The Ultimate Aim of Life: Rebirth in the Pure Land
By Master Jingkai
All of us here are students of Buddhism, a belief system that is the main source of support in our lives. When we first came across Buddhism, we found it complex and hard to understand. However, you don't need to be a master scholar of all the scriptures to understand its essence. The key to opening the door to Buddhism is understanding death and how to deal with it.
Among the four types of demons in Buddhism, death is called the Death Demon. The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom says the Death Demon takes life away. It also takes away one’s wisdom. To be ignorant and unable to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, is similar to being possessed by a demon. There's this young guy who’s footloose and fancy-free, his body is in top shape, he’s got more time than he knows what to do with and, boy, is he happy! But beware, the Death Demon knocks on the door of those who have such a mindset. Death doesn't abide by a schedule. It often comes when we least expect it. Why do we let ourselves go unprepared? It's because ignorance blinds us to the truth of life, making us believe we are immune to death, and that it's always someone else who dies.
Some graves are fenced off and kept out of sight because they are considered taboo. At the same time, some cemeteries are well-kept with flowers and trees, and even serve as parks for walking and jogging. Ah, how relaxing! Death is then perceived as no big a deal. When a person dies, it’s all over, like a lamp that’s snuffed out. However, this is a fool's understanding. The Death Demon first robs us of our wisdom and then, bit by bit, like a fisherman hauling in his net, it gradually catches us. If you're not vigilant, the moment you finally see death is the moment the tiger bites. Can you still call for help then? It's too late.
Shakyamuni Buddha once compared the Death Demon to a tiger. One evening in autumn, a man was wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. He stumbled upon a pile of white bones on the ground and felt uneasy. It became clear why there were bones when he heard the tiger’s roar.The man ran for his life, eventually reaching a cliff. The tiger was right behind him. He climbed a pine tree at the cliff's edge and hung down from some vines. The tiger stretched its sharp claws at him and roared, paralyzing the man with fear. Then two rats, one black and one white, began to chew the vines. Looking down, he saw a deep abyss with three poisonous dragons waiting with their mouths wide open. He was dumbfounded. At that moment, honey from a beehive on the pine tree dripped into his mouth. The sweetness made him forget the imminent danger.
This story tells us that, generally, we don't care about the issue of life and death; we avoid it, like climbing up a pine tree by the cliff, thinking the tiger wouldn't climb up. The pine tree symbolizes the pursuit of life - wealth, career, pleasure - all the things we indulge in so that we don’t have to face the issue. Then one day, a cancer diagnosis brings us face-to-face with our mortality. It's terminal cancer and we have only one month to live! Our mind goes blank. We’re scared to death. But it's impossible to let go of the bond of family ties, career, and life. How can we face death when we just started enjoying life? We must live on. We cannot die.
This is the life of a fool. What Sakyamuni Buddha said was a reflection of all sentient beings!
However, the vine and the pine tree, which this man was clinging to in order to escape from the tiger, gave him temporary support to evade danger. The pine tree symbolizes fame, fortune, status, and so on. But if you think about it, it also symbolizes our attachment to the Buddha’s teachings. Why do we say that? Buddhism is supposed to teach us how to solve the problem of life and death; why is it that it’s like the pine tree, a weapon against tigers?
There are 84,000 dharma paths in Buddhism; all were taught by the Buddha, and all conform to the dharma-nature. The Buddhist Dharma emphasizes the practicality of its application. It matters only when it helps solve the issue of life and death. Otherwise, no matter how knowledgeable you are or how much joy you derive from learning the Dharma, the problem remains unsolved. Let's reflect on ourselves and ask: are we highly capable or inadequate? Are we of superior or inferior aptitude? If we cannot realize a certain Dharma path, then it does not match our aptitude and we should decisively leave it and seek a path that can help liberate us. Dharma is not worldly knowledge - the more the better. Dharma is a practical tool. It is only useful if it helps us achieve our goal. Of all the Dharma paths, we should select the one most useful to us.
Originally, Shakyamuni Buddha appeared to teach the Pure Land path of reciting Amitabha Buddha's name to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Shakyamuni and Amitabha complement each other. When the time is not right, Amitabha remains hidden. But when beings are ready, Amitabha emerges and Shakyamuni steps aside. It is like parenting: sometimes the father is the stern one, and the mother the soft one; other times, it is the other way around. It depends on the occasion.
