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Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration: Some Definitions
For aspiration of rebirth, dedicate all merits and roots of virtues
Last but not least of the Three States of Mind is the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. Master Shandao defines this in two ways in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. The first is as follows:
The third [of the Three States of Mind] is the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. The Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration is to aspire, with a mind of genuine and deep trust, to attain rebirth in that land through dedicating all roots of virtues performed by oneself and others—the mundane and supra-mundane roots of virtues that one has performed through bodily, verbal, and mental acts from the past down to the present life; and further, all the mundane and supra-mundane roots of virtues performed through bodily, verbal, and mental acts by others, both ordinary beings and sages, in which one rejoices.
A Pure Land aspirant should clearly know that the only determinant factor of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and the “principal karma of assured rebirth,” is the practice of single-minded and exclusive Amitabha-recitation. In other words, all roots of virtues performed by the aspirant—whatever, whenever and wherever—are not taken into account when it comes to attaining assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss. So, what should one do with all these roots of virtues?
In the context of the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration, a Pure Land practitioner who aspires to be reborn in the Land of Bliss should dedicate her roots of virtues to all sentient beings in other worlds, leaving none in her own possession. It is because the Land of Bliss is a real realm of unconditioned nirvana, which is so splendid that sentient beings with “unreal” or “few roots of virtues” are unable to be reborn there, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra.
Master Shandao says, in his exegesis of the Sincere Mind, that these roots of virtues, performed in a state of unreal karma in the past and at present, are “mixed with poison,” and attained through conditioned practices. They are not applicable to direct and assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss as they are incompatible with the real, unconditioned and pure features of Amitabha’s reward land: the Land of Bliss.
Only the real merits and virtues of Amitabha’s name count for rebirth in the real Land of Bliss, Amitabha’s Pure Land. We should not add any “impurities” or mix any other merits and virtues attained through miscellaneous practices (including invocation of other buddhas) with those contained in Amitabha’s name.
Exclusivity is of paramount importance in the practice of Amitabha-recitation because it is the only practice specified in Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. A Pure Land practitioner must believe and practice according to Amitabha’s instruction in his Fundamental Vow, and not attempt to add or mix anything unrelated to direct and assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
The difference in merit-dedication between Pure Land Buddhism and other schools of Buddhism
It should be noted that the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration is different from the Merit-Dedication commonly known in Mahayana Buddhism. Conventionally, a Mahayana practitioner must benefit himself by benefitting others, and liberate himself by liberating others. They must dedicate their merits and virtues attained through the self-powered practices in the past and at present to the sentient beings for the purpose of attaining Buddhahood.
However, in case of Pure Land Buddhism, the purpose of dedicating merits and virtues attained through the self-powered practices in the past and at present is to aspire to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land. For Rebirth-Aspiration in the Land of Bliss, no other merits and virtues are taken into account except the merits and virtues contained in Amitabha’s name.
These merits and virtues are dedicated by Amitabha Buddha to all sentient beings in the ten directions, who can be reborn in the Land of Bliss easily by exclusively reciting Amitabha’s name in accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
This concept must be read in conjunction with the exegesis of the other two states of mind, namely the Sincere Mind and the Deep Mind. Master Shandao also applies this concept to interpret the “single-minded dedication and aspiration” stipulated by Shakyamuni Buddha in the following passages of the nine levels of rebirth.
Another definition of Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration
Master Shandao further writes:
Moreover, for those dedicating merits and aspiring to rebirth, they must be decisive and genuine in aspiration through dedicating merits, and presume to attain assured rebirth.
It is interesting to note that Master Shandao uses the word “presume” in defining the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. For those who do not believe in Amitabha’s deliverance, “presuming” something intangible like rebirth in the Land of Bliss may be regarded as a kind of dogmatism.
However, in the case of Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, we must “presume,” or believe by devotion, to attain assured rebirth through establishing the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. The vow accomplished by Amitabha is real, and Amitabha never fails to keep his promise. Thus, his Fundamental Vow is a truth and a law!
Many Pure Land aspirants worry about whether they are presently assured of rebirth in the Land of Bliss as soon as they die, even though they recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth. They may ask, “Can we be assured of rebirth through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation?” But let’s instead think in this way: “Why can’t we?”
Some practitioners are anxious and may ask, “Can I be received by Amitabha Buddha at the end-of-life if I exclusively recite Amitabha’s name at present?” But let’s instead think in this way: “Why not?”
Some practitioners might be curious and ask, “There must be a ‘secret key’ for assured rebirth in the splendid Land of Bliss. Can someone tell me the ‘trick’ of the game?” But let’s instead think in this way: “It is natural, like the Law of Cause and Effect.”
“Presuming” to attain assured rebirth means that a Pure Land practitioner should not have any questions, even if he comes across discouragement, disagreement or challenges.