What Is to Recite ‘Single-Mindedly, Without Deviation’?
By Dharma Master Huijing
English translation by Householder Guoshu, edited by Householder Jingtu
- In Pure Land practice, “easiness” is the benchmark
- Misinterpretations past and present
- To recite Amitabha’s name steadfastly is to “have abundant virtuous roots”
- To recite “single-mindedly, without deviation” is to achieve “two-fold exclusivity”
- Two tiers of cause and effect in three scriptural passages
- Master Shandao’s explanation of the 18th Vow
- Questions and answers
1. In Pure Land Practice, ‘Easiness’ Is the Benchmark
The meaning of the phrase “yixin buluan” (single-mindedly, without deviation) in the Amitabha Sutra is very simple. It is easy to understand and to perform. The Pure Land school adheres to what Master Nagarjuna called “the Easy Path.” The word “easy” is like a measuring stick. Whatever accords with “easiness” is correct, pristine Pure Land Buddhism; whatever doesn’t, is not.
Thus when we expound Pure Land Buddhism and explain the phrase “recite the name [of Amitabha Buddha] single-mindedly, without deviation,” our explication, understanding and practice must all satisfy the requirement of “easiness.” Otherwise, what is expounded is not correct, pristine Pure Land Buddhism.
The Amitabha Sutra is one of the Three Pure Land Sutras. Since “single-mindedly, without deviation” appears in the text, it is not possible that the term’s meaning should be at odds with the criterion of “easiness.” If it is, that is because people in later times misinterpreted it. Some, in fact, have gone to extremes, erecting an enormous wall between Amitabha Buddha and sentient beings and distancing them from each other. This is a great pity!
The expression “yixin buluan” is easy to understand. If you have read my books, especially the Collection of Discourses, you should have a proper grasp of it, as well as the “two tiers of cause and effect in three passages” of the Amitabha Sutra. Because of this understanding, you will gain joy in the Dharma and be optimistic about rebirth in the Pure Land.
So our fellow practitioners who still do not understand probably have not read our books. I hope you will spend time to read the entire series. If you find the full texts too thick, you can read our pocket-sized titles. We now have ten such miniature volumes, and the 11th is being prepared. (Editor’s note: There are currently 32 titles.)
“Yixin buluan” in the Amitabha Sutra is very simple. “Yi” is one, not two. “Not two” means “exclusive.” “Buluan” means neither mixed nor jumbled – in other words, focused, exclusive of everything else. The term therefore means “to recite the name [of Amitabha] singled-mindedly, without mixing in other elements.” Master Shandao composed a verse to explain “single-mindedly, without deviation”: “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; it’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances. The Tathagata selects the key method – he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.”
This gatha comes from In Praise of Dharma Practices. The work is divided into two fascicles. The second fascicle, instead of explaining the Amitabha Sutra word by word, sentence by sentence, explicates the scripture’s core meaning.
A sutra always starts with “Thus I have heard” and ends as members of the assembly “joyfully believed and accepted [the Buddha’s teaching], and paid their respects before departing.” A commentator may be able to explain every phrase in great detail, but if he fails to elucidate the core meaning of the scripture, he has only explained its words, not its significance.
2. Misinterpretations Past and Present
Since ancient times, most interpretations of “single-mindedly, without deviation” have been based on the doctrines of the Tiantai, Huayan or Chan (Zen) schools. As a result they are wrong, because they do not conform with Pure Land thought on the scriptures. The primary Pure Land text is the Infinite Life Sutra, which mainly expounds the 48 Vows of Amitabha Buddha. The Fundamental Vow is the 18th. What does the Amitabha Sutra talk about? Chiefly, the 18th Vow. And what is the summation of the Contemplation Sutra? Mainly the 18th Vow as well.
There are three passages in the Amitabha Sutra that lay out two tiers of karmic cause and effect. These passages have long been incorrectly interpreted, misleading many people.
The Amitabha Sutra says –
One cannot attain birth in that land with few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings as causal conditions.
Having few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings is insufficient to gain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. A person must possess abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. What is to have few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings – and what is abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings?
The first passage –
If a good man or woman hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name for one day … or seven days, single-mindedly and without deviation
The second passage –
When that person approaches the point of death, Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will appear before him.
The third passage –
When death comes, his mind will not be severely confused. He will at once gain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss.
These three extracts contain two levels of karmic cause and effect. We said that many people have misinterpreted the passages. The reason is that they mistakenly explain “few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings,” “single-mindedly, without deviation” and “his mind will not be severely confused.”
3. To Recite Amitabha’s Name Steadfastly
Is to ‘Have Abundant Virtuous Roots’
What does it mean to have few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings? In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha does not make clear the meaning of the phrase. But he does explain “abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings” as follows –
… hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name
To hold fast to Amitabha’s name evidently is to have abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings, for the action ensures rebirth in the Pure Land. If so, what then is to possess few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings? In fact the answer reveals itself, without need of further explanation. Simply speaking, in terms of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, all practices besides the consistent recitation of Amitabha’s name constitute few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. Practices of the Three Refuges, Five Precepts, Ten Good Actions, Four Samgarhas (ways to win others over), Six Paramitas and the Eightfold Noble Path are all highly meritorious. But insofar as rebirth in the Land of Bliss is concerned, they have few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings; steadfast recitation of Amitabha’s name alone generates abundant good roots and meritorious blessings.
Why is holding fast to the name equated with plentiful virtuous roots and meritorious blessings? Because this name derives from Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow, which says that if reciters who aspire to rebirth in his Pure Land “should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.” That means: You will certainly achieve rebirth by reciting my name; if you are unable to do so, I cannot become a Buddha.
Therefore Amitabha’s achievement of Buddhahood depends on whether you are able to attain rebirth in the Pure Land by reciting his name. If you recite his name and cannot gain rebirth, that means his compassion and power are insufficient, so he isn’t yet qualified to become a Buddha. So if we wish to be reborn in the Pure Land, we must first ask: Has Amitabha achieved Buddhahood? If not, there would be no Land of Bliss. Where then would we be reborn? If he has not become a Buddha, he would not be able to offer his name for us to recite steadfastly, even ten times. How could we achieve rebirth?
