Pure Land and the Issue of Birth and Death

4) Recitation according to the Buddhas' Intentions

As was said earlier, in those countries which follow Mahayana Buddhism, Pure Land practitioners are in the majority. Not only do many monks and laymen practice Buddha Recitation, even followers of various cults invoke the name of the Lord of the Western Paradise. Nevertheless, though many recite the Buddha's name, very few truly understand the goal of recitation. Thus, their recitation is not in accordance with the true intention of the Buddhas.

There are those who, visiting Buddhist temples and monasteries and seeing people engaged in Buddhas Recitation, also join in, without a specific goal. This action, while garnering merits and virtues for the future, is not in accordance with the Buddhas' true intention.

There are those who practice Buddha Recitation seeking escape from danger and calamities as well as health, happiness and tranquillity for their families and ever-growing success in their careers and business dealings. Such goals, although worthy, are not consonant with the Buddhas' true intention.

There are those who, faced with hardships and the frustration of their wishes, become despondent. They recite Amitabha Buddha's name, praying that they will be spared such adversity in their present and future lives, that they will be endowed with beauty and honor, and that everything will turn to their advantage and accord with their wishes. Such goals are of course worthy, but they are not consonant with the Buddhas' true intention.

There are those who realize that life on earth does not bring any lasting happiness; even the noble, rich powerful and influential are beset by worry and suffering. They hope that through the merits and virtues of Buddha Recitation, they will be reborn in the celestial realms, endowed with longevity and leisure, joy and freedom. Such a goal, although worthy, is not consonant with the Buddhas' true intention. There are those who, having committed many transgressions, think that they cannot easily be saved in this life. They therefore recite the Buddha's name, praying that in their next life they will be reborn as a male, leave home to be a high-ranking monk, and become awakened to the Way. Such a goal, while exemplary, is still lacking in wisdom and faith, and is not consonant with the Buddhas' true intention.

What, then, is the true intention of the Buddhas?

Buddha Sakyamuni clearly recognized that all conditioned dharmas are impermanent, and that all sentient beings have always possessed in full the virtues and wisdom of the Tathagatas (Buddhas). However, because of delusion about their Original Nature, they create evil karma and afflictions and revolve forever in the cycle of Birth and Death. Even if they were to be reborn in the Heavens, once their merits were exhausted, they would descend into the lower realms. For this reason, the real intention of Sakyamuni Buddha is that through the Pure Land method, sentient beings may realize an early escape from the sufferings of Birth and Death.

Throughout countless eons, all Buddhas have accumulated merits and wisdom. Anyone who recites their names will engender immeasurable virtues. Moreover, Buddha Amitabha has made this Vow: Any sentient being who singlemindedly recites His name and seeks rebirth in His Land will, at the final moment, be welcomed and guided to the Pure land, and attain non-retrogression.[7] To exchange the immeasurable virtues accumulated through Buddha Recitation for the small merits and blessings of the realm of gods and men -- forfeiting liberation and rebirth in the Pure Land -- would be no different from an innocent child bartering an invaluable diamond for a piece of candy. That would be a great waste indeed!

Moreover, the power of Amitabha Buddha's Vows is so immense that no matter how heavy our karma may be, by reciting His name in all earnestness, we can, in this very lifetime, achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. To seek rebirth, for instance, as an enlightened, high-ranking monk is to lack wisdom and faith. It cannot ensure rebirth in the Pure Land in this very life or attainment of Bodhisattvahood at the stage of non-retrogression. Therefore, the real intention of the Buddhas is for sentient beings to practice Pure Land so that they can be liberated from Birth and Death -- and this liberation is to be achieved in one lifetime.

But why do we need to escape the cycle of Birth and Death? It is because, in the wasteland of Birth and Death, we truly undergo immense pain and suffering. If students of Buddhism do not sincerely meditate on this truth of suffering, they cannot achieve results despite all their scholarship, as they do not experience fear and seek liberation. The sutras say:

If the fearful mind does not come easily, the sincere mind cannot spring forth easily.

This is the reason why Sakyamuni Buddha, when preaching the Four Noble Truths to the five monks led by Kaundinya, taught them first the Truth of Suffering. According to this truth, if we meditate on the suffering of the human condition, we will have a clearer idea as to why we must swiftly escape the cycle of Birth and Death.

5) The Eight Major Sufferings

Sakyamuni Buddha explained the eight causes of suffering in his Truth of Suffering. The human condition has always entailed countless sufferings, as exemplified by the eight types enumerated below:

Suffering of birth

While still in the womb, human beings already have feelings and consciousness. Because of this they move and experience pleasure and pain. When the mother eats cold food, the embryo feels as though if were packed in ice; when hot food is ingested, if feels as though it were burning. The embryo, living as it is in a small, dark and dirty place, immediately lets out a scream upon birth. From then on, all it can do is cry when it feels cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, or suffers insect bites. Buddha Sakyamuni in his wisdom saw all this clearly and in detail and therefore describes birth as suffering. The ancient sages had a saying in this regard:

As soon as sentient beings escape one womb, they enter another, 
Seeing this, sages and saints are deeply moved to such compassion! 
The illusory body is really full of filth, 
Swiftly escaping from it, we return to our Original Nature.

Suffering of old age

As they approach old age, human beings have diminished faculties; their eyes cannot see clearly, their ears have lost their acuity, their backs tire easily, their legs tremble, eating is not as pleasurable as before, their sleep is not sound, their memories fail, their skin dries out and wrinkles, their teeth ache, decay and fall out. Even those who were most handsome and beautiful in their youth can only feel sorrow and regret when they grow old.