According to Master Shandao, Shakyamuni Buddha is the “Teacher who urges us to be reborn in the Pure Land”. Sentient beings, however, prefer to rely on their self-power to practice in the Saha World to attain Buddhahood. Therefore, Shakyamuni Buddha manifested himself in our world to teach practices that involve self-power. He expounded various sutras for that purpose. So, how does one become a Buddha? Finally, he touched on Amitabha’s Pure Land and guided us all to be reborn there. Shakyamuni Buddha’s role is to awaken our faith in Amitabha Buddha. The aim of his teaching is to gradually adjust the mindset of sentient beings. When the timing is not right, only Shakyamuni Buddha delivers his teaching on stage, and Amitabha Buddha will not make his appearance.
However, when the timing is right, the opportunity will present itself. Suffering is the teacher of sentient beings; it is only when we go through a lot of pain and sufferings that we desire liberation. Who in the Three Pure Land Sutras experienced great suffering and begged Shakyamuni Buddha to show the way for rebirth? It was Lady Vaidehi. Although she had previously listened to many of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings, did she seek rebirth? No, she lived in affluence, and her interest in Buddhism might have been just a pastime, or just a new hobby. However, when her son rebelled against her and he tried to kill his own parents with a knife, death was right before her eyes. She finally thought of seeking rebirth. Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha smiled and emitted five-color light from his mouth, helping Lady Vaidehi choose the Land of Ultimate Bliss as the place for her rebirth.
Yet, Vaidehi insisted on practicing meditative visualization and set for herself a criterion for rebirth. Many practitioners have similar problems. Amitabha accomplished the Land of Ultimate Bliss for us. Instead of trying to understand what Amitabha’s primal vow is about, these practitioners cling to their own power. They want to achieve an undistracted state of mind to experience the reality of the dharma-nature. They elevate their self-power even higher than the power of the Buddha’s vows. What if we cannot meet the standard for the rest of our lives? Our lives will be over, and we get stuck in the cycle of birth and death. This kind of approach is like climbing back from the edge of a cliff, using the knife of the Dharma to fight the tiger to eliminate the threat. This is the philosophy of the Sages Path. Their practitioners do not really seek rebirth but only battle with death through Self-Power. According to Master Daochuo, both the Sages Path and the Pure Land path are great Dharma paths. However, if the practitioner’s capacity and the Dharma path he chooses are incompatible, and yet he holds on to that teaching stubbornly, it will become a burden.
Such is the case with Vaidehi. Her insistence on relying on self-power was an obstacle to rebirth. Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Sages Path, not only to let sentient beings understand how profound the Dharma is, but also used it as a mirror to reflect our ugly nature. He rebuked Vaidehi, saying, “You are an unenlightened ordinary being, and so your spiritual powers are weak and obscured. Since you have not yet attained the divine eye, you cannot see far.” Vaidehi wanted to practice meditation and contemplation, the two pillars of the Sage path. However, Shakyamuni Buddha put her in her place. He said to her, “As an ordinary being, you are unable to practice meditation and contemplation. You simply do not have what it takes to do it.” Step by step, Shakyamuni Buddha guided her to forsake self-power and seek rebirth through the power of Amitabha’s vows. Vaidehi became more yielding and got closer and closer to Amitabha’s primal vow. With that, Shakyamuni Buddha’s mission was accomplished. It was then the time for Amitabha’s appearance.
Shakyamuni Buddha said to Vaidehi, “Listen carefully. I will explain to you the method of removing suffering.” When these words were spoken, Amitabha Buddha appeared in the air above, radiating brilliant light. This Buddha uses light as a medium to teach the Dharma of Immeasurable Life, the Dharma of delivering sentient beings. Lady Vaidehi accepted it. She believed that she had no power and accepted the power of Amitabha. These are the two kinds of deep faith, with reference to the aptitude of sentient beings and the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha.Vaidehi was no longer troubled as she had these two deep faiths. With her inferior aptitudes, Vaidehi really struggled when trying to practice the Sages Path. However, when she decided to believe in the power of Amitabha Buddha, she attained non-retrogression.
Master Shandao brilliantly captured how Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha work in perfect harmony in delivering sentient beings. He says:
Shakyamuni Buddha sets his gaze
On the Western Land of Bliss,
For the sake of all beings,
He longs to deliver from samsara's abyss.
