Pure Land, A Special Door to Liberation

59) Buddha Recitation, an Easy-to-Practice Method

Everyone can appreciate why Pure Land, particularly Oral Recitation, is an easy method. However, the word "easy" has many meanings, with which not everyone may be familiar.

This is because when practicing other methods, for example, Sutra Studies, we encounter an immense number of sutras and commentaries, infinitely profound in meaning. In the first instance, the practitioner should fully understand the basic teaching and, from there, penetrate the different shades of meaning. After that, he should reconcile all meanings, extracting their kernel and essence, to discover and choose the method of cultivation that he will follow all his life. All this cannot be done unless he is willing to spend several dozen years of hard work.

Should he decide to seek liberation through the Discipline method, the practitioner must join the Order and become thoroughly conversant with all aspects of the different bodies of precepts. He should also possess the wisdom to distinguish meaning from words and apply the precepts in a flexible manner, according to the environment, the times and the occasion. Thus, to study the sutras is not necessarily difficult, but to study the precepts to the point of knowing how to adapt them skillfully, neither breaking nor being rigidly bound by them, is truly difficult. Once having understood the precepts, the practitioner must exercise patience and fortitude and endure discomfort and suffering in order to achieve success.

If he decides to enter the Way through Zen, he should have previously sown the seeds of wisdom and have suitably high innate capacities. Otherwise, he has no hope of attaining this lofty Dharma and participating in the "transmission of the lamp" (the enlightenment experience). Therefore, a famous Buddhist scholar once said:

Practicing Zen to achieve Buddhahood is the domain of scholars endowed with wisdom.

This observation is certainly not incorrect or exaggerated.

With Oral Recitation, once the practitioner has developed the mind of Faith and Vows, he can recite the Buddha's name and engage in cultivation regardless of whether his capacities are high, moderate or limited. Moreover, while other methods depend on self-power alone, the Pure Land Dharma Door first relies to the utmost on self-power and then adds the element of "other-power." Other-power is precisely the infinitely great and powerful Vow of Amitabha Buddha "to welcome and escort." As long as a practitioner sincerely repents and recites the Buddha's name with one-pointedness of mind, even though he is not yet free of delusions and is still afflicted with heavy evil karma, he, too, will be welcomed to the Pure Land.

The ancients used to say, by way of comparison:

Practicing other methods is as difficult and laborious as an ant climbing a high mountain; reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land is as swift and easy as a boat sailing downstream, in the direction of the blowing wind.

This observation is very appropriate indeed. Moreover, once reborn there, living in an auspicious and peaceful environment, always in the company of Buddha Amitabha and the Bodhisattvas, the practitioner will swiftly achieve success in whatever Dharma method he chooses. He is like a log rolling down a high mountain, which just keeps going and never stops, even for a moment.

In summary, Buddha Recitation is easy for three reasons: easy practice, easy achievement of rebirth in the Pure Land, easy attainment of Buddhahood. Therefore, the results achieved through Buddha Recitation from time immemorial can be compared to the clear and limpid sound of precious stones striking against genuine gold, or the sight of "smiling lotus blossoms with their fresh and fragrant grades of rebirth."

Within these levels and grades, the path from sentient being to Buddhahood contains many ranks, yet is also without rank. This is because, once reborn in the Pure Land, the practitioner has transcended Birth and Death -- and to recite the Buddha's name is to become Buddha. This is like the silkworm, the chrysalis and the butterfly, which are inseparable; there is very little difference between saying that a butterfly is originally a worm or that the worm is the butterfly.

60) From Scattered Mind to Settled Mind

When the mouth recites Amitabha Buddha's name while the mind is focused on the Buddha or rests on His name, it is called "Settled Mind Buddha Recitation." When the mouth recites the Buddha's name but the mind is not on Amitabha Buddha and is lost in errant thought, it is called "Scattered Mind Buddha Recitation." The effectiveness of "Scattered Mind" is very much weaker than "Settled Mind" Buddha Recitation. For this reason, since ancient times, good spiritual advisors have all exhorted us to recite with a settled mind, and not let our thoughts wander. Therefore, Buddha Recitation with a scattered mind cannot be held up as an example to be emulated.

