Accuracy in explaining the Buddha’s words
In my previous three articles I emphasized that Pure Land Buddhism sees faith as an expedient means, while the practice of Name-recitation or Buddha-invocation provides the principal karma of assured rebirth. In the Chapter of Easy Practice, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna explains the role played by faith and practice in attaining rebirth in the Land of Bliss with reference to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
He indicates that faith is the entry point to Pure Land Buddhism, so it is an “expedient means:” Some practitioners may be diligent in practice and rapid in progress, but others take up the easy practice, using faith as an expedient means, so that they can rapidly reach the state of avinivartaniya (non-retrogression).
However, he also emphasizes that recitation of Amitabha’s name is the “principal karma of assured rebirth” as defined by Master Shandao: Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow is like this: If someone recites my name and takes refuge in me, this person at once attains the karma of assurance and will achieve supreme enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi). One should therefore recite often.
Nagarjuna Bodhisatta is the de facto founder of all eight schools of Mahayana Buddhism, and Master Shandao is the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism in China. They were the most venerated patriarchs in India and China during their respective times, so their explanations of Shakyamuni’s words are the most accurate and closest to the Buddha’s intention.
Faith, aspiration and practice are not equally important
Some Pure Land aspirants believe that they can be reborn once they have one thought of faith in Amitabha’s vow of deliverance; they believe that they don’t need to recite Amitabha’s name because they have realized faith and aspiration. However, this begs the question: how do you know you have the kind of sincere faith and earnest aspiration that assures your rebirth in the Pure Land?
They may say: “Once I heard of Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, I was deeply impressed and knew that I was assured of rebirth through Amitabha’s great vow power. It’s all done! From now on, it doesn’t matter whether I recite Amitabha’s name or not. And even if I recite, I know that it is not for the sake of rebirth, but only for showing gratitude to Amitabha.” This idea is incorrect. It is clearly mentioned by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Contemplation Sutra (at least three times) that the direct cause of rebirth is recitation of Amitabha’s name.
How can simply knowing Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow or believing in Amitabha’s deliverance through name-recitation be the causes of rebirth? Knowing and believing are both functions of our delusive, wavering, and discriminating minds. Experiencing delight, or being moved to tears upon hearing Amitabha’s name, are subjective events and expedient means that lead us to the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation—the cause of assured rebirth. They are not ends in themselves.
Faith in Amitabha’s deliverance and aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss are not merely states of mind, but are reflected in and consolidated by the devotee’s exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. Moreover, a Pure Land aspirant’s faith consists of “assured rebirth through Amitabha-recitation.” If he does not recite Amitabha’s name, how can he attain assured rebirth?
Thus, a Pure Land aspirant is said to have deep faith and earnest aspiration if he consistently and persistently recites Amitabha’s name until the end of his life. Thus he is assured of rebirth.
“Namo Amitabha”—a medicine (agada) that cures all diseases
Let us draw an analogy. In a land afflicted by plague (this would be the Saha world), there lived an ordinary being who never cared for his own health, to the extent that he did not even know what a doctor was. One day, he contracted a plague and was about to die when a good friend (Shakyamuni Buddha) kindly introduced him to a doctor (Amitabha Buddha) from a country called Sukhavati (the Land of Bliss). Unfortunately, the afflicted man suffered from such pain that he had no capacity to listen his good friend’s information about the doctor.
So his friend instead asked him to take the medicine (Amitabha’s Name) prescribed by the doctor. Hoping to be relieved from his suffering, the man swallowed the medicine without any hesitation. Because the man took the medicine, he recovered fully and rapidly, whereupon he was received by the doctor to enjoy a happy life in his Pure Land.
This is a story that describes the situation of the person in “the lowest level of the low tier” in the 16th contemplation of the Contemplation Sutra. Why does such a person recover from their illness? Only because of the medicine! The dying person does not need to say “I believe the medicine works,” or “I have faith in the doctor.” The medicine has been prepared for him to take. By taking the medicine without hesitation, he has already shown his sincere “faith” (trusting the doctor and his medicine) and earnest “aspiration” (his desire to recover).
It is the medicine that enables the patient to entrust himself to the doctor (faith). It is also the medicine that enables him to cultivate a strong desire to be free of his pain (aspiration). Finally, it is the medicine that enables the patient to recover (practice). In the entire process, no effort is involved on the side of the dying patient; therefore it is “the independent action of medicine (Amitabha’s name).”
Why can the dying person be reborn in the Land of Bliss? It is down to nothing else but Amitabha’s name—Namo Amitabha! In the Contemplation Sutra, the Name, “Namo Amitabha,” is called agada, a Sanskrit word meaning a kind of medicine that can cure all diseases. So, it is “the Independent Action of the Name,” as discussed in one of my previous articles.
The Independent Action of “Namo Amitabha” (Buddhistdoor Global)
Faith and Practice in Pure Land Buddhism, as Taught by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (Buddhistdoor Global)
On Ignorance of the Buddha’s Power and Compassion (Buddhistdoor Global)
Three Kinds of Deficient Faith in Pure Land Buddhism (Buddhistdoor Global)