Tuesday
Jun202017

Hold phenomena in your hand, 

not your heart. 

Attachments—those myriad things we cling to that bind us to endless rebirths and suffering. And so, those who hope we will free ourselves of suffering, advise us to let go of our attachments. But such advice sounds like being told we should exist in a monochrome world when those around us relish a world ablaze with color. If we think this way, we have misunderstood. When we relinquish attachments, we can still hold the person, the object, the experience, the idea in our hands, marveling at being able to hold them thus, awed by how something so precious has come to us. What we do not do is hold the phenomena in our heart, seeking to keep them always with us, never wanting to let them go as if we were clutching a rare songbird. Clasping the bird in our heart, it will die, crushed by our clinging. Allowing it to rest lightly on our hand, it will thrust out its chest to joyously sing, while we are filled with delight, not attachments.

Sunday
Jun182017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 45: A Most Difficult and Rare Task

Just as I am now extolling the inconceivable virtues of all the Buddhas, all those Buddhas are likewise extolling my inconceivable virtues, with these words: “Sakyamuni Buddha is able to carry out a most difficult and rare task. In the Saha World, the World of Endurance, in an evil world of the Five Corruptions—the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of afflictions, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life—he is able to achieve Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment, and to expound the Pure Land teaching, which all beings in all worlds find hard to believe.”

“All those Buddhas” refers to all the Buddhas in the ten directions, including Amitabha Buddha. The ten directions include the six directions we have just learned about plus the intermediate directions of the northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. “My inconceivable virtues” is a reference to the merit of Sakyamuni Buddha. What is this inconceivable merit? That he was able to “achieve Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment, and to expound the Pure Land teaching, which all beings in all worlds find hard to believe.”

In his commentary on the sutra, Great Master Ouyi put Sakyamuni Buddha’s inconceivable accomplishment into perspective. “Explaining the gradual teaching to the beings in this evil world of the Five Corruptions is easy; explaining the immediate teaching is difficult. Explaining the immediate teaching other than the Pure Land teaching to the beings in this evil world of the Five Corruptions is still easy; explaining horizontal transcending of the immediate Pure Land teaching is particularly difficult. Explaining horizontal transcending, immediate practice, immediate attainment, and wondrous visualization of the Pure Land teaching to the beings in this evil world of the Five Corruptions is already not easy. But the most difficult of all is explaining this teaching that requires no laborious practice but mindful Buddha-name chanting for one to advance directly to the level of non-retrogression—a unique, wondrous, and most beneficial method that is beyond imagination.”[i]

Gradual refers to the attainment of the level of non-retrogression over a long period of time. This attainment takes a long time because a practitioner has to progress through many stages. Immediate refers to the quick attainment of non-retrogression. Quick, because a practitioner progresses without stages.

Today it is especially difficult to expound the immediate teaching of horizontal transcendence. Why? Because in this Dharma-ending Age, many people prefer to hear the gradual teaching. For them a stage-by-stage progression would seem logical: After eradicating eighty-eight kinds of the Affliction of Views, one becomes a stream-enterer. And then, after eliminating eighty-one kinds of the Affliction of Thoughts, one will become an arhat. This gradual stage-by-stage methodology makes sense to them and is therefore easier to believe.

With the immediate teaching, by mindfully chanting “Amituofo,” we will be able to transcend the Three Realms, attain rebirth in the Western Pure Land, where there is no retrogression, and achieve Buddhahood. But hearing of such an achievement, people doubt this teaching. How can someone accomplish Buddhahood so quickly by doing something as simple as chanting a Buddha’s name? And so they reject this teaching, thinking it just sounds too good to be true.

Yet, even in the face of such difficulties, the Buddha was able to propagate this Pure Land immediate teaching. Moreover, he taught it in our “Saha World, the World of Endurance, in an evil world of the Five Corruptions—the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of afflictions, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life.” As we previously learned, it is the world that is evil, not those who dwell in that world. Given that all beings have Buddha-nature, all beings are intrinsically good. But having not yet uncovered their innate wisdom, they mistake wrong for right and right for wrong. Ignorant and deluded, the beings have the misfortune to dwell, not in a Pure Land, but in the “evil world of the Five Corruptions.”

The First Corruption is the corruption of the age. Corruption is pollution. Age is time. The corruption of the age means we live in troubled times. Today, the sky, land, and water—everything—is polluted. People, likewise, are contaminated in mind, body, and spirit. We need, therefore, to be discerning about those whom we interact with, as well as carefully choose the situations that we encounter. By doing so, we will be better able to maintain a pure, unpolluted mind.

