The meaning of the “Proper Dharma” for assured rebirth
In my last article, referring to the passage in the Sutra of the Merit and Virtue of the Past Vows of Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata about rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, we saw how the aspirants mentioned are equivalent to those with good roots of virtue at the “middle level of the middle tier” (according to the Fifteenth Contemplation in the Contemplation of Infinite Life Sutra).
That means the aspirant takes the Three Meritorious Deeds (the non-meditative virtues) as the Proper Cause, and the “Nine Levels” as the Proper Practice, and dedicates his good roots and vows to be reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. According to Master Shandao’s synopsis of the Pure Land teaching, such an aspirant is seeking rebirth through the Path of Importance set out by Shakyamuni Buddha.
In his lifetime, he hears the Proper Dharma (正法; zheng fa) or Right Dharma of rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. What is meant by the Proper Dharma? According to Master Shandao, the pristine Pure Land teaching is based on Amitabha’s pro-active, equal, and unconditional deliverance through the vow-power of his Fundamental Vow, the 18th Vow. Master Shandao calls this the Path of the Great Vow set out by Amitabha Buddha.
According to Master Shandao’s authoritative teaching, all three Pure Land Sutras teach assured rebirth through exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name, which is the “proper” or main practice (正行; zheng xing). Master Shandao also defines exclusive Amitabha-recitation with singleness of mind as the “proper karma of assurance” (正定; zheng ding). This means that rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land is absolutely assured as it accords with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
Suggested translation: “Upon hearing the Proper Dharma, they are not assured of rebirth”
Before we continue to explain the text about Buddhists who aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land, as stated in the Sutra of the Merit and Virtue of the Past Vows of Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata, I wish to discuss the translation of the second paragraph: With these good roots, they may vow to be born in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss where the Buddha of Limitless Life (Amitabha Buddha) dwells, to hear the Proper Dharma, but their resolve may not be firm. *[Upon hearing the Proper Dharma, they are not assured of attaining rebirth.]
Referring to the last phrase “their resolve may not be firm” (as translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society), I find that the original word in the Sutra is “定” (pronounced “Ding”), which bears multiple meanings. Apart from “firm” (堅定; jian ding), it can be translated to “selected” (選定; xuan ding), “decided” (決定; jue ding), “determined” (辨定; bian ding), or “assured” (確定; que ding).
If we interpret the text in the sutra according to the Shandao tradition, the most appropriate translation should be related to be “proper karma of assurance.” This Proper Dharma is actually the essence of the teaching of the Three States of Mind—The Sincere Mind, the Deep Mind, and the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration, as stated in the Contemplation Sutra.
The Contemplation Sutra says, “Those born in the Western Land are of nine levels. Those who attain birth on the highest level of the high tier are sentient beings who wish to be born in that land, awaken the three States of Mind, and so are instantly [my emphasis] reborn there. What are the three? They are, first, the Sincere Mind; second, the Deep Mind; and third, the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. Those who have these Three States of Mind will certainly be born there.
Through the Sincere Mind, the practitioner selects total reliance on the Buddha’s vow-power, and totally renounces self-power practices for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.
Through the Deep Mind, the practitioner establishes faith—the two kinds of deep faith in aptitude and in teaching.
Through the Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration, the practitioner advances on the white path with Right Attention (正念; zheng nian), which is exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name with singleness of mind.
This means that if the practitioner hears the Proper Dharma, identifies the Three States of Mind as the Proper Cause and Amitabha-recitation as the Proper Practice, his rebirth is instantly assured by Amitabha Buddha. But if the practitioner does not encounter the Proper Dharma and instead persists in self-power practice, her rebirth is not instantly assured in this lifetime but only as she approaches death.
To determine and identify the Three States of Mind as the Proper Cause, and Amitabha-recitation as the Proper Practice
In the explication of rebirth for aspirants of the nine levels, Master Shandao clearly states that aspirants of different aptitudes on each level can instantly attain rebirth assured by Amitabha Buddha once they determine and identify the Three States of Mind as the Proper Cause, and Amitabha-recitation as the Proper Practice.
Master Shandao summarizes the Contemplation Sutra, which is the ultimate truth of the Pure Land School, in this way: Though [Shakyamuni Buddha] has spoken of the benefit [of attaining rebirth] by practicing the meditative and non-meditative virtues, it is understood that, given [Amitabha] Buddha’s fundamental vow, Shakyamuni’s intention is that sentient beings should always recite the name of Amitabha Buddha exclusively.
When understood according to the Pure Land teaching in the Shandao tradition, the meaning of this statement—“upon hearing the Proper Dharma, they are not assured of rebirth”—should be interpreted as follows: “Upon hearing Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through reliance on his vow-power, the aspirant fails to identify the Three States of Mind as the Proper Cause and Amitabha-recitation as the Proper Practice, so that his rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss is not instantly assured in this lifetime.”
If he keeps on taking the Three Meritorious Deeds (non-meditative virtues) as the Proper Cause and the Nine Levels as the Proper Practice, and dedicates his good roots and vows to be reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, Amitabha Buddha promises to appear before him at the time of death. Then his rebirth may be assured at the end-of-life, as stated in Amitabha’s 19th Vow.
However, if the aspirant hears Shakyamuni’s discourse about the name of Medicine Master Buddha, and he changes his main practice from the Three Meritorious Deeds to exclusive recitation of the name of Medicine Master Buddha for rebirth into Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, then the outcome of his rebirth also changes. We shall discuss this in the next article.