In the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao opened the door to the Pure Land based on the two teachings of two Buddhas. One is known as the Path of Importance expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha, and the other is the Path of Great Vow by Amitabha Buddha with his alternative intent.
When Master Shandao defined the Path of Importance, he said: 'It [the Path of Importance] involves the two teachings of meditative virtue and non-meditative virtue, as expounded in the Contemplation Sutra. Meditative virtue means to still one’s mind by ceasing any thought, and non-meditative virtue means to eliminate evil and nurture good. This is the path if one dedicates these two virtues [to others], and aspires to be reborn [in the Pure Land].'
Why is it called the Path of Importance? In the statement, the key words are ‘dedication’ and ‘aspiration’ for rebirth in the Pure Land. Is there any particular meaning in ‘dedication’ and ‘aspiration’? To answer these questions, let us go further and see how Master Shandao and other patriarchs interpreted the concept of dedication and aspiration in terms of the Path of Importance.
The general meaning of dedication in Mahayana Buddhism
Dedication is a unique theological term amongst the Bodhisattva practices of Mahayana Buddhism. All Bodhisattvas must set forth their Bodhi Mind, which is to pursue the Buddhist Way above, and to deliver sentient beings below. In this respect, they cultivate all kinds of Bodhisattva practices and attain the respective merits and virtues by their own efforts (‘self-power’). They then dedicate all these to the sentient beings at the end of every single Bodhisattva practice. To accord with the spirit of the Bodhi Mind, they do not keep any merit and virtue for their own use or enjoyment. Dedication is synonymous with transference: the practitioner actively transfers his merits and virtues to other sentient beings.
Let us remember Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who was a monk in the era ofLokeshvararaja Buddha. Dharmakara became the Buddha Amitabha ten kalpas (a Buddhist measurement of many millions of years) ago. But first, he made the 48 vows to deliver sentient beings by receiving them to his Pure Land. We already learned that the 18th Vow, or the Fundamental or Primal Vow, is the most important of these vows. In accomplishing them, he cultivated pure and flawless karma for five kalpas. He attained all the splendid and substantial merits and virtues, dedicated the merits of all his past lives to the sentient beings in the ten directions, and finally achieved Buddhahood and created the Land of Bliss, Sukhavati.
With sublime compassion and unsurpassed selflessness, Dharmakara made his profound and powerful vows. He diligently cultivated pure Bodhisattva practices and accumulated immeasurable and substantial merits and virtues. His sole intention was to deliver all sentient beings without exception. In fulfilling his vows, he dedicated all of his flawless, pure, and virtuous roots and meritorious blessings to those who recite his name exclusively in the ten directions. Now he receives countless beings to be reborn in his Pure Land. ‘Giving as a donor’ is what dedication commonly means in the Bodhisattva practices.
This is why those who recite Amitabha’s name exclusively can be reborn in his Pure Land without their own impure, flawed and non-substantial virtuous roots and merit. All the necessary merits and virtues for rebirth are provided for you, the sentient being, by Amitabha Buddha and his dedication. The meaning of Amitabha’s dedication to reciters of his name also bears a sense of ‘sacrifice’, like in other religions. Amitabha Buddha repays our karmic debts with his pure, flawless and substantial merits and virtues. This is the power of dedication in the Bodhisattva practices.
On the other hand, the Pure Land practitioner who follows the Path of Great Vow and recites the Amitabha’s name are considered as ‘receivers’. They receive Amitabha’s pure and flawless merits and virtues through Amitabha-recitation, which enables them to be reborn in his Pure Land. This is the reason why no dedication to Amitabha Buddha is required for the Amitabha-reciter for the purpose of being reborn in Pure Land, because the merits and virtues are bestowed by the direct dedication of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha has no need for Amitabha-reciters to return them to him. This is what pristine Pure Land Buddhism is all about. All pristine Pure Land practitioners must bear in mind that they do not have any merits and virtues in Amitbaha-recitation with their own effort (‘self-power’).
The exegesis of dedication in the Path of Importance
In the Path of Importance, the meaning of dedication should be interpreted in conjunction with the word ‘aspiration’. The Pure Land practitioner wishes deeply to be reborn to the Pure Land, the dwelling of Amitabha Buddha. As the Land of Bliss is a sanctum of unconditioned nirvana, the assorted range of imperfect merits and virtues accumulated in the devotee’s past lives in the Defiled Land (like the Saha World) is no longer relevant, recognized, or applicable. Master Shandao said, 'The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; Rebirth there is unlikely by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances.'
In order to show her or his sincere aspiration and determination to be reborn in the Pure Land and the reliance on the Amitabha’s merits and virtues, the Amitabha-reciter should dedicate, give up, and forfeit all the merits and virtues that were attained through her or his own effort (‘self-power’), and dedicate them all to beings still living in the mundane worlds.
As emphasized earlier, the Land of Bliss is a universe of unconditioned enlightenment and liberation. It is totally, radically different and distinct from our Saha World. This is because our universe is one of conditioned phenomena afflicted by birth and death, suffering, and ultimately ignorance about these realities. Master Tanluan said in the Commentary of the Treatise of Rebirth, 'Beings and a multitude of their families in the world of assorted births that are born, whether by womb, by egg, by moisture or by manifestation, are of different levels in between happiness and suffering, because of their assorted karma. However, in the Land of Peace and Joy, all beings are born by manifestation of the lotus flower of Amitabha Buddha with his pure and perfect enlightenment. This is because all the beings are born through the same way with one single cause - Amitabha-recitation, and no other causes and virtuous ways.'
The Heart of Dedication and Aspiration
Referring to the definition of the Path of Importance by Master Shandao, we have to read the word ‘dedicates’ together with the following word ‘aspires’ because they are closely related. If we combine the two words together, we find that it actually means the heart of dedication and aspiration, one of the Three Hearts essential for the rebirth in the Pure Land as stipulated in the Contemplation Sutra (true and sincere heart, deep heart, and heart of dedication and aspiration).
Dedication in Chinese is written as Hui-Xiang (?^?V). The word ‘Hui’ means turning around or changing to and ‘Xiang’ means direction and inclination. When we say dedication from Hinayana to Mahayana, we mean that one has to give up the lesser vehicle of self-practice, and go aboard the great universal vehicle. When we say dedication from self to others, we mean that one has to discard one’s own merits and transfer them to others.