Explanation on Points of Doubt

17) Ordinary, Everyday Doubts about Pure Land

Above we were discussing the views of outsiders looking at the Pure Land school. Below we will take up the reservations of those who truly have the intention of cultivating or who have already started Pure Land practice.

There are some people who truly want to recite the Buddha's name or have already engaged in the practice; however, because their study and understanding of the Dharma are still wanting, they develop doubts as soon as they hear the criticisms of others. There are many such doubts; I shall only mention here three of the most common: 1) Pure Land is really just an expedient teaching; 2) the method is too easy; 3) sentient beings lack conditions and merit and therefore cannot achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. What follows is a summary explanation on these points.

1. Seeing the Pure Land described in overly majestic terms in the sutras, some people suddenly develop the idea that the Pure Land is merely an expedient of the Buddhas. How can there exist a world in which everything, from the ground to the trees and towers, is made of the seven jewels (gold, silver, lapis lazuli...)? Moreover, the inhabitants radiate health and tranquillity; they spring to life from lotus blossoms, free of old age, disease and death. Ethereal food and clothing appear before them according to their wishes. All these are far removed from the realities spread before our own eyes; how can we believe in them?

In reply to this I will say: all these doubts derive from the limited sights and sounds perceived by the eyes and ears of common mortals. Those who wish to study the Dharma should not assess the realms of the saints with the limited faculties of sentient beings.

Let us not talk of faraway things. In Asia, in the last century, when a certain high-ranking official returned from Europe, he reported that over there, lamps required no fire to light them, while carriages and barges moved on their own, without horses or men to pull them. He then praised Europeans for their intelligence and skills, which in hundreds of instances rivaled those of God -- only life and death remaining within the purview of the Almighty. His words were met with disbelief from the king on down to his entire court. Even the official's closest friends smiled and thought that returning from far away, he was just exaggerating!

Let us ask ourselves: the king and his entire court were all erudite and worldly. Therefore, they did not believe the official because "their ears had not heard, their eyes had not seen, their imagination could not conceive" of such occurrences. However, can we in fact say that they did not exist? Extrapolating from this small example, we can see that if we measure the realms of the saints with the fixed ideas gathered through our limited senses and imagination, everything is distorted.

Moreover, if there is no such thing as Amitabha Buddha "welcoming and escorting back" to the Pure Land, why is it that numerous people who practice Buddha Recitation know the time of their death in advance, and witness scenes of the Pure Land as well as of Amitabha Buddha and Bodhisattvas welcoming them? If the Pure Land is non-existent, why is it that there are Pure Land followers who in this very life suddenly experience an Awakening and clearly see the adorned Pure Land realm, exactly as explained in the sutras?[28] If we who are the followers of the Buddhas or wish to study Buddhism are not guided by the teaching of the Buddhas, upon whom else can we rely?

Therefore, based on the "teachings of the Buddhas and sages" and on the "attainments of cultivators," we should believe that the adornments of the Pure Land all exist.[29]

2. Hearing that the Pure Land method is easy to practice but the results are speedy and lofty, some people develop this doubt: How can there be such an easy method leading to Buddhahood? The usual way of Buddhist cultivation centers around concentration and contemplation. When we start cultivating, we practice first concentration (samatha) then contemplation (vipasyana), or we can begin first with contemplation and follow up with concentration. We then progress to the stage where "in contemplation there is concentration, in concentration there is contemplation." Upon reaching the level of "non-dual concentration and contemplation, still-but-illuminating samadhi and wisdom," we have stepped into the realm of the Self-Nature. From then on, if we vigorously keep up with our cultivation life after life, it will take ten thousand eons before we reach the level of non-retrogression, according to the sutras and commentaries. How is it that after only a few singleminded utterances of the Buddha's name, we can be reborn in the Pure Land in this very lifetime, at the stage of non-retrogression? Is it not really too easy?

When responding to this doubt, we should realize that most other methods involve complete reliance on "self-power," and are therefore bound to be difficult. The Pure Land method characteristically involves two factors, the power of one's own mind and Amitabha Buddha's power of "welcoming and escorting." Therefore, obtaining results is extremely easy. For example, if someone with weak, hobbled feet wanted to climb a mountain unaided, it would be difficult indeed! However, if he were assisted by a great athlete who took him by the arm and climbed the mountain along with him, head held high, the result would not be that difficult to achieve.

The same is true of Pure Land. As we earnestly recite the Buddha's name, our mind-power keeps developing. When one-pointedness of mind is achieved, the mind-power manifests itself perfectly. At that point the power of our karma is subdued and is no longer a hindrance. If we add to that Amitabha Buddha's power to "welcome and escort," we will achieve rebirth in the Pure Land in spite of the fact that not all of our bad karma is extinguished. Once reborn, our lifespan extends over innumerable eons. Non-retrogression until complete Enlightenment and Buddhahood are attained is therefore an easily understandable occurrence.

