Letter 6 – Faith, Vows and Practice

The true intention of Buddha Shakyamuni, when he appeared in the world to preach the Dharma and rescue sentient beings, was for all beings to escape Birth and Death and attain Enlightenment immediately. However, because sentient beings were all of differing capacities and thus could not entirely meet His transcendental expectations, the All-Compassionate Being resorted to one expedient teaching after another, all of them adapted to the individual capacities of sentient beings.

To those of the highest capacities, the Great Sage taught the path of the Buddhas, showing them the Self-Nature directly so that they might attain Buddhahood in one lifetime—as in the case of Sudhana in the Avatamsaka Sutra or the Dragon Princess in the Lotus Sutra. To those of more modest capacities, the Buddha taught the Bodhisattva, Pratyeka Buddha and Arhat paths, so that they might reach Buddhahood through step-by-step cultivation. To those of still lower capacities, the Buddha taught the Five Precepts and the Ten Virtues.

These methods, high and low, some leading to swift liberation, others to gradual liberation, are all different. However, they all require self-power and deep cultivation to escape from the cycle of Birth and Death and reach the Self-Nature. If even a trace of delusion of views or delusion of thought remains, the roots of Birth and Death cannot be extirpated. This being the case, even if the cultivator’s powers of concentration and wisdom are profound, he will continue to revolve in the cycle of Birth and Death. Only at the level of the Arhats are the roots of Birth and Death completely severed.

However, transcending Birth and Death is merely the small fruit of the Arhats; the cultivator must still aim for the path of Great Bodhi, relying on his Vow to be reborn in the worlds of the ten directions. He may then cultivate the six paramitas and the ten thousand conducts, in order to achieve Buddhahood and rescue sentient beings … [In this manner, he will gradually achieve fifty-two different stages of Bodhisattvahood, up to the level of Wonderful Enlightenment, before finally reaching Buddhahood.]

Although Buddha Shakyamuni expounded countless methods throughout His teaching career, they are all based upon the various stages of Bodhisattvahood mentioned above.

Thus, the Zen tradition points directly to the Self-Mind, seeing one’s Nature and achieving Buddhahood. This is a perfect, direct shortcut. However, we are speaking here from the viewpoint of the inherent Dharma Body (that is, principle of noumenon), bypassing phenomenal cultivation and attainment grounded in the law of Cause and Effect. If we were to consider the different levels of cultivation and achievement, there would be no difference between Zen and the Sutra Studies method.

However, in the midst of this Dharma-Ending Age, there are very few good spiritual advisors, while the capacities of sentient beings are limited. It is difficult enough to find someone who is awakened to the Way, not to mention one who has truly attained Enlightenment!. Thus, knowing that sentient beings would find it extremely difficult to achieve liberation by relying on self-power alone, Shakyamuni Buddha taught, in addition of other methods, the special approach of Pure Land. With this method, as long as their faith and Vows are true and earnest, even those who have committed the Five Grave Offenses or the Ten Evil Acts, may, on the verge of death, when the marks of hell appear, follow the advice of a good spiritual advisor and recite the Buddha’s name one to ten times. The, thanks to the compassionate power of Amitabha Buddha, even they will be received and guided to the Pure Land—not to mention those who practice wholesome deeds and do not commit transgressions.

The more diligently the cultivator engages in wholesome conduct and the deeper his power of concentration, the higher his level of rebirth will be. He will see Amitabha Buddha soon after rebirth and be able to hear the wonderful Dharma. Therefore, even those who have awakened to the Way, severed delusion and attained the Truth should dedicate all merits toward rebirth in the Pure Land, seeking perfect attainment of the Dharma Body and swift attainment of Buddhahood.

Other methods depend on the capacities of the practitioner. If they lead only to limited attainment (such as Arhatship), those of high capacities need not practice them. If they lead to great attainment, those of limited capacities cannot cultivate them. Only the Pure Land method embraces practitioners of all three capacities, high, moderate and low. Supremely lofty beings, such as Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Manjursi and Samantabhadra, cannot transcend it, while those of low capacities, who have committed the Five Grave Offenses or the Ten Evil Deeds and have sown the seeds of the Never-Ending Hell, can still participate in it. If Shakyamuni Buddha had not aught this method, the majority of sentient beings in the Dharma-Ending Age could not hope to escape the cycle of birth and death.

Despite its loftiness, the Pure Land Dharma Door is a very easy method of cultivation. For this reason, not only do ordinary beings find it difficult to believe, but cultivators of the Two Vehicles (Theravada followers) also harbor doubts. This applies even to Bodhisattvas at the “expedient level.” Only those who have sown the wholesome seeds of Pure Land in previous lives as well as the higher level of Bodhisattvas can truly have firm and deep faith in it.

A newborn prince, who has not yet proven his talents and virtues, is still above the ministers in nobility and honor, thanks to the power of his royal lineage. Likewise, those who practice Buddha Recitation with full Faith and Vows, though they may be ordinary beings, belong to a lineage superior to that of the disciples of the Two Vehicles. This is because they have learned to cast their earthly minds into the sea of Enlightenment—silently in tune with the wonderful Way. Thanks to Amitabha Buddha’s power, they will swiftly attain the level of non-retrogression.

