Sunday
Dec042016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The Eightfold Path" (Part Three)

The sixth component is right effort. Right effort is to be diligent in cultivating a virtuous, pure mind. This cultivation can be accomplished through the Four Right Efforts: by preventing new evil from arising, ending existing evil, generating new virtues, and enhancing existing virtues. Right effort also enables one to determine what is worthwhile without going, mistakenly, to extremes. It is to maintain one’s health, to be joyful, and not push to do what is beyond one’s abilities.

In the Pure Land school, right effort is to delve deeply into our Dharma door and to diligently immerse ourselves in it over a long span of time. We should strive to achieve Constant Mindfulness, which will allow us to keep our wandering thoughts, afflictions, and residual habits in check. In this state, although these will not yet be eradicated, they will no longer arise. With right effort, we will not, during adverse conditions, give rise to afflictions or, during favorable conditions, be attached to phenomena.

The seventh component is right mindfulness. One should always be mindful in everything that is done, avoiding bad actions and doing only those that are good. Right mindfulness lies at the heart of the other seven components of the Eightfold Path. One’s views, thoughts, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, and concentration cannot be right if one is not mindful, not focused on what one is currently thinking and doing.

In the Pure Land school, our main practice in right mindfulness is generating the bodhi mind and concentrating on mindfully chanting the Buddha-name. Additionally, we have supplemental means of practice. These help us to end all wrongdoings and perform good deeds, and to accumulate merits and cultivate virtues. We dedicate these merits and virtues to help us be reborn in the Western Pure Land. These good deeds, virtues, and dedicated merits are accomplished through adhering to the Five Precepts, the Ten Virtuous Karmas, the Six Paramitas, and the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment. All of these will help us to end our residual habits and afflictions, strengthen our belief and vow, and single-mindedly make unadulterated progress. This is right mindfulness.

The eighth component is right concentration. Right concentration is to practice one Dharma door for the rest of one’s life and not to keep switching to other methods.

In the Pure Land school, right concentration is focusing on Amitabha Buddha. When we are able to mindfully chant his name effectively, we will keep our afflictions and residual habits in check. Through our belief, vow, and chanting we will remain focused and unshaken. This establishes the initial achievement level of our practice: Constant Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha. 


Sunday
Nov272016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The Eightfold Path" (Part Two)

The second component of the Eightfold Path is right thought. All thoughts should be in accordance with a mind free of attachments and afflictions.

In the Pure Land school, right thought is that of Amitabha Buddha. When we are not thinking about Amitabha and the Western Pure Land, we have wandering thoughts, thoughts that keep us continually undergoing the karmic retribution of endless rebirths. We should transform the thoughts and karmas that hold us in samsara to the pure thoughts and karmas of the Western Pure Land. We should think about the Pure Land. Think about Amitabha Buddha and all that he has done to provide us with the ideal environment for learning and practice. This is right thought for Pure Land Buddhists.

The third component in the Eightfold Path is right speech. Right speech includes not using speech that is false, harsh, divisive, or enticing. It is to speak in a way that is of benefit to those who hear what is being said. It is to carefully choose the words to be spoken.

In the Pure Land school, right speech is “Amituofo.”[i] We greet people with “Amituofo.” When someone calls our name, we reply “Amituofo.” When we respond to an email or a text, we write “Amituofo.” This is our right speech. We constantly keep Amitabha Buddha in mind.

The fourth component in the Eightfold Path is right action. Right action includes no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct. It is to act without attaching to anything and to be careful of one’s behavior, making sure it is proper. It is to act without intermingled wandering thoughts of selfishness, discriminations, or attachments.

In the Pure Land school, right action consists of three distinct karmic actions. They are thinking about Amitabha Buddha, which is a mental activity; chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, which is a verbal action; and paying respect to Amitabha Buddha, which is a physical action. These are the three karmic right actions of the Pure Land school.

The fifth component is right livelihood. The sutras speak of right livelihood as avoiding occupations that harm others; for example, not dealing in the trading of human beings or in the production and sale of weapons, meat, intoxicants, or poisons. Essentially, right livelihood is to work in a way that respects the environment and all the beings in it. To have a livelihood that actually benefits others is best, but if this is not possible then the goal should be, at the very least, to do no harm.

In the Pure Land school, right livelihood, or our true work, is mindfully chanting the name of Amitabha for the rest of our life and practicing according to the Pure Land teachings. It is setting examples for others with our mental, verbal, and physical actions by living in a way that will benefit and not harm others.

 


[i] Chinese for “Amitabha Buddha.” We can chant in any language.

Sunday
Nov202016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The Eightfold Path" (Part One)

The Five Roots, the Five Powers, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment can be explained in general terms. And so, because they are non school-specific, they apply to both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The explanations for the Eightfold Path, however, differ slightly between the two branches in regards to both the principles and the practice.

