clever or mystifying just to be different. They should just recite the name of the Buddha in an ordinary, plain, steady and down to earth manner. Practice Amitabha-recitation with single-mindedness, peacefully, calmly and scrupulously. Be a relaxed and worry-free Pure Land practitioner who recites Namo Amituofo while walking, standing, sitting and lying down. In other words, recite regardless of what circumstances you are in. In happy times, one recites, in troubled times, one also recites. In short, always recite the name of Amitabha Buddha single-mindedly.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)
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