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Master Shandao’s Exegesis of the Sincere Mind, Part Two
In the first part of our exploration of the Sincere Mind, we concluded that there was a problem. Apparently, to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, one must perform virtuous practices with a sincere or genuine mind, otherwise the merits and virtues generated are “untrue and unreal practices,” also known as “virtue mixed with poison.” Yet ordinary beings have inherited a wicked and greedy nature from past lives, so it is impossible for them to perform virtuous practices (like the Three Meritorious Acts) with a genuine mind, in which the “form of action” and “form of mindset” match one another.
The impossibility of attaining rebirth through the dedication of “virtue mixed with poison”
In his exegesis of the Sincere Mind in the Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao writes: Even if we settle ourselves and commence our practice, earnestly and diligently endeavoring with body and mind, striving without a moment’s rest as if our very heads had caught fire, it is still called “virtue mixed with poison.” If we wish to dedicate such practice mixed with poison and aspire to [be reborn in] the Pure Land of the Buddha, it is certainly impossible.
Generally, it is understood that one cannot be reborn in the Buddha’s Pure Land with only a few roots of virtues and blessings, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra. Thus, it is natural for Pure Land aspirants to exert themselves and practice diligently by utilizing self-power in the hopes of being “admitted” to the splendid Land of Bliss.
This situation is similar to that of Queen Vaidehi. She wished to be reborn in the Land of Bliss and implored the Buddha, “Now I pray you, World-Honored One, to teach me how to contemplate, and how to attain the state of samadhi . . . ” The state of samadhi is supposed to be highest state that a Buddhist practitioner, including a sagely bodhisattva, can achieve through their own power.
However, the statement from Master Shandao’s Commentary strongly discourages this self-power approach. It says that it is certainly impossible for ordinary beings to be reborn in the Pure Land if they dedicate merits mixed with poison toward rebirth. It doesn’t matter how hard they practice the meditative and non-meditative virtues, such as the Three Meritorious Acts. Their self-powered merit is simply insufficient.
Only sentient beings with pure and real karma can be reborn in the pure and real land
But why is it necessary to attain assured rebirth with pure and real merits and virtues, through true and real practices with real karma, without them being mixed with poison? Let’s pause here for a moment before we go further.
The Land of Bliss is Amitabha Buddha’s reward land, a realm of unconditioned nirvana. It is formed by (or “adorned” with) Amitabha’s real karma, produced through his practice of pure meditative virtues in accordance with his 48 Vows. Whoever is born in the Land of Bliss must possess the same qualities—like the root of virtues and blessings, the 10 stages of the bodhisattva path, the six paramitas, and more—equal to those of Amitabha Buddha.
Hence, if sentient beings dedicate or “bring along” their own “virtue mixed with poison” through “untrue and unreal practices” in the Saha world, it is impossible for them to be reborn because their merits and virtues are incompatible with the direct rewards (reborn sentient beings) and circumstantial rewards (the environment) of the Pure Land. The situation is exactly the same as that stated in the Amitabha Sutra: “One cannot attain birth in that land with few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings as causal conditions.”
Master Shandao explains why it is impossible for sentient beings that dedicate “virtue with mixed poison” toward rebirth, to be reborn in the Pure Land. He writes in the Commentary: [When] Amitabha Buddha cultivated the bodhisattva practices of the threefold karma in his causal ground, he always—in every single instant—performed them with a genuine mind. Thus, all [merits and virtues] that he cultivated for sentient beings [benefiting others], and his pursuit of perfect Enlightenment [self-benefiting], are real. What does this mean?
Both self-benefiting and other-benefiting are real
When Amitabha Buddha cultivated his bodhisattva practices of the threefold karma in his causal ground, he was a monk called Dharmakara. Dharmakara was a great bodhisattva who had achieved the bodhisattva’s seventh stage when he took five eons to meditate and accomplish the 48 great vows and the Land of Bliss with his pure karma, as stated in the Infinite Life Sutra spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha.
When the Commentary says Dharmakara “always—in every single instant—performed [his practices] with a genuine mind,” Master Shandao means Dharmakara’s “form of action” and his “form of mindset” match one another, and his practices are so natural and unconditioned that it is always the same under any condition: true and real.
There is no doubt about the colossal achievements of Amitabha Buddha, but how are they related to our aspiration to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss? The clue is hidden in the last sentence of Master Shandao’s statement: All [merits and virtues] that he cultivated for sentient beings [other-benefiting], and his pursuit of perfect Enlightenment [self-benefiting], are real.
We should believe and know that in the course of self-benefiting (practicing to achieve Buddhahood), there is other-benefiting: Amitabha Buddha cultivated his bodhisattva practices of the threefold karma in his causal ground with a real and genuine mind for all sentient beings in the universe.
We cannot cultivate virtuous practices with a genuine mind, but Dharmakara Bodhisattva managed to. Furthermore, he cultivated this pure and real karma and dedicated it to us. This means that he dedicates all his pure and real karma to sentient beings that aspire to obtain rebirth in the real reward land of Amitabha Buddha. Through this dedication of merits on the part of Dharmakara/Amitabha, our rebirth becomes possible.
This conclusion is further supported by Amitabha’s 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra: Should they not be born there [in my Pure Land], may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Amitabha Buddha ties his own achievement of Buddhahood (self-benefiting) to sentient beings’ rebirth in the Land of Bliss (other-benefiting). This vow reveals Amitabha’s original intention in becoming a Buddha, so it is known as Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.