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

By Alan Kwan
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-01-13 |
The large Amitabha Buddha sculpture within the Great Buddha Temple grotto. From mdd123.comThe large Amitabha Buddha sculpture within the Great Buddha Temple grotto. From mdd123.com

To seek refuge in Amitabha Buddha is to receive his “real” merits and virtues

In our discussion of the Sincere Mind in my last three articles, we explored how Master Shandao clearly made the following points:

1. A Pure Land aspirant must practise the threefold karma (bodily, verbal, and mental acts) with a genuine mind in order to awaken the Sincere Mind, with the “form of action” and “form of mindset” matching one another.

2. Due to their inherently flawed nature, ordinary beings cannot attain “real” merits and virtues (called “virtue mixed with poison”) through self-powered practice. Self-powered practice is “untrue and unreal;” thus, they cannot “perform the threefold karma with a genuine mind.”

3. It is impossible for ordinary beings to dedicate the “unreal” virtues mixed with poison in aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s “real” Pure Land.

4. However, all the real merits and virtues that Amitabha performs are cultivated for and dedicated to sentient beings, in every single instant with a genuine mind, in true and real practices of the threefold karma.

It is clear at this point that for the benefit of rebirth in Amitabha’s real Pure Land, ordinary beings should surrender all their unreal merits and virtues and abandon their self-powered practices of meditative and non-meditative virtues. At the same time, they should seek refuge in Amitabha Buddha so as to attain the real merits and virtues dedicated by Amitabha Buddha (point 4). However, how can we seek refuge in Amitabha Buddha and receive his real merits and virtues for rebirth?

The two kinds of genuineness bestowed by Amitabha Buddha

In the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao writes: [T]here are two kinds of genuineness: genuineness in self-benefiting, and genuineness in benefiting others [true altruism].

A great bodhisattva, like Dharmakara, the final mortal rebirth of Amitabha Buddha, is capable of practicing virtues with a genuine mind and attaining real merits to benefit himself (which means achieving Buddhahood). This is known as “genuineness in self-benefiting.”

However, the Contemplation Sutra states: A Buddha’s mind is Great Compassion. Amitabha embraces all sentient beings with unconditioned kindness and benevolence. Dharmakara practiced the various pure virtues to first benefit himself by becoming a Buddha, but his greater purpose was to benefit other beings. He wished to dedicate all his real merits to sentient beings so that they may attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This is known as “genuineness in benefiting others.”

From Amitabha Buddha’s point of view, “genuineness in self-benefiting” and “genuineness in benefiting others” are basically the same, like two sides of a coin. For this reason, we will see how Master Shandao further elaborates on “genuineness in self-benefiting” practiced by Amitabha Buddha, but does not further discuss Amitabha’s “genuineness in benefiting others.”

The “mind of renunciation” included in “genuineness in self-benefiting”

All Pure Land aspirants who wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss must acquire the “genuineness in self-benefiting” for rebirth in the same way that they must acquire the Sincere Mind in practicing the pure virtues for rebirth. Master Shandao elaborates on how ordinary beings can acquire “genuineness in self-benefiting” through seeking refuge in Amitabha Buddha, so as to attain the real merits and virtues dedicated by Amitabha Buddha.

He writes: For genuineness in self-benefiting, there are two kinds as well. The first is: with the genuine mind, [the practitioner] must restrain himself from various evil acts, and abandon this defiled world for his own sake and for the sake of others. He must bear this thought in mind while walking, standing, sitting or reclining: I, too, have the same mind as all bodhisattvas who refrain from various evil acts.

The front face of the Xianyang Great Buddha Temple. From chnmuseum.cnThe front face of the Xianyang Great Buddha Temple. From chnmuseum.cn

In the context of “genuineness in self-benefiting,” it should be noted:

1. Amitabha Buddha performs all the practices of the threefold karma with a genuine mind in his causal ground, not by ordinary beings. This is because ordinary beings cannot practice any virtues with a genuine mind, due to their iniquitous greed, hatred, and delusion.

2. All practices of the threefold karma that are performed by Amitabha Buddha with a genuine mind (i.e. self-benefiting) are solely for the deliverance of sentient beings who wish to be reborn in his Pure Land (i.e. benefiting others), as stated in his Fundamental Vow (the 18th Vow).

3. For instance, sentient beings have no genuine “mind of renunciation” in their aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land. Their consciousness wavers and fluctuates, which means their minds are not real and permanent and subject to change (“retrogress” in Buddhist terminology) under certain conditions. Thus, their “mind of renunciation” will be sometimes more, but sometimes less; sometimes existent, but sometimes non-existent.

4. However, as a fully realized Buddha, Amitabha Buddha delivers sentient beings with a constantly genuine mind. So, if we entrust ourselves to Amitabha’s care, Amitabha’s mind of deliverance (including the mind of renunciation necessary for our rebirth in the Pure Land) is real, permanent, and always valid  (“non-retrogressed” in Buddhist terminology) under any circumstance.

5. The merit-dedication of Amitabha Buddha includes the real “mind of renunciation” to leave the cycle of birth and death in the Saha world, which is both necessary and sufficient for attainment of rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

The “mind of aspiration” included in “genuineness in self-benefiting

Apart from the first kind of “genuineness in self-benefiting,” there is a second kind, which is also necessary for Pure Land aspirants to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Master Shandao writes: The second is: with the genuine mind, [the practitioner must] cultivate diligently all the virtues of both ordinary and sagely beings for oneself and others. 

As with the case of the “mind of renunciation,” sentient beings have no genuine “mind of rebirth-aspiration” for rebirth in the Pure Land. It is wavering, unreal, and impermanent, and subject to change or retrogression. However, as a fully realized Buddha, Amitabha delivers sentient beings with a genuine mind. If we entrust ourselves to Amitabha’s deliverance, it already includes the “mind of rebirth-aspiration” necessary for our rebirth in the Pure Land. Because of the Buddha’s true mind, it is real and always in effect.

Again, these are karmic practices performed by Amitabha Buddha with a genuine mind in his causal ground, not by ordinary beings. The merit-dedication of Amitabha Buddha includes both the real “mind of renunciation,” and the “mind of aspiration” necessary for Pure Land aspirants to realize rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

Before closing this passage on the Sincere Mind, Master Shandao further introduces six different aspects of practice (basically Amitabha-invocation) of the threefold karma, which are tailor-made for Pure Land aspirants to attain the two kinds of “genuineness in self-benefiting” dedicated by Amitabha Buddha. We will take up this topic in the next article.

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