A Discourse by Dharma Master Huijing
Pure Land Buddhism Amitabha-Recitation Society, December 23 and 27, 2015
English translation by Foqing
Dear Dharma masters and fellow practitioners: Namo Amitabha Buddha! (Three times)
There are many religions in the world, both large and small. Buddhism, Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) and Islam are among the biggest.
We are Buddhists. What’s the definition of “Buddhism”? We may explain it from three perspectives:
First, Buddhism refers to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. These include the principles and practices he expounded during his lifetime.
Second, “Buddha” means “awakened.” It refers to the truth about life and the universe. Buddhism comprises the teachings of enlightenment and truth.
Third, Buddhism is instruction on the attainment of Buddhahood. The ultimate goal of a religion is neither knowledge nor philosophy but the realization of its teachings by practitioners. We recite Amitabha Buddha’s name in order to become Buddhas, and to gain Buddhahood we have to recite the name. That’s to say: “Gaining Buddhahood through Amitabha-recitation is the teaching of the Buddhas,” or Buddhism.
As mentioned above, “Buddha” refers to the truth about life and the universe, and “awakening”means enlightenment. But both these are vague concepts to us. What does enlightenment imply? What is its spiritual state? What’s embodied in the truth about life and the universe? What’s its level? These issues need to be better understood.
I will now explain them under today’s topic, “On Love.”
What is “truth”? We can define it with one popular word. Which one? “Love.” Human nature contains both love and hatred. When we promote love it multiplies continually, bringing harmony to our relationships and peace to the world. If we encourage hatred it grows manifold, triggering endless conflict and throwing the planet into disorder.
Which human beings wouldn’t wish for a peaceful world? Who would welcome global turmoil? All beings in the Virtuous Realms esteem love. Only those in the Wretched Realms foment hatred.
“What is ‘truth’? We can define it with one popular word. Which one? ‘Love’ ”: “Without a teacher,” goes a saying, “even the wisest cannot understand the Dharma.” We can only comprehend awakening and the truth if an accomplished teacher explains them. As the year draws to a close, organizations often choose a Chinese character to sum up the political, economic or social developments of the past 12 months. If we were similarly to select a popular, intelligible word to paraphrase “Buddha,” enlightenment and the truth, which one would it be? It should be “love.”
“Buddha” is a Sanskrit word. Its Chinese equivalent is jue, meaning “awakening.” Its essence is emptiness and compassion, which constitute the truth of life and the universe, and the root nature of every sentient being.
As for the compassion of emptiness, we can only understand it if we actually attain awakening. It’s like in the saying, “Only the enlightened can know,” or “a person who drinks naturally knows whether the water is hot or cold.” Whatever is explained or understood is merely a concept. But such a concept is essential, because we practice according to it. This is also called the “unity of understanding and action,” or the “dual functioning of eyes and feet.” “Understanding” is wisdom, and “action” is our practice. The former is like our eyes and the latter is like walking on foot. Without eyes, we cannot see the road ahead. If we tread blindly, we are doomed to fall into pits.
If we are to use “love” to explain the truth, we must of course define the boundaries of this “love.”
“Human nature contains both love and hatred”: Both emotions are present in basic human nature. In other words, Buddha-nature is inherent in all sentient beings and is full of compassion, but it’s obscured by our greed, anger, delusion, afflictions, karmic obstructions, discrimination and attachments. So it rarely emerges. Buddha-nature fosters love, while greed, anger and delusion breed hatred. That’s why human nature contains both love and hatred.
“When we promote love it multiplies continually, bringing harmony to our relationships and peace to the world”: Since love and hatred are both present, which should we promote? Love, certainly. If we have love for one another, promote and support it, and encourage and influence others to do so, love will multiply. It can eradicate violence, bring safety to people and society, and contribute to harmony and happiness in our lives. If we uphold love and foster its growth, we’ll be able to develop amiable relationships. The world will become a better place.
“If we encourage hatred it grows manifold, triggering endless conflict and throwing the planet into disorder”: If we promote it, hatred will expand, producing confrontation and conflict. It will trigger fear, anxiety and pain, and deprive us of joy. People will fight one another endlessly, and the world will be in chaos.
“Which human beings wouldn’t wish for a peaceful world? Who would welcome global turmoil?”: As humans, we all have parents, children, families and relatives. In a peaceful world, our families are safe and happy and we feel at ease. Everyone looks forward to living a stable, tranquil life in a peaceful place and time, among non-violent people. All humans and other living beings long for safety and contentment. We all want peace and shun tumult.
“All beings in the Virtuous Realms esteem love”: Benevolent entities, especially religious groups, revere love, attach importance to it and take it as fundamental -- the starting point. If our love is deeply rooted, it will naturally manifest in our thoughts, words and deeds. We will speak and behave in a calm, cheerful and modest manner. We will not inflict violence on others, nor will we confront, reprimand or reproach them. We will not abuse or kill them.
“Only those in the Wretched Realms foment hatred”: Love reigns in the Three Virtuous Realms, while hatred prevails in the Three Wretched Realms. Ill-willed entities are ready to stir trouble and generate animosity. Of course, they are not truly evil, but their biased perceptions and extreme notions drive them to repay hatred with hatred. In this way, there will never be peace. The Buddha says we cannot stop hatred with hatred; we can only nip it in bud with love. With a loving heart, forgiveness and virtuous action, we can eradicate rancor once and for all.
