Master Shandao’s Teachings on Pure Land Buddhism: Faith in Our Roots of Potentialities, and the Buddha’s Teachings
—— Master Shandao expounding the “deep faith in one’s roots and the Dharma” to reject incorrect views and follow Amitabha Buddha.
1.The Entry Point of Faith
(1) Roots of Potentialities and the Dharma
In terms of faith, how do we establish it? If we cannot, everything will become empty talk. For this reason, Master Shandao teaches us to have a deep faith in our “roots of potentialities” and the “Dharma,” the two essential concepts for constructing faith, understanding Amituofo deliverance, and implementing the exclusive Buddha-recitation. So we list each as a separate topic. “Roots of potentialities” is the potential, capacity and capability of sentient beings, and “Dharma” the teachings of the Buddha. These are common terms among all Buddhist schools.
According to Pure Land Buddhism, “roots of potentialities” refer to sentient beings, and “Dharma” Amituofo’s deliverance.
(2) Matching Roots to Dharma
Cultivation of any Buddhist school always requires one’s karmic roots to align with the school's teachings. If they befit and suit each other, one will attain enlightenment. For example, during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, countless disciples attained enlightenment after listening to a Dharma discourse that corresponded with their roots and capabilities.
On the other hand, if they are not compatible with each other, the cultivator will gain no benefit. For example, we learned from the Avatamsaka Sutra that the dharma-realm of the one reality is so lofty that a single thought contains the immeasurable kalpas of three time frames of the past, present and future, and a speck of dust encompasses all the worlds in the ten directions such that neither does the speck expand, nor do the worlds diminish, and that “all things (dharma) are inclusive and unhampered.” Such realms are called “non-hindrance in phenomena and noumena (inner truth),” “non-hindrance between the phenomenon and the noumenon,” and “non-hindrance among phenomena.” We may study the sutra but have no way to cultivate it.
In practicing Buddhism, the most important aspect is to choose the right Dharma according to our own root potentials. Like going to a health facility, although the doctor has the option to choose from several medications, a good doctor will prescribe the right one that is most effective for our symptoms. If he prescribes medicine at random, the doctor would be seen as a quack who may harm his patients.
Buddhist scriptures are Dharma-medicines that are widely distributed today due to advanced printing and networking technology. The right Dharma-medicine is the one that matches our root capacities. Otherwise, it will lead to more afflictions and tighten the bondage, preventing liberation. Therefore, we must choose the Dharma that's right for our roots, which is not easy. Fortunately, Master Shandao, manifesting as the transformed Amitabha Buddha, teaches us to develop a “deep faith in our roots and the Dharma,” which is like a doctor taking our pulse and prescribing medicine.
Now, let us study Master Shandao’s two kinds of deep faith.
- Two kinds of deep faith
In the chapter on the highest level of the highest grade in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao expounds the “three states of mind.” One of the three is the deep mind, of which he says:
A deep mind is a mind of deep faith, and it too has two aspects.
(1) The first aspect is to firmly and resolutely believe that I am an iniquitous ordinary being, subject to endless rebirth.
The first aspect of the deep mind:
I am an iniquitous ordinary being. Since time immemorial, I have been trapped, tumbling in the endless cycle of birth and death, unable to find the karmic conditions for escape.
That is very important! As the saying goes, “It is meritable to know oneself.” We don’t know our roots and capabilities. Master Shandao is compassionate. He draws a portrait like a mirror to let us reflect upon ourselves and says, “Look at it carefully. This is what you look like!”
We can divide this passage into four subsections: First is the overall understanding of the deep mind; Second is about our roots and capabilities of the present; Third is about the past; and Fourth is about the future.
1.Overall Understanding of Deep Faith
“The first aspect is to firmly and resolutely believe,” which is a summary. All sentient beings must have a deep faith if they want to practice the Pure Land path, for, without it, they will not be able to walk the path, hindered by their arrogant minds. No matter who you are, how far-reaching your enlightenment is, or how extensive your Dharma propagation has become, an arrogant mind influencing your practice will become an obstacle to entering the Pure Land school. Until you have subdued it, the path to Pure Land is shut to you. Of course, if you are not an iniquitous ordinary being, you need not practice the Pure Land path.
“I am an iniquitous being subject to endless rebirth,” explains our present roots and capabilities. “I” refers to every one of us being an iniquitous ordinary being, not a liberated sacred being.
Master Shandao, the manifestation of Amitabha Buddha, has personally achieved the samadhi of Buddha-recitation; each time he recited the Buddha’s name, a ray of light would emanate from his mouth. Even Master Shandao referred to himself as such (iniquitous ordinary being), let alone the rest of us! Ch'an masters seldom reckon themselves as “ordinary beings,” instead, encouraging us: “You are Buddha! Accept it. Be confident. Do not underestimate yourself!” which is from a different perspective. Other Buddhist schools also advocate the ideal of “I am Buddha,” which is the basis that they begin their practice with, leading to the realm of enlightenment. However, even with that kind of high praise, we are still ordinary beings.