3. the Land of Ultimate Bliss is so extremely lofty and beautifully adorned that we cannot rely merely on "a few good roots, blessings, virtues, causes and conditions" to achieve rebirth in that Land. Reflecting upon ourselves, we see that our good roots, merits and virtues are indeed shallow, while our bad karma and obstructions are heavy; how can we expect to attain, in this very life, conditions favorable to rebirth in the Pure Land?

I respectfully beg of you, ten million times, not to have such doubts! For, if you can finger a rosary and recite the Buddha's name, you already have deep roots of merit and virtue. Do think again. How many people are there on this very earth who lack the opportunity to hear the Buddha's name? How many, even after hearing Amitabha Buddha's name, continue to seek fame and profit, chasing after mundane dusts and refusing to recite the Buddha's name? You have now heard the Dharma and recited the Buddha's name in all sincerity. Is this not proof enough that you already have many good roots, merits and virtues?

In the Longer Amitabha Sutra, Buddha Sakyamuni said to the Bodhisattva Maitreya:

If any sentient being hears the name of Amitabha Buddha and is transported with delight even for a moment, you should know that he has received great benefit and has perfected supreme merit and virtue.

This quote should be proof enough: the very fact that a person practices Buddha Recitation shows that he already has many good roots, merits and virtues. The book, Biographies of Pure Land Sages and Saints, records the life histories of individuals who committed extremely heavy transgressions, yet achieved rebirth in the Pure Land through singleminded recitation of the Buddha's name at the time of death. Your good roots, merits and virtues far surpass those of the evil beings cited in these biographies. Therefore, why should you have doubts about being reborn in the Pure Land in this very lifetime?

18) Doctrinal Doubts about Pure Land

Apart from the three common doubts discussed above, there are a number of doubts of a doctrinal nature, ranging from the shallow to the deep. I will indicate the important details in question and answer form.

Question I:

The Pure Land method is not for those of high capacities, who should follow the Zen or Mind-Only school. Moreover, people should have strong wills, be independent and rely on their own strength to become emancipated. Is it not a sign of weakness to depend on the other-power of Amitabha Buddha?


I will answer this question by referring first to the capacities of sentient beings and then to the issue of self-power vs. other-power.

1. Pure Land embraces people of all capacities -- whether limited, moderate or high. Sentient beings of limited and moderate capacities who recite the Buddha's name can rid themselves of afflictions and karmic obstacles and develop merit, virtue and wisdom, leading in time to the state of samadhi. They will then be reborn within the nine "lotus grades" of the Land of Ultimate Bliss, the exact grade depending on the amount of effort they exert in cultivation.

Those of high capacities, on the other hand, enter deeply into the state of samadhi and wisdom as soon as they begin uttering the Buddha's name. Whether walking, standing, lying down or sitting, they are always in the "Buddha Recitation Samadhi." After death they will be reborn in the highest lotus grade. Some of the sages of old who entered this realm described it in the following terms:

Holding the rosary, I am rid of worldly thoughts, 
Suddenly, I already became a Buddha a long time ago.

Thus, Pure Land embraces people of all levels. For those of high capacities it is a sublime method; for those of limited capacities it turns into a simple method.

High-ranking masters of the Buddhist canon often commented:

The Buddha Recitation method encompasses the Zen, Sutra Studies, Discipline (Vinaya) and Esoteric (Tantric) Schools.

Why is it that Buddha Recitation encompasses all four schools? It is because when reciting the Buddha's name, we rid ourselves of all deluded thoughts and attachments, which isZen . The sacred words "Amitabha Buddha" contain innumerable sublime meanings, hidden in and springing forth from those words, which is the Sutra Studies School. Reciting the Buddha's name at the deepest level stills and purifies the three karmas (of mind, speech and body), which is the Discipline School. The words "Amitabha Buddha" have the same effect as a mantra, eliminating grievances and wrongs, severing evil karma, granting wishes and subduing demons. This is the Esoteric School.

For example, during a year of long, severe drought, the Great Master Lien Ch'ih, instead of reciting the "rain mantra," just walked around the countryside hitting his gong while reciting the Buddha's name. It was reported that wherever he went, the rain would begin to fall. There is also the case of the Elder Zen Master Yuan Chao Pen, who, rather than practice meditation, would just recite the sacred words "Amitabha Buddha." In the process, he became enlightened to the Original Nature and attained the Buddha Recitation Samadhi. Extrapolating from the above, the words "Amitabha Buddha" include the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings [i.e., all the teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni] and encompass all the paramitas.

The Meditation Sutra further teaches:

A single wholehearted recitation of Buddha Amitabha's name will obliterate all the heavy karma committed in [eight billion eons] of Birth and Death. (J.C. Cleary,Pure Land, Pure Mind. Unpub. manuscript.)

If Pure Land followers can concentrate their minds, they are bound to develop wisdom, as with other methods. In addition, since they recite the Buddha's name while in concentration, their evil karma and obstructions will easily be dissolved, and they will attain a high degree of merit and wisdom much sooner. For this reason, Elder Master Lien Ch'ih lauded the Buddha Recitation method as "great samadhi" "great wisdom," "areas merit and virtue," and "great emancipation."

