Letter 7 – The Brahma Net Sutra and the Precepts

I have made my home on P’u T’o Mountain for some twenty years now and during that entire time have not engaged in personal contact with lay people. Recently, when Master Fu Yen visited our mountain, he approached me in the meditation hut on several occasions within the space of ten days to talk about your fidelity and moral integrity, exhibiting deep concern each time. On these occasions, I advanced the opinion that although your integrity is praiseworthy, you do not know how to cultivate properly.

I also said that, time permitting, I would write a letter of advice to you explaining the main lines of the Pure Land method, so that you could, according to your strength and conditions, step onto the Pure Land path. Upon hearing this, Master Fu Yen expressed his approval and wholeheartedly requested me to do so. This is the genesis of my letter to you today.

The Dharma already exists in full in the minds of all sentient beings—both clergy and lay persons can uphold it. However, women’s lives entail many restrictions. If you leave your native village to travel afar, you may well be subjected to oppression and assault. Therefore, you had better stay home, keep the precepts and recite the Buddha’s name, determined to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. There is no need to leave your native place to become a nun. Extensive travel to various temples and other holy places to seek out great masters with whom to study the sutras in depth should be left to men. For women to follow this course is not advisable. You should strive to practice the Pure Land method, reciting the Buddha’s name assiduously. If you succeed in gathering your six facilities together and engage in pure recitation without interruption, you can attain samadhi as a matter of course, in this very life. Why, then, worry about not reaching the higher lotus grades at the time of death?

Even if you do not reach samadhi, you will still achieve rebirth [in a lower grade], be part of the Ocean-Wide Assembly, close to Amitabha Buddha. You will gradually return to the True Self-Nature and naturally understand the various teachings. Then just like an image in a mirror, you will appear in the Saha World without leaving the Pure Land, to rescue sentient beings through countless expedients, helping them all to reach the Pure Land and attain the Tolerance of Non-Birth (insight into the non-origination of all things). This will not be turning your back on your present firm determination to cultivate. In fact, you will deserve to be called a green lotus blossom, born amid fire a true woman of character.

The basis of Pure Land is the determination to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Therefore, the motto of the school is “Faith, Vows and Practice.” “Faith” means believing that the Saha World is filled with the Eight Sufferings, while the Pure Land is a realm of boundless joy.

Once you have firm Faith, you should vow to leave the Saha World, like a prisoner desperate to leave his jail, and resolve to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, like a traveler longing for his native place.

As someone who has not achieved rebirth in the Pure Land, even if you were presented with the Jewelled throne of the god-king Brahma, you should consider it as a cause and condition of perdition, without a single thought of longing. Likewise, wishes such as “rebirth as a male, entering the clergy early in life, attaining great intelligence, great spiritual powers …” should all be considered tortuous paths of cultivation which can only bring you back to your starting point. Abandon all these thoughts and seek only to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land at the time of death. Once reborn, you will naturally escape the cycle of Birth and Death, transcend the human world, enter the realm of sages, reach the stage of non-retrogression and attain the stage of Non-Birth. At that time, when you look back, you will discover that the royal throne in the human and celestial realms, even rebirth as a high-ranking monk, are but tiresome occurrences that last for many eons with no liberation in site. You will then realize that compared to your present lotus grade, those aspirations are not different from a flickering flame versus a rainbow, or an anthill versus a mountain.

Thus, the Pure Land practitioner certainly should not seek the blessings and merits of the celestial and human realms, not even rebirth as a high-ranking monk. Just a trace of such thinking constitutes a lack of deep Faith and earnest Vows. Such thoughts place a barrier between you and the Vows of Amitabha Buddha—preventing you from achieving rebirth in the Pure Land. This is a great pity, a great waste, indeed! How could you have the heart to exchange the unimaginably sublime Pure Land for mundane happiness—so that when all the blessings have been exhausted, you would continue to revolve in the cycle of Birth and Death, dragged by the current of karmic delusion, subject to untold suffering?

If poison is mixed with butter, the delicious butter becomes lethal. Practicing Pure Land without the right frame of mind brings similar harm. You must extirpate such wrong thoughts in order to enjoy fully the benefits of the Pure Land method.

Once having developed deep Faith and earnest Vows, you should hold fast to the words “Amitabha Buddha.” Regardless of the occasion, whether walking or standing, sitting or reclining, speaking or remaining silent, moving about, meditating, dressing, eating, even when in the privy, you should keep the words “Amitabha Buddha” firmly in mind. You should exert yourself until the recitations are constantly before you, the whole Buddha is Mind. Mind and Buddha are open—reciting to the ultimate point where all mundane feelings are forgotten. At that time, the mind being empty, the Buddha appears. During this life you can attain the Buddha Remembrance Samadhi and at the time of death achieve rebirth in the upper lotus grades.

Cultivating in this way may be considered as exercising your abilities to the utmost. In daily life, the merits accrued from the smallest wholesome deeds, as well as the virtues garnered from Buddha Recitation and Sutra Recital, should all be dedicated to rebirth in the Pure Land. All actions then become practices which facilitate rebirth—not unlike deriving soil from dust and sand or the ocean from the rivers and streams. The depth and breadth of such Buddha Recitation is immense.

