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Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration: The Fairness of All Buddhist Teachings
A question commonly raised by Buddhist practitioners
To conclude his exegesis on the Mind of Merit-Aspiration and Rebirth-Aspiration in the Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao presents us with a set of questions and answers, and a famous parable known as the “Two Rivers and a White Path.” He writes:
Question: What should I do if people with different interpretations, mixed practices and deviant views come to confuse me, expressing various kinds of criticisms and doubts and saying rebirth cannot be attained? Perhaps they say, “For countless past eons you have been an ordinary being, and in this present life you commit all sorts of offenses against both ordinary and sagely beings with the karma of body, speech, and mind. You have committed the Ten Offenses, the Five Gravest Transgressions, the Four Heavy Offenses, have slandered the teachings, committed an icchantika’s [people with no roots of virtue] deeds, broken the precepts, and enacted countless other sins.
Moreover, you have not erased these offenses; they still bind you to the Three Domains. So how is it that you can practice Amitabha-recitation and uphold virtue for just one lifetime, and then enter that land of non-outflow and no-birth, attaining the stage of non-retrogression forever?”
This is a very common question raised by Pure Land practitioners. We are totally ignorant as to the nature of birth and death. It is Shakyamuni Buddha who teaches us the Three Universal Truths about this world, the Land of Saha, and the karmic laws that govern the rebirth of all sentient beings within the Six Realms. He also teaches us the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and other doctrinal basics to liberate ourselves from all the sufferings resulting from our countless past lives. Yet in this Dharma-ending age we would need to practice these and other teachings for eons.
And now, Shakyamuni Buddha tells us that we can enter Amitabha Buddha’s paradise of no-birth-or-death and attain the stage of non-retrogression forever if we just recite and do our best to uphold the virtues for just one lifetime! Is this a joke? How can it be?
A fair answer to a tough question
Let’s see how Master Shandao answers his own question. He writes:
Answer: The teachings and practices of all the Buddhas are as numerous as motes of dust and grains of sand. To accommodate sentient beings of different aptitudes and different karmic circumstances, these teachings and practices are not confined to a single method, but are multi-disciplined. For example, ordinary people believe what they see: light can cast away darkness; emptiness can contain existence; soil can harbor nutrients; water can produce moisture; fire can destroy; and so on.
These functions are all relative to causes and conditions, and benefit us in hundreds of thousands of ways that we can see and recognize. How, then, can the inconceivable power of the Buddhist teachings not provide us with myriad benefits? One who exits a door (of teaching) will exit a door of affliction. One who enters a door will enter a door of liberating wisdom.
We commence practice in accord with our own karmic conditions, and seek liberation individually. Why do you obstruct and confuse me with the teachings that favor your karmic circumstances? The practice I prefer is the one that favors my karmic conditions, but not the one that you prefer and pursue. Similarly, the practice you prefer is the one that favors your karmic conditions, but not the one that I prefer and pursue. That is the reason why we should joyfully cultivate practice in accord with our own preferences, so as to attain liberation quickly.
When faced with a tough question from other Buddhist practitioners of different interpretations, deviant views and mixed practices, Master Shandao’s fairness and even-handedness are noteworthy.
People are always amazed by the magnificent phenomena of nature, and wonder how it all functions. But actually, the law of cause and effect governs everything in nature. Indeed, we can only enjoy our life by taking advantage of the functions of the material world. Karma is truly inconceivable! However, are we truly aware that the power of the Buddhist teachings is even more inconceivable? 84,000 kinds of Buddhist teachings mean the Dharma doors are open wide to meet the needs of sentient beings that seek liberation from all kinds of suffering. Each individual can choose among these 84,000 teachings, and, if he practices diligently, attain liberation in due course. Consequently, one should not haughtily dismiss the Pure Land teaching, or persuade others not to take the Pure Land path, as laid out by Shakyamuni Buddha.
Let’s respect each other, Namo Amituofo!
If others challenge a Pure Land practitioner, the practitioner should not allow his mind of merit-dedication and rebirth-aspiration to be shaken, or turn his back on Amitabha’s Pure Land. If necessary, he can humbly repeat what Master Shandao says above, and remind his antagonist that we should all joyfully cultivate practice in accord with our own preference, so as to attain liberation quickly.
Two kinds of teachings in reverse order
Before narrating the parable, Master Shandao makes a noteworthy remark in his commentary:
Practitioners should know: if one wishes to study the theoretical interpretations of Buddhist wisdom, then step by step—from the status of an ordinary being, to sage, to the fullness of Buddhahood—one should not cease his learning until he has become free of all obstructions.
However, if one wishes to study practice, one should act with recourse to the teaching that favors one’s actual conditions. Thus, it is better to assert less self-power, so as to attain more benefits.
The statement is inspiring. The latter refers to the Pure Land teaching, which is “special” as taught by Master Yinguang. (For details, please see my previous article linked below.)
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