Sunday
Jul242016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Moreover Shariputra, the land of Ultimate Bliss . . ."

Moreover, Shariputra, the Land of Ultimate Bliss has ponds of seven jewels filled with the waters of eight virtues.

Just as with the rows of railing, netting, and trees, the number seven in “ponds of seven jewels” symbolizes perfection. Unlike the gems of our world, those in the Pure Land are perfect: they are pure, flawless, and soft. Knowing that we are already familiar with their beauty, the Buddha spoke of gold, silver, lapus lazuli, and other precious gemstones. In reality, the infinite gems in the Pure Land are far superior to those here on earth. Their colors are incomparably more varied and their tactile quality vastly more pleasing. 

The Pure Land has countless ponds “filled with the waters of eight virtues.” All who wish to can refresh themselves in the ponds. The Infinite Life Sutra explains that both the depth and the temperature of the water change to meet our wishes. The water will be as deep or as shallow, as warm or as cool as we would like it to be. And just like the water, everything in the Pure Land makes the beings there feel peaceful and content. 

The first of the eight virtues is clear and pure. The water in the Pure Land is perfectly pure, unlike the water in our world, which is contaminated by natural and man-made pollutants. Even water from our most remote mountain streams contains impurities ranging from minerals to bacteria.  

Second is cool. The temperature of the water in the Pure Land depends on the beings’ preferences. To say the water is cool means that it calms and cleanses their minds. Water temperatures in our world are subject to changes in weather and other influences. Ranging from boiling to freezing, water can easily become hazardous. 

Third is sweet. The water in the Pure Land is pleasing and refreshing. In our world, ocean water is salty and undrinkable in its natural state. Even fresh water often tastes unpleasant.  

Fourth is light and soft. The water in the Pure Land is very light because the beings there have let go of all attachments and discriminations. In our world, because of our substantial attachments, the water is so heavy that a single gallon of it weighs over eight pounds.  

Fifth is moistening. While the water in the Pure Land is moistening, water in our world can dry out our skin. Thus, we often have to resort to moisturizers so our skin will return to its earlier supple and soft condition.  

Sixth is peaceful. In the Pure Land, the water accords with the beings’ wishes. As it is always soothing and poses no danger, the beings feel very peaceful. Water in our world may be beautiful and calm. But it can also be dangerous, even life threatening, as ocean waves become so powerful that buildings are swept away and people are drowned. 

Seventh is nourishing. The water in the Pure Land makes the beings there feel energetic, not only free from thirst, but from hunger and illness as well. In our world, drinking too much water leads to bloatedness and discomfort. After we drink, our throats can still feel rough and dry. We could even die from quickly drinking an excessive amount of water.  

Eighth is nurturing. This is the most important virtue. The water in the Pure Land helps the beings there to strengthen their good roots. It purifies their thoughts, enabling them to improve in their practice.  And merely by touching the water, they are invigorated. In this world, not only does water provide mere temporary relief from thirst, it is often unhealthy, thus causing problems for both our body and mind.


Sunday
Jul172016

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

Purity, the fourth attribute of nirvana, is a mind free of attachments. Do the beings in the Western Pure Land go back to the cycle of rebirth? They do. But not because they are pulled by their respective karmic forces. They go back, and they do so willingly, because of the vows that they have made to help those still trapped in suffering. How do they help? By teaching. 

With pure minds, the bodhisattvas in the Western Pure Land have no attachments, not even when they are in the heavens to help beings there. Neither do the bodhisattvas have afflictions, not even when they are in the hells, where suffering abounds, to help the beings there. To the bodhisattvas, the Ten Dharma Realms are all the same. Although they do not actually feel happiness or suffering, when they return to the cycle of rebirth, they sometimes act that way. Such skillful behavior facilitates teaching for it helps people feel that awakened beings are not so very different from them. People are thus inspired to think, “If they can succeed in their cultivation, I, too, should be able to succeed.” 

Buddhas and bodhisattvas come here to teach and help all those who are not yet awakened. To accomplish this, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas will manifest in the most suitable form for each being. They do so intuitively and naturally. And they do so in infinite Dharma realms in the same moment in time. This is true joy. True purity. 

In our world, the four attributes of permanence, joy, true self, and purity do not exist. Everything here is impermanent, and there is no real happiness. There is no true self. People are attached to their physical body, believing it to be the self. But the body is not in control. It has no freedom. Also, peoples’ minds are not pure here. Their thoughts are tainted with selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance. Sadly, this world is painfully different from the Western Pure Land where there is permanence, joy, true self, and purity. Why remain here when we can go to that land instead?