The first component of the Eightfold Path is right view. Each of the eight components in the Eightfold Path includes right, which means “with true wisdom.” This is wisdom that is not mingled with wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments. When wisdom is mingled with selfishness, with the pursuit of worldly desires, or with greed, anger, ignorance, or arrogance, then everything that is thought, said, or done becomes tainted and thus “wrong.” No more true wisdom. No more “right.”

Right view is the correct outlook on life and the universe. To have right view, we need to clearly understand the Four Noble Truths, which are composed of two sets of cause and effect. The first set, cause and effect at the worldly level, consists of the first and second truths—the existence of suffering and the cause of suffering. The second set, cause and effect at the supramundane level, consists of the third and fourth truths—the cessation of suffering and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. If we are clear about both the principles and the phenomena, and clear about causes and effects of the universe, we will have right view.

Additionally, in the Pure Land school, the standard for “right” is to be always mindful of Amitabha as we strive to be reborn in the Pure Land. Right view is to believe without a doubt that Amitabha Buddha and the magnificent environment in the Western Pure Land are just as Sakyamuni Buddha introduced them in the sutras. Clearly, our right view does not come from seeing the Western Pure Land with our own eyes. It comes from our belief in the sutras, which were spoken by the Buddha. We have firm belief in the Buddha, who would not lie to us. As the Diamond Sutra says, “What the Tathagata[i] says is true and is as he says it is and is not other than as he says it is.” We believe that every word the Buddha spoke is true. We base our right view on the three Pure Land sutras and our deep belief in their teachings.

 


[i] One of the titles for a Buddha meaning “Thus Come One.”

[ii] The Diamond Sutra, trans. Red Pine, 2001, p 14

Sunday
Nov132016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The Seven Factors of Enlightenment" (Part Three)

The Seventh Factor of Enlightenment is equanimity. Not yet having attained equanimity, we usually find ourselves tempted by external stimuli. When our senses react to and are roused by these stimuli, we should not be attached to them. When they are gone, we should not yearn for them. Every time we reminisce about them, a seed is planted in our store consciousness as we create yet another karmic cause. Although our speech and actions may not be creating a karmic cause, our thoughts are. We should remember that “All phenomena are illusory” and “All conditioned existences are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow.”

We need to turn to these Seven Factors of Enlightenment when we encounter problems in our learning and practice. They can help us determine the right method to prevent more obstacles from arising. If we feel sleepy or for whatever reason cannot be mindful of Amitabha, we can use mindfulness, diligence, and joy to aid us in selecting the most helpful practice. For example, after doing sitting meditation for a while, we may switch to prostrations or walking meditation. Or, if we think that chanting is tedious, we can think of the beautiful aspects of the Pure Land: how everything there glows with light, how soft the golden ground is, or how beautifully the birds sing.

If on the other hand, should we feel agitated or become distracted by external stimuli, we can practice ease, concentration, and equanimity to calm ourselves. We can think of how Amitabha gave rise to extraordinary compassion and made his great vows for our benefit, and then encourage ourselves to be more like him. We can think of someone whose practice we admire and respect, and try to be more like that person. Or, we can remind ourselves how happy we are when we sincerely practice.

These are just some of the ways we can overcome obstacles in our practice and, thus, continue to move forward on the path to enlightenment. 


Sunday
Nov062016

An Introduction to the Amitabha Sutra: "The Seven Factors of Enlightenment" (Part Two)

The Fourth Factor of Enlightenment is joy. The true Dharma joy is peaceful and pure. Once we have tasted the flavor of the Dharma, there will be no stopping us. During our learning and chanting, we will feel true joy and will know that we are making courageous and diligent progress.

The Fifth Factor of Enlightenment is ease, which enables our mind to become stable and calm. To accomplish this, we need to know how to rid ourselves of afflictions. Afflictions easily arise when we are negatively affected by our surroundings and frustrated in the face of difficulties. It is very easy to reach this point, where we just want to give up. Instead of being troubled and wanting to abandon our practice, we need to delve deeply into it. We do so by using our Buddha-name chanting to first subdue our afflictions and then to eliminate them. When our chanting is strong enough, we will naturally be neither angry in adverse conditions nor attached in favorable ones.

The Sixth Factor of Enlightenment is concentration. The goal of concentration in our practice is to uncover our true nature. As Buddhists, we need single-minded concentration. We achieve this by delving deeply into one method and being immersed in it for a long time. We should not try to learn diverse methods. Trying to succeed by learning many methods is like trying to arrive at a destination by taking different routes at the same time.

If we concentrate on our method of chanting the Buddha’s name and resist the temptation to learn other methods, we will be able to achieve Constant Mindfulness. In this state, we will no longer have thoughts of selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, or arrogance. We will no longer crave the Five Desires of wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep. Although we will not yet have eliminated these afflictions, we will be able to keep them in check. At that time, we will be continuously aware of Amitabha Buddha.

If we make little progress in reaching this level, however, it is often because we are intrigued by many things and want to learn as much as we can. In the end, we may learn much but achieve little. Clearly, this is not what we want to happen. We need to remember that the key to success in all undertakings is single-minded concentration.