However, all external activities must reverberate in the Alaya consciousness. If reciting with a scattered mind were entirely ineffective, where would the sacred name of Amitabha come from? The very existence of the sacred name results from two conditions: first, the existing seeds arising from the Alaya consciousness; second, the power of outside action reflecting back inward. Therefore, we cannot say that "Scattered Mind Buddha Recitation" is entirely without effect, albeit its effectiveness is much more limited than recitation with a settled mind. Thus, while reciting the Buddha's name with a scattered mind has never been advocated, its significance and effectiveness cannot be rejected either. For this reason, the ancients have handed down the following gatha:

The sacred name of Amitabha Buddha is the supreme method, 
Why bother and fret over scattered thoughts! 
Though clouds thousands of miles thick hide the sun's brightness, 
All the world still benefits from its "amber" light.

Upon reflection, the above verse is quite accurate. This is because once the seeds of Buddha Recitation ripen in the Alaya consciousness, they trigger the sixth consciousness [i.e., the mind], leading to the development of pure thought and pure action. However, when the seeds of Buddha Recitation pass through the sixth consciousness, deep-seated defiled thoughts encroach upon them. Although these seeds ultimately manage to escape, their power has been greatly weakened. They are like the rays of the sun, which, although radiant, are hidden by many layers of clouds and are seen in the world only as "amber" light. This residual light, however, comes from the sun.

Realizing this, the Pure Land practitioner need not be unduly worried or concerned about sundry thoughts. He should continuously recite, content with whatever number of utterances he manages to produce with right thought. As he recites in such a manner over an extended period of time, the horse-like mind will return to the stable the monkey-like mind will gradually return to the den.[69] With further recitation, right thought will emerge clearly without any special effort on the practitioner's part. Thus, we should emphasize the continuity of recitation, without worrying whether it is done with a settled mind or not. Like muddy water which, with constant decanting, becomes clear and pure, a person afflicted with many sundry thoughts, through extended recitation, can convert them into right thought. We should know that ancient masters would always recite the Buddha's name, whether walking or standing, asleep or awake or working. If they constantly recited with a settled mind, they would trip and stumble while walking and could not succeed in drafting commentaries or performing other tasks. Therefore, at times they recited with a scattered mind, but they never stopped reciting because even though their minds were scattered, not all benefits were lost.[70]

At this juncture, I would like to recount a story. Once there was a layman who came to inquire of a monk: "I have to confess to you, Master, that I have been reciting the Buddha's name for over ten years, but I still have innumerable deluded thoughts; I do not know how to get rid of them. I have sought guidance in many places, with many teachers. One master would tell me about this technique, another would teach me a different one. There was even a junior monk who advised me to recite the Buddha's name twenty-one times without breathing and then to swallow all the saliva at once. I have tried all available techniques, but only succeed in reining in my mind at the beginning. Afterward, perhaps because I get used to the technique, deluded thoughts reappear as before. I wonder if you have any effective method to teach me?"

The Elder Master replied: "You have failed because you were not persevering, and constantly switched methods. You should know that ordinary people like us have created immeasurable deluded karma, from time immemorial. How can we be pure after a short period of practice? The main thing is for us to persevere over an extended period of time.

"Let me cite a few examples. Suppose you pour clean, fragrant water into a container filled with dirty and foul liquids. The container being already full, the clean water will, naturally, spill out, except for a few drops sticking to the container. If you persevere and continue to pour clean water in, one day the dirty container will turn into a clean one, filled with pure water.

"Similarly, suppose you have a severe stomach ailment that makes you throw up whatever medicine you ingest, but you persist in taking the prescribed medicine. Each time you take it, even though you may vomit, some of the ingredients will be absorbed, gradually curing you of the ailment. The afflictions of sentient beings are the same. It is fitting and proper to treat them with the medicine of Buddha Recitation, but if we constantly change techniques and methods, how can we expect to achieve results?

"Again, suppose someone is purifying water with alum, but, out of impatience, before the chemical has time to react, starts pouring in salt and then powdered lime. If he continually changes in this manner, how can the water ever become clear?

"Therefore, to rid ourselves of deluded thoughts, we should not keep changing from one method to another, but should select an appropriate method and practice it with perseverance until results are achieved."

The practitioner, hearing these explanations, nodded in agreement.

As indicated earlier, the key to a settled mind is to practice with perseverance. However, if we dread scattered thoughts and need an expedient to calm the mind, we should use the Decimal Recording method explained earlier (section 30-7). With this method, we use all of our mind-power to record and remember from one to ten utterances, which easily leads to pure concentration.