There are three kinds of love, and they vary in their breadth and depth: 1. compassionate love; 2. philanthropic love; and 3. benevolent love.
Love can be classified under three categories. They correspond to three religions, differing in terms of breadth and depth.
The first is compassionate love. It relates to Buddhism.
The second is philanthropic love, which is associated with Christianity -- its Protestant and Catholic varieties.
The third is benevolent love, taught by Confucianists.
1. Compassion – The love of Buddhism
Why do we interpret “compassion” as “love”? Does love represent compassion? Is compassion the truth? Is it the substance of the Buddha’s enlightenment? Yes.
The Contemplation Sutra says: “A Buddha’s mind is none other than great compassion. It embraces sentient beings with unconditional kindness.” This compassion is universal and without conditions.
This excerpt from the scripture thoroughly reveals the mind of the Buddha, the essence of his awakening, and the truth about life and the universe.
The “Buddha’s mind” is the substance of the Buddha. What the Buddha awakened to is the truth about life and the universe. “Great compassion” is the Buddha’s mind. It is not only compassion in the general sense, but great compassion. Since the Buddha’s mind is great compassion, we can understand great compassion as the truth.
What is great compassion? The sutra explains: “It embraces sentient beings with unconditional kindness.” Great compassion enfolds sentient beings in kindness without conditions. Otherwise, it isn’t great compassion. Unconditional kindness means “great unconditional kindness and universal compassion.” The notion of “kindness” in Buddhist teachings covers the meaning of “compassion.” So great kindness also implies great compassion, and vice versa. “Great unconditional kindness” and “universal compassion” are mutually inclusive. Without either, the other doesn’t exist.
“Unconditional” means irrespective of material issues, conditions, causes or closeness of relationship. It means transcending blood ties, personal relations, everything. In short, “unconditional” means equal, not attaching any condition, and not being confined by any karma. This is “great unconditional kindness.”
“Universal compassion” refers to a Buddha regarding all beings as himself. It means the mentality of “considering self and others as one and making no distinction between adversaries and intimates.” Great unconditional kindness and universal compassion are the essence of what the enlightened Buddha realized. They constitute the truth he discovered. If a person cares for others and all beings without discrimination and pure-mindedly loves others as himself without expectation of reward, his love would have the same substance as compassion. If we love others in anticipation of a payback, such love would be a conditional exchange. Neither unconditional nor equal, it wouldn’t be true love. If one party seeks something from the other, they would be separate and not a unity.
The Diamond Sutra says:
The Dharma is impartial, it does not distinguish between superior and subordinate. This is called Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (supreme, perfect enlightenment).
One who cultivates all virtuous Dharma with a mind that is free of the arbitrary notions of self, others, living beings and their continuing existence will attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
[All Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas] should thus produce a pure mind. They should produce that mind without having attachment to forms. They should produce that mind without having attachment to sounds, smells, tastes, touch or Dharma. They should produce that mind without being attached to anything.
“The Dharma is impartial”: This means that the Dharma is equal, and that compassion is equal. There is no hierarchical distinction within compassion or among its recipients. In this way, compassion leaves behind discrimination and relativity. Where there is relativity, there is differentiation between good and bad, high and low, superior and inferior, intimate and distant, this and that. But the Dharma is absolute. It’s the Dharma Realm of One Reality, the Dharma path of non-duality. Where duality is present, the Dharma is absent, as duality leads to inequality, as well as to relativity and distinctions between intimate and distant, virtuous and vicious, high and low, this and that.
“Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi” refers to supreme, perfect enlightenment. As mentioned above, “Buddha“ means “awakening.” It comprises three kinds: “enlightenment of self,” “enlightenment of others” and “perfection of enlightened practice.” The first is what an Arhat realizes. The second corresponds to the course of practice by the Bodhisattvas. The third portrays the realm of Buddhas, which surpasses those of Arhats and Bodhisattvas. That’s why it’s called “supreme, perfect enlightenment.” Only the Dharma of equality, the one free of relativity -- high and low, this and that, subject and object -- is supreme, perfect enlightenment.
The Diamond Sutra goes on: “One who cultivates all virtuous Dharma with a mind that is free of the arbitrary notions of self, others, living beings and their continuing existence will attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.” In other words, we know that Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi is enlightenment and the truth, but to realize it, we must practice. So “love” buried in our hearts or spoken through our lips does not suffice. It must be put into action. How? By cultivating “all virtuous Dharma with a mind that is free of the arbitrary notions of self, others, living beings and their continuing existence,” says the sutra. When practicing good deeds, one’s mind should be without such notions. One thus discards the distinctions between object and subject, this and that, friends and foes, and virtues and vices. The mind abides in the realm of purity and emptiness. Why? Because one has no desire and no attachment to targets, conditions or purposes. One gives unconditionally.
The Diamond Sutra further says: “[All Bodhisattvas-Mahasattvas] should thus produce a pure mind. They should produce that mind without having attachment to forms. They should produce that mind without having attachment to sounds, smells, tastes, touch or Dharma. They should produce that mind without being attached to anything.”
