A talk given at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Singapore.
- Amitabha and his pure land, Sukhavati
- The benefits of being born in Amitabha’s pure land
- The unshakable resolves of Amitabha to establish a pure land
- Understanding the pure land on two levels—ordinary and transcendental
- How the Amitabha practice was taught has changed through the centuries
- The three qualities of someone who wishes to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land
- Faith or confidence
- Eight causes to be born in a pure land from the Vimalakirti Sutra
Connecting with Amitabha Buddha (download)
The Amitabha practice is actually a practice of mindfulness of the Buddha. The Buddha taught various mindfulness practices and one of them is mindfulness of the Buddha; and Amitabha is a buddha so it’s one of those practices. Even in the Pali tradition, let alone the Sanskrit tradition, there’s the practice of the mindfulness of the Buddha. Of course, all the traditions, they don’t meditate on Amitabha, but the whole idea, of being mindful of Buddha and the Buddha’s qualities is very much in the Theravada tradition, the Pali tradition.
In the Amitabha practice, one element is the aspiration to take rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s pure land, which is called Sukhavati, the Land of Great Bliss. The word “pure” can have two meanings, one is that it is free of the dukkha, the unsatisfactory conditions of being born in our world, in samsara, and the second meaning of pure is being free from unfavorable rebirths where we lack the freedom to learn and practice the Dharma. So that involves aspiring to be born in the pure land of Amitabha.
According to the sutra, Sukhavati, the Land of Great Bliss, came into being due to the compassion and the unshakable resolve of Amitabha Buddha that he made when he was still a bodhisattva. Sometimes they translate the word as vows and I’m translating it as unshakable resolve because I think that’s a more accurate translation. You have a resolve, you have an intention, it’s unshakable, you’re determined to do this. Amitabha made certain vows, certain unshakable resolves as a bodhisattva that led to the ??(3:07) of Sukhavati.
Many eons ago he was a bodhisattva monk named Dharmakāra and he was contemplating how to benefit sentient beings when he became a buddha. And he thought, “Well, many pure lands already exist but only living beings who abandon nonvirtue and accumulate an enormous amount of merit and diligently practice the Dharma are able to be born in these pure lands. But the Bodhisattva Dharmakāra had great compassion for sentient beings and, concerned about the plight of sentient beings who didn’t have all that merit, whose minds were not so evolved, he’s wondering what will happen to them, [thinking] “What can I do to help them?”
That’s when he generated bodhicitta in the presence of Buddha Lokeśvararāja who then taught him the bodhisattva practice for a million years. And in the process of doing the bodhisattva practice he made a series of unshakable resolves. In the earlier version of the sutra there were 24 unshakable resolves and 48 in the later version.
His determination was so strong that at the end of each resolve that he made, he said that if he doesn’t fulfill this, may he not become a buddha. Among these unshakable resolves was the one to create a pure land for all the beings who have not yet abandoned nonvirtue and who lack a great accumulation of merit and who did not yet diligently practiced the Dharma. Then he practiced the bodhisattva practices for many eons, attain full awakening and established Sukhavati where ordinary living beings could be born.
Sukhavati is still considered to be within cyclic existence. However, once living beings are born there, they no longer take rebirth in cyclic existence. Some of the living beings have become arhats, sravaka arhats, they can be born in Sukhavati and while they’re there Amitabha Buddha nudges them and encourages them to generate bodhicitta and attain buddhahood.
Also, living beings who have the Mahayana or bodhisattva disposition are born there and [are] able to practice the Mahayana teachings. There’s a very long history of lineage teachers who have taught this practice and who will be reborn or have been reborn in Sukhavati, and one of them is Nagajuna. He’s a second century sage, Indian sage. I’ve had the great fortune of studying some of his texts and they’re just amazing because he teaches about the nature of reality in a very profound way: when you learn it, think about it, some understanding comes. Part of my aspiration to be born in Sukhavati is not only to receive teachings from Amitabha and Guanyin and so on, but I want to receive teachings from Nagarjuna. So if he’s there, I want to go there too.
If you haven’t had a chance to study any of Nagajuna’s teachings, one of the books outside, called Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness, is a commentary on his teaching, his text called The Precious Garland. You might be interested in reading it: then you get the feeling for what kind of master Nagarjuna is and then that again may increase your determination to be born in Sukhavati.
The principal buddha in Sukhavati of course is Amitabha and he’s flanked by two bodhisattvas. In the Chinese tradition, one is Guanyin or Avalokiteshwara and the other is, let me see if I can pronounce the name, Mahasthamaprapta. I have difficulty pronouncing that, but that’s the other bodhisattva. In the Tibetan tradition, somehow Mahasthamaprapta became Vajrapani and they say that Vajrapani is the second bodhisattva on either side of Amitabha.
The benefits of being born there—there are many of them, and they occur because of what the pure land is. Ostensibly, on a superficial level, the pure land Sukhavati is a very beautiful place, the ground is level, no thorns, no broken glass, no bubblegum wrappers. The beings there have minds that are dedicated to the Dharma, even the birds in the trees, when they chirp, they are teaching the Dharma. Whatever you see or hear, or come in contact with, becomes a teaching for you in your practice.
