An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Eight)

The second of both the Five Roots and the Five Powers is diligence. Diligently applying ourselves to our main practice enables us to make focused progress. As we begin to see some results, we will enjoy the practice and not tire of it. Diligence can also be applied successfully to everything we do. Whether chanting, working, or meeting other responsibilities, we do so steadily. When it is appropriate, we take a break. After a reasonable time, we return to our task. If we keep striving and are always diligent, we will eliminate any habit of laziness, initially in everyday tasks and ultimately in our Buddhist practice.

Looking at the Thirty-seven Limbs, we see that diligence appears several times. If we wish to attain rebirth in the Pure Land we must be diligent in our daily practice, for without it our roots will remain shallow and our powers weak.

The third of the Five Roots and the Five Powers is mindfulness, which will improve with our diligence. Mindfulness means “keeping in mind”: keeping both the main practice and the supplemental means in mind. As Buddha-name chanting practitioners, our main practice is to always keep the name of Amitabha Buddha in mind, using the name to suppress our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments.

The fourth of the Five Roots and Five Powers is concentration, a focused mind. This is the mind that no longer seeks externally, for it knows that everything we need is already within us. By focusing our minds on chanting “Amituofo,” we will reach the state where we are continuously aware of Amitabha Buddha. At that point there will be no need to worry about how to act. With our minds focused on the Buddha’s name, we will react from our true nature and do what is right naturally.

“Amituofo” is the root of our concentration in the Pure Land Dharma door. Our every thought should accord with Amitabha Buddha and with the Pure Land teachings. As is said, “When one accords with Amitabha Buddha in one thought, one is Amitabha Buddha in that thought. And when one accords with Amitabha Buddha in every thought, one is Amitabha Buddha in every thought.”

The fifth of the Five Roots and Five Powers is wisdom. As we have seen, the first root, belief, leads to the root of diligence, then to the root of mindfulness, then of concentration, and finally of wisdom. The root of wisdom, in turn, leads to and nurtures the five powers. Wisdom can eliminate all doubts and improper beliefs, help us overcome our afflictions, and uncover our true nature. It enables us to naturally know the difference between true and false, proper and deviated, right and wrong, beneficial and harmful. With wisdom, we will thoroughly comprehend everything we encounter, knowing how to interact appropriately with things and situations. When our wisdom has deep roots, we will not waver; we will be firm and unshakable. When the Five Roots grow into the Five Powers, these powers will enable us to help not only ourselves, but others as well.



An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Seven)

We can learn about the importance of belief through an account of Master Dixian, the forty-third patriarch of the Tiantai school, and his old friend who wanted to become a monk. They became friends when they were children, even though they came from different backgrounds. Master Dixian came from a well-to-do family and was educated. His friend came from a poor family and was uneducated. When the friend grew up, he had a very difficult life as a mender of broken pots and dishes. Every day, he carried his tools on a pole across his back as he walked around town looking for work. He truly felt that life was filled with suffering.

One day, he went to visit his childhood friend, Master Dixian, who had become a monk. After staying at the monastery for a few days, he told the master, “I want to become a monk.”

“Why?” asked the master.

“Life is filled with suffering. I really must become a monk,” the friend replied.

The master said, “Do not joke with me. Just stay here for a few days and then go back to your work.”

Why wouldn’t the master let him become a monk? Because he thought that his friend, now in his forties, was too old to adjust to the rigors of monastic life. The training would be too difficult for him. As to chanting the sutras or learning to lecture on them, he was illiterate and would have to learn to read first. If he lived in the monastery, others would look down on him. It would all be too difficult. Therefore, the master denied his friend’s request.

But the friend persisted. “No, I must become a monk. I don’t want to mend pots any more.”

Now the master was in a quandary. Recalling their close childhood friendship, he finally said to his friend, “Well, if you really want to become a monk, you have to agree to my conditions first.”

The friend replied, “No problem. You are my teacher. I will listen to and accept whatever you say.”