When we speak of the mind, thoughts come into play. In particular, the minds of ordinary beings are full of stray thoughts, deluded notions, greed, hatred, ignorance and desires. But a mind generated by compassion is free of attachments. Says the Diamond Sutra: “They should produce that mind without having attachment to forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch or Dharma. They should produce that mind without being attached to anything.” In other words, when the six sense faculties meet with the six defiling objects, the mind doesn’t cling to the latter; it doesn’t distinguish good from bad or fine from crude, or generate attachments of love or hatred. The mind produced in this non-clinging state is pure and compassionate towards all sentient beings.
Otherwise, how can anyone produce a mind unattached to anything? Of course, the thoughts that arise in such a mind all serve a sole purpose: to love, benefit and deliver all beings. This love is compassion -- that is, great unconditional kindness and universal compassion.
Therefore, to avoid confusion, the word “love” that we use to interpret the Buddha’s mind and explicate truths about the universe must be clearly distinguished from worldly “love.” Worldly love is defiled, impermanent, painful and iniquitous.
The Nirvana Sutra says:
There are two kinds of love. One is that of hungry ghosts and the other, of the Dharma.
A truly liberated person is free from the love of hungry ghosts. He has compassion for all beings, so he bears the love of the Dharma. Such love of the Dharma is true liberation.
The Nirvana Sutra explains that love has two implications.
1. “The love of hungry ghosts.” Hungry ghosts are covetous and insatiable. Or they are impoverished and unable to obtain satisfaction. Obsessed with material matters, they can never fulfill their desires. That’s why they fell into the Wretched Realm of hungry ghosts.
2. “The love of the Dharma.” What is this love? As the sutra says, a person who is free of the love of hungry ghosts can attain true liberation. The “love of the Dharma” connotes compassion for all sentient beings. A person who has such love doesn’t seek to satisfy his own senses or himself, but stands entirely in the shoes of other beings, sympathizing with them. With this love, he can achieve true liberation and attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
(1) The Love of Hungry Ghosts (Greed)
Worldly love is impermanent and vexatious.
“The love of the hungry ghosts” is worldly love, which shows no understanding of Buddhist compassion. This kind of love is transient and painful.
The Larger Sutra (Infinite Life Sutra) says:
Attachments, desires and worldly splendor cannot last long. They will all be gone, and bring no joy.
We ordinary beings in this world are driven by the five desires. We were born from them and we die because of them. We consider them the splendors of this world. But such earthly splendors have no permanence. Why is that? Because they don’t belong to us. If they really were our belongings, they would never leave us. Since they will be gone someday, they aren’t ours. They will depart because they arise from a convergence of karmic conditions. If we become obsessed with our attachments, desires and worldly splendor, we would suffer because they would leave us in the end. What we diligently pursued our whole lives finally comes to naught and is gone forever. Isn’t that vexing?
Nowadays many people emphasize the sense of happiness, and even analyze happiness indexes. In fact, happiness emanates from our hearts, not our sense organs. Only inner serenity, calm and peace are real happiness. After the waves subside, the ocean becomes quiet; once the storm passes, the land returns to tranquility; when raptures or sorrows depart, our hearts calm down. Peacefulness is therefore the root condition. If we could calm our hearts, with or without material possessions we would enjoy inner peace, a state in which we experience joy. That’s because inner peace and joy are a single entity sharing the same content -- the “bliss of the Dharma.” When we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, we feel an inner quiescence, which gives rise to Dharma joy. In the process of meditation, a practitioner may enter a quiescent state, in which he will also naturally feel serenity and Dharma bliss.
The Larger Sutra further says:
Amid worldly desires and attachments, we come and go alone. We are born alone, and we die alone. After death we go to a painful or joyful place. We experience our karmic consequences, which no others can bear on our behalf.
The Dirgha Agama Sutra says:
Affectionate love is changeable. Convergence is followed by separation.
In the Three Domains, we come and go alone.
In this world we have parents, spouses, children, relatives, friends, interpersonal relations and social interactions. But they are only temporary. Their affinity and intimacy with us are momentary. All physical materials are for our use temporarily as well. We shouldn’t develop an emotional attachment to them, but use wisdom to handle them instead. Everyone and everything will eventually part. In the samsara of the Six Realms and Three Domains, each being is lonely. He is born alone, and she dies alone.
Each person comes and goes alone. No one can substitute for another. The most filial child cannot take on the illness of his parent; the closest kin is unable to assume the place of her beloved one who is dying. Loving attachment to worldly matters is doomed to be painful, because it is impermanent.
As the saying goes:
Husband and wife are birds in the same wood, but they fly separately at the appointed hour.
Be it the appointed hour or a calamity, the day will come when the couple are obliged to part forever. Even if they meet in the next life, they may not recognize each other.
Says an ancient worthy:
Without strong affections, we wouldn’t have been born in the Saha world. Without achieving one-pointed concentration, we won’t gain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
“Without strong affections, we wouldn’t have been born in the Saha world.” That means we sentient beings are trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth because we have powerful desires and attachments. Without utterly eradicating all worldly attachments and desires, no one can escape the Three Domains. We can stop samsara only after clearing our karma and emptying our desires. Therefore, it’s not because our affections are strong that we are born in the Saha world. So long as we have clinging love, whether it’s strong or not, we will be born here.
