Sunday
May222016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "At that time, Buddha said . . ." (Part Two)

“Preaching the Dharma right now” tells us that in the Pure Land, Amitabha is currently teaching the Dharma. He has been doing so since he became a Buddha ten kalpas ago. Sakyamuni taught the Dharma in this world for fifty years. Even this was extremely difficult for him to do for our world has a very poor learning environment. People here have very short lives and little time to learn and practice. They have deep-seated bad habits and numerous afflictions, not the least of which are selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance. They have innumerable worldly desires including those for food, sleep, sensory indulgence, fame, prestige, wealth. 

Absorbed in all these afflictions and desires, people have not created the necessary conditions for Buddhas to come here often to teach. As we have learned, Maitreya, the next bodhisattva who will come to our world to be a Buddha, will not do so for another 5,670 million years! This shows how incredibly rare it is to be able to personally learn from a Buddha. 

The Western Pure Land, however, has an excellent learning environment. Because Amitabha has been teaching there for kalpas, not only have uncountable beings in that land not developed afflictions and bad habits, they have eradicated their afflictions and strengthened their good habits. From this, we can see why a good learning environment is so important. 

While there are uncountable beings in the Pure Land now, initially there were none. Where did they come from? These beings with their abundance of good roots, good fortune, and causal connections came from worlds in all the ten directions. Having good roots means that one is able to believe and comprehend the teachings in this sutra. Having good fortune means that one is both willing to practice according to the teachings and able to succeed in that practice. Good roots and good fortune are what are developed within oneself. Causal connections are external factors and refer to favorable conditions. The most important favorable condition is to meet a truly good teacher who introduces and teaches this Dharma door to us. 

It is an incredibly rare opportunity to hear of such an ideal land for learning and practice. If we want to be reborn there, we too must have abundant good roots, good fortune, and favorable causal connections. We may be able to rely on others to help us where favorable conditions are concerned, but we have to cultivate good roots and good fortune ourselves. 

Sunday
May152016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "At that time, Buddha said . . ." (Part One)

At that time, Buddha said to the Elder Shariputra: “West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called Ultimate Bliss. In this land there is a Buddha called Amitabha, who is teaching the Dharma right now.

The Buddha spoke of a world “west of here” in order to help us understand where the Pure Land is in relation to our world. He further explained that it lies “past a hundred billion Buddha-lands.” Since a Buddha-land is a great galaxy in which one Buddha dwells and teaches, a hundred billion Buddha-lands are, from the aspect of phenomenon, inconceivably far. Fortunately, from the aspect of noumenon, of principle, the Pure Land is already within our true nature.

The Buddha said “there exists a world” to ensure that no doubt arises in the listener—the “world” does indeed exist. Telling us it is “called Ultimate Bliss” is done to encourage us to vow to seek rebirth there, not in our world that is called “Endurance.”

“In this land there is a Buddha called Amitabha.” Saying that Amitabha Buddha is in that land is done to assure us that he is neither a figment of someone’s imagination nor a being who will come into existence sometime in the distant future. He is real, and he already exists in his Pure Land. By mindfully chanting his name—a cause—we will form a connection with him and attain rebirth in his land—the effect. 

When we vow to be reborn in the Pure Land, he will know. He will know that we want to end our suffering. And with infinite patience he will wait for us to form a connection with him. How do we do this? By single-mindedly chanting his name. When? For the rest of our lives—but most crucially when we are breathing our last breaths. 

Amitabha is always reaching out to us with a perfectly steady hand. But our hand, moving erratically all the time, a symbol of our thoughts jumping from one thing to another, must first be stilled before we can take his. By single-mindedly repeating Amitabha’s name as we are breathing our last breaths, our mind will resonate with his and we will be as one. He will come, just as he vowed, to guide us to his land of Ultimate Bliss. 


Sunday
May082016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Also present Were the Bodhisattvas" (Part Five)

Also present was Shakra, the king of the gods, along with countless numbers of heavenly beings, making up a great assembly.

“Shakra, the king of the gods” is the king of the Trayastrimsa Heaven, the second from the bottom of the heavens in the Desire Realm. Although there are “countless numbers of heavenly beings,” he is specifically named because his heaven is close to the human path. Most people are not aware of the higher heavens of the Desire Realm, much less those in the Form and Formless Realms, because those heavens are too far away from us. “Shakra,” however, is known and respected in this world. Therefore, the Buddha used him to represent all heavenly beings.

This sentence marks the end of the opening section of the sutra in which Ananda named specific beings in the assembly.

Next, we will learn about the Pure Land teaching, one which the Buddha said “all beings in all worlds find hard to believe.” Hard indeed, for as is often said, this Dharma door is the “easiest to practice, but the most difficult to believe.” Those who cannot believe in it will need three asamkhyeya kalpas to attain Buddhahood. Those who can believe and sincerely practice it will need only one lifetime. This is the incredible importance of “belief.” Very simply, there was not enough time for the Buddha to explain everything so that we unawakened humans could finally understand and believe all he had to teach us. Our life spans are simply too short!

Consider the Buddha’s response to a monk who asked the Buddha some metaphysical questions. To help the monk focus on the immediate goal of his practice and not waste precious time, the Buddha posited a story of a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow. A doctor was found, but before the man would agree to the treatment he wanted to know certain things. What caste was the archer. What was his name and clan. Where was he from, what town or city. Was he tall or short, dark or fair. What kind of bow and style of shaft did he use. What kind of sinew was used on the arrow. What was the bowstring made of. What kind of bird were the feathers from. The wounded man would die before he could hear all the answers![i]

We are like this wounded man who, not having enough time to get all his questions answered, should have just trusted the doctor. We should believe the Buddha, whose life and attainment proved the validity of his teachings, and use the method he prescribed for us. When we are out of danger in the Pure Land, we will have all the time we require to learn all that we wish—and need—to learn.

 


[i] Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, © 1998, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

Sunday
May012016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Also present Were the Bodhisattvas" (Part Four)

Maitreya will become the next Buddha in our world in 5,670 million years. Why will it take so long for Maitreya to become the next Buddha? First, we need to understand what is meant by world. In the sutras, different terms and words such as world and Buddha-land are used when referring to a great galaxy in which one Buddha dwells and teaches. So when it is said that Maitreya will be the next Buddha in our world, he can do so anywhere in our great galaxy.

Before a bodhisattva becomes a Buddha in a particular world, or Buddha-land, he first has to wait for the current Buddha to enter parinirvana. Next, the bodhisattva has to wait for the conditions in that world to mature. With the Buddha’s passing and the right conditions, the waiting bodhisattva will then go through eight phases: descending from the Tusita Heaven, conception, birth, monkhood, subduing Mara, attaining perfect enlightenment, turning the Dharma wheel, and attaining Nirvana. Accordingly, Maitreya is now in the inner court of the Tusita heaven. He is speaking the Dharma and waiting for the time when he will descend and become the next Buddha.

Maitreya being named in the sutra indicates that those who learn and practice this Dharma door are like the bodhisattvas who are one lifetime away from becoming the next Buddha. By sincerely practicing this Dharma door, we will be reborn in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. Like these bodhisattvas, we too will become a Buddha in one lifetime. When it is time for us to attain Buddhahood, where can we do so? In whatever world in the Dharma Realm where we have the affinity to do so.

How can we become such a bodhisattva so quickly?

When we have belief, have made the vow, and chant the Buddha’s name at the end of our lives, we will clearly see Amitabha Buddha come to guide us to the Pure Land. Once there, we will steadily advance in our learning and practice until the time that we too are ready to attain Buddhahood—in one lifetime. As we learned earlier, in other schools, it takes a bodhisattva three asamkhyeya kalpas of cultivation to progress through the eleventh to fifty-first levels of attainment and to finally attain Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment.

To better grasp the immensity of the time involved, we need to know that it is generally considered that there are four kinds of kalpas: small; medium; great; and incalculable, or asamkhyeya. The longest, an asamkhyeya kalpa, is often said to refer to a number that is roughly equal to 10 to the 51st power or even 10 to the 63rd power.

But in the Pure Land school, we will not need to take anywhere near this long to complete our progress. In the Visualization Sutra, the Buddha said that even for one who is reborn at the lowest grade in the lowest land in the Western Pure Land, it takes just twelve great kalpas at most for one’s flower to open and for one to meet Amitabha Buddha. Twelve great kalpas, not three asamkhyeya kalpas! There is no comparison. The beings in the Pure Land progress very quickly in their cultivation.

The third bodhisattva named in the sutra was Gandhahastin, whose name means no resting. The fourth bodhisattva was Nityodyukta, whose name means making constant progress.

The presence in the assembly of these four Equal-enlightenment Bodhisattvas is profoundly significant for us. Here are beings, who are one level below Buddhahood, learning this teaching about the Pure Land. How can we fail to do the same? We must believe in this Dharma door, vow to attain rebirth in the Western Pure Land, and be diligent in our practice. Nothing is more important to us than mindfully chanting the Buddha’s name. Other practices, such as visualization, meditation, and mantra recitation are not necessary for us. We just mindfully chant “Amituofo.” This is the simplest and easiest method, a supreme method taught by all Buddhas. 

Sunday
Apr242016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "Also present Were the Bodhisattvas" (Part Three)

The second bodhisattva named in the sutra was Ajita, which means invincible. Also known as Maitreya, this bodhisattva is foremost in compassion. His compassion is sincere, pure, and impartial, and is based on wisdom. It truly pervades the entire Dharma Realm—all of time and space. Sincerity is a mind without wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. If one’s sincerity is mingled with any of those, one’s sincerity is not true sincerity. Purity is a mind without attachments. Impartiality is acting towards all phenomena without discriminatory thoughts, attachments, or expectations. Wisdom is the ability to know the difference between true and false, proper and deviated, right and wrong, and beneficial and harmful, while still interacting with phenomena appropriately.

Could Maitreya’s compassion be called “love”? In light of the definitions just given, no. Because compassion and love are not the same. Arising from emotions, not wisdom, love is capricious. It is insincere, impure, and biased, and is what unawakened people feel for a few others. Compassion, on the other hand, arises from wisdom, not emotions. Sincere, pure, and impartial, compassion is what Buddhas and bodhisattvas feel towards all beings. While love flows from attachments and discriminations, compassion flows from the true nature.

What is the true nature?

It is one of the terms the Buddha used for Buddha-nature, the true and immutable nature of all beings. As Venerable Master Chin Kung said in his 2003 lecture series on the Amitabha Sutra, “When the Buddha spoke of the true nature, he only said ‘inconceivable.’ In other words, we cannot understand it with our minds or explain it with words. Words are too limited to describe the truth. There is a limit to our thinking and imagination. The limit is the alaya consciousness. The true nature is not the alaya consciousness, so it is beyond detection.”