Since Amitabha has attained Buddhahood, our rebirth in the Pure Land is assured. Why is that? Simply because Amitabha has become a Buddha. He made a pact with us, saying “recite my name, even ten times.” That is to say, “So long as we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, we will certainly be reborn” in the Land of Bliss.
“Recite my name, even ten times” means that whatever the timing of a person’s encounter with the Pure Land school, he or she only needs to “wish to be reborn in my land.” (“Wish to be reborn in my land” is from Amitabha’s viewpoint; from our perspective, it would be “want to be reborn in his land.”) If you wish to be reborn in my realm, all you need do henceforth is to recite Namo Amitabha Buddha.
If you come across the Pure Land teachings today and have another 30 years to live, you only have to recite Namo Amitabha Buddha exclusively during these three decades. There is no need to supplement that by mixing in the practices of other schools and dedicating the resulting merit. The reason is that not all sentient beings can accomplish these practices; some can, but most cannot. You need only recite Namo Amitabha Buddha.
If you have ten years left, do not undertake miscellaneous practices. Focus solely on reciting Namo Amitabha Buddha. If you have only a year, a month or a day remaining, rely on Amitabha’s name alone during that time. If you have just a day left, it is not possible for you to practice Chan or sitting meditation, to make mountain pilgrimages, to undertake repentance rites, to recite sutras, to hear Dharma discourses or attain enlightenment.
With a single day to live, you will appreciate how fragile and fleeting life is. But that does not matter. You should spend the day steadfastly reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. If you wish to be reborn in the Pure Land, reciting the name is enough. As you have a single day left and will die when it is over, doing so will ensure rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
If your life is extended another day, continue to hold fast to the name. If you live seven days, you should also recite the name steadfastly. Whether the extension reaches eight days, seven years, 70 years – just keep reciting for the rest of your life. Do not change your method. This is what reciting “single-mindedly, without deviation” means. You are of one mind about this, not of two minds. Your mind has an exclusive, not multiple, focus. Recite the great six-character name at all times.
A Buddha’s mind discards all arbitrary notions of self, others, living beings and their continuing existence. It does not discriminate between friends and foes, and treats them equally. This is known as great unconditional kindness and universal compassion. However, we sentient beings discriminate among others, judging them to be good or evil. Compared with the Buddhas we are all ordinary beings, afflicted by the Five Turbidities. Why? Because even if a person undertakes the Five Precepts or Ten Good Actions and gains rebirth in the human or celestial realm, he or she will fall back into the lower realms when that life ends.
Besides, it is exceedingly rare that anyone is able over many lifetimes to maintain rebirth in the human and celestial realms or keep practicing the Five Precepts and Ten Good Actions. That is because we are all plagued by greed, anger and delusion. Whenever we encounter circumstances relating to greed, anger and delusion, we naturally will act accordingly.
Nowadays, if a practitioner develops special powers – such as the ability to walk through walls – he will have legions of followers. Yet even though you can practice the Five Precepts, Ten Good Actions and the Four Immeasurable Minds, or fly through the skies or burrow underground, in the eyes of the Buddhas you are still an ordinary being who cannot ascend to the sacred realms.
Why is that? Because special powers arise from the stillness of meditation (dhyana). A meditation master can gain rebirth in the Celestial Realm of Form. The highest level attainable through meditation is the Celestial Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception. Though the practitioner’s lifespan will be 80,000 kalpas, at death he or she will tumble into the lower realms again.
From our perspective as ordinary beings, there are distinctions between greater and lesser good or evil, and between superior and inferior practice. But in the eyes of the Buddhas, we are all ordinary beings, full of negative karma and trapped in the cycle of rebirth. Thus Master Shandao told us to recognize that we are iniquitous ordinary beings subject to endless rebirth. This applies whether we are householders or monastics, whether we have superior or inferior capabilities, and whether we are practitioners or not.
In the Saddharma-smrty-upasthana Sutra, the Buddha said of rebirth: “From the celestial realms to the hell domains, and from the hell domains into the celestial realms.” Celestial beings experience the Five Degenerations as they approach the end of their lives, and they will fall into hell as a result of their karma. After discharging their karmic debts, hell beings can be reborn in the celestial realms, if that is what their karma next dictates.
Shakyamuni Buddha said in the Nirvana Sutra, “Even if one gains rebirth in realms ranging from the Brahma Heavens to the Heaven of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception, at death one still falls into the Three Wretched Realms.” That is to say, if a person actively does good and avoids evil, practices purely the Five Precepts and the Ten Good Actions, and masters meditation, the person can, on the strength of his or her meditative ability, be reborn in the Brahma Heaven of the Form Realms, or even up to the Heaven of Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception among the Formless Realms. This is so even if such people haven’t been able to eliminate the delusions of views and thoughts. But as Shakyamuni Buddha says, they will still fall into the Three Wretched Realms when they die.
So from a Buddha’s point of view, the Three Domains are like a house on fire, the Six Realms akin to a sea of suffering. There is little difference between good and bad people: One is good in this life, bad in the next; another is bad in this life and good in the next. Good or bad, celestial realm or hell domain – all are subject to the process of reincarnation, of endless recycling. Thus from a Buddha’s perspective, all sentient beings are iniquitous ordinary beings, caught in the cycle of rebirth.
If we were conscious of our status as such, says Master Shandao, we would of course rely thoroughly and completely on Amitabha Buddha. Our minds would not be troubled by anxiety, nor would we wonder wishfully whether cultivating other practices is better than seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. No, we would press ahead resolutely, let go of everything else and depend entirely on Amitabha. As far as rebirth is concerned, all practices except Amitabha-recitation are considered to have “few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings.”
If a practitioner could uphold the Five Precepts in a pure manner, he would be regarded as a great practitioner. May I ask who among the audience is capable of doing so? If we cannot even do this, how can we presume to accomplish the Ten Good Actions? And even if our Five Precepts are pure, our Ten Good Actions are perfect and our meditative capability is great, we would still be ordinary beings!
Master Tanluan said, “In the human and celestial realms, karmic consequences are determined by good and evil actions. Such causes and effects are all distorted and unreal. They are therefore known as insubstantial merit.” The karmic cause of the human state is the Five Precepts, while that of the celestial state is the Ten Good Actions. The causes of the Five Precepts and the Ten Good Actions, as well as their respective karmic consequences, are all false, upside down. Certainly, their merit is without substance!