“Without achieving one-pointed concentration, we won’t attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.” This is what’s taught by the schools of the Sacred Path, meaning that Amitabha-reciters may not be reborn in the Pure Land unless they achieve single-pointed concentration while reciting. But it’s not like that, from the perspective of the Pure Land school. So long as we recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly and aspire to be reborn in his Pure Land, he embraces us always, protects us during our present lives, and delivers us when we die. Whether or not we attain one-pointed concentration, rebirth in the Pure and is assured.
The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment says:
Lust is the root of cyclical rebirth in the Three Domains. Clinging love is the basis for transmigration among the Six Realms.
Lust and clinging love are the fundamental causes of samsara. Such roots cannot be prevented from sprouting into buds, branches, leaves, flowers and fruits. Sooner or later, the karmic conditions will ripen. Unless defiled worldly love is uprooted, we will be stuck in the cycle of rebirth forever. It’s not a real solution if we only cut the branches and boughs but retained the root. In other words, even if we observed the Five Precepts, practiced the Ten Good Actions, and attained a high degree of meditative concentration, so long as our greed, hatred and delusion were not completely removed, we wouldn’t be able to escape from the Three Domains and Six Realms.
According to the Pure Land teachings, to recite Amitabha’s name is more important than to eradicate afflictions. That’s because it’s impossible for us to do the latter solely by relying on our own capabilities. But name-recitation is something everyone can do. It’s like a person who suffers a serious illness but heals after applying medication. What matters is whether the medicine is adequate for the illness. Amitabha’s Great Six-Character Name is the antidote to the malady of samsara, the right medicine to deliver us from the Three Domains and Six Realms.
The Surangama Sutra says:
You owe me my life. I must repay you my debt. Because of such causes and consequences, living beings pass through hundreds of thousands of eons in the continuing cycle of rebirth.
You love my heart. I adore your form. For such causes and consequences, they endure hundreds of thousands of eons in constant entanglement.
“You owe me my life. I must repay you my debt. Because of such causes and consequences, living beings pass through hundreds of thousands of eons in the continuing cycle of rebirth.” This passage refers to the killing of living things. A killer must pay with his life, it is said, just as a debtor must repay his loan. If what is owed isn’t paid back this life, it must be repaid in a future lifetime. And the repayment will include both principal and interest. That’s why the sutra says, “Because of such causes and consequences, living beings pass through hundreds of thousands of eons in the continuing cycle of rebirth.” No one can leave the Three Domains and Six Realms unless he has discharged all his indebtedness for killing and stealing. If even the tiniest bit isn’t cleared, he must continue reincarnating for hundreds, thousands, millions or even an infinite number of kalpas. “Countless kalpas may have passed, but the karma of our actions does not disappear; when the causal conditions are ripe, we will bear the consequences.”
So practitioners need to “eliminate bad karma according to circumstances and refrain from creating more.” They must make use of this body to pay off all karmic debts, so they can attain ultimate liberation in this life. If they waited for the next life, hopes would be slim and they could fall into the Three Wretched Realms. “Once we lose our human body, we may not acquire another one for ten thousand kalpas,” goes the saying. That is dangerous.
Practitioners should therefore repent their karmic hindrances scrupulously, seriously and reverently. But it is impossible to purify all our evil karma, because our penitence cannot be real and we will repeat our negative actions after confession. It’s a bad habit of ordinary beings to make the same mistakes after confessing them. The bad karma cannot be eradicated, but is accumulating all the time.
What can we do? Only recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. Though we cannot eliminate karmic obstacles and remove afflictions on our own, we can rely on his great unconditional kindness, universal compassion and deliverance to remove suffering and bring joy. We are assured of liberation from the Three Domains and Six Realms of samsara.
“You love my heart. I adore your form. For such causes and consequences, they endure hundreds of thousands of eons in constant entanglement.” This relates to worldly desires and attachments. Humans have clinging love, and even Dharma practitioners have it. If we start to practice at the age of one and kept going until 120, we might still be unable to subdue our desires or even weaken them. So Master Shandao urges us to recognize that we are iniquitous ordinary beings subject to endless rebirth. Since time immemorial we have practiced from lifetime to lifetime, yet have no hope of leaving the cycle of rebirth. We start to practice this life, but even if we kept doing so through to the future, we would still have little chance of deliverance. Why is that? Because we have no power to purge our desires. All we can do is have faith in and accept Amitabha’s deliverance, recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly, and aspire to rebirth in his Pure Land. That way we would be able to eliminate attachments and desires, end the cycle of rebirth, and forever attain physical and mental purity, peace and happiness.
“Entanglement” means being bound together, in which state love and hatred intermingle. Such love is impermanent and painful. Lovers who pledge eternal affection may the next moment become sworn enemies. Worldly love is of one with hatred. If a person’s passion for another is not satisfied, his heart would be filled with anger. He might even throw acid at the other or kill her. These evil acts are triggered by desire. Without such attachment, how could one generate the hatred to hurt or kill others?
Worldly love coexists with hatred. The Buddha says in an Anguttara Nikaya sutra: “Love can produce love, as well as create hatred.”
The Buddha explains clearly that worldly love is contaminated. If it produces more love, the defilement is doubled.
“Love may also create hatred.” If one’s sullied desire is not gratified, resentment would arise. Therefore we should amplify the love of ordinary beings and transform it into “great unconditional kindness and universal compassion” -- the love expounded by the Buddha.