To help us accomplish this mind, we can strive to attain the Six Principles of Harmony: harmony in having the same viewpoints, in observing the same precepts, in living together, in speaking without conflict, in experiencing Dharma bliss, and in sharing benefits. Additionally, we should mindfully chant the Buddha’s name and wholeheartedly study our selected Pure Land sutra.

The Second Corruption is the corruption of views. This view tells us that People, with vastly different opinions, hold many erroneous views. One of our most problematic incorrect views, which leads us to commit untold negative karmas, is the belief that the physical body is “I.”

The Buddha taught that the body is not “I.” Rather, a body is a living organism composed of various systems, not unlike a machine consisting of many connected parts. These systems comprise multiple organs, which are made up of billions of cells, and these, in turn, are made up of countless atoms. The atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We thus begin to see that a body is a combination of many substances. It comes about due to many conditions. And a body changes ceaselessly. It is impermanent. And it is illusory. A body is merely a vehicle; it is something that beings have and use. It is not “I.”

Another significant corruption of views is dualism. Dualism arises from our wandering thoughts and attachments. Whereas we may be aware of our more obvious wandering thoughts and attachments, we are not conscious of the subtle ones. These thoughts and attachments lie deep in our store consciousness. And although buried, they can arise all too readily, all too easily.

For instance, the moment we judge something to be short in length, we also immediately think of its opposite, long. When we think of far, we juxtapose it with near. Thinking of big, we also think of small. Everything is thought of in dualistic terms. Our most apparent dualistic concept is the differentiation of “you” and “I”: “you” as counter to “I,” and vice versa, “I” as counter to “you.” From such jaundiced thoughts of the opposites as something different, disagreements will arise, eventually causing conflicts and, in time, war.  

Our erroneous understanding of both causes and effects is another major corruption of views. With causes, for example, we may mistake a non-cause for a cause. As an illustration of this, consider how most people think about financial gain. In their attempts to acquire it, they devise various ways to make money. But these are not the causes that will result in wealth. Having wealth is a karmic result. How do we get this karmic result? The Buddha taught that the cause which will result in being wealthy is the giving of wealth. If we are unwilling to practice such giving and are instead stingy, then we will ultimately fail in our quest for financial gain. Our cause is wrong.

What about mistaken views of effects? One example is thinking that good fortune is unrelated to wholesome deeds. Or the other extreme: that misfortune is not related to unwholesome deeds. Lacking understanding, we do not realize why things happen as they do.

But the most serious erroneous view of cause and effect is simply not to believe it, not to believe the natural law of causality.

If we want to have good rewards, we must know to cultivate good causes. Good causes bring about good effects. Bad causes bring about bad effects. To think that we can create bad causes and still get good rewards goes against natural law.

The Third Corruption is the corruption of afflictions. There are five major kinds of afflictions.

The first major affliction is greed. Unable to let go of selfishness, we are caught up in personal attachments, always craving to have the world conform to our wishes and expectations. We have yet to grasp the reality that everything in our world of Endurance is impermanent and thus unobtainable.  As the Diamond Sutra says, “all conditioned existences are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow.”

The second major affliction is anger. When our greed remains unsatisfied, and things do not occur as we desire, we give in to anger. We may yell and strike out. We may quip sarcastically. We may smolder with resentment. The one thing we fail to do is exercise patience. Or even remember that we should. And so, failing to react wisely, once again our anger destroys our peace of mind and that of others close to us.

The third major affliction is ignorance. Functioning from self-interest and personal viewpoints, we are ignorant—unable to tell true from false, good from bad, right from wrong, virtue from evil, or beneficial from harmful. Just as selflessness is the antidote to greed and patience the antidote to anger, innate prajna wisdom is the antidote to ignorance. When we uncover this wisdom, we will naturally and intuitively know what is moral and correct.

The fourth major affliction is arrogance. Not having eradicated our dualistic view of life, we still perceive everything as such. There is “self” (the “me” or “I”) and then the “others” (“he,” “she,” “them”). Dualism also permeates our opinions. We become convinced that our views are right and those of others are wrong. As our ideas and opinions become firmly entrenched, we descend into arrogance. The antidote for arrogance is humility. Humility is the sincere and honest virtue that arises from the realization that no being is superior to another. Fundamentally, because all beings have Buddha-nature, we are all equal.

