The Buddha Pronounces the Sutra of Amitabha Buddha
"Sariputra, if, among good men and good women, there are those who, having heard of Amitabha Buddha, single-mindedly uphold His name for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days, or seven days, without being distracted, then upon their dying, Amitabha Buddha, together with a holy multitude, will appear before them. When these people die, their minds will not be demented and they will be reborn in Amitabha Buddha's Land of Ultimate Bliss. Sariputra, I see this benefit, so I speak these words. If there are sentient beings that hear what I say, they should resolve to be reborn in that land."
Hsuan Hua Commentary
Hsuan Hua equates "good man or woman" to one who holds the five precepts and cultivates the 10 good deeds. Hey says they "should hold to the recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name, just like holding something tightly in the hand." He talks about the character for "whether", talking about how close it is to the character for "suffering", so you could say "suffering for one day, two days...."
If you recite the Buddha's name from four o'clock in the morning until ten at night for seven days, you can reach the level of one heart unconfused. When your life is about to end, Amitabha Buddha thinks, "That living being suffered for seven days reciting my name, and so now I will guide him to the Land of Ultimate Bliss. The time has come!" Then, Amitabha with Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva, and the entire clear, pure, ocean-wide assembly of Bodhisattvas appear before you, and lead you to the Land of Ultimate Bliss. If you think you can escape, you can't. you are surrounded. At this time, your heart is without inversion. You won't say, "I don't want to go! It's too boring there!" It would never occur to you to refuse Amitabha's invitation, and so you are born at once in the Western Land.
Previously, the text said, "Those living beings who hear should vow, 'I wish to be born in that country.'" This passage says, "I will be born in that land," that is "I vow that I shall certainly be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss."
Mind Seal of the Buddhas
[By invoking the Buddha-name], you will bring on a response -- the impression is made and the seal is lifted -- Amitabha and his holy retinue come to you without coming, and extend a hand to lead you off. You, the person practicing Buddha-name recitation, recognize Amitabha in your mind, and you go to the Pure Land without going, placing yourself in a jewel lotus there.
When the sutra speaks of "good men and good women", it does not matter whether they are monks and nuns or householders, or whether they are high-ranking or low-ranking or old or young. No matter what your station in life, all you have to do is hear the Buddha-name, and the good roots you have accumulated over many eons immediately ripen, and all forms of evil and perversity are transformed into virtues.
"Amitabha Buddha" is the all-inclusive term for the myriad virtues. When you use the name of Amitabha to summon virtue, all the virtues are engendered. Thus, reciting the name of Amitabha is the correct practice, and you do not need to get involved with other practices such as visualization or meditation. Reciting the name of Amitabha is the simplest and most direct method.
If you hear [the Buddha-name] and believe in it, if you believe in it and make vows, then you are fit to recite the Buddha-name. If you do not have faith and do not make vows, it is as if you never heard [the Buddha-name] at all. Merely hearing the name of Amitabha [without faith and vows] may become a long-term causal basis [for your enlightenment], but it cannot be called the "wisdom that comes from hearing".
Reciting the Buddha-name is a matter of being mindful of the Buddha-name from moment to moment --thus it is the "wisdom that comes from reflecting [on what you heard]".
There are two levels of practice in reciting the Buddha-name: reciting the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level and reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth (noumenon).
1. Reciting the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level means believing that Amitabha exists in his Pure Land in the West, but not yet comprehending that he is a Buddha created by the Mind, and that this Mind is Buddha. It means you resolve to make vows and to seek birth in the Pure Land, like a child longing for its mother, and never forgetting her for a moment.
2. Reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth (noumenon) means believing that Amitabha and his Pure Land in the West are inherent features of our own [pure] Minds, the creation of our own [pure] Minds. It means using the great name of Amitabha, which is inherent in our Minds and the creation of our Minds, as a focal point to concentrate our minds on, so that we never forget it for a moment.
The sutra speaks of reciting the Buddha-name for one to seven days, defining a period of time in which we should accomplish the work. This passage can be interpreted in two ways.
[One interpretation is that] those with sharp faculties will be able to reach complete undisturbed Buddha-remembrance after one day of invoking the Buddha-name. Those will dull faculties will only be able to reach complete undisturbed Buddha-remembrance after seven days of invoking the Buddha-name. Those of middling faculties may take from two to six days to reach complete undisturbed Buddha-remembrance.