The phrase, “I am Buddha,” meaning our inner Buddha-nature exists, is true; nevertheless, we are still ordinary beings. How do we resolve this paradox? The Pure Land School approaches this from a different angle and direction, that is, “I am an ordinary being.” Practitioners of the Pure Land path do not limit their way of thinking to those of other Buddhist schools such as the Ch'an, Tiantai, Esoteric and Huayan.
Master Yinguang said earnestly:
There are two kinds of Dharma practice:
If one relies on one’s own strength to cultivate the precepts, samadhi, and transcendent wisdom to eradicate delusions, sever the bond to samsara and realize enlightenment, that kind of Dharma practice is called the general path.
On the other hand, if one, with true faith and earnest aspiration, relies on Amitabha Buddha’s compassionate power to be reborn in the Pure Land, this is the special path.
The “general path” is common to all Buddhist schools, and the “special path” is unique and practiced only by the Pure Land School.
Why is it called the “general path”? Master Yinguang explains:
Countless Buddhist schools, whether big or small, adopting the expedient or ultimate approach, require the three studies of precepts, samadhi, and transcendent wisdom to sever the three poisons of greed, wrath, and ignorance. Only then will the practitioner be free of the cycle of rebirth. That is as difficult as climbing the sky, not something we ordinary beings can hope to accomplish.
These Buddhist schools include Mahayana, Theravada, expedient teaching, and ultimate teaching. No matter what school one chooses, they all require the three studies to eradicate the three poisons completely, until not even a tiny bit remains. Once all delusory karmas are eliminated, one can realize their Buddha-nature, thus ending the birth-and-death cycle.
In other words, the general path is as difficult as climbing to heaven and is impossible to accomplish for ordinary beings like us bound by karmic debts. With the special path, rebirth to the Land of Bliss is achieved simply by the power of Amitabha Buddha’s great vows. All it requires of us is true faith and devout aspiration, no matter the depth and accomplishment of our practice or our intelligence level. What makes it so unique is Amitabha’s great vows.
To practice Buddhism, we must first distinguish the differences between these two paths. We can’t use the general path to assess the great compassionate vows of Amituofo and the benefit of the special path or apply its framework to the Pure Land way, which it doesn’t fit.
Master Yinguang sighed and said, “Since ancient times, many Buddhists thought they were propagating the Buddha’s teachings and the Pure Land Dharma. However, they applied the general Dharma concept to interpret the special Dharma of Pure Land Buddhism. They thought their teachings would benefit sentient beings, but instead, they unknowingly harmed them and hindered their progress. Therefore, we must think outside the box when we study the Pure Land way.”
- Our present roots and capabilities — Iniquitous beings
“I am an iniquitous ordinary being, subject to endless rebirth,” says Master Shandao. He doesn’t say, “I have always been a Buddha.” Instead, he draws a picture showing that we are wicked beings subject to the cycle of birth and death. There’s no positive description for ordinary beings, only confused and distracted, heinous and vexed, mentally disturbed ordinary beings. Being “iniquitous” is the cause, and the “endless rebirth” is the effect; the transgressive acts lead to the endless rebirth.
- Our past karmic roots
“Since time immemorial, I have been trapped, tumbling in the endless cycle of birth and death.” Countless kalpas have passed, and we are still trapped in the six realms of samsara today. “Tumbling in the endless cycle…” means we spent most of the time in the three evil realms and less time in the three good realms. Like someone who’s drowning and struggling to get his head above water, we can’t catch a breath between submersions. Don’t you think this is tremendous suffering?
It’s rare to be born as a human! We must use this precious human body, fleeting like a flint spark or lightning, to practice the Dharma. It would be a pity if we do not, and we continue to commit abominable karmas, resulting in even more degradation and decadence! It’s such a waste of human life if one does not study Buddhism and feel the dignity and preciousness of the human body.
The human body is hard to come by. If you are reborn as an animal, hungry ghost, or hell dweller, the chances of encountering Dharma are extremely scarce! Only human beings have the opportunity and receptiveness to listen to and understand the Dharma. It would be highly unworthy of the human body if we did not practice the Dharma and wasted our energy, life, and time pursuing the five worldly desires.
- Our roots of potentialities in the future
It is no use to dwell on things in the past. We all were iniquitous mortals. Let bygones be bygones, and let's focus our attention on the future. What does the future hold for us? “Unable to find the karmic conditions for escape.” As Master Shandao earnestly puts it, Our future doesn’t hold any chance of escaping the cycle of rebirth on our own. “You might as well throw in the towel and give up.” We were in despair and heartbroken after hearing this.
