1. "The Pure Land School is presently the school of Buddhism in China and Japan that has the most followers." (The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, p. 174.) According to Jean Eracle (Curator, Museum of Etlinography, Geneva), Pure Land has more than a hundred million adherents worldwide. (Trois Soutras et an Traite sur Ia Terre Pure, p.7.)
2. Since every school or method is an expedient, adapted to a particular target audience, each one is perfect and complete for a given person or group at a given time. See also the following passage from D.T. Suzuki:
Buddhist theology has a fine comprehensive theory to explain the manifold types of experience in Buddhism, which look so contradictory to each other. In fact the history of Chinese Buddhism is a series of attempts to reconcile the diverse schools ... Various ways of classification and reconciliation were offered, and ... their conclusion was this: Buddhism supplies us with so many gates to enter into the truth because of such a variety of human characters and temperaments and environments due to diversities of karma. This is plainly depicted and taught by the Buddha himself when he says that the same water drunk by the cow and the cobra turns in one case into nourishing milk and in the other into deadly poison, and that medicine is to be given according to disease. This is called the doctrine of [skillful] means ... (The Eastern Buddhist, Vol.4, No.2, p.121.)
In the West, the need for some guidance in mind-development was made acute ... by a sudden spate of books which were, whatever the motive of their authors, dangerous in the extreme. No word was said in them of the sole right motive for mind-development, the enlightenment of the meditator for the benefit of all mankind [i.e., development of the Bodhi Mind], and the reader was led to believe that it was quite legitimate to study and practice mindfulness, and the higher stages which ensue, for the benefit of business efficiency and the advancement of personal prestige. In these circumstances, Concentration and Meditation... was compiled and published by the [British] Buddhist Society, with constant stress on the importance of right motive, and ample warning of the dangers, from a headache to insanity, which lie in wait for those who trifle with the greatest force on earth, the human mind. (Christmas Humphreys, The Buddhist Way of Life,p.100.)
4. The Avatamsaka Sutra teaches the interpenetration of all dharmas -- the smallest dharma contains the largest and vice versa. As a modern example, a single computer chip can contain numerous books. This teaching is clearly expressed in chapter 26 of the sutra, which describes the last phases of practice of a Bodhisattva before final Buddhahood. In that chapter, it is taught that at each and every stage, the actions of the Bodhisattva "never go beyond Buddha Recitation":
This is a summary of the tenth stage of enlightening beings, called Cloud of Teaching ... Whatever acts they undertake, whether through giving, or kind speech, or beneficial action, or cooperation, it is all never apart from thoughts f Buddha [Buddha Recitation], the Teaching, the Community... (Thomas Cleary, tr., The Flower Ornament Scripture [Avatamsaka Sutra],Vol.11, p.111.)
5. The strength and pervasiveness of Pure Land are such that its main practice, Buddha Recitation, is found in other schools, including the Tantric and Zen schools. In Pure Land, Buddha Recitation is practiced for the immediate purpose of achieving rebirth in the Land of Amitabha Buddha. In the Tantric school, the immediate aim is to destroy evil karma and afflictions and generate blessings and wisdom in the current lifetime. In Zen, the koan of Buddha Recitation is meant to sever delusive thought and realize the Self-Nature True Mind. The ultimate goal of all three schools is, of course, the same: to achieve Enlightenment and Buddhahood.
Once Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana went with a large gathering of followers to another country to convert living beings. When the citizens saw the Buddha they shut their doors and ignored him. When they saw Maudgalyayana, however, they ran to greet him, and everyone, from the King and ministers to the citizens, all bowed and competed to make offerings to him. The Buddha's disciples thought this most unfair. "World Honored One," they said, "your virtuous conduct is so lofty; why is it that they do not make offerings to you, but instead compete to make offerings to Maudgalyayana?"
"This is because of past affinities," said the Buddha. "I will tell you."
"Limitless aeons ago, Maudgalyayana and I were fellow-countrymen. He gathered firewood in the mountains and I lived in a hut below. A swarm of bees was bothering me and I decided to smoke them out. But Maudgalyayana refused to help even though they stung him until his hands were swollen and painful. Instead, he made a vow, 'It must be miserable to be a bee,' he thought. 'I vow that when I attain the Way I will take these asura-like bees across first thing!'