Now of course they say if we’re very astute disciples, even in this rebirth here, in our saha world, our afflictive world, if we’re a very astute disciple, we can see everything that we come in contact with as Dharma teaching as well. But in Sukhavati it’s easier to do that. You don’t have to pay taxes in Sukhavati, you don’t have to go to work, you don’t have a boss that you dislike. So there’s many conducive factors for practicing the Dharma there.
But you have to really want to practice the Dharma to be born there because if you don’t have that aspiration to practice the Dharma and to become a buddha, then what’s the use of being born in Sukhavati where everything around you is encouraging you to practice the Dharma? So if you don’t have that interest, if you don’t have that aspiration, then it doesn’t make much sense for you to be reborn there. So you have to really want to practice the Dharma to be born there.
Also more advantages to being born there is [that] we’re near Amittabha, we’re near Nagarjuna, the people around us are practicing the Dharma, so it’s very easy to create merit, it’s easy to purify our minds, it’s easy to hear the teachings, it’s easy to meditate. You don’t have a body that has aching knees and aching back when you meditate. So things are easier in that way.
In terms of what a pure land is and how it was established, there is, of the 48 vows or 48 unshakable resolves that Amitabha made, the 18th, 19th and 20th really talked a lot about establishing the pure land, so I will read those to you because that gives us some confidence that this was really Amitabha Buddha’s intention.
18th Unshakable Resolve
He said, “When I become a buddha, if the beings of the ten directions, who after having heard my name and thus awakened their highest faith and aspiration for rebirth in my land, even if they have recollected such a thought for ten times only, they will surely be born here, with the exception of those who’ve committed the five heinous actions and those who have slandered the true Dharma. Otherwise, may I not attain awakening.”
Now, even though in this 18th vow it says that beings just need to recollect Amitabha Buddha with that thought for ten times and then they’ll be born in Sukhavati. I don’t think it means that we just go, “Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo. Ok, done, I’ll born in Sukhavati. Now I can go to the pub.”
Don’t take this kind of thing literally because we have to create a lot of other virtues that go along with this. And it’s not just saying “Namo Amituofo” ten times with a distracted mind, it involves having some concentration, some understanding of who Amitabha is, of how the mind works, and how pure land is created. So there’s a lot of process that is involved. Don’t think it’s quick, cheap and easy.
I have a feeling that in ancient times when the vast majority of people were illiterate and they were farmers, then the lineage teachers kind of simplified the practice of Amitabha to suit those people because they weren’t well educated and didn’t know the Dharma very well. But I think nowadays you people are all educated, you’re intelligent, so I think we now have a calling to really understand the Dharma much deeper, not just say, “Namo Amituofo” ten times like a tape recorder.
19th Unshakable Resolve
Then the 19th unshakable resolve was, “When I become a buddha, if the beings of ten directions who have directed their thoughts towards bodhi,” that means towards full awakening, towards buddhahood, “and cultivated their stock of various merits with fervent aspiration for rebirth in my land, if at the moment of death I should not appear with an assembly of retinue before them, may I not attain awakening.”
Here, his aspiration, his unshakable resolve is towards another kind of disciple. The first one was a very simple disciple. This one is somebody who aspires for full buddhahood, who wants to be most effective in benefiting living beings and especially leading them out of samsara, so they have that bodhicitta mind, that bodhi aspiration, and they’ve cultivated a vast collection of merit with very strong intention to be reborn in Sukhavati. So here, Amitabha Buddha, his unshakable resolve is for those beings.
I think we fit that description a little better. Or if we don’t, we better upgrade and become like that kind of disciple.
20th Unshakable Resolve
In the 20th unshakable resolve, he says, “When I become a buddha, if the beings of the ten directions, after having heard my name, always longing for that land of mine and cultivating various essential merits for the purpose of realizing their earnest wish to be born in my land, should this not be fulfilled, then may I not attain awakening.”
So we may be this kind of disciple too. We know the qualities of Amitabha’s pure land, we long to be born there and we’ve created some of the essential merit to be born there.
I just want to go back to the previous one where it said [about] that disciple who has bodhicitta at death time—Amitabha and his retinue will appear to them. Again, I don’t think we should take it as Amitabha is some external being like God or Brahma or some external being who is going to save us because all the Buddhist philosophy resolves around the idea that things are empty of independent existence, that things are related to our mind, that they exist by being merely designated by the mind.
I don’t think it means that you’re lying there on your deathbed and then Amitabha knocks on the door and says, “Can I come in?” then picks you up and carries you off to Sukhavati. I don’t think it’s like that. I think it has to do with, because of the depth of our Dharma practice, our understanding of the buddha’s qualities, our diligent practice to try and generate the buddha’s qualities in our own mind, that because of that, then the Amitabha that exists by being merely designated by mind, we are attracted to that Amitabha that is empty of inherent existence, that exists dependently.
I think it’s our spiritual realization—that seeing Amitabha doesn’t mean with our eyes, it means in our heart. In the depth of our mind, our mind is in accord with Amitabha Buddha’s mind. And I think that’s really what it means to see the Buddha. Not just with our eyes.
I remember one time I went to Putuoshan and there’s one cave around the back side of the island where they say Guanyin appears to people. We went to that cave. There were a few other people there before us and they were looking at the place where it said that Guanyin appears. Of course I didn’t see Guanyin, I looked and it just looked like stones, I didn’t see but these people, they were ordinary people, they said, “Oh, there’s Guanyin.” And they made vows to Guanyin, they made offerings to Guanyin, and then they said, “Maybe Guanyin’s tired, we better leave her alone now,” and then they left. That was their level of seeing Guanyin.