Every human being has a heart. Where there is a heart, there is love. Starting from our families, we should extend love to our neighbors and then to all sentient beings. That would be to approach the “love of the Dharma,” in which we extend empathy to all beings. It isn’t limited to an individual target or even all mankind, but embraces every living being with compassion, sympathy and deep concern. We cannot bear to treat others badly, lest they become upset. In that state of mind, we would want to relieve others’ suffering and anxiety, and bring them happiness.
Therefore, the “love of the hungry ghosts” includes the love of the Hell and Animal Realms. Such “love” originates from an attachment to self – selfishness. It is rooted in greed, anger and delusion. Defiled and iniquitous, it will lead to pain and even endless reincarnation.
What about the “love of the Dharma”? It’s the love of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It surpasses the love of the Three Wretched Realms (Hells, Hungry Ghosts and Animals) and even that of humans and celestial beings. It is capacious, pure, absolutely virtuous, peaceful, joyous and free. It can also be called the love of the Buddha-nature, the love of the truth. The substance of Buddha-nature is the “love of the Dharma,” and so is the truth of life and the universe. Such love is the underlying nature and essence of all human and other living beings, including tangible ones like animals and intangible ones in the Three Wretched Realms (Hell Beings, Hungry Ghosts and Animals). This is the “love of the Dharma.”
Life is impermanent and all phenomena are without self. Yet the “love of the Dharma” is permanent and unchanging. It’s “valid everywhere and forever.” It transcends time and space. As Buddhists, we should try to understand the mindset of the Buddhas and their spiritual environment. Their underlying content is the “love of the Dharma.” We should take this love as our goal and move towards it, for it is our original being. It never leaves us, and constantly manifests in front of and inside us. It is with us. As Mencius says, “The path lies in what is near.”
But “near” isn’t enough to describe the relationship between us and the path. We ourselves are the path, and the truth. We are the “love of the Dharma.” “Buddha” is “enlightenment,” which means awakening and actualization. What is it that’s actualized? The original being. What’s the original being? It’s the love of the Dharma, which is unselfish, impartial and pure. Philanthropic or fraternal love is generally is limited to humans – to love other humans as yourself, to love your neighbors and to love your enemies. This is great love, but not ultimate love. Truly supreme love extends to all living beings, visible and invisible.
Certainly, this demands the broadest, most accommodating heart and mind. Though “the path is near,” we have deviated far from it, and for a long time. Yet step by step, we can widen our love from those close by to beings far away, and from ourselves to others.
(2) The Love of the Dharma (Compassion)
What does compassion mean? First, we should recognize that we each have the instinct to “pursue happiness and escape suffering.” Second, not only we have it, but so do all others around us, as well as all living beings. It’s the natural inclination, and the right, of all beings to abandon suffering for joy.
Buddhism advocates compassion. To learn the Buddha’s way, we must learn to be as compassionate as the Buddha. What does compassion mean?
One, we should know that every human instinctively wants to “pursue happiness and escape suffering.” We all expect a joyful and fortunate life. No one likes pain or anxiety. This attitude is an inherent function of the heart. It doesn’t need to be taught or cultivated.
Two, we should know that not only we, but all others around us, hope to replace suffering with joy. Our families, neighbors and the public share this innate preference and expectation, regardless of country, nationality and religious belief. All humans are born with this instinct.
Three, we should know that not only humans are like this, but also animals. Ants are small but as nimble as humans. Like us, they cling to life and fear death. All animals are similar. They seek happiness and want to avoid pain.
Four, we should know that all living things have the inborn tendency to pursue happiness and escape suffering. They include all animals visible to our eyes, invisible beings of the dark realms (hells, hungry ghosts and animals), and heavenly beings of the celestial spheres. In other words, apart from the Dharma realm of the Buddhas, beings of the other nine Dharma domains seek ultimate peace and joy. They yearn for separation from the suffering of repeated reincarnation, including painful “fragmentary rebirths” and disagreeable “transformational rebirths.”
Therefore, to cultivate “compassion” we should start by recognizing the instinct to “pursue happiness and escape suffering.” It’s the rudimentary right of all living beings, a right that must not be deprived.
After we realize that other beings have the same motive and right as we do to leave suffering for joy, we will generate genuine concern for them. We will be boldly responsible for giving them happiness and removing their suffering. Compassion is this kind of concern and love.
Such are the substance and definition of compassion.
Part 27 of the Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom says: “Great kindness is to bring happiness to all beings and great compassion is to free them from suffering.”
The Treatise is a well-known work by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, recognized as the patriarch of all eight schools of Chinese Buddhism. He says that “great kindness” is to offer peace and joy to all beings – to make them happy at present, as well as sow the seeds of permanent bliss. “Great compassion” is to remove all their pain and upset – to relieve them of the current misery of samsara and help them acquire causal factors that may ultimately free them from the rebirth cycle.
This is Buddhism. It extends love to all beings of the Six Realms equally. From deities to hungry ghosts, no discrimination is applied.
The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas not only love all humans equally, but extend their compassion to deities in the heavens and beings in the Three Wretched Realms. They have the mind, and the ability, to do so. But we ordinary beings cannot, because we have not cast off our attachments and thus are driven by the five desires (for wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep). We lack the resolve and tolerance to sacrifice ourselves for the liberation of others. But since we are Dharma-seekers, we must still try to learn and understand.
Let me quote some scriptural passages that explain compassion.