If the mind is still unsettled and we cannot use the Decimal Recording method, we should, with each utterance, concentrate firmly on the letter "A" in Amitabha Buddha. When the letter "A" is present, all the other letters are also present. If, because of delusion and forgetfulness, the letter "A" is lost, all the other letters are also lost. Moreover, the letter "A" is the key and fundamental letter of the Sanskrit alphabet and is therefore considered the mother of all other letters. Through concentration on reciting the Buddha's name while simultaneously holding fast to the letter "A," in time, mind and environment both dissolve and amalgamate into one bloc, as great as space itself. Buddha Amitabha and the practitioner will then both disappear. At that time, naturally, the letter "A" will have ceased to exist as well. However, it was lost earlier because the mind was unsettled and scattered, while it no longer exists now precisely because of the harmonious state of "perpetual concentration." This is the manifestation of emptiness of Mind and environment -- the entry point into the Buddha Recitation Samadhi.

61) The Pure Lands of the Ten Directions and the Tushita Heaven

In the realm of the ten directions, there are innumerable beautifully and purely adorned Buddha lands, such as the Pure Lapis Lazuli Land mentioned in the Medicine (Healing) Buddha Sutra, or the Land of Many Fragrances and Sublime Joy found in the Vimalakirti Sutra. This being so, why should we restrict ourselves to seeking rebirth in the Western Pure Land? There are basically three reasons, namely:

1. Because of the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, who exhorted us to seek rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Buddha Sakyamuni did not wish to expound at length on the other pure lands, lest sentient beings develop a mind of discrimination, become undecided and have no focal point for their aspirations. Moreover, thanks to the ideal conditions for teaching and transformation in the Western Pure Land, not only do sentient beings from the Saha World seek rebirth there, but sentient beings in countless other worlds do so as well.

2. Because Amitabha Buddha has adorned the Western Pure Land with forty-eight lofty Vows. These Vows [particularly the eighteenth Vow of "welcoming and escorting"] embrace all sentient beings, from Bodhisattvas to common beings full of evil transgressions.

3. Because sentient beings in the Saha World have great affinities with Amitabha Buddha and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. As proof, when Buddhists meet, they usually greet each other with the words "Amitabha Buddha" and when faced with accidents or disasters, they usually recite the sacred name of Avalokitesvara.

For these reasons, it is more advantageous to seek rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss than in the other pure lands of the ten directions, particularly the Tushita Heaven (the realm of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future).

Among the reasons cited are, first, that it is difficult to be reborn in the Tushita Heaven, as the Bodhisattva Maitreya does not have the "welcoming and escorting" Vow of Amitabha Buddha; sentient beings must rely solely on their own self-power to achieve rebirth there. Second, and more important, the Tushita Heaven is still part of the World of Desire (of which the Saha World is an infinitesimal part), not outside of it as is the Western Pure Land. Thus, sentient beings in the Tushita Heaven remain subject to retrogression. The difficulty of achieving rebirth in the Tushita Heaven is illustrated by the following anecdote.

Some nine hundred years after Sakyamuni's demise, there were three Indian Patriarchs who cultivated together, Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Simhabhadra.

These three all had the same determination in being born in Tushita Heaven and in desiring to see Maitreya. They vowed that if one were to die first, and obtain a look (at Maitreya), he would return and inform the others. Simhabhadra died, but once he had gone he did not return. Later, when Vasabhandhu was nearing his death, Asanga said to him, "If you see Maitreya, come and tell me." Vasabhandhu died, but returned only after a period of three years. Asanga asked him, "Why did it take you such a long time to return?" Vasabhandhu said that he had arrived there (in Tushita Heaven), had heard the bodhisattva Maitreya preach but one sermon, had circumambulated him ... and had come back immediately; but days are long there (in Tushita), and here (on earth) three years had already elapsed; Asanga again asked, "Where is Simhabhadra now?" Vasabhandhu replied that because Simhabhadra had received such heavenly pleasures, he was enjoying the five desires, and so ... from that time to the present he has never seen Maitreya! (Leo Pruden, tr. "The Ching-t'u Shih-i-lun.")

If even a Patriarch like Simhabhadra finds it so difficult to achieve rebirth in the inner court of Maitreya, common people with ordinary capacities have little hope indeed.[71] This author recalls a stanza by the eminent T'ang dynasty poet Po Chu-I. He was a Taoist early in life, but converted to Buddhism in his later years.

Preferring the Dharma of Emptiness, I have left the Immortal Way, 
As I fear it, too, has been corrupted during transmission; 

The Immortal Island is not my abode, 
I long only to return to the Tushita Heaven!

The poet-mystic early in life aspired for immortality; later on, he began to practice Buddhism, seeking rebirth in the Tushita Heaven ... In his later years, however, he took up Buddha Recitation, vowing to be reborn in the Pure Land. This shows that the more an intelligent person ponders and chooses, the more he reaches toward the profound and subtle!