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There are two aspects to Buddha Recitation -- essence and practice. According to Elder Master Ou-I:
"Buddha Recitation-practice" means believing that there is a Western Pure Land and a Lord Buddha named Amitabha, but not yet realizing that "this Mind makes Buddha, this Mind is Buddha." It consists of resolutely seeking rebirth in the Pure Land and reciting as earnestly as a lost child longing for his mother, never forgetting her for a single moment.
"Buddha Recitation-essence," on the other hand, means believing and understanding that Lord Amitabha Buddha of the West inherently exists in full within our mind, is created by our mind, and making this sacred name -- inherently existing in full within our mind and created by our mind -- the focus of our recitation, without a moment of neglect."
In other words, "Buddha Recitation-practice" is the method of those who do not understand anything about meaning or essence, who just believe that there is a Land of Ultimate Bliss and a Buddha named Amitabha, and who fervently and earnestly recite the Buddha's name seeking rebirth there.
"Buddha Recitation-essence" is the method of those who practice in an identical manner, but who also deeply realize that the Pure Land and Lord Amitabha Buddha are all in the True Mind, manifested by the pure virtues of the True Mind.
This being so, is there a difference between Buddha Recitation-practice and Buddha Recitation-essence? Of course there is.
Those who follow Buddha Recitation-practice see Amitabha Buddha as outside the Mind; therefore, opposing marks of subject-object still exist. Thus, such practice is not yet all-encompassing and complete.
Those who practice Buddha Recitation-essence thoroughly understand the True Mind and therefore sever all marks of subject-object -- to recite is Buddha, to recite is Mind, reconciling Mind and Realm.
There is one erroneous idea, prevalent among those who lean toward the subtle and the mysterious, which requires clarification. Many of them, emphasizing theory over practice, tend to be attached to the concept of "Amitabha as the Self-Nature, Pure Land as Mind-Only," and reject the existence of the Western Pure Land or rebirth there.
These individuals explain the Sutra teachings on Pure Land from the viewpoint of principle or essence, saying "Amitabha is our Buddha Nature, the Pure Land is the pure realm of the Mind, why seek it on the outside?" This is the great mistake of those who emphasize mundane, conventional reasoning.
They cling to theory (essence) while neglecting practice, prefer essence to marks, and rely on Ultimate Truth to reject the manifestations of mundane truth -- failing to realize that the two are inseparable.
According to the Treatise on the Awakening of the Faith, the True Mind has two aspects: essence and marks.
The aspect of essence is called the Door of True Thusness, the aspect of marks is the Door of Birth and Death. True Thusness is inseparable from Birth and Death; Birth and Death are True Thusness.
This is why the Patriarch Asvaghosha called True Thusness the "truth-like Emptiness treasury" and Birth and Death the "truth-like Non-Emptiness treasury." True Thusness and Birth and death have the same truth-like nature.
Take the great ocean as an example. We cannot accept sea water but not waves. If we were to do so, we would be wrong about the manifestations of the ocean and fail to understand truly what the ocean is. Therefore, when we abandon phenomena, noumenon cannot stand by itself; when we reject marks, essence cannot remain stable.
A great many individuals, educated in mundane ways, become afflicted with the disease of grasping at the "Truth of Emptiness" when they study Mahayana Sutras, particularly those that expound the Prajna Paramita truth, which they do not fully understand.
Thus, they explain Sutras which elucidate phenomena and marks, such as the Pure Land Sutras or the Ksitigarbha (Earth Store Bodhisattva) Sutra, from the viewpoint of noumenon and principle. They mistake these "marks" Sutras as expedients to guide those of limited capacities. However, in truth, they are the mistaken ones!
Even in Zen, which is said to be a "direct method," as long as we have to sit in meditation, or gather our mind, or meditate on a koan or enter and exit samadhi, we are still within the sphere of expedients. Moreover, in the metaphysical realm, there are many levels of attainment. Not until we have reached the stage of non-cultivation can we dispense with expedients and really proclaim that all dharmas are empty. If we have not reached that stage, even a small thing like a mote of dust is real; we still feel warm near a fire or cold in the midst of frost and we still feel pain when a small thorn pricks our body -- how, then, can we say that all dharmas are non-existent and void?
Therefore, those who like to advance lofty and wonderful propositions, such as "Amitabha is the Self-Nature, the Pure Land is Mind Only," and go on to reject the actual practice of Buddha Recitation will find themselves in the predicament of "destroying the boat before stepping ashore." There is no way such persons can avoid drowning. On the contrary, since ancient times, those who have thoroughly understood essence have always paid particular attention to practice -- because practice symbolizes essence.
The ancients have said:
Only those endowed with wisdom can reconcile the essence and marks of Buddha Recitation and truly understand it in an exhaustive manner.
Otherwise, we had better grasp at marks in our cultivation; the more we do so, the more effective our practice will be.
This is because the more we cling to forms, the more earnest is our determination to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land. Once reborn there, we will surely be awakened to the True Mark.
The subject of phenomena and noumenon, essence and marks can be discussed ad infinitum . However, if we can understand it, we understand everything. I sincerely hope that fellow cultivators will skillfully reflect on this question to avoid being misled while treading the Way.