"Many lifetimes later the bees were reborn as the citizens of this country. The queen bee became the King, the drones became the ministers, and the workers became the citizens. Because I didn't like the bees, I now have no affinity with these people and therefore no one makes offerings to me. But because of his vow, all the citizens revere Maudgalyayana" (Ibid, p.37-38).
According to the Buddha, as sentient beings, we all have strong attachments - particularly to our bodies and possessions. At the time of death, as we are about to lose both body and posessions, our consciousness, impelled by these deep-seated attachments, rushes to reincarnate itself in another body. It is at this juncture that vows, particularly the vow for rebirth in the Pure Land, are crucial: instead of just following our karma, good and evil, we may, through the power of these vows, achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
Dr. Suzuki is generally associated with the Zen school, so it is often a matter of surprise to hear that he translated many Pure Land Buddhist texts into English and nourished a belief that Pure Land rather than Zen might be the form of Buddhism most suitable for Westerners. (John Snelling, The Buddhist Handbook, p.216.)
Most Buddhists in the world, by far the vast majority, practice a Faith or devotional form of worship. Dr. D.T. Suzuki strongly believed that the direction American Buddhism would take was towards Shin Buddhism [Pure Land] and its practice of Faith. It may turn out at this time that most Westerners, originally seeking personal enlightenment, will find themselves choosing a devotional path. (Ryushin Sarah Grayson in Butsumon, Fall 1989.)
This sutra is a Mahayana Dharma ... and takes the Real Mark as its substance. The Real Mark is no mark. There is no mark, nothing at all, and yet there is nothing which is not marked. Unmarked, it is true emptiness, and with nothing unmarked, it is wonderful existence ... True Suchness, the One True Dharma Realm, the Thus Come One's Store Nature, all are different names for the Real Mark (Hsuan Hua, A General Explanation the Buddha Speaks ofAmitabha Sutra [the Amitabba Sutra], p.23).
The teaching of the Mind "creating" sentient beings and the environment, expressed in many Mahayana sutras such as the Avatamsaka, Surangama and Lotus Sutras, is epitomized in the following stanzas:
if one wishes to understand fully
All Buddhas of all time,
He should contemplate the nature of the Dharma Realm
Everything is made from Mind alone (Avatamsaka Sutra, ch 20).
One wholesome thought is the condition
for the creation of the Buddha-lands;
One errant thought is the very cause
of the nine realms of samsara.
This does not mean creation in the sense of creating something out of nothing. This doctrine means that practically speaking the world only "exists" as such because of our awareness, and that what we take to be the world in itself is our experience and inference based thereon. The conceptual order which is taken to be characteristic of objective reality is, according to this doctrine, a projection of the mind, a description that filters and shapes experience in accord with mental habits developed throughout the history of the species, the civilization, and the individual (Thomas Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture[the Avatamsaka Sutra], Vol. One, p.23).
10. Singleminded recitation. This concept is understood in two ways. For the Patriarch Chih-i, Master Ou-i and others of the T'ien-t'ai, Zen and Avatamsaka traditions, it is equivalent to concentration and samadhi. For Pure Land Patriarchs such as Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao, on the other hand, it refers to recitation with utmost faith in Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land. Although the two concepts are in essence the same (one cannot recite with utmost faith without being in a state of concentration or samadhi) the distinction may be useful and expedient for beginning practitioners (see also note 16b).
The chief supporter of the Buddha was Anathapindika the millionaire. Amongst lay-followers he was regarded as the foremost alms-giver.
The original name of Anathapindika, which means "Feeder of the Helpless", was Sudana. Owing to his unparalleled generosity he was latterly known by his new name. His birthplace was Savatthi ...
Anathapindika ... bought the park belonging to Prince Jeta at a price determined by covering, so the story goes, the whole site with gold coins, and erected the famous Jetavana Monastery at a great cost. Here the Buddha spent nineteen rainy seasons. This monastery where the Buddha spent the major part of his life was the place where he delivered many of his sermons (Narada Maha Thera, The Buddha and His Teachings, p.93 and 94).