When I was there, I really tried to contemplate, what is Guanyin’s mind like? What would it be like to have the compassion that she has so that any living being, no matter how they treated me, what they said about me, my mind will spontaneously react with compassion for that sentient being. Not with anger but with compassion. So that’s what I thought about when I was at that cave because I was trying to make my mind closer to Guanyin’s mind in that way, even though I didn’t see anything with my eyes.
Pure land: transcendental and ordinary
Actually, the pure land can be understood on two levels. The transcendental level and the ordinary level. And whichever way we see the pure land depends on the dispositions, the intelligence, the faculties of the specific disciples. People who recite Amitabha Buddha’s name and practice on an ordinary level, just saying “Namo Amituofo”, they see the pure land as an external place, they don’t understand that it’s created by mind, that it’s related to the mind, that it is empty of independent existence, those people relate to Amitabha like a child relates to their mother or father, calling out for their mother or father’s compassion and protection. Those people relate to Amitabha as an external being, in a very simple way, like Amitabha is mom and dad who will come and protect them. That is a disciple of very modest faculties.
The disciples who have higher faculties, they practice on a transcendental level of the inner truth and they see Amitabha and the pure land as innate features of their own pure mind. They see that a pure mind creates a pure environment. A pure mind creates pure companions, pure resources. They know that the pure land is created by their mind which has spiritual realizations. They use the Buddha’s name to remind them of the fundamental nature of their own mind—the empty nature of their own mind—because these disciples are looking for deeper truths.
When they chant “Namo Amituofo”, in their mind they’re asking, “Who is Amitabha Buddha? How does Amitabha Buddha exist? Who is chanting the name of the Buddha? How does the person, me, who’s chanting the name exist?” So they’re looking at the deeper mode of existence, the empty nature of persons and phenomena and they are doing so with a motivation of compassion. For them, seeing the pure land and seeing Amitabha is very different then for the people who practice in ordinary way and seeing Amitabha as a kind of external being.
One of the lineage teachers, Chu-hung in the Chinese tradition—I’m going to read you something that he said. He said, “Mind is basically unborn,” meaning that the mind is not born independent of other factors, it’s born dependent on other factors. He says, “The mind is born when causal conditions come together. Mind basically does not die. It dies when the causal conditions disperse.” So that doesn’t mean the mind ceases, it means when the causes for our life cease, then our body and mind separate. The body has its continuity, the mind of this life ceases but the continuity of life goes on.
So he says, “If you can understand this, you will be at peace through birth and death, ever still, ever aware. If you cannot yet understand this then you must wholly abandon your personal existence and continuously recite the phrase ‘Amitabha Buddha’ and seek birth in the pure land.” So if you aren’t a transcendental type of disciple, then practice in the ordinary way.
He continues, “All sentient beings have the same buddha nature. One who is enlightened about the buddha nature is called the Buddha. When one recites the Buddha’s name, Buddha Amitabha is one’s own self nature.” So in other words, the fundamental, ultimate nature we find to Amitabha Buddha is the same as our ultimate nature. Both are empty of true existence.
He continues, “The pure land is the pure land of our own mind. A pure mind creates a pure environment. Anyone who can single-pointedly recite the Buddha’s name in thought after thought and concentrate deeper and deeper, will always find Amitabha Buddha appearing in his or her own mind.” Amitabha’s not an external person. But if we practice well and we remember Amitabha and Amitabha’s qualities, his wisdom, his compassion, single-pointedly, and recite the name single-pointedly, then we find Amitabha and the pure land in our own mind.
It’s not, you can see here, reciting “Namo Amituofo” with a distracted mind. Single-pointed mind is quite difficult actually. When you did the breathing meditation at the beginning, how many people here didn’t get distracted from watching the breath? My guess is almost everybody got distracted at one point or another, is that true or not true? We started thinking about our home or what we’re going to do afterwards or we heard a sound and we’ll be thinking about that. Single-pointed concentration is a quality of mind that we really have to spend some time developing.
He continues, “Therefore if the mind is pure, the land is pure. If the mind is defiled, the land is defiled. If a negative thought comes to mind, many obstacles appear. If a good thought arises, peace is everywhere. Heaven and hell are all in one’s own mind.” That’s what Chu-hung said. So that means that we have to start practicing now to free our mind of defilement and make our mind pure.
That means when we get angry, we can’t just say, “Oh this person did this to me and they did this to me, I’m so mad at them,” and complain because if we have a defiled mind that is like that, then we see many people harming us and we have many enemies. If instead, if somebody says or does something we don’t like, if we think, “That’s a suffering sentient being who wants happiness and is very confused about how to create the causes of happiness.” And we look at that sentient being with compassionate eyes and know they have the buddha nature, know they have the potential to become fully awakened. Then, thinking in that way purifies our own mind and creates a pure land for us.
So some of you may have heard me say this before, but what I often do when I get upset with somebody, for example Donald Trump, is I imagine those people all around me and when I bow to the Buddha and chant the Buddha’s name, I think they’re all bowing together with me. So there’s Donald Trump bowing to the Buddha, I don’t know what’s going to happen to his hair when he does it, but it helps my mind to remember that he is a suffering sentient being who has buddha nature. There is goodness in him, even though I think he is harming the country. We have to try and shift our mind to a more positive outlook.
So this self-nature, this empty nature of our mind, the fact that the mind lacks any independent existence but exist due to causes and conditions, it has parts, it exist by being merely designated by mind, this is the fundamental nature of our mind and of Amitabha Buddha’s mind. And that fundamental nature is unpolluted. So lying beneath the clouds of all of our afflictions is this pure nature.
And in the Chan tradition, that’s what they mean by the original mind, that pure nature. It is sometimes described as like the sky, the open nature of the sky but that sometimes gets covered by the clouds or sometimes it’s described as like a pearl that is very shiny but it’s in the mud. So the shininess hasn’t gone away, it’s just covered. The open nature of the sky hasn’t gone away, it’s just obscured by the clouds. And so too is this pure nature of our mind.
There’s another Chinese master named Han-shan and he spoke about this. He said, “One who can practice the Buddha recitation and then observe where his Buddha comes from and where his Buddha goes, will, over a period of time, come to understand what Buddhahood is.” So where your Buddha comes from, where your Buddha goes. In Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way, chapter two, he talks about coming and going and how when you try and figure out what coming and going are, find some inherent coming and going, you can’t find it. That’s what he’s talking about here.
If you understand it, you’ll “come to understand what Buddhahood is. This will open your mind, allowing bright wisdom to flow forth from the fundamental nature of your mind … but sincere practice and hard work are necessary…if you can really separate yourself from defilement or, as the sutras say, if the mind is pure and bright and you have arrived at the stage where no obstacles of adventitious or temporary afflictions are in your way, not only will Amitabha Buddha come to lead you to the Pure Land, but all Buddhas throughout the ten directions will praise you.”
So here these are the instructions from the lineage teachers on how to meditate on Amitabha and how to think of the pure land. They are very very precious instructions. I’m just giving you the tip of the iceberg here. There’s actually, because we only have an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters together, but there’s a lot more for you to learn and study and contemplate. And I’m hoping that what we go through here will help you to do that.
[Let’s] talk a little more about what this term “nien-fo.” There was at one time this master named T’an-luan—he lived in the late fifth, early sixth century and he advocated this practice of “nien-fo” which means mindfulness or recollection of the Buddha and in this case he was referring to Amitabha Buddha. In his early writings, “nien-fo” refers to the meditation done with the mental consciousness.
In other words, his initial writings were [about] how you meditate on Amitabha Buddha just with your mental consciousness, with your mind, how you recollect the qualities of Amitabha Buddha, how you practice the methods that the Buddha taught for generating those same qualities in your own mind. However, over the centuries as time went on, “nien-fo” came to refer to the verbal recitations of Amitabha’s name. So we can see here that the initial meaning was meditation with the mental consciousness, it wasn’t just reciting the name.
Here in “nien-fo”, “nien” has three meanings. The first meaning is meditation or concentration, in this case meditation and concentration on Amitabha Buddha. That means developing shamatha, samadhi, one-pointedness of mind on Amitabha Buddha, so that our mind can stay fixed on him. “Nien” refers to meditation and concentration on Amitabha. It can also refer to the time of one thought. And the third meaning is it refers to the verbal recitation where “shih-nien” is seen as ten recitations or ten moments. You can see that how the practice was taught changed over the centuries.
But nowadays many pure land masters emphasize to their students that the mental meditation is more important than the verbal recitation. The verbal recitation helps you go into the mental meditation. For those of you who have done the Amitabha practice in the Chinese tradition, how you start out chanting “Namo Amituofo” very slowly then you get quicker so you, instead of saying “Namo Amituofo” you say just “Amituofo”. And then you speed up even more, “Amituofo, Amituofo, Amituofo, Amituofo” so that you have to focus so strongly to keep up with saying “Amituofo” that quickly.
If you practice like that, it makes you concentrate so much on “Amituofo”. “Amituofo” means infinite light, so you’re calling out, “Infinite Light, Infinite Light, Infinite Light,” saying it very very quickly and with the wooden fish going, there’s no space in your mind for any other thought when you do it that quickly. And then at the very end, they hit the bell and it’s complete silence, you stop chanting and because you’ve been concentrating so much on keeping up the verbal chanting of “Amituofo”, when you stop chanting, your mind is completely quiet. And with that quiet mind then you start meditating on Amitabha Buddha and develop concentration on the figure of Amitabha Buddha, on the qualities of Amitabha Buddha.
So that’s how you bring the verbal recitation together with the mental meditation. So don’t just recite the name. At the end of it when it hits the bell, sit and let your mind be completely empty of all the chatter you usually have and instead direct your mind to Amitabha Buddha. That becomes very profound.
So I want to explain, before I continue, that the practice of Amitabha is found in both Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. The way Amitabha is depicted in the drawings, he looks a little bit different. In the Chinese drawings he’s standing up and he’s gold in color. In Tibetan drawings he’s sitting down and he’s the color of red ruby.