These three verses of Master Shandao penetrate our past, present, and future. It explains our current situation, which is the substance of our faith. “To firmly and resolutely believe” is the mentality of our faith. In other words, this is the truth in which we must believe.
Whether deep faith or shallow faith, it is relative to someone who has not developed the faith. For instance, your name is Zhang Lanhua. Would you say, “I firmly and resolutely believe that I am Zhang Lanhua?” You wouldn’t do that. If someone said to you, “I firmly and resolutely believe that you are Zhang Lanhua,” you would wonder, “What happened? I am Zhang Lanhua. Why do you say firmly and resolutely?”
Due to our arrogance, we don’t know our true selves. Thus, Master Shandao uses this statement, saying, “you must firmly believe that you are an iniquitous being subject to endless rebirth.” Once you put that into effect, there’s no more discussion of belief or doubt, nor firmly or resolutely, because it’s the truth.
- Seek not on our own efforts for the predestined conditions of emancipation
Since we can’t rely on our efforts to find the predestined conditions leading to the liberation of samsara, where else do we look? We ought to shift our focus from ourselves to the Buddha. This is called “whole-hearted and exclusive nianfo, Buddha-recitation and Buddha-remembrance.”
Previously we discussed that rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss depends not on our efforts but on Dharmakara’s attainment of buddhahood and his compassionate power of deliverance. It would be of no help if he were compassionate but not powerful, or powerful but not compassionate. Amituofo is “the compassionate and merciful” Buddha. He would not say, “you are too wicked, and I will not rescue you.” Because of his “greatest vows,” he wishes to deliver all sentient beings to the Pure Land; and because of his “greatest vow’s power,” he can deliver them all. So, let us rely not on our own efforts but on concentrating on nianfo exclusively.
Many try to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land by their own efforts. Master Shandao tells us it is not possible.
“My mind is full of uncontrollable delusions. How can I achieve rebirth in the Pure Land?” The fact is, we can’t achieve rebirth even if our mind is untainted and dedicated, let alone a delusive mind. That is why the Master tells us to concentrate on nianfo, that is, Buddha-recitation and Buddha-remembrance, and not worry about taming our monkey mind because the rebirth has nothing to do with our mind being purified or delusive. So, why worry about it?
For example, a stranger’s conduct, virtue or wickedness, does not concern you. Things would be different if he was your son. When he does well, you are pleased; if he doesn’t, you are sad. Our trouble is treating delusive thoughts as our son. So, let go of it, and ride on Amituofo’s great compassion and power and be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
What have delusive thoughts got to do with you? Leave them alone. Like the cloud rising in the sky, never mind whether it is white or dark, let it rise. Like leaves falling to the ground, never mind that they are red or yellow, let them fall. You are an ordinary mortal full of incorrect thoughts, so let it be, and concentrate on nianfo: “Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo…” This is called “exclusive nianfo.”
Do not seek emancipation and its predestined conditions within ourselves because they are not there. Let us look toward the side of Amituofo. But where do we find the conditions of emancipation? It is in the second deep faith.
The first kind of deep faith is to “extinguish delusive thoughts'' or “to eradicate delusive minds and let the dharmakaya revive.” While this is a well-known notion of Ch’an Buddhism, it is also applicable to Pure Land Buddhism. Why do we feel that rebirth is uncertain? It is because our false thoughts keep us looking for the solution on our own. Thus, we must abandon that mindset. Master Shandao’s explanation tells us to give up self-reliance, which is the entry point of Pure Land Buddhism—to give up our arrogant mind. As Master Shandao advises, “you must firmly and resolutely believe you are an iniquitous ordinary being, and you do not possess the predestined conditions (yuan) to escape the cycle of rebirth”.
- The second deep faith in rebirth by nianfo
What should we do since we do not possess the yuan of emancipation?
The second deep faith:
“That Amituofo, by his forty-eight vows, embraces and delivers all sentient beings.
Whoever relies on His vows and power, will assuredly and undoubtedly be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. “
That is the second deep faith in the dharma, which has four categories:
1. A description of the second deep faith
2. The process of the second deep faith
3. The mind of the second deep faith
4. The benefit of the second deep faith
1. A description of the second deep faith
We have talked about the second deep faith but have yet to discuss it in detail.
- The progress of the second deep faith
“That Amituofo” denotes faith in the Buddha; the “forty-eight vows,” faith in the Buddha’s vows; and “embrace and deliverance,” faith in the functional ability of the Buddha’s vows in delivering all sentient beings: step by step.
“That Amituofo” denotes the great Physician King and Deliverer has come.