You should, furthermore, develop the Bodhi Mind, vow to rescue sentient beings and dedicate the merits and virtues of cultivation to repayment of the four great debts in the Triple Realm, as well as to sentient beings in the Dharma Realm. This creates a far-reaching Dharma affinity with all sentient beings, like oil poured on fire or rain falling on new seedlings, so that you will achieve early success in your Mahayana practice. If you miss this point, your Pure Land practice will become the grasping, self-benefit approach common to humans and lower level sages [Arhats and Pratyeka Buddhas]. While your method of cultivation may be sublime, the benefits received will be extremely low level and limited.

When reciting the Buddha’s name, you should gather your thoughts together. Recitation originates in the mind and is channeled through the mouth, each phrase, each word, clearly enunciated. You should also listen clearly, impressing the words in your mind. If the faculty of hearing is under control, the other faculties are also held in check and cannot chase after external dusts. As a result, one pointedness of mind is swiftly achieved. Thus, the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta said the Surangama Sutra:

To gather the six senses together, pure recitation following upon pure recitation without interruption, thus attaining samadhi—this is uppermost.

Likewise, the Bodhisattva Manjusri taught:

“Hearing” within, hearing one’s Nature—one’s Nature becomes the Supreme Path.

You certainly should not think that oral recitation [Holding the Name] is shallow, and follow other methods, such as Visualization, Contemplation of an Image or Real Mark Buddha Recitation. Of the four Buddha Recitation methods, only oral recitation is well-adapted to the capacities of sentient beings. If one-pointedness of mind is maintained the sublime Truth of Real Mark will be fully revealed and the extraordinary realm of the Western Pure Land will appear clearly.

Therefore, you can achieve Real Mark through oral recitation; you can see the Western Pure Land without engaging in visualization. This method of recitation is precisely the wonderful door to the Way, the most expedient path to Buddhahood.

People today generally do not understand the teachings underlying the Visualization or Real Mark methods. If they follow these methods, they may at times be subject to demons. Thus, the best approach is to select the easiest practice which still leads to the wonderful fruit of Enlightenment. You should not attempt a shortcut and end up losing the Way, seeking liberation but winding up in perdition. That would be regrettable indeed.

 [After summarizing several Pure Land commentaries to reinforce these points, the Master continued.]

Once you have read these books, you will have a complete understanding of the tenets of Pure Land. It does not matter that you have not read the sutras widely. Without fully understanding Pure Land teachings, even if you deeply understand the entire Buddhist canon and have awakened completely to the Self-Mind, it will take you untold eons to fulfill your original Vow to escape the cycle of Birth and Death. Buddha Recitation is the panacea for all diseases. To miss knowing about such a wonderful remedy would be a cause for great suffering and regret! To be aware of but not practice it, or to practice it but not in earnest, is to have even greater cause for suffering and regret!

As far as receiving the lay precepts is concerned, you can visit this temple if you have the means and the capacity to do so. Otherwise, why get so fixated on travel? All you need is to have an earnest, sincere mind, repent your transgressions before your home alter for seven consecutive days and express the wish to receive the precepts by yourself. On the seventh day, you should kneel before a Buddha image and say aloud:

Your disciple, by the name of – –, vows to receive the five precepts and fulfill the obligations of a laywoman. I vow that for the rest of my life, I will not take the lives of sentient beings, steal, indulge in sexual misconduct, lie or take intoxicants.

Repeating these vows three times constitutes receiving the precepts. The most important thing is to do so in an utterly sincere frame of mind—in which case, the benefits and virtues of receiving the precepts are the same whether you do so by yourself or through a monk or nun.

You should not think that receiving the precepts in such a manner is not in accord with the Dharma. You should know that the method described above follows the wise teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha in the Brahma Net Sutra.

On P’u T’o Mountain, there are no precept transmission ceremonies in the autumn, but only during a seven-week period following the lunar New Year. However, I sincerely wish that you would stay put at home practicing Buddha Recitation, rather than struggling through fog and snow to reach P’u T’o Mountain.

If you stick to your fixed ideas without changing your mind, you will miss distinguishing the good from the bad, damaging your own pure cultivation and displaying ingratitude toward the sincere, earnest words of this old monk. I want you to attain the goal of your cultivation within this lifetime and certainly do not have the least intention of hindering your development in the Dharma. If you think it over carefully, you will see so yourself.

As for your intention to commit suicide because you cannot become a nun, such determination, however powerful and intense, is deluded and insane. In the midst of this Dharma-Ending Age, how many monks and nuns are worthy of being teachers? … As a woman, especially, you may be subjected to overbearing masters, insulted or drawn into intrigues.

You only think that to “leave home” and become a nun is liberation, but you do not yet know the many difficulties and obstacles which monks and nuns face.

Do not think, furthermore, that to commit suicide is to free yourself of the cares and worries of this life! Once dead, your soul will be lead away by the power of karma, to be reborn in another body—not to mention that, given your angry state of mind you may well be reborn in the animal realm. Under such circumstances, it will be difficult to even regain a female body. Should you succeed being reborn as a woman or a man, or even as a ruler in the human or celestial realms, there is still no assurance that you will encounter the Dharma and engage in cultivation! Even if you are so fortunate, who knows if you will be in the good position to discover the Pure Land method—a method that enables each and every one to escape Birth and Death in one lifetime.

Moreover, even if you were fortunate enough to encounter the Pure Land method then, is it not much better to go on living and cultivating patiently right now, so that when this retribution body comes to an end, you will immediately achieve rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss?

I have exhausted my words in advising and counseling you. Let me ask you: did anyone ever go over these questions with yourself in mind to the extent I have? If you do not follow the words of this old monk, you have shown ingratitude toward his teaching; moreover, I fear your suffering in the future will be infinitely greater than it is now!