Is this really true that the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows really help us or just a statement to instill strong faith on the practitioners which would further help in their own practice?
What is meant by the realm of the Self-Mind harmonizing with the "gathering in" power of Amitabha Buddha?
The Sutras state: Amitabha Buddha constantly emits rays of light, gathering in all sentient beings in the ten directions who practice Buddha Recitation, without exception.
For this reason, when reciting the Buddha's name, the practitioner is immediately "gathered in," silently, by the Vow-power of Amitabha Buddha. As he singlemindedly recites, his bad karma is "sunk and deposited," his pure mind is revealed, and the light of his mind interacts with the light of Amitabha Buddha.
This makes it possible for him to see the Pure Land, or the deities strolling there, before his very eyes.
The power of the cultivator's pure vows directed toward the Pure Land is called "self-power;" the power to emit light and to escort the cultivator back to the Pure Land is called the Buddhas' power or "other-power."
Thanks to these two powers, the Pure Land cultivator, although not yet possessing extensive mystical powers, can still be reborn in the Pure Land.
At the time of death, depending on his virtues, he will see Amitabha Buddha, the great Bodhisattvas, or members of the Pure Land Assembly reaching out to him, to welcome and escort him. Some cultivators, while not witnessing anything, also achieve rebirth in the Pure Land thanks to the power of their vows and the power of Buddha Amitabha's guiding light. Therein lies the importance of "other-power."
Chan/Zen school doesn't teach an Amitabha Buddha outsider our own mind. So this should essentially mean that our success in cultivation is purely dependent on our own dedication and effort?
The Sixth Patriarch and high-ranking Zen Masters were intent on teaching the doctrine of Mind. Thus, all of their words were based on these tenets, pointing directly to the Self-Nature, with the mind as the center. What the Patriarch really meant was that if the mind is pure, even though we may be in the Saha World, we are emancipated and free. If the mind is impure, even though we may be in the Pure Land, we are still subject to the sufferings of Birth and Death.
In truth, for the Pure Land cultivator who understands the Dharma, the Patriarch's words serve only to urge him on, encouraging him to recite the Buddha's name to the level of purity of mind, devoid of all attachment to forms. The Patriarch certainly did not reject the act of reciting the Buddha's name seeking rebirth in the Pure Land as Buddha Sakyamuni, the Buddhas of the ten directions, the great Bodhisattvas and the Patriarchs all recommended seeking rebirth there. In fact, the two foremost Indian Zen Patriarchs, Asvaghosha and Nagarjuna, both recommended the Pure Land method. Nagarjuna himself, according to the Lankavatara Sutra, was enlightened to the preliminary Bodhisattva ground of "extreme Joy," and was reborn in the Pure Land.
If the Sixth Patriarch had truly intended to reject Buddha Recitation, he would have been criticizing and rejecting Buddha Sakyamuni, the Buddhas of the ten directions, the Bodhisattvas and the Patriarchs, including the very precursors who established his own Zen School, the Patriarchs Asvaghosha and Nagarjuna. How could that be? Therefore, if we were to misunderstand the Sixth Patriarch's words and use those very words to deprecate Buddha Recitation, we would be slandering and sowing the seeds of injustice toward him.
Moreover, every method has two aspects noumenon (principle) and phenomena. The quotation from the Sixth Patriarch is at the level of principle. We must also consider the phenomenal aspect of the path to liberation.
If we base ourselves only at the level of noumenon and follow the above reasoning, then can such actions as entering the monastic life, being vegetarian, and keeping the precepts, including Buddha, Sutra and Mantra Recitation as well as meditation, all be mistakes?
In conclusion, we should understand the Sixth Patriarch's words as an explanation and exhortation based exclusively on pure noumenon or essence. We should not misunderstand them and use them to reject phenomena and marks. This being the case, Pure Land cultivators should redouble their efforts and practice to the point of emptiness of mind. Only then will they be in accord with the intent of the Patriarch.
There are two aspects to Buddha Recitation -- essence and practice. According to Elder Master Ou-I:
"Buddha Recitation-practice" means believing that there is a Western Pure Land and a Lord Buddha named Amitabha, but not yet realizing that "this Mind makes Buddha, this Mind is Buddha." It consists of resolutely seeking rebirth in the Pure Land and reciting as earnestly as a lost child longing for his mother, never forgetting her for a single moment.
"Buddha Recitation-essence," on the other hand, means believing and understanding that Lord Amitabha Buddha of the West inherently exists in full within our mind, is created by our mind, and making this sacred name -- inherently existing in full within our mind and created by our mind -- the focus of our recitation, without a moment of neglect."
In other words, "Buddha Recitation-practice" is the method of those who do not understand anything about meaning or essence, who just believe that there is a Land of Ultimate Bliss and a Buddha named Amitabha, and who fervently and earnestly recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth there.
"Buddha Recitation-essence" is the method of those who practice in an identical manner, but who also deeply realize that the Pure Land and Lord Amitabha Buddha are all in the True Mind, manifested by the pure virtues of the True Mind.
This being so, is there a difference between Buddha Recitation-practice and Buddha Recitation-essence? Of course there is. Those who follow Buddha Recitation-practice see Amitabha Buddha as outside the Mind; therefore, opposing marks of subject-object still exist. Thus, such practice is not yet all-encompassing and complete. Those who practice Buddha Recitation-essence thoroughly understand the True Mind and therefore sever all marks of subject-object -- to recite is Buddha, to recite is Mind, reconciling Mind and Realm.
There is one erroneous idea, prevalent among those who lean toward the subtle and the mysterious, which requires clarification. Many of them, emphasizing theory over practice, tend to be attached to the concept of "Amitabha as the Self-Nature, Pure Land as Mind-Only," and reject the existence of the Western Pure Land or rebirth there. These individuals explain the sutra teachings on Pure Land from the viewpoint of principle or essence, saying "Amitabha is our Buddha Nature, the Pure Land is the pure realm of the Mind, why seek it on the outside?" This is the great mistake of those who emphasize mundane, conventional reasoning.
They cling to theory (essence) while neglecting practice, prefer essence to marks, and rely on Ultimate Truth to reject the manifestations of mundane truth -- failing to realize that the two are inseparable
As far as the question of "self-power" vs. "other power" is concerned, it is wrong to understand the Pure Land method as exclusive reliance on Buddha Amitabha's power. The Pure Land practitioner should use all his own power to rid himself of afflictions, while reciting to the point where his mind and the Mind of Amitabha Buddha are in unison. At that moment, in this very life, the Buddha will emit rays to silently gather him in and at his death, he will be welcomed and guided back to the Pure Land. The "welcoming and escorting" feature is really the principal manifestation of the "other-power."
As an analogy, for a student to exert his own efforts to the utmost is, of course, a laudable thing. If, in addition, he has the benefit of an excellent teacher who follows his progress and assists him, his level of achievement will be higher, resulting in assured success in his final examinations.
Adding other-power to self-power is similar. Therefore, how can it be considered weak or mistaken to exert all of our own efforts to cultivate and then seek additional help to achieve rapid success?