Letter 15 – A Little Bit of Knowledge is Ignorance

Receiving your poetic letter from afar, I cannot but feel embarrassed! From an early age, this old monk has lacked education. My knowledge is uncertain and nebulous. Having drifted here and there for many years, far away from my native village, I am now sojourning on P’u T’o Mountain. Never did I expect that such a remarkable person as yourself, a scholar versed in the Mind-Dharma of Confucianism and Buddhism, who has studied at the feet of master’s far and wide and made their outstanding practices his own, would condescend to seek advice from me. Moreover, you have praised me excessively that my mind is perplexed and uneasy.

I venture to think that your broad, well-rounded education and your lofty, far-reaching knowledge, you surely cannot have doubts about such ordinary matters as those raised in your letter. It must be that your intention is to act as an example, to show the Way to those who cultivate alongside you.

However, since you have presented knowledge as ignorance, there is nothing to prevent me from presenting ignorance as knowledge and I will try to answer your questions in the order raised. I certainly would never dare to imitate the old mandarin who sits as a judge but is in reality an aging student submitting his examination papers. Therefore, if the following explanations contain errors, please revise and amend them.

1) Although the mind is what matters in Buddha Recitation, oral recitation should not be disparaged. This is because body, speech and mind reinforce one another. Although the mind may be focused on Amitabha Buddha, if the body does not bow respectfully and the mouth does not recite, it is difficult to receive benefits. For example, even when lifting heavy objects, ordinary people assist themselves by shouting aloud; how can you not do at least as much when trying to concentrate the mind and attain samadhi! Thus, the Great Heap Sutra teaches:

To recite loudly is to see a tall Buddha, to recite softly is to see a small Buddha.

The ancient masters have also said:

Reciting loudly, we see a large, tall body of the Buddha; reciting softly, we see a small, short body of the Buddha.

Ordinary beings often have lethargic, scattered minds. If they are not “assisted” by their bodies and mouths, it is difficult for them to achieve one-pointedness of mind.

2) Only at the level of Ultimate Truth is there no longer birth and extinction. Except for that, what Buddhist practice is not within the realm of birth and extinction? Even the practices of the Bodhisattvas at the Equal Enlightenment stage (who have achieved virtual equality with the Buddhas, destroyed the forty-one parts of ignorance and attained the forty-one parts of the Secret Store) are not beyond grasping and rejection, birth and extinction—not to mention Buddha Recitation as practiced by ordinary beings.

However, while birth and extinction are the roots of Birth and Death, they are also the very roots of Enlightenment. Birth and extinction depend entirely on the individual. To gather the six senses together in pure, uninterrupted recitation is precisely to convert the birth and extinction which abandons Enlightenment for worldly dusts into the birth and extinction which abandons worldly dusts for Enlightenment—as you strive to attain the True Thusness Buddha-Nature free of birth and extinction.

3) “Only if thought after thoughts is on the Pure Land can rebirth be achieved,” refers to the condition of those who will be reborn in the upper lotus grades. If we hold onto this truth and seek the highest grade of rebirth for ourselves, nothing could be better. However, if we hold onto it to teach those of moderate and low capacities, we will greatly hinder their progress.

Why is this so? It is because they may find this method too lofty, resign themselves to their lowly condition and refuse to cultivate.

Moreover, although Buddha Recitation centers on the mind-consciousness, it encompasses all other consciousness as well. Do the sutras not mention “gathering the six senses together”? If the six senses are gathered together, the six consciousnesses will also be gathered together. Even registering the words “Amitabha Buddha” in the Alaya Consciousness must be achieved through the six consciousnesses.

4) The comment “recite the Buddha’s name without a break, so that a knife cannot cut through” should not give rise to any doubts. However, such doubts arise simply because you have not yet clearly delineated the boundaries between Zen and Pure Land and between self-power and other-power.

The Buddha Recitation practitioner relies on the Vow-power of Amitabha Buddha to escape the Triple Realm and achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. If you do not vow to achieve rebirth, you certainly cannot have Faith either. Merely reciting the Buddha’s name, without Faith and Vows, falls in the category of self-power. Without Faith and Vows, the practitioner cannot merge with the Vow-power of Amitabha Buddha.

If you can sever delusions of views and delusions of thought, you may achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. However, if you have not severed them, or you have failed to sever them completely, the roots of evil karma remain and you are still subject to Birth and Death … You should know that ignoring Faith and Vows while reciting the Buddha’s name is no different from Zen meditation practice. If you were to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land under such circumstances, how could Cause and Effect be reconciled? Elder Master Ou I has said: To achieve rebirth in the Pure Land or not depends entirely on Faith and Vows; the grade of rebirth (high or low) depends in whether one’s practice if Buddha Recitation is deep or shallow.

This is a true statement not subject to change.

5) Relying on self-power alone, you cannot escape the cycle of rebirth as long as you still have even a trace of karmic delusion at the time of death—not to mention if you have a great deal.

Reciting the Buddha’s name to the level of one-pointedness of mind without Faith and Vows—perhaps a few out of countless individuals may achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. Thus, you should by no means teach this approach and squander the good Pure Land roots of future generations. This is because it is difficult to find even a few cultivators in this whole world who can recite to the point of “extinction of karma and emptiness of desire” and attain the Tolerance of Non-Birth, by relying on self-power alone.

Therefore, if everyone followed this approach in cultivation and failed to stress Faith and Vows, countless sentient beings would drown in the sea of suffering—their escape route blocked.

A single statement can cause so much harm. Not realizing how arrogant they are, those who advocate such doctrines consider themselves very perceptive and profound. Little do they realize that their words are deluded and insane—severing the “wisdom-life” of the Buddhas and leading sentient beings to err and harbor doubts. What a great pity indeed!

The Pure land method should be considered a special Dharma method, not to be compared with other general teachings of the Buddhas.