From your letter, I learned that in recent days you have engaged in earnest cultivation, examining yourself, mending your ways and following the path of the sages, with no desire for empty fame. I am very happy indeed!
To follow in the footsteps of the Buddhas and sages and escape Birth and Death, you should first develop an attitude of shame and repentance, abandon evils ways, perform wholesome deeds, keep the precepts and practice self-restraint. You should aim for the Truth and practice to your utmost ability. Otherwise, there is deceit within deceit. Thus, understanding the Dharma is not difficult; practice is the real difficulty. Many intelligent persons merely verbalize but fail to practice. They therefore waste an entire lifetime, spoiling a visit to the jeweled mountain and returning empty-handed. What a great pity! Their deluded thoughts flare up unchecked because they are not earnest in maintaining correct thought. If they would only concentrate on one realm, deluded thoughts would be converted into “correct wisdom.” There, as the saying goes:
If the king rules wisely, rebels and bandits will become like his own sons; if he rules unwisely, even his closest friends will turn into enemies.
As common beings, who among us is not afflicted by delusion and evil karma? However, if you take precautions in your daily life, afflictions will not flare up whenever you meet with adverse circumstances. Even if they do arise, you will be aware of them and eradicate them. The conditions leading to afflictions are numerous. Most powerful among them are wealth, lust and unusual adversities.
If you realize that ill-gotten gains are more dangerous than venomous snakes, you will not desire them when you see them. On the other hand, to assist fellow beings is precisely to lay the foundation for our own future merit and virtue. Knowing this, whenever those in need seek your help, you should not be stingy and refuse, developing afflictions in the process.
As for lustful thoughts, when you come across women as beautiful as flowers or precious gems, even women of pleasure and courtesans, you should view them as your own sisters and, with a compassionate mind, seek to rescue them. In this way, you not be moved by beautiful forms or swayed by lustful thoughts. Within the family, husbands and wives should respect one another as guests …
When encountering adverse circumstances, you should develop thoughts of compassion, forgiving those who do not realize their mistakes and avoiding disputes. You should think, “In my previous lives, I have causes suffering and hurt sentient beings on many occasions. If I met with adversity today, it is merely the repayment of previous debts.” Thinking thus, you become naturally content and do not develop a mind of anger and vengefulness.
However, these methods are for those of low capacities. In the case of sages who cultivated for a long time, all afflictions become the “illuminating Mind Store” – the ten thousand dharmas have always been without self, the adverse or beneficial consequences of all actions depend on the individual alone.
Faith, Vows and Practice form the cornerstone of Pure Land. If these three conditions are fulfilled, rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss will be achieved. You should pay particular attention to Faith and Vows, and wish wholeheartedly to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land … [and not as a celestial being or a Dharma Master, however awakened as these are still within the realm of Birth and Death]. Only then will your faith and Vows reach Amitabha Buddha so that His Compassionate Vow may embrace you. In this connection, Elder Master Ou I has said:
Achieving rebirth in the Pure Land depends entirely on Faith and Vows, while the level of rebirth depends on the depth of practice.
This is truth as solid as steel—even if a thousand Buddhas were to appear on earth, it would not change. Only by firmly believing in the truth will you have a destiny in the Western Pure Land.
If you experience difficulty in reaching one-pointedness of mind, you should focus your mind and recite with care. The main criteria of such concentration are utter sincerity and earnestness. It is very difficult to achieve one-pointedness of mind without utter sincerity. However, sincerity is not enough. You should next listen attentively to the recitation. Whether or not recitation is performed aloud, it should originate from the mind. It then proceeds from the mouth and enters the ears (even if you recite slowly, the marks of oral recitation still exist in the mind). With mind and mouth reciting clearly, the ears hearing clearly and the mind thus concentrated, deluded thoughts will cease by themselves.
You have now reached your fifties. If you wish to attain liberation in this very life, you should concentrate on the Pure Land method. The Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra should be temporarily set aside, until such time as you fully posses the Pure Land principles and achieve one-pointedness of mind through Buddha Recitation. If you spend time studying while you are trying to engage in cultivation, you may not have the time or energy. Thus, you will achieve neither and lose the benefits of both.