According to the Meditation Sutra, if anyone who has committed the "Five Grave Offenses" or "Ten Evil Deeds" sees evil omens appear as he is on the verge of death, he need only recite the Buddha's name one to ten times with all his heart, and Buddha Amitabha will descend to welcome and escort him to the Pure Land. For an extremely sinful person to be saved and reach the stage of non-retrogression with just a few recitations of Buddha Amitabha's name is quite an accomplishment. The Patriarch Yin Kuang has these words of praise:

Persons of the highest capacities can attain samadhi if they practice Buddha Recitation with an undisturbed mind. Those of the lowest capacities will still succeed with only ten utterances [as they may be reborn in the Pure Land and ultimately achieve samadhi and Buddhahood]. This is an outstanding feature not found in any other method.

2. As far as the question of "self-power" vs. "other power" is concerned, it is wrong to understand the Pure Land method as exclusive reliance on Buddha Amitabha's power. The Pure Land practitioner should use all his own power to rid himself of afflictions, while reciting to the point where his mind and the Mind of Amitabha Buddha are in unison. At that moment, in this very life, the Buddha will emit rays to silently gather him in and at his death, he will be welcomed and guided back to the Pure Land. The "welcoming and escorting" feature is really the principal manifestation of the "other-power."

As an analogy, for a student to exert his own efforts to the utmost is, of course, a laudable thing. If, in addition, he has the benefit of an excellent teacher who follows his progress and assists him, his level of achievement will be higher, resulting in assured success in his final examinations.

Adding other-power to self-power is similar. Therefore, how can it be considered weak or mistaken to exert all of our own efforts to cultivate and then seek additional help to achieve rapid success?

The great and lofty Pure Land method is lauded by such great Bodhisattvas and Patriarchs as Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna as well as eminent Masters of various schools and traditions. To belittle Buddha Recitation is to belittle these very Bodhisattvas, Patriarchs and high-ranking Masters. To claim that Buddha Recitation is low-level, relying only on other-power, is to lack a real understanding of the Pure Land method.

Question II:

In the words of an ancient poem,

Cultivating to the point where the body is as light as a fairy crane, 
We return to the Pure Land in a horizontal line.

Therefore, we should keep practicing meditation until such time as we develop spiritual powers. At that point, we can return to the Land of Ultimate Bliss or go to other pure lands at will.[30] Where then is the need to continuously recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in His Land. of Ultimate Bliss?


The meaning of the above verse is that the realm of the practitioner's Self-Mind accords with the "gathering in" power of Amitabha Buddha. It does not refer to the realm of mystical power. I will discuss these subjects, beginning with mystical powers.

The sutras relate an instance where even the great Arhat Maudgalyayana (foremost in mystical powers among the disciples of Buddha Sakyamuni) had difficulty finding the Pure Land through his own strength. For ordinary people in the Dharma-Ending Age to seek the higher stages of Bodhisattvahood (and thus qualify to enter and reside in the Pure Land on their own merit) is sheer delusion. Therefore, seeking the help of Amitabha Buddha is an essential factor for rebirth in the Pure Land.

What is meant by the realm of the Self-Mind harmonizing with the "gathering in" power of Amitabha Buddha? The sutras state:

Amitabha Buddha constantly emits rays of light, gathering in all sentient beings in the ten directions who practice Buddha Recitation, without exception.

For this reason, when reciting the Buddha's name, the practitioner is immediately "gathered in," silently, by the Vow-power of Amitabha Buddha. As he singlemindedly recites, his bad karma is "sunk and deposited," his pure mind is revealed, and the light of his mind interacts with the light of Amitabha Buddha. This makes it possible for him to see the Pure Land, or the deities strolling there, before his very eyes.

The power of the cultivator's pure vows directed toward the Pure Land is called "self-power;" the power to emit light and to escort the cultivator back to the Pure Land is called the Buddhas' power or "other-power." Thanks to these two powers, the Pure Land cultivator, although not yet possessing extensive mystical powers, can still be reborn in the Pure Land. At the time of death, depending on his virtues, he will see Amitabha Buddha, the great Bodhisattvas, or members of the Pure Land Assembly reaching out to him, to welcome and escort him. Some cultivators, while not witnessing anything, also achieve rebirth in the Pure Land thanks to the power of their vows and the power of Buddha Amitabha's guiding light. Therein lies the importance of "other-power."

Question III:

When practicing Pure Land, we need to attain the Buddha Recitation Samadhi, or at least reach the stage of one-pointedness of mind, in order to achieve rebirth in the Western Land. Those of limited capacities are not necessarily able to practice at such a level. Therefore, how can these sentient beings be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss? And, if such persons cannot achieve rebirth there, how can Buddha Recitation be said to "gather in" all types of people?


In truth, the capacities of people being what they are these days, even one-pointedness of mind is extremely difficult to achieve, not to mention the state of Buddha Recitation Samadhi! However, according to the Meditation Sutra, if anyone who has committed the "Five Grave Offenses" or "Ten Evil Deeds" sees evil omens appear as he is on the verge of death, he need only recite the Buddha's name one to ten times with all his heart and Buddha Amitabha will descend to welcome him and guide him back to the Pure Land. Thus, one-pointedness of mind resulting in rebirth in the Pure Land refers to the time of death, not the present time.