Another [interpretation of this passage is that] those with sharp faculties will be able to achieve complete undisturbed Buddha-remembrance for seven days, those will dull faculties will only be able to achieve it for a single day, and those of middling faculties may achieve it for from two to six days.
There are also two categories for the One Mind [i.e. singleminded practice].
i) Regardless of whether you recite the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level or the inner truth level, if you invoke the name of Amitabha until you subdue all afflictions (anger, greed, ignorance...) and put an end to illusions of views and thoughts, this is the One Mind at the phenomenal level.
ii) Regardless of whether you recite the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level or the inner truth level, if you invoke the name of Amitabha until your mind opens and you see inherent Buddhahood, this is the One Mind at the level of inner truth.
The One Mind at the phenomenal level is not tainted by delusions of views and thoughts, and the One Mind at the inner truth level is not deluded by the supposed dualisms [of essence and form, nirvana and samsara, Buddhas and sentient beings]. This is "the wisdom that comes from cultivating practice".
When you are not deluded by delusions of views and thoughts [at the moment of your death], the response you get is that Amitabha Buddha will appear before you in his Emanation Body, along with his whole retinue of holy ones. Your mind will no longer create the delusions of desire, form, and formlessness characteristic of this mundane world "Endurance", and you will go to be reborn in either the Pure Land Where Saints and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, or the Pure Land of Expedient Liberation.
When you are not deluded by dualisms [at the moment of your death], the response you get is that Amitabha Buddha will appear before you in his Reward Body, along with his whole retinue of holy ones. Your mind will no longer create the delusions of Samsara and Nirvana, and you will go to be reborn in either the Pure Land of Real Reward, or the Pure Land of Eternally Quiescent Light.
We must realize that reciting the name of Amitabha is not only a method that is simple and direct, it is also a method for sudden Complete Enlightenment. Since [in reciting the Buddha-name] you merge with Buddha from moment to moment, without bothering with visualization or meditation, you immediately witness perfect illumination, with no excess and no lack. Those of the highest faculties cannot go beyond this level while those of the lowest capabilities are also able to reach it. Of course the way Amitabha appears to people and the level of the Pure Land they are born in is not the same [for those of different faculties].
We can say that the method of reciting the name Amitabha fully encompasses all the varieties of Buddhism, the "eight teachings and five periods" [i.e., all the teachings of the Buddha's during his lifetime, according to the T'ien--t'ai schema]. In so doing, it is the most complete expression of the Buddha's compassionate heart, teaching spontaneously without being asked. What incredible power!
Question: The Meditation Sutra is devoted to explaining visualization. Why do you say not to bother with visualization?
Answer: This idea comes from the Meditation Sutra itself. Because the superior forms of visualization [focusing on the Sambhogakaya of Amitabha] are beyond the mental power of ordinary people, that sutra in the thirteenth contemplation also introduces a lower grade of visualizing the form of Amitabha [focusing on the Nirmanakaya, that is, the physical form, of Amitabha]. However those whose karmic barriers are heavy cannot even focus on Amitabha in that way, so in the sixteenth contemplation, the sutra teaches the method of invoking the name of Amitabha. The Amitabha Sutra concentrates on the Buddha-name-recitation method of the sixteenth contemplation because it is the Dharma Ending Age, and there are many people with heavy karmic obstructions...
Question: Masters like T'ien-ch'i and Tu-feng have proposed meditating on the Zen question, "Who is the one reciting the Buddha-name?" Why do you say that it is not necessary to practice Zen meditation?
Answer: This idea comes from Master T'ien-ch'i himself as well as other masters. Master T'ien-ch'i did not want to stand idly by while people reciting the Buddha-name failed to comprehend the compassion of Sakyamuni Buddha [in teaching Buddha-name-recitation], so he posed this question to help them wake up [to the real sense of reciting the Buddha-name, which is that it is our True Mind, not our deluded errant mind, which should do the recitation [i.e. recitation should be singleminded with no deluded errant thoughts]. When he taught this it was like the dawn returning after a long night.
If we are unwilling to still our minds [by following Master T'ien-ch'i's advice to contemplate "Who is the one reciting the Buddha-name?"] in order to recite the Buddha-name with complete concentration, we are taking hold of "a fragment of tile with which to knock on a door to hit out at our own grandparents [our Mind]": we are rebelling against our own patriarchal teachers and doing evil, rather than obeying them and being good.
