Close this search box.


The Threefold State of Mind: The Complete Concept of Faith in Pure Land Buddhism


Since February this year, we have been discussing the importance of faith and its role in Pure Land Buddhism. In this instalment I hope to introduce the complete concept of faith in Pure Land Buddhism through the explication of the Threefold State of Mind in the Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra, written by Master Shandao, the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism.

The Significance of the Threefold State of Mind

In Pure Land Buddhism, the concept of faith is comprehensively elaborated on by Master Shandao’s commentary on the Threefold State of Mind. The Threefold State of Mind is mentioned by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Contemplation Sutra when he starts to preach the 14th Contemplation—rebirth for beings at the highest level of the high tier.

In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha says, “The beings who will be born in the highest level of the high tier are those, whoever they may be, who wish to be born in that country and cherish the Threefold State of Mind whereby they are at once destined to be born there. What is the Threefold State of Mind, you may ask? First is the Sincere Mind; second is the Deep Mind; third is the Merit-Transference Rebirth-Aspiration Mind. Those who set forth the Threefold State of Mind shall be assured to be reborn into that country immediately.”

This statement is significant for all Pure Land aspirants because Shakyamuni Buddha tells us that we attain assured rebirth immediately, if and once we set forth the Threefold State of Mind. It seems to be simple. Everybody can easily claim, “I can set forth and just do it. It’s all done!”

Moreover, the outcome of setting forth the Threefold State of Mind is inconceivably splendid, because this kind of rebirth is equivalent to that attained by practitioners of the highest level of rebirth.

Different interpretations of the Threefold State of Mind

Some patriarchs of the other traditional bodhisattvayana schools thought this too good to be true and too simple to believe. Their well-intentioned interpretations (often through the lens of their own schools) made the Threefold State of Mind much more complicated. Subsequently, most aspirants found that it very difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice.

It is not explained why Shakyamuni Buddha does not elaborate on the Threefold State of Mind in the Contemplation Sutra, given its centrality as the principal cause or crucial factor of assured rebirth. It was not until the Tang dynasty in China, when Master Shandao made vows before the Buddhas and asked for “assistance” and “endorsement” to write the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, to outline and explain the central doctrines and concepts of Pure Land Buddhism.

Master Shandao, said to be the incarnation of Amitabha Buddha, expanded on the meanings of the Threefold State of Mind based on the Three Pure Land sutras—the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra. Over a few thousand words, Master Shandao clearly and specifically explains what faith means, telling us what practitioners should deeply believe, and how can they establish faith and assess whether their faith is deep enough.

Master Shandao identifies the Threefold State of Mind as the teaching of “settlement of mind” for all Buddhist followers who wish to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. That means that once the Pure Land aspirant’s mind is completely settled, he clearly sees the target, the gate leading into Amitabha’s Pure Land. Hence, they can commence to travel (practice) on a direct and straight path towards the destination (the Land of Bliss), without any doubt or hesitation.

The purpose of the explication of the Threefold State of Mind

The Threefold State of Mind is spoken, uninvited, by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Contemplation Sutra. Before Master Shandao explains the Threefold State of Mind, he writes: ”The Honored One reveals the benefits in accord with the aptitude of practitioner, so it is difficult to know his hidden intention. If the Buddha does not raise the question to his own, we have no way to understand. The Tathagata answers his own question what the three [states of mind] are.”

Pure Land Buddhism is, at its heart, the teaching of deliverance by Amitabha Buddha, a Buddha that we do not know and we cannot see. So, we have no grounds to ask anything about Amitabha’s teaching, including his Land of Bliss. It is up to Shakyamuni Buddha, a manifestation Buddha (nirmanakaya) who manifested in visible human body on our planet, to tell us about the “invisible” Amitabha Buddha, a reward Buddha with a reward body (sambhogakaya) residing in the Land of Bliss.

The purpose of Master Shandao’s exposition of the Three States of Mind is basically to convince all of Shakyamuni Buddha’s followers who aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss “through dedication of the self-powered meditative and non-meditative virtues” to “believe and accept Amitabha’s deliverance, thus to attain assured rebirth through the exclusive other-powered practice of Amitabha-recitation.”

Who the Threefold State of Mind concerns

Though the Threefold State of Mind is spoken in the Contemplation Sutra for those aspirants (ordinary beings) who practice the non-meditative virtues taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, Master Shandao says the theology of the Threefold State of Mind is also applicable to those aspirants who practice the meditative virtues.

The latter refers to those Buddhist followers (practitioners with the divine eyes) mentioned in the 1st to the 13th Contemplations, while the former refers to those Buddhist followers (basically those who practice the Three Meritorious Deeds) mentioned in the 14th and the 16th Contemplations. 

Master Shandao also indicates that the Threefold State of Mind is applicable to those who “do not practice any of the three virtues, so he commits the Ten Evils with deviant view, a person like this is known as an icchantika.” In other words, it extends to cover all sentient beings of the Ten Directions, no matter what your background or past life.

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments