Sunday
Aug282016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss . . ."

[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments and virtues. 

This sentence concludes the description of the gems, ponds, buildings, flowers, and music that perfectly adorn the Land of Ultimate Bliss. How did Amitabha know what he wanted to include in his world? While still the monk Dharmakara, he practiced and visited twenty-one billion Buddha Lands and adopted the good points and corrected the shortcomings he had seen in each for his own future land. He then made forty-eight vows, engaged in pure practice, and accrued merits and virtues. With these accomplished, he created and adorned the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

In all of this, he had not the slightest hint of selfishness. His every thought was to help all who wanted to learn the Dharma. He felt great compassion for those who did not have a good learning environment. Often encountering obstacles, they found it very hard to succeed in their learning. Understanding this, Dharmakara wanted to provide the best possible learning environment for these beings. And he succeeded. Magnificently.

 

Sunday
Aug212016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more, . . ."

And there is more, [Shariputra]—celestial music is constantly playing in this Buddha-land, and the ground is made of pure gold. Heavenly flowers rain down at all hours of the day and night. In the morning the sentient beings of this land fill their robes with multitudes of wondrous flowers and make offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas in other worlds. When it is mealtime, they return to their own land, to eat, and circumambulate the teaching assembly.

This passage talks about celestial joy: music that plays naturally, the making of offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas, and heavenly flowers that float down to rest on the golden ground. Luminescent, the flowers cover the ground like a soft carpet. When we step on them, they sink by a few inches. When we lift our foot, the flowers rise as well. When it is time for new flowers to fall, those already on the ground naturally disappear. 

In Sanskrit, the flowers are called mandara, which means as one wishes. This name indicates to us that there is no suffering arising from unfulfilled wishes. Unfulfilled wishes is another of the eight sufferings that we undergo in our world. As mandara flowers, they take the form of whatever we wish. If we prefer jasmine, the flowers will be jasmine; if we prefer roses, the flowers will be roses. 

The flowers “rain down at all hours of the day and night.” Why speak of night when there is no night in a land always glowing with light? The phrase “day and night” accords with the habits of us human beings and how we think of time. Thus, the Buddha described the falling flowers in terms that we could relate to. 

“In the morning,” the beings collect wondrous flowers to “make offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas in other worlds. When it is mealtime, they return to their own land, to eat, and [to] circumambulate the teaching assembly.”  This description illustrates how quickly the beings can visit and make offerings to Buddhas in other lands and then return to the Pure Land. Since this takes so little time, we know that even those in the lower of the four lands comprising the Pure Land have extraordinary powers. These include the ability to be anywhere at will, to see all forms, to hear all sounds, to know the thoughts of others, and to do anything by willing it. 

When visiting the Buddhas in other worlds, the beings do not have to return immediately to the Pure Land. If they have good affinities with the beings or the Buddha in another land, they may stay there longer to truly help those beings or to learn from the Buddha. If their affinities are light, they can return sooner. The decision to stay longer or return sooner is based not on attachments but on Dharma affinities. 

This is so unlike us ordinary people who, while wishing to help others, lack the necessary abilities, impartiality, and wisdom to do so. Our minds are fickle, our good fortune inadequate. Therefore, when we attempt to help others, we are hindered by our attachments and aversions, which seem only to increase even as we try to do something good. It is little wonder that we often fail in our attempts to help others. 

Once we are reborn in the Pure Land, all this will change. Like the beings in the Pure Land who are able to accumulate great good fortune and merit by making daily offerings to many Buddhas, we too will be able to accumulate merit. Listening to Amitabha’s teachings and asking questions whenever we want, we will remain enthusiastic and progress steadily. And like everyone there, with Amitabha’s support, our enjoyment, wisdom, and abilities will be similar to those of Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas, beings who are just a few levels below Buddhas! 

This is all possible thanks to Amitabha’s causal vows, the vows he made before becoming a Buddha, and his support for us. Having read the sutra, we should realize that we too need to have the great vow to help all beings. Realize also that the extraordinary abilities we attain in the Pure Land are actually already in our true nature. By chanting “Amituofo,” we will uncover this true nature and receive Amitabha’s support as well as that of all Buddhas. This is why chanting and being mindful of “Amituofo” are the foremost extraordinary abilities.


Sunday
Aug142016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss . . ."

[Shariputra,] the Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments and virtues. 

Great Master Ouyi wrote in his commentary that all the wonders of the Pure Land are derived from two main causes. First, they come from the support of Amitabha, who vowed that if his land was not filled with wonders arising from his inconceivable merits and virtues, he would not become a Buddha. Since we have learned from Sakyamuni that Amitabha Buddha does indeed exist, we know that the Pure Land is truly filled with wonders. Second, the Pure Land exists because of our own minds. As we chant “Amituofo,” we purify our minds. As this is accomplished, our pure minds merge with the mind of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha’s vows and our pure minds result in a beautifully adorned and virtuous Pure Land.

Sunday
Aug072016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "In the ponds there are lotus flowers . . ."

In the ponds there are lotus flowers as big as cartwheels: blue ones shining with blue light, yellow ones shining with yellow light, red ones shining with red light, and white ones shining with white light, each emitting a subtle pure fragrance. 

The beings in the Pure Land are born not by being thrust from a womb but by stepping out of a lotus. This is significant because those born from a womb experience the eight sufferings.  The first is birth, which includes the suffering of being inside the womb, not just of being born. A being inside a lotus, however, does not feel any pain. Indeed, the Avatamsaka Sutra tells us that when in the lotus, one feels that the flower is the whole world. Neither is there any pain upon emerging from the lotus. 

The Amitabha Sutra tells of different colored lotuses, “blue ones shining with blue light, yellow ones shining with yellow light, red ones shining with red light, and white ones shining with white light.” Blue, yellow, and red are primary colors, those that cannot be created by mixing other colors together. The presence of these primary colors assures us that infinite colors are possible in the Pure Land. Everything in the Pure Land, from the adornments to the beings, glows with light. The light radiating from each of the lotuses is of the same hue as the flower. 

While lotus flowers in the cycle of rebirth can have a pleasant fragrance, the lotuses in the Pure Land have a “subtle pure fragrance.” Great Master Ouyi wrote in Mind-Seal of the Buddhas, “the ‘subtle pure fragrance’ of the lotus flowers is emblematic of their special virtues: they are ethereal, unobstructed, formless, and not sense-objects. Since the lotus-wombs are like this, we can understand what the bodies born from them must be like."

Where do the lotuses come from? We know that in this world, lotuses grow from the mud at the bottom of ponds. Gradually, the lotuses rise until, finally, they break through the surface of the water. In the Western Pure Land, however, the lotuses are manifestations of the mind. If we now believe, vow to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, and chant “Amituofo,” a lotus bud with our name on it will appear in a pond in that land. 

The size, radiance, and color of the flower will reflect our diligence in chanting. If we stop chanting or change to another Dharma door, our lotus will wither. But when we grow increasingly sincere and happy in our chanting, our lotus will grow bigger and brighter. As we breathe our last breaths and single-mindedly chant “Amituofo,” silently or aloud, Amitabha, accompanied by a retinue of bodhisattvas, will come to us with our lotus. We will then enter the lotus and sit upright within it. When it is time for our lotus to open, we will step out. Our bodies, glowing with light just like our lotus, will be fully grown with the same appearance as all the other beings in the Pure Land. We will then be able to stroll around the Pure Land listening to the Dharma or to attend the assemblies to hear Amitabha teach. 

We can be reborn in this extraordinary land if we make wise use of our good roots and good fortune. We learn in the Infinite Life Sutra that beings in other worlds have extremely good roots and good fortune. In those worlds, if ten thousand beings practice, ten thousand will be reborn in the Pure Land. This is because they have firm belief and a resolute vow, and enthusiastically practice according to the teachings. 

But it has been said that if ten thousand people in our world practice, only a handful will succeed in being reborn in the Pure Land. These few truly believe, vow, and practice. The vast majority do not, so their chanting is not single-minded. Thus, they fail to attain rebirth in the Pure Land. 

Understanding this, we should value our good roots and good fortune. Although we have been reborn in this world of ignorance and suffering, we have encountered an inconceivably rare opportunity—the opportunity to become a Buddha. We need to have the determination to want to be reborn in the Pure Land and the will to let go of all worries and afflictions. We do this because we realize that everything here is an illusion. Nothing else matters as much as being reborn in that land.


Sunday
Jul312016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The bottom of each of the ponds . . ."

The bottom of each of the ponds is pure golden sand, and the stepped walkways that lead up from all four sides of each of the ponds are made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. Above the ponds there are towers which are adorned with silver and gold and lapis lazuli and crystal and mother of pearl, red agate and carnelians. 

On Earth, the bottom of ponds is mud, and walkways and buildings are often made of bricks, concrete, and stone. Whereas in the Pure Land, “the bottom of each of the ponds is pure golden sand” and the walkways around the ponds “are made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal.” The Infinite Life Sutra describes how the towers and pavilions, which serve as both dwellings and places of learning, are in the sky as well as on the ground. Like the walkways and ground, the buildings are made of gems, with colors and brightness varying from one to the next. Although all these gems are incredibly beautiful, no being there ever has any thought of stealing. Why steal when everything is obtainable? 

Amitabha adorned the land with such beauty for the benefit of those not yet reborn there as well as for those already dwelling in that land.

Those of us still in the cycle of rebirth can at least appreciate how everything in the Pure Land is done to help beings there to progress in their practice. With our confidence in the wonderful aspects of that land thus strengthened, we will be even more determined to attain rebirth there.