However, in order to achieve such a state of mind at the time of death, the cultivator should practice Buddha Recitation in daily life to the point where it becomes second nature. As he constantly recites the Buddha's name in daily life, even though one-pointedness of mind is not yet achieved, the seeds of Buddha Recitation are accumulated and stored away in great quantities. On his deathbed, the practitioner who begins to recite "activates" those seeds immediately and with great force, resulting in one-pointedness of mind. Those of limited capacities who achieve rebirth in the Pure Land through Buddha Recitation usually fall into this category.

Question IV:

The purpose of Buddha Recitation is to sever the mind of delusion, put an end to afflictions and reach the state of No-Thought (No Recitation). This being the case, we need only keep the mind pure, and we will progress gradually toward the realm of No-Thought. Where is the need to expend time and effort in Buddha Recitation?


The aim of the Pure Land method is the Buddha Recitation Samadhi, achieving, in totality, our Self-Nature Amitabha -- the realm of the "Ever-Silent Illuminating Pure Land." However, the most urgent and immediate aim is rebirth in the Pure Land. This ensures an end to transmigration, and then, through the excellent environment of the Land of Bliss, progress in cultivation and swift attainment of Buddhahood. For this reason, Pure Land cultivators should recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. This is the principal approach of Pure Land; it does not consist of rapidly reaching the realm of No-Thought and becoming enlightened to our Original Nature, as in Zen.

However, while working toward that goal, the practitioner should recite until he reaches the state of one-pointedness of mind. Thus, although he does not seek the realm of "No-Thought," that realm will nevertheless appear naturally. Moreover, it will appear that much sooner, thanks to the virtues accumulated through Buddha Recitation, which help to erase bad karma swiftly. Here we can see a new ray of light, a new vista: to achieve "No-Thought" swiftly, to become enlightened to the Original Nature speedily, we should recite the Buddha's name all the more.

Probing deeper, if we have the roots and the temperament of Mahayana followers, we should understand that the ultimate goal of Buddha Recitation is to achieve Buddhahood. If we understand that goal to be merely the elimination of deluded thoughts, we have already strayed into the "Five Meditations to calm the mind" approach of the Theravada tradition.

Why is it that the goal of Buddha Recitation is to become a Buddha? It is because as soon as we begin reciting, the past, present and future have lost their distinctions, marks exist but they have been left behind, form is emptiness, thought is the same as No-Thought, the realm of the Original Nature "apart from thought" of the Tathagata has been penetrated. This state is Buddhahood. What else could it be?

If we were to think that to recite is to remain attached to the "conditioned" (mundane dharmas subject to Birth and Death), then, when Buddha Sakyamuni displayed such concrete marks as eating a meal, donning a robe, conversing, preaching the Dharma, walking, standing, lying down, or sitting up, was He not attached to the conditioned and therefore not a Tathagata?

Moreover, if we were to think that reciting the Buddha's name is not yet No-Thought, then, when high-ranking Zen masters are meditating on a koan, preaching the Dharma, or, at times, reciting sutras, genuflecting, seeking repentance, or circumambulating, (all actions having marks), are they therefore not practicing Zen?

We should know that the essence of the "unconditioned" is to "practice all conditioned dharmas without seeing the mark of practice." The same is true of No-Thought. It does not mean that entirely eliminating all actions and words is the unconditioned, the No-Thought! Because they fail to understand this truth, some persons who are attached to the teaching of Emptiness think: Buddha Recitation is like a moving vehicle carrying an added heavy load, impure gold with traces of lead, rice mixed with sand, not light, pure and unmixed. How wrong can they be!

However, reciting to the point of "not reciting," is the sphere of those of the highest capacities. I merely raise the issue to reply to a point of doubt. As far as most of us are concerned, making the effort to recite the Buddha's name in an accomplished manner is already a very worthwhile thing!

Question V:

The nature of all dharmas is "emptiness," from time immemorial, ever non-arising, equal, serene and still. When the mind is pure, though we may be living in an impure world, the mind is just as pure. On the other hand, if the mind is not pure, even if we are living in a "pure land," it will be full of afflictions and disturbances. If there is "arising," there is "extinction;" where there is birth, there is death. Thus, is it not contrary to the Dharma to leave the Saha World and seek rebirth in the Pure Land?


This question can be answered on two levels. I will follow the explanations of the T'ien T'ai Patriarch Chih I in his treatise Ten Doubts about the Pure Land and add a few explanatory comments of my own, from the two viewpoints of generality and specificity.

On the level of generality, if we consider that seeking rebirth in the Pure Land means "leaving here and going there," which is inconsistent with the principle of Equal True Thusness, then what about remaining in the Saha World and not seeking rebirth in the Pure Land? Is that not also making the mistake of "leaving there and grasping here"? Now, if we say that "I neither seek to go there nor am I attached to here," we are also caught in the error of nihilism. For this reason, the Diamond Sutra states:

Subhuti, do not think that to develop the Bodhi Mind is to annihilate all the marks of the dharmas. Why is this so? It is because developing the Bodhi Mind with respect to phenomena is not the same as nihilism.

On the level of specificity, I will now explain the truth of No-Birth and the Pure Mind.

"No-Birth" is precisely the truth of No-Birth No-Death. No-Birth means that dharmas are born of illusory combinations of causes and conditions, with no Self-Nature and thus, no true mark of birth. Because they are illusory, they are not really born nor do they appear from anywhere. Therefore, they are said to have No-Birth.

"No-Death" means that when dharmas disintegrate, there is no Self-Nature remaining. Since they have no true place of return, no place of extinction, they are said to be "undying." The truth of No-Birth, or neither Birth nor Death, cannot exist outside of conditioned dharmas. Thus, No-Birth does not mean not seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, or that being reborn in the Pure Land is to be subject to death and extinction (which is contrary to the truth of No-Birth). This is from the viewpoint of principle or noumenon.

On the level of phenomena, those who are reborn in the Pure Land have reached the stage of non-retrogression, with a life extending over innumerable eons. During that period, they will have ample opportunity to progress toward the fruit of No-Birth. Thus, the issue is moot: there is no arising, no extinction, no Birth and no Death to worry about!

The principle of the Pure Mind is similar. Practicing with a Pure Mind in the Saha World, and "anchoring" the Pure Mind in the Pure Land to progress in cultivation are not contradictory. The Vimalakirti Sutra states:

Although he knows that Buddha lands 
Are void like living beings 
He goes on practicing the Pure Land (Dharma) 
To teach and convert men. 
(Charles Luk, tr., p. 88.)

Therefore, the wise, while diligently reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, do not grasp at the mark of Birth, because that mark does not really exist. Although they are clearly aware that dharmas from time immemorial are ever pure, empty and still, they do not hesitate to seek rebirth in the Pure Land. This is because they rely on the supremely auspicious environment there to progress in their cultivation and to teach and enlighten others. This is true No-Birth and also the true meaning of a Pure Mind in accord with a pure environment.

On the other hand, those who lack knowledge and true understanding are caught up in the mark of Birth. Hearing of Birth, they immediately think that it really exists, along with death and extinction. Hearing of No-Birth, they immediately become attached to the notion that there is no rebirth anywhere. Little do they realize that Birth is really No-Birth, No-Birth is not incompatible with Birth. With a Pure Mind, where is the worry about seeking rebirth in the Pure Land? Not understanding this truth, they develop a contentious and discriminatory Mind, belittling those who seek rebirth in the Pure Land. How mistaken and lost can they be?

19) Doubts Based on Misreading the Sutras

Apart from the above, there are numerous students of the Dharma who raise a number of issues based on the teachings in the sutras. I will follow the question and answer formula to reply to them.

Question I:

The Diamond Sutra states:

All mundane (conditioned) dharmas are like dreams, illusions' shadows and bubbles.

Therefore, the Saha World being illusory, so is the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Why not enter directly into the True Original Mind instead of seeking rebirth in an illusory world?


In truth, all the pure and impure lands in the ten directions are like dreams and illusions; however, only when we have attained the "Illusion-like Samadhi" can we see them as illusory and false. If we have not yet reached that stage, we still see them as real, we are still subject to their sway, we still know sorrow and happiness, we still feel uncomfortable during the summer heat and are even bothered by such small things as mosquito bites. Thus, how can we speak about things being illusory?

We should realize that the Pure Land method is a wonderful expedient of the Buddhas -- borrowing an illusory realm of happiness to help sentient beings escape from an illusory realm of great suffering, full of obstructing conditions and dangers. Then, in that happy, peaceful, illusory realm, cultivation progresses easily, and the ever-silent realm of the True Mind is swiftly attained.

To take an example, in this Saha World of ours, the scenes of stifling family life and noisy downtown business districts are illusory, and so are the scenes of temples and pagodas or mountain wildernesses. However, why is it that cultivators leave the noisy environment of the cities to seek the quiet, sparsely populated landscapes of temples and pagodas hidden in the mountains? Is it not because family life creates many binding ties and bustling urban intersections are not conducive to concentration, while temples, pagodas and mountain wildernesses facilitate cultivation? For this reason, the circumstances of ordinary people are different from those of the saints. For common mortals to put themselves in the place of the saints is far-fetched and unrealistic. We who are still common mortals should follow the path of ordinary people, and cultivate gradually. We should not look with the eyes of saints and comment too far above our level, to avoid the transgression of false speech.

There was once a Zen Master who thought that the Pure Land was illusory and that reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth there was useless. Upon hearing this, Elder Master Ch'e Wu said immediately:

This is a mistake. Bodhisattvas of the Seventh Stage and below are all cultivating in a dream. Even those Bodhisattvas who have reached the level of Equal Enlightenment are still fast asleep within the great dream of delusion. Only the Buddhas can be honored with the designation Great Enlightened, i.e., those who have completely awakened. When our own body is in a dream, happiness and suffering are to be expected; we still experience happiness and still know suffering. How can we consider ourselves awakened from a dream and our environment dreamlike?