The master said, “Very well, I will tonsure you, but you will not take the monastic precepts because the fifty-three days of formal training will be too difficult for you. Nor will you live in the monastery afterwards. There are many small deserted temples in the countryside. I will find one for you to stay in.” Master Dixian also arranged for some local lay practitioners to see to his friend’s basic needs. An elderly woman was found to do the laundry and cook for him. The Master then told the new monk, “Just chant “Amituofo.” When you are tired, take a rest. When rested, resume your chanting. Persevere with the chanting, and you will definitely benefit from this in the future.”

The uneducated monk sincerely followed the master’s teaching. A rare student indeed! Dedicating himself solely to his mindful chanting, he did not leave the temple. For three years he chanted and then, one day, he went out to visit his friends and relatives. That evening, after his supper at the monastery, he told the elderly woman who was cooking for him, “There is no need to prepare food for me tomorrow.” She thought to herself, “He has not left the temple for three years. Today he went to visit his friends. Maybe his friends invited him to a meal tomorrow. That’s why he told me not to cook.”

The next day, she went to the temple around noon to see if the monk had returned. She called out to him but received no reply. As the temple was dilapidated and the doors never shut, she went inside to look for him. She found him standing upright facing a window in his room, his chanting beads in his hand. Again she called out but still received no response. Moving closer to him, she realized that he was dead!

He had died while standing, chanting “Amituofo.”

The woman was astounded. Never having seen anything like this before in her life, she rushed off to tell those who also looked after the monk. Not knowing what to do either, they sent a messenger to notify Master Dixian.

It was three days before the master arrived at the temple. When he saw the still-standing monk, he announced admiringly, “Your becoming a monk has borne fruit. Not one of the Dharma masters or abbots at any of the famous temples and monasteries can match your achievement.” The monk had focused on chanting “Amituofo.” After just three years, he was reborn in the Pure Land! At the end, he was still standing, did not die of illness, and knew in advance when he was going to pass. His success was due largely to his unwavering belief.    


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Six)

Next in our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment are the Five Roots and the Five Powers. “Root” means “being able to sustain and grow.” As the Five Roots are cultivated, the Five Powers are nurtured and strengthened, doubt is dissolved, and virtues are successfully cultivated. The Five Roots are like a tree growing. It starts off as a sapling with shallow, undeveloped roots. Over time, the sapling grows into a strong tree able to withstand the fiercest storms. Just like that sapling, the Five Powers will likewise grow stronger. Both the Five Roots and the Five Powers have the same constituents: belief, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

The first root, belief, gives rise to the diligence root. The diligence root gives rise to the mindfulness root. The mindfulness root gives rise to the concentration root, which gives rise to the fifth root, wisdom. These roots then develop into the Five Powers, with the wisdom root generating the first power, belief. The deeper and stronger the roots, the deeper and stronger the powers. Since all Five Powers are based on the wisdom root, the wisdom root nurtures the Five Powers.

The first of the Five Roots and of the Five Powers is belief. It is the foundation of our practice and one of the three requisites for rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Belief is to be confident and not to have any doubt. We have belief in our practice of chanting “Amituofo,” knowing that it is the right practice for us. We also have belief in our support practices; for example, the Ten Virtuous Karmas and the Six Paramitas. Ultimately, true belief in this Pure Land method will help us to transcend the cycle of rebirth.


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Five)

For us deluded beings, wandering thoughts and misfortune are normal. Sadly, meditative concentration and good fortune are not. To counteract this, we need to practice the Four Bases of Supernormal Abilities, which are the next major component in our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs. The Four Bases of Supernormal Abilities are not superhuman powers that need to be acquired. We already have these abilities in our true nature. But, too often, they lie dormant. We have yet to reach the calm mind that allows our superhuman abilities to arise and function. 

The four bases are strong aspiration, diligence, mindfulness, and inquiry. Widely used throughout the sutras, these terms have varying meanings depending on the context in which they are found. This is why we need to study both the sutras and their commentaries in order to grasp their contextual meaning. 