Amitabha Buddha, with profound insight,
Appears in the Saha World's domain,
To guide beings with skill and might,
Towards liberation's sacred terrain.
One World Honored One promised, the other responded,
They take turns to manifest and stay concealed,
Their goal the same, to end all woes,
And help all beings find true repose.
With artful means, they teach and guide,
Adapting to each ordinary being's need,
Their wisdom vast, their love sublime,
In their care, beings can safely abide.
Shakyamuni Buddha set his mind on Amitabha for the sake of Vaidehi. Since Vaidehi is the embodiment of all ordinary beings like us, it was for the purpose of delivering us that Shakyamuni Buddha set his mind on Amitabha and that Buddha’s primal vow. It is clear that the Sages Path cannot rid us of our afflictions because we do not have the aptitude and capacity to practice the Sages Path. The moment Shakyamuni Buddha thinks of that, Amitabha knows at once. And with profound insight, he appears in the Saha World. The two Buddhas work in perfect harmony. With great skill, they guide and lead us to the Land of Ultimate Bliss, relying totally on the power of Amitabha’s primal vow.
Shakyamuni Buddha promised Vaidehi to end her woes and he showed her the way. That done, it was Amitabha’s turn to manifest himself, and Shayamuni Buddha faded in the shadow. That’s why Master Shandao said that, while their goals are the same, the timing for their appearances are different. When Shakyamuni Buddha has accomplished his mission of urging us to aspire for rebirth in Amitabha’s Land and pointed us in the direction for doing so, Amitabha Buddha appears, like the brilliant sun high up in the sky, shining brightly on us.
Master Shandao used the metaphor of two skilled craftsmen to show how skillfully the two Buddhas save sentient beings. There were two craftsmen in the ancient city of Yin, a carpenter and a plasterer who worked together at times. One day while the plasterer was painting a wall, a tiny speck of white paint no bigger than a fly's wing got on his nose. He asked the carpenter to wipe it off for him. Without hesitation, the skilled carpenter took his ax and expertly chipped off the tiny white speck from the tip of the plasterer's nose without harming it, a remarkable feat. However, the plasterer had to trust the carpenter completely and remain perfectly still or he would lose his nose. The two craftsmen worked together seamlessly.
The emperor heard this story and wanted the carpenter to demonstrate his skill before him. However, such a skill could not be flaunted as a performance. Who would volunteer to have the carpenter demonstrate on them? The two of them would have to know each other very well and work in perfect synchrony. Otherwise, someone would die.
Likewise, this supreme Dharma of liberation must truly be matched between Buddhas, not Bodhisattvas. That's because Bodhisattvas may lack the wisdom and compassion needed to employ it and could even have doubts. We have two Buddhas, Shakyamuni Buddha who was diligent and Amitabha Buddha who made the most compassionate vows. They are like the two skilled craftsmen in the Saha world. They are highly accomplished masters, using their skills to save living beings. They take on different roles at different times, persuading or liberating. When persuading, Shakyamuni Buddha wields the axe; when liberating, Amitabha takes the axe. They take turns, one being active, the other receding into the background. Why go through all this trouble? Because ordinary beings have different capacities, the Buddhas must play different roles to guide them and suit their abilities in order to save them. And we are causing a lot of worries for the two Buddhas. If you consider yourself a disciple of Buddha, for now put aside the Sages Path and rely on Amitabha's primal vows.
Returning to the beginning of the story, we may find ourselves climbing the vine, obsessing over worldly concerns such as life, wealth, status, and even incompatible Dharma paths. However, upon hearing the primal vows and teachings of the two Buddhas, what do we do next? We no longer fight the tiger of death but just recite the Buddha's name while contemplating rebirth in the Pure Land. When our time comes, we must let go of our attachment to the vine and trust in Amitabha’s guiding hand, allowing ourselves to be reborn in the Buddha's land and transcending the Three Domains. In this way, our lives become complete and perfect.
While death is frightening, what awaits us Amitahba-reciters at the end of our lives is the unconditional salvation of Amitabha Buddha, who is our refuge. We have absolute peace of mind.
May I wish that you all have faith in the Buddha, recite his name, and are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)
- 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
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.
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