12. Bodhi Mind. See Glossary for this important term. Without the development of the Bodhi Mind, the Pure Land practitioner is in danger of seeking liberation for himself alone, without any thought of rescuing others. Though he may achieve a favorable rebirth in the human or celestial realms, he cannot be reborn in a buddha-and such as Amitabha's Land.
13. Theravada teachings. This is an important point and partly
explains why the Theravada tradition is silent about the Mahayana pantheon in general and Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land sages in particular.
14. This vivid description of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is not unique in Mahayana Buddhism. The Avatamsaka Sutra, for example, contains many passages reflecting the same basic idea: the purification of a land by the merits and virtues of a great Bodhisattva.
Great enlightening beings [Bodhisattvas] also dedicate the roots of goodness ... to the aspiration to purify all buddha-lands ..., each of those lands adorned with arrays of pure exquisite treasures, as measureless as the cosmos - countless thrones of pure jewels spread with precious robes, countless jeweled curtains and jeweled nets draping, countless precious canopies with all kinds of jewels reflecting each other, countless jewel clouds raining jewels, countless jewel flowers all around, completely pure, countless pure arrays of balustrades made of jewels, countless jewel chimes always emitting the subtle tones of the Buddhas circulating throughout the cosmos, countless jewel lotuses of various jewel colors blooming with glorious radiance, countless jewel trees arrayed in rows all around, with flowers and fruits of innumerable jewels, countless jewel palaces with innumerable enlightening beings [Bodhisattvas] living in them, countless jewel mansions, spacious, magnificent, long and wide, far and near, countless jewel ramparts with exquisite jewel ornaments, countless jewel gates hung all around with strings of beautiful jewels ... (T. Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture), Vol. One, p.681).
15. Birds preaching the Dharma. At a high level this can be understood as an allegory, similar to the traditional definition of a Pratyeka Buddha: a sage who becomes enlightened by observing the falling leaves and realizing, for example, the impermanence of life. In this case, the falling leaves can be said to preach the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings).
The image of inanimate objects, such as the ground, the trees, the rain, precious stones, etc. expounding the Teaching is found throughout such high level Mahayana texts as the Avatamsaka Sutra:
Buddha's blessings and mystical powers
Adorn everywhere with precious gemstones;
The ground and the enlightenment tree
Alternately emit light and sound expressing the truth.
Precious lamps, infinite, rain from the sky,
Studded with regal sapphires,
All emitting subtle sounds speaking truth ...
(T Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture, Vol. One, p. 139).
a) Singleminded recitation. On the everyday level, this means focussing on Buddha Amitabha and Buddha Amitabha alone, to the exclusion of all other thoughts while reciting the Buddha's name. At a deeper level, the practitioner always focuses on Buddha Amitabha, be it during recitation sessions or outside of such sessions, when he is engaged in mundane activities - i.e., at all times.
b) Singleminded recitation from one to seven days. According to the Amitabha Sutra, to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, it is necessary to recite the Buddha's name from one to seven days to the level of one pointedness of mind (i.e., singleminded concentration). This, as any practitioner can attest, is a very difficult condition -- one which very few cultivators can ever hope to fulfill. Therefore, in the Meditation Sutra, the Buddha taught an alternate way: to recite the name of Amitabba Buddha with one-pointedness ofmind, from one to ten times, at the time of death.
The crucial condition is one-pointedness of mind, which has been rendered variously as "with all one's heart", "without inversion", "with one Mind", "in all sincerity", etc. Unless the cultivator fulfills this condition, his mind will not be on the same wave length as that of Buddha Amitabha. Thus, he will not be in a position to take advantage of Amitabha Buddha's vows and achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. (However, see also note 10, for possible exceptions to this point.)
c) Cause and effect. A question often raised is what happens to the law of cause and effect, the basis of all Buddhist teaching, when a sinner is reborn in the Pure Land thanks to reciting the Buddha's name?
