Sunday
Jun262016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Furthermore Shariputra, this land is called Ultimate Bliss . . ." (Part Two)

This truly wondrous living environment in the Pure Land is symbolized by the “four precious jewels” of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. These gems represent the four attributes of nirvana: permanence, joy, true self, and purity. 

Permanence, the first attribute of nirvana, means constancy. In this passage, the Buddha was describing the unchanging, permanent environment in the Western Pure Land. With the slight exception of those newly reborn in the Pure Land, the beings in that land have either suppressed or eliminated their discriminations, attachments, and wandering thoughts. This results in permanence. 

In marked contrast, our world is impermanent. Not only have we not suppressed our thoughts, much less eliminated them; we are, instead, overwhelmingly immersed in them. The thoughts of people here are rising and falling at the incredible rate of many thousands per second. Our discriminations, attachments, and wandering thoughts are constantly moving, ceaselessly changing. 

The Buddha often spoke of the Nine Dharma Realms, which consist of the hells, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, humans, heavens, sound hearers, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. These nine come about according to the grades practitioners achieve in their cultivation of the Ten Virtuous Karmas. The Buddha further explained that all phenomena in the paths are “manifested by the mind and altered by the consciousness.” “The mind” refers to the true mind, and “the consciousness” refers to the false mind. Actually, the true mind and the false mind are the same mind. When one is completely awakened and is no longer deluded, one’s mind is the true mind. When one is not yet awakened and is still deluded, one’s mind is the false mind. 

In the Western Pure Land, as well, phenomena are manifested by the mind. But “the mind” in that land is “not altered by the consciousness.” Thus beings in the Pure Land do not use the consciousness, the false mind. The true mind is unchanging. This, in turn, explains why there is permanence in the Pure Land and impermanence in the Nine Dharma Realms. Permanence occurs when beings use the true mind, which is wisdom. Impermanence occurs when beings use the consciousness, which is the false mind. 

Consciousness has eight components, each with its respective function. The function of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body consciousnesses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, respectively. The function of the sixth consciousness, the mind, is discrimination. That of the seventh consciousness is attachment. That of the eighth consciousness is to store. The eighth stores the seeds of our past physical, verbal, and mental karmas. These residual karmas include our wandering thoughts—all our impressions from countless lifetimes over innumerable kalpas. The eight consciousnesses, all together, comprise the “consciousness,” the false mind that we beings in the Nine Dharma Realms use.

Beings who use the true mind still see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, but these sense consciousnesses do not plant any new seeds in their eighth consciousness. In other words, these beings have no wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. 

With the true mind one may see and hear as one likes but no wandering thoughts, discriminations, or attachments will arise. 

Sunday
Jun192016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Furthermore Shariputra, this land is called Ultimate Bliss . . ." (Part One)

Furthermore Shariputra, this land is called Ultimate Bliss because it is surrounded by seven rings of railings, seven layers of netting, and seven rows of trees, all made of the four precious jewels.

Each of the seven rows of trees is neatly and methodically arranged. The beautiful branches, leaves, fruits, and flowers on the trees are made of precious gems. There is one line of railing, then one layer of netting, and then one row of trees. Beyond that is a second line of railing, a second layer of netting, and a second row of trees, and so on, until there are seven rows of railing, netting, and trees. 

People may wonder why everything is in sevens: the railings, the netting, the trees. It seems so rigid. There are reasons for such a specific number. First, the number seven represents the seven major components of the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment: the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Four Right Efforts, the Four Bases of Supernormal Abilities, the Five Roots, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Eightfold Path. These will be covered in detail in the next talk. 

Also, in Mahayana Buddhism, the number seven stands for perfection. This perfection abounds in the Pure Land, where buildings, clothing, food, and more, reflect the preference of each being. Everything is perfect for everything is as wished for. 

