How delighted I was to receive and read your letter! The sage Ch’u Po-yu, upon reaching his fiftieth birthday, looked back and realized the errors he was still committing at age forty-nine. When nearing seventy, Confucius expressed the wish to survive much longer in order to study the Book of Changes in depth and thus avoid major transgressions.
The scholarship of these sages had reached the highest level of mind and thought. Today’s scholars like to study chapter by chapter, with few showing concern for the issue of rectifying mind and thought. Thus, they peruse books all day long without understanding the true intent of the sages, their words and actions differing from those of sages as greatly as day from night or square from round. There is no possible correspondence. We are not even speaking here of the transgressions of mind and thought; if these transgressions were enumerated, the list would be endless!
Buddhist sutras teach followers to practice repentance constantly in order to transcend delusion and achieve Buddhahood. Thus, even the Bodhisattva Maitreya, who has attained the level of Equal Enlightenment, still pays respect to the Buddhas of the ten directions during the six periods of the day, so as to wipe out delusion and attain the Dharma Body. If this is true for the Bodhisattva Maitreya, what can we say of common beings filled with heavy karmic afflictions?
If you do not feel shame and remorse, your Self-Nature may be the same as the Buddhas’, but it is hidden by afflictions and evil karma and cannot manifest itself. Just like a precious mirror which has been covered with dust for eons, not only does it not reflect light, even its reflecting nature is hidden. If you realize that the mirror already possess the nature of brightness and strive to ceaselessly to clean it, the light reflected will gradually increase until it reaches maximum radiance. The mirror can then become, once more, something of value in the world.
You should realize that the potential for reflection is inherent in the mirror and is not the result of polishing. If it were no so, a brick would also shine brightly when polished. Yet, you should also realize that although the brightness is inherent in the mirror, without polishing, the day would never come when it would gleam.
The Mind-Nature of sentient beings is similar. Although it is intrinsically identical to that of the Buddhas, [it is clouded]. Thus, if sentient beings do not mend their ways, from evil to wholesome, and turn their backs on worldly dusts “to merge with Enlightenment,” their inherently virtuous nature cannot appear. Such a mind-consciousness, inherently possessing the Buddha Nature in full but busily creating evil karma and suffering—mired in Birth and Death for many eons—is no different from a dark house filled with treasures. You not only cannot make use of the treasures, you may, in fact, suffer further loss. Is this not lamentable?
Pure Land is precisely the sublime method enabling the practitioner to turn his back on worldly dusts to merge with Enlightenment and return to the source (the Mind). Laymen bound up in mundane affairs cannot easily find the time to attend retreats, practice meditation and recite the sutras. This method is, therefore, very suitable for persons such as yourself. Each one can pay respect to the Buddhas and recite sutras or Buddha Amitabha’s name according to individual circumstances and capacities, dedicating the merits thus accrued to rebirth in the Pure Land. In addition to your regular cultivation sessions, you should practice Buddha Recitation when walking or standing, reclining or sitting, speaking or remaining silent, eating or dressing, throughout the day, wherever you may be.
When venerating the Buddhas on clean places, you may recite either aloud or silently. In dirty places (such as washrooms) or in circumstances that do not call for reverence (such as sleeping or bathing) you should just recite silently. To recite aloud when reclining is not only disrespectful, it is also fatiguing and may lead in time to illness. Silent recitation brings about the same blessings and virtues as oral recitation, as long as it is distinct, earnest and not subject to distractions.
You already know that you must confess your transgressions and practice repentance. This is very much in accord with the Pure Land method because “when the mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure.” However, once having repented, you should change your ways and practice wholesome deeds, lest your repentance consist of empty words bringing no real benefit. This is also true if you wish to be free of external attachments in order to concentrate on Buddha Recitation and reach ne-pointedness of mind. No extraordinary method is required: you should paste the single word “death” on your forehead or dangle it from your eyebrows, always keeping the following thoughts in mind:
Since time immemorial I have created untold immeasurable evil karma; if such karma had form, the empty space of the ten directions could not contain it. Thanks to good conditions, I have been reborn in a human body and have, in addition, had the opportunity to hear the Dharma. However, given my evil karma, I must now recite the Buddha’s name single-mindedly, seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. Otherwise, when my breath has ceased, [I am bound to endure the sufferings of hells, hungry ghosts and animality]. After recovering a human body, I would lack intelligence and be deluded, prone to create evil karma, unable to perform good deeds readily. In no time, I would sink deeper into the evil realms. With my residual bad karma from previous lives still not repaid, I would commit new evil karma, constantly revolving along the Six Paths throughout eons as numerous as motes of dust – hopelessly lost in the immense sea of suffering, not knowing how to reach liberation.
If you always reflect on these points, your cultivation will be focused. Take the example of the two notorious men who – on the verge of death – witnessed the marks of hell appear, whereupon they recited the Buddhas name several time with utmost sincerity and devotion. Immediately, they saw Amitabha Buddha coming to “receive and guide” them back to the Pure Land. This beneficial feature exists only in the Pure Land method, out of all the countless methods taught by Shakyamuni Buddha throughout his teaching career. Therefore, I have always said that “if the Nine Realms of sentient beings do not practice this method, they cannot easily perfect the fruits of Enlightenment, while if the Buddhas of the ten directions abandon this method, they cannot benefit the masses far and wide.”
If you have the utmost faith and cultivate earnestly, seeking escape from birth and death, then even though you still have not left the evil, deluded world, you will not remain long in the Saha World either. While you may not have reached the Pure Land yet, you will soon be a new guest in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
From now on, when you meet virtuous persons, do your utmost to emulate them; when you encounter an opportunity to practice good deeds, do not hesitate. How can you have a heart to procrastinate, lest the error of one moment lead to ten thousand lifetimes of regret? Surely those with high aspirations cannot tolerate being “walking corpses,” running aimlessly while alive and simply decaying after death, along with the grass and trees. Redouble your efforts and exert yourself!
Finally, while the key to rebirth in the Pure Land is singlemindedness, you, as a layman, still have your parents and your family. Although you should not unduly seek wealth and honor, you should still fulfill your family obligations—for to cultivate the Dharma is not to abandon everything. If you could let go of everything and still manage to provide for your parents and family, that would be all to the good. Otherwise, it would be contrary not only to human morality but also to the Dharma. This is something you should also realize.
As a filial son, you should counsel your parents concerning cultivation, so that they may practice Buddha Recitation and seek rebirth in the Pure Land. If they can practice with faith, they will surely achieve rebirth. Once reborn, they will transcend the mundane and enter sagehood, escape birth and death, join the ocean-wide assembly, be close to Amitabha Buddha and eventually achieve Buddhahood. Mundane filially cannot be compared with such an achievement!
If anyone were to advise others to cultivate the Pure Land method, the merits and virtues from such teaching would be entirely his. In the future, he would surely be reborn in the upper lotus grade.