It doesn’t really matter what color Amitabha is. It doesn’t really matter whether he’s sitting or standing, we have to tune in to his compassion, to his wisdom because the physical form of Amitabha is an expression, it’s an embodiment of the mental qualities that we cannot see with our eyes. If you said, “Great compassion”, we can’t tune in to the Buddha’s great compassion, great wisdom, our minds are too obscured. So the buddhas appear in a physical form that embodies the qualities that they have, that they want us to contemplate.
Qualities of someone who wants to be reborn in Sukhavati
Now, when they talk about the qualities of somebody who wishes to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land, they usually talk about three qualities. First one is faith, the second one is commitment or unshakable resolve and the third one is practice.
- Here faith doesn’t mean blind faith. It isn’t, “Oh yeah, I believe in Amitabha because Buddha said so.” No. Here there’s different kinds of faith. One is faith in yourself, faith in others, faith in causes, faith in effects, faith in phenomena and faith in inner truth. So there’s all these different kinds of faith or confidence. The word “faith” is not a good English translation of the Sanskrit word. It means much more confidence, trust.
Faith in ourselves is believing in the nature of our mind, that our mind creates the world and is the source of our experience. Having that kind of confidence requires learning and thinking about and meditating on the Dharma. Faith in others means believing that the Buddha did not lie, that the path that the Buddha taught is reliable, we can trust it. And that kind of faith ceases our doubt and helps us to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and it helps us to believe in the law of karma and its effects, which is very important for us to believe in.
Believing in the cause is having confidence that reciting the Buddha’s name with a distracted mind plants a seed of awakening in our mind. In other words it’s good, it helps you. And that reciting the Buddha’s name single-pointedly without confusion is the actual path to rebirth. So it’s talking about faith and how you create causes for that good rebirth.
Faith in the effect is believing that all the pure lands and holy beings in it have all arisen from this body of recollecting the Buddha. They aren’t external beings—they arose from their own realizations.
Believing in phenomena means believing that Sukhavati actually exists, that it’s not a fairytale. And believing in inner truth means being confident that the billions of pure lands are not outside of our own mind, that all the pure lands, all the buddhas exist in relationship to our mind. That they are reflections appearing in our mind.
Another of the Chinese lineage teachers, Ou-i, said, “Our own true mind” in other words our own fundamental nature of mind, “is all-pervasive and the Buddha mind is also all pervasive, and the true nature of the minds of sentient beings is also all pervasive. It is like a thousand lamps in one room, each of whose lights shines on all the others and merges with the other lights without any obstruction.”
So it’s referring to this empty nature of our mind, even us ordinary beings, the fundamental nature of our mind is empty. The fundamental nature of all living beings’ mind is empty. Fundamental nature of the Buddha’s mind is empty. So in that respect we’re all alike, with that beautiful image of the thousand lamps shining on each other. So it’s that fundamental nature, that buddha nature, that enables us to develop all the causes and conditions, so that we would actually become a buddha. That’s the first quality of someone who wants to be reborn in Sukhavati, the first quality of faith and confidence.
- The second quality is commitment or unshakable resolve. This arises from renouncing the mundane world and making strong determination to be reborn in Sukhavati. Here we’re wholeheartedly renouncing defilements and seeking purity. Now here is a question to ask ourselves. We say we want to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land: are we really willing to renounce defilements? Are we really willing to renounce our samsaric world? Or are we still attached to pleasures of samsara? Are we still attached to money? To praise? To reputation? To family? To friends? To pleasant things to see? To pleasant things to hear or smell or taste or touch?
To what extent are we still captive by our sense consciousnesses and distracted to external objects, mistakenly thinking that these things will bring us ultimate peace? Because if we’re still attached to all those things, that we don’t really want to be free of samsara. And if we don’t really want to be free of samsara, then we don’t really want to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure land either.
It’s like I said at the beginning, if you’re not interested in practicing the Dharma, being born in Sukhavati is going to make you miserable because everything there is to get you to practice the Dharma. And if you’re not interested, you’re going to go, “Why am I here in Sukhavati? I want my smartphone. I want to checkup on Facebook and see what my friends are doing. I don’t want to listen to Nagarjuna’s teachings, Amitabha’s teachings, I want to look on Facebook. I want to go shopping on Facebook. I want to prepare for Chinese New Year and cook mountains of food.” If that’s what you want to do, Sukhavati’s going to be very boring for you.
In fact, they say that there’s nine levels of lotuses. When we get born in Sukhavati, we get born in a lotus. So if you’re not so interested in the Dharma, your lotus takes a really long time to open. If you’re very interested in the Dharma and you really want to practice, the idea of becoming a buddha is really like, makes you excited, then your lotus is going to open much more quickly. So think about it, do you want to be stuck in some lotus for a long time? Just you and your handphone inside of a lotus? I don’t think so. Better to renounce cyclic existence. Better to have the aspiration for awakening.
The Flower Ornament Sutra, this is the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the Mahayana sutra, then in it, it talks about this thing of having commitment or unshakable resolve to be reborn in. So in the sutra it says, “(Being reborn in) a Buddha land is a great affair.” So it’s not a trivial thing. “It cannot be achieved through the merit of isolated practice. It requires the power of unshakable resolves as an aid:” so we have to have a strong intention to be reborn there. We have to have a sincere wish to practice the Dharma. We need some bodhicitta. So it requires the power of unshakable resolves as an aid, “only then can you attain rebirth in the Buddha land and see the Buddha.”