Our side is doomed since we are in no condition to escape samsara, not in the past, the present, nor the future. Therefore, we ought to adjust our sights and entrust our hope to Amituofo. The word “that” in the phrase “that Amituofo” has a special meaning. We are on this side (of the Saha Land), and Amituofo is on the other side (of the Pure Land). It reveals that Pure Land Buddhism is a Dharma school that has two sides of existence: ours and his, coming and going, accepting and renouncing. Such notions of existence are fundamentally different from and indeed rejected by Chan Buddhism.
The word “that” also has another meaning: choice. There are countless buddhas in the lands of the ten directions, and we choose neither the Medicine Buddha, nor the Light-Sumeru Buddha, nor the Light-King Buddha; we choose only Amituofo, which “that '' means. The so-called “I firmly and resolutely believe in that Amitabha Buddha '' is to shift our focus from ourselves to solely Amitabha Buddha, moving our attention away from all other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other Dharma schools.
What is in “that” Amitabha Buddha that makes us have deep faith in him?
The “Forty-eight vows”: Why do we firmly and resolutely trust in the Buddha? Because he is the only Buddha who proclaims these vows. No other Buddhas have done that and built for us such a blissful pure land to be our “permanent home.” Therefore, we “firmly and resolutely believe in that Amituofo” and recite his name whole-heartedly and exclusively.
What’s the purpose of the Forty-eight vows?
It is to “embrace and deliver all sentient beings.” What kind of “sentient beings”? As we discussed previously, they are the iniquitous mortals entrapped and tumbling in the cycle of birth and death since time immemorial, without chance of emancipation on their own. Other Buddhas of the ten directions cannot liberate these beings by the general way. So, Amituofo proclaims these Forty-eight vows to deliver all sentient beings, leaving no one behind. That is the implication of “embracing and delivering all sentient beings.”
- The Mind’s Ability to Believe
What can we do?
“No doubt, no worries”: We already solved this puzzle during the talk on “deep faith;” that we are iniquitous ordinary beings with no hope of emancipation. And now that we have encountered Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance, do we still have doubt and worry? No. People without hope don’t have the assets to question the Buddha. And it wouldn’t change our condition, no matter if we doubt or worry. Thus, it is not difficult for us to let go of everything, surrender ourselves, and cut off all escape. As Master Shandao said in the “white path and two rivers” analogy, the person chased by evils has no alternative but to step onto the white path, rely on the power of the Buddha’s vows, and be born in the Land of Bliss.
The path of deliverance is different from that of cultivation. The path of cultivation is beneficial to the prudent with the highest roots and capabilities, while the path of deliverance is best for the imprudent with the lowest roots. It is like helping people in need, the poorest and the most barren should have the priority.
Amitabha Buddha arrived to inspect disaster areas — our world is one of the hardest-hit areas. The Saha world is the wickedest with five turbulent defilements, filthy and vexatious. Amituofo brought infinite merits and virtues with him, the six-character name (Na-mo A-mi-tuo-fo), and said, “I am the richest elder. I will universally rescue all sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions, especially those in the hardest-hit areas. Come and receive the gift of my merits and virtues!” How do we receive his gift? “All we have to do is recite Namo Amituofo, and the merits and virtues are all ours.” Yet, we retreat and say, “I am not qualified,” which does not correspond to Amitabha's intention.
What should we do then? We should rush to receive the merits and virtues, thinking, “I am the poorest and hungriest. Please give it to me first!” Buddha will be pleased when we do so, as this is the moment we ought to be first in line instead of staying behind. “Modesty is not the way when it comes to rebirth in the Land of Bliss.” We should have the mindset that if there were only one person born in the Pure Land, that one person will be me!” Because the other option of falling into hell must be avoided.
Indeed, the reality is that people are rushing to hells and courteously yielding to others the rebirth to the Land of Bliss: “You are qualified, and I am not. You go first.” On this matter, we should never step aside and retreat.
We ought to strive to be the first and fear being left behind, and we shall claim, “I am the most qualified because my karmas are most evil, and my cultivation gets me nowhere. I must be the first to receive the provision of rebirth, for the dire consequences are unimaginable. That is the right mindset; not decline to shoulder the responsibility. The bold and brave would be the first to get on board.
- Getting the Benefit
What is the consequence of unconditionally accepting the Buddha’s compassionate deliverance?
“Relying on Amitabha's vow power ensures rebirth”: Only with faith in the Buddha’s vows will we realize our faith in the rebirth. Had the Buddha not proclaimed the forty-eight vows, we would not have faith in his deliverance and be reborn in his Pure Land.
How do we rely on the power of Buddha’s vows? Master Shandao advised us earnestly:
Always recite the name of Amitabha Buddha exclusively.
