In this article, we will explore the ongoing explanation by Master Shandao about his famous parable of The Two Rivers and a White Path in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.
Bandits and vicious beasts fetch our merits and virtues
Master Shandao writes:
Such is the parable. Now for the explanation.
The eastern bank is this Saha world, which is a burning house; the western bank is the treasure-land of Sukhavati, the Land of Bliss.
The brigands pretending kindness and the pack of wild beasts are the elements composing a human being: six sense organs, six forms of consciousness and their objects, five aggregates and four elements.
The desolate place is the human condition of always meeting evil companions and never finding a good teacher.
The paragraph indicates that Pure Land practitioners should follow the instructions given by Shakyamuni Buddha on the eastern bank, and respond to the calling of Amitabha Buddha on the western bank. He should not be deceived by any of the afflictions generated by our six sense organs, which are described as “brigands” or “thieves.” This is because they try to “rob” us of the mind that aspires to enlightenment (also known in Pure Land doctrine as the Mind of Rebirth-Aspiration) through various ploys and deceptions. They are also like wild beasts as they prey upon our virtues and merits, leaving us with all kinds of afflictions.
Moreover, we should believe what the Buddha says and be extremely discerning about whom we look to for spiritual teaching and guidance. Indeed, it is difficult and rare to find a true good teacher in this Saha world. In the Pure Land teaching, a true good teacher is one who believes deeply the Pure Land teachings and teaches others to believe the same: assured rebirth through exclusive Amitabha-recitation.
Pure aspiration for rebirth arises from within sentient beings’ evil passions
Master Shandao continues to write:
The river of water is the greed consuming the hearts of sentient beings, and the river of fire is the anger blazing in their minds. The white path in the middle, only four or five inches wide, is the pure thought of aspiration for rebirth that emerges from the midst of sentient beings’ greed and anger. Since greed and anger are powerful, they are like water and fire; since the good mind is frail, it is like the narrow white path. The surging, breaking waves are the greed that constantly arises to overwhelm one’s good mind. The blazing fire is the anger that constantly threatens to consume one’s Dharma-store of merit.
This paragraph highlights the afflictions of greed (water) and hatred (fire) encountered by a pristine Pure Land practitioner, who exclusively practices Amitabha-recitation in accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. Though he is 100 per cent assured of rebirth in the Land of Bliss by Amitabha Buddha—who will, without being asked or invited, receive the practinioner near the end of his life—the practitioner must nevertheless suffer the afflictions generated by mundane and secular matters in this present life.
Intermittence with greed, hatred, and other false views
Although a practitioner knows he will attain rebirth in the Pure Land through exclusive Amitabha-recitation, he continues to suffer in this world before he is reborn in the Land of Bliss. Sometimes, he fails to control his emotions under adverse conditions, which are actually the karmic retribution of his greed and hatred from past lives. This was taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.
If he attempts to adopt self-powered or mixed practices to subdue and rectify his mind, or mitigate his sufferings in this defiled land, he may lose right attention, that is, faith in assured rebirth through Amitabha-recitation. It is because he forgets Amitabha’s calling in the parable: “O traveler, with singleness of mind and right attention go forward at once; I will protect you! Do not be afraid of falling into the perils of fire or water!” As the result of relying on his own false wisdom, he may lose his faith in Amitabha’s deliverance, and slacken in the practice of exclusive Amitabha-recitation for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This would be disastrous, indeed!
The situation is similar to one of the 13 unfavorable factors in miscellaneous or mixed practices that may result in the loss of assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss: intermittence of greed, hatred, and other false views. It should be noted that exclusive Amitabha-recitation is not defiled by any affliction. Like a lotus flower rising from the mud, the sediment does not soil it. Miscellaneous or mixed practice, however, is tainted by the afflictions, as it is performed by ordinary beings in this samsaric world.
Pure aspiration for birth arises from sentient beings’ evil passions
As we are iniquitous, ordinary beings who harbor the evil passions of greed and hatred, there is no way for us to perform the three karmas with a genuine mind. Though one may attempt to manifest pure faith and aspiration spontaneously, it vanishes, as Master Shandao says, like a picture drawn on the surface of water. However, in the above parable, Master Shandao says the white path demonstrates that “a pure aspiration for birth arises from within sentient beings’ evil passions of greed and anger.”
Practitioners are told to have pure faith and pure aspiration in order to attain rebirth in the Pure Land. But how can they? Master Shandao tells us the answer: through single-minded and exclusive Amitabha-recitation!
Though she exclusively practices Amitabha-recitation, a Pure Land practitioner will still be annoyed at her habitual, selfish behaviors, rooted in the greed and hatred she has indulged in through countless past lives. This parable tells us to leave them alone, and not to bother with them.
If we believe that Amitabha Buddha will protect us from peril, an Amitabha-reciter on the white path will not fall into the two rivers of water and fire. Master Shandao says the white path is narrow, only four or five inches wide. This means an ordinary being’s good mind is infinitesimally small in the Saha world of the Dharma-ending Era.
Our only hope, and the only sure solution to managing our afflictions of greed and hatred in the present life is also to rely completely on Amitabha Buddha, as it is under his scope of works in assurance of rebirth of the exclusive Amitabha-reciters.
The six sense-organs are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body (skin), and mind (brain).
The six consciousnesses are eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness.
The six sense-bases are matter, sound, fragrance, taste, touch, and phenomena.
The five aggregates are matter, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.
The four elements are earth, water, fire (energy), and air (wind).