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Master Tanluan on the Primal Vow: Should we recite Amitabha’s name ten times?

By Alan Kwan
Buddhistdoor Global | 2014-04-15 |
Prayer beads made of Tusali wood. From Wikimedia Commons.Prayer beads made of Tusali wood. From Wikimedia Commons.
Alan Kwan (left) with Prof. Lee, Chairman of Tung Lin Kok Yuen (right). Alan is the founding editor of Buddhistdoor. From Buddhistdoor.com.Alan Kwan (left) with Prof. Lee, Chairman of Tung Lin Kok Yuen (right). Alan is the founding editor of Buddhistdoor. From Buddhistdoor.com.
Many within Buddhism itself criticize the concept of ‘other-power’ (?L?O) or Buddha power, asserting that it is over-emphasized in Pure Land Buddhism. They might say, “How can one be reborn in the Pure Land by simply reciting Amitabha’s name even only ten times, without cutting off all delusions and afflictions? It is ridiculous! As the Law of Cause and Effect is a truth, no one is exempted from the influence of karmic forces near the end of one’s life. An evil person does not deserve to be reborn in the Land of Bliss!”

Another prominent Pure Land patriarch, Master Tanluan (
476??542 CE), tackled this contentious issue with eight sets of questions and answers in his Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth. First of all, Master Tanluan endorsed and validated this important statement of rebirth by other-power with reference to the fulfillment passage of the 18th vow in the Infinite Life Sutra. Secondly, he illustrated and verified it with reference to the passage of ‘rebirth of low grade, low level’ in the Contemplation Sutra

Master Tanluan quoted the Sutra of the Way of Karma:
 “Karma is like a balance. It falls on the side of the heavier first.” Comparing the ‘weight’ of the karma of the five gravest transgressions and that of Amitabha-recitation in ten times should be measured under three criteria, namely, (1) the mind, (2) the causal condition and (3) the determination.

1. Depending on mind 
 Karmic force is generated and applied in the mundane world, which is insubstantial and unreal like a dream or a soap bubble, while Buddha’s power is substantial and real. How can unreal karmic forces be comparable to Buddha power? Master Tanluan gave an example: even if the demon of darkness has stayed in an enclosed room for over a thousand years, it cannot keep the room dark if the god of light comes into the room. At the moment a beam of brightness shines into the room, the demon cannot refuse to leave though it has stayed there for a long time. What is important is not the length of karma, but the power of the force that will annihilate that karma.

2. Depending on the causal condition 
 The merits and virtues attained by the reciter through sincere Amitabha-recitation are substantial and real, while the karmic effects are generated by deviant views and repeated afflictions are insubstantial and unreal. It means that Amitabha Buddha’s merits and virtues can heal and cure all diseases, and clear all obstructions, including the karmic connections in the mundane world. 

Depending on determination – When a person commits evil, he always thinks over any other alternatives and the respective consequences, and commits occasionally with an intermittent mind. However, for tenfold Amitabha-recitation [at the near end of their life], the dying person has no other alternative, but just recites with an non-intermittent mind. This is known as ‘determination’.

Taking into account these three criteria, Master Tanluan concluded that the effect of Amitabha-recitation in ten times is ‘heavier’ or stronger than that of karmic forces, thus the former takes effect first in comparing the ‘weights.’ As a result, a Pure Land practitioner is able to leave the cycle of birth and death and be reborn in the Land of Bliss through exclusive Amitabha-recitation.

Many people are concerned about the immeasurably heavy karma they have generated through countless eons. They wonder why the ‘power’ generated through Amitabha-recitation for a relatively short time can overrule the cumulative karmic ‘power’ that governs the fate of sentient beings in this mundane world. Master Tanluan reiterated that, in terms of heavy or light in weight, it depends on mind, causal condition and determination, not on ‘time’ and ‘quantity’.

The Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth provides a solid foundation on the establishment of Pure Land Buddhism in China. Master Tanluan was proficient in Buddhist teachings, particularly the doctrine of ‘dependent origination’ in Prajna teachings and the doctrine of ‘real mark’ in Tiantai teachings. 

The former explains the universal truths in the mundane world, which is governed by karma, while the latter expounds the ultimate truth in the supermundane world, which is actually the pure manifestations of Amitabha Buddha, and is adorned by the ‘real’ merits and virtues of the Buddha. The latter cannot be visualized by worldly ordinary beings because they are obstructed by their heavy karma.

By comparing and contrasting the two worlds, he clearly differentiated the nature of our world (known as ‘Saha World’ in Sanskrit), and the Land of Bliss (known as ‘Sukhavati World’ in Sanskrit). He also stated why the Buddha power is the most inconceivable out of the ‘five inconceivable powers’, including karmic power.

Master Tanluan stated that all worldly matters and phenomena are produced by causal conditions. They are impermanent and ever-changing, therefore what we do, what we say and what we think in this world is conditional and relative, ