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Why Is It Important for Pure Land Aspirants to Dedicate their Merit and Aspire to Rebirth in the Path of Importance?
All beings can be reborn in the Land of Bliss if they dedicate and aspire accordingly
Referring to the teachings of the two Buddhas, Master Shandao identifies two paths for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. The path based on the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha is known as the Path of Importance, which is defined as follows:
The Path of Importance encompasses the two teachings of meditative virtue and non-meditative virtue, as expounded in the Contemplation Sutra. Meditative virtue means to still the turbulence of one’s mind through the cessation of thoughts, and non-meditative virtue means to eliminate negativity and nurture goodness. This is the path of one who dedicates these two virtues [to being reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land] and aspires to be reborn [there].
In the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao says: “Moreover, amongst the Three Meritorious Deeds, a person who practices only the mundane virtues can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates [his practice accordingly]; a person who practices only the virtues of the disciplinary precepts can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates; and a person who practices only the virtues of the bodhisattva practices can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates. Or, a person who practices the first two virtues can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates; a person who practices only the first and the last virtues can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates; and a person who practices all three virtues can be reborn [in the Pure Land] if he dedicates [accordingly].”
In other words, the crucial factors for attaining rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land in this case are dedication of merit and aspiration. In order to attain rebirth there, Pure Land aspirants who practice non-meditative virtue must generate the intention to dedicate their merit and aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land, just like those who practice meditative virtue.
Why is it important for practitioners who follow the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha to dedicate all the merit and virtue attained through their self-powered practices if they aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss? This question is difficult to answer as it involves a deep understanding of the core concepts of Mahayana Buddhism.
Rebirth in the Pure Land is unlikely through the practice of miscellaneous virtues according to circumstance
Firstly, we should be aware that the Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana, unlike our Saha World, which is a realm of conditioned phenomena characterized by the cycle of death and rebirth. Whoever wishes to be born in a Buddha-land must possess the same qualities as a Buddha. This is the same as saying that those who practice the Five Precepts are qualified to be born as human beings and those who practice The Wholesome Deeds are qualified to be born in the heavens.
That is why the Amitabha Sutra says: “One cannot attain birth in that land [the Land of Bliss] with few roots of virtue and little merit as causal conditions.” Master Shandao explains this sentence as follows: “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana; rebirth there is unlikely if one practices miscellaneous virtues according to circumstance.”
This means that when ordinary beings like us practice and accomplish miscellaneous virtues according to our karmic circumstances in the Saha World, that practice contains few roots of virtue and little merit. It is insufficient, in terms of quality and nature, to enable us to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, being a splendid realm of unconditioned nirvana. In his Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth, Master Tanluan identifies the virtue of such practice as “unreal”; thus, it cannot be “used” to qualify for, and is not applicable toward, rebirth in a “real” reward land like the Land of Bliss.
So how can ordinary beings like us attain abundant roots of virtue and merit in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss? The Amitabha Sutra says: “A good man or woman who hears of Amitabha Buddha holds fast to his Name for even one day, or two, three, four, five, six, or seven days, single-mindedly, without deviation. When that person approaches the point of death, Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will appear before him. When death comes, his mind will not be totally confused. He will at once gain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss.”
In other words, one can attain abundant roots of virtue and merit through exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation or by holding fast to Amitabha’s name, enabling us to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. By way of explanation of this sentence, Master Shandao says: “The Tathagata selects the key method—he teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.”
So, “single-mindedly, without deviation” means “to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.” “Two-fold exclusivity” means (1) to do something single-mindedly, to the exclusion of all else, and (2) to perform a task without deviation, in other words exclusively, without turning to other tasks. Hence it is called “two-fold exclusivity.” “Single-mindedly” means with one mind, not two minds; the focus is exclusive. “Without deviation,” or without mixing in other elements, also connotes exclusivity.
This means that Amitabha’s name is in itself endowed with sufficient merit and virtue, in terms of quality and nature, to enable us to be reborn in the splendid realm of unconditioned nirvana, the Land of Bliss. Master Tanluan identifies this virtue as “real” virtue that enables us to be reborn in the “real” reward land of Amitabha Buddha, the Land of Bliss.
All are born in the same way through a single cause—Amitabha-recitation
Master Tanluan continues: “Beings belong to a multitude of families in the world of assorted births; they are born by womb, by egg, by moisture, or by manifestation, and experience different states of happiness and suffering due to their assorted karma. However, in the Land of Peace and Joy, all beings are born through manifestation in the lotus flower of Amitabha Buddha’s pure and perfect enlightenment. This is because they are born in the same way with a single cause—Amitabha-recitation—and through no other causes or virtue.
From such a cause comes such an effect. As all Pure Land aspirants are born in the same way with one single cause—pure and exclusive Amitabha-recitation—they must dedicate all other miscellaneous, irrelevant, and incompatible merit and virtue (attained through self-powered meditative and non-meditative practices in other realms in their past lives) to beings in other worlds if they sincerely aspire to be born in the unique Land of Bliss.