That sutra also says, “When a person is at the brink of death, in her last moment, all her faculties disintegrate” so we can no longer see or taste, touch and so on. “and she is bereft of all relatives.” So all your relatives stay behind. “All her powers are lost and none of her possessions remain with her.” So we’re about to die, our body doesn’t come with, our possessions doesn’t come with and our friends and relatives don’t come with. “The only thing that she does not relinquish is the power of her unshakable resolves.” At the time we’re dying, all these physical things abandon us. But the power of our unshakable resolve to attain buddhahood, that remains with us, “at all time they lead us forward. In an instant, we attain birth in the Land of Great Bliss.”
So to make these kinds of unshakable resolves, we need a certain purity of our motivation. Our mind has to think beyond our own self-concern. Our mind has to think about the welfare of all living beings. In other words when you go to the temple, you don’t just pray, “May I win the lottery. May my son and daughter marry nice people. May I buy a new flat next year. May I have good health.”
If that’s what you go to to pray for at the temple, you don’t have the unshakable resolve that is necessary to be born in the pure land because you’re still very much attached to these worldly things that are actually going to desert you when you die.
- So faith, commitment or unshakable resolve is the third quality of someone who wants to be reborn in Sukhavati is practice. That entails continually reciting Amitabha’s name single-pointedly and without confusion. So single-pointedly means that we don’t get distracted. In other words we’re not going, “Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo,” but inside we’re thinking, “Oh I’ve been waiting so long for this bus to come, how come it hasn’t come yet? I’m carrying my durians and I want to get home and eat them. Oh, but I can’t go on the bus, they don’t allow people with durians to go on the bus. They should allow that. Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo.”
You can’t be thinking like that. And you can’t be thinking, “Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo. My sister criticized me ten years ago, I’m so mad at her for what she said. Namo Amituofo. Namo Amituofo. I want to get even with my sister and take my revenge because she hurt my feelings. Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo.” You think that’s going to get you to the pure land? Forget it.
We have to one-pointedly be focused on either reciting “Namo Amituofo” or on recollecting Amituofo and his qualities. And we have to do this without confusion. So we have to have some understanding about who Amitabha is. Amitabha, he’s the reflection of your own virtuous mind. So don’t sit there on your deathbed and go, “Ok, Amitabha look, I chanted Amituofo a lot. Where are you? You need to show up. How come you’re late Amitabha, I’m dying and I need you to show up and take me to pure land. And when you take me there, please, I want a comfortable ride in a Mercedes, ok, I don’t want to ride on a bus, I don’t want to ride the MRT because the MRT may break down and we never get to the pure land. Amituofo, I said Namo Amituofo, I made offerings, come on, you better pay up.” That’s not the way. So, sincere aspiration.
The third quality is practice That’s what I was talking about here, single-pointedly thinking about Amitabha’s qualities, reciting his name. Reciting the name, thinking of Amitabha with very pure faith and devotion. And especially faith in the wisdom realizing emptiness, faith in great compassion, devotion to the six perfections, generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability, wisdom. With practice of the six bodhisattva perfections.
In addition to these three essential causes, we need to bow to Amituofo, making offerings to the Buddha, read the Mahayana sutras, study the commentaries of the great sages. We need to refrain from destructive actions. In other words you can’t say, “Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo,” and then go do a shady business deal in which you cheat somebody. That’s not going to work. You can’t say “ Namo Amituofo, Namo Amituofo,” and then gossip about all your neighbors and criticise them behind their back. We have to have pure ethical conduct. Otherwise, maybe Amituofo tries to get us into the pure land, but the immigration officials stamp “Rejected”. So we have to have ethical conduct.
The Vimalakirti Sutra also talks about the causes to be reborn in the pure land and it lists eight causes. Let me read those to you. Here is how you must resolve, how you must commit yourself to thinking.
First, I must benefit all living beings without seeking even the slightest benefit for myself.
Second, I must bear all miseries of all sentient beings and give them all my accumulated roots of virtue to all living being.
Third, I must have no resentment towards any sentient being.
Fourth, I must rejoice in all bodhisattvas as if they were the teacher, the Buddha.
Fifth, I must not neglect any teachings, whether or not I’ve heard them before.
Sixth, I must control my mind without coveting the gains of others and without taking pride in my own gains.
Seventh, I must examine my own faults and not blame others for their faults.
Eighth, I must take pleasure in being consciously aware and must truly undertake all virtues
Those are hard practices, aren’t they? But, just the fact of our reading those and thinking about those, and even if we can’t practice exactly like that now, to have the aspiration, “I want to be that kind of practitioner. I want to develop the mind that has no resentment towards any living being. I want to develop the mind that cherishes others more than myself.” So this is the practice, what they call planting seeds in our own mind.
In the sutras they alway give us the ideal, “This is how bodhisattvas practice in the pure land.” We are not at that level yet but we don’t just say, “Oh forget it, I’m not going to even try to get there.” No. We read their aspirations, we contemplate them, we try and create the causes for generating them in our own mind and in that way we’re planting the seed, many seeds in our mindstream to one day be the great bodhisattvas.
