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Who Is Amitabha really?

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.

  • Confidence in Amitabha’s promise to support those who recite his name
  • Confidence in our own Buddha-nature
  • Doing the Amitabha practice

Talking some more about Amitabha. Yesterday I was saying that they talk about four principal causes for rebirth in Sukhavati: the aspiration to be born there, visualizing Amitabha buddha and his pure land, avoiding negative actions and creating positive actions, and practicing the general Mahayana teachings and generating bodhicitta. That all fits in with general practice. If someone sat here and said, “What do I need to do to practice the Dharma?” I’m going to tell them to study, especially the Mahayana teachings, do purification, and do practices to create merit. That’s always the foundation for everybody when they start practice. Actually, it never goes away, you continue to do that all the way to enlightenment. You never stop studying, you never stop purifying, and you never stop creating merit until you become a buddha. So if you’re doing any of those, and then not only studying but thinking about the teachings, meditating on them, then you’re doing what you need to be doing. You don’t need to be worried about it.

They also say that there are three kinds of accumulations to do in the Amitabha practice.

One is to have confidence in Sukhavati and in Amitabha’s promise to support and protect beings who recite his name. As well as confidence in our own buddha nature. And confidence that our buddha nature–or the emptiness of our mind–is the same as the emptiness of Amitabha’s mind.

This is something that needs some unpacking. To have confidence in Amitabha and his aspiration, that reciting his name will be good for us, will bring beneficial results. We have to understand this properly. It’s not just, there’s Amitabha sitting three clouds up and two over and we pray, “Please Amitabha take me to your pure land,” and then we go about our normal daily things, bugging everybody and creating negativity, and then thinking, “But Amitabha’s on my side and he’s going to save me.” No.

I think here, what it’s talking about, that that kind of faith and aspiration connected with Amitabha, it’s referring to having really deep refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Having refuge, trust, confidence, especially in the four noble truths. To have some good understanding of the four truths, how we create the cause for rebirth in samsara, how we create the cause to get out of samsara, and then especially, what His Holiness says, when we take refuge, the real refuge is true cessations supported by true paths.

It’s not just having faith and confidence in Amitabha as a person, but who is Amitabha really? Amitabha isn’t grandpa or grandma, or whoever it is. Amitabha is the manifestation of bodhicitta and wisdom. He’s the manifestation of the three higher trainings, the six perfections. It’s not having faith in a person who’s going to do something, but faith in these qualities. And people who have these qualities can definitely benefit us, so we have faith in the buddhas that already exist, and the bodhisattvas. But also to see that we have to have faith in our ability to develop these qualities in ourselves.

If we have the mentality that “I’m just little old me and I can’t do anything, and somehow everybody else has the buddha nature but I got left out when it was distributed….” If we have that kind of self-image then we’re creating so many obstacles in our own Dharma practice. And those obstacles aren’t coming from outside, they’re coming from our self-image.

To really have this connection with Amitabha, we have to have some understanding of our own potential, our own buddha nature. That our mind is naturally empty of inherent existence. And that emptiness of inherent existence is what allows us to change and to become a buddha. This emptiness of inherent existence of our minds is the same as the emptiness of inherent existence of Amitabha’s mind. There’s absolutely no difference in them. There’s a difference in the mind that is the basis of that emptiness. Amitabha’s mind is empty, but Amitabha’s mind is a buddha’s mind. The basis of the emptiness of our mind is a sentient being’s. So there’s a difference in the basis, but in the mode of existence they’re both empty.

A second thing, in terms of our buddha nature, is that the defilements are not an inherent part of our mind. They’re not inherently part of our conventional clear and cognizant mind. They’re not an inherent part of the ultimate nature of our mind, its emptiness. Have some feeling for that and some confidence in that, because then we have the feeling of, “Oh, I can eliminate the afflictions. The fundamental nature of my mind is pure. The afflictions are not embedded in the nature of the mind. There are antidotes that exist to the afflictions. I can practice those antidotes, develop them in my mind, develop that wisdom, eliminate the afflictions, and then my mind will be exactly like Amitabha’s mind in terms of our realizations. And then the empty nature of my mind will be the empty nature of a buddha just like the emptiness of Amitabha’s mind is the emptiness of the mind of a buddha.”

Cultivating this kind of understanding as a background to practicing Amitabha really makes your practice juicy, it makes your practice go forward. Whereas, if you have a very simplistic attitude or understanding of who Amitabha is, and who you are in relationship to Amitabha, then I think that you’re putting in obstacles.