On the level of Mind (noumenon level), since all transgressions, worries and fears are born of delusion and ignorance, once we are enlightened (through rebirth in the Pure Land), all these transgressions, worries and fears are gone. This is as if, in the dark, we mistakenly take a rope for a snake. When we switch on the light and realize that it is only a rope, there is no longer worry or fear -- nothing to change or repay, no remaining evil karma.
On the level of everyday life (phenomenal level), good and evil karma do exist, but once we are enlightened and realize that nothing has intrinsic nature, evil karma and retribution no longer carry the heavy weight they do for ordinary beings. In fact, an enlightened person often uses such karma to help the very person he has wronged. For example, supposing there are two brothers playing a game of chance on the beach. The elder one, in a moment of greed, cheats on the younger one, who becomes angry and upset. Once their father convinces them that the game is only a make-believe, with no real gain or loss, the elder brother is awakened. He can then accept his brother's anger and even turn around to help the younger one understand as well.
Another explanation of how a sinner can be reborn in the Pure Land is the other-power of Amitabha Buddha:
A minute grain of sand, dropped on the surface of the water, will sink immediately. On the other hand, a block of stone, however large and heavy, can easily be moved from place to place by boat. The same is true of the Pure Land practitioner. However light his karma may be, if he is not rescued by Amitabha Buddha, he must revolve in the cycle of birth and death. With the help of the Buddha, his karma, however heavy, will not prevent his rebirth in the Pure Land (Questions of King Milindra, in Thich Thien Tam, Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith, sect. 68 A).
On the subject of rebirth, [Zen Master Hsing An] stated, quoting the Amitabha Sutra: "the Sutra says 'You cannot hope to be reborn in the Pure Land with little merit and virtue and few causes and conditions or good roots. Therefore, you should have numerous merits and virtues as well as good roots to qualify for rebirth in the Pure Land. However, there is no better way to plant numerous good roots than to develop the Bodhi Mind, while the best way to achieve merit and virtues is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. A moment of singleminded recitation surpasses years of practicing charity; truly developing the Bodhi Mind surpasses eons of cultivation. Holding firmly to these two causes and conditions assures rebirth in the Pure Land" (Thich Thien Tam,Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith, sect. 11).
The development of the Bodhi Mind (the aspiration for Enlightenment to benefit both self and others) is crucial in Pure Land Buddhism. Without this Bodhi Mind, the cultivator will not be fulfilling the ultimate intention of the Buddhas - to help all sentient beings become frilly enlightened.
18. - Ocean Seal Samadhi. See Glossary.
- Great PerfectWisdom Mirror. This is a reference to the all-seeing wisdom of the Buddhas, which is likened to an Immense, round mirror as large as the universe.
19. Horizontal escape. "Horizontal" and "vertical" are figures of speech, which can readily be understood through the following example. Suppose we have a worm, born inside a stalk of bamboo. To escape, it can take the hard way and crawl "vertically" all the way to the top of the stalk. Alternatively, it can poke a hole near its current location and escape "horizontally" into the big, wide world. The horizontal escape, for sentient beings, is to seek rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
Because its principles were too profound and wonderful for the Sravakas or Bodhisattvas to comprehend, no one requested the Pure Land Dharma-door. Nonetheless, it had to be revealed and so the Buddha spontaneously spoke this very important sutra, doubly important because it will be the last to disappear in the Dharma-ending age (Master Hsuan Hua, A General Explanation of the Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra [the Amitabha Sutra], p.1).
The Brahma Net Sutra (which contains the lofty Bodhisattva precepts) and the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Mahayana sutra par excellence) are the only other well-known examples of self-spoken sutras.
Faith, Vows and Practice are called the "three provisions" of the Pure Land method. Just as travellers embarking on a distant journey must make provisions for medicine, food, clothing and funds sufficient to cover their needs en route, so, too, Pure Land practitioners require Faith to make firm Vows. However, Faith and Vows are hollow without Practice. Likewise, even if Practice is adequate, without Faith and Vows, that Practice will go astray, lacking criteria and direction. Therefore, Faith, Vows and Practice are the "provisions" of those returning to the Pure Land from afar (thich Thien Tam, Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith, sect. 21).
Although he knows that Buddha lands
Are void like living heings
He goes on practicing the Pure Land
(Dharma) to teach and convert men.