12) The Path of Birth and Death is Full of Danger
There are many gates to the garden of Enlightenment. As long as the practitioner takes the great Bodhi Mind as his correct starting point, whatever Dharma door he chooses, in accordance with his capacities and preferences, will bring results.
If we consider "capacity," Pure Land embraces persons of all levels. Not only ordinary people but also Bodhisattvas (Manjusri, Samantabhadra) and Patriarchs (Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna) have all vowed to be reborn in the Pure Land. If we take "timing" into consideration, we should realize that in this Dharma-Ending Age when sentient beings in general have scattered minds and heavy obstructions, Buddha Recitation is easy to practice and can help the practitioner achieve rebirth in the Pure Land in just one lifetime. However, if we discuss "individual preferences," the Pure Land method alone cannot satisfy everyone; hence the need for many schools and methods.
In general, cultivators endowed with a sharp mind, seeking a direct, simple and clear approach, prefer Zen. Those who are attracted to supernatural power, the mystical and the mysterious prefer the Esoteric School. Those who like reasoning and require a clear, genuine analysis of everything before they can believe and act, prefer the Mind-Only School... Each school has further subdivisions, so that adherents of the same school may have differing practices.
The cultivator who has developed the Bodhi Mind, vowing to save himself and others, may follow any of the schools mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, in this Dharma-Ending Age, he should, at the same time, practice Buddha Recitation seeking rebirth in the Pure Land -- thus ensuring success without retrogression. Why is this so? There are three cardinal points:
In the wasteland of Birth and Death, there are many dangers and obstacles to cultivation. In order to escape the dangerous cycle of Birth and Death and ensure that there is no retreat or loss of the Bodhi Mind, we should seek rebirth in the Pure Land. This is the first cardinal point the practitioner should keep in mind.
The ancients often reminded us:
If we cultivate without striving for liberation, then our cultivation in this life is in fact an enemy during our third rebirth.
This is because in the first lifetime, we endure suffering and bitterness in our practice and therefore, in the next life we enjoy wealth, intelligence and authority. In this second lifetime, it is easy to be deluded by power and wealth, "charming spouses and cute children," and other such worldly pleasures. Having tasted lust and passion, it is easy to become attached, and the deeper the attachments, the closer we are to the dark place of perdition, as we resort to numerous evil deeds to strengthen our power, authority and ambitions. Having generated such causes in our second lifetime, how can we fail to descend upon the three Evil Paths in our third lifetime?
Some would ask: "If we have expended efforts to cultivate and sow good seeds in our previous life, how can we lose all our good roots and wisdom in the second lifetime, to the point of descending upon the Evil Paths in the third lifetime?"
Answer: Although good roots exist, the bad karma accumulated for eons past is not necessarily wiped out. Furthermore, on this earth, good actions are as difficult to perform as climbing a high tree, while bad deeds are as easy to commit as sliding down a slope. As the sages of old have said:
The good deeds performed all of one's life are still not enough; the bad deeds performed in just one day are already too many.
For example, people in positions of power and authority whom we meet today have all, to a greater or lesser extent, practiced charity and cultivated blessings and good karma in their previous lives. However, few among them now lean toward the path of virtue, while those who are mired in fame and profit constitute the majority. Let us ask ourselves, how many persons of high academic achievement, power and fame would agree to leave the secular life, opting for a frugal, austere existence directed toward the goal of lofty and pure liberation? Monks and nuns, too, may patiently cultivate when they have not yet reached high positions. However, with power and fame, and many disciples bowing to and serving them, even they may become easy prey to the trappings of the vain world. Nowadays, how many individuals, clergy or laymen, who were practicing vigorously in the past, have gradually grown lax and lazy, abandoning cultivation or leaving the Order entirely, retreating from the Way -- why even mention the next lifetime?
If such is the case in the human realm, how much more difficult it is to cultivate in the celestial realms, where the Five Pleasures are so much more subtle!
We have been talking about those who enjoy blessings. Those lacking in blessings and leading a life of deprivation also find it difficult to cultivate. Even if they are middle class, in this life full of heterodox ways, they may find it difficult to meet true Dharma teachers or to discover the path to liberation. Let us not even mention those treading the three Evil Paths, where cultivation is tens of thousands times more difficult, because they are deluded and suffering both in mind and body.
The cycle of Birth and Death is filled with such dangers and calamities. Thus, if we do not seek rebirth in the Pure Land, it is difficult to ensure non-retrogression of the Bodhi Mind.
13) The Need to Seek Liberation in this Very Life
In this Dharma-Ending Age, if we practice other methods without following Pure Land at the same time, it is difficult to attain emancipation in this very lifetime. If emancipation is not achieved in this lifetime, deluded as we are on the path of Birth and Death, all of our crucial vows will become empty thoughts. This is the second cardinal point which the cultivator should keep in mind.