We must know our roots of potentialities, and that we are the target of Amituofo’s forty-eight vows. So, let us not fear that we are not qualified and retreat. What we must do instead is “rely on the power of the Buddha’s vows wholeheartedly” and recite his name vigorously! “Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo…”
As we move step by step on the lotus towards the Land of Bliss, we call out:
Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo…We are embraced by his compassionate light with each call.
- Once again, Master Shandao said in "In Praise of Rebirth":
The deep mind is the mind of deep faith: Firmly believing that I am a wicked being full of vexations with little virtuous roots, always sinking and tumbling in the stream of cycling birth and death, unable to escape the burning house of the Three Domains.
Our minds are full of vexations, not equanimity; we possess few roots of goodness, not many roots; we do not leave the house of the Three Domains that is on fire, and it is not because we can. And that is the deep faith in the Buddha and our karmic roots.
Having said that, let us turn our attention to the advice of Master Shandao:
We have now learned the great primal vows of Amitabha Buddha; if we recite his name with faith as little as ten times, or even just once, rebirth into the Land of Bliss is assured.
We must believe in Amituofo’s great vows and put them into practice, that is, recite the Buddha’s name exclusively, which requires the two kinds of deep faith mentioned in “In Praise of Rebirth”.
- True vs. False Faith
The two kinds of deep faith explained by Master Shandao are the most suitable for our karmic roots, for we are iniquitous beings, and Amitabha Buddha can rescue us. Faith like this is true faith; if not, it is false. For instance, “I believe that since I have been practicing Buddhism and chanting sutras and mantras, I will attain rebirth.” Is this true faith? No, it is false faith. Because rebirth is not achieved by our efforts, no matter how much we may accomplish in cultivation. It can only be achieved through Amitabha’s forty-eight vows. By relying on his vows, rebirth is guaranteed. Let us not look to ourselves, for our mind is dark, wicked, defiled, full of greed, anger, and ignorance. Do not pamper it. Seize it and throw it away. We must detach ourselves from the Saha world and look to Amituofo, recite his name with complete and wholehearted devotion—the so-called “exclusive Amitabha-recitation.”
Take building a house, for example. The General Dharma Path is to rely on ourselves to build houses. We would have to design the house, purchase building materials (such as concrete, steel frame, and bricks), and hire workers to build the house before moving in. This is the general way of building a house in which to live.
This is not the case with the Pure Land Path. Amituofo has built the house for us and invited us to live in it. He says, “all of you in the lands of the ten directions are like my only child. I have built the Mansions of Bliss for you. Please come and live here! Here is the golden key: Recite ‘Namo Amituofo,’ and enter.”
Even if we don’t understand the Pure Land teachings and cannot practice the Dharma, just as we do not know how to build a house, Amitabha has already built it for us. All we need to do is move into his house willingly. Our inability is not an issue. The obstacle is relying on ourselves to cultivate the General Path — the three studies of precepts, samadhi, and transcendent wisdom. If the foundations of the three studies are not firm, it will collapse like a house built of sand. However, the treasury mansions built on the virtues and merits of Amituofo Dharmakaya will never fall.
This is the true and correct faith in Pure Land Buddhism.
Incorrect faiths include: Only when I am free from afflictions can I be reborn in the Land of Bliss; or only when I am free from delusions, or only when I am enlightened. Such beliefs are wrong and false because they do not correspond to our roots and capabilities nor Amitabha’s vows.
What is the true and correct faith? It is that “I am an iniquitous being destined to fall into evil realms by my karmic force, and Amitabha’s vows are true and real. Reciting his name assures rebirth in the Land of Bliss.” “Although I am not a cultivator and am full of vexations and deluded thoughts, I have Amituofo, who will rescue me, thus my rebirth is guaranteed!” This belief is true and profound; other beliefs are false and fake, leading to uncertain rebirth.
The core doctrine of Pure Land Buddhism is faith, aspiration, and practice. “Faith” has two aspects: faith in our inability to liberate ourselves and faith in Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance. If we think, “I too have some power to combine with that of Amituofo,” we are weakening our faith, not strengthening it. We must humbly empty ourselves and admit that we have nothing, that we are nothing, because all we have is evil karma, which keeps us sinking and tumbling in the cycle of birth and death.
Some people will always say: “I am an ordinary iniquitous being. My delusive thoughts flutter all over my mind. How can people like me be reborn in the Land of Bliss? I am definitely not qualified.” This state of mind is not that of a true believer in the Buddha or his roots and capabilities; rather, it is a sense of guilt that prevents him from benefiting from the Buddha’s deliverance. In despair, he will only be endlessly imprisoned in the Three Domains.