In discussing the Pure Land method, you should make a general comparison of the ease and difficulty of other power vs. self-power, as employed in this and other methods, respectively. Otherwise, even if you do not doubt the Dharma, you will doubt yourself, and even a trace of doubt becomes an obstacle. In such a case, even if you engage in cultivation you will not reap the full benefit—not to mention what will happen if you do not cultivate. For this reason, faith is the first criterion. You should firmly believe that the Saha World is a place of suffering, the Western Pure Land is a realm of bliss. As is said in the Smaller Amitabha Sutra:

Shariputra: Why is that land called Utmost Happiness? The beings of that land experience no suffering; they only know every kind of joy; therefore it is called Utmost Happiness.

You should be wary and not attempt to reason with the mind of an ordinary being, lest you mistakenly think that “all the wonderful, extraordinary events beyond common understanding that occur in the Western Pure Land are myths representing the Mind Dharma, rather than a true environment.” With this misunderstanding, you lose the benefit of rebirth in the Pure Land. This is a major error, so be careful!

Once you realize the Saha World is a place of suffering while the Pure Land is a place of joy, you should develop true, earnest Vows, resolving to the leave the Saha World and return to the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Such Vows are no different from those of a person who has fallen into an excrement pit and seeks to escape swiftly, or of a prisoner who yearns for his native village. Such hopes and desires should be utterly sincere, because your own strength cannot free you from your predicament.

Sentient beings in the Saha World, facing circumstances that accord or fail to accord with their wishes, often develop the mind of greed, anger and delusion, create the karma of killing, stealing and lust, and tarnish their bright, spotless Self-Nature—this is a filthy bottomless pit. Having created evil karma, they must endure suffering through many lifetimes along the Evil Paths—this is a drawn out imprisonment.

Untold eons ago, Amitabha Buddha made forty-eight Vows to rescue sentient beings. One of the Vows [the eighteenth] stated:

If, after my obtaining Buddhahood, all beings in the ten quarters should desire in sincerity and trustfulness to be born in my country, and if they should not be born by only thinking of me ten times …, may I not attain the highest Enlightenment.

Although Amitabha Buddha, the Compassionate One, made such a Vow, if sentient beings do not seek His help, there is little He can do. However, anyone who recites His name with utter sincerity, vowing to leave the Saha World behind, will be welcomed and escorted to the Pure Land. Amitabha Buddha has great power; He can rescue sentient beings from the excrement pit and the prison of the defiled world, guide them to the Land of Ultimate Bliss, and help them enter the realms of the Buddhas to assume the prerogatives and functions of the Tathagatas (Buddhas).

Rebirth in the Western Land thus requires, first of all, deep Faith and fervent Vows. Without these conditions, even if you were to cultivate, you could not obtain a response from Amitabha Buddha. You would merely reap the blessings of the human and celestial realms and sow the seeds of liberation in the future. Anyone who fulfills the conditions of Faith and Vows is assured of rebirth in the Pure Land. When elder Master Yung Ming stated that “out of ten thousand who cultivate Pure Land, ten thousand will achieve rebirth,” he was referring to those with fulll Faith and Vows. Once you have deep Faith and earnest Vows, you should practice Buddha Recitation as your principal method, guided by your Faith and Vows. These three components [Faith, Vows, Practice] are precisely the main tenets of Pure Land—lack of any one of these conditions will prevent you from achieving rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

The form of Buddha Recitation Practice depends on the circumstances of each individual—there is no single set way … If the cultivator is very busy, having no free time, he should set aside a specific period in the early morning. After washing up, he should bow three times to the Buddha in front of his altar (if he has one). Then, standing erect, he should join his palms and simplemindedly recite the words “Na Mo Amitabha Buddha” as many times as he can in one stretch, each stretch counting as one recitation. He should recite thus for ten stretches, and then utters the following stanza:

I vow that, along with other Pure Land cultivators,
I will be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss,
See Amitabha Buddha, escape Birth and Death,
And rescue all, as the Buddha does.

After reciting this stanza, he should bow three times before retiring.

If he does not have an altar, he can face west with palms joined, reciting according to the above method. This is the Ten Recitations Method which Elder Master Tzu Wen established for rulers and officials who are too busy with affairs of state to engage in cultivation. Why recite in one stretch? It is because sentient beings have scattered, unsettled minds and are thus unable to practice assiduously. This recitation method relies on the breath to concentrate the mind. However, the number of utterances is dependent on the length of the breath span. There should be no effort or constraint, as this would lead to fatigue … Since recitation with a scattered mind cannot easily lead to rebirth in the Pure Land, this method is useful for focusing the mind. While the recitations are few in number, the virtues accrued are profound and rebirth is assured.

Moreover, the practitioner should maintain a virtuous and forgiving mind in all circumstances, guard against mistakes in each of his thoughts, be willing to recognize mistakes, correct his transgressions and gladly perform good actions—only then will he be in accord with Buddha Amitabha. Failure to do so indicates that his mind is still obstructed and thus not consonant with the mind of the Buddha. This makes it difficult for the two to interact. Furthermore, when bowing, reciting Mahayana sutras or accomplishing various wholesome deeds, he should dictate all the resulting merits to rebirth in the Pure Land. He should not dedicate only the merits of Buddha Recitation itself, while transferring incidental merits toward worldly blessings. In the latter case he would not be single-minded, making rebirth in the Pure Land very difficult to achieve.

The Pure Land method is extolled in numerous Mahayana sutras. Theravada sutras, on the other hand, do not mention it at all. Those who are not versed in the Dharma and reject Buddha Recitation as a “self-benefit” method are speaking thoughtlessly. Do not listen to them.