An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Four)

Next in our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs is the Four Right Efforts. This group of practices concerns unwholesome and wholesome states. The first and second efforts are preventing new evil from arising and ending existing evil. Moreover, in addition to the avoidance and elimination of evil, virtues should be cultivated. This is accomplished with the third and fourth right efforts of generating new virtues and enhancing existing virtues.

The standards for virtue, which serve as the foundation for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are the Ten Virtuous Karmas. The opposite of the Ten Virtuous Karmas are the Ten Evil Karmas. Why are these karmas called “evil”? As we read in The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, “Buddhism is not dualistic, and, therefore, does not divide phenomena into absolute ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It recognizes ‘evil’ as ‘limitation’, and, therefore, purely relative. There is therefore no ‘problem of Evil’ as in theistic systems of thought. All evil is traced to desire for self. The ‘basic evil’ is the idea of separateness, and the Buddhist goal is the removal of evil by the eradication of every selfish inclination.”

If an evil thought has already arisen or a wrongdoing already been committed, steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again. The evil karmas of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, enticing speech, greed, anger, and ignorance are harmful to all those involved. When thoughts of these negative karmas are extinguished, wholesome and virtuous thoughts and behavior will follow. 

The Four Right Efforts underlies all the Buddha’s teachings. We should eliminate what is evil and give rise to what is virtuous. As an example, consider the Six Paramitas of giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and innate wisdom. Greed is bad; giving is virtuous. Committing wrongdoings is bad; observing the precepts is virtuous. Anger is bad; patience is virtuous. Laziness is bad; diligence is virtuous. An unfocused mind is bad; meditative concentration is virtuous. Ignorance is bad; innate wisdom is virtuous. 

We need to eradicate greed, wrongdoing, anger, laziness, an unfocused mind, and ignorance, and replace them with their opposites: giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and innate wisdom. Doing so, we will have continuous pure thoughts. Eventually, we will attain Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment—Buddhahood.

[i] Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, 2nd Edition, 1998, p 240


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Three)

The third Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the mind as impermanent. The Buddha explained that in just one second, thousands of thoughts arise and then cease. We think they are simultaneous and connected. We think they are real. But as reported by the Buddha, our thoughts are impermanent for they are always changing. Thus, these thoughts are not real because what is real is eternal and unchanging. 

Since the ordinary mind is impermanent, with evanescent, wandering thoughts that are not real, there is nothing to attach to. Yet we regard this mind as “self” or “I.” But how can “I” be real when our thoughts and mind are not? What is permanent is real. Ending delusion and ignorance is real. Helping others selflessly is real. The Pure Land is real. And by practicing in accordance with the teachings in the Amitabha Sutra, we can go to that land, forever leaving impermanence and falsity behind. 

The fourth Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of all things as dependent, without self-nature. Our always-wandering thoughts create a tangle of ceaselessly changing causes and conditions. These causes and conditions produce impermanent phenomena that are dependent on other impermanent phenomena. They are not independent. 

Contemplating the Four Foundations of Mindfulness will help us see the truth. In the cycle of rebirth, the body is born from a womb and is not pure; in the Pure Land the body is born from a lotus and is pure. In the cycle of rebirth, feelings are suffering; in the Pure Land there is great joy. In the cycle of rebirth, our constantly changing thoughts result in impermanence; in the Pure Land permanence abounds. And finally, in the cycle of rebirth, all things are dependent and without self-nature; in the Pure Land everything is permanent, as the beings there have let go of desires and uncovered their Buddha nature. By often contemplating these Four Foundations of Mindfulness, we will uncover wisdom and move closer to rebirth in the Pure Land.


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Two)

The second Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of feelings as suffering. As we have learned, suffering permeates our lives. Even if we feel happy at this moment, experience teaches us that our happiness will not last. And when it ends, we will again suffer.

Furthermore, we are not the only ones who undergo suffering. All beings in the cycle of rebirth also suffer. There are three kinds of suffering that beings in the cycle of rebirth may experience: 1) suffering arising from contact with unpleasant things, 2) suffering arising from the deterioration of form, and 3) suffering arising from the passage of time. The kind of suffering a being undergoes depends on which of the three realms—Desire, Form, or Formless—the being is in. 

The Desire Realm consists of the paths of hells, animals, hungry ghosts, humans, asuras, and the six lowest heavens. Beings in this realm undergo all three kinds of suffering: contact with unpleasant things, the deterioration of form, and the passage of time. These beings are ruled by their desires and feelings. To be ruled by these is suffering, and the more one resists the suffering, the more one suffers. Why? By resisting the suffering, rather than accepting it, one is fighting the very suffering for which one had planted the seeds.  