As Buddhists, of course, we must do our best to uphold the Five Precepts and practice the Ten Good Actions. But we need to understand clearly that even if we were to do so perfectly, we would still be ordinary people, not sacred beings. We would remain unable to transcend our ordinary state and achieve holy status. So when we dedicate the flawed merit from our vexation-filled practice of the Five Precepts and Ten Good Actions towards rebirth in the Land of Bliss, do the two match up?
Master Shandao said, “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana.” “Unconditioned” means intrinsic, natural – where there is no deliberate action, no birth and no death, and no afflictions such as greed, anger, delusion, pride and doubt. Absent also are the delusions of views and thoughts, of worldly obstructions and of ignorance. Only such a domain can be described as unconditioned nirvana.
The Land of Bliss is such a realm of unconditioned nirvana. We must realize that if we dedicate toward rebirth there the merit from our practice of the Five Precepts, Ten Good Actions, Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Six Paramitas and myriad virtuous practices, or even from the elimination of the delusions of views and thoughts, such assets are all of few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. That’s why, in explaining these scriptural passages, Master Shandao said: “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana. It is hard to gain rebirth there by undertaking miscellaneous practices according to circumstances.”
In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha begins by explaining, “Why is that domain called the Land of Bliss? It is because the sentient beings there are free from suffering and enjoy every kind of bliss.” He then introduces, one by one, the splendors of the circumstantial rewards (environment) – the seven rows of railings, nets and trees respectively – and the direct rewards (personal attributes) to be found there. This induces us to admire such a milieu and wish to be reborn there.
Master Shandao describes the environment as a realm of unconditioned nirvana. Therefore the Land of Bliss is a domain of unconditioned nirvana. The description is Master Shandao’s explanation of the splendid environment of the Pure Land and the wondrous personal attributes of the beings there, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra.
So the first part of the sutra talks about the marvelous characteristics of the Land of Bliss and its inhabitants, in order to invoke our admiration. Since it is so good, I hope you can all gain rebirth there, and that everyone will replace suffering with joy and enter nirvana. Therefore, the Amitabha Sutra speaks first of the benefits of the Land of Bliss, so we will admire them and seek rebirth there. Then it tells us the method. Every sutra talks about two things – the goal and the way to get there. It is the same with the Amitabha Sutra. It speaks first about the goal, so we can admire it, and then reveals how we can reach it. We must believe, aspire to rebirth and act accordingly, in that order.
What is the method? Let’s discuss the passive aspect first. It is that we cannot be reborn in the Pure Land with few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. Now we explain the active element: What is to have abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings? It is “to recite steadfastly the name” of Amitabha Buddha. This name is also called “the Great Name of a Myriad Virtues.” The word “myriad” here does not refer to a finite number; it means “all-inclusive.” It is also called agada medicine (which cures all ailments), as well as the body of the Dharmadhatu (universal Buddha).
That’s because the name is the fruit of five kalpas of contemplation by Amitabha Buddha, followed by countless eons of ascetic practice on his part. It also results from the fulfillment of his vow that if name-reciters “should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.” Simply speaking, the merit required for our rebirth in the Pure Land is all contained in this name. That’s why it is sufficiently valuable to be called the Great Name of a Myriad Virtues, while all other names are not.
The fact that this Buddha can deliver all sentient beings, enabling them to be reborn in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood, underscores his awe-inspiring virtue. If he is incapable of doing this, his powers and virtues would be deficient. That is why Shakyamuni Buddha praised Amitabha Buddha as “the foremost and most esteemed in power, merit and radiance,” adding that “the radiance of other Buddhas cannot match” that of Amitabha.
So we must understand clearly that our rebirth does not depend on any supplementary dedication of merit from our miscellaneous practices. It hinges entirely on the name of Amitabha, which is wholly sufficient, lacking nothing. As a matter of course, we have to observe the Five Precepts and Ten Good Actions in our daily lives. As the Confucians taught, parents should be benevolent and children filial, while elder siblings should be amiable and younger ones respectful. We should be close to our relatives and kind to all people, and even extend our kindness to all things. This is a part of our basic duty.
As far as rebirth in the Land of Bliss is concerned, however, this name is entirely sufficient, no more and no less. If we are more confident about rebirth only after dedicating the conditioned and flawed merit from our practice of the Five Precepts and Ten Good Actions, it means we have doubts about Amitabha Buddha. Such a misguided approach would break the heart of Amitabha, who underwent ascetic practices on our behalf for all those kalpas.
Therefore to recite the name steadfastly is to have abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings, while all the rest are “miscellaneous practices according to circumstances.” If you have karmic connections with Chan, then practice Chan; if your links are with esoteric Buddhism, then engage in esoteric practice. It is the same with other practices such as sutra-recitation and repentance. Then dedicate all these activities to rebirth in the Pure Land. This is to undertake miscellaneous practices according to circumstances.
Master Shandao taught that it is difficult to gain rebirth in this way. Difficult does not mean impossible, but the dedication of merit is necessary. That’s because the main cause and proper practice for rebirth is recitation of Amitabha’s name. It’s like traveling from Kaohsiung to Taipei. The straightest, most assured route is the freeway. If we abandon the freeway and use provincial or county roads or smaller trails, we would need to adjust our direction all the time. If we lose our bearings as we twist and turn in various directions, we will not reach Taipei.
We must ask ourselves: The result of practicing the Five Precepts is to gain human form. Will they lead to rebirth in the Pure Land? No! Undertaking the Ten Good Actions allows us to be reborn in the celestial realm. Will they gain us rebirth in the Land of Bliss? Assuredly not. According to the laws of karma, one becomes an Arhat by practicing the Four Noble Truths and a Pratyekabuddha by cultivating the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising. As these karmic causes and effects have nothing to do with the Land of Bliss, how can they enable us to be reborn there?
It is the name of Amitabha Buddha that leads to such rebirth. Why? Because Amitabha bound the name to us through his 48 Great Vows. He assured us that we would achieve rebirth in the Land of Bliss so long as we recited his name. If we did so but failed to gain rebirth, he would not have been able to attain Buddhahood. This bond is underpinned by the law of karma – a specific cause leads naturally to its attendant effect.
Therefore the core meaning of both the Amitabha Sutra and the Infinite Life Sutra lies in the 18th Vow. They are at one with each other and echo each other. They both tell us that to recite Amitabha’s name steadfastly is to have abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings.
