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The Difference between Dedication of Merit on the Bodhisattva Path and Dedication-Aspiration in Pure Land Buddhism

© Bridgette Hall

One is “born there at once” through the Three States of Mind

As discussed in my last article, the context of dedication-aspiration in Pure Land Buddhism is different from dedication in traditional Mahayana Buddhism, or the traditional bodhisattva path. In Pure Land Buddhism, dedication goes hand in hand with aspiration. That is to say, we dedicate our merit (to others) because we aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land, and having dedicated our merit in this way, we aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

Once we aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, in order to achieve this end, we have to dedicate (to others) all the present and past merit and virtue we have attained through self-powered meditative and non-meditative practices, and through rejoicing in the merit and virtue of others. 

Merit-dedication and rebirth-aspiration, or simply “dedication-aspiration,” is a critical turning point for all followers of Shakyamuni Buddha who decide on the Pure Land teachings as their path to Buddhahood. It involves a “turning” of the practitioner’s mind, as mentioned in the Contemplation SutraThe Buddha said to Ananda and Vaidehi: ‘Sentient beings who resolve [dedicate and aspire] to be born in that land awaken the Three States of Mind and so are born there at once. What are these three? They are, first, the Sincere Mind; second, the Deep Mind; and third, the Dedication-aspiration Mind. Those who have these three states of mind are born there at once.’”

The phrase “and so are born there at once” is significant because it means that aspirants are assured rebirth in the Pure Land in their present lifetime. This is how we know that the Three States of Mind are very important in order for us to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Unfortunately, Shakyamuni Buddha does not elaborate on the Three States of Mind in the Contemplation Sutra.

Many Buddhist patriarchs in ancient times explained this teaching through the conceptual frameworks of their own schools. Some simply explained its literal meaning in accordance with their own understanding. Not until the Tang dynasty (618–907) in China, when Master Shandao (the incarnation of Amitabha Buddha) wrote his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, were the full meaning of the Three States of Mind and their significance in Pure Land Buddhism revealed.

Master Shandao, the de facto founder of the Pure Land school of Buddhism in China, elaborated at length on the concept of the Three States of Mind, basing his exegesis exclusively on the three Pure Land sutras, the principal texts of Pure Land Buddhism. The explication of the Three States of Mind forms an important part of the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, the definitive core teaching of pristine Pure Land Buddhism.

“The Sincere Mind” means “the Genuine Mind”

The Contemplation Sutra says: “Firstly, the Sincere Mind. ‘Sincere’ means ‘genuine.’ It means that all beings who cultivate the teaching and practice with the karma [actions] of body, mouth, and mind, must perform this karma with a genuine mind.”

The meaning of this paragraph is simple. If our thoughts, words, and physical actions are aligned and do not contradict each other, we are considered to be sincere and genuine. This means that our practice in the three karmic domains of body, mouth, and mind are aligned. It would seem to be easy and straightforward; however, this is not the case for ordinary beings.

Master Shandao says: Though a person may appear to be diligent in practicing kindness and benevolence, he is not genuine in his mind. His mind is full of greed and hatred, and is saturated with deviant views and hypocrisy. He is cunning and calculating. Such an evil nature cannot be eroded. Whatever he does produces evil as dire as that of snakes and scorpions. Though such a person begins [to practice] the Three Karmas [actions of body, mouth, and mind], his practice is called ‘virtue mixed with poison’; it is also called ‘unreal practice.’ It cannot be called ‘real karma.’”

This is a very serious statement. However, if we refer to the Kshitigarbha Sutra, it says that all our actions and thoughts create karma, and thus they are all offenses. The meaning here is more or less the same as Shandao’s comment: an ordinary being is actually shaped by the three poisons—greed, hatred, and delusion—so she is actually just a product of these afflictions, which inevitably results in an evil nature. Subsequently, all merit and virtue generated by her karmic practices are counterfeit, impure, and unreal.

How could our impure and unreal merit and virtue be dedicated to adorn the Pure Land of Bliss in “exchange” for our aspiration to be reborn there? It is surely impossible. How can a Pure Land accommodate impurities? Our merit and virtue are obviously incompatible with the Buddha’s Pure Land.

How can ordinary beings attain real merit, and thus be reborn in the Pure Land?

If they aspire to be reborn in the pure and real Land of Bliss, aspirants are urged to first “dedicate” (to others), in other words “give up,” all the impure and unreal merit and virtue generated from their self-powered practices, and from rejoicing in those of others in their past lives, in order to achieve this end. This is the main difference between the traditional bodhisattva practice of dedication, in which the sharing of merit with others is praised as a virtuous practice, and the practice of dedication-aspiration in Pure Land Buddhism.

So how can we ordinary beings acquire the real and pure merit and virtue necessary for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land? Master Shandao continues: Even if we settle ourselves and commence our practice, earnestly and diligently endeavoring with body and mind, striving without a moment’s rest as if our very heads had caught fire, it is still called ‘virtue mixed with poison.’ If we wish to dedicate such practice mixed with poison and aspire to [be reborn in] the Pure Land of the Buddha, it is certainly impossible. Why is this so? It is because when Amitabha Buddha cultivated the bodhisattva practices of the Three Karmas in the causal ground, he did so with his true and real mind, without even one single thought of doubt. Thus, all [merit and virtue] that he dedicates [to sentient beings] and [that sentient beings] pray for is true and real.”

The last sentence should be read carefully. Amitabha Buddha dedicates the real and pure merit and virtue attained through his own pure practice to all sentient beings who pray and ask for them during their Amitabha-invocation. In other words, this real and pure merit can be attained by each of us through the practice of Amitabha-invocation, and enables us to attain rebirth in the pure and real Land of Bliss.

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