The Faith Approach and the Wisdom Approach
Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of deliverance by other-power for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, not a teaching of practices that lead to Buddhahood through self-power. Thus, Pure Land adherents are not necessarily required to focus on the pursuit of wisdom or enlightenment; rather, they should devote themselves to cultivating faith in their rebirth in the Pure Land. This is the main direction that all Pure Land adherents must bear in mind, and they should move forward towards the Pure Land without any doubt, hesitation, or distraction.
When Buddhist practitioners choose the teaching of practices by self-power, they may ask, “How can I have wisdom and attain enlightenment?” Many knowledgeable senior Buddhist devotees may give them the answer right away, “It’s through meditation.” That is correct, and is the standard answer.
Meditation is one of the Three Studies—precepts, meditation, and wisdom, which are interrelated. By holding precepts, it is easier to establish our mind in the meditative state. If our mind is in the meditative state, we are not confused and distracted, which leads to wisdom. Wisdom is one of the “roots of virtue”: it is generally nourished and cultivated by Buddhist practitioners through meditative practices because it is essential for generating the merit and virtue necessary in Buddhist practice, and for evaluating the achievements of the different stages of the arhat and bodhisattva.
On the other hand Pure Land adherents, who choose the teaching of deliverance by other-power, may ask, “How can I nurture my faith?” They may not get the answer right away. Actually, faith is also one of the five roots of virtue—faith, vigor, invocation, meditation, and wisdom. It should be nurtured and developed by Pure Land adherents as it is also one of the Three Sambharas—faith, aspiration, and practice, which are essential for rebirth in the Pure Land.
As the Avatamsaka Sutra says: “Faith is the embryonic source of all merit and virtue, and can nourish all roots of virtue.” Faith is intended as the entry point or the first step in exploring, studying, and practicing Buddhist teachings. Why then are discussions about the development of faith not commonly found in Buddhist scriptures?
Faith Developed Intentionally Is Not Genuine
It is perhaps foolish to ask why there are few discussions on the development of faith in the scriptures as one might wonder whether faith can, in fact, be nurtured. Faith is really “abstract”—it is something felt deep in one’s heart. It seems ridiculous to ask other people to tell you what to do to nurture your faith.
When a person claims, “I believe it,” does it mean he really believes it? Many people may ask, “How do I know I have faith? How do I know my faith has been developed and maintained?” Some may argue that faith is purely a personal matter. If you choose not to believe something, no one can force you to believe it. This is a bone of contention in most religions when faith comes up for discussion.
It might appear that faith is cultivated intentionally or at one’s discretion, but that is not necessarily true. Generally speaking, belief or faith is based on three factors:
1. Direct experience through our sense organs—this is the easiest way to believe something, but it is the most unreliable way because what we see and hear may only be partially true, and not the whole truth or picture. The “six dusts” (Skt gunas), or external phenomena, are usually regarded as “delusive.”
2. Irrefutable deduction through logical thinking—this is the most “scientific” factor, but it is not reliable either because what we think may be biased and incorrect; for example, if we have insufficient information. As we are not enlightened and unable to “see” our self-nature, our mind is “delusive” too.
3. Testimony worthy of confidence—this is the most important factor, and the basis of most of our beliefs. However, only the wise know how to identify a reliable source of information and someone who is trustworthy; most do not have the ability. As almost all of us are ordinary beings without perfect and complete wisdom or morality, on whom should we rely?
How Can We Develop “Genuine” Faith?
As faith is so important and essential in Pure Land Buddhism, Master Shandao, the de facto founder of the Pure Land school, formulated a clear and thorough concept of faith and devised a comprehensive structure and method for its practice by Pure Land adherents. Dependably, Master Shandao offers a full description of all aspects on faith in the fourth chapter of the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.
First of all, he points out that only a Buddha is perfect and complete in wisdom and morality; therefore, he is the only one on whom we should rely and to whom we should entrust ourselves. The merit and virtue cultivated by the Buddha Amitabha and dedicated to us is regarded as “substantial” or genuine; thus the faith built on his vow, which is based on “genuine” merit and virtue, must be “genuine” too.
Master Shandao goes on to elaborate methods for developing faith that are easy to follow. More interestingly, he tells us how to know we have complete and deep faith. His exposition on faith is very practical for our daily life, and he advises us what to do in situations where our faith is challenged by others. It is uplifting to read his explanation on the Three States of Mind (Sincere Mind, Deep Mind, and Mind of Merit-Dedication and Aspiration) in the fourth chapter of the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.
To conclude, in Buddhism, wisdom can be achieved through meditative practices, but faith (genuine faith) can be developed and strengthened through the practice of Buddha-invocation/Amitabha-recitation. “Genuine” faith will lead Pure Land practitioners to be reborn in a “genuine” realm, such as the Land of Bliss.