For people who are not so interested in Buddhist practice, or for people in, like in ancient times, who were illiterate and didn’t have access to the texts in order to gain deeper kinds of wisdom, for them seeing Amitabha in this way is beneficial for them, and I’m not going to go around telling them, “You have it all wrong.” They have faith, they’re doing something beneficial, they’re trying to abandon negativity and create virtue, and that’s certainly admirable. As is their faith and devotion. But I’m explaining something else to you because I think you can manage this deeper way of looking at Amitabha.

When we talk about reciting Amitabha’s name, whether in Chinese you’re saying “Namo Amituofo” or whether you’re saying “Om amideva hrih” or “Om Amitabha hri soha,” whatever you’re saying, you’re saying Amitabha’s name, then you realize that saying that name is making you think about your own potential and making you think about the Buddha’s qualities and what the connection is between your buddha nature and the Buddha’s qualities. And that will lead you, when you go deeply into that reflection, into thinking about the determination to be free of samsara, bodhicitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and everything else. That deep thing of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name is like, “Well who is Amitabha?” That’s a very profound question.

You can also, when you’re reciting Amitabha’s name–the way the Zen folks recommend doing it, and I think this is quite good, too–is, “Who is reciting Amitabha’s name? Who?” That gets you into a whole other discussion, too.

The second accumulation is, again, aspirations, the determination to be born in Sukhavati, confidence in one’s pure mind, in order to be in the position to liberate yourself and to liberate others. Here we’re talking about bodhicitta. Why are we doing the Amitabha Buddha practice? If we’re just doing it because we’re afraid of being born in the lower realms, that’s a good motivation–to avoid rebirth in the lower realms and have a good rebirth–but here, to really get our mind in shape where we can benefit a lot if we’re born in the pure land, is to have the bodhicitta motivation, and want to free ourselves, not just so that we’ll be free, but so that we are in a position to be of more benefit to other living beings. So, expanding our motivation. His Holiness says, “Some people, they’re just trying to be born in the pure land to protect themselves.” And that’s good, we’re not saying we want anybody to suffer, certainly not. But to really be in sync with what Amitabha is doing, to have just profound respect and regard for bodhicitta and an aspiration to generate it, and taking some steps to at least slowly generate bodhicitta.

As His Holiness also says, bodhicitta is not difficult to understand, but it’s difficult to generate. It takes a long time, and we have to really…. Rooting out the self-centered mind is not quick, cheap, and easy. Having that perseverance to stick with it and do it.

Then the third was to practice. The first was having confidence, and having aspiration of the correct motivation. And the third is to actually do the practice. This often is described as just reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. It’s not just (distracted recitation) “Namo amitoufo, namo amitoufo” (looking around the room, getting distracted). It’s not that. The recitation of Amitabha’s name becomes your object for developing single-pointed concentration. Just the sound of the mantra, the sound of the recitation of “Amitabha,” that becomes your object of meditation. Or the visualized image of Amitabha. We’ve been studying about serenity. So instead of (maybe) Shakyamuni Buddha, then the visualized image of Amitabha in the space in front. Or, if you’re doing a self-generation practice, the visualization of yourself as Amitabha becomes your object of single-pointedness. Therefore, to use this meditation to develop single-pointedness, to develop bodhicitta, to develop wisdom. It’s not simply saying “namo Amitoufo” then drinking tea or watching television and waiting for Amitabha to make the plane reservation and take us to the pure land. It’s our mental transformation that takes us to the pure land.

I think that’s enough for this right now, and we should go into talking about the practice itself.

Audience: This is a question about using a mantra as an object of meditation. Can you develop serenity that way?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It seems so.

Audience: Would it be the mental….

VTC: It’s still an image in the mind. Because you’re reciting it in your mind. You can recite it out loud, too, but particularly it’s the mental recitation.

And also, when we do the chanting on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the way that it’s usually done in Chinese temples is you alternate sitting sessions with walking sessions, and the walking sessions you’re always just going in straight lines up and down. We kind of curve here and curve there. I get a little seasick sometimes there are so many curves. But usually it’s just up and back and up and back, because you do it with your seats as the rows, and then you go back and forth. That’s something to relax your body, relax your mind, be able to bring the recitation more into focus when you’re senses are operating. But then you sit down and then you start doing it really, really fast. “Amitoufo, amitoufo…..” You do it out loud really fast, as fast as you can, for a while. Not just a few minutes, but for a while, so that your mind has no opportunity to think any other thought, because you have to focus so intensely on getting the words “Amitabha” out of your mouth, because it’s going so fast. Then they’ll hit the wooden fish. You’re seated already by this time. And then it’s completely silent. And because you’ve just been focusing on the name and saying it for so long, and there’s been no other thought in your mind, when there’s silence then your mind is just like space. That’s very good for then meditating.

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.