I see from your letter that you have developed faith and wish to take refuge
in the Buddhas and their teachings. When taking refuge in the Triple Jewel,
however, you should cease all evil actions, perform wholesome deeds, fulfill your
moral obligations, develop Faith and Vows and practice Buddha Recitation, seeking
rebirth in the Pure Land. You should also refrain from killing, protect sentient
beings and be vegetarian several days a month. If you cannot yet eat frugally all
the time, at least do not be too demanding in your diet. In this way, you will not
go counter to the compassionate Mind of the Buddhas.
This seems to be the standard formula for Pure Land Buddhism, especially of the mainland asian variety. Other schools still aspire for this, even if they don't emphasize it or demand success at carrying out these recommendations.
Mind-Nature is like a tree; when consumed by the fire of afflictions, it withers
and dries up. Once you have wisdom, afflictions will not arise and the tree of the
Mind-Nature grows naturally healthy and verdant.
Pure Land also teaches that Buddha Name Recitation can cool the afflictions when we are incapable of wisdom.
If you wish to receive the five lay precepts, you should, first of all, examine your
mind. If you believe that you can keep the precepts without transgressing, you
may ask the layman Hua San about self-administration of the precepts before your
altar; he will be glad to instruct you.
This self-examination is required for all forms of Pure Land Buddhism, even the most Other-Power-oriented schools. I think many of them recognize an inability to keep such precepts without transgressing, that's why not all schools stress taking precepts. We can not take our deluded nature on faith however, we must see it for ourselves.
Having now returned to the Dharma, you should read my compendium of letters
carefully and follow closely the teachings described therein. Only then will you avoid
being deceived by misguided persons into seeking merits and blessings in future lives
or trying to become an Immortal through the practice of balancing energy currents.
If you truly understand the teachings set out in my compendium, no externalist
can cause you to vacillate. Do not doubt the words in the compendium. You should
realize that they are based on the essence of the sutras or the enlightened words of
the Patriarchs and other Dharma teachers. I did not invent these teachings. If you
reflect carefully upon what I have just said, you will receive great benefits.
This is why it is so important to meet a good Dharma friend (kalyanamitra) and receive true teachings.
Your aspirations are as lofty as the heavens, while your will is as low as the
ground. Although you claim to follow my teachings, you are, in fact, merely
pursuing your own biased views. Faith constitutes the very basic of Pure Land
teaching. With solid Faith, even those guilty of the Five Transgressions and the
Ten Evil Deeds can achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. Without solid Faith, even
those fully versed in the various schools and teachings have no hope of escaping
Birth and Death – unless they have severed all delusive karma.
This passage clearly illustrates why so many Pure Land schools emphasize faith. I know for myself, the phrase "aspirations ... as lofty as the heavens, while ... will is as low as the ground" definitely applies to me.
You are not yet versed in the various schools and teachings. Therefore, you
cannot rely on your own strength (self-power) to eradicate karmic delusion and
transcend Birth and Death. Now, if you do not believe that the power of the
Buddhas and the virtues of the Self-Nature are boundless, how can you achieve
I feel like he's talking to me directly. When you don't have reliance on the Buddhas, nor true understanding of the boundless virtues of one's own nature, you don't have much.
You should know that no one who seeks rebirth in the Pure Land with deep
and earnest Faith and Vows will fail to achieve it. Buddha Recitation is the perfect
shortcut to escape from the wasteland of Birth and Death. You do not even realize
the loftiness of this method, yet harbor the ambition to study the treatise Awakening
of the Faith. Although this treatise presents the essence of the Dharma, it is
not too helpful for those of limited capacities and shallow roots. Even if you study
and understand it thoroughly, severing all doubts, once you begin practicing, you
must still follow the method of reciting the Buddha’s name seeking rebirth in the
Pure Land. This is the only prudent, safe course. As for the Consciousness, Zen and
Sutra Studies schools, how can you expect to grasp all their subtlety and profundity?
I think some people find it foolish that Pure Land practitioners don't shoot for the highest practices for Awakening in this life. My theory is that is because they have no clue at the profundity of other methods. After thousands of hours of practice, sure even the most difficult of skills seems easy. So when masters who've practiced for thousands of hours say that realizing one's True Nature is easy, this land is the Pure Land, or that we are all already Enlightened; people new to the Dharma take these statements at face value without considering the thousands of hours of practice. The above statement is a good example of this.
Your mind has such high aspirations but you do not know how to adjust
their loftiness to your capacities! Yet you also think that “with humble, limited
capacities, it is difficult to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land; to avoid sinking into
the Three Evil Realms is enough cause for rejoicing.” Little do you realize that
without rebirth in the Pure Land, you will, in the future, descend upon the three
Evil Paths [hells, hungry ghosts, animality]. Ideas such as yours fail to conform to
the teachings of the Buddhas and are contrary to my own advice. How can you then
say that you are “following my words and singlemindedly reciting the Buddha’s
This statement shows us how important it is to not only find the method to correspond with our capacities, but to embrace it as the teaching that will lead us out of Samsara without harboring doubts in the effectiveness of the method. Just looking for future worldly benefits is not proper motivation to engage with Dharma practice. Most westerners don't even believe in an afterlife, let alone hell, so some of this advice probably just falls flat of its intended impact. But I can say from experience that chasing down a method outside of one's capacities can lead one to miserable experiences and so can being lazy and not putting in the work. Finding the right method to concentrate on and singlemindedly pursuing it can be very rewarding.
You are currently engaged in an ordinary profession and do not yet have a
lofty, magnanimous character. Thus, such high determination will only make others
sigh and laugh. You should completely abandon your ambition to become a great
scholar, concentrating instead on studying the Pure Land sutras. Reread the letters
I sent to Kao Shao-lin and Miss Hsu and practice accordingly. You should not look
at your humble, limited capacities and consider rebirth in the Western Pure Land as
too lofty and beyond your reach. You should cling to the Buddha’s name as to your
life and mind, holding fast all times without letting go. Moreover, you should keep
your thoughts and actions in conformity with the tenets of Buddhism, that is, put
a stop to all evil actions and practice all wholesome deeds. In addition, if you still
have spare time, you may recite sutras and mantras, but always keep in mind the
need for utter sincerity. Do not rush to fathom meaning and substance. If you rush
to understand everything at the outset and do not concentrate on utterly sincere
recitation of the Buddha’s name and the sutras, even thorough understanding will
bring no true benefits – not to mention that, to begin with, understanding is difficult.
As far as the Consciousness, Zen and Sutra Studies methods are concerned, even
if you pursue them all your life, you will find it difficult to grasp their profound
essence. Even if you do, you will still have to sever delusive karma completely to
escape Birth and Death. When speaking of this, I fear that your dream will not
come true and will remain just that – a dream!
Again, the first few sentences & last paragraph warn people against assuming they can accomplish anything with no clue of the requirements for the loftier goals. The middle part stresses the importance of practice in combination with understanding. Understanding without practice will bring no true benefits.
You have not read my compendium carefully enough and, therefore, your words
rise as high as the Milky Way and then descend to the depths of the ocean. In
the compendium, I frequently refer to the sutras and commentaries that should
be read, how to go about reading them and the difficulty of benefitting from the
Consciousness, Zen and Sutra Studies methods. This is because the Pure Land
method calls upon the compassionate power of Amitabha Buddha (other-power),
while other methods rely on self-power, self-cultivation alone.
The beginning of this section is a recap, the end of this section introduces an explanation - the concept of Self Power versus Other Power.
You admit that human beings have a limited life-span and that your own real
strength is limited. Why, then, continue to pursue such lofty ambitions? If you can
become a great scholar, it will be a great honor for Buddhism. My only fear is that
if you do not succeed and do not have firm faith in the Pure Land method either,
you will fail on both accounts. Furthermore, if you do accrue some limited virtues
in this life, in the next life you will certainly be reborn within the cycle of worldly
blessings and merits. Think this over: among the wealthy and noble, how many can
avoid creating evil karma?
I think he makes a valid point here. The goal is to escape Samsara and the 3 poisons of craving, aversion, and delusion - not to become more infatuated with them.
Sakyamuni Buddha taught a great many sutras and mantras. No one can recite
and uphold them all. Therefore, ancient masters selected only a few important ones
for use in daily recitation. [Among these important sutras and mantras are the
Heart Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, the Longer Repentance Liturgy, the Surangama
Mantra, the Great Compassion Mantra, the Ten Mantras.] Regardless of which
sutra or mantra is recited, to be in accord with the tenets of Pure Land you should
include recitation of the Buddha’s name and dedicate the merits to rebirth in the
Pure Land ... You should know that the very words “Amitabha Buddha,” if recited
to the level of one-pointedness of mind, have ample power to lead sentient beings
to Buddhahood. Do you really think that reciting the Amitabha Sutra and the
Buddha’s name cannot eliminate “fixed karma”?
This is another great point. The first few sentences really reinforce the idea that one should pick a method and stick with it. The latter part is basically my practice in a nutshell.
The Dharma is like money. It is up to the individual to use it wisely. To those
with money, many courses of action are open. If you can concentrate on cultivating
one method, whatever you wish will be fulfilled. Why insist upon reciting this
mantra or that sutra to accrue this or that merit, but not other merits? If you
follow my instructions in a flexible way, you will naturally “understand one thing
and penetrate one hundred things.” If not, even if I speak at length, your mind will
not be focussed and you will not obtain any benefits!
Another recommendation for sticking with one method...
It is taught in the sutras:
There are two types of heroes in this world: those who do not commit transgressions
and those who, having done so, are capable of repentance.
The word “repentance” should spring from the depth of the mind. If you do not
truly repent and change your ways, whatever you say is useless. It is like reading the
label on a medicine bottle but refusing to take the medicine. How can your illness be
cured? If you take the medicine according to instructions, the disease will certainly
be cured – with body and mind calm and at peace. I only fear for those who,
lacking strong and determined will, put things out in the sun to warm for one day
and then let them freeze for ten days. All they get is empty fame and no true benefits!
I'm kind of a fan of "repentance" and try to do it frequently. I don't think of it as Catholic confession, where you ask the priest to intervene to God on your behalf and grant you forgiveness of your sins. I look at it more as a recognition that I don't like some of the things I do from time to time, that I have a lot of work to do, that I'm not perfect, that I can't do it all on my own, that I need help... Then again, when I do "repentance", I devote equal time to aspiring to do certain things better, and more time still to expressing gratitude for all the blessings in my life.
With that, the book is finished...
The Vows of Samantabhadra from the Avatamsaka Sutra wrote:I vow that when my life approaches its end,
all obstacles will be swept away;
I will see Amitabha Buddha,
And be born in his Land of Ultimate Bliss and Peace.
When reborn in the Western Land,
I will perfect and completely fulfill
Without exception these Great Vows,
To delight and benefit all beings.
Realms of worlds in empty space might reach an end,
And living beings, karma and afflictions be extinguished;
But they will never be exhausted,
And neither will my vows.
The Vows of Samantabhadra
--------------Dedication of Merit
May the merit and virtue
accrued from this work
adorn Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land,
repay the four great kindnesses above,
and relieve the suffering of
those on the three paths below.
May those who see or hear of these efforts
spend their lives devoted to the Buddha Dharma,
and finally be reborn together in
the land of Ultimate Bliss.
Homage to Amitabha Buddha!
This is the final week of the book discussion of Pure-Land Zen, Zen Pure-Land. Next week, the plan is to start discussing "Raft from the Other Shore" by Sho-On Hattori. If there are any other books people would like to cover, please leave a comment.