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Master Shandao’s Exegesis on the Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration: The Right Mindset to Doubt and Confusion

By Alan Kwan
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-12-05 |
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Deep faith in Amitabha’s vow of deliverance is indestructible, like a diamond

In his exegesis on the Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration, Master Shandao reminds all Pure Land practitioners that:

One’s deep faith should be like a diamond: unable to be moved, confused, or destroyed by persons who have different views and different teachings, or other interpretations and other practices. One must be single-minded and determined in taking refuge and moving forward. One should not take alternative paths or fall back upon hearing others’ words. One should not be frightened or lose strength, and thus turn back or abandon the path, as he will immediately lose the great benefit of rebirth.

A diamond is the hardest material in the world; indestructible. Based on the Fundamental Vow accomplished by Amitabha Buddha, our faith is established in the context of the Buddha (a fully and perfectly enlightened one) and is sustained by his great Name and its associated myriad of virtues. As Pure Land practitioners, our primary practice is name-recitation, which is called “the principal karma of assured rebirth” by Master Shandao, so it should be as indestructible as a diamond.

That is the reason why our faith in Amitabha’s deliverance (as stated in Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow) is pure and cannot be destroyed. Once we put faith in Amitabha’s deliverance—and exclusively and single-mindedly recite his Name—we will not fall back, because nurturing the indestructibility of our faith is a natural function of Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.

Selecting an appropriate teaching that leads us to ultimate liberation

Many Buddhists are used to interpreting Pure Land Buddhism (deliverance by other-power) according to the teachings of other schools of Buddhism (cultivation through self-powered practices). These other schools are obviously different in view and teachings, and different in interpretation and practices. People who look to the self-power schools to understand Pure Land teachings seek to be knowledgeable in Buddhism, but they lack the complete and thorough understanding of the three Pure Land sutras. Usually, they pick up bits and pieces of the words spoken by the Pure Land patriarchs, and interpret them according to the doctrines of other schools of Buddhism.

A Pure Land practitioner from a non-Buddhist culture, who may be a beginner or newcomer, and who may not know his own position among the vast array of Buddhist teachings, may feel challenged, frightened, or even “threatened” by senior Buddhist learners. Upon hearing their different views and different teachings, and other interpretations and other practices, he may be easily swayed, confused, and lose strength, thus turning back from the Pure Land path and immediately losing the great benefit of rebirth.

Nowadays, we live in an era where information is not only accessible, it is excessive and bombarding us from all sides, particularly through the Internet and our own phones. It is not easy to find and select a teaching that is suitable for one’s aptitude and capacity, and that can fully meet one’s spiritual needs. Even if we select the fully enlightened Shakyamuni Buddha as our “fundamental” teacher, it is not easy to select, among the 84,000 teachings, the one that can lead to our ultimate liberation from suffering.

Pure Land teachings is a “special teaching” to be interpreted independently

Master Yinguang (1862–1940), an eminent Pure Land patriarch, says: “If a person pursues the elimination of all delusions and realization of the truth, with recourse to the self-powered practices of precepts, mediation, and wisdom, it is called the ‘common teaching.’ If a person aspires to be reborn in the West, with recourse to Amitabha’s compassionate power, through holding fast to Amitabha’s name, with true faith and earnest aspiration, it is called the ‘special teaching.’” This special teaching refers to the Pure Land teaching.

This kind of direct comparison is the most concise way to point out the characteristics of Pure Land Buddhism, which is so special and different from any other kind of bodhisattva teaching that seeks liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The principles of the two teachings (“common teaching” and “special teaching”) have been reversed here.

For Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance, practitioners play the passive role of “the one to be delivered.” They anticipate liberation through recourse to Amitabha’s vow power, so they simply follow and perform practice in strict accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. However, for Shakyamuni’s teachings on self-powered bodhisattva practices, practitioners play an entirely different role. They are required to attain wisdom, blessing and virtues through multiple teachings and practices, and to deliver sentient beings on the way to achieving Buddhahood.

Master Yinguang further says, “[A Pure Land practitioner] takes Amitabha’s Enlightenment in the fruition ground to be an ordinary being’s mind in the causal ground. Thus, his mind in the causal ground extends over the vast ocean of Amitabha’s Enlightenment, because Amitabha’s Enlightenment in the fruition ground can penetrate down to the root of an ordinary being’s mind.”

Literally, “causal ground” usually refers to the bodhisattva who practices many kinds of teachings and dedicates the merits and virtues to sentient beings; accumulating spiritual attainments and reaching the highest fruition of Buddhahood is the effect. In Master Yinguang’s “fruition ground” example, however, it is the other way around. Amitabha’s mind of Perfect Enlightenment becomes the causal ground for ordinary beings in the Saha world.

This is why Master Yinguang points out that Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes Amitabha’s dedication of his splendid merits and virtues to ordinary beings, so that these merits and virtues can become the cause of rebirth of ordinary beings in Amitabha’s Pure Land. This entire teaching of deliverance is inconceivable, and is only fully comprehended by the Buddhas.

In all fairness, Master Yinguang also says, “The two kinds of teachings [‘common’ and ‘special’] are difficult to compare and contrast, so ordinary beings who are ensnared in delusive karma should select carefully between the two. If these two kinds of teachings are interpreted separately, then each has the potential to be beneficial [to the practitioner]. But if they are mixed and fused, then each will be harmful [to the practitioner].

In this respect, as the Pure Land teaching is unique among the 84,000 Dharma paths, one should not interpret it according to the teachings of other schools of Buddhism.

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