Our choice is clear,
First, firmly believe that I have no chance to be free from samsara — Death.
Second, firmly believe that relying on Amitabha’s vows and rebirth is assured —Rebirth.
Only by having these two deep faiths can we be resurrected and reborn in the Land of Bliss.
- Two Indispensable Deep Faiths
There are four subtypes when combining the two deep faiths:
- Faith in our roots of potentialities, but not in the Dharma
- Faith in the Dharma, but not in our roots of potentialities
- Faith in neither our roots nor the Dharma
- Faith in both the roots and the Dharma
Only the fourth sub-type is correct. The rest are incorrect, and even presumptuous. We will compare and explain the four subtypes to heighten our understanding of deep faith.
(1) Faith in our roots of potentialities, but not in the Dharma
Many people would say, “I definitely can’t escape samsara in this lifetime!” If this is his sole belief, he doesn’t have deep faith in the roots of opportunity, and his sense of guilt and fear will lead him to King Yama.
Always they repeat to themselves, “I can’t be reborn in the Land of Bliss,” even when they recite Namo Amituofo. Why would they set such confinements for themselves? Their thinking is, “Rebirth is possible only if I am enlightened through nianfo(1); since I am not, I can’t ever be reborn!” “Rebirth requires nianfo to a level of equanimity. But my mind is full of deluded thoughts, and I cannot control it; how can I be born in the Land of Bliss?” With such a mindset, how could they have the confidence and tell themselves at their time of dying, "I will be born in the Buddha-land"? That is why Master Shandao, in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, tells us that we must cultivate the confidence, "I definitely will be born in the Buddha-land." The master does not speak about our ability to be reborn, since we don’t have it. He speaks of faith in the Dharma that Amitabha Buddha has the vow and power to deliver us out of samsara. “My rebirth is certain even though I am an iniquitous ordinary being.” Of course, it is not by their ability to cultivate merit for rebirth, but by the deep faith in the Buddha’s deliverance. Such faith is definite and without any uncertainty.
Many people, who have not studied Master Shandao's teachings, can accept the first deep faith, but not the second. They admit that they are iniquitous beings, unable to escape samsara, but they do not believe, as Master Shandao teaches us, that through nianfo, Amituofo can deliver them to his Pure Land.
(2) Faith in the Dharma, but not in our roots of potentialities
The second type is believing that Amitabha Buddha’s great vows and nianfo will lead to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, but not practicing nianfo or aspiring for rebirth. People with this type of faith do not recognize their roots and capabilities, thus they would not benefit from the Buddha’s deliverance. It’s like a salesperson recommending to people, “Here is a wonderful medicine that will cure your terminal illness instantly, but I do not need it because I have a healthy body like a pilot!” In fact, all of us iniquitous beings need this medicine.
Therefore, deep faith in our roots is like a doctor taking our pulse, while deep faith in the Dharma is the doctor’s prescription for our illness.
Deep faith in the Dharma is to understand the kinds of roots of potentialities we have, that emancipation is possible only by the ‘medicine’ of Amitabha’s forty-eight vows! Only after taking that medicine can rebirth be guaranteed.
Hence, we must have faith in the Dharma as well as in our roots.
(3) Faith in neither our roots of potentialities nor the Dharma
People who have no such faiths, believing in neither the cycle of birth and death nor the Buddha’s deliverance, will feel sorry later when they come face to face with King Yama. But by that time, it will be too late.
The Infinite Life Sutra reads:
When the end of their life is imminent, they feel remorse and fear in succession.
What is the use of self-reprehension and fear upon death when in life they do not believe in causation and samsara? As they now face the spirits of their foes and karmic creditors, they realize that the six-realm samsara is real, and fear and revulsion finally arise in turn.
(4) Faith in both our roots of potentialities and the Dharma
Faith in both: “Potentiality” which refers to our roots, and "Dharma,” the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha. We must have faith in both.
How should I believe in the roots of capability and potentiality? Should I believe that "I am a good person, I have deep roots of goodness, I can cultivate merits”? No, it is not like that. To believe in my roots and capabilities is to believe that I am a heinous ordinary being, that I have no means, no predestined conditions to escape the cycle of birth and death. So, what must I do? Practice nianfo! Despite my undependable karmic roots, we have faith in Amituofo’s precious and unconditioned deliverance.
This Dharma is not that of the Diamond Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Ch'an meditation, or other teachings. It is the only path for iniquitous beings like us to reach emancipation by reciting the name of Amitabha, that is, the Buddha’s forty-eight vows embracing beings like us who do not have the predestined conditions to be free of samsara. The power of Amituofo’s vows ensures rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
People who believe in the roots of capabilities and the Dharma are called honest reciters and humble reciters. These reciters live in peace in this life, and, upon death, by the power of the Buddha’s vow, they will be born in the Western Pure Land.
Having faith in our karmic roots is what the Infinite Life Sutra says:
With humility and reverence, they follow and uphold the Buddha’s teachings.
“Humility,” well, we can’t even talk about it, for being humble is not our nature. What we must do is to relinquish our pride and arrogance, and admit that “I am a wicked person without hope to escape samsara.” “Reverence” means faith in the Dharma because “only Amituofo can deliver me out of misery to the Land of Bliss, so I naturally and reverently worship him.” This Buddha-reciter is called an honest reciter, a humble reciter, sincerely believing in both the roots and the Dharma.
- The Pragmatic Meaning of the Two Deep Faiths
(1) Attaining Peace of Mind in the Present
People with both deep faiths secure peace of mind in this lifetime. Why? Because we don’t worry about our restless monkey minds as we accept our current roots of potentialities as ordinary beings, and we recite Amitabha's name with our own capacities. With this mentality, our restless thoughts will lose their function and will not affect us because we have seen their true color. For example, a crook can’t truly hurt us if we know his true nature and ignore him; however, if we treat this cunning crook like a son, and think about him, feel sorry for him, and worry about him, then we would be hurt. Many people are either deceived by his hypocritical face or intimidated by his terrifying appearance. If we know his cunning nature, he cannot disturb our determination.
Reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name does not mean that our mind is absolutely absent of deluded thoughts. Then again, what has that got to do with us? As far as nianfo is concerned, a deep faith in the Buddha is like an immense mind, vast as the void space. The deluded thoughts, rising and falling, are like clouds in the sky, coming and going. Say, as we are reciting “Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo…”, a cloud suddenly drifts across the sky and disrupts our nianfo, are we going to complain to our master, “the cloud bothers me. What am I going to do? Shall I wait until it stops moving, so I can keep on reciting the Buddha?” That’s not the right attitude. We should disregard any distractive thoughts and continue nianfo because deluded thoughts have no roots. But, if we cling to them, and pay too much attention to them, they will grow roots, bigger and deeper, day after day. We must ignore them now and cut off their roots and nutrients.
How do we cut them off? Nianfo! With Amitabha as our support, delusions cannot hinder us. Over time, they will run out of steam, and slowly shrink and recede. But don't act upon them. “What should I do? They are terrible!" Do nothing. Let the Buddha deal with them! How? Just recite Namo Amituofo, and you will be at peace. Hence, it is called “attaining peace of mind in the present.”
Don’t worry and feel sorry for yourself. Amititabha Buddha knows our troubles and will shoulder them for us. Yet, we hold tight onto our worries, not letting the Buddha take over. Let us pass all our burdens to Amituofo and concentrate on nianfo, regardless of deluded thoughts or no deluded thoughts. All we have to do is recite: Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo…..
There is no need to eradicate deluded thoughts deliberately and forcibly; just don’t let them lead your mind astray. Focus on nianfo, and you will be fine. Instead of cursing the darkness, why not light a candle to chase it away? The same with deluded thoughts: chanting the Buddha name will chase away delusions. From the perspective of peace of mind, Amituofo is the master, our guardian.
So, have no fear, no anxiety, always rely on the Buddha. In practicing nianfo, pay attention and listen to your chanting. It is good to adopt Master Yinguang’s method of ten-count recitation. When the mind is distracted, bring it back and continue to recite, for distractions are no match for the Buddha’s power. It is like going into a debate with Amituofo on our side, we have a great advantage over the opponents. No matter how disruptive the thoughts might be, they cannot hinder Amituofo's deliverance. However, the deluded thoughts will not go away overnight and will likely keep entangling with our minds until death. That’s fine, as no evil karmas can hinder Amitabha’s deliverance. An entire army of deluded minds is defeated in one blow upon the arrival of Amituofo at our deathbed, at which time we will then be riding on the lotus platform toward the Land of Bliss and attaining non-arising, non-annihilating Dharma.
(2) Knowing Our Own Roots of Potentialities
Master Shandao’s two kinds of deep faith enable us to establish a correct faith in Pure Land Buddhism. We do not feel despair or sorrow, or arrogance or presumptuousness. Instead, we humbly and honestly recite the Buddha name according to our roots and capacities. We would not trouble ourselves trying to attain the unattainable, such as single-mindedness or nianfo samadhi, thinking, “I may be a person with excellent roots, able to attain samadhi or a pure mind in my present life.” If we set it as our goal, we may be disappointed, become distressed, doubtful, worried and fearful if we cannot attain it. Then there is no need for it.
We see through our own roots and capabilities clearly and realize this is what we are.
