The whole concept of the Three States of Mind taught in the Contemplation Sutra is centered on the Buddhist practitioner’s faith in Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance. Upon hearing the teaching, the first step an ordinary being must take (according to Master Shandao’s explication) is to resolve to let go of self-power practice in the threefold karma and rely on the other-power practice of Amitabha-recitation in the threefold karma. This resolution is the Sincere Mind, also known as the genuine mind.
In order that this genuine mind become firm and unshakeable, our faith must first be established in the context of the Buddha’s words and then manifested in practice. When belief becomes actualized through Amitabha-recitation, this is “faith established in the context of practice” and is known as the Deep Mind, or deep faith.
With this sincere and unwavering mind, we hold fast to the practice of name-recitation in the threefold karma and proceed towards Amitabha’s Pure Land until the end of life. When this commitment to consistent, lifelong practice is realized, this is called the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration.
The Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra says, “with a resolute and genuine mind [Deep Mind and Sincere Mind], we dedicate merit and aspire [Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration].” So, the Three States of Mind are really a “singleness of mind”—total reliance on Amitabha Buddha’s vow power, and aspiration to rebirth in his Pure Land. The former leads to the latter, while the latter embraces the former.
Or we can look at it in the following way: the substance of this singleness of mind is the Sincere Mind: total reliance on Amitabha’s vow power. Its form is the Deep Mind: exclusivity in the practice of Amitabha-recitation, which results in resolute and immovable faith. And its function is the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration: the consistent and lifelong practice of exclusively reciting Amitabha’s name.
Each aspect of the Three States of Mind is also a medicine to counter one of the afflictions that might hinder our rebirth in the Land of Bliss. To counter insincerity, we speak of the Sincere Mind; to mitigate doubt, we explain the Deep Mind; and to correct the lack of dedication and aspiration, we advocate the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration.
A dual perspective: Amitabha Buddha and sentient beings
Each of the Three States of Mind can be discussed from the perspective of Amitabha Buddha, as well as the viewpoint of sentient beings. On Amitabha’s side, he dedicates his inconceivable merits and virtues to sentient beings (Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration) by giving them his name to recite (Deep Mind) through his sincere and genuine Fundamental Vow (Sincere Mind).
On the side of ordinary beings, they resolve to abandon self-power and rely upon Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow (Sincere Mind),act upon the vow of deliverance by exclusively reciting his name(Deep Mind), and then practice in a consistent and lifelong manner (Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration). Such aspiration and practice correspond perfectly to Amitabha’s vow of deliverance—just as a lid fits perfectly its corresponding container—and join the ordinary, iniquitous being and Amitabha Buddha into a single entity.
From the standpoint of ordinary beings, there are the Three States of Mind in the modes of horizontal and vertical transcendence. “Horizontal transcendence” means there is no temporal sequence to the Three States, as they are all present simultaneously. “Vertical transcendence” means that the Three States appear in sequence, in the order of Sincere Mind, Deep Mind and the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Aspiration.
Moreover, there are the Three States of Mind relating to wisdom and the Three States of Mind relating to practice. To understand the meaning of the Three States through texts and teachings, and then aspiring to achieve them, is known as the Three States of Mind relating to wisdom. If we know neither the relevant teachings nor the meaning of the Three States, yet recite Amitabha Buddha’s name consistently, we would attain them naturally. This is called the Three States of Mind relating to practice.
Deep and firm faith – indestructible like diamond
Once we have established the Three States of Mind, we will no longer retrogress on the path to Buddhahood. This is because of Amitabha’s compassionate dedication of merit, his potent support, the embrace of his light, the merging of Amitabha and sentient being, and the protection and assistance of all the Buddhas.
In the words of Master Shandao, “those who are embraced by [Amitabha’s] light will not retrogress” and “their minds are like diamond.” But if an aspirant finds himself hesitating or retrogressing in the practice of Amitabha-recitation and in his aspiration to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, he is considered to be lacking the Three States of Mind. Thus, his rebirth is uncertain; it is not yet assured in the present lifetime.
Assured rebirth: name-recitation in accord with the 18th Vow
Nevertheless, such a person still has another chance to attain rebirth in the Pure Land near the end of his life. In his final hours, he is being dragged toward his future rebirth by the force of his karma; he is powerless to change his fate. But at this critical moment, he might be very open to the wise counsel of a good teacher. If he is led to recite “Namo Amituofo” wholeheartedly, earnestly, genuinely, and diligently, he will indeed possess the Three States of Mind and attain rebirth. This situation is fully described in the paragraph of the Lowest Level of the Low Tier in the Contemplation Sutra.
Master Shandao explains “Namo Amitabha Buddha” as follows:
To say “Namo” is to take refuge; it also means the dedication of merits and aspiration to rebirth. To say “Amitabha Buddha” is the practice. The significance is that we will certainly attain rebirth.