And the fifth major affliction is doubting the teachings of sages, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Questioning the truthfulness of the teachings of awakened beings, we think, speak, and act as we always have: selfishly and erroneously. Questioning how the teachings can help us, we stubbornly cling to our mistaken viewpoints and residual habits instead of immersing ourselves in practices that will ensure our progression towards enlightenment.

The five major afflictions of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt of the sage’s teachings are extraordinarily tough to eliminate. And yet it is crucial that we do so because these thoughts and mindsets affect both our words and our actions. When our thoughts are selfish and harmful, our speech and actions will likewise be selfish and harmful.

The Fourth Corruption is the corruption of sentient beings.

In referring to us, the Buddha often used the word “being.” This way of addressing us not only reminds us to awaken, but it also helps us to understand the truth. To begin with, this body of ours is not real. When various conditions combine, the phenomenon, a body, comes about. When these conditions separate, the phenomenon ceases to exist. Therefore, we cannot take this phenomenon, this body, as real because it is not permanent.

The Fifth Corruption is the corruption of life. Due to our negative karmas, our lifespans are decreasing. The increase in natural and human-made disasters, conflicts, and wars is causing many more people to die young. We are facing increasing toxic environmental and chemical pollution, which are now being shown to result in life-threatening medical conditions. As our children struggle to survive in the world we are creating, it is very possible that our current average lifespan will end up being longer than that of our children.

Fortunately, even in this world of the Five Corruptions, it is possible for us to utilize the transformative benefits of our Pure Land practice. Through faith, vow, and practice, we can transform evil into perfect goodness. As Great Master Ouyi advised, “Faith and vows and the adornment of the name of Amitabha transform the corruption of the age into an assembly of purity, transform the corruption of views into infinite light, transform the corruption of afflictions into the eternal still light, transform the corruption of sentient beings into beings born from lotuses in the Pure Land, and transform the corruption of life into infinite life.”[ii]

 


[i] Essentials of the Amitabha Sutra

[ii] Mind-Seal of the Buddhas, p 135

Friday
Jun162017

Remaining silent requires less energy 
than watching every word.

Of the three karmas—thought, speech, and action—speech is the one that gets us into the most trouble. It’s so easy! Open mouth; say whatever comes to mind. And therein lies the problem. Oblivious of the countless infinitesimal thoughts streaming through our mind, we’re so caught up in events and our feelings that we’re not even aware of what we’re about to blurt out. Upon hearing what we just said, we may well regret our words. Or at least wonder what possessed us to voice them. Once again, we resolve to monitor our thoughts before we embarrass ourselves further. And once again, we are amazed at the energy it takes to do this. It’s exhausting. Plus, by the time we decide how best to say something, the conversation has moved on. How much easier it would be to not offer every rising opinion, to speak only when necessary, and to keep our mouth in what is often the safest position—closed.

Tuesday
Jun132017

Come away from your mistakes, 

neither uncaring nor overwhelmed by guilt,

but determined to do better in the future.

How often have you sighed: Why did I say that? How could I have acted so callously? If only I hadn’t! Guilty thoughts can haunt us for the rest of our life, sneaking up on us, unwanted and unexpected. We just don’t seem able to let go of painful memories of the harm we did. But we need to. If not for our own sake, we need to for the well being of others. Being guilt-stricken over personal idiocies doesn’t make us better people. Think you’re repaying a karmic debt? Who are you repaying it to? Who is benefitting from your guilt? Somehow, someway, we need to release our guilty feelings. It’s not that we no longer care about what we did. We just care more about what we can do from now on. And the best thing we can do is get to the Pure Land because from there, finally, we will be able to find and help all those we harmed. So much better than drowning in guilt.

Sunday
Jun112017

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: Chap. 44: Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment

All those who have vowed, or are vowing, or will vow to be born in the land of Amitabha Buddha reach the level where they do not retrogress from Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment. They are already born, are now being born, or will be born in that land. Therefore, all good men and women, if they have faith, must make a vow to be born in that land.

The phrase “those who have vowed” refers to those beings who “are already born” in the Pure Land. “Are vowing” refers to those who are presently making the vow and mindfully chanting the Buddha’s name. They are the ones who “are now being born” in the Western Pure Land. Finally, those who “will vow” refers to future practitioners. In time, they also will have an opportunity to hear this sutra and will have the ample good roots, good fortune, and favorable conditions necessary for practice.  When, in the future, they make the vow, they too “will be born in that land.”

