The Four Realizations and the Four Practices

26) Intensive Practice is Indispensable

As indicated above, a cardinal element of Buddha Recitation is the Vow for rebirth in the Pure Land.

Some people may think, "As long as I keep reciting the sacred name and the myriad virtues of Amitabha Buddha over and over, I will naturally accumulate countless virtues. Even if I do not achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, those merits and virtues will not be lost."

Such thoughts are not only erroneous and dangerous, they show a lack of wisdom. This is because the virtues accumulated through cultivation without a Vow for rebirth in the Pure Land will become merits and blessings in the next life. In that next life, while enjoying these delusive blessings,[38] we are likely to create bad karma; in the following (third) lifetime we will surely sink and be lost along the three Evil Paths. Failing to seek rebirth in the Pure Land is therefore a dangerous mistake! For this reason, Faith and Vows were referred to earlier as "wisdom practices."

Still, Faith and Vows without Practice are like a boat with a rudder but no oars; they cannot result in rebirth in the Pure Land.[39] Some people, hearing that "only earnest Faith and Vows are necessary, for at the time of death ten utterances or even one will ensure rebirth in the Pure Land," may immediately think: "If this is so, there is no need to hurry -- reciting the Buddha's name on our deathbed is good enough." Such thinking is also erroneous and trivializes the practice of Buddha Recitation. We should be aware that the main condition for rebirth in the Pure Land, according to the Amitabha Sutra, is that a person on his deathbed have an undisturbed mind. If the cultivator truly has no aberrant, topsy-turvy thoughts at the time of death, then one thought or ten thoughts of Amitabha Buddha will ensure rebirth in the Pure Land.

However, who among us can be certain that he will not have disturbed thoughts at the time of death? If we do not concentrate on recitation in our daily lives, at the time of death the four constituents of the body (earth, water, wind, fire) will come apart, the power of karma will intensify, our bodies and minds, gripped by suffering, will be overwhelmed by fear and dementia -- at that time, even one thought of Amitabha Buddha will be impossible, let alone ten thoughts!

If we want some assurance at the time of death, we should practice Buddha Recitation assiduously in our daily lives, striving for "one-pointedness of mind." While it is possible in theory to wait for the time of death to recite the Buddha's name, in practice this is not a simple matter. Therefore, Pure Land cultivators should strive to practice steadily and should not be indifferent to or contemptuous of Practice -- lest they fail to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.

27) Buddha Recitation and the Four Realizations

Reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land is a "perfect sudden" method in the Mahayana tradition, because the cultivator takes Enlightenment in the "effect stage" as his point of departure for awakening the mind in the "causal stage." If it were not taught by Buddha Sakyamuni Himself, who would believe that a common mortal of the "Four Ways of Birth and Six Paths" could reach the stage of non-retrogression, equal to the higher level Bodhisattvas, thanks to Amitabha Buddha's power of "welcoming and escorting"? After all, cultivators following other methods would have to spend ten thousand eons in diligent, continuous cultivation to obtain such results. With the Pure Land method, since the cultivator has put his faith in "other-power" in addition to using all his "self-power," every single cultivator will be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, escape the cycle of Birth and Death and achieve non-retrogression.

If we were to use Buddha Recitation to discover the Mind-Ground and awaken to our Original Nature, the Pure Land method would be no different from other methods. However, when we rely on Buddha Recitation to seek rebirth in the Pure Land, this method has unique characteristics.

Ancient masters have said:

  1. Birth [in the Pure Land] is definitely birth; however, return [to the Pure Land] is, in truth, no return. This is True Realization of realms, not of beings.

    Return is definitely return; however, birth is, in truth, No-Birth. This is True Realization of beings, not of realms.

    Return is, in reality, no return; birth is also, in truth, no birth. This is True Realization of both realms and beings.

    Return is definitely return; birth is definitely birth. This is not True Realization of realms and beings.

These four statements explain the Four True Realizations of Pure Land teachings. True Realization means thorough comprehension of essence, or noumenon. Since the whole Dharma Realm (cosmos) is only Mind, sentient beings and realms are illusory [see Glossary, "Illusion"]. If we conceive that there are sentient beings achieving rebirth in the Pure Land and that there are realms to go back to, we are still attached to beings and dharmas and are still making a distinction between here and there. This is not True Realization, i.e., not a complete understanding of essence and noumenon. The reverse is called True Realization. The ancients have summarized the idea in the following stanza:

Recitation is equal to non-recitation, No-Birth is Birth, 
[Having reached that stage] do not bother to move even half a step, 
You have arrived at the Enlightened capital city.

True Realization of beings and realms [No. 3] is the ultimate goal of Pure Land practitioners. Nevertheless, the doctrine taught in the Three Pure Land sutras and the Commentary on Rebirth is No. 4 ( "not True Realization of realms and beings"), which is consonant with seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. This is because Buddha Sakyamuni knew that common mortals in this world of the Five Turbidities, especially in this Dharma-Ending Age, would have heavy and deep karmic obstructions; establishing a realm of marks [the Pure Land], enabling them to anchor their minds and cultivate, would be difficult enough -- not to mention abandoning all marks!

