Amitabha Triad in the form of Sanskrit syllables in Siddham script. Japan, 13th century. From pinterest.com
Practitioners following the Path of the Great Vow in Pure Land Buddhism as classified by Master Shandao take exclusive Amitabha-invocation as their main practice. By exclusively practicing Amitabha-recitation for the remainder of their lives, they are assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss in accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. This path is also known as “pristine” because its practitioners rely 100 per cent on the power of Amitabha Buddha to determine their rebirth.
If one wishes to be reborn in the Land of Bliss through miscellaneous practices consisting of meditative and non-meditative virtues, one is said to be following the Path of Importance. This path is not called “pristine” because self-power is involved to a certain extent. It is also regarded as an expedient teaching because it is a skillful means on the part of the Buddha to lead practitioners onto the Path of the Great Vow, in other words, to exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s name.
Master Shandao concludes his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra as follows: “Though [Shakyamuni Buddha] speaks of the benefits of meditative and non-meditative virtues [in the 16 contemplations], when he observes and examines the underlying intent of [Amitabha] Buddha’s Fundamental Vow, he wishes all sentient beings to single-mindedly and exclusively recite Amitabha’s name.”*
As discussed in my previous article, some people may have confusion, doubt, and misunderstanding about the meaning of “exclusive practice.” Let us discuss three typical examples below.
Confusion - Is caring for our parents regarded as mixed practice?
When we talk about either exclusive practice or mixed practice, it is always in reference to an action (as a cause) leading to rebirth in the Land of Bliss (as a result), and nothing else. However, only exclusive Amitabha-recitation is directly related to assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
We should not mix our duties and responsibilities in daily life with exclusive practice. A typical example is filial piety. Filial piety is one of the 11 practices in the Three Meritorious Deeds of the Path of Importance. If we love, respect, and care for our parents because we want to cultivate, accumulate, and dedicate merit and virtue in order to gain rebirth in the Land of Bliss, it is regarded as the Path of Importance (because self-power is a factor), or miscellaneous/mixed practice.
However, if we love and respect our parents based on our personal moral values or due to our karmic conditions, it is not regarded as “practice.” Rather, it is what all Buddhists ought to do in their daily lives, including pristine Pure Land practitioners. We should fulfill our duties to and care for our parents and do benevolent deeds for others, as taught by the Buddha, but not for the sake of rebirth.
Doubt – Should a pristine Pure Land practitioner take the precepts as his practice?
The same principle applies to the other ten practices in the Three Meritorious Deeds. As stated in my last article, we should deal with all worldly matters according to our personal capacity, preferences, and karmic circumstances, until we are received by Amitabha Buddha near the end of our lives.
However, many practitioners have doubts about the Second Meritorious Deed: taking the Three Refuges, keeping the various precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct. In response to Ananda’s question as to who would teach the sangha after his nirvana, Shakyamuni Buddha said: “All monastics should take the precepts as their teacher [after my nirvana].” Taking precepts would seem to be indispensable for all Buddhists, and monastics in particular, as it is fundamental to Buddhist practice.
Nevertheless, according to the above principle, it is clear and definite that in order to gain rebirth in the Pure Land, recitation of Amitabha’s name should be our sole practice. However, if we have already taken the Refuges or precepts as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha before we choose the Path of the Great Vow and practice Amitabha-recitation exclusively, we should continue to do abide by them. However, we should not do this as a practice, or as a condition for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, but just as our “duty” in daily life.
It is important to note that when determining what we should or should not do, it is not necessary to compare ourselves with others. People are different because of different karmic conditions. That is the reason why Master Yinguang, one of the Pure Land patriarchs, asks us to “stay foolish” and not to argue (when criticized by other Buddhists for believing we are assured of rebirth in the Pure Land simply by practicing Amitabha-recitation), but to just exclusively recite Amitabha’s name.
Misunderstanding – “Exclusive” does not mean “exclusionary”
“Exclusive” does not mean “exclusionary.” It is our personal choice to select a teaching that meets our needs, but it is not appropriate to compare ourselves with others and reject their decision as to what teachings they wish to follow. Our world is composed of different karma generated by different kinds of beings, and we should respect one another.
We should not doubt that all 84,000 teachings of the Buddha can lead one to liberation. The Buddha gave these teachings under different circumstances, to sentient beings with different capacities, and for different benefits in different eras and in different places/worlds. One should know one’s own capacity, interest, and what one is seeking at present in this world.
Shakyamuni Buddha introduced the Pure Land teaching of Amitabha Buddha for iniquitous sentient beings in the defiled world who seek rebirth in the Land of Bliss after his passing. If we think we are such beings, we should select this teaching, focus on the three Pure Land sutras, and follow what the Buddha instructs us to do. This teaching is precisely for us.
*Translation by the author