“For one day … or seven days” refers to the length of time – that is, “even ten times.” If you only encounter this teaching near the end of your life and have time only to do ten recitations, these ten recitations will be enough for you to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Throughout their lives, some people may not come across favorable conditions to perform good deeds and accumulate merit. They may lack the karmic circumstances to learn and practice the Dharma. Instead, they commit evil acts under adverse conditions and negative circumstances. I am drawing an analogy. Even such beings, when they are near death, with the hell fires approaching and only ten breaths remaining, may meet someone who says, “My dear so-and-so, having done so much evil, you should fall into the 19th level of hell. Besides Amitabha Buddha, no one and no teaching can save you. If only you recite Amitabha’s name, you will be able to find salvation.”
If you are bobbing up and down in the ocean, you want to grasp something – a piece of wood, even a bundle of straw. A big ship comes alongside you and someone on it says, “Dear so-and-so, don’t panic! I will save you.” Naturally you rely utterly on that person, right? That’s why Amitabha Buddha says that even evil beings with little Dharma practice and only a few recitations of his name can be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
The 18th Vow uses such an analogy to give hope to all beings regarding rebirth in the Pure Land. It tells us that since even such beings can be reborn if they have a change of heart and want rebirth, how much more so with other beings. For these other beings recite Amitabha’s name more than ten times. They have time to cease wrongdoing and practice virtue. And they have one day, seven days, seven years or 70 years to perform Amitabha-recitation. How can they not attain rebirth?
Thus the 18th Vow uses the phrase “recite my name, even ten times” to put the minds of all people at ease, to give them hope and brighten them up. “For one day … or seven days” has the same meaning as “recite my name, even ten times.” How did Master Shandao explain the two phrases? He said: “As long as a lifetime, as short as a day, an hour or a moment.” That is to say, at whatever time a person encounters this teaching, he or she gains hope for rebirth in the Pure Land.
That’s why we said at the outset that Pure Land practice is an Easy Path. That which accords with the Easy Path is Pure Land practice; otherwise, it is not, the result of mistaken interpretations. And “single-mindedly, without deviation” describes holding steadfastly to Amitabha’s name. So long as you steadfastly and exclusively recite the name, without mixing in other practices, it does not matter how much good or evil karma you have, how proficient your practice is, or whether your thoughts stray during recitation. All you need do is recite the name exclusively.
The efficacy of Amitabha-recitation does not depend on your capabilities in the first place. It depends entirely on the power of Amitabha Buddha’s vows. The 18th Vow says so. If the 18th Vow had not been accomplished, we would not be able to gain rebirth in the Pure Land through recitation. Since the 18th Vow has been accomplished, we can achieve rebirth by reciting the name. Therefore if we were to explain “single-mindedly, without deviation” in terms of single-minded non-deviation at the phenomenal and noumenal levels, the entire meaning would be twisted. Such an interpretation would be completely wrong.
4. To Recite ‘Single-Mindedly, Without Deviation’
Is to Achieve ‘Two-Fold Exclusivity’
How did Master Shandao explain the phrase “single-mindedly, without deviation”? He said, “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; it’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances. The Tathagata selects the key method – he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.”
This four-line gatha in fact explicates these passages from the Amitabha Sutra. “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana” refers to the splendid nature of the environment and the beings there. “It’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances” spells out the meaning and implication of having few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. “The Tathagata selects the key method” refers to the good man or woman who hears of Amitabha Buddha. And “he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity” elucidates the meaning of holding fast to the name, exclusively and without deviation.
So “single-mindedly, without deviation” teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with redoubled exclusivity. “Two-fold exclusivity” elaborates on “single-mindedly, without deviation.” To do something single-mindedly is to do it to the exclusion of all other things. And to perform a task without deviation is to perform it exclusively, without turning to other tasks. Thus we have “two-fold exclusivity” – and the meaning becomes clear. “Single-mindedly” means with one mind, not two minds; the focus is exclusive. “Without deviation,” or without mixing in other elements, also connotes exclusivity.
It doesn’t matter whether we can achieve a state of meditative concentration in our recitation, even while sleeping or dreaming. So long as we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha exclusively, we will certainly be reborn in the Pure Land.
Perhaps you are accumulating merit with your recitations, so that you might be fully mindful when your life is about to end and thus be reborn in the Pure Land. In other words, you are building merit and fortifying your credentials now, so you can subdue your mind near the point of death and gain rebirth. If you recite in this manner, you would need, near death, to be able to avoid such problems as the pangs of illness and remain capable of recitation. Only then could you achieve rebirth.
Such interpretations, which we often hear, are mistaken. These obstacles do not exist at all. If we set up difficult preconditions for rebirth, requiring the achievement of single-pointed and unwavering concentration in our recitation, we would have absolutely no way of gaining rebirth.
Generally speaking, to attain single-pointed and unwavering concentration in recitation is to enter a state of samadhi, or a state of phenomenal or noumenal single-mindedness. Phenomenal single-mindedness means cutting off the delusions of views and thoughts. Those who can do this are Arhats. Noumenal single-mindedness means eliminating the delusion of ignorance. If you can do that, you would be at least a Bodhisattva of the First Stage.
Since ancient times, which prominent monastics or accomplished practitioners have been able to achieve even phenomenal single-mindedness in their Amitabha-recitation, terminating their delusions of views and thoughts? As far as we know, of the 13 Pure Land patriarchs only Master Shandao personally experienced samadhi during recitation. We do not know whether any of the others attained it. Master Fazhao had a vision of Shakyamuni Buddha’s Bamboo Grove Monastery in his alms bowl and later found the place, having received blessings and predictions from Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra. But he did not say whether he achieved samadhi. Master Yinguang wrote an account called Impressions of Samadhi. “Impressions” implies that he did not have a clear view with his own eyes. So even Master Yinguang never said he attained samadhi, much less the other patriarchs. When he was about to pass away, Master Zhizhe said that he had attained the fifth stage of practice. A person at the fifth stage has not even eliminated the delusions of views and thoughts.
That is why Amitabha Buddha’s criterion for rebirth is definitely not single-pointed and undeviating concentration in our recitation. If it were, Amitabha would be deficient in both compassion and power, as no one would be able to gain rebirth in the Pure Land. Why is that? Because true compassion is unconditional. Genuine love does not attach conditions. Besides, real power implies that “so long as you want rebirth, I can save you.”