If common human beings of this Dharma-Ending Age cultivate while grasping at marks (i.e., the Pure Land), their Practice and Vows will be more earnest and the final result of rebirth in the Pure land easier to achieve. Once reborn in the Pure Land, why worry about not attaining the state of No-Birth and No-Mark?

For those who are not of the highest capacity or endowed with a sharp mind, hastening to achieve lofty goals and engaging in cultivation without marks leaves the mind with no anchor. Earnestness and sincerity are then difficult to develop. If their Vows are not earnest, how can they achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, and without rebirth in that Land, how can they escape Birth and Death? This is an instance of "haste makes waste," climbing high but landing low, wanting to be clever and ending up clumsy and awkward!

Many who like to voice lofty principles frequently reject the Pure Land method in these terms: "To recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land is to grasp at marks, seeking the Dharma outside the Mind, failing to understand that all dharmas are Mind-Only." These individuals, seeking the subtle and the lofty, are in reality shallow and superficial! This is because they do not understand that if the Saha World is Mind-Only, then the Western Pure Land is also Mind-Only, and nothing can be found outside the True Mind. Thus, to recite Amitabha Buddha's name is to recite the Buddha of our own Nature and Mind; to be reborn in the Pure Land is to return to the realm of our own Mind -- not to an outside realm! Since neither the Saha World nor the Pure Land is outside the Mind, how can remaining in the Saha World, enduring samsara, scorched and burned by the fire of the Five Turbidities, be compared with returning to the tranquil and blissful Pure Land -- the pure and cool realm of freedom?

We should realize that the ones truly in a position to honor the Mind-Only Pure Land are those who have attained the Dharma-Nature-Body, always free and at ease in all circumstances. At that time, whether in the Saha World or in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, they are in a "pure land," in the state of Mind-Only -- in the state of liberation. Otherwise, though they may discourse endlessly on the mystery and loftiness of the Pure Land, they cannot escape bewilderment and delusion in the "bardo stage," and, following their karma, revolving in the cycle of Birth and Death!

28) Buddha Recitation and the Four Practices

Sentient beings usually differ in preferences and innate capacities. Therefore, although they may engage in the common practice of Buddha Recitation, they are bound to differ somewhat in their practice. For this reason, ancient masters have summarized four types of practice: Zen-Pure Land; Sutra Recitation-Pure Land; Esotericism-Pure Land; Exclusive Pure Land Practice.

The first category of cultivators comprises those who engage primarily in Buddha Recitation but practice Zen as well. They are said to practice Zen-Pure Land also called dual practice of Zen and Pure Land. Here, rebirth in the Pure Land is the principal goal, while seeing the True Nature and becoming enlightened to the Way is a secondary matter which depends on the individual practitioner's good roots and conditions.

The second category comprises those whose main practice is Buddha Recitation with Sutra Recitation as an ancillary practice. They are said to practice Sutra Recitation-Pure Land. As for the sutras chanted, some prefer the Diamond Sutra or the Amitabha Sutra, while others prefer the Avatamsaka Sutra or Lotus Sutra, or else individual chapters, such as the "Avalokitesvara Chapter" (Lotus Sutra, ch. 25) or the Chapter on "Samantabhadra's Practices and Vows" (Avatamsaka Sutra, ch. 40).

The third category is composed of those who engage in Buddha Recitation as their primary practice and Mantra Recital as an ancillary one. They follow the practice of Esotericism-Pure Land. The mantras vary with the practitioner and include such dharani as the Great Compassion Mantra, the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara Dharani, the Rebirth Dharani, etc.

The fourth category of cultivators comprises those who practice Buddha Recitation diligently and exclusively without cultivating other methods. Within this group, those of high capacities practice the Sixteen Meditations as taught in the Meditation Sutra, while the great majority only practice oral recitation of the Buddha's name.

The Pure Land Patriarch Shan Tao and Zen Master Yung Ming are traditionally believed to be transformation bodies of Amitabha Buddha. However, Master Shan Tao taught diligent Buddha Recitation alone; Zen Master Yung Ming, on the other hand, in addition to reciting the Buddha's name one hundred thousand times each day also engaged in other practices, totaling 108 in all.[40] The Patriarch Yin Kuang once commented in this regard:

They both teach rebirth in the Pure Land, but the method followed by Master Shan Tao is designed to help those of limited or moderate capacities and belongs to theexclusive Pure Land practice. Master Yung Ming's method, on the other hand, aims specifically to encourage those of the highest capacity, and belongs to the perfectpractice.

People in the Dharma-Ending Age are generally of limited or moderate capacities. For this reason, among the four methods discussed above, they should, perhaps, choose Exclusive Pure Land practice, in order to ensure rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. However, each person is different in preferences and innate capacity and cannot be coerced. Therefore, while he may practice several methods concurrently, the Pure Land practitioner must be attentive and clear in his mind as to the two aspects of Practice: principal and subsidiary. The emphasis should always be on the principal aspect, i.e., Buddha Recitation. Only in this way will he follow the path of cultivation without obstacles and without missing the goal of rebirth in the Pure Land.