Faith in the Pure Land teachings arises from Amitabha’s name
The Treatise of Great Wisdom says: “The Buddhist teachings are as vast as the great sea, so they can be accessed only through faith.” Faith plays an important role in practicing Buddhism. The Avatamsaka Sutra declares: “Faith is the source and origin of all merits and virtues, like an embryo from which all the various roots of virtues grow.”
In Pure Land Buddhism, faith is of particular importance, as it is the first of the Three Sambharas—faith, aspiration, and practice. These are commonly known to be the necessary conditions for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Obviously, faith is the first step to enter the gates of the Pure Land.
Faith in the Buddhist teachings—belief in the Law of Causal Condition, rebirth within the Six Realms, extinction of the Three Poisons through the cultivation of the Three Learnings, the Bodhi Mind, and the Six Paramitas, among others—cannot benefit the devotee if they are restricted to intellectual belief without diligent practice. For instance, even if one believes in the concept of rebirth, one cannot escape rebirth if one does not diligently practice the Buddhist teachings in order to clear the Two Obstructions of View and Afflictions, and to eradicate the Three Poisons—greed, hatred, and delusion.
However, in the paragraph of the fulfilment of the 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra, it is written, “Upon hearing his name, one is joyful to believe in [his name].” Why is a person joyful upon hearing Amitabha’s name? It is because she enjoys the benefits of practicing Amitabha-recitation and the faith in Amitabha’s name that arises upon hearing it. The holy name takes the form of embracing light, and enables her to attain assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This means that our faith in the Pure Land teachings comes from Amitabha’s name, not from vague personal feelings, our deluded minds, or our impure karmic actions.
The meaning of “holding fast the name” in the Amitabha Sutra
Amitabha is formless and beyond the reach of our human senses. Our eyes can’t see him, our ears can’t hear him, and our hands can’t touch him—but we can believe in him, receive his name, and accept his deliverance in our hearts. So the true significance of “holding fast to the name upon hearing of Amitabha Buddha,” as written in the Amitabha Sutra, is to believe in and accept Amitabha’s deliverance.
Amitabha Buddha made vows in his causal ground (the bodhisattva stages preceding Buddhahood) to deliver sentient beings of the Ten Directions. His pro-active, equal, and non-discriminative compassion deeply touches our hearts. Because of the fulfillment of his Vows, our doubts transform into faith in deliverance through the name and we accept Amitabha’s compassion. This is what is meant by “holding fast the name.”
Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of deliverance, not a teaching of cultivation. In my last article, I wrote: “rebirth is achieved solely by the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation from our side, because it relies solely on the independent action of Amitabha’s name—Namo Amitabha—from Amitabha’s side!” I also wrote: “In accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, all aspirants need to do for rebirth is to exclusively recite Amitabha’s name, and the entire matter of rebirth will be taken care of by Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha’s deliverance, based on his Fundamental Vow, is equal, unconditional and pro-active.” These points are vital to understanding the rationale of Pure Land Buddhism.
Our personal belief in Pure Land teaching is not the cause of rebirth
Many Pure Land practitioners may harbor doubts about this teaching and argue that the Three Sambharas—faith, aspiration, and practice—are all necessary conditions for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Thus, it is not appropriate to say that deliverance through Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow is “unconditional.”
They may also argue that one has to take the initiative of believing (faith) and desiring rebirth (aspiration) in order to be reborn, so Amitabha’s deliverance is not 100 per cent proactive. Moreover, they think that in addition to Amitabha-recitation, the devotee’s own faith should be deep and his aspiration should be earnest to be assured of rebirth. The relationship is therefore somewhat mutually complementary rather than completely dependent on Amitabha.
Some may go even further and argue that a single thought of faith is the main cause of rebirth, and Amitabha’s name is merely the supportive condition. This may sounds logical to many Buddhist practitioners, but the facts of the matter are deeper and more profound than any of these arguments allow.
Again, this point bears repeating: in pristine Pure Land Buddhism, rebirth is achieved solely through Amitabha’s name. As we explored in my previous article, Amitabha-recitation is an independent action of Amitabha’s name—Namo Amitabha! If we always exclusively recite Amitabha’s name while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, without forsaking it, we are already embraced within the 18th Vow regardless of the length of time we have practiced.
Amitabha-recitation is the definitive karma (action) of assured rebirth, as noted by Master Shandao, so rebirth is the result of the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s name. For a person who recites the name, no matter whether he understands or not, believes or not, aspires or not, the functional outcome of rebirth is naturally contained within Amitabha’s name. Though one does not know and cannot see, he enjoys the same results as one who knows and sees. This is the functional outcome of reciting the name; this is the self-nature of the name.
Last but not least, the depth of faith in Amitabha’s deliverance is gauged by the exclusivity of the practice of Amitabha-recitation. The rebirth of all aspirants is assured as long as they exclusively recite Amitabha’s name until the end of their lives. They will not be disturbed or interrupted by anything under any circumstance because they are always embraced and protected by Amitabha.
Master Shandao states in the 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 in Amitabha-recitation. Whoever recites until the end of his life, or even ten 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 aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss. It implies that Amitabha Buddha, rather than a Pure Land practitioner, takes an initiating and active role, through his Name in the form of his light, to provide all the Three Sambharas necessary for his rebirth. It re-affirms that our faith in Amitabha’s deliverance arises from Amitabha’s name, rather from our own deluded minds.