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.”