Once in the Pure Land, these beings will “not retrogress from Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment.” This means that beings already there, those who are presently going there, and those who are reborn there in the future will all never fall back into the Six Paths.

“If they have faith, must make a vow.” This is the fourth time in the sutra that Sakyamuni urged us to make the vow to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. He urged us so many times because belief and vow are crucial. Indeed, Great Master Ouyi said in his commentary on the sutra that the attainment of rebirth in the Western Pure Land depends entirely on whether or not one has belief and vow. Having both belief and vow, one will practice and thus definitely attain rebirth in the Pure Land. Which of the lands there that one is reborn in depends on the depth of meditative concentration of one’s Buddha-name chanting.

Let’s say that some practitioners do very well in their Buddha-name chanting and achieve One Mind Undisturbed at the higher level, the level of noumenon. They will be reborn as bodhisattvas of non-retrogression in the Land of Real Reward.

Others, as described in Amitabha’s eighteenth vow, are able to chant the Buddha’s name ten times at the end of their lives. Or maybe only twice. Or just once. When these beings attain rebirth in the Western Pure Land, they will be reborn in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together. The good fortune and wisdom of those born here will be almost the same as that of the bodhisattvas in the Land of Real Reward. Whereas the bodhisattvas enjoy those benefits thanks to their own practice, the benefits that we will enjoy in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together are due to Amitabha Buddha’s help. Essentially, we will enjoy the benefits provided by his good fortune.

It is like that impoverished young man we learned of previously who was invited by his aunt to live with her. He had little good fortune of his own but was able to enjoy the extensive good fortune of his aunt.

If we get to enjoy Amitabha’s incredible good fortune in the lowest land, why should we bother to chant more diligently? Because we chant to fulfill our vows to help all beings. We do not chant for ourselves alone! The more sincerely we chant, the stronger our meditative concentration will be.

The stronger our meditative concentration, the higher the land in which we will be reborn. The higher the land, the sooner our lotus will open. And the sooner our lotus opens, the more quickly we will attain Buddhahood and begin to fulfill the Four Great Vows of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. These four vows provide the aspiration and the step-by-step progression for those who have the bodhi mind to help all beings end suffering and attain liberation.

The first of the Four Great Vows is “Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.” This is the most important of the Four Great Vows. It is the fundamental, underlying vow that inspires us to practice without ceasing. The remaining three vows assist in the fulfillment of this first vow.

“Help them all” encompasses keeping all beings in mind, caring about them, and aiding them. Although we may have made this fundamental vow, we do not yet have the ability to fulfill it. Why not? The vow to “help them all” covers not only other people and some animals. It also includes all beings throughout the entire Nine Dharma Realms: the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, the heavens, hearers, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. These realms represent different dimensions in space. But with our limited current abilities, we cannot see or hear the beings in these various dimensions in order to help them. We cannot communicate with them.

How can we resolve this problem? By freeing the inherent abilities that are now obstructed by our afflictions. As soon as we end our afflictions, our innate abilities will come forth. With our innate abilities functioning, we will be able to communicate with the beings in the various dimensions. And be able to help them. Thus we have the second great vow. “Afflictions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.”

The third great vow is “Ways to practice are boundless; I vow to master them all.” To begin to accomplish this vow, we need two kinds of wisdom. One is acquired wisdom, which comes from outside us. Acquired wisdom allows us to understand the capacities of other beings. With this wisdom, upon meeting other beings, we will immediately understand them and know what they need to progress towards awakening. The other is our prajna wisdom, which enables us to know the specific teachings to fill that need. With these two wisdoms, we will be like a good doctor who is qualified to both diagnose the problem and prescribe the right treatment. We will then begin to fulfill the first of the four great vows, “Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.”

The fourth great vow is “Enlightenment is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.” By attaining Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment—Buddhahood—we will finally be able to help all beings, even Equal-enlightenment Bodhisattvas. As a bodhisattva, one can help only those beings who are at a level lower than one’s own. A bodhisattva is unable to help other bodhisattvas who are at the same level or higher. When one is a Buddha, however, one can universally help all beings.

We now aspire to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. Our vow to be reborn there should be based on the Four Great Vows. The first two of these vows, “Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all” and “Afflictions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all,” accord with feeling averse to our world of Endurance. The latter two of the four vows, “Ways to practice are boundless; I vow to master them all” and “Enlightenment is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it,” accord with joyously seeking rebirth in the Pure Land. Therefore, from feeling aversion with our present situation, we joyously seek rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Such is the incredible inspiration of the Four Great Vows.