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Master Shandao’s Exegesis of the Sincere Mind, Part One

By Alan Kwan
Buddhistdoor Global | 2016-12-09 |
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The Sincere Mind is the Genuine Mind

Let us look at Master Shandao’s explanation of the Threefold State of Mind in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.

At the beginning, Master Shandao defines the Sincere Mind as the genuine mind. He writes: The [Contemplation] Sutra says, “Firstly, the Sincere Mind. ‘Sincere’ means true and real, so is ‘genuine.’ It explains that all sentient beings who interpret and practice the teachings in cultivation of the bodily, verbal and mental acts (karma) must perform with the genuine mind.”

This is a simple way to define the Sincere Mind. Sincere literally means true and real. It also means earnest, trustworthy, heartfelt, and wholehearted. All of us agree that sincerity is a mindset or attitude that is free of deceit and hypocrisy. It seems easy to understand. But how easy is it for ordinary beings like us to have a sincere mindset that truly matches our actions?

“Form of action” and “form of mindset” matching one another

For instance, if we are sincere in our aspiration to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, all practices (actions) of the Three Meritorious Acts should be performed earnestly and wholeheartedly for this single purpose. This will be our mindset, and accomplishing our purpose will include all of what we do, say, and think. Thus, our practice must match and align with our aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and nothing else.

Accomplishing this, we would be considered persons who practice the Three Meritorious Acts with a “genuine mind.” But if our mindset and actions were out of sync with each other, then the “form of our actions (practice)” would not correspond to the “form of our mindset (aspiration).”

If our aspiration to rebirth were sincere and genuine, then what we do, say, and think in practicing the virtues of the Three Meritorious Acts would be unpretentious (free from hypocrisy) and unintentional (free from deceit). All our actions would be pure and natural—just like breathing, or eating when hungry and sleeping when tired.

In fact, we would not even consider whether our actions are related to the Three Meritorious Acts, or if our acts reflect our sole aspiration to rebirth. This would be the same as detachment from forms, as taught in the Diamond Sutra.

But if such purity of mindset and action is the standard for a sincere mind, then it seems that virtually none of us ordinary beings could possess such a mind.

“True” is universal and “real” is permanent

In Buddhism, “true” means universally true, regardless of the constraints of time and space, and “real” means eternal and permanent, not subjected to change. Anybody can easily say, “I am serious and earnest. My faith (belief) in and aspiration (wish) to rebirth in the Land of Bliss never changes.” But is such a claim true and real?

Perhaps there are those among us who have expressed similar sentiments. However, all Buddhists should remember well the first of the Three Universal Truths taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.

This is the Truth of Impermanence: all phenomena are impermanent. That means there is nothing real, including all the language-based conceptual structures within our minds. Nothing is enduring. All phenomena are conditional, subject to change in accord with ever-changing external conditions. Our faith and aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss are no exceptions. These, too, are ultimately not real and can change with circumstances and conditions.

“Virtues mixed with poisons,” “unreal practices,” and “unreal karma”

Such is the reality of the Saha world. We need not blame ourselves that we are unable to have “true” faith and “earnest” aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This is because we cannot have a genuine mind while practicing the Three Meritorious Acts. Indeed, we are reborn in different forms, according to our actions, within a closed, karma-based system defined by the framework of time and space. Under such conditions, who can possess a truly sincere mind, or the adamantine mind of faith? Perhaps advanced bodhisattvas do, but certainly not ordinary beings.

According to the common karma generated by sentient beings over countless eons from time immemorial, none of us is exempt from change dictated by unforeseen and ever-changing conditions. That is why the Ksitigarbha Sutra says, “For beings dwelling in Jambudvipa [our world system], what they commence and what they think are nothing but karma, and nothing but offenses.”

After clarifying that the Sincere Mind is the genuine mind, Master Shandao continues: [The practitioner] should not appear in the form of diligence, benevolence, and kindness in the practices, and bear an internal mind of deceit and hypocrisy, of greed and hatred, of evil views and false thoughts, or of hundreds of cunning tricks and fraudulent ideas. As it is difficult to be intruded [in his mind] to change these wicked inherent qualities, all of his acts are the same as those done by serpents and scorpions.

Though he commences [to practice] in the threefold karma, it is called “virtues mixed with poisons,” also called “untrue and unreal practices,” and not called “real karma.”


In this paragraph, Master Shandao states that, on the one hand, a Pure Land aspirant must practice the Three Meritorious Acts with a genuine mind to attain assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss. But on the other hand, he indicates that an ordinary being cannot accomplish this due to his wicked nature inherited from past lives.

Here there seems to be a profound contradiction! The Contemplation Sutra says, “Those who acquire the Threefold State of Mind shall be assuredly reborn into that country immediately.

This sounds absurd. If we cannot accomplish this as per Master Shandao’s teaching, then why does Shakyamuni Buddha ask sentient beings to acquire the Threefold State of Mind for assured rebirth? We will discuss this in the next article.

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