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Master Shandao’s Explanation of the Meaning of Dedication in Pure Land Buddhism
In the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao reminds all Pure Land practitioners to keep the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration at all times, once deep faith in Amitabha’s deliverance in the context of person [the Buddha] and in the context of practice [Amitabha-recitation] is established. He writes:
And for those who practice in the Three Karmas while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down—day or night, and for any length of time—their thinking and understanding is always thus. For this reason, it is called the “Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration.”
They should always think as follows: Faithfully following the wishes of the Two Sages (Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha), they [practitioners] take the path of Vow-Power with constant mindfulness while being unafraid of the two rivers of water and fire; after their death they will be born in his [Amitabha’s] land, where they will see the Buddha with boundless joy.
Merit-dedication in the forms of “departure” and “return”
Before ending the exegesis on the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration, Master Shandao extends the meaning of dedication in the Pure Land teaching as follows:
And what we speak of as “dedication” means that after rebirth in that land one will return with great compassion to the cycle of birth and death to teach and deliver sentient beings. This is also called “dedication.”
In Pure Land Buddhism, merit-dedication takes two forms: one is of “departure” and the other is of “return.” When we attain merit through self-powered meditative and non-meditative practices and dedicate it towards our own rebirth in the Pure Land, it is called merit-dedication of “departure.” Thus it is known as “merit-dedication and rebirth-aspiration” for Buddhists seeking rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
So “return dedication” is another kind, as deliverance of sentient beings in the Ten Directions is one of the objectives or guiding principles of Pure Land Buddhism. The merit-dedication of “return” is when we resolve to return to defiled realms to deliver karmically connected beings after being reborn in the Land of Bliss.
However, it should be stated that if a Pure Land practitioner attains Amitabha’s merits through exclusive Amitabha-recitation for “direct” rebirth, dedication for his own rebirth is not required. It is because we assume a passive role in response to Amitabha’s calling in his fulfilled Fundamental Vow: Amitabha Buddha will proactively deliver and receive all those exclusive Amitabha-reciters who aspire to be reborn in his Land of Bliss.
Confusion about dedication in Pure Land Buddhism
Many Amitabha-reciters misunderstand that Amitabha-recitation is one of the “self-powered” practices, and they attempt to accumulate merits and virtues through Amitabha-recitation (as they would through self-powered meditative and non-meditative practices for rebirth) and dedicate these merits and virtues to others. Actually, Amitabha-recitation is an other-power practice.
This means that all merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation are given by Amitabha Buddha, who unconditionally and equally dedicates them to all Amitabha-reciters. These merits and virtues are splendid and unsurpassed, and applicable to all purposes, including rebirth in his Pure Land.
We can, of course, also dedicate these merits and virtues (received from Amitabha, not generated by our effort) for other purposes. However, as far as our own rebirth is concerned, we do not need to “dedicate” any merit back to Amitabha Buddha because our practice of exclusive Amitabha recitation is our response to Amitabha calling us in the first place.
To sum up, the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Return is a mental state of yearning for rebirth in the Pure Land, with no retrogression.
The Three States of Mind also encompass the meditative and non-meditative virtues
Lastly, Master Shandao states that without practicing what we believe in the Three States of Mind we cannot accomplish rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Master Shandao further writes:
Even with the complete Three States of Mind, it is not possible to accomplish rebirth without practice. But when both aspiration and practice are realized, there is no reason that one cannot be reborn.
Master Shandao says, “The Three States of Mind are the main cause of rebirth, while the main practice for rebirth is Amitabha-invocation.” Among the five kinds of primary Amitabha-invocation, as stated in the exegesis of the Deep Mind, exclusive Amitabha-recitation is the principal karma of assured rebirth because it accords with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
Though the Three States of Mind are introduced for those who practice the non-meditative virtues, it applies to those who practice the meditative virtues as well. Lastly, Master Shandao writes:
These Three States of Mind also encompass the meditative and non-meditative virtues. This one should know.
To conclude, Amitabha’s deliverance is equal and unconditional, and it is applicable to all Pure Land aspirants of different aptitude, capacity, identity, occupation, gender, and ethnicity. This includes categories such as Buddhist and non-Buddhist, ordained and householder, meditative and non-meditative practitioners, wise and unwise people, good and evil beings, and so on.
There is a saying that the merits of different Dharma practices are not inherently inferior or superior; the one that works for you is the best. The value of different medicines is not calculated only in price; the one that cures your disease is the most valuable.
Nevertheless, we exist here on Earth, in the Saha World; the time is the Dharma-ending era; the aptitude of practitioners is marred by foolishness and immorality. Out of 84,000 Dharma teachings, which one is the one that most easily suits our aptitude in this place and time? There is only one teaching and one method that can permanently and comprehensively liberate us within the limited span of our present lives.
What is it? It is Amitabha-recitation in accord with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.