In old age, many persons become confused and mixed up when eating or dressing or they become incontinent. Their children and other family members, however close to them, soon grow tired and fed up. The human condition is like that of a flower, ruled by the law of impermanence, which, if it can bring beauty and fragrance, also carries death and decay in its wake. In truth, old age is nothing but suffering and the human body has nothing worth cherishing. For this reason, Buddha Sakyamuni said: old age is suffering!

Suffering of disease

To have a body is to be open to disease, from those small ailments which have an external source to those dreadful diseases coming from the inside. Some people are afflicted with incurable diseases such as cancer or debilitating ailments, such as osteoporosis, etc. In such condition, they not only experience physical pain, they also have to spend large sums of money for treatment. Should they lack the required funds, not only do they suffer, they create additional suffering for their families. This is suffering on top of suffering. The suffering of disease is self-evident and requires no further elaboration.

Suffering of death

All sentient beings desire an easy birth and a peaceful death. However, these conditions are very difficult to fulfill, particularly at the time of death, when the physical body is generally stricken by disease and in great pain. With the body in this state, the mind is panic-stricken, bemoaning the loss of wealth and property, and saddened by the impending separation from loved ones as well as a multitude of similar thoughts. This is suffering indeed. Very few of us want even to hear about death, let alone "like" it.

Suffering due to separation from loved ones

This truth is particularly easy to discern in time of war. In this situation, how many families have to endure separation, with some members in the "North," others in the "South?" How many young men have lost their lives on the battlefields, the survivors stricken by their losses, the departed suffering tragic deaths? This is the suffering of separation. How many still in their prime have lost their loved ones to the demon of death, leaving them alone, helpless and forsaken? Should we also mention those whose parents, brothers, sisters and children have been killed by bombs and bullets? How many children, having lost their families, lacking all means of support and guidance, must lead precarious lives in orphanages? This is suffering due to death.

Thus, in times like these, the sea of remembrance and the river of love are deep and long, but the mountain of hate and the sky or grief are also high and wide! Separation from loved ones, whether in life or through death, is suffering indeed!

Suffering due to meeting with the uncongenial

This is suffering due to encountering enemies. To endure those to whom we are opposed, whom we hate, who always shadow and slander us and look for ways to harm us -- which is hard to tolerate, as we are always worried and ill at ease -- this is true suffering. There are many families in which fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives are not of the same mind, and which are constantly beset with disputes, anger and acrimony. This is no different from encountering enemies. Where is happiness then?

Suffering due to unfulfilled wishes

We all have many desires and hopes in our lives. For example, the poor hope to become rich, the ugly wish for beauty, the childless pray for a son or daughter. Those who have children wish them to be successful, intelligent and filial. Such wishes and hopes are legion, and cannot all be fulfilled. Thus, they are a source of suffering.

Suffering due to the raging skandas (aggregates)

This is the suffering of those whose faculties are too sharp and full. The five skandas (or aggregates) are form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness. The skanda of form relates to the physical body, while the remaining four concern the mind. To put it simply, this is the suffering of the body and the mind.

The suffering of the skandas encompasses the seven kinds of suffering mentioned above. Our physical bodies are subject to birth, old age, disease, death, hunger, thirst, heat, cold and weariness. Our minds, on the other hand, are afflicted by sadness, anger, worry, love,[8] hate and hundreds of other vexations. It once happened that Prince Siddhartha (the young Buddha Sakyamuni), having strolled through the four gates of the city, witnessed the misfortunes of old age, disease and death. Endowed with profound wisdom, he was touched by the suffering of the human condition and left the royal palace to find the way of liberation. Those with limited understanding and shallow thinking, on the other hand, do not ponder the truth of suffering and often mistake suffering for happiness.[9]

There are those who, upon being told that birth is suffering, will answer: When I was born I was too young to know anything, so I do not know of any suffering! If told that old age is suffering, they answer: I am not old yet! When told that disease is suffering, they answer: Since infancy, I have always been in good health, seldom experiencing any disease. Even when I was sick, it was only a minor discomfort; therefore, I do not see any suffering! When told that death is suffering, they say: Death has not come. Who knows that it is not a peaceful sleep? Upon being told that separation from loved ones is suffering, they say: The members of my family have always lived happily together, without experiencing any separation! If told that the company of the uncongenial is suffering, they answer: I haven't done anything to deserve anyone's wrath. There is no reason for anyone to plot against me! If we say that not getting what we want if suffering, they answer: I have everything I desire and need from life; I do not want anything else!

Can we say, however, that these people have no suffering? No. Precisely because they are well-endowed in body and mind, they are undergoing the suffering of the five raging skandas. Why is it that a well-endowed mind and body constitute suffering? Let us remember the trials for murder, robbery, rape and other violent crimes in our society. These occurrences derive in part from persons with too much time on their hands. With mind and body over-satisfied, they are subject to mental and biological stimulations. They are not at peace either sitting or standing and create problems where there are none, which leads to violent events. As an example, nowadays many people throughout the world lead self-indulgent lives, prone to hard liquor, drugs, illicit sex and every kind of indulgence -- fond of danger and cruelty. They are not physically and mentally at peace with themselves and, like a raging fire, engage in wrongful acts leading to inevitable suffering. This is the "suffering of the five raging skandas."

The eight conditions described above are know as the Eight Sufferings. They are described here in a general way and can be subdivided into many other types of suffering. If we examine ourselves and others, are we not to a greater or lesser extent under the sway of the eight sufferings? If those who study the Dharma continuously ponder the Eight Great Sufferings of mankind, they can be said to be close to the Way.