Therefore we must rely on Master Shandao’s interpretation of “yixin buluan” as the right one. Only it accords with the 18th, Fundamental Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra, as well as with the concluding Circulation Section of the Contemplation Sutra. The latter says, “Ananda, bear these words well in mind. To bear these words in mind means to recite the name of the Buddha of Infinite Life [Amitabha].” All you need do is to recite Namo Amitabha Buddha exclusively.
We must know that the sutras never mentioned the achievement of single-pointed and unwavering concentration at either the phenomenal or noumenal levels. Nor did they speak of attaining a state of meditative concentration, awake or asleep. Therefore you only need to recite Namo Amitabha exclusively. Whether our minds are pure and calm or full of vexations, stray thoughts and deluded notions – none of it matters. Just persist in reciting Amitabha’s name and let the false thoughts go where they may. To do this is to recite singled-mindedly, without deviation, and to secure rebirth in the Pure Land.
Why? The scripture states clearly, “When that person approaches the point of death, Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will appear before him.” Such beings are not yet dead; it is when they are about to die that Amitabha and the sacred assembly appear before them. Therefore “when death comes, his mind will not be severely confused” and he will be reborn. Where? In Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss, of course.
So phrase by phrase, the text itself is very clear about the order of occurrence. Even so, there are those who misinterpret the passage. They ask, “If you recite Amitabha’s name at this moment, and if correct thoughts fail to manifest near the point of death, how can Amitabha Buddha come forth to receive you?” This is to read the scripture backwards.
5. Two Tiers of Cause and Effect in Three Scriptural Passages
The first of the three passages refers to “the present stage of life”:
If a good man or woman hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name for one day … or seven days, single-mindedly and without deviation.
In our present life, our responsibility is merely to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. No matter what our vocation, activities or aptitude, we should just recite according to our capability. How can all sentient beings recite in the same manner? So we are merely responsible for reciting Amitabha’s name in our present life. This is the first passage, which relates to the present stage of life.
The second passage refers to the time a person “approaches the point of death”:
When that person approaches the point of death, Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will appear before him.
When you are about to die, you will see Amitabha Buddha in front of you. Whether you are in a coma or unable to recite because of the pain from illness, or whether you depart this world accidentally from an accident in the air, at sea or on land, or because of flooding or fire, Amitabha will certainly appear before you. You have recited all your life. Now, your body may be comatose but your spirit is not. As death approaches, your illness-induced suffering may prevent you from reciting, but that does not matter. It is time to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Those who understand this situation will be at ease as death nears. They are relaxed and joyfully anticipate the arrival of Amitabha to deliver them. Their minds will not be mired in the pain of sickness – or doubts about whether they can gain rebirth because of their inability at that moment to recite. They will not wonder whether their lifetime of practice would end up in vain. Those who grasp these principles will not doubt, fear or worry. This is the passage referring to the approach of death.
The third passage speaks of “the time of death”:
When death comes, his mind will not be severely confused. He will at once gain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss.
Since Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly already appeared as death approached, when the person dies his or her mind will not be disoriented. Rather, it will be peaceful and stable, and the person will be reborn forthwith in Amitabha’s Pure Land.
Thus we have the two tiers of cause and effect in three passages of the Amitabha Sutra. The first tier is that Amitabha-recitation in the present life is the cause; its effect is the appearance of Amitabha and the sacred assembly as death approaches. In the second tier, the appearance of Amitabha and the sacred assembly with the approach of death is the cause, and pacification of the mind at death is the effect. So the three passages in the sutra contain two tiers of cause and effect. Using steadfast recitation of Amitabha’s name to explain “abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings,” and reciting “single-mindedly, without deviation” to interpret exclusiveness, Master Shandao stressed that our practice is the single-minded and exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s name.
In his “Gatha in Praise of the Buddha,” Master Shandao says, “Only those who recite the name of Amitabha Buddha are embraced by his light. Reciting his name exclusively, they arrive at the Western Land of Bliss.” The words “only” and “exclusively” are references to “two-fold exclusivity” – undivided and unmixed. We are not required to recite until we eliminate all intrusive thoughts and vexations. We are not required to cut off all delusions of views and thoughts.
Therefore Master Shandao left us this gatha, “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; it’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances. The Tathagata selects the key method – he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.” These verses explain the three passages in the Amitabha Sutra. This part is explained in the “General Introduction to In Praise of Dharma Practices,” in The Complete Works of Master Shandao, edited by myself. If you have read these writings, you will understand the meaning of “single-mindedly, without deviation.” You will say: “Ah, so this is it! I was misled!”
I hope you will all read our books regularly. To learn the Dharma is to expose ourselves to it often, so the teachings will sink in. The Dharma flows from the wisdom of the Buddha. How can we ordinary people fathom the Buddha’s wisdom? It’s impossible! Therefore we have to hear and read the teachings. The first time around, we definitely won’t understand very well. So we must approach them a second time, a third time. By doing so, we will in time gain a thorough understanding. So we need to expose ourselves to the teachings often, so they will permeate our consciousness.
In addition to the books, we have a Chinese-language website (www.pureland-buddhism.org). There you can find the contents of all our published literature on the Pure Land school, as well as yet-to-be published materials. The contents are rich and include many stories. Please browse the site when you have time. Your questions and doubts about Pure Land Buddhism will then be resolved one by one.
So is there anything abstruse about “yixin buluan”? No! Or anything mysterious? Nothing! Master Shandao, the incarnation of Amitabha Buddha, has explained it so clearly. To “recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity” – that is the meaning of “reciting the name single-mindedly, without deviation.” Isn’t it easy to understand and execute? It truly complies with the Easy Path.
After the Tang Dynasty, many prominent monastics who propagated the Pure Land school had no access to the works and thought of Master Shandao. Therefore they did not understand these principles the way Shandao explained them. What they did have access to was the Path of Sages, whose practices were based on self-power and the Difficult Path. So they used these principles to interpret Pure Land. They used samadhi to explain “single-mindedly, without deviation.” That made Pure Land practitioners lose hope as well as confidence.
