Sunday
Jan152017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 24 - Why Is This Buddha Called Amitabha

What do you think: why is this Buddha called Amitabha?

Why did the Buddha introduce Amitabha and the Pure Land? Because Amitabha is an excellent teacher for us. We can practice this Pure Land method confident in the knowledge that, in doing so correctly, we can attain Buddhahood in just one lifetime. Furthermore, people in our world have a strong affinity with Amitabha. Due to this affinity, we feel drawn to him. We are happy to learn from him, glad to chant his name. And so the Buddha introduced this method to us.

As Great Master Ouyi wrote, “This sutra expressly teaches the wonderful practice of mindful Buddha-name chanting, so it makes a special point of explaining this name. This is to enable people to deeply believe that this great name, which is endowed with myriad virtues, is inconceivable, so that they would single-mindedly chant the Buddha-name with no more doubts.”

We must first understand that the most important teaching in this sutra is that we should mindfully chant the Buddha’s name. Chanting is the easiest, the most convenient, and the most wondrous of the four forms of the Buddha Mindfulness practice. The four forms are Buddha Mindfulness based on Real Mark, Buddha Mindfulness by contemplation of an image, Buddha Mindfulness by visualization, and Buddha Mindfulness by Buddha-name chanting. The Amitabha Sutra advocates the fourth form, as does the Infinite Life Sutra. These sutras attest to the profound significance of the name Amitabha Buddha. For these reasons, Sakyamuni Buddha made a point of emphasizing the name by asking Sariputra why he thought this Buddha is called Amitabha. 

Sunday
Jan082017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 23 - The Wonderfully Adorned Buddha Land 

This Buddha-land is complete with all these adornments and virtues.

The Buddha again told Sariputra that the Pure Land is wonderfully adorned. All these adornments flow from our mindfulness of Amitabha’s name, in addition to Amitabha’s vows and practice. Therefore we should not think that we could never be good enough or fortunate enough to enjoy such incredible things. After all, the adornments in the Pure Land come not just from Amitabha, but also from our own true nature.

But nor should we be overly self-confident, imagining that we will assuredly achieve rebirth in the Pure Land in this lifetime. We need to follow the three requisites: have firm belief, make the vow for rebirth, and practice diligently.

Sunday
Jan012017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 22 - Breezes Stir the Trees

In this Buddha-land, there is a slight breeze that stirs the rows of jewel trees and jewel netting, so that they emit subtle wondrous sounds, like hundreds and thousands of melodies playing all at once. All those who hear these sounds spontaneously become mindful of the Buddha, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the Sangha.

In the previous passage, the sutra spoke of sentient beings singing “the sounds of the Dharma.” In this passage, it tells how even non-sentient beings can teach. The Buddha explained that the breezes rustling the trees produce beautiful sounds. These musical sounds, resonating with the beings’ calm, pure minds, become the most beautiful melodies. Altogether it is like thousands of instruments playing a symphony.

All the beings who listen to the music naturally “become mindful of the Buddha, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the Sangha.” In other words, the beings give rise to enlightenment, proper understanding, and purity of mind. How different this is from our world where people remain mired in delusion, misunderstanding, and impure thoughts. There is no enlightenment, no proper understanding, no purity of mind. Thus, unlike the beings in the Pure Land, our minds can produce winds so fierce that they drive those hearing them to feel terrified.

From all this, we can see that even the environment in the Western Pure Land encourages the beings there to improve their bodhi mind. In our world of Endurance, by contrast, the environment is filled with constant distractions that intensify our greed, anger, and ignorance.

As ordinary people, we are easily affected by our surroundings, so we should choose the best environment for our practice. This is why the Buddha encouraged us to strive to be reborn in the Pure Land.

Sunday
Dec252016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 21 - Birds Created to Sing the Dharma

Do not think that these birds were born as birds due to karmic retribution for past misdeeds. Why not? In this Buddha-land, the Three Evil Planes of Existence do not exist. In this Buddha-land even the names of the Evil Planes of Existence do not exist, much less the realities. All these birds are the creations of Amitabha Buddha, fashioned in order to sing the sounds of the Dharma.

In this section of the sutra, the Buddha spoke to Sariputra about how birds in the Pure Land are not like those in our world, where birds are reborn in the “Three Evil Planes of Existence” due to their past karmas. Why are the planes, also known as paths, called “evil”? In Buddhism, “evil” refers to that which holds beings back from acting from their Buddha-nature, their true nature. Thus, calling something “evil” is not saying it is bad or immoral. Nor is it saying that individual beings in these paths are evil. On the contrary, since all beings have Buddha-nature, the beings in these three paths are fundamentally good.

