The question of lust in Pure Land practice
For a Pure Land practitioner, the simple answer to the question of whether Amitabha-recitation can help one to overcome lust is “yes.” Lust is a kind of greedy desire, which turns to hatred if it cannot be satisfied and is delusive because it is conditional. Following rebirth in the Land of Bliss, there is no lust because there are no hungry ghosts (a rebirth related to greed), hell beings (hatred), or animals (delusion). Moreover, there is no gender (no females, or from the other perspective, no males) or sexual activity (as in a desire for reproduction) either.
However, can we “overcome” lust before we are reborn in the Land of Bliss by reciting Amitabha’s name? To be honest, we cannot “ultimately” overcome lust by any mundane means because we are born as iniquitous sentient beings full of greed and hatred. We are the karmic products of greed and hatred, and as such, take rebirth in this defiled world.
This being the case, can we be reborn in the Land of Bliss with a lustful mind, or will strong sexual desire hinder us from taking rebirth in the Land of Bliss, particularly as death approaches? How do we deal with this detrimental force pulling us to take rebirth unceasingly in samsara, within the Six Realms?
A case of “failure”
I have come across two people, Mr. X and Mr. Y, who have attempted to subdue or overcome their lust through Amitabha-recitation. Mr. X tried really hard, and told me he had experienced some “improvement” at the beginning of his Amitabha-recitation practice, particularly when he concentrated on the practice without distraction.
However, later he was very disappointed because his habitual tendency began to bother him again. He started to doubt the effectiveness of Amitabha-recitation and to wonder if it can in fact help one to overcome lust. He had thought Amitabha Buddha would give him the strength to fight against the “devil of lust,” or at least provide him with some powerful tools that would enable him to swim ashore in the sea of suffering.
Because his practice was disturbed by his feelings of lust, he hesitated to sustain the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. As he was having doubts about Amitabha’s deliverance, he tried to mix Amitabha-recitation with other practices in an attempt to win the battle against his feelings.
Mr. X was attempting to control his own mind through meditative practice, using Amitabha-recitation as an expedient means. His practice was not for the sole purpose of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, in other words, “single-minded aspiration for rebirth.” He was employing “self-power” to overcome his lust.
After a year or so he told me he had failed, and concluded that Amitabha-recitation could not help him to overcome his lust.
A case of “success”
Mr. Y had a different experience. He knows that he is an iniquitous being who experiences greed and hatred, but believes that Amitabha’s power is inconceivable and can lead him to ultimate liberation. In accordance with the Fundamental Vow, he exclusively recites Amitabha’s name for the purpose of rebirth in the Pure Land. He is confident that he is embraced and protected by Amitabha Buddha.
At the same time, as he really wanted to avoid any actions stemming from lust, he chose to stay away from anything that might arouse his desire. However, from time to time lust still came up again, and inevitably he yielded to it. But each time this happened, he did not hesitate to reproach himself immediately.
While his practice was disturbed by his feelings of lust, he was fully aware that he is an ordinary being with no ability to fight against it himself, and was determined to rely on the power of Amitabha’s vow in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. He did not give up his aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land, and continued to recite Amitabha’s name.
After some time, he found that lust arose less frequently. He spent most of his time performing Amitabha-recitation, and after a year or so, his lustful thoughts seemed to fade away. They would occur very occasionally, but would easily disappear of their own accord. He told me gratefully that Amitabha-recitation can indeed “overcome” lust.
The importance of not being concerned with greed and hatred while walking on the White Path
These are true stories. Our world is governed by the principle of cause and effect, and is formed by the summation of karma produced by all the beings within it. Karma originates from the miscellaneous practices (good and bad) of all beings in different realms. From billions of karmic causes arise trillions of karmic effects. Some people say they are happy, and some say they suffer. All such feelings are “empty,” as they depend on an individual’s value judgment under different circumstances. This is the characteristic of our Saha World. Therefore, under no circumstances should one compare oneself with others.
Whether Amitabha-recitation can “overcome” lust depends partly on individual karmic circumstances. It certainly helps to improve and mitigate the situation, although it cannot ultimately overcome lustful thoughts as long as we live in this defiled land.
For ordinary beings like us, the problem of lust can only be ultimately resolved when we are born in the Land of Bliss, the unconditioned realm of nirvana. If we sustain the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation in accordance with the Fundamental Vow, our rebirth there is assured in the present lifetime. That is to say, we are also assured that we will have no more lust at the end of this life, which is very encouraging.
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao tells us the parable of “The Two Rivers and the White Path.” He writes that Amitabha Buddha asks us not to be concerned with greed and hatred when we are walking on the White Path (the path to the Pure Land through exclusive Amitabha-recitation) because Amitabha Buddha has assured us of our rebirth and will protect and embrace us right through to the end.
Towards the end of our life, Amitabha Buddha and a multitude of sagely beings will automatically appear before us. As we are bathed in their auspicious light, the multifarious karmic forces, including that which pulls us toward unceasing rebirth within the Six Realms of samsara, will be ineffective, and thus our mind will be pacified. In an instant we will be reborn in the Land of Bliss, as stated in the Pure Land sutras.