Now, the works and thought of Master Shandao have returned to China. Once we examine them the true meaning of “yixin buluan” becomes clear at once. If we interpret “single-mindedly, without deviation” in this manner, the practice is simple and easy. To “hold fast to the name” is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, and to do so “single-mindedly, without deviation” is to recite with two-fold exclusivity.
Since Shandao’s gatha elucidates a core aspect of Pure Land practice, let us memorize it:
The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; it’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances.
The Tathagata selects the key method – he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.
Consider those who are reborn in the Land of Bliss. They are able to achieve rebirth smoothly and comfortably not because they have mastered single-pointed concentration, at the so-called phenomenal or noumenal levels. They haven’t at all. It’s just that in their daily life, whenever they have time, they recite “Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha …” They seldom indulge in gossip with others, nor do they make value judgments in a calculating manner. Such a person is like a simpleton. Besides reciting Namo Amitabha Buddha, he or she knows nothing.
The rebirth of such people occur under splendid, remarkable conditions. They often know when they will die. Without having to make any effort, they avoid the pains of illness. Their minds are devoid of greed and clear, as though they are in a state of meditative concentration. It usually happens like that.
Have they terminated all passion and illusion or attained a state of virtue? They have done neither. They still have greed, anger and ignorance, as well as deluded thoughts and vexations. They remain iniquitous ordinary beings. Why are they able to gain rebirth without mishap? Because Amitabha Buddha stands behind them. Their rebirth in the Pure Land is underwritten by Amitabha’s Vow that “should [such persons] fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.” The light of Amitabha embraces them always.
6. Master Shandao’s Explanation of the 18th Vow
The explication of the 18th Vow by Master Shandao is very simple and clear; it is entirely unambiguous. What is the interpretation? In Dharma School of Contemplation and Recitation, he explains:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even only ten times, should fail to be born there relying on the power of my Vow, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
The passage points out that if you want rebirth in Amitabha’s land and recite his name only ten times, you would certainly be reborn there. Reciting Amitabha’s name, “even only ten times,” means “up to a lifetime’s recitation, in the context of one’s regular lifetime” and “just ten recitations or even a single recitation or a single thought, with reference to a person at the point of death.”
“In the context of one’s regular lifetime,” the person is healthy and can live another year, two years, ten years, 20 years or a few decades. He or she can undertake “up to a lifetime’s recitation.” If one encounters the Pure Land school only when one is about to die, that is “with reference to a person at the point of death.” Under such circumstances, to recite for a day or even an hour, ten times, once or just to entertain a single thought, is to “recite my name, even only ten times.”
“Relying on the power of my Vow” – You are relying on the force of Amitabha’s Vow. What power does he have? Amitabha has the powers of a Buddha, which can allow you to leave the Three Domains and Six Realms, and be reborn in the Land of Bliss. They can also expedite your attainment of Buddhahood. Thus Master Shandao used the foregoing 32-character passage to explain the 18th Vow, and does so very clearly and in a manner easy to understand.
The 18th Vow says –
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.
Lacking the wisdom to interpret this 36-character vow, we have made many erroneous explanations. But Master Shandao’s interpretation is neither complex nor abstruse. It is clear and easy to understand.
“Sincerely and joyfully entrust” – To what do we entrust ourselves? To the belief that if we wish to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land, we certainly will be reborn, so long as we recite his name exclusively. This is what we put our trust in. If not, what can we trust? This what we practice. Otherwise, how do we practice? It is all very clear.
Moreover, Master Shandao used 48 characters to connect and explain the 18th Vow and its fulfillment passage. How did he do so? The Master said:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there relying on the power of my Vow, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
Today Amitabha is before us, having achieved Buddhahood. We should know that his Fundamental Vow has been unequivocally fulfilled. If sentient beings recite his name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
So Shandao’s conclusion is that “if sentient beings recite [Amitabha’s] name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.” What kind of sentient beings are we? We haven’t yet subdued any of our greed, anger, ignorance, pride or doubt. Our deluded and distracted thoughts are too many to count. That is the kind of sentient beings we are.
Even such beings are assured of rebirth, so long as they recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. That’s why we say beings will certainly achieve rebirth if they recite Amitabha’s name. “Certainly” means 100 percent – assured, not indeterminate. It is certainty, not possibility. Why? Because “today Amitabha is before us, having achieved Buddhahood.” Bhikku Dharmakara has already attained Buddhahood in this world.
“We should know that his Fundamental Vow has been unequivocally fulfilled.” Thus we know that the 18th Vow is the profound, serious and central resolution undertaken by Amitabha Buddha during the causal stage of his path to Buddhahood. Such a vow is not insubstantial, false or unfulfilled. Therefore so long as we sentient beings recite his name, we will assuredly be reborn in his Pure Land. There is no equivocation at all.
Since ancient times, no one else has ever explained things so clearly, concisely and aptly, so that we aren’t confused and need not guess. The explanation is easy to understand and practice. So to recite “single-mindedly, without deviation” is to recite “with two-fold exclusivity.” It doesn’t matter whether your mind is pure or not, or whether you are vexed or not, when you recite Amitabha’s name. So long as you recite his name exclusively and rely on him exclusively all your life, that is “yixin buluan” – “single-mindedly, without deviation.” We speak of “trust,” but what do we trust? We trust this truth.
We should understand that the phrase “single-mindedly, without deviation” is neither complicated nor abstruse. There is nothing mysterious or extraordinary about it. It is very ordinary and down-to-earth, meaning simply “with two-fold exclusivity.” So we really needn’t spend too much time explaining “yixin buluan.”
The background to all the sutras is the realm of the Buddhas, which cannot be completely described in words and cannot be fathomed. Something that is inconceivable is “marvelous.” Even with his great eloquence, Master Zhizhe took 90 days to explain the word “marvelous” in the full title of the Lotus Sutra. This was known as the “90-day discourse on ‘marvelous’.” But have 90 days of discourse on “marvelous” helped anyone attain Arhathood? No!
Therefore we should sincerely do what Master Shandao said. Whether we are monastics or householders, whether we study the sutras or not, whether or not we can become enlightened through meditation, we must always be conscious that we are iniquitous ordinary beings trapped in the cycle of rebirth, with no hope of escape. Only then can we, “without doubt or fear, be certain of rebirth in the Pure Land by relying on the power of [Amitabha’s] vows.” This is the substance of Master Shandao’s “two kinds of deep faith, with reference to the aptitude [of sentient beings] and the deliverance [of Amitabha Buddha].” It is best if we can memorize the content relating to the two types of deep faith.
