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Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Deep Mind: Faith Established in the Context of Practice, Part One
Primary practices and miscellaneous practices
To establish faith in “context of person,” a Pure Land practitioner needs not ask or seek advice from anybody about rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. They just need to firmly believe, strictly follow and diligently practice what the Buddha says in the three Pure Land sutras.
We should not believe or follow anyone who is still in the process of cultivation toward Buddhahood in the causal ground (self-power). Based on the teachings of other sutras, they interpret the three Pure Land sutras in different ways that may confuse pristine practitioners. Moreover, they recommend practices that may be far from our capacity and unsuitable for our aptitude as far as rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land is concerned.
Doubt is one of the six fundamental afflictions of ordinary beings. We are born to be suspicious and doubtful, so we should not expose ourselves to the challenges or risks of pitfalls that may shake off our belief in assured rebirth through exclusive Amitabha-recitation. It is the main theme or essence of the teaching of “faith established in context of practice” written by Master Shandao.
Up to this point, there is another question. As discussed in the exegesis of the Sincere Mind, it is difficult to hold firm our belief because our mind is ever-changing. So what should we do? Master Shandao skillfully advises us that, subsequent to “context of person,” we should “establish faith in the context of practice.”
In Pure Land Buddhism, there seem to be many types of practices related to rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, such as meditative and non-meditative virtues and Buddha-invocation. It is also said that one can gain rebirth by “dedicating” their own merits of any kind of practices mentioned above, and “aspiring” to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Faith established in context of practice
Master Shandao defines two kinds of practice related to rebirth as follows:
Next, faith established in context of practice [is discussed]. However, there are two kinds of practice: primary practice and miscellaneous practices.
He further defines what primary practice is, as far as assured rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss is concerned, as follows:
“Primary practice” refers to performing solely as prescribed in the sutras that teach rebirth in the Pure Land. What is this practice?
As discussed in previous articles, in order to reveal the true meaning of the doctrines of Pure Land Buddhism, we should interpret it with reference to the pristine Pure Land sutras and commentaries. If we refer to the scriptures and teachings of other schools of Buddhism to interpret the Pure Land sutras and commentaries, its meaning will be distorted.
The slightest difference leads to a huge error, and a miss is as good as a mile. If we cannot correctly understand the compassionate deliverance through Amitabha’s vow power, we shall lose the real and great benefit of rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Single-heartedly in exclusivity in the five kinds of primary practices
Master Shandao lists the five kinds of primary practices, namely:
1. It is to recite solely and single-heartedly in exclusivity the Contemplation Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, and the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.
2. It is to concentrate single-heartedly in exclusivity on, think on, observe, and hold in mindfulness the adornment of the Pure Land's two kinds of fulfillment alone.
3. If one worships, one single-heartedly in exclusivity worships Amitabha Buddha alone.
4. If one utters a name, one single-heartedly in exclusivity utters the Name of Amitabha Buddha alone.
5. If one praises and makes offerings, one single-heartedly in exclusivity praises and makes offerings [to Amitabha] alone.
This is called “primary practice.”
It should be noted that, at the beginning of each of the primary practices, Master Shandao deliberately adds a phrase of “single-heartedly in exclusivity” in depicting the main characteristic of the five kinds of primary practices. It means that, for the sake of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, practitioners must be clear not to mix any other miscellaneous practices and any other kinds of Buddha-invocations with Amitabha-invocation.
Sequence in the five kinds of primary practices
Moreover, the five kinds of practices are logical in sequence. As a Buddhist who wants to switch to the Pure Land teaching, which at its core is Amitabha’s message of deliverance, he should study the three Pure Land sutras solely related to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, without cross-reference to any other sutras. If not, he will have “miscellaneous practices” as far as rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss is concerned.
Secondly, the aspirant should thoroughly digest what the Pure Land sutras say, so he must think deeply and observe all information about the Land of Bliss (circumstantial fulfilment) and the beings living there (direct fulfilment), including Amitabha Buddha and the bodhisattvas.
Subsequently, he should earnestly aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Wishing to become one of the sages or Amitabha’s dependents in the Land of Bliss, he should sincerely respect and worship, prostrate and bow to Amitabha Buddha.
Next, referring to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, he should follow his instruction to entrust himself to Amitabha’s deliverance, and thus exclusively recite his Name for the rest of his life in order to attain assured rebirth.
Lastly, he should praise Amitabha Buddha and urge other people to do the same, and make offerings to Amitabha Buddha by supporting sangha organizations in the dissemination of Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance. It is the most effective way to repay Amitabha’s grace and compassion.
However, Master Shandao says in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra that the practice of Amitabha-recitation is regarded as the “principal karma (action) of assurance,” being the one cited in Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow. By reciting the name of Amitabha exclusively, we are assured of rebirth in the Pure Land by the power of his Fundamental Vow. It is, in fact, the ultimate practice, transcending all doubt.