Just one Buddha, instead of all Buddhas
We have previously discussed why, in order to ensure rebirth in the Land of Bliss, Pure Land practitioners should not mix Amitabha-recitation with other Buddhist practices. It is essential not to mix practices because keeping the practice pure shows the practitioner’s full confidence and reliance on “Buddha power” in order to attain the Buddha’s merit and virtues through the practice of Buddha-invocation, rather than partial or total reliance on “self-power” in order to attain merit and virtues through various meditative and non-meditative practices. Always keeping the practice of Buddha-invocation active signifies that the practitioner has deep and full faith in Amitabha’s power of deliverance. Mixing Amitabha-invocation with other Buddhist practices is the first kind of mixed practice discouraged by Master Shandao, the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism.
As defined by Master Shandao in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, the other kind of mixed practice is invocation of Buddhas other than Amitabha when one’s goal is to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. This practice, I feel, may be subject to more severe criticism. The invocation of Amitabha alone is generally not accepted by most Buddhists, including some Pure Land practitioners when they hear of it for the first time, because it seems to oppose the basic doctrine of the Three Refuges and the fundamental practice of Buddhism. When we take the Three Refuges, we take Shakyamuni Buddha as our fundamental teacher. When some Buddhists or Pure Land aspirants hear of invoking Amitabha Buddha solely, they may ask, “What about Shakyamuni Buddha? Should I abandon Shakyamuni, and recite Amitabha only?” Thus, some Buddhists may not easily accept the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. Nevertheless, it is a fact that this practice forms one of the most important attributes of ultimate truth in pristine Pure Land Buddhism. Why is this so?
Specific pure merit is required for direct rebirth in a specific Pure Land
From my last article,* we know that pure merit is required for rebirth in the Pure Lands. In other words, the impure and unreal merit and virtues produced through the karmic practices of ordinary beings cannot cause rebirth in the Pure Lands, which are adorned with the real merit and virtues of Buddhas. The only way an ordinary being can attain real merit and virtues, which are dedicated by Buddhas, in order to attain rebirth in the Pure Lands is through Buddha-invocation.
Pure Land Buddhism is rooted in Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. The primary goal of Pure Land Buddhism is to attain rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, the Land of Bliss. The merit and virtues dedicated by Amitabha Buddha and attained by ordinary beings through Amitabha-recitation are specific and direct if rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss is the goal. Conversely, merit and virtues from other Buddhas, though real, are indirect and not specific, thus transference of merit and aspiration for rebirth are necessary if practitioners invoke other Buddhas but aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.**
In other words, it is similar to a process of transference from university A (Pure Land A) to university B (Pure Land B) where a transcript or reference letter issued by the head (the Buddha) of university A is essential, though the examination results (merit and virtues) of a student are recognized by both universities.
Master Shandao pointed out in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra that there are five advantages to primary practice (directly through Amitabha) and five disadvantages to miscellaneous practices (indirectly through other Buddhas) in terms of gaining rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss.
The five advantages and five disadvantages
1. In terms of mind, one who undertakes the primary practices*** is very close to Amitabha Buddha. Hence these are known as “intimate practices.” On the other hand, a person who chooses miscellaneous practices is detached from Amitabha Buddha, so those are called “remote practices.”
2. In terms of body, one who undertakes the primary practices is very near to Amitabha Buddha. Thus these are known as “proximate practices,” whereas miscellaneous practices are called “distant practices,” as the practitioner is far away from Amitabha Buddha.
3. The thoughts of one who performs the primary practices are always connected with Amitabha Buddha, and the practices are therefore called “continuous.” Conversely, the thoughts of someone who undertakes miscellaneous practices are often disconnected from those of Amitabha Buddha, and such practices are therefore called “discontinuous.”
4. Since in substance the primary practices are inherently inclined towards Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, merit-transference is not required for rebirth there. As for people who undertake miscellaneous practices, the Settling of their Minds and their practice are not aligned with each other. The resulting merit is not specific so the practices cannot constitute a direct cause for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. They can become such a cause only after merit-transference or dedication, as discussed above.
5. The primary practice of Amitabha-invocation is “pure,” while miscellaneous practices are “impure” or “diluted.” The former leads solely to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, whereas the latter do not. They may encompass the human and celestial vehicles, as well as the Three Sacred Vehicles (Shravaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Bodhisattva), and relate to other pure lands, thus being “diluted.”
Exclusivity in Amitabha Buddha is supported by all the Buddhas
Some Buddhists may worry about upsetting other Buddhas if they invoke Amitabha Buddha exclusively. Actually, this is not the case. The Amitabha Sutra says all the Buddhas in the six directions praise Amitabha’s name and support exclusivity in Amitabha-recitation as essential, as it complies with their intention for beings to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. They are in fact very happy.
Faith would appear to be abstract, and somewhat tricky. If we have faith in someone it means that if the person offers to do something for us, we trust and rely on them. What does Amitabha offer us? He vows to deliver us by receiving us in his homeland through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation, and subsequently enables us to leave this world of reincarnation.
So, if we have faith in Amitabha’s deliverance, we simply follow what he says in his vow by reciting his name and doing nothing else. By exclusively reciting his name, we have the necessary faith in his deliverance and his splendid name for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Faith is built on exclusive practice, as said by Master Shandao. Do not worry about developing faith or whether your faith is deep enough; just recite Amitabha’s name exclusively for the rest of your life. This is what faith is all about in Pure Land Buddhism.
** This will be discussed in detail in my next article.
*** There are five primary practices: exclusive reading, exclusive observance, exclusive reverence, exclusive recitation, and exclusive praise and offering. See my previous article Exclusive Practice and Mixed Practice in Pure Land Buddhism.