Master Ou-i's Commentary on the Amitabha Sutra

Master Ou-i wrote his explanation of the Amitabha Sutra not as an intellectual exercise, but to provide a practical service to Pure Land believers.  In his own words:

"My hope is that every line and every word of this commentary will serve as resource materials ("life provisions") for Pure Land practitioners, and that as soon as they read or hear what is written in this work, they will progress together to the point where there is no falling back from the path to enlightenment."

In his commentary Master Ou-i explained the Pure Land teaching in terms of the Buddhist philosophy of "Mind Only". There is only one reality: Dharmakaya Buddha, the Buddha-Mind, the One Mind. All things are just waves, ripples, evanescent bubbles, appearing in the ocean of this One Mind:  all worlds, all Buddhas, all sentient beings, all times, all places, all worlds, all the lived experiences of all beings in all worlds in all times.

Note how the One Mind worldview emphasizes our link  to  the  absolute,  without  effacing  our individuality. The Buddha-Mind is all that exists, but we too have Buddha-nature, and our own personal little minds are permeated by the Buddha-Mind, even if we do not recognize it. All that ignorance, delusion, and bad karma can do is screen us off from an awareness of our true nature, our Buddha-nature, our essential integration in the One Mind. But when we use our petty little minds to assess or to access the One Mind, it is literally like ladling out the ocean in a teacup.  This is where the compassionate expedient means of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas come to our rescue. All true Buddhist teachings are situation-specific channels designed to bring us to the realization of the One Mind. The true Buddhist teachings vary in form and application, but are one in intent.

In his commentary Master Ou-i constantly refers to the fact that the apparently wondrous and even unbelievable powers of reciting Amitabha's name are inherent in our connection to the One Mind. "We must realize that there is no name of Amitabha apart from the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment, and there is no way for us to penetrate the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment apart from the name of Amitabha. I hope you will ponder this deeply!"

The connectivity of the One Mind is the key to resolving the typical objections skeptics raise to Pure Land ideas:

"Question: If Amitabha's Pure Land is a hundred billion worlds away from here, how can we be reborn there instantly?

"Answer:  A hundred billion worlds are not beyond this moment of the true nature of mind that is before us right now, since fundamentally there is nothing outside the true nature of mind. When we rely on the power of Buddha that is inherent in our own mind, what is so hard about being born in the Pure Land instantly?"

Master Ou-i constantly brings the matter back to practicalities. The aim is to get in touch with the One Mind, which is omnipresent but commonly unaccessible to people -- the means are judged according to what is effective.

"Reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth means believing that Amitabha's Pure Land in the West is an inherent feature of our own minds, the creation of our own minds. It means using the great name of Amitabha, which is inherent in our minds and the creation of our minds, as a focal point to concentrate our minds on, so that we never forget it for a moment."

Master Ou-i stresses that it is precisely because the One Mind is all-pervasive that ordinary people can reach the Pure Land. He says that by reciting the Buddha-name, "You merge with Buddha from moment to moment, without bothering with visualization or meditation, and [by doing so] you immediately witness perfect illumination, with no excess and no lack. Those of the highest faculties cannot go beyond this level, while those of the lowest capabilities are also able to reach it. Of course the way Amitabha appears to people and the level of the Pure Land into which they are born is not the same [for those of different faculties]."

At another point, Master Ou-i takes a step further in pointing out where Amitabha's Pure Land figures in the scheme of interpenetrating worlds through which the One Mind is revealed: "Why do we have to wait until our life in the mundane world is over before we can be born in the Pure Land's jewel ponds? All we have to do is to develop Faith and Vows and recite the Buddha-name right now, and the lotus bud in which we will be born in the Pure Land is already in bloom, and the image of the Pure Land's golden dais appear before us--at that moment we are no longer inhabitants of this mundane world."

The urgent concern that Ou-i expresses throughout the commentary is that people should actually have faith in Amitabha, vow to reach the Pure Land, and begin reciting the Buddha-name. "If we think that there is some other method besides Pure Land practice that can extricate us from our corrupt world, we are lost in a welter of empty arguments inside a burning house."


A perennial question in Pure Land communities is how the practitioner's state of mind affects the effectiveness of Buddha-name recitation.  Master Ou-i stresses that perfectly focused recitation, coupled with faith and vows, is the optimum practice, but reminds us that even reciting the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind still plants seeds of future attainment.  His comments offer a mix of warning and encouragement. Here are three samples:

"Reciting the Buddha-name with a scattered mind does not guarantee being reborn in the Pure Land, since a good thing done in a diffuse, scattered way is no match for the evils that have accumulated from time without beginning."

"The only way [to eliminate bad karma] is to recite the Buddha-name until the mind is unified and undisturbed in Buddha-remembrance. Then it is like a powerful warrior breaking out of an encirclement, so even three armies cannot hem him in any more. Invoking the Buddha-name is a seed for becoming enlightened. It is like an indestructible diamond."

"Even if you invoke the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, the merits and good roots are still incalculable -- how much the more so when you invoke the Buddha name with a unified mind that is not in chaos!"

As always, the "answer" depends on the point of view and the level of truth in which the answer is operating.

On one level -- shall we say the level of conventional reality, the level of our lives as sentient beings and Buddhist practitioners -- we must recite the Buddha-name to the point that our minds become unified and unconfused before we can be protected and kept in mind by the Buddhas, as the sutra promises.

On another level, the level of absolute reality and the One Mind, as Master Ou-i points out,   "The compassion of the Buddhas is inconceivable, and the merits of their names are also inconceivable. Therefore, once you hear a Buddha-name, no matter whether you are mindful or not, or whether you believe in it or not, it always becomes the seed of an affinity with the truth. Moreover, when the Buddhas bring salvation to sentient beings, they do not sort out friends and enemies: they go on working tirelessly for universal salvation. If you hear the Buddha-name, Buddha is bound to protect you. How can there he any doubts about this?"

Perhaps looking back over the twists and turns of his own religious quest, and looking ahead to his own approaching demise, Master Ou-i saw the moment of death as  a key test of what a person has achieved in the work of the spirit. If the momentum of deluded habits and attachments still remains, he warns, it will drag us off into further suffering in future births. For the final time, Master Ou-i exhorts his readers to come to their senses and believe the message of the sutra:

"The only way out is to develop faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, and rely on the power of an outside Buddha to help our own Buddha. Amitabha's vows of compassion are certainly not empty promises. If we develop faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, when we die Amitabha and the assembly of saints will appear before us to lead us away.  That way we will achieve an undisturbed mind and be free to be reborn in the Pure Land."[5]