This being the case, how can remaining in the suffering dream of the Saha World compare with returning to the blissful dream of the Pure Land? Moreover, the Saha World dream goes from dream to dream, subject to the laws of karma, eternally revolving in the cycle of Birth and Death. The Pure Land dream on the other hand, is from dream to Enlightenment and gradual awakening to the ultimate stage of Buddhahood. Although the illusory dreams are the same, the conditions of the dreaming state in the two instances are really different. Thus, it is truly necessary to recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land!

These explanations have clearly demonstrated the need to seek rebirth in the Pure Land. However, the stanza from the Diamond Sutra quoted above is still an expedient explanation to help sentient beings abandon the common mortal's concept of attachment. Going one step further, as stated in the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra:

Buddha Sakyamuni explained to those of dull capacities that all dharmas are dreamlike, silent, and still, lest they develop view-attachment. To those of sharp capacities He spoke of the embellishments of the Buddhas, because they are like lotus blossoms, untouched by worldly dusts.

For this reason, Subhuti, who of all the Arhat disciples of Buddha Sakyamuni was foremost in the realization of the Truth of Emptiness (devoid of all names and marks), characteristically received a prediction that he would attain Buddhahood in the future under the title of "Name and Mark Buddha." Thus, the sublime truth of no name or mark is inseparable from name and mark -- all illusory dharmas are the Buddhas' dharmas, true and unchanging.

Going still deeper, to the ultimate and perfect stage, as theSixth Patriarch has said:

Sentient beings are originally Buddhas, afflictions are Bodhi (Enlightenment), all delusions are the perfect and illuminating state, truly enlightened, of the womb of the Tathagatas.

Question II:

The Platform Sutra states:

Recitation with no thought of recitation is true; recitation while [grasping at the thought of] recitation is wrong.[31]

Thus, is not Buddha Recitation deviant and false?


The meaning of No-Birth, No-Thought of Recitation has been discussed earlier, but I will give a direct explanation here. "No-Thought of Recitation" does not mean no Buddha or Sutra Recitation, but rather habitual recitation of the Buddha's name and the sutras with a completely empty mind, neither seeing nor grasping at the thought that we are the ones doing the reciting. This is called No-Thought of Recitation. On the other hand, though we may sit still and at peace, our minds completely empty, if we are still aware that we are sitting in meditation, this is still grasping at the thought of recitation.

If we think that No-Thought of Recitation is not to recite the Buddha's name or the sutras, not to lecture on the Dharma and not to reflect or meditate, then we have turned into wood and stone. While avoiding the error of grasping at forms, we have fallen into the error of grasping at emptiness -- thus going against the very meaning of the Platform Sutra. For this reason, the Sixth Patriarch continued:

He who is above "affirmative" and "negative" 
Rides permanently in the white bullock cart (the vehicle of Buddha). 
(Wong Mou-Lam, tr. "The Sutra of Hui Neng," p. 65. In The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui Neng.)

High-ranking monks of old often practiced Buddha Recitation seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, but they were not attached to the mark of Buddha Recitation or seeking rebirth. Therefore, they left behind this stanza:

To recite is the same as not to recite, 
No-Birth is precisely birth, 
Not bothering to move even half a step 
The body has reached the city of Great Enlightenment.

However, we have spoken so far of the practice of exceptional individuals. Persons of limited or moderate capacities should strive to repeat the Buddha's name as many times as possible. While they may still have attachments and see themselves as reciting the Buddha's name earnestly seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, it is still a good thing. This is because by so doing, they will assuredly achieve rebirth in the Pure Land at the time of death and ultimately enter the realm of No-Recitation, No-Birth. Where is the worry? Otherwise, seeking a direct and lofty way without gauging their own limitations and grasping at the teachings of Emptiness while incapable of following the truth of No-Recitation -- yet unwilling to practice at the level of seeking rebirth in the Pure Land through Buddha Recitation -- in the end they achieve nothing. They just remain common mortals in the painful cycle of Birth and Death!

Question III:

In the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch stated:

Those living in the East [i.e., our world] who commit transgressions recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the West [i.e., Pure Land]. Where do those transgressors living in the West seek rebirth when they recite?[32]

Thus, we should only aim at eliminating transgressions. What need is there to recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land?


The Sixth Patriarch and high-ranking Zen Masters were intent on teaching the doctrine of Mind. Thus, all of their words were based on these tenets, pointing directly to the Self-Nature, with the mind as the center. What the Patriarch really meant was that if the mind is pure, even though we may be in the Saha World, we are emancipated and free. If the mind is impure, even though we may be in the Pure Land, we are still subject to the sufferings of Birth and Death.

In truth, for the Pure Land cultivator who understands the Dharma, the Patriarch's words serve only to urge him on, encouraging him to recite the Buddha's name to the level of purity of mind, devoid of all attachment to forms. The Patriarch certainly did not reject the act of reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land as Buddha Sakyamuni, the Buddhas of the ten directions, the great Bodhisattvas and the Patriarchs all recommended seeking rebirth there. In fact, the two foremost Indian Zen Patriarchs, Asvaghosha and Nagarjuna, both recommended the Pure Land method. Nagarjuna himself, according to the Lankavatara Sutra, was enlightened to the preliminary Bodhisattva ground of "extreme Joy," and was reborn in the Pure Land.