Question: Those who are willing to still their minds by reciting the Buddha name will be alright, but how can those who are unwilling to still their minds achieve accord with the Buddha's Mind?
Answer: Alas! The reason that Master T'ien-ch'i is asking you to be willing to still your minds by reciting the Buddha name and reach accord [with the Buddha's Mind] is precisely because you are not yet willing to do so. Since you have not yet developed true faith, it is as though you are wearing thick leather blinders, and cannot cut through them. You must realize that those with eyes have no reason to light a lamp when the sun is shining -- why should those without eyes struggle to find a lamp in broad daylight?
The Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta [one of the three Pure Land sages] has given us a saying that is like a great mass of fire lighting the "Buddha recitation Samadhi": "Without using any other expedients than Buddha recitation, you manage to open your own mind." Who dares to touch this saying? How can you not be burned by it?
Question: When Amitabha Buddha appears to Pure Land practitioners when they are on the brink of death, how can they be sure it is not a demon?
Answer: If a Zen follower is not meditating on the Buddha, and yet Buddha suddenly appears unexpectedly, this is called a demon (delusion). A Pure Land practitioner sees the Buddha while focussing on the Buddha. Thus in his case [cause and effect coincide] and his mind is in unison with that of the Buddhas. The appearance of the Buddha is therefore not a demon. There is no need to worry about this.
Question: When the sutra speaks of reciting the Buddha-name singlemindedly for seven days, does this refer to ordinary times, or to the time when we are about to die?
Answer: This refers to ordinary times.
Question: If we recite the Buddha-name for seven days, singlemindedly and without confusion, but later we again become confused and create bad karma, will we still achieve birth in the Pure Land?
Answer: A person who has actually managed to recite the Buddha-name singlemindedly will not give rise to confusion or create bad karma again.
Question: The Longer Amitabha Sutra speaks of attaining birth in the Pure Land through ten repetitions of the Buddha-name. The Treatise of the Precious King of Samadhi speaks of attaining birth in the Pure Land through a single repetition of the Buddha-name. Are they referring to ordinary times, or to the time when we are about to die?
Answer: Attaining birth in the Pure Land through ten repetitions of the Buddha-name applies to both times. If we recite the Buddha-name ten times each morning, this is an ordinary occasion. On the other hand, the Longer Amitabha Sutra speaks of attaining birth in the Pure Land through ten repetitions (and this is the same as what the Meditation Sutra says) -- this refers to when we are on the brink of death. As to passage in the "Treatise of the Precious King of Samadhi" about attaining birth in the Pure Land through a single repetition of the Buddha-name, this refers to the time when we are facing death.
Question: If we can attain birth in the Pure Land through ten repetitions of the Buddha name, or even a single repetition, why do we need seven days of reciting the Buddha-name, as the Amitabha Sutra says?
Answer: If we have not done the work of reciting the Buddha-name singlemindedly for seven days during ordinary times, how can we reach the Pure Land through ten repetitions or a single repetition when we are on the brink of death?
It would be one chance in a million if someone who had committed many evils were to have a causal basis from past lives ripen as he was on the brink of death, enabling him to meet a spiritual friend, hear his teaching, and develop faith and vows. How could he be so lucky? [Master Tien J'us book] Doubts and Questions about the Pure Land has refuted this idea of waiting till death to practice Buddha recitation in great detail. People these days should read that book.
Question: If Amitabha's Pure Land is a hundred billion worlds away from here, how can we be reborn there instantly?
Answer: A hundred billion worlds are not beyond one moment of thought, since fundamentally there is nothing outside the True Mind. When we rely on the power of Buddha that is inherent in our own mind, what is so hard about being born in the Pure Land instantly?
It is like a many layered scene of mountains and rivers and towers reflected in a mirror: all the layers appear there in the mirror, and in reality there is no near and far. All are reflected at once, appearing without before or after. When the sutra says "West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called 'Ultimate Bliss''', it is also like this. When the sutra says "In this land there exists a Buddha called Amitabha, who is expounding the Dharma right now", it is also like this.
It is also like this when a person [who has developed faith and vows and recited the Buddha-name] is about to die, and Amitabha and all his retinue of saints appear before that person. It is also like this when the person dies without his or her mind falling into delusion, and the person is immediately born in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss.
