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Causes for pure land rebirth

Causes for pure land rebirth

Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.

  • The actual pure land that we’re trying to go to
  • Where descriptions of how to do the practice and the descriptions of Sukhāvatī are found in the sutras
  • Four causes for rebirth in Sukhāvatī

We’ll continue with some more about the Amitabha practice. I think I mentioned before that even if you go to Amitabha’s pure land you still have to complete the rest of the path. In other words, it’s not a shortcut, jump-over, discount number of realizations to attain. It’s just that you go there and then you have a very conducive environment. Which actually should motivate us now to practice because we have a very conducive environment. In Sukhāvatī it’s even better, but now we have about as best as it can get. Really take advantage of our lives now.

We think of Amitabha’s pure land as this place. But the actual pure land that we’re trying to go to is the ultimate nature of our own mind. To have the wisdom realizing emptiness that purifies the mind completely, that wisdom transforming into the wisdom dharmakaya—wisdom truth body—of a buddha. The true cessations and emptiness of the mind transforming into the nature body of the Buddha. Here “body” means a collection of qualities. It doesn’t mean physical body. And then the two “physical” bodies, or manifestation bodies of the Buddha, the enjoyment body and the emanation body that the Buddha appears in in order to communicate with all of us sentient beings. Attaining those four buddha bodies, that’s the actual pure land. We do the Amitabha practice, aspire to get reborn in Sukhāvatī so that we can actualize that pure land.

Of course, we can actualize it through doing many other tantric techniques, too. We don’t have to be enlightened through the Amitabha practice specifically, there are many other tantric practices that we can do. And of course we still have to complete the entire sutrayana path. They sometimes don’t tell this to people who aspire to be born in Amitabha’s pure land. They think, “I go there and then Amitabha will take care of it all.” No.

Amitabha is also, in another situation, one of the five Dhyani buddhas. But that is a different situation than here, the practice of Amitabha and aspiring to go to the pure land.

Amitabha himself is the nirmanakaya form. He manifests as a monk. And Amitayus is the sambhogakaya form of him. Amitabha means “infinite light” and Amitayus means “infinite life.” They’re the same, just different aspects.

The descriptions of how to do the practice and the descriptions of Sukhāvatī are found mainly in the smaller and larger Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras (which means “sutra on the description of the land of great bliss). There are two sutras that describe this. And often when people are doing the practice they recite the entire sutra, the idea being while you’re reciting it you’re visualizing all these things. You’re not just going “blah blah,” but you’re really imagining being in that pure land yourself.

I think if you ever wind up in some kind of difficult situation…. I think sometimes of people who are in prison, or people who are political prisoners, or people who are kidnapped by terrorists, and I think, you know, if you were in that situation then you just do this kind of practice, because they can’t take your mind away from you. So you imagine the pure land and do the practice of being in the pure land, and pass your days that way. It’s certainly much better than letting the ordinary mind complain and be cranky and everything like that.

There’s another sutra called the Amitayus Diyani Sutra (Amitayurdhyana-sutra). That one also talks about how to do this practice. Those are three of the main sutras.

In addition to these three, the Amitabha practice and birth in the pure land is mentioned in many other sutras. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, the Lotus Sutra. It’s well known in the Mahayana world, so to speak.

In general, when they teach the practice, at least in Chinese Buddhism (and this doesn’t seem contradictory to me at all from the Tibetan viewpoint), they say that there are four causes for rebirth in Sukhāvatī.

  1. First is the aspiration to be reborn there. Clearly, if you don’t aspire for something it’s not going to happen because you won’t create the causes for it. So developing that aspiration. And we already talked about the benefits of that aspiration.

  2. The second is to visualize the Buddha and his pure land in our own mind as clearly as possible, because the more clearly that we can get it…. And clear doesn’t mean “okay, I see every crease in Amitabha’s robe….” It doesn’t mean that you’re so focused on the tiny details that you miss the point of feeling like you’re in the pure land sitting in Amitabha’s presence. That’s the real purpose of the visualization.

    Yes, the visualization is a mental skill and it helps to sharpen your mind and your meditative ability, but we do it for the purpose of creating a certain ambience in our mind, a certain feeling in our mind. Just sit there, and there’s the pure land, and you’re sitting in there, and there’s Amitabha, and Nagarjuna, and His Holiness, and Kwan Yin, and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (In Tibetan they say “Vajrapani,” but I think they’re two different deities, actually). You just do that. It’s a wonderful kind of thing to do when you’re waiting, when you have nothing else to do. Instead of letting the mind go wandering here and there, to focus on something useful. And then think of all the people around you in the pure land. Especially, like I was talking yesterday at the church, I was saying how I incorporate the entire Trump administration and all the congress in my visualizations when we’re bowing. You do the same thing here. They’re all around you in the form of living beings born in Sukhāvatī.

Manafort, by the way, got indicted today and he turned himself in. He was one of Trump’s campaign managers. His assistant did the same. And there was a third man—I can’t remember his name—who admitted that, when questioned by the FBI some months ago, that he lied about having contact with a Russian professor who had close contact with the Kremlin. And he said it was nothing, and today he came clean. And I think he also….. It was a different case but he is also in trouble.

So, we imagine these people there. They’re in the pure land. But they’re all telling the truth, having a kind heart, practicing compassion. You don’t get indicted and arrested in the pure land because you didn’t do anything obnoxious to harm others.

It’s good. When people are in difficult situations, imagine them in a pure form. That way at least we keep our hearts open with them and we don’t reduce them just to some stereotype and then say, like with Manafort, “You laundered millions of dollars….” And tax things. His indictment didn’t mention Trump, but it was for these other things. But it was within the scope of the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Anyway, to keep all these people in our hearts and hope that they can do better in the future. Because who wants to see other people suffer? Having the thought of, “Well you created negative karma, and if you’re not getting punished this life just wait until you get reborn, then you’ll really get it.” Having that kind of thought on our part is not a very compassionate, likable, virtuous thought. Is it? It’s rejoicing at somebody else’s misery.

I got diverted there.

The first two were the aspiration to be reborn there, the second to visualize the pure land and Amitabha as much as possible.

  1. The third is to avoid negative actions and to practice virtuous ones. That’s clear. If you want to get reborn in the pure land you can’t just go on and create lots of negative karma and think Amitabha’s going to appear to you at the time you die and all’s going to be well. It doesn’t work like that. We still have to create the cause for that.

    Again, to do this on a virtuous basis: abandon negativity, create virtuous actions, do purification. That’s also so helpful psychologically to us as well.

  2. Then the fourth cause is to develop bodhicitta, which certainly makes a lot of sense. Doesn’t it? Yes, there are some sravaka arhats who are born there, but the Buddha’s nudging them there to develop bodhicitta. So when they do, then their lotuses open. But as much as we can create bodhicitta now then that much better off we’ll be in the future. And also, especially if you read the first chapter of Shantideva’s text “Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Deeds,” that speak of the benefits of bodhicitta, then you see there’s nothing better in life than to develop bodhicitta. So you put your heart into that. And then you see how bodhicitta transforms your own life as well as transforms all the actions you do.

Maybe that’s enough for today. We’ll continue in the next few days.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.