This process of studying, of contemplating, planting the seeds in our mind is very very important. If we just say, “it’s too hard so forget it,” then we’re never going to get there. And it’s very beautiful when you really read these sutras and you read the unshakable resolves of the bodhisattvas, it’s so inspiring because you think, “Wow, I have the potential to become like that. I don’t have to be little old limited me forever. I have the potential. I can become a great bodhisattva. I can become Amitabha Buddha.”
And when we really think like that, our mind is so joyful, so blissful, even if we aren’t yet liberated from samsara, our mind is happy. We need to recite these things, contemplate these things, plant the seeds in our mind and let our mind have these very noble aspirations. Even aspiring to aspire that way is very worthwhile.
Questions and answers
With that, I think I’ve talked quite a bit already. We can have some questions and answers. Questions maybe, I don’t know about the answers. So if you like to write things down, we have some already, but you can write them down.
Audience: There are two parts here. First is, this person says, “I’ve heard of descriptions where the last thought before death is very important, if they are negative thoughts the person will likely fall to either hell, hungry ghost or the animal realm, therefore we must focus on positive thoughts and recite Amitabha’s name.” They want to hear your thoughts and views.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Oh my thought on that? Yes, they say that the last thought we have influences which karmic seed on our mindstream will ripen at the time of death. There are two things going on here. We have to create a lot of virtuous karma so we have a lot of seeds of virtuous karma on our mindstream. And by the fact of creating a lot of virtuous karma, we’re developing the habit of having positive thoughts.
And since we’re very much creatures of habit, if we spend our life cultivating wholesome thoughts, then there’s a good chance or better chance at the time of death that we will have a virtuous thought. And that virtuous thought will propel or project our mindstream towards a good rebirth. So that’s why they say when a person is dying, keep the room very calm, do some chanting, remind them, read a sutra, read a commentary, remind that person of their spiritual mentor. Say things that help them rejoice in their own virtue because that aids a dying person having a virtuous thought and that helps them have a good rebirth.
Audience: And the second view is, once we accept Amitabha, have faith aspiring to be born in the western pure land and recite Amitabha’s name, we are guaranteed a place there regardless of what happens during the time of death, it doesn’t matter.
VTC: I’m not so sure. If you die with an angry mind, if you’re really really angry when you die or if you’re really greedy and attached when you die, when you die you’re thinking, “Who’s going to get my money when I die? Who’s going to get my belongings? Who’s going to get my money? And you die with that thought, I think you’re creating some difficulties for Amitabha.
Audience: The next question. Dear Venerable, I attended 48 vows course by a free-lance Buddhist teacher who specializes in Amitabha teachings. He shared testimonials about Amitabha literally appearing before dying folks who have been sincere Amitabha or pure land practitioners. He’s a well-known teacher who used to work in an established monastery and runs a pure land practitioner group. I’ve been wondering, “How can I be sure that particular teacher is someone whom I know is a right teacher?”
VTC: So how can we check, how can we verify for ourselves that somebody is a good teacher. In these sutras, and in the commentaries, the Buddha spoke about the qualities of a good Mahayana teacher. For example somebody who has good ethical conduct, who has some meditative experience, who has some wisdom. In other words, the three higher trainings: ethical conduct, concentration, wisdom.
Somebody who knows the sutras well. Somebody who is very compassionate, because sometimes as disciples we don’t act so well and we want to have a teacher who’s going to forgive us not a teacher who’s going to get mad and say, “Get out of here.” We want a teacher who can really explain the teachings well from many viewpoints, not just somebody who knows one practice and explains it in a simple way.
We have to spend time getting to know a teacher, checking out their qualities, observing them. And then in that way we can see that they are a good master. We can also check with what other well-respected masters say and most of all we should see if what this person teaches coincides with what the Buddha taught. If this person is teaching something that the Buddha didn’t teach, if they’re distorting teachings, then you want to stay clear.
Audience: How do we know that the Amitabha Sutra is reliable? How can we verify the truth of that sutra?
VTC: Yeah. This is difficult because there’s no Singapore authority that put a chop on it, “This book is reliable”. But I’ll just share my personal feelings on that because I’ve studied something, I know something at least intellectually about the nature of the mind, about emptiness. So when I read the Amitabha Sutra and I hear it talk about the pure land being a reflection of our virtuous mind, that makes sense to me, that a pure mind creates a pure land, that a pure mind becomes a bodhisattva and then becomes a buddha. So that makes a lot of sense to me.
When I look at the qualities of Amitabha Buddha as they’re described with the six bodhisattva perfections, Amitabha’s great compassion and great love, all these amazing qualities, I can’t find anything wrong with those qualities. And I can also see that the Buddha taught, in his teachings, how we ourselves can develop those qualities. So I feel that it’s not just blind faith, “Oh, Amitabha has great compassion”, but Buddha taught how we can develop great compassion and when I practice those meditations, even though I don’t have great compassion, I can see slowly, slowly, my compassion is increasing. So that gives me faith in the Buddha’s teachings and this sutra was one of his teachings.
Audience: With respect to Amitabha’s 35th vow on gender specific aspiration, why do you think there’s a distinction between a female and male body?
VTC: So one of Amitabha’s unshakable resolve is that women, if they aspire can, are not born as women in Amitabha’s pure land. So it seems to me if you don’t have women in Amitabha’s pure land, you also don’t have men. Because you only have men if you have women and you only have women if you have men. So why did Amitabha say that about women?