If the Sixth Patriarch had truly intended to reject Buddha Recitation, he would have been criticizing and rejecting Buddha Sakyamuni, the Buddhas of the ten directions, the Bodhisattvas and the Patriarchs, including the very precursors who established his own Zen School, the Patriarchs Asvaghosha and Nagarjuna. How could that be? Therefore, if we were to misunderstand the Sixth Patriarch's words and use those very words to deprecate Buddha Recitation, we would be slandering and sowing the seeds of injustice toward him.

Moreover, every method has two aspects noumenon (principle) and phenomena. The quotation from the Sixth Patriarch is at the level of principle. We must also consider the phenomenal aspect of the path to liberation.

Let us restate the question. "Those who commit transgressions in the secular world seek refuge in temples and pagodas, where they cut their hair, become vegetarians, and keep the precepts, looking for a place of purity and tranquility in order to cultivate. Where do those living in temples and pagodas who transgress go to cultivate?" If we base ourselves only at the level of noumenon and follow the above reasoning, then can such actions as entering the monastic life, being vegetarian, and keeping the precepts, including Buddha, Sutra and Mantra Recitation as well as meditation, all be mistakes?

The Pure Land method is similar. In truth, people in the East do not recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the West merely because they have committed transgressions; rather, they do so precisely to take advantage of the excellent conditions of that Land to cultivate and swiftly attain the level of No-Birth and liberation. This is also the goal pursued by those who have committed evil deeds but who now repent and recite the Buddha's name.

Moreover, the inhabitants of the Western Pure Land cannot commit transgressions because once reborn there, they are surrounded by Buddha Amitabha, Bodhisattvas and "morally superior beings." Around them are "birds singing the Dharma and music expounding the sutras," while they are free from such daily worries as food, clothing, disease, calamities, hatred and resentment. Thus, they can only progress along the path of cultivation. Where are the causes and conditions for creating bad karma?

In conclusion, we should understand the Sixth Patriarch's words as an explanation and exhortation based exclusively on pure noumenon or essence. We should not misunderstand them and use them to reject phenomena and marks. This being the case, Pure Land cultivators should redouble their efforts and practice to the point of emptiness of mind. Only then will they be in accord with the intent of the Patriarch.

20) The Need to Sever Dualistic Attachments

Many similar doubts remain concerning the Pure Land method. This is because most cultivators are still attached to "duality," and have not reconciled essence and marks,[33]existence and non-existence, noumenon and phenomena. That is why they embrace essence to reject marks, noumenon to reject phenomena, Emptiness to reject Existence, and vice versa -- thus creating disputes, doubts and perplexity.

Little do they suspect that there is mutual identity between noumenon and phenomena -- phenomena are noumenon, noumenon is phenomena. If we divide them and consider them separately, phenomena are not true phenomena, noumenon is not true noumenon. This is true also of essence and marks, existence and non-existence and other dualistic dharmas.

For this reason, the Vimalakirti Sutra speaks of the non-dual method to destroy this attachment. Non-dual means reconciling all things, penetrating into their very nature; it does not mean "one." This is the true realm of "Mind-Only." Any other doctrine based on the Dharma Doors of Existence or Emptiness is merely an expedient for teaching purposes.

The sutras state:

To tire of and abandon "conditioned" virtues is the action of demons. Yet, to be greedy and attached to transcendental, unconditioned virtues is also demonic action.

Ancient sages have also said:

Conditioned dharmas, while illusory, cannot be abandoned if we are to attain the Way. Although unconditioned dharmas are true, if we become attached to them, our wisdom-nature will not be comprehensive.

These words clearly show that on the path to Enlightenment, unconditioned and conditioned dharmas, noumenon and phenomena are inseparable.

It is also stated in the Treatise on the Middle Way:

Because common sentient beings grasp at external forms, the sutras destroy this attachment with the truth of Emptiness. If as soon as they are free of the disease of attachment to Existence they fall into the error of grasping at Emptiness, there is no medicine that can help them.

As the Prajna Paramita Truth of Emptiness sounds lofty and miraculous, when educated people read this literature, they usually get caught up in the error of "speaking on the level of principle" about everything and look down on those who follow forms and marks in their practice. Thus, they create the karma of arrogance and self-importance. While they expound the Truth of Emptiness, their actions are entirely in the realm of Existence, as exemplified by the following couplet:

Above, their mouths speak about the totally wonderful, 
Below, their feet do not part with even a mote of dust.

In the past, high-ranking spiritual teachers often used the Truth of Emptiness to cure the disease of attachment to Existence. However, the achievements of these masters were genuine, and their teachings were adapted to the capacities and circumstances of the recipients, bringing them actual benefits. This can be seen from the following stories.

