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Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Deep Mind—The Four Scenarios of Doubt: Part I


An effective yardstick for measuring faith

The spiritual capacities, virtuous roots, and aptitudes of sentient beings vary greatly. No one is identical in his or her ability to perceive and hold faith in the Dharma! As we have seen, the Deep Mind in the Three States of Mind is crucially important. However, it is very difficult to set a universal standard to measure the depth of one’s faith in Amitabha’s deliverance. Therefore, many practitioners do not know whether they have deep faith or not.

But Master Shandao, in his great wisdom, outlined four scenarios of doubt that may impair or even destroy a Pure Land practitioner’s faith. He also indicated that these scenarios presented an opportunity for Pure Land devotees to establish deep faith by standing firm in the face of these challenges. Thus, these four scenarios become an effective yardstick for measuring the depth of a devotee’s faith.

The first scenario of doubt

Master Shandao writes in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra:

Question: Ordinary beings are shallow in wisdom, and suffer deep delusions and heavy karmic obstructions. Suppose they meet a person of different views and practices who, citing many sutras and commentaries, argues that “no common mortal, possessed of worldly passions, is able to attain birth in the Pure Land? How do we refute this challenge, bolster our faith, and move forward without discouragement or backsliding?

Answer: If one meets such a person who, citing many sutras and commentaries, argues that “no common mortal, possessed of worldly passions, is able to attain birth in the Pure Land,
 the practitioner should reply as follows:

“Sir, though you cite many sutras and commentaries that would seem to refute my faith, I am not deterred or discouraged by such words.

“Why? It’s not that I disbelieve the sutras and commentaries; in fact, I reverently believe them all. Nevertheless, those sutras were spoken by the Buddha in different places, at different times, for different aptitudes [of the audience] and for different benefits. Clearly, the sutras you reference were not delivered by the Buddha at the same time he taught the Contemplation Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, and so on.

“So, each sutra was specifically taught for a given audience, of a given aptitude, at a given time; and most sutras were spoken for the benefit of human and celestial beings, or bodhisattvas. But in the case of the Contemplation Sutra, the Buddha spoke of two kinds of virtue—meditative and non-meditative—solely for the benefit of Queen Vaidehi and all ordinary beings who suffer from the Five Turbidities and the Five Sufferings (after the extinction of the Buddha), thus confirming their rebirth.

“Due to this causal condition, I now single-mindedly devote myself to this teaching and practice. Though you restate your position hundreds of thousands, or millions of billions of times, you only reinforce my faith in rebirth.”

All sutras are spoken by the Buddha, so as Buddhists, we should believe what the Buddha says and establishes faith in the context of Shakyamuni Buddha’s person. Though all his teachings can establish us on the Way and liberate us from suffering, we should be aware that they are all expedient means for different people, of different aptitudes, for the attainment of specific benefits.

It is important to note that the primary purpose of Pure Land Buddhism is rebirth in Amitabh’s Pure Land (benefit), and the target audience in the Contemplation Sutra is ordinary beings (aptitude) in the Six Realms of the Saha world (place) after Shakyamuni Buddha enters nirvana (time).

To reveal the true meaning of the doctrines of Pure Land Buddhism, we should interpret them according to the pristine Pure Land sutras and the commentaries. If we rely on the scriptures and teachings of other schools of Buddhism to interpret the primary and secondary Pure Land texts, their meaning will inevitably 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 of Amitabha’s vow power, we shall lose the real benefit of rebirth in the Land of Bliss and the certain attainment of Buddhahood.

Different place, different time, different aptitude, and different benefits

The collection of scriptures in the Three Baskets (Tripitaka) and the Twelve Divisions is one of the largest collections of religious scriptures in the world. It is virtually impossible for an ordinary being to read and understand it all. As Buddhists, it is important to know our purpose in and what benefits we wish to get reading the scriptures.

For instance, if you wish to calm and purify your mind, attain wisdom, or realize perfect enlightenment for ultimate liberation, you should read those sutras concerned with the cultivation of mind through meditative practice. If you wish to purify your body and improve your relationships, you can read those sutras about upholding the precepts and cultivating the non-meditative practices.

If you wish to go to Amitabha’s Land of Peace and Bliss, the benefit offered by the three Pure Land sutras is rebirth in that land of absolute purity. It is aimed at practitioners of all aptitudes, particularly those of the lowest tier (who are shallow in wisdom and meager in blessings), and who reside in the Saha world after the nirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Master Shandao highlights this theme as follows: But in the case of the Contemplation Sutra, the Buddha spoke of the two kinds of virtue, meditative and non-meditative, solely for Queen Vaidehi and all ordinary beings who suffer from the Five Turbidities and the Five Sufferings (after the extinction of the Buddha), thus confirming their rebirth.

Thus, if a practitioner establishes the Three States of Mind as the true cause, and Amitabha-invocation as the true practice, they are assured of rebirth immediately, as taught in the Contemplation Sutra.

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