For example, no effort is required to build a house, to produce clothes, or to prepare food. This phenomenon is explained in the Infinite Life Sutra. If a being wants to live in a big house, the house will be big. If a small house is preferred, the house will be small. Prefer the house to be in the air instead of on the ground? So be it. Everything is as one wishes. Does this mean all the beings in the Pure Land still have wishes and wandering thoughts? No. Only those who are newly arrived. Beings who are more advanced have eliminated their residual habits and wandering thoughts. 

In the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha was describing the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together. He did so because this is where we are most likely to be reborn. After being reborn in the Pure Land, we will have largely subdued our residual habits and wandering thoughts. Subdued but not eliminated. And so these habits and thoughts can still arise. 

We can see this in regard to food, which beings in that land do not need. But a being who has yet to completely subdue his wandering thoughts may think of a certain food. With that thought, the food will appear. Seeing the food suddenly appear and inhaling the aromas that were not there an instant before, the being will realize that he is now a bodhisattva in the Pure Land and no longer requires such sustenance. With that realization, the food will disappear. Gradually, due to the supportive power of Amitabha’s vows, help from their fellow practitioners, and the being’s own continued learning and practice, thoughts of things like food and clothing will fade. In time, such thoughts will be eradicated.

Sunday
Jun122016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Shariputra, why is this land . . ." (Part Three)

The eighth suffering is suffering due to the Five Aggregates of form, feeling, conception, impulse, and consciousness. Simply put, the suffering due to the Five Aggregates is from the absence of both physical and mental well-being. 

Form, the first aggregate, refers to matter, our physical body. 

Feeling, the second aggregate, while usually associated with our body, is actually mental phenomena. Feeling includes pain, happiness, and so on. 

Conception, the third aggregate, refers to the sixth consciousness. Conception is the cognitive mind, which thinks, imagines, and differentiates. 

Impulse, the fourth aggregate, refers to the seventh consciousness. Impulse describes the continuous, uninterrupted stream of thoughts that examines and considers. As soon as one such thought ceases, the next arises immediately, streaming through our mind at an incredible rate. The vast majority of these thoughts are too subtle for us to notice, but we are nonetheless affected by their vibrations. And no matter how subtle the thoughts may be, they are mental karmas and, as such, will bring about their related karmic effects. 

Consciousness, the fifth aggregate, refers to the eighth consciousness. Consciousness means storing and is indestructible. The seeds sown by our good, bad, pure, and neutral karmic actions are stored in our eighth consciousness. As certain seeds in this consciousness encounter the right conditions, they mature. This leads to the next rebirth and its ensuing life, which with few exceptions will be subject to the eight sufferings. At the end of that lifetime, again, certain seeds in the consciousness encounter the right conditions and mature. Once more we are reborn. And once more we suffer. 

The suffering thus continues like a never-ending spiral. Hoping to help us end our suffering, the Buddha encouraged us to seek rebirth in the Pure Land. Once there, we will be able to break out of this cycle of death and rebirth, which is called the cycle of rebirth, and “only know every kind of joy.” How so? 

Beings in that land are reborn from lotuses, not through birth from the womb, so there is no suffering from birth. The body is not composed of flesh, tissues, blood, and bones, so there is no suffering from old age or sickness. The lifetime is infinite and concludes in Buddhahood, so there is no suffering from death. Neither is there separation from loved ones because beings in that land have no attachments. Everyone is a bodhisattva, so there is no association with those that one dislikes. Should a being have the thought of something, it will appear naturally, so there is no suffering from unfulfilled wishes. 

As we now know, when certain seeds in our eighth consciousness encounter the right conditions, they mature. This causes us to have endless rebirths and suffering in the cycle of rebirth because far too often it is our bad seeds that will mature. But in the Pure Land, the bad seeds in the beings’ eighth consciousnesses do not have the conditions to mature because everything the beings see and hear helps them to have pure thoughts, to chant “Amituofo.” Only the seeds for goodness and for attaining Buddhahood mature. So the beings do not have the causes to give rise to the five aggregates, which had kept them trapped in the cycle of rebirth. 

All these are just some of the reasons why the Buddha assured us that the beings in that land “are free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind, and only know every kind of joy.”