There was once a Zen Master who cultivated with extreme diligence. He usually slept in a sitting position rather than lying down, and hardly rested much at all. However, despite engaging in ascetic practices for many years, he still had not become enlightened to the Way. One day, a novice of unknown provenance sought permission to join the Order. This novice was habitually lazy, to the point where he would often remain in bed even after the bell announcing the early prayer session had been rung. Informed of this, the Master summoned him and scolded him in the following terms, "How is it that you have joined the Order but are still so lazy as to be always lying down? Don't you remember what the rules of discipline say: 'Remaining in bed and failing to arise after hearing the bell will bring the future retribution of rebirth as a snake?"'

The novice replied, "You said, Master, that I often lie down and therefore will become a snake. How about you, who are attached to the sitting posture? You will be reborn a toad. What can you ever hope to awaken to?"

Immediately after this exchange, the novice disappeared. However, the Master had been awakened. As the story goes, the novice was in fact a Bodhisattva, who had assumed the appearance of a novice in order to enlighten the Master.

There is also a well-known story about a Zen master who sat astride the neck of a Buddha statue and split and burned wooden Buddhas in order to destroy the concept of attachment to the Buddhas. Another anecdote, from the Platform Sutra, concerns Master Fa Ta, who, having recited the Lotus Sutra three thousand times, prostrated himself only half way and was then reprimanded by the Sixth Patriarch for not having severed his attachment to merit and virtue. Yet another story concerns Master Pei T'a, who, upon achieving the Great Freedom Samadhi, wrote the names of the Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra on his underpants, to destroy the concept of attachment to transcendental beings.[34]

Enlightened Masters of the past, with their high level of practice and achievement, could teach the Dharma according to the times and conditions. Moreover, the practitioners of the time included individuals of the highest capacities, so that the teaching of Emptiness was often fruitful. Today, the majority are of limited and moderate capacity.[35] Therefore, in our teaching, we should harmonize theory and practice, nature and marks, so as not to engender doubts, and to keep the Bodhi Mind of the cultivators from retrogressing. Since the majority of practitioners cannot enter directly into the sphere of True Emptiness in one step, rejection of external forms would bring on the calamity of "prematurely destroying the boat before stepping onto the shore." How, then, could they escape drowning?

One more point to bear in mind: if we speak about the Truth of Emptiness without having attained that stage or at least reached a certain level of achievement in our practice, we certainly cannot convert others, but will only end up in useless arguments and disputes.

A few years ago, this author witnessed the following occurrence: a young monk versed in the Dharma was staying at a certain temple to lecture on the sutras. The abbot, who was advanced in age, was diligent in his daily recitation, but accustomed to traditional ways of worship. He took a dislike to the young monk and his free, progressive ways and said to him, "You are teaching and urging people to follow the Way, yet you yourself have never been seen to recite a single sutra or the Buddha's name. Under these circumstances, how can you be a model of cultivation for the Four-Fold Assembly?"

The young monk replied, "There are many ways to cultivate. It is not necessary to follow appearances, reciting the sutras and the Buddha's name day and night, as you do, Master, to qualify as a cultivator. The Diamond Sutra states:

Who sees Me by form, 
Who sees Me in sound, 
Perverted are his footsteps upon the Way; 
For he cannot perceive the Tathagata. 
(A. F. Price, tr. "The Diamond Sutra," p. 65. In The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui Neng.)

"Take the Sixth Patriarch, who recited neither the sutras nor the Buddha's name, yet attained Enlightenment and became a Patriarch." The abbot at a loss for words, remained silent.

In truth, the abbot was guilty of attachment to appearances and forms; the young monk, on the other hand, while citing abstruse principles, actually practiced neither meditation nor recitation. Therefore, he not only failed to enlighten the abbot, he irritated him unnecessarily.

Of the two types of attachments, to Existence and to Emptiness, the latter is the more dangerous. Both the Lankavatara and the Esoteric Adornment Sutras warned:

It is better to be attached to Existence, though the attachment may be as great as Mount Sumeru, than to be attached to Emptiness, though the attachment may be as small mustard seed.[36]

Attachment to Existence leads to mindfulness of cause and effect, wariness of transgressions and fear of breaking the precepts, as well as to such practices as Buddha and Sutra Recitation and performance of good deeds. Although these actions are bound to forms and not liberated and empty, they are all conducive to merit, virtue and good roots. On the other hand, if we are attached to Emptiness without having attained True Emptiness, but refuse to follow forms and cultivate merit and virtue, we will certainly sink into the cycle of Birth and Death.

This author, knowing himself to be filled with karmic obstructions and being of limited capacity, has no desire to discuss lofty doctrinal questions, lest his practice not be in accord with his words, thus creating the karma of false speech. However, with a sincere mind, wishing people to eliminate doubts and believe in Buddha Recitation, he has reluctantly provided some explanations. He always compares himself to a handicapped person sitting at the crossroads; although he himself cannot walk, he strives to show others the way, reminding passersby to avoid the dangerous paths and follow the wide, even and peaceful way. He certainly would never entertain the ambition to engage in discussions designed to separate the important from the trivial or the true from the false.