As Master Shandao explains it, the Pure Land school is very systematic, logical and full of substance. Every paragraph, every sentence in his writings inspires joy in the Dharma as well as confidence and hope. We needn’t read interpretations other than Shandao’s, for we can neither understand nor accomplish the explications of other prominent masters. Master Shandao’s teachings are down-to-earth and simple.
We need not memorize every one of the 48 Great Vows in the Infinite Life Sutra, only the 36 characters of the 18th Vow. It doesn’t matter even if we can’t remember those, for our memories recede as we age. If we don’t recite the Vow for three days, we may forget it. So we should memorize it if we can. If we cannot, it’s all right. All we need to know is that “if we recite Amitabha’s name exclusively and seek rebirth in his Pure Land, we will certainly be reborn there.”
Even so, if we are able to memorize, it is better to do so, including the two passages by Master Shandao explaining the 18th Vow and his elucidation of the two kinds of deep faith, with reference to the aptitude of sentient beings and the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha. These are the core principles of Pure Land Buddhism.
Master Shandao’s two passages are as follows –
The first kind of deep faith: I am an iniquitous ordinary being subject to endless rebirth. Since time immemorial I have died and been reincarnated, without hope of leaving the cycle of rebirth.
The second kind of deep faith: Amitabha Buddha embraces and receives all sentient beings with his 48 Vows. Without doubt or fear, we are certain of rebirth in the Pure Land by relying on the power of his vows.
We are ordinary beings. What fills our minds, except deluded thoughts and vexations? The teachings of the Buddha and the patriarchs are the principles governing life and the universe, especially those we have quoted here, which are the essence of Pure Land Buddhism. If we memorize them, they will one day transform into our own wisdom, infuse our bone marrow and become our very lives.
As we age, of course, we forget most of the scriptures we memorized earlier. If we are forced to recite them from memory but do not apply them, it would be better to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. Unless we declaim the texts regularly, we will eventually forget them. So it is preferable to memorize only the key passages cited above, as we are getting older.
A child has a good memory. What we memorized in childhood we often retain all our lives. If we have youngsters at home, let them memorize and recite the scriptures, as well as the Four Books and the Tao Te Ching. If they can do so, it would greatly boost the development of their writing skills and their character in future.
This isn’t a case of spoiling things with excessive enthusiasm. Children have strong memories but weak comprehension. Just let them memorize the texts when they are young. Though they do not grasp the meaning just yet, they will as they grow up. If they did not commit the texts to memory, how can they comprehend them later? So let them memorize as much as possible.
Recently many places have been organizing classes to study the classic texts, beginning with Dizigui (Guidelines for Becoming a Good Person). Dizigui is certainly a good book, for it has a positive impact on a youngster’s character and ethics, as well as how he or she deals with people and handles situations in future. It also promotes harmony in families and society. And it can nurture wisdom. So we should encourage children to memorize Dizigui. As for the Four Books, for example The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean and The Analects, the text is divided into short passages, making memorization easy. So memorize them.
The Tao Te Ching, though a Daoist work, also contains wisdom on life and the universe. Children should recite it as much as possible. Then there are Zhuzi’s Maxims on Household Management, Poems for a Thousand Families and Three Hundred Poems From the Tang Dynasty. It would be good to recite them too.
7. Questions and Answers
QUESTION: In Praise of the Rite of Rebirth says that “ten out of ten, a hundred out of a hundred of those who recite consistently [Amitabha’s name] throughout their lives will be reborn” in the Pure Land. How do we “recite consistently”?
ANSWER: To “recite consistently throughout their lives” – that is the meaning of “up to ten recitations, from one day to seven days.” Once you have encountered this teaching, you need only recite Namo Amitabha Buddha exclusively. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting or lying down, whatever situation you are in, just recite – until Amitabha Buddha welcomes and receives you at the end of your life. This is the meaning of “ten out of ten, a hundred out of a hundred, a thousand out of a thousand of those who recite consistently throughout their lives will be reborn.” The Pure Land teaching is truly applicable to people of all ability and suits both the smart and the slow-witted. It allows everyone who practices it to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Sentient beings with different occupations have different backgrounds and capabilities. You can recite Namo Amitabha Buddha according to your own ability – at home, in your workplace, under all circumstances. This is to “recite consistently,” or to “recite persistently.” For example, practicing here together, we naturally recite Amitabha’s name. Later, as we make our way home, we recite with each step we take. And back home, we continue to recite while we work. Whatever the circumstances, whether the environment is quiet or noisy, whether we are idle or busy, the name of Amitabha is never absent from our hearts or minds. That is the meaning of reciting consistently, reciting persistently.
Recite the name of Amitabha Buddha when you have time. Recite only Amitabha’s name, not those of other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or dharanis or sutras. What if we don’t understand the teaching? Make use of other moments to read Pure Land scriptures and the writings of Master Shandao, so as to know the Pure Land principles. But recite Amitabha’s name as much as possible in your spare time.
I mentioned that there are three kinds of tranquility in the morning. The first is spiritual. The second is environmental, as we have not started work and the surroundings are quiet. Thirdly, the air is pure. Factories have not begun operating and motorcycles and cars are few, so the air is clean. We open our eyes, brush our teeth and wash our face in the morning. Then we should sit for Amitabha-recitation, or walk or make reverences while we recite. To sum up, we do nothing but Amitabha-recitation before we eat breakfast and begin our day’s work. Even as we work, we recite Amitabha’s name. This is to recite consistently, persistently.
It doesn’t matter whether our recitation is calm or agitated, focused or distracted. This is to recite consistently throughout our lives. It is what Master Shandao meant when he said, “To recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly and without variation, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, whether for long or short periods – that is the karma of assurance. It is so because it accords with Amitabha Buddha’s vow.”
What is the “karma of assurance”? “Assurance” contrasts with “non-assurance” and “mistaken assurance.” “Non-assurance” means it is uncertain whether rebirth in the Pure Land can be achieved. “Mistaken assurance” refers to something that is not the cause of rebirth. “Assurance” means rebirth is 100% certain. Amitabha-recitation is the karma of assurance, which guarantees rebirth.