(3) See Through
There is a good saying: “see-through, let-go/relinquishing, follow-the-way, set-your-mind-at-ease, and recite Amitabha Buddha’s name.” It means to see through one’s own roots of opportunity, let go of the idea of self-liberation, follow the way of Amitabha’s deliverance so your mind will be at ease, and, in calmness, recite the Buddha-name. Do not be deceived. We “have not the predestined karmic conditions to escape samsara,” that we are full of afflictions, lacking virtuous roots, transmigrating through the three domains, and incapable of leaving the house on fire. Understand that fact thoroughly and clearly, that “I’m such a nefarious being,” then put it down, abandon the self-effort knowing that we will not find by ourselves the answer to the cycle of birth and death, and set our eyes on Amituofo.
When it comes to rebirth, we must entrust ourselves completely to Amitabha because rebirth in the Pure Land has nothing to do with our ability. Our only job is to recite the Buddha-name, to think of Amituofo day and night: that “Amitabha has the power to save me, and my rebirth in the Pure Land is assured.” We can consider ourselves as good as “dead” and let go of wishful thinking.
Many people have not found the right entrance to the Pure Land Path. They adopt the General Path, which is the Path of Sages, with their deluded mind, yet they do not understand the concepts correctly. For example, Ch'an, Esoteric Buddhism, and other sacred methods always refer to one’s true self, not one’s illusory self. The Path of Sages requires realizing one’s true self before starting practice. However, we mistake the deluded mind as our true self, the so-called “regarding the thief as one’s father.” In this way, we can’t achieve anything in any practice.
The Pure Land Path takes on a completely different approach. We know that we cannot be enlightened, so we turn our attention to the six-character name “Na-Mo A-Mi-Tuo-Fo.” The six-character name is fully awakened to the ultimate reality. Thus, we give up our deluded mind and altogether surrender to Amituofo’s great vows.
There is no contradiction between the Sacred Path and the Pure Land Path. However, the starting points are different, and there is a big gap in that one is difficult and the other easy. Also, there is a great difference in the roots and capabilities of the target practitioners. The Pure Land Path extinguishes our false thinking: what I want to achieve and how I practice; this is futile.
With our roots and capabilities, if we hold on to Namo Amituofo, we will naturally be drawn by Amitabha’s great vows and gain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This is the inspiration given to us in the practice of the “two kinds of deep faith,” that is, to be willing to live as an ordinary being, to recite the Buddha’s name honestly, not to distress ourselves, not to be too ambitious, and just do as much as we can.
Amitabha’s “down to ten times” and the “exclusive and persistent name-recitation” encompass a vast and boundless scope with no fixed criteria or standard. It doesn’t matter if you are a monk or householder; if you possess a pure or deluded mind; if you are wise or slow; or if you are skillful or not. Everyone can recite the Buddha’s name. The way of nianfo is so flexible that it can accommodate people with all kinds of roots and potentialities.
Amitabha Buddha said “down to ten times”; he did not say “ten recitations with pure mind." The term “down to” encompasses all roots and dispositions. Therefore, everyone can do it, and everyone can make it to the Land of Bliss. Recite persistently and never give up; do the best you can. All this is contained in the “down to ten recitations.”
Master Shandao’s explanation of “down to ten times” is “up to a lifetime of recitation or down to ten recitations,” that is, as long as we have encountered this method, rebirth in the Pure Land is guaranteed. All we need to do is rely on Amituofo and recite his name faithfully until death.
(4) Put down/Let go
When we see through life as an illusion and are no longer deceived, we will naturally let go of any attachment. First, we will relinquish this material world and understand it is nothing but afflictions, impermanence, non-existentialism, and non-self. Second, we will forgo our arrogant minds. We are just ordinary beings; no matter how well we have been cultivating merit, we must let go of the “I-am-cultivating” mindset. Merely reciting Namo Amituofo meets the standards and conditions. Wouldn’t this set our minds at ease? Don’t set the bar high: “I want to reach a certain level of nianfo; for this, I will give up my family and everything...” Since I am a lay-Buddhist, I will abide by my obligations as one, be a wife, a mother, a father, a son, a scholar, a farmer, a businessman, etc. In other words, we recite the Buddha-name while fulfilling our mundane roles. We shouldn’t trouble ourselves trying to do something beyond our capabilities or giving up that which we can’t forsake. Instead, let us entrust ourselves entirely to the power of Amitabha’s great vows.
In the end, we must let go of the whole Saha world, not just our body and mind. Our goal is to be reborn to the Land of Bliss. What in this world is worth holding on to? Whether good or bad, we must not pay much attention to it.
Let go of our deluded minds. “I won’t count on it. I only rely on Amitabha Buddha!” In this way, our minds will be equanimous, and nothing can hinder us.
(Translated and edited by the Pure Land School Translation Team)
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