Those practitioners who follow other schools, stressing only self-help and a firm, never-changing mind, believe that we should just pursue our cultivation life after life. Even if we do not achieve emancipation in this life, we shall certainly do so in a future lifetime. However, there is one thing we should consider: Do we have any firm assurances that in the next lifetime, we will continue cultivating? For, if we have not yet attained Enlightenment, we are bound to be deluded upon rebirth, easily forgetting the vow to cultivate which we made in our previous lifetimes. Moreover, in this world conditions favoring progress in the Way are few, while the opportunities for retrogression are many. How many monks and nuns have failed to pursue their cultivation upon rebirth, as in the examples summarized in the first chapter?
The sutras state:
Even Bodhisattvas are deluded in the bardo stage,
Even Sravakas are deluded at birth.
Bardo is the intermediate stage between death and rebirth ... In the interval between the end of this current life and the beginning of the next life, even Bodhisattvas are subject to delusion, if they have not yet attained [a high degree of] Enlightenment.
Another passage in the sutras states:
Common mortals are confused and deluded when they enter the womb, reside in the womb, and exit from the womb. Celestial kings, thanks to their merits, are awake upon entering the womb, but are confused and deluded when residing in or exiting from the womb. Sravakas are awake when they enter and reside in the womb; however, they are confused and deluded when they exit from the womb. Only those Bodhisattvas who have attained the Tolerance of Non-Birth are always awake -- entering, residing in, and exiting from the womb.
In a few instances, ordinary people, because of special karmic conditions, are able to remember their previous lives, but these are very rare occurrences. Or else, they could be Bodhisattvas who took human form in order to demonstrate the existence of transmigration to sentient beings. Otherwise, all sentient beings are deluded when they pass from one life to another. When they are in such a state, all their knowledge of the Dharma and their great vows from previous lives are hidden by delusion and often forgotten.
This author recalls the story of a Dharma colleague. In his youth, each time he happened to be dreaming, he would see himself floating freely, high up in the air, traveling everywhere. As he grew older, he could only float lower and lower, until he could no longer float at all. In the commentary Guide to Buddhism, there is the story of a layman who, at the age of four or five, could see everything by night as clearly as in the daytime. As the years went by, this faculty diminished. From the age of ten onward, he could no longer see in the dark, except that from time to time, if he happened to wake up in the middle of the night, he might see clearly for a few seconds. After his seventeenth birthday, he could experience this special faculty only once every two or three years; however, his special sight would be merely a flash before dying out. Such persons had cultivated in their previous lives. However, when they were reborn on this earth they became deluded, and then, as their attachments grew deeper, their special faculties diminished.
There are similar cases of persons who can see everything clearly for a few dozen miles around them. Others can see things underground, through walls, or in people's pockets. However, if they do not pursue cultivation, their special faculties diminish with time and, in the end, they become just like everyone else. Some persons, having read a book once, can close it and recite every line without a single mistake. Others have a special gift for poetry, so that whatever they say or write turns poetic. However, if they do not pursue cultivation, they sometimes end by rejecting the Dharma.
An eminent Master once commented that such persons had practiced meditation in their previous lives to a rather high level and reached a certain degree of attainment. However, following the Zen tradition, they sought only immediate awakening to the True Nature, severing attachment to the concepts of Buddha and Dharma (i.e., letting the mind be empty, recognizing no Buddha and no Dharma). Therefore, those who failed to attain Enlightenment were bound to undergo rebirth in the Triple Realm, whereupon, relying on their mundane intelligence, they sometimes became critical of Buddhism. Even true cultivators in the past were thus; how would today's practitioners fare compared to them?
As Buddha Sakyamuni predicted, "In the Dharma-Ending Age, cultivators are numerous, but those who can achieve Supreme Enlightenment are few." And, not having achieved it, even with bad karma as light as a fine silk thread, they are subject to Birth and Death. Although there may be a few cultivators who have awakened to the Way, being awakened is different from attaining Supreme Enlightenment. During rebirth, they are bound to be deluded and unfree. In subsequent lifetimes, there may be few conditions for progress and many opportunities for retrogression, making it difficult to preserve the vow of liberation intact.
Concerning the retrogression of practitioners who have merely experienced Awakening, the ancients have provided three analogies:
1) When we crush prairie grass with a stone block, though the grass cannot grow, its roots are not yet rotten or destroyed. If conditions arise that cause the stone to be overturned, the grass will continue to grow as before.
2) When we pour water into a jar, though the impurities are deposited at the very bottom, they are not yet filtered out. If conditions change and the water is stirred up, the impurities will rise.
3) Take the case of clay which is molded into earthenware but not yet fired in a kiln. If it should rain, the earthenware would certainly disintegrate.
The strong probability that those who have merely experienced an Awakening will retrogress during transmigration is similar to the above examples.
Furthermore, in the Dharma-Ending Age, how many cultivators can claim to be awakened to the Way? Awakening to the Way is not easy. There was once a Zen Master who practiced with all his might for forty years before he succeeded. Another Great Master sat for so long that he wore out more than a dozen meditation cushions before he saw his Original Nature. As far as today's Zen practitioners are concerned (with the exception of a few saints who have taken human form to teach sentient beings), the majority only manage to achieve a temporary calming of the mind and body; at most they may witness a few auspicious realms! Even if they have awakened to the Way, they can still encounter dangerous obstacles during transmigration, as previously described. The path of Birth and Death, filled with fearful dangers for those who have not attained Enlightenment, is the same. Therefore, to claim that we should not fear Birth and Death is a superficial point of view.