We can view the four bases in light of what they form the foundation for: contentment, constant joy, peace of mind, and understanding the truth. The first base is strong aspiration, the intense longing to succeed in our practice. This aspiration to succeed is the antidote to our laziness. As our aspiration becomes firmer and our laziness diminishes, we will find ourselves becoming more content. 

The second base is diligence, which leads to constant joy. Diligence is to constantly make progress and will enable us to progress advance daily at a rate that suits our capabilities and levels. When making progress every day, every month, and every year, how could there not be joy? What gives a practitioner joy? Progress, which comes from daily diligence. What is suffering? Making no progress. 

The third base is mindfulness, which leads to the peace of mind that a focused mind brings. For Pure Land practitioners, this is “One Mind Undisturbed” as taught here in the Amitabha Sutra. In One Mind Undisturbed, one’s mind will not be deluded. A commentary on the Ten Virtuous Karmas Sutra called this mindfulness “one mind correctly dwelling.” When our minds are “correctly dwelling,” whether mindfully chanting the Buddha-name or when working, interacting with people, and engaging in tasks in daily life, our minds will be free of wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. At this point our minds will be at peace for this is the state of One Mind Undisturbed. On the other hand, if Pure Land practitioners’ minds dwell incorrectly—on wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments—they will not be at peace. Thus, correctly dwelling on One Mind Undisturbed is vitally important.  

The fourth base is inquiry, or investigation. It is using wisdom, which will enable us to understand the truth. With this understanding, our mind will not be deluded and we will attain great freedom. 

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the body as impure, feelings as suffering, the mind as impermanent, and all things as dependent, without self-nature—will enable us to wisely observe the situation we are in. The Four Right Efforts—ending existing unwholesomeness, preventing new unwholesomeness, enhancing existing virtues, and generating new virtues—will help us to be virtuous. The Four Bases of Supernormal Abilities—strong aspiration, diligence, mindfulness, and inquiry— will help us to increase our meditative concentration and good fortune. With these practiced in the cycle of rebirth, we will be prepared to progress further in our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment in the Pure Land. 


An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "And there is more still . . ." (Part Four)

Next in our practice of the Thirty-seven Limbs is the Four Right Efforts. This group of practices concerns unwholesome and wholesome states. The first and second efforts are preventing new evil from arising and ending existing evil. Moreover, in addition to the avoidance and elimination of evil, virtues should be cultivated. This is accomplished with the third and fourth right efforts of generating new virtues and enhancing existing virtues.

The standards for virtue, which serve as the foundation for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are the Ten Virtuous Karmas. The opposite of the Ten Virtuous Karmas are the Ten Evil Karmas. Why are these karmas called “evil”? As we read in The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, “Buddhism is not dualistic, and, therefore, does not divide phenomena into absolute ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It recognizes ‘evil’ as ‘limitation’, and, therefore, purely relative. There is therefore no ‘problem of Evil’ as in theistic systems of thought. All evil is traced to desire for self. The ‘basic evil’ is the idea of separateness, and the Buddhist goal is the removal of evil by the eradication of every selfish inclination.”

If an evil thought has already arisen or a wrongdoing already been committed, steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again. The evil karmas of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, enticing speech, greed, anger, and ignorance are harmful to all those involved. When thoughts of these negative karmas are extinguished, wholesome and virtuous thoughts and behavior will follow. 

The Four Right Efforts underlies all the Buddha’s teachings. We should eliminate what is evil and give rise to what is virtuous. As an example, consider the Six Paramitas of giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and innate wisdom. Greed is bad; giving is virtuous. Committing wrongdoings is bad; observing the precepts is virtuous. Anger is bad; patience is virtuous. Laziness is bad; diligence is virtuous. An unfocused mind is bad; meditative concentration is virtuous. Ignorance is bad; innate wisdom is virtuous. 

We need to eradicate greed, wrongdoing, anger, laziness, an unfocused mind, and ignorance, and replace them with their opposites: giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and innate wisdom. Doing so, we will have continuous pure thoughts. Eventually, we will attain Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment—Buddhahood.

[i] Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, 2nd Edition, 1998, p 240