The Contemplation Sutra says:
The Buddha’s mind is great compassion. It embraces sentient beings with unconditional kindness.
“The Buddha’s mind is great compassion.” This statement concisely explains the Buddha’s mind and the truth of life and the universe. The Buddha’s mind is great compassion – great unconditional kindness and universal compassion. So “it embraces sentient beings with unconditional kindness.” Unconditional kindness and compassion are not subject to any prerequisite or relationship. They are impartial and indiscriminate. “To embrace” means to cherish, care for and protect beings in this lifetime, lest they suffer calamities and hardships, and to release them from repeated rebirth and deliver them to the Land of Bliss when they die. “Sentient beings” refer to all the beings trapped in samsara.
The Larger Sutra says:
Uninvited, he becomes a friend to multitudes of beings and shoulders their heavy karmic burdens.
Like a dutiful son who loves and respects his parents, he sees sentient beings as his own self.
Amitabha Buddha is our uninvited friend. Without receiving our invitation, plea or request, he voluntarily and happily becomes our friend and even family. As the scripture says, he is “like a loving mother looking after her child.”
A mother’s love and care for her baby is proactive, joyful. Whatever she provides the baby, she does so on her own initiative, without complaint or regret. She even considers her toil a great pleasure. She needs to receive no plea to attend to her baby. Amitabha Buddha treats us in the same way. He cares for and protects all beings and voluntarily becomes their close kin and good friend, without regard to their countries, nationalities or religious beliefs, irrespective of whether they are kind or evil, whether they are humans, beings of the Three Wretched Realms, or celestial deities.
Why does Amitabha Buddha become close kin and good friend to beings? Because he “shoulders their heavy karmic burdens.” By himself he carries their immeasurable transgressions, and pays all their karmic debts accumulated over countless kalpas. He “becomes an uninvited friend to multitudes of beings” in order to “shoulder their heavy karmic burdens.”
So we reciters of the Pure Land school should first understand that though we are reverently invoking Amitabha Buddha in the present life, he has in fact been mindful of us for ten kalpas. Moreover, he comes before us to assume our heavy burdens. They boil down to one: our immeasurable karmic offenses, which we cannot repay, ensnaring us in the cycle of rebirth. Amitabha Buddha comes to take them from us. That is the Buddha’s mind.
“Like a dutiful son who loves and respects his parents.” Here, Amitabha’s compassion for sentient beings is compared to the love of a dutiful son love for his parents. A filial child would not forget his parents, let alone abandon them. He respects and looks after them. Similarly, Amitabha never discards or disregards sentient beings, but always accompanies them, giving them love and respect with the same depth of heart as a filial child has for his parents. Without being told, the child understands his parents’ needs and takes good care of them.
“He sees sentient beings as his own self.” The above isn’t enough to describe the profound love of Amitabha Buddha. So the sutra further says that he regards sentient beings as his own self. He deems all humans, animals and other beings in the Six Realms as his own body, hands, feet or other part. This way, beings in the ten directions are of a single entity with him. There is no binary relationship between him and them. By delivering sentient beings, Amitabha delivers himself. And it is a matter of course to save oneself, bring oneself joy and free oneself from suffering. He does so naturally, on his own initiative, and without preconditions.
The Sutra of Infinite Life and Splendor says:
May sentient beings caught in the various realms of rebirth be reborn soon in my land, so they can enjoy peace and happiness.
Exercising compassion constantly to save all beings, I will deliver them from Avici Hell.
“May sentient beings caught in the various realms of rebirth be reborn soon in my land, so they can enjoy peace and happiness.” This is a message from Amitabha Buddha to all beings. He has been calling out to us for ten kalpas. The call has come from the Land of Bliss to this Saha world, passing through a hundred thousand koṭis of Buddha realms. Riding on the infinite compassion of Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the Buddhas of the ten directions have also been calling on beings of all the worlds to recite Namo Amitabha Buddha and return to the Land of Bliss, the home of their own true nature.
When we recite Namo Amitabha Buddha, we should know that he is also thinking of us. For ten kalpas,without our requesting it, he has been proactively remembering and calling out to us. He wants us to be “reborn soon in my land, to enjoy peace and happiness.”
What’s the meaning of the six-character name? “Namo” means to entrust our lives. “Amitabha” is infinite light and infinite life. “To entrust” implies “to return” – to go back to our own home. It also signifies entering that home to enjoy complete relaxation, as well as peace and joy. The “lives” we entrust to Amitabha Buddha are not those full of greed, anger and delusion, but our Dharma bodies and wisdom lives. They must return to and merge with infinite light and infinite life. Only then would we truly be entrusting our lives. All earth-bound waterways flow towards a single destination -- the ocean. Similarly, our samsara-bound lives must return to infinite light and infinite life, an eternal, peaceful, joyous life without reincarnation. This is Namo Amitabha Buddha.
“Exercising compassion constantly to save all beings, I will deliver them from Avici Hell.” Amitabha Buddha doesn’t abandon even the vilest beings in Avici Hell, but accepts and embraces them with the same care and delivers them as he does all others . This gives us absolute peace of mind, because however deluded we are and whatever evil acts we have undertaken, we should not have committed such extreme offenses as lead to rebirth in Avici Hell. Even so, does that mean we do not have the iniquitous nature that corresponds to that hell? No, we do. As Master Shandao says, “The reason beings are classified into Nine Levels is that they have encountered different karmic circumstances.” In other words, it’s not that beings at the higher levels are exceedingly good and those at the lower ones exceptionally evil. They differ in levels because they meet with disparate conditions. A particular circumstance that a person experiences determines the pertinent result. In their nature, all beings are equal and non-distinctive. For example, a person who has encountered a favorable environment will become a high-level being. But if the same being were born in or has experienced abhorrent conditions, he is doomed to the low levels.
High, middle and low levels as well as good and evil persons are alike in their essence. Beings who ascend to the heavens and those who fall into Avici Hell vary greatly in their actions, good and evil. But they are equal in their basic nature. When the appropriate karmic conditions emerge, a celestial being will be reborn in the hell realm, or a hell being may ascend to heaven. That’s why the Buddha speaks of reincarnation “from the celestial realms to the hell domains, and from the hell domains into the celestial realms.”
The Buddhas have no concept of distinction. They treat all beings equally, as a single entity. Every being, celestial or hell-bound, is trapped in samsara -- in the words of Master Shandao, “an iniquitous ordinary being subject to endless rebirth.” None is an exception, unless he eradicates his afflictions and exits the Three Domains.
The mind creates everything. To learn the compassion of the Buddhas, we must start from our minds. What kind of mind should we maintain? First, think positively. In other words, we should try our best to see others’ words and deeds in a wholesome light. This way we can avert opposition and conflict, and realize harmony and even peace.
There is a story on the internet titled “Turn Grievances into Blessings – Don’t Underestimate Your Tiniest Thought.” It’s an account of a couple in America whose son was rebellious and stubborn. He always disobeyed them and brought them trouble. The parents were so annoyed and the family was unhappy. Later the son ran away from home. Like a loose kite, he disappeared for three or four years without a single word, not even a telephone call. What a tragedy for the family!
During those years, the parents worried and suffered. One day the father visited a psychiatrist and told him about his son’s wrongdoings . When he finished, the doctor didn’t reply. Instead, he asked: “How long have you been cursing your son like this?”
The father was startled and puzzled. He thought: I just described some of my son’s shortcomings; how can you say I was cursing him? He is my own flesh and blood. I only wish him the very best. Why did you say it was a curse?
In fact, the psychiatrist’s words had an implicit meaning, though the father couldn’t appreciate it at the moment.
The doctor explained: “To ’curse’ means to blame others for their faults, to speak ill of them. You’ve been relentlessly describing your son’s misdeeds. What you have done is just to curse him!”
The father was astonished: “If this is so, I’ve been cursing him ever since he was born!” He told the psychiatrist frankly: “Yes. I’ve never said any words of praise to him. In other words, I’ve been cursing him his entire life.”
The doctor said: “And what was the result of such cursing? A stressful family atmosphere. Constant conflict between father and son, and a lack of affection. Right?” The father nodded.
Since the cause of the sickness had been identified, the right therapy must be administered.
The psychiatrist gave the father three prescriptions to apply in the next two months.
The first: Every time you think about your son, recall his strengths rather than his flaws.
The second prescription: Each time you speak of him, talk about his positive qualities and not his negative ones.
The third: Constantly pray for him and ask heaven to bless him.
When he got home, the father repeated the psychiatrist’s words to his wife. The couple accepted the advice and willingly followed it. From that day, they began to pray for their son, think of his positive qualities and talk about his merits, not his shortcomings.
The consequence was quick, almost instantaneous …
Ten days later, while the father was reading at home, the phone rang. He picked it up and it was his son – the one who had left home for three or four years without a word.
The son said: “Dad, I’m really not sure why I called. I just want you to know that in the past week I suddenly thought of you and Mom and our family. I can’t help but call to say hello to you…“
The father was filled with delight and comfort. He excitedly told his son: “I’m so happy you called.“ They talked over the phone for a couple of minutes. Then the father risked a request: “I don’t know if you’ll agree, but will you have lunch with me this Saturday?” The son happily assented.
At that weekend lunch, father and son got together. The latter was wearing shabby clothing. His hair was long and tousled. In the past, the father would have harshly rebuked the son. But this time, he just welcomed his child with a receptive attitude and blessed him silently. He asked a few questions and listened to his son’s answers. Whenever the latter said something correct, the father affirmed and commended it.
As the lunch was about to end, the son looked at his father and said: “Dad, I’ve no idea what’s going on. But I’ve really enjoyed being with you.” The father said: “Son, I’m also happy to be with you!” The younger man went on: “Dad, can I stay at home overnight? Just tonight. I’d like to see Mom and the others, and my old bed.” The father said: “Of course, please come! This is your home. You should have come back. And we are a family. How wonderful that we can be together!”
Throughout that day, the father dwelt in a state of surprise. When he stopped cursing his son, things began to change -- not even 180 degrees but 360.
That night, when the son was in his bed, the father came into the room, sat down and said: “My boy, for so many years I treated you badly. Will you forgive me?”The son said: “Dad, of course!” They hugged each other, and their relationship began to improve.
But when did the healing actually begin? It started when the parents began to bless their son.
When we bless others instead of cursing them, heaven takes note of our blessing. According to law of karma, such a blessing returns to us as well. This is the natural working of cause and effect. Every thought that arises in our mind and every sentence we speak go forth into the world, but they will eventually rebound upon ourselves. The universe is a single entity. Our thoughts, words and deeds produce fruits whose ultimate harvesters aren’t others but ourselves. What we sow is what we shall reap. If we seed a curse, we will receive a curse. If we plant a blessing, we’ll be rewarded with a blessing.
