One must have previously cultivated deep roots of virtue in past lives in order to believe in the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism upon first hearing them. With respect to the roots of virtue, the root of wisdom and the root of faith are interrelated and interdependent, thus faith through interpretation (resulting from the root of wisdom) and faith through devotion are both acceptable as the initial step through the door of the Pure Land, the most difficult-to-believe-in Buddhist teaching.
Comparing the two kinds of faith
In the case of faith through interpretation, the practitioner begins with his own personal belief in, and understanding of, the Buddhist teachings. He accepts and practices the meditative virtue of wisdom and the non-meditative virtue of purity with due diligence and thus attains merit and virtue through these self-powered practices (which entail cultivation and purification of body and mind) so that the root of wisdom is established, nourished, and developed.
Because his root of wisdom has grown deep, the practitioner’s root of faith (faith by interpretation) in the Buddhist teaching has also grown deep. This means it will become easier to believe and accept the more profound Buddhist teachings concerning practice and the realization of wisdom. This way of nourishing the root of faith is generally accepted by most Buddhists.
However, in the case of faith through devotion, the practitioner begins with an uncomplicated, even primitive, faith in the Buddha’s words. He believes what the Buddha says, follows what the Buddha teaches, and obeys what the Buddha wishes him to do. Taking a “religious” approach, the practitioner finds ways to always be mindful of the Buddha, such as through the practice of chanting the Buddha’s name. Thus, the practitioner is blessed by the merits and virtues dedicated by the Buddha to his followers. This is known as the “other-powered” practice of mindfulness of the Buddha (single-minded Amitabha-invocation in Pure Land Buddhism). In this way, the practitioner’s root of faith is established, nourished, and developed, and his mind is converted from that of an ordinary being into the mind of a sage.
Faith through devotion is preferred in Pure Land Buddhism
Many people may not know, or may have difficulty believing, that a person can develop his root of faith merely through devotion to the Buddha. In fact, all Buddhist devotees of different aptitudes and capacities can attain merit and virtue through the other-powered practices of Buddha-mindfulness and Buddha-invocation. For details on the establishment of faith through devotion in the context of persons (Buddhas) and in the context of practices (Buddha-invocation or Amitabha-invocation in Pure Land Buddhism), please refer to my earlier article, “Faith is a root of virtue essential in Pure Land Buddhism.”*
Before Shakyamuni Buddha introduced the concept of Amitabha’s embracing light in the Contemplation Sutra, Queen Vaidehi asked the Buddha, “World Honored One! I am now able, by the power of Buddha, to see Amitabha Buddha, together with the two Bodhisattvas. But how shall the beings of the future meditate on the Buddha Amitayus [Amitabha] and the two Bodhisattvas?”
Ordinary beings think that to see is to believe, but due to our shallow roots of virtue and heavy karmic obstructions we cannot see Amitabha Buddha with our mortal eyes. However, this does not mean Amitabha is non-existent or unreal. Being omnipresent throughout the Ten Directions, Amitabha Buddha embraces and protects, without forsaking, all who invoke or recite his name—even though they do not see or believe.
It is difficult for ordinary people to believe that they can easily receive merits and virtues from the Buddha through the practices of mindfulness and Buddha-invocation. Moreover, it is difficult to believe that merits and virtues generated from the pure practices of the Buddha are real, more splendid, and of superior quality to those attained through self-powered practices by unenlightened beings.
As such, faith through devotion is preferred and recommended in Pure Land Buddhism, although critics may scorn it as “blind” faith. It is a matter of fact that we are iniquitous, ordinary beings subject to reincarnation within the Six Realms. Strictly speaking, we have no wisdom at all!
Faith through interpretation is discouraged in Pure Land Buddhism
Theoretically, the Pure Land practitioner can start with his personal belief in, and understanding of, the Pure Land teachings. He accepts and practices the meditative virtue of wisdom and the non-meditative virtue of purity with due diligence. However, ordinary beings have inherited the Six Kinds of Fundamental Afflictions, including the Three Poisons and the Five Kinds of Wicked Views. Thus, their belief in the Pure Land teachings is the activity of a deluded mind, and their religious practice takes place in a context of conditioned karma. The Ksitigarbha Sutra says, “For sentient beings in Jambudvipa (our conditioned world), all of their thoughts and actions are karma, and all of them are also offenses.”
As the mind of an ordinary being is not pristine, his karma is conditioned and his practice is insubstantial. Subsequently, his virtue is mixed with poison and his merits are unreal. Such merits and virtues are eventually “drained” away rather than “retained” forever.
Merits and virtues attainted through self-powered practices, if any, have little or no effect on the nourishment and development of the root of wisdom. It is impossible to dedicate these unreal merits and virtues toward rebirth in the Land of Bliss. That is why ordinary beings who aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land are not advised to take this route. We will discuss this point further in the explication of the Sincere Mind in a later article.
It is stated at the conclusion of Master Shandao’s Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: “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.”
* Faith is an Essential Root of Virtue in Pure Land Buddhism (Buddhistdoor Global)
How Does Amitabha-recitation Nourish the Root of Faith? (Buddhistdoor Global)