We must recognize that every word in the sutra is reflected in the Great-Perfect-Wisdom-Mirror of the Ocean-Seal Samadhi. Great PerfectWisdom Mirror. This is a reference to the all-seeing wisdom of the Buddhas, which is likened to an Immense, round mirror as large as the universe.
Question: Reciting the Buddha-name is a partial practice, an auxiliary practice. Why do you call it a principal practice?
Answer: Basing ourselves on the One Mind, we speak of faith, vows, and practice. There is however no order of precedence here, nor is naming three aspects a set definition. Without vows and practice, we cannot speak of true faith. Without practice and faith, we cannot speak of true vows. Without faith and vows, we cannot speak of true practice.
Relying fully on our faith and our vows, we recite the Buddha-name. Thus faith, vows, and practice seem to be three things, but all three are fully present in every repetition of the Buddha-name. This is why reciting the Buddha-name is called the cause and condition for good roots, merits and virtues. The Meditation Sutra means this when it says that by invoking the Buddha-name, from moment to moment we are clearing away the bad karma of eighty million eons of birth and death. Without great merits, virtues and good roots, how could we clear away bad karma on such a grand scale?
Question: With the intensity that comes [to reciting the Buddha-name] on the brink of death, we can clear away a lot of bad karma. Can we achieve the same result in ordinary times if we invoke the Buddha-name singlemindedly?
Answer: When the sun comes out, all darkness disappears. When we invoke the great name of Amitabha, myriad evil deeds are wiped away.
Question: Can we also clear away bad karma if we invoke the Buddha-name with a scattered mind?
Answer: The merit and virtue of the Buddha-name are inconceivable, so how could they not clear away bad karma? But reciting the Buddha-name with a scattered mind does not guarantee being reborn in the Pure Land, since the good roots created by a diffuse, scattered recitation is no match for the evils that have accumulated from time without beginning.
We must understand that all of space could not contain our accumulated evils, if they took on physical form. Every repetition of the Buddha-name might wipe away the bad karma of eighty millions eons of birth and death, but even if we recited the Buddha-name day and night for a hundred years, the amount of bad karma which would be wiped out is like the amount of dirt under a fingernail, while the amount of bad karma remaining is like all the dirt on earth.
The only way [to eliminate all bad karma] is to recite the Buddha-name to the point of singleminded concentration. Then it is like a powerful warrior breaking out of an encirclement, so even three armies cannot hem him in any more. In all instances however, invoking the Buddha-name is a seed for becoming enlightened. It is like an indestructible diamond.
When Sakyamuni Buddha was in the world, there was an old man who asked to become a monk. The congregation of five hundred monks all said the old man was lacking in good roots. Buddha however said: "Countless ages ago this man was being pursued by a tiger, and cried out "Nam Mo Amitabha Buddha!" Now the good roots from that occasion have become ripe: he has met me and found the path. This is not something that followers of the Lesser Vehicle can perceive." This story, as well as the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, show that even those who invoked the Buddha-name in a scattered, confused state of mind have planted the seed of Buddhahood. How can we not believe them?
It is my humble hope that no matter whether you are a layperson or a monk or nun, no matter whether you are smart or stupid, [you will adopt a positive attitude] toward this simple, direct, supreme round and sudden Pure Land teaching. Do not look upon it as difficult, and shrink away from it. Do not look upon it as easy, and become complacent and not try hard enough. Do not look upon it as shallow, and wrongly despise it. Do not look upon it as profound, and not dare to accept it as your task.
The name of Amitabha which we recite is truly inconceivable [because it is our True Mind]. But the True Mind of those who recite it is also truly inconceivable. If you recite the Buddha-name once, you are inconceivable for the time the sound of it lasts. If you recite it ten or a hundred or a thousand or a million times, or countless times, you are inconceivable all the while the sound of your recitation lasts.
Buddha says, "I have seen this benefit." The vision of the Buddha is the ultimate in clarity. The benefit he has seen is that through reciting the Buddha-name sentient beings can transcend the Five Corruptions, purify the Four Lands, and reach the level where they do not fall back from their position, their practice, or their mindfulness. This is the benefit brought about by the inconceivable merit of the Buddha-name.
