Why didn’t Shakyamuni Buddha give us Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance from the very beginning?
I was asked: “If Amitabha-recitation is the easiest practice for attaining rebirth in the Pure Land and the unsurpassed Buddhahood, why didn’t Shakyamuni Buddha tell us Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance by his Name—apparently his “underlying wish” and “original intent”—at the beginning of his preaching? Why did he spend more than 40 years teaching us to practice meditative virtues (to attain merit for wisdom) and non-meditative virtues (to attain merit for blessings) for achieving Buddhahood, prior to introducing Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance by his Name?”
It is a very complicated matter, but the simple answer to the first question is this: the Buddha knew that deluded sentient beings would have doubts upon hearing Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance by his Name. The short answer to the second question is that it was necessary to persuade ordinary beings like us to first aspire sincerely and commence the practices genuinely for liberation from the cycle of birth and death and ultimate emancipation.
As stated in my previous article, most Pure Land aspirants have two major doubts concerning Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance by his Name. The first doubt centers around attaining the merits for wisdom through Amitabha-recitation alone, rather than through the various meditative virtues. The second doubt concerns attaining the merits for blessings through the sole practice of Amitabha-recitation, rather than through non-meditative virtues.
Moreover, Buddhist practitioners often doubt this teaching because the reward attained through the easy practice of Amitabha-recitation is beyond splendid, as it enables one to be reborn in the supreme and transcendent Buddha-land and thus attain liberation from the cycle of birth-and-death automatically, the state of non-retrogression instantly, and ultimate Buddhahood eventually. Then the doubters say: “But isn’t that just way too incredible?!”
Referring to the passage on “embryonic rebirth” in the Infinite Life Sutra, we see that those who attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss through self-powered meditative virtues and non-meditative practices are “penalized,” by the doubt obstruction in their own mind, so that they have to “stay inside the lotus bud” until their doubt on the Buddha’s wisdom is cleared.
Here, doubting the Buddha’s wisdom refers to doubt of Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name, which is the result of his unsurpassed vow-power. Thus, doubt also hinders aspirants from “rebirth by manifestation” in a blossoming lotus flower; they are likewise prevented from “seeing the Buddha” and “hearing the Proper Dharma,” as stated in the Infinite Life Sutra. Then ask the doubters: “But how does this teaching make any sense?!”
Shakyamuni Buddha’s dilemma in expounding Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance
So, in expounding Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance to the foolish and iniquitous sentient beings of the Saha world, Shakyamuni Buddha was well aware of our limited capacity and aptitude—particularly those who would live in the Dharma-ending Age, like ourselves. On the one hand, he preached the Bodhisattva teachings of meditative virtues and non-meditative virtues, in order to arouse our interest and entice us to set forth the Bodhi Mind and practice towards ultimate emancipation, if we were so inclined.
On the other hand, he knew that the vast majority of people cannot grasp or practice the teachings on meditative virtues and non-meditative virtues. Those who try must eventually confront the fact that the “merits and virtues” attained through their self-powered practices are not abundant enough to enable them to be reborn in a Buddha-realm, like the Land of Bliss.
In the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha says:
One cannot attain birth in that land with few virtuous roots and meritorious blessings as causal conditions. If a good man or woman hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name for one day, for two days, for three days, for four days, for five days, for six days, for seven days, single-mindedly and without deviation.
In other words, holding fast to the exclusive (single-minded and without deviation) practice of Amitabha-recitation is the proper Dharma to attain “abundant” roots of virtue and meritorious blessings, which enable the aspirant to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
The true meaning of speaking of about the meditative and non-meditative virtues first, and expounding the teaching of Amitabha-recitation in the lowest level in the Contemplation Sutra
When introducing Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance, Shakyamuni Buddha knew these “hurdles” that ordinary beings would have to overcome. So, in the Contemplation Sutra, the Buddha first talks about the meditative and non-meditative virtues, the Three Meritorious Deeds and the Nine Levels of rebirth, in order to guide practitioners of the Sacred Path to return to the practice of Amitabha-recitation and attain rebirth in the Pure Land at the end.
It is noteworthy that the Buddha expounded the teaching of Amitabha-recitation in the lowest level among the nine levels. Why? It was to show that the karmic offenses of those sentient beings who committed the Five Gravest Transgressions and the Ten Unwholesome Deeds are extremely heavy, and only the supreme merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation can deliver them.
The merits and virtues attained through the meditative and non-meditative practices (such as the Three Meritorious Deeds) cannot deliver. As only the Buddha’s Name can deliver the most iniquitous of sentient beings, it reveals the unequaled splendor of Amitabha-recitation recitation.
Gaining Buddhahood through Amitabha-recitation is the teaching of the Buddhas
To conclude, the Contemplation Sutra was spoken for all sentient beings who suffer rebirth within the Six Realms and have no condition for leaving the Saha realm after Shakyamuni Buddha entered Nirvana.
Master Shandao says:
Furthermore, when we study the meaning of the passages about the meditative virtues and the three tiers, all of them are ordinary beings in the world of the five turbidities and five defilements, after the Buddha passed away. They are divided into nine levels because of differences in their karmic circumstances.
The Buddha advises all sentient beings, despite their aptitude in the nine levels, to exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name so that they can be equally reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. So Master Shandao indicates the substance of the Contemplation Sutra is “dedication and aspiration with singleness of mind for rebirth.”
It should be noted that the only merits and virtues required to attain rebirth in Amitabha’s Buddha-land are those contained within the great six-syllable Name of Amitabha Buddha, and nothing else—not the merits and virtues attained through any other practice, nor the names of other Buddhas.
Unfortunately from an historical scholarly perspective, the answer to this question is that Gautama Buddha did not know about the idea of Amitabha and did not teach Amitabhism which was a later development some 400-500 years after the Buddha lived and taught the noble 8 fold path.