I think this has to do with societal factors in ancient society. And in ancient society, in many parts of the world, women were basically the property of the men. In ancient Indian society, first they were under the control of their fathers, then their husbands, then their sons. So women didn’t have a lot of freedom.
In ancient times, they didn’t have birth control methods, so a woman didn’t always have control over her own body. When it came time to delivering a baby, they didn’t have the wonderful medical care in ancient India that they have now and many women wound up dying in childbirth.
In ancient times, women were not treated equally, they often were denied an education and they were sexually harassed, even more than they are harassed nowadays. So I think it’s because of that, that the Buddha said that. I don’t think it has anything to do with women’s intelligence because women are just as intelligent as men, they are just as capable as men, so I think it has to do with that societal factor.
Audience: For a loved one whom I think who will grasp or have strong attachment and sadness to leave me at the time of death, is it skillful to say to her that she can go to Amitabha’s pure land so we can meet again there? She doesn’t understands the Dharma, burns paper and uses joss sticks to make offering.
VTC: Somebody who’s very attached to you, who doesn’t want to be separate from you, and that person’s dying. So is it skillful to say, “go to Amitabha’s pure land and I’ll see there in a future life.” I think it’s ok to say that to that person, in the sense that, while we don’t know how accurate it is, it plants in that person’s mind the seed of aspiring for a good rebirth. So you don’t just tell that person, “We’ll meet again in Sukhavati,” you say, “Rejoice at all the virtue that you did in your life. Remember all the generosity. Remember all the kindness you’ve showed others. Remember the good deeds that you did and rejoice at them and then aspire to be reborn in Sukhavati, and I’ll do the same thing and then maybe we can meet again.”
Audience: Why is Amitabha’s pure land said to be the here and now and then also a place to go after death?
VTC: Why is it said to be here and now and also a place to go? That has to do with those two levels of practicing, whether you’re practicing on an ordinary level or practicing on a transcendental level. If you practice on the ordinary level, you think of Amitabha’s pure land as somewhere outside that you’re going to in your next life. If you practice on a transcendental level, you think of Amitabha’s pure land being here and now, created by your own virtuous mind.
Audience: Does being reborn in the pure land means exiting the cycle birth and death?
VTC: It means that you will never be reborn in samsara again and while by being born in the pure land you will attain awakening. It doesn’t mean instantly. You still have to create the causes and conditions to become a fully awakened buddha, but you will never again be born in a lower realms or as a human being or as a worldly god.
Audience: Does it matter whether we dedicate to go to a specific pure land or at our level should we focus on cultivating the other causes to go to pure land, such as renouncing the defilements?
VTC: I think let’s create all the causes. If we just pray to be reborn in the pure land and nothing else, we don’t have any merit to dedicate for that. So we dedicate it’s like writing a check but you don’t have any money in your bank account. So we have to create merit and dedicate that merit for rebirth in the pure land.
Audience: Does chanting the name of Amitabha expedite our meeting with Buddha Amitabha? If yes does it mean it will expedite our death?
VTC: No, it won’t expedite your death. Like I said before the talk, if you chant the name, familiarize yourself with the qualities of Amitabha, it helps your mind even here and now become happier, stabler, you generate some renunciation of samsara so you don’t have so many relationship problems and so on.
So, we’re going to close now. We have a chant that we do at Sravasti Abbey to dedicate the merit and then I’m going to read you some dedication verses from the King of Prayers which is the extraordinary aspiration of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and it that prayer it has verses of dedication to be reborn in Sukhavati. First we’ll do the usual Abbey dedication.
First of all, just rejoice at the merit you created being here tonight and rejoice at the merit everybody created and rejoice at the merit that all the people who practiced the Dharma, whether they do the pure land practices or some other practices, all of the merit that living beings create in the past, present and future. Think of all the merits the bodhisattvas create, the arhats and just piles of clouds, oceans of merit, skies of merit and rejoice in all of that and then we’ll dedicate.
Due to this merit may we soon
Attain the awakened state of Guru Buddha,
That we may be able to liberate
All sentient beings from their sufferings.
May the precious bodhi mind
Not yet born arise and grow.
May that born have no decline,
But increase forever more.
Then the verses from the Avatamsaka Sutra.
When the moment of my death arrives,
By eliminating all obscurations
And directly perceiving Amitabha,
May I go immediately to Sukhavati, Pure Land of Great Joy.
Having gone to Sukhavati,
May I actualize the meaning of these aspirations,
Fulfilling them all without exception,
For the benefit of beings for as long as this world endures.
Born from an extremely beautiful, superlative lotus
In the blissful land, the Buddha’s magnificent mandala,
May I receive a prediction of my awakening
Directly from the Buddha Amitabha.
Having received a prediction of my awakening,
May I create vast benefit
For living beings throughout the ten directions,
With a billion emanations by the power of wisdom.
Through creating limitless merit
By dedicating this prayer of Samantabhadra’s deeds,
May all beings drowning in this torrent of suffering [of samsara],
Enter the presence of Amitabha.
So may that come about for each and every one of us and having been born in Amitabha’s pure land through working hard at this life to create the causes, then we will become fully enlightened and work diligently, spontaneously, with great compassion and wisdom for the welfare of each and every living being. Amituofo.