That is why we can say, “if sentient beings recite [Amitabha’s] name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.” The “Gatha in Praise of the Buddha” says, “Only those who recite the name of Amitabha Buddha are embraced by his light.” Only people who recite Namo Amitabha Buddha are firmly embraced by Amitabha’s unobstructed light. Amitabha’s embrace protects them right now – and he never lets go, right through their death, when Amitabha receives them into his Pure Land.
QUESTION: We are often enthusiastic and diligent when we start learning the Dharma, but slacken off after two or three years.
ANSWER: There’s a common saying, “In the first year we learn Buddhism, the Buddha is right before us. In the second year the Buddha is out in the temple’s main hall. In the third year, the Buddha is far away in Western Heaven.” This shows that the person remains a beginner who hasn’t yet begun learning.
I spoke just now about assured rebirth. That is to say you wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Will you hold fast to that aspiration till the end of your life, without changing course? Will you recite Amitabha’s name consistently throughout your life? If Amitabha is in the Western Heaven after a year or two of recitation, that is not life-long recitation. It is to change course.
So when we say “throughout [our] lives,” it means no change for as long as we continue to live, no retrogression. Our rebirth is then assured. If a person changes course or retrogresses, it shows that he or she does not truly understand the Pure Land teachings. If there is understanding, retrogression will not happen.
The core teaching of Pure Land Buddhism is the aforementioned “two kinds of deep faith, with reference to the aptitude of sentient beings and the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha.” If you understand it, you won’t regress and will be assured of rebirth. Suppose you are aware that you would suffer endless rebirth within the Three Domains and Six Realms, if not for Amitabha. If so, and if you come across this teaching, would you regress? No, you would almost certainly hold on to this lifebuoy for the rest of your life. The lifebuoy becomes the quintessence and the animus of your life. It is impossible for you to abandon it; you will hold on to it forever. So if you understand the two kinds of deep faith, with reference to the aptitude of sentient beings and the deliverance of Amitabha, you will naturally be a denizen of the Pure Land, the Land of Bliss.
Master Shandao was referring to our school when he said, “If we examine Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow, its intention is that all beings should consistently and exclusively recite his name.” That is what we do – recite Namo Amitabha Buddha exclusively. But it doesn’t mean we do not practice other teachings. For example, if you can uphold the Five Precepts and perform the Ten Good Actions, do so as much as possible. You should be sincere and scrupulous in your relationships. Avoid evil and cherish good. Be an upstanding citizen by showing civic-mindedness and respecting the law. Do all this as much as you can.
Do such acts have anything to do with rebirth in the Pure Land? No, rebirth does not depend on them. They are neither a matter of self-power and other-power, nor of primary practices and miscellaneous practices. Rather, they are like showing filial respect towards parents, being affectionate towards siblings or giving alms to the poor – things we should do as a matter of course. But if you think such actions help you gain rebirth or boost your confidence in it, do them as much as you can. They would then be miscellaneous practices under self-power. It means you have doubts about the power of Amitabha Buddha. It means you do not know that the primary cause of rebirth in the Pure Land is the Name of a Myriad Virtues – Namo Amitabha Buddha, which contains all the necessary merit.
Yes, the virtuous acts we perform do allow us to accumulate merit, but it is false, not real, merit. It does not accord with what is needed to enter an unconditioned realm of nirvana. So we should just do what is appropriate under the circumstances and according to our ability.
QUESTION: In the past, I learned esoteric Buddhism, Theravada, Yogacara, Chan and other kinds of Buddhism. They all require complete, perfect achievement in hearing, thinking and practice. Most people cannot do this even with hearing and thinking. I also found that the self-power schools have lofty teachings, but they cannot be practiced. How can we gain liberation?
I discussed Amitabha-recitation according to the Fundamental Vow with fellow practitioners. Most of them wondered if it was too good to be true. They persisted in learning esoteric and Chan Buddhism.
I confess that my ability is limited, so I feel more secure sticking scrupulously to Amitabha-recitation. Moreover, all teachings are available in the Land of Bliss – the Diamond Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, etc. The vital thing now is liberation; when we are reborn in the Land of Bliss through faithful recitation, every teaching will be complete and perfect. So I am not in a hurry to learn all the teachings. It is most important to recite Amitabha’s name conscientiously.
ANSWER: Some people need to shop around outside. They are curious about this and that. Having tried everything, they will turn a corner and settle down. Master Honen told us that the schools of the Sacred Path seek to “attain nirvana by achieving ultimate wisdom.” Practitioners of these schools rely on their own ability, or self-power. If your wisdom is insufficient, and you cannot gain direct realization of Buddha-nature and then eliminate the twin delusions of view and thought, how can you attain nirvana?
What about us ordinary people? According to Master Honen, Pure Land practitioners “gain rebirth [in the Pure Land] by reverting to foolishness.” We consider ourselves foolish and do not argue or haggle with anyone about principles. We merely recite Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha …
That’s why when I edited “Attributes of the Pure Land School,” I included these words, “Stay foolish and do not argue: Do not debate the relative merits of different Dharma schools; just stay foolish and recite Amitabha’s name.” We do not mind sticking to our foolish nature. As we are foolish and have no wisdom, it’s best to acknowledge our state and recite Amitabha’s name. When the time comes, we will be reborn comfortably.
So we venerate our own school and its teachings. We do not concern ourselves with the strengths and weaknesses of other Dharma schools, nor do we disparage them. We do not argue about the relative merits of different schools. We merely stay foolish and recite the name of Amitabha Buddha.
When we read Tales of Rebirth, we see that all those who are reborn in the Pure Land – except those receiving assistance in Amitabha-recitation as they passed away – regularly recited Amitabha’s name in their daily lives, whether they were busy or not. Such people were relatively relaxed when they died and suffered less, and were less troubled, when they fell sick.
As we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, we are protected by his ever-embracing light. We have compiled three volumes of Records of the Effects of Amitabha-Recitation. In these accounts, those who achieved rebirth weren’t prominent monastics, knowledgeable practitioners, scholars immersed in the scriptures or longtime ascetics. They just recited the name of Amitabha Buddha conscientiously, and they were reborn naturally and comfortably. As Master Shandao said, “If sentient beings recite [Amitabha’s] name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.”
Are there any more questions? Please read the series of books I mentioned more often. Immerse yourself in their content and experience it for yourself. Moreover, there is our Pure Land school website for your reference. Your questions will be answered one by one.
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