Sunday
Jun052016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Shariputra, why is this land . . ." (Part Two)

The first suffering is birth. An unborn baby, already with form, has feelings and consciousness. The Buddha explained that due to feelings and consciousness, the baby feels pain while in the womb. At birth, the baby finds itself being expelled from the womb and pushed through the narrow birth canal. Thrust from the only environment that it knows, the baby suddenly encounters one that is very different: air instead of fluid, light instead of darkness, cold instead of warmth. First pain, then shock. Little wonder babies cry when born. 

The second suffering is old age. As we grow older, we realize that our energy is not what it used to be. We experience aches and pains, and are more sensitive to heat and cold. Wanting to remember a name, we cannot. Wanting to see or hear something, we realize that these senses have weakened with time. Wishing to move hurriedly, we realize our legs are not as strong nor our reflexes as quick as they once were. Suffering from the loss of these and other faculties, we fear they will degrade even more in the future. 

The third suffering is sickness, both mental as well as physical. We may cry out for help, but no help comes. Given our favorite food, we find we have no appetite. We may be in pain and need medicine, but we are unable to obtain it. When we do obtain the medicine, we may become dependent upon it or find that it no longer helps us. Severely troubled mentally and emotionally, we find that others, unable to relate to our pain, are unsympathetic. Their inability to understand and sympathize just adds to our suffering. 

The fourth suffering is death. When we are dying, our body is weak and we are unable to control it. We may want to sleep, but our sleep is erratic. Or we want to stay awake but find ourselves constantly drifting off. We may slip into unconsciousness and be unable to chant. If still conscious, we may want to die because our pain is too great or we are utterly exhausted, but still we live. Fearful of what will happen to us when we die, we do not know which suffering is greater: life or death. And so we cling to the former in fear of the latter.

The fifth suffering is separation from loved ones. A person we love no longer returns our love and leaves us. Our children grow up, and having busy lives, no longer come to visit. We want to care for our parents, but find ourselves forced to leave them when our work takes us elsewhere. When we are dying, we have to leave all those we love and care for. Worried for their futures, we realize there is nothing we can do, and we suffer even more. 

The sixth suffering is association with those that one dislikes. This suffering also includes the association with things and situations we dislike. We no longer love the person we once did, but find ourselves trapped in the relationship. Required to work with people who always speak ill of us, we are fearful and ill at ease. Feeling trapped in lives we cannot control, in families whose members are our karmic enemies, in situations with people who hold very different views and goals, we see no end to our suffering. 

The seventh suffering is unfulfilled wishes. We strain against our fate. Those without power wish to have it, the childless yearn for children, the poor dream of wealth. Our hopes and expectations of how something will turn out are rarely fulfilled. When we do attain what we want, things change, and we lose what we have. The suffering seems interminable. 

Sunday
May292016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Shariputra, why is this land . . ." (Part One)

[Shariputra,] why is this land called Ultimate Bliss? It is called “Ultimate Bliss” because the sentient beings in this land are free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind, and only know every kind of joy.

Although the Buddha was talking to Sariputra, he was addressing all those in the assembly. Throughout the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha asked several questions and then proceeded to answer every one himself. Sariputra remained silent throughout. For him, the wisest of the arhats, to not even attempt an answer to the Buddha’s questions indicates how profound this sutra is. 

“Why is this land called Ultimate Bliss?” is the first question the Buddha posed. When Sariputra respectfully remained silent, the Buddha began to describe the myriad wonders in the Pure Land, beginning with its name of “Ultimate Bliss.” The land is thus called because the sentient beings there have subdued their afflictions through mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha. No longer acting from greed, anger, and ignorance or from a mind that has wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments, they are always blissful. The name of the land reflects this great joy.  

The beings in that land are “free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind.” These myriad sufferings are summarized as the Eight Sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, death, separation from loved ones, association with those that one dislikes, unfulfilled desires, and the suffering due to the five aggregates (form, feeling, conception, impulse, and consciousness.)