The Form Realm consists of eighteen heavens. Beings in these heavens have achieved a certain degree of meditative concentration and have severed the desires for wealth, lust, fame, food, and sleep. But because form itself is subject to the cycle of formation, existence, and destruction, these heavenly beings still undergo birth, old age, sickness, and death. While they no longer experience the first suffering, which arises from contact with unpleasant things, they do undergo the second and third kinds—suffering arising from the deterioration of form and suffering arising from the passage of time. 

The Formless Realm consists of the four highest heavens. Beings in these heavens have achieved deep meditative concentration. With lifetimes that can last as long as 84,000 eons, they are the most advanced beings in the cycle of rebirth. Having realized that the body is the root of suffering and that form is the cause of misfortune, these heavenly beings neither have nor want a physical body. This is a realm of spirits. Free of physical bodies, they experience neither the suffering arising from contact with unpleasant things nor the suffering from the deterioration of form. 

But the third kind of suffering—suffering arising from the passage of time—still exists for those in the Formless Realm. Even in the highest heaven, the lives of the heavenly beings will end. Once the good fortune that enabled a being to be born in these highest heavens is depleted, that lifetime will end. When these heavenly beings realize that their meditative concentration is not permanent, that it too will cease, they suffer intensely.

Nowhere in the cycle of rebirth—from the lowest hell in the Desire Realm to the highest heaven in the Formless Realm—are beings permanently free from the suffering that arises from feelings. Grasping deeply the significance of this truth will help provide us with the motivation necessary to transcend the cycle of rebirth and, finally, leave suffering behind. This we achieve by attaining rebirth in the Western Pure Land.



An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part One)

And there is more still [Shariputra]—in this land there are birds of all sorts of wondrous variegated colors: white cranes, peacocks, orioles, egrets, kalavinkas, and jivanjivas. All these birds bring forth harmonious songs day and night. Their songs communicate such Buddhist teachings as the Five Roots, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eightfold Path, as well as other teachings.

From what the Buddha described, we can see the foremost reason to be reborn in the Pure Land—to listen to the teachings. While birds in our world are born as such due to their karma, the birds in the Pure Land were created specifically by Amitabha to sing the Dharma. Listening to the beautiful songs, beings in the Pure Land are able to learn even while strolling along the paths or resting by the ponds. White cranes, peacocks, orioles, and egrets are named because people in this world know of them. But given that many birds in the Pure Land are far more wondrous than those in our world, the Buddha also introduced two of them: Kalavinkas, whose name means beautiful sound, and Jivanjivas, birds with two heads. 

The “Buddhist teachings” spoken of in this passage from the sutra refer to the seven major components of the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment. They are 1) the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, 2) the Four Right Efforts, 3) the Four Bases of Supernormal Abilities, 4) the Five Roots, 5) the Five Powers, 6) the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and 7) the Eightfold Path. In the cycle of rebirth, we focus primarily on the first three sets of components, while in the Western Pure Land, we deepen our practice as we continue with the latter four. 

We begin our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These four foundations enable us to observe a given situation with wisdom. The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body as impure. If our body were pure, it would not cause us any problems. We would not become sick; we would not age. We would be in control of our body and always happy. The stark reality that we do get ill, that we do age, and that we are neither in control nor always happy should make us realize that our body is impure. It is a bag of skin containing flesh, tissues, blood, and bones, with bodily wastes that are regularly expelled from nine orifices. The body ages, grows ill, dies, and decomposes. There really is nothing worth being attached to. 

With this awareness of how to properly view our body, we can use it more wisely. While there is no need to pamper it, we do need to care for it properly. When tired, we rest for a suitable length of time. When hungry, we eat some simple, nourishing food. The Buddha did not tell us to cherish or indulge this body. But neither did he suggest that we abuse it. We are to understand what it is: a vehicle to carry us to our goal. What is that goal? To transcend the cycle of rebirth and attain rebirth in the Pure Land.


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss . . ."

[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments and virtues. 

This sentence concludes the description of the gems, ponds, buildings, flowers, and music that perfectly adorn the Land of Ultimate Bliss. How did Amitabha know what he wanted to include in his world? While still the monk Dharmakara, he practiced and visited twenty-one billion Buddha Lands and adopted the good points and corrected the shortcomings he had seen in each for his own future land. He then made forty-eight vows, engaged in pure practice, and accrued merits and virtues. With these accomplished, he created and adorned the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

In all of this, he had not the slightest hint of selfishness. His every thought was to help all who wanted to learn the Dharma. He felt great compassion for those who did not have a good learning environment. Often encountering obstacles, they found it very hard to succeed in their learning. Understanding this, Dharmakara wanted to provide the best possible learning environment for these beings. And he succeeded. Magnificently.