Sunday
Mar192017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 33: Good Men and Good Women

If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his name singlemindedly and without confusion, for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days, then when these people are about to die, Amitabha Buddha and his whole assembly will appear before them. 

Here Sakyamuni Buddha spoke to Sariputra of “good men or good women” who singlemindedly chant the name of Amitabha Buddha from one to seven days. What is the standard for being a good man or a good woman? In other schools, it is to fulfill the Ten Virtuous Karmas. In the Pure Land school, the standard is to be mindful of Amitabha Buddha. When sincerely mindful of him, we will resonate with his mind of goodness and thus will naturally fulfill the Ten Virtuous Karmas. Good speech and good actions will follow from our mindfulness just as water naturally flows downhill.

Anyone who has tried to chant the name of Amitabha Buddha singlemindedly can appreciate just how difficult it is. When we first begin to chant, we do so with a scattered and chaotic mind. This is a mind in which our erratic thoughts bombard us continuously as we attempt to chant. And it seems that the harder we try to focus, the more chaotic our mind becomes. Very honestly, our mind has been chaotic for a very, very long time; we were simply not aware of it. When we try to focus our mind, we begin to realize just how scattered and chaotic our thoughts are. Our realizing this is vital because as an ancient practitioner warned, “even if one chants the Buddha’s name until one’s throat is hoarse, one’s chanting with a scattered and chaotic mind will be futile.”

It will be futile because chanting with a scattered and chaotic mind will not result in rebirth in the Pure Land in the current lifetime. Luckily for us, the practitioner's warning does not mean that such chanting is worthless. At the least, it will result in good fortune, though this good fortune will be enjoyed only by being reborn as a human or heavenly being in a future lifetime.

As we continue diligently with our chanting, little by little our mind becomes less chaotic. We gradually begin to chant with a scattered mind. This term describes an unfocused mind, one that is not yet able to concentrate solely on the Buddha-name. And so sometimes we will be mindful of the Buddha, and at other times we will have wandering thoughts. While a scattered mind is not our goal, with this mind we are at least able to begin to use the Buddha-name to reduce and even hold our wandering thoughts at bay. When chanting alone is not sufficient to accomplish this, we can simultaneously chant and practice visualizing Amitabha, lotus flowers, or the other adornments of the Pure Land.

What we are striving to attain is Constant Mindfulness. This is spoken of in the Infinite Life Sutra as “single-mindedly concentrating on mindfully chanting the Buddha’s name.” Constant Mindfulness is to continuously have the name of Amitabha in our mind, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. With Constant Mindfulness, we will no longer have afflictions like selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, or arrogance. We will be using one pure thought—that of Amitabha Buddha—to replace all wandering thoughts.

When we attain rebirth in the Western Pure Land through mindful chanting, we will still have wandering thoughts because we will not yet have eliminated them. We bring them along. What about residual karmas? We also bring along these remaining karmas. Once in the Pure Land, our continued chanting will further reduce and then gradually eradicate even these wandering thoughts and residual karmas. In time, we will attain the state of One-mind Undisturbed.

To be reborn in the Western Pure Land, we should always regard ourselves as beginners. We should also remember what we have learned. No matter what conditions we encounter, irrespective of the various emotions or ideas we may have, we should not attach to the conditions. Indeed, we should not attach to anything of this world. We practice to achieve Constant Mindfulness, to have the name of Amitabha Buddha in our mind twenty-four hours a day.

In this sutra passage, Sakyamuni said to chant Amitabha Buddha’s name “for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days.” The Amitabha Sutra speaks of one to seven days, whereas the Infinite Life Sutra says ten days, and the Visualization Sutra specifies just one day on the condition that we truly repent. The number of days differs because to help everyone, Sakyamuni Buddha, taught different methods to different people. But regardless of how long we practice, even for thirty or forty years, the ultimate purpose of our practice is first to attain Constant Mindfulness and then One Mind Undisturbed.

Once we achieve these states, we will not lose them.

Rather we will be more diligent and work even harder. We will be filled with Dharma bliss and will receive unimaginable benefits. To appreciate the benefits that are possible through diligent practice, we can consider the account of Venerable Yishou, who lived four centuries ago. Venerable Yishou chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha while doing walking meditation in a small area covered with flat stones. So diligently did he practice walking meditation that he wore holes in the stones. When they were replaced, again he wore them down.

Despite his determined practice, Venerable Yishou encountered a serious karmic enmity from a past lifetime. This enmity had been reborn as a young orphaned boy whom Venerable Yishou raised. As time passed, the rebellious boy’s misdeeds grew more flagrant. When Venerable Yishou spoke to him about this, the boy’s behavior became even worse. Finally, one night, he and some other boys attacked Venerable Yishou as he was doing his walking meditation. They beat the still chanting monk until they killed him.

One might ask why such a terrible thing would happen to a monk who practiced so diligently. We need to understand that had Venerable Yishou not practiced so well, he would never have been able to continue chanting until the moment he died. This account appears in a book that tells of people who were reborn in the Pure Land. The commentary for this particular account points out that, although we do not know what deeds we have done in the past, we should nonetheless always repent. And no matter what happens to us, we should never allow our belief to be shaken or our vow to be reborn in the Pure Land forgotten. Like Venerable Yishou, we need to be determined and chant the Buddha-name “singlemindedly and without confusion.”

How do we chant? First, we bring the thought of “Amituofo” into our mind. As we say “Amituofo,” our ears hear and our mind concentrates on and embraces “Amituofo.” Thus, the mind, the mouth, and the ears are all absorbed in this chanting. In silent chanting meditation, we listen to and concentrate on our voice in our mind. This manner of chanting will help us focus and concentrate our mind for “one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days.”

Friday
Mar172017

Just as time is needed for a perfume bottle’s fragrance to fade away,

it takes time for the scent of our habits

to wane.

Even after we wash and dry an empty perfume bottle, the fragrance will linger. Although the perfume is long since gone, its scent, or “habit energy,” remains and will need time to dissipate.

In a similar manner, our bad habits also need time to be dispelled. Even after we curtail an action, its habit energy, like the scent of perfume, remains. Lured by the habit energy’s lingering presence, we find it difficult to break the energy’s hold and cease the action.

The bottle held the perfume for just a few years and yet considerable time is required before the last traces of odor disappear. The few years the perfume has existed are nothing compared to the countless lifetimes we have committed misdeeds.

We will need a long time of diligently not acting from that habit energy for the habit to finally be extinguished. 

Monday
Mar132017

To no longer be attached is to be free of

self-centered thoughts and expectations. 

Non-attachment falls between two extremes. On the one hand lies detachment, the absence of being emotionally involved. Others often perceive a detached person as aloof, not caring. Clearly, not our goal.

On the other hand lies attachment, being emotionally entangled with a focus on a person, object, or idea. Not our goal either!

We seek non-attachment, which falls in the dedicated, hard-working middle ground. While not emotionally entangled, we still care. Very much so. And so we do our best in everything we undertake. But we do not get caught up in egoistic thoughts. Facing a task, we can ask, “What is the best way to do this” rather than state, “I want to do it this way.” Having thus reined in our ego, we stop expecting a desired outcome. Then when things do not go our way, as invariably happens, we will not fall prey to obstinacy and regrets.

Finally, no longer attached or entangled, we will be free.

Sunday
Mar122017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 32: Good Roots, Good Fortune, and Causal Connections

One cannot be born in this land through minor good roots, blessings, virtues [good fortune] and causal connections.

This sentence tells us what is needed to be reborn in the Pure Land: abundant and great good roots, not just minor ones, and right causal connections, not just any ones. How do we get these? By chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha. When we do so, we share in the benefits derived from the good roots, good fortune, virtues, and causal conditions of Amitabha and all other Buddhas. It is like that impoverished young man who, by living with his wealthy aunt, shared in her good fortune. Additionally, when chanting, we uncover our own good roots, good fortune, virtues, and causal conditions that are already within our true nature. Uncovering these is why chanting the Buddha-name is so important.

Why do we obtain all this by chanting Amitabha’s name?

Amitabha vowed that anyone who chants his name would be reborn in the Pure Land. This vow assures us that if we chant properly, we will receive his support. We do not get such support when we chant the names of other Buddhas. Why not? Because Amitabha’s forty-eight vows resonate with our true nature and because we have an excellent affinity with him. Other Buddhas do not have Amitabha's forty-eight vows. Nor do we have a strong affinity with them. So the mutual resonance is not as powerful when we chant their names.

What are good roots, good fortune, and casual connections?

“Good roots” is our having firm belief and resolute vow. We have firm belief when we do not have the slightest doubt about the Pure Land teachings and when we understand and believe in the Buddha-name chanting method. We have resolute vow when we let go of all worldly physical and mental concerns, and focus on attaining rebirth in the Pure Land.

To accumulate and strengthen our good roots, we need to learn the Dharma. If we believe—but are unable to practice—then we do not have enough good fortune. The good roots and good fortune to become a Buddha are not common. What is common is wanting our desires to be fulfilled and to enjoy our life in this world.

“Good fortune” is making the vow to attain rebirth in the Western Pure Land, mindfully chanting the Buddha-name, and practicing the teachings. It is meeting good fellow practitioners and learning and discussing the teachings with them to deepen our understanding. After we have this understanding, good fortune is applying what we believe and understand in our daily life, and single-mindedly chanting Amitabha’s name.

To want to be a Buddha is the highest aspiration we can have. If we have enough good fortune, we will find it easy to concentrate on Amitabha’s name and will not find ourselves distracted from the practice. If we do not yet have enough good fortune, we can work on letting go of our selfishness and doing good deeds for the sake of all beings.

Furthermore, it is crucial that we strive to always chant the Buddha-name. This chanting makes it easier for our mind to become calm. Having a tranquil mind, we will better know how to help others. Gradually, as we help others, our good fortune will increase. This brings us full circle because having more good fortune makes it easier for us to concentrate on chanting the name of Amitabha, which is the wisest use of our good fortune. Using our good fortune unwisely, we will end up enjoying it here in samsara. Enjoying it here will be yet another tragic mistake because the good fortune of being reborn in samsara does not begin to compare with the good fortune of being reborn in the Pure Land.

“Causal connections” is having good conditions, those that enable us to practice. For this to happen, we need many conditions to occur.

First, we need to be reborn as a human, which is extraordinarily rare.

Second, we need to be reborn at a time when the teachings are present in the world. Such a rebirth is so rare because the teachings are absent from this world of Endurance for prolonged periods of time. Sakyamuni’s teachings will only remain for another 9000 years, and Maitreya will not appear for another 5,670 million years. Additionally, even if the teachings are present in the world and we are reborn as humans during this time, we may not be in a place where we can learn them.

Third, if we do learn of the teachings, we may not be able to genuinely accept them.

Fourth, even if we do accept them, due to our personal situation, we may lack the conditions to practice.

Fifth, if we are able to practice Buddhism, we may encounter schools other than Pure Land, even though our roots are with the Pure Land school.

Sixth, even if we have the roots to encounter and learn the Pure Land teachings, we may not meet a teacher to learn from and practice under.

Finally, we may be able to hear of Buddhism, accept the teachings, later encounter Pure Land teachings, and find our teacher, but then fail to make being reborn in the Pure Land the most important thing in our life!

All these are just some of the many problems we can encounter while trying to practice. Perhaps, we can now begin to appreciate why it is so extraordinarily difficult for us to transcend samsara. Only when we have the good roots, good fortune, and good causal conditions to accept and diligently practice the Pure Land Dharma door without doubt or intermingling with other teachings will we finally be able to transcend in this lifetime.

Understanding all this, we should value our good roots, good fortune, and causal conditions, and seize this rare opportunity to be reborn in the Pure Land. The accumulation of such good roots and good fortune takes an unbelievably long time. If we sincerely concentrate on chanting Amitabha’s name and vow to be reborn in the Pure Land, we will be repaying our gratitude to all Buddhas, to all our parents of countless lifetimes, and to our own true nature.

This true nature has always existed, but we have yet to uncover it. And so we remain in a seemingly endless dream. We should not wish to dream of having the good fortune to be successful, to win the praise of others, or to enjoy our good fortune in the cycle of rebirth. In the cycle of rebirth, whether we are suffering or enjoying our good fortune, the only difference is that we are either in a bad dream or a pleasant dream. Either way, we are in a dream.

We do not practice Buddhism to have pleasant dreams. We practice to awaken from all dreams! This is why Sakyamuni Buddha told us to be mindful of and attach to Amitabha Buddha to attain rebirth in his land. Up till now we have remained attached to our desires and opinions. Now, we need to sever our attachments to all that we like or dislike, to all that we are used to. We need, instead, to attach to the name of Amitabha Buddha so that we can always be mindful of him. Doing so, we will finally awaken and no longer be lost in a dream.

Friday
Mar102017

Buddhism is like an immense mountain

with 84,000 paths leading to the peak.

Choose—and remain on—that path. 

To attain the summit of a mountain in the most effective manner, climbers choose one route. Depending on their abilities, some might prefer a more cautious approach, others a more challenging one. Having chosen the route, they don’t deviate. They do not keep sampling different ones, or they would end up touring the mountain instead of climbing it, thus wasting time and energy.

Our practice is the same. With the summit of enlightenment as our goal, we choose the path that best suits our conditions and abilities. Like the climbers, we too need to stick to our chosen route. Taking our eyes off our goal, we can become enthralled by another path. “It looks easier!” “It looks more challenging!” “I’ll try it!”

Enamored of sampling different options, we will end up circling the mountain having lost sight of our goal to reach enlightenment.