With reference to what happens when we die, this benefit is that our minds do not fall into delusion and error. If we cultivate practice in this polluted world through our own effort, it is extremely hard to gain power over the crucial juncture of birth and death.
If there is the least bit of bad karma that you have not cleared away [by the time you are about to die], you will plunge into an untoward rebirth -- this applies no matter whether you have ignorantly cultivated a misguided practice and trusted in your deluded intellect, or whether you have had some profound awakenings and your conduct has been consistent and correct. As the Pure Land Patriarch Yung-ming said, "Nine out of ten people who practice Zen meditation miss the road: scenes of delusion appear before them [at death], and in an instant they follow them off." This is truly a chilling prospect! Even Arhats become deluded again as they emerge from the womb, and even Bodhisattvas can become benighted between death and a subsequent rebirth. Here [at the point of death], how can you forcibly act the master? If you expect to be so lucky, you are a fool.
The only way out is to have faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, and rely on Other-power. Amitabha's vows of compassion are certainly not empty promises. If we have faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, when we die Amitabha and the assembly of saints will appear before us to lead us away. That way we will not fail, and we will be free to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Buddha saw that sentient beings' greatest suffering is to fall into confusion at the moment of death, and so he vouchsafed this Pure Land teaching to us. This is why he urged us again and again to take vows: because vows can guide us.
Question: If Buddha is a creation of the Mind, if Buddha is the Mind, why do you not speak of our own inherent Buddha as supreme? Why do you insist that another Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, is better?
Answer: This Pure Land teaching is all a matter of comprehending that Amitabha Buddha is precisely our own Buddha Nature, our Mind. If we mistakenly refer to the Buddha as "other", we would fall into one form of delusive view. If we were to overemphasize our own inherent Buddha, this would be another form of delusive view. Both are wrong.
Through our invoking the Buddha-name both at the phenomenal level and at the level of inner truth (noumenon), Amitabha and his retinue of saints appears before us: this is our inherent True Nature becoming manifest. Also, we are born in the Pure Land and see Amitabha and hear his teaching: this is perfecting the body of wisdom of our True Nature. This is not awakening through something other than ourselves.
The Pure Land teaching is profound and wondrous. It destroys all sophistry and cuts off all delusive views. Only those with the wisdom of Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, Chih-i and Yung-ming can take it up completely. Those of worldly intelligence, the followers of Confucianism and the devotees of Zen, may try to figure it out to the limit of their powers, but the more they think about it, the farther off they get. In terms of being able to reach the wisdom of the Buddhas and mesh with the wonders of the Path, such intellectuals are not as good as simple men and women who recite the Buddha-name in all sincerity.
"I have seen this benefit and so I speak these words". Buddha's eye and Buddha's voice clearly affirm this truth, so how can we dare to go against it? Shouldn't we accept it?
The Pure Land method of developing faith and vows and reciting the Buddha-name both perfectly subsumes and perfectly surpasses all other Buddhist methods. Vertically, it intermingles with all the Buddhist teachings; horizontally, it stands apart from them. "Horizontal" and "vertical" are figures of speech, which can readily be understood through the following example. Suppose we have a worm, born inside a stalk of bamboo. To escape, it can take the hard way and crawl "vertically" all the way to the top of the stalk. Alternatively, it can poke a hole near its current location and escape "horizontally" into the big, wide world. The horizontal escape, for sentient beings, is to seek rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
Buddha spontaneously gave this Pure Land teaching without being asked. Who is worthy to extol it and transmit it? Only when a Buddha communicates with a Buddha is it possible to fully express the absolute reality of all the teachings. This Amitabha Sutra is about a Buddha-realm, and it can only be transmitted from Buddha to Buddha. The Amitabha Sutra belongs to the "self-spoken division" of the Tripitaka (Buddhist canon):
"Because its principles were too profound and wonderful for the Sravakas or Bodhisattvas to comprehend, no one requested the Pure Land Dharma-door. Nonetheless, it had to be revealed and so the Buddha spontaneously spoke this very important sutra, doubly important because it will be the last to disappear in the Dharma-ending age (Master Hsuan Hua, A General Explanation of the Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra [the Amitabha Sutra], p.1)."
The Brahma Net Sutra (which contains the lofty Bodhisattva precepts) and the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Mahayana sutra par excellence) are the only other well-known examples of self-spoken sutras.