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On Ignorance of the Buddha’s Power and Compassion
Master Tanluan, an eminent Pure Land patriarch from the 6th century CE, wrote the Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth. He utilized and integrated many profound concepts to form a solid theoretical foundation for Pure Land Buddhism. When he explained the concept of “praising” the second of the Five Gates of Amitabha-invocation* (which is actually the teaching of name-recitation), he wrote:
“With respect to the Name and its meaning: one who practices [Name-recitation] must do so in accord with the truth that the two, the Name and its meaning, should match one another. This means that the Name of the Tathagata of Unimpeded Light can destroy the ignorance of sentient beings and fulfill all their wishes and aspirations. However, some people who recite this name cannot abolish their ignorance. Hence, their wishes go unfulfilled.”
This problem is encountered by many Pure Land practitioners who harbor doubts about whether name-recitation really “works” for them. Master Tanluan explained the reason as follows: “It is because they do not practice in accordance with the truth, so that the Name [name-recitation] and its meaning [aspiration for rebirth] do not match each other . . . [This] means that they do not know the Tathagata as the true Dharma body, and the body of deliverance for sentient beings.” This passage is known as the “Twofold Insufficiency in Knowledge.”
Knowing Amitabha’s Dharmakaya body
In his 17th Vow, Amitabha Buddha accomplished the nature of his Name, and the Name is not distinct from himself. It consists of a myriad virtues, and is literally Amitabha Buddha: the true Dharma body in the form of light shining over all worlds. He is capable of embracing and delivering all sentient beings that recite his name, destroying their ignorance and fulfilling all their wishes and aspirations.
Master Tanluan pointed out that if sentient beings do not know the Tathagata as the true Dharma body, they might doubt his capacity to deliver them by causing them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. So we must ask: what is the Dharma body of a Buddha?
Master Shandao defines Dharma body thus in the exegesis of the 8th Contemplation in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: “For the Dharma realm, there are three meanings: 1. Mind being omnipresent means Dharma realm; 2. Body being omnipresent means Dharma realm; 3. One being unobstructed means Dharma realm.”
This is the reason why Amitabha Buddha can respond to us at any place at any time. Moreover, if our karma threatens to obstruct us from rebirth in the Land of Bliss, Amitabha’s Dharma body, in the form of unimpeded light, can clear it. In short, the Buddha-centered power of deliverance is inconceivable. We must entrust ourselves to his Name, which is Amitabha Buddha himself, so as to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. There, the ignorance of sentient beings is destroyed, and all their wishes and aspirations are fulfilled.
Knowing Amitabha’s mind—unconditional compassion for all sentient beings
The Contemplation Sutra says: “The Buddha’s mind is Great Compassion. It embraces sentient beings with unconditional kindness.” Amitabha Buddha makes great vows for delivering sentient beings; he cultivates merits and virtues over countless eons for the purpose of dedicating them to all sentient beings; and he accomplishes the Land of Bliss so that sentient beings can be reborn there and expedites their achievement of Buddhahood.
Amitabha’s deliverance is unconditional. Reciters will be protected naturally by his light and benefited in many different ways in this life (in this world before rebirth), and in the next life (in the Land of Bliss after rebirth). In this way, all their wishes and aspirations will be fulfilled. If we do not know Amitabha’s mind, we may feel unqualified for rebirth and will not dare to aspire to the Land of Bliss. But Amitabha Buddha welcomes all ordinary beings to his Pure Land. None of us is “unqualified” to be reborn in the Land of Bliss because we have been given a Buddha’s merit and virtue.
An ordinary being is full of greed, hatred, and delusion. Though our aspiration to rebirth is earnest, our mind continues in its familiar rut of reactivity. However, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of time, place, and conditions—under any circumstance or while experiencing any emotion—we can remember the Buddha and recite the Buddha’s name. If one does so from the heart, with sincerity and aspiration, one’s rebirth is already assured. Under this circumstance, one will take spare time to recite Amitabha’s name when busy, and will make efforts to recite quietly in a noisy environment.
Reasons for lacking faith
Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of deliverance initiated by Amitabha Buddha, not a teaching of cultivation based on the practitioner’s own effort. As I said in my previous article, rebirth is achieved solely by the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation because it relies solely on the independent action of Amitabha’s name—“Namo Amitabha!”
However, many people who recite Amitabha’s name may find that their wishes are not fulfilled, and that they still have all kinds of ignorance, afflictions, and suffering. They doubt if the “independent action of the Name” and “fulfillment solely by Amitabha-recitation” are true. They also doubt Amitabha’s unconditional compassion and capacity to deliver them.
Because of the “twofold insufficiency in knowledge,” Pure Land practitioners lack faith in Amitabha Buddha, his deliverance and his Name; thus, they do not practice true name-recitation as such. Let’s discuss this issue and Master Tanluan’s views on the correlation between faith and practice in my next article.
* The Five Gates of Amitabha-Invocation, as enunciated by Bodhisattva Vasubandhu in the Treatise of Rebirth, are: the Gate of Prostration, the Gate of Aspiration, the Gate of Praising, the Gate of Contemplation, and the Gate of Dedication.
Faith and Practice in Pure Land Buddhism, as Taught by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (Buddhistdoor Global)