Therefore, don’t underestimate your flimsiest thought.
When we bless or pray for someone, we often harbor some doubt: Perhaps our wish is just a thought and has no effect? If we dislike a person but don’t want to say it to his face, we may curse him out of discontent or resentment. The other may not know and we may console ourselves: Well, it’s just a thought, no big deal, and the other doesn’t know anyway. Is this true? No, it’s not.
Each of our ordinary thoughts is a unit of energy in the universe. These energy units have different shapes, colors and vibrational force. The luminosity of the colors is directly influenced by our thoughts. The stronger and more emotional a thought is, the more powerful its energy.
If we target someone with a thought, its underlying unit of energy will fly towards that person. It will attach itself to her mind and vibrate along with her. It will resonate with similar qualities within the person, either soon or when conditions are ripe. This is, as the saying has it, “to answer each other with the same voice, to seek each other with a single spirit.” The thought attached to the person will create a joint oscillation. A good thought will produce a favorable resonance, while a bad one will trigger a conflict. When someday the two persons meet, they’ll dislike and be in conflict with each other.
A single thought is said to contain three thousand Dharma realms. Without sound or shape, the flimsiest one fills the entire universe. It transforms into an energy unit with physical form and color. “Wherever love is, so is the person -- because his mind is there.” We ordinary beings have physical bodies, which are separate from our minds. Our mind may reach a certain place, but our body doesn’t. If we exchanged our physical body for a “mind-made body,” however, wherever our mind went this body would follow, transcending time and place. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have attained the Three Bodies, which, unlike ordinary beings’ karmic reward bodies restricted by cyclical births and deaths, are free energy that suffuses space. So wherever the Buddhas’ minds are, so are their bodies and energy – their supernatural powers, the power of their vows, and their functions. Amitabha Buddha is infinite light and infinite life. So his mind is everywhere and ever present. The Contemplation Sutra says: “Every Tathagata has a body of the Dharma realm [Dharmakaya], and enters the mind of each sentient being.” Amitabha Buddha thinks of us so he comes to us. If we open our mind, think of him and recite his name, he gets into our mind and becomes one with us.
What we send out doesn’t affect others only. More importantly, it impacts us. As Mencius says: “He who loves others is constantly loved by them. He who respects others is constantly respected by them.” If we love and respect a person mentally, whether she knows it or not, when someday we meet her, she’ll be fond of us, feeling agreeable and friendly.
Our eyes see colors and images. According to scientists, a spectrum of lights bombards or are reflected by the iris; then the “eye consciousness” identifies the object. Though we have eyes, we cannot see everything. Visible to us is only a section of the light spectrum, or a certain kind of light spectrum. In fact, many spectrums are invisible to our naked eyes. For example, X-rays have high luminosity and can penetrate walls, but can we see them? We cannot. Yet X-ray films can. A film can sense the light and images can be printed. When we take an X-ray in hospital, it can show the condition of our internal organs.
The “infinite light” of Amitabha Buddha illuminates the entire Dharma realm, and penetrates all space without obstruction. But we cannot see it. We humans also have “body lights,” which are invisible to us. Deities and ghosts can see them, however. Such lights differ greatly based on the positive or negative nature of a person’s mind. A kind woman sends out a clear, bright and auspicious light. When ghosts and deities see such light, they protect and bless her. For people with virtuous hearts, calamities can be turned into blessings. A malicious man, however, emits a dark, gloomy and ominous light, which irritates and angers supernatural beings. As the saying goes, “One who does too many bad deeds is doomed to encounter demons.” The rationale is the same.
A proverb says: “If a person’s intention is good, though he has yet to do good deeds, benevolent spirits already accompany him. If one’s intention is evil, although he has yet to commit negative acts, malevolent spirits already follow him.” Goes another maxim: “By doing good, we keep misfortune at bay, even though blessings haven’t yet arrived. By doing evil, we ward off good fortune, even if disaster hasn’t yet struck.” If we generate a positive thought, propitious deities will take note and offer their praises and protection. A negative thought will attract the attention and approbation of malign divinities, and adversity will descend upon its thinker. This highlights the importance and reality of the arising of thoughts.
Therefore, we take a positive attitude towards everything, contemplate often the Buddhas’ compassion, and ponder our “Attributes of the Pure Land School.” We should seek incrementally to understand them, immerse ourselves in them and cultivate them. Our love and compassion for others would grow as a matter of course.
In sum, let’s bear compassion in mind. As the “Attributes” teach us, we should “learn from Amitabha Buddha’s great compassion and treat others the way Amitabha treats us.” Then we would be able to “maintain an agreeable countenance and pleasant speech, smile from the bottom of our hearts, think compassionately of sentient beings, treat people generously.” We would also “be compassionate and understanding to other people, be modest and amiable in our deportment,” and “decline fame and rewards for merits and share blame and responsibilities for demerits.” Of course, these goals are not attainable immediately. We need to go through a gradual process of deliberation, immersion and implementation, building out from the near and easy to the distant and difficult.
May we all have faith in Amitabha Buddha, recite his name, and be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Namo Amitabha Buddha!
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