Understanding this, let us consider the fundamental roots of the Three Evil Paths: the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. Greed is the cause of rebirth in the hungry ghost path. Anger is the cause of rebirth in the hell path. Ignorance is the cause of rebirth in the animal path. These three poisons, which sentient beings experience in samsara, hold us back from attaining our goal of enlightenment and of helping others.

It is very different in the Pure Land. Since the three evil paths do not exist in that land, the cause for the birds’ presence there is not due to karmic consequences. As the Buddha said, “All these birds are the creations of Amitabha Buddha, fashioned in order to sing the sounds of the Dharma.”

Why did Amitabha create the birds?

The beings in the Pure Land come from worlds where they enjoyed listening to birds singing. Understanding this, Amitabha compassionately created birds that sing the teachings. These birds, however, are found only in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, the land described in the Amitabha Sutra. Of the four different lands comprising the Pure Land, the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together is the one where most beings are reborn.

Since these beings have not yet eliminated their worldly habits, many of them still have the habit of enjoying listening to birds singing. But unlike the songs of the birds in samsara, the songs of the birds in the Pure Land are truly wondrous, for they are songs of the Dharma! Additionally, as Great Master Ouyi wrote, “By making us realize that we should not think of these birds in a pejorative way, it counteracts our tendency to make arbitrary distinctions.”  Amitabha Buddha, knowing that we usually look down on animals, was gently teaching us not to think in such a way.

All of us have planted the seeds to be reborn as animals. But animals, at least, are repaying their karmic debts. We are still creating them! As the Buddha said in the Surangama Sutra, “A human dies and becomes a sheep. A sheep dies and becomes a human.” We should be thankful for our good fortune and never look down on other beings, thus deeming them inferior. Remember, we are all in samsara. Only our karmas have decided which of the paths within samsara we are currently in.

The birds in the Pure Land are all singing the Dharma teachings simultaneously. Wouldn’t the sound of all these teachings at once be chaotic? No! We will only hear the teaching we wish to. For example, you and I are sitting next to each other in the Pure Land. I want to learn about the Amitabha Sutra, so I will hear a teaching on the Amitabha Sutra. You, on the other hand, may want to learn about the Infinite Life Sutra, so you will hear a teaching on the Infinite Life Sutra. Amazing! This customized education is as stated in Buddhism, “The Buddha speaks one teaching, but the listeners understand it according to their capacities.” And so among the innumerable teachings of the Dharma the Buddha speaks, we will hear the teaching that we wish to listen to and understand that teaching according to our capacity.

From all this, we can see that Amitabha is truly a compassionate teacher. Patiently guiding us, he ensures that we will hear the teaching we are ready and happy to learn.

Sunday
Dec182016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 20 - Songs of the Birds Inspire Mindfulness

When sentient beings in this land hear the singing of the birds, they become mindful of the Buddhas, mindful of the Dharma, mindful of the Sangha.

Sakyamuni explained that after beings in the Pure Land have listened to the bird’s Dharma talks, the beings become mindful of the Buddha, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the Sangha. Here in samsara, we also strive to be mindful. When we take the Three Refuges, we are being mindful of the Buddha, of the Dharma, and of the Sangha.

To be “mindful of the Buddha” is to return from delusion and rely upon awareness and understanding. Awareness, enlightenment, and the pure mind are the principles underlying all schools of Buddhism. We should always reflect, asking ourselves if our mental, verbal, and physical karmas reflect what the Buddha taught.

Being “mindful of the Dharma” is to return from erroneous views and rely upon proper views and understanding. We should ask ourselves if our thoughts are proper. Do they accord with what is in the sutras? We depend on these teachings because we cannot depend on our personal viewpoints, not until we have eradicated our Affliction of Views and Thoughts.

Being “mindful of the Sangha” is to return from pollution and disharmony, and rely upon purity of mind and the Six Principles of Harmony. Here, we ask ourselves if our mind is pure, free of afflictions and wandering thoughts. Is our life one of harmony? Or discord? If the latter, we can use the Six Principles of Harmony as guidelines in our interactions with others in our workplace, our family, and our sangha.

If we are sincerely mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we have accepted the teachings and have indeed taken the Three Refuges. If, however, we continue to hold our same improper understanding, then we have not accepted—have not internalized—the teachings, but have only gone through the formality of taking part in a ceremony.