Sunday
Jul102016

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

The Land of Expedient Liberation is where arhats; pratyekabuddhas, beings who have attained enlightenment through their own efforts; and lower-level bodhisattvas dwell. Having eradicated the Affliction of Views, they no longer believe that one’s physical body is oneself, and they no longer hold extreme views; deviant view in effect; deviant view in cause; and perverse view, which includes not believing in causality. Also, they have eradicated the Affliction of Thoughts, which are greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt about the sages’ teachings. Beings reborn in this land have attained a lower level of One Mind Undisturbed. 

The Land of Real Reward is where higher-level bodhisattvas dwell. Beings reborn in this land have attained a higher level of One Mind Undisturbed. Through continuous chanting of the Buddha’s name, they have not only eradicated the Afflictions of Views and Thoughts, but have also eradicated the Affliction of Dust and Sand, which is discrimination.  

The Land of Eternally Quiescent Light is the land where Buddhas dwell. 

Which of these four lands we are reborn in depends on the level of our practice. If we are reborn in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together or the Land of Expedient Liberation, we will be able to visit Buddhas in the ten directions every day to learn from them. 

If we are reborn in the Land of Real Reward, we will no longer need to go anywhere to learn from different Buddhas. When we want to see a certain Buddha he will be right in front of us even though he is still teaching in his own world. It is as if we had gone to this Buddha’s world, but actually we have not left the Pure Land. In this land—this state of mind—we are no longer bound by time and space. There is no need to travel anywhere. The Buddhas in the three times of the past, present, and future, and of the ten directions will be right in front of us. This is an inconceivable state. 

Sunday
Jul032016

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

Pure and lasting joy is the second attribute of nirvana. In our world, people do not have joy. At best, they can experience happiness, but it is neither pure nor lasting. Joy, on the other hand, is pure and lasting. It comes from progressing in one’s cultivation of precept observation, meditative concentration, and wisdom; from advancing on the bodhi path; and from teaching every day. Doing all these, the beings in the Western Pure Land have great joy. 

True self, the third attribute of nirvana, means to be in control, to have freedom. In the cycle of rebirth, we are not in control, not even of ourselves. After all, we do not wish to get caught up in thoughts of regret or resentment or worry, but we do. We do not wish to be separated from loved ones or to always be around those we dislike, but we are. We do not wish to get sick or become frail, and yet we will.

We are not in control. 

When we go to the Western Pure Land, however, we will be in control. We will not become sick or frail. We will not age. We will suppress our bad habits and our wandering thoughts. All of this happens even in the lowest of the four lands, the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together. 

The other three lands are the Land of Expedient Liberation, the Land of Real Reward, and the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light. Our natural assumption is to think the lands are separated, that there are delineated borders. This is not the case because in the Pure Land the four lands overlap. As a result, we could be in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together while the being next to us is in the Land of Expedient Liberation. Think of the lands as states of mind that we reach due to our level of practice. The higher the level of practice, the higher the state of mind, the higher the land. 

For example, rebirth in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together is accomplished through Constant Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha. Constant Mindfulness enables one to use the Buddha name to control afflictions, residual habits, and wandering thoughts. It is like placing a stone on some weeds. With the stone suppressing the growth of the weeds, they will wither. As long as one continues to suppress the weeds, in time, they will be eliminated. 

In Constant Mindfulness, one is continuously aware of Amitabha Buddha. The degree of awareness can vary. When one is meditating on the name, one single-mindedly chants the name and is focused on it. Because one’s sole thought is of Amitabha, there are no wandering thoughts. At other times, because one needs to focus on a task, one will not be able to fully focus on chanting. But even though one is not single-mindedly concentrating on the name, one is continuously aware of Amitabha Buddha. Here as well, wandering thoughts do not arise. 

Understandably, lessened awareness of the name is not as effective as concentrated focus. But even mindfulness at a less effective level will enable the Buddha name to gradually become more strongly established in one’s mind. Slowly, the focus will increase and the chanting of “Amituofo” will enable one to suppress afflictions until they are eradicated. 

When we attain Constant Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha, we will not give rise to afflictions or become angry in adverse conditions. Nor will we be attached to favorable conditions. We will be in this state naturally—there will not be any intentional control or suppression of emotions. In other words, we will be focused on “Amituofo,” not on the thought “I need to chant ‘Amituofo’ to suppress my emotions and attachments.” Exerting an effort to suppress these emotions is when we are at the stage of learning and practice, and we have not yet achieved Constant Mindfulness. When we have achieved it, we will not need to exert any effort but will react naturally. 

There are different grades in Constant Mindfulness. Our achievement will determine which grade we will be at. If we are in one of the higher three grades, we will be able to pass away whenever we wish. At that time, we can go without any illness. We may be seated, or even standing. If we do not yet feel like leaving this world, we can stay longer. Everything can be achieved at will. If we are in the middle three grades, we will be able to know a few months in advance when we are going to pass away. Again, we may leave this world standing or seated. If we are in the lower three grades, we will know several days in advance of our death, but we may become ill before we die. 

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.