Two ways of establishing faith from Amitabha’s Name
Master Shandao states in Praise of Rites of Rebirth: “The honorable Amitabha set forth an extremely solemn vow. He teaches and delivers sentient beings of the Ten Directions through his Name in the form of his light. It enables them to have faith, aspiration, and practice with regard to Amitabha-recitation. Whoever recites until the end of his life, or even 10 times, or even just once, can easily be reborn by the power of his Fundamental Vow.”
In the above statement, it is interesting to note that Amitabha’s name enables sentient beings to have faith in Amitabha’s deliverance, and to have the aspiration to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. It implies that Amitabha Buddha, rather than the practitioner, takes the active, initiating role. Through his Name in the form of his light, Amitabha provides all of the Three Sambharas (see my previous article*) necessary for Pure Land rebirth. Thus, our faith in Amitabha’s deliverance arises from Amitabha’s name, rather than from our own deluded minds.
But how does faith arise from Amitabha’s name rather than from the delusive mind? There are basically two ways. First, according to Master Shandao, faith arises upon hearing his name, which is known as “faith established in the context of a person (Buddha).” The second way faith is established is through the single-minded and exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation, which is known as “faith established in the context of practice.”
Faith established in the context of a person (Buddha)
As ordinary beings, we utilize our mind consciousness (the 6th consciousness) to recognize people and objects of this world. We do this by establishing connections between the names we use, and the objects they represent. These, in turn, help us to develop the myriad conceptual structures we need to discuss both abstract and concrete realities, such as relativity, time and space, and color and sound. However, all of these names, forms, and concepts are, in the end, arbitrary. They cannot reflect true reality because they are apprehended in a context of samsara, birth and death. Everything that is impermanent is not ultimately “real.” This reality of nothing inherently existing independently is called “emptiness.”
This is exactly what the Heart Sutra teaches: “In emptiness, there are no forms,
no feelings, perceptions, volitions, or consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or mind object; no realm of the eye, until we come to no realm of consciousness.”
This means that any faith that arises from within the consciousness is impermanent, empty, and subject to changing conditions. Like everything else that manifests in the context of samsara, our true nature—should we search for it—becomes illusory. Such self-generated faith has no strength, and few merits and virtues. If we attempt to practice on the basis of such “belief” (strictly speaking, it is not faith), we will fall prey to endless frustration. As the mind fluctuates and changes, so will our self-generated belief. Thus, it is unreliable in leading us to the ultimate state of purity.
Clearly, this kind of belief does not satisfy the requirements of faith as defined in the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness: “With respect to reality, virtue, and capacity, there is a kind of deep faith that one is delighted to pursue. The nature of faith is purification of the mind.”
But what happens if faith in Amitabha Buddha arises through hearing Amitabha’s name? This is a totally different situation, because Amitabha is a Buddha, an Enlightened One. Amitabha’s nature is real and true. His merits and virtues are inconceivably splendid and abundant, and the power of his Fundamental Vow cannot be obstructed by any conditioned karma, including the small, wavering minds of sentient beings. If they sincerely wish to recite “Namo Amitabha,” then no other separate faith separate should be sought. This kind of faith is known as pure faith. As it arises from Amitabha’s name, it is also known as “faith from other-power.”
Faith established in the context of practice
Upon hearing Amitabha’s name, we begin to develop confidence in this Buddha who attained perfect Enlightenment and dwells in the state of Nirvana in the Land of Bliss. As Amitabha Buddha is also virtuous (possessed of unconditional compassion), his achievement of Buddhahood was for the purpose of delivering sentient beings, not for benefiting himself. Amitabha’s merits and virtues, in the form of his infinite and unimpeded light, are given to all sentient beings who invoke or recite his name. Even if, for the time being, we cannot accept a “literal” Buddha who saves us, we can still entrust ourselves to Amitabha’s vow-power of deliverance and attain rebirth in his Land of Bliss.
For Pure Land aspirants, reciting Amitabha’s name is receiving and accepting all of Amitabha’s merits and virtues that enable them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Reciting “Namo Amitabha” is taking refuge and having faith; it is also aspiration and practice. This is vital to understand: faith, aspiration, and practice are all contained within the six-character name. We do not need to wait for Amitabha’s gift of faith, or engage in practice for the purpose of merit-dedication towards rebirth; all of this is readily available to us in the form of “Namo Amitabha.” Thus, all who recite this six-character name can be reborn.
Master Shandao says: “‘Namo’ means to entrust our lives, as well as to dedicate merit towards rebirth [in the Pure Land]. [Reciting] ‘Amitabha Buddha’ is the practice. That is why rebirth is certain.”
However, it is argued that some Pure Land practitioners who recite Amitabha’s name are unable to attain rebirth. How can this be so? One of the reasons is that they do not truly wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, but look for other benefits through Amitabha-recitation. Or, they are determined to be reborn as a human being or to remain in the Saha world and don’t bother reciting, so Amitabha Buddha can do nothing.
One more obstruction is one of sincerity. They must be singled-minded and exclusive in the practice Amitabha-recitation without mixing other practices with it. If they sincerely recite the Name in their practice, it is implicit that they already have faith in Amitabha and his vows and aspiration to be reborn in his Pure Land. In other words, if they have no faith, they will not aspire or recite.
So if they are already reciting, it’s implicit that the other two elements, faith and aspiration, are included. So, it is three in one, and one embodying all three. In this way, the name in Amitabha-recitation practice embodies the true meaning of rebirth, and is known as “practice truly as such,” as stated by Pure Land patriarch Master Tanluan.
However, it does not work in reverse. That means, disciples may have faith and/or aspiration, but if they don’t recite, they still will not be reborn in the Land of Bliss.