Furthermore, over the centuries, the Dharma has met with difficulties in some parts of the world. Wherever materialism has spread, Buddhism has come under criticism. There are places where temples and pagodas have been destroyed, sutras and commentaries burned, monks and nuns forcibly returned to lay life, and common citizens barred from practicing their faith.
Even if Buddhism is revived later on, it will have undergone changes and possibly lost some of its vitality ... For this reason, we should follow the Pure Land School, to ensure non-retrogression of the Bodhi Mind. Even if we follow other schools we should, at the same time, practice Buddha Recitation seeking rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
This is the common exhortation of such eminent sages as Masters Lien Ch'ih, Ou I, Chien Mi and Yin Kuang.
14) How to Perfect the Bodhi Mind
Having developed the Bodhi Mind and considering our own capacities and circumstances, what expedients should we adopt to perfect that Mind? If we want both the self-centered and the altruistic aspects of the Bodhi Vow to be complete, there is no better way than to seek rebirth in the Pure Land. This is the third cardinal point that the practitioner should keep in mind.
A high-ranking monk of old, having expressed his determination to cultivate, penned the following verses:
I have pondered this world, and the world beyond,
Whose name would one recite if not Amitabha's?
Truthfully, after reading these verses, pondering, and comparing Dharma methods, people's capacities and the current environment, this author is convinced that Pure Land is the safest and most complete path.
Some may say that having awakened the Bodhi Mind, we should remain in the Saha World, because in this world there are many sentient beings in need of help. Why seek rebirth in the Pure Land?
Let me reverse the question: What are the conditions that would allow us to save sentient beings? They are, of course, merit, virtue, wisdom, eloquence, spiritual power and auspicious features and bearing. (Do we have these qualities to any degree?) Particularly, severing afflictions and delusions and developing wisdom, so that we are not led astray by mundane things, is no easy matter! The ancients have said, "Severing Delusions of Views is as difficult as preventing water from running down a mountain forty miles high." If it is so difficult to rid ourselves of Delusions of Views, how much more difficult it is to sever Delusions of Thought, Delusions of "Dust and Sand," and ignorance.
Delusions of Views, simply put, are the afflictions connected with seeing and grasping at the coarse level. Delusions of Thought are afflictions at the subtle level. For countless eons, the infectious filth of greed, anger and delusion, as well as countless other erroneous views, have been instilled in our mind-consciousness. Can we really manage, in the short span of this life, to do away with them all? Today's cultivators, in general, have few blessings and shallow wisdom. Just reciting the words "Amitabha Buddha" in an accomplished manner is difficult enough. Why even mention such distant goals as saving sentient beings at will?
For this reason, the immediate necessity is to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land, first rescuing ourselves from the cycle of Birth and Death and then relying upon the auspicious environment of that Land to practice vigorously. We should wait until we have achieved Enlightenment and developed wisdom, eloquence, spiritual powers and auspicious features before returning to the Saha World to rescue sentient beings. Only then will we have some freedom of action.
Nevertheless, considering the responsibility and the compassionate mind of the cultivator, we should not completely reject all attempts to save sentient beings in our current life. In truth, however, our present altruistic attempts can only be within the framework of "according to one's means and conditions." This is not unlike the case of someone who, having fallen into the river of delusion, tries his best to reach the shore, all the while shouting to others, exhorting them to do likewise.
To speak more broadly, even if we have attained the stage of Non-Birth and must reside in the evil worlds in order to perfect the "paramitas," in reality we cannot be away from the various pure lands. Why is this so? As stated in the sutras, even Bodhisattvas of the First Stage cannot know the "comings and goings" of Bodhisattvas of the Second Stage, much less the realms of the Buddhas! For this reason, in the Avatamsaka Sutra [one of the most grandiose texts of the Mahayana canon], after preaching the Ten Great Vows, the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra immediately admonished the Bodhisattvas at all fifty-two levels (i.e., all Bodhisattvas) to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. This is because Amitabha Buddha is always teaching in that Land, and Bodhisattvas wishing to enter the lofty, esoteric realm of the Tathagatas should remain close to and study with Him.
Thus, even the highest level Bodhisattvas should spiritually divide themselves -- on the one hand remaining in the various defiled worlds to accumulate good deeds and on the other, being present in the various pure lands to be close to and cultivate with the Buddhas. Rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is, therefore, important for sentient beings -- from the lowest beings to the highest level Bodhisattvas.
As seen above, there are many obstacles along the path of Birth and Death. If we have not reached the stage of Non-Birth, it is easy to become deluded during transmigration and descend into evil realms. For this reason, to ensure non-retrogression of the Great Bodhi Mind and fulfillment of the Bodhi Vow, common mortals such as ourselves -- who urgently need to resolve the issue of Birth and Death existing before our very eyes -- should seek rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. Even the highest Bodhisattvas cannot remain away from the Pure Land, if they wish to enter the lofty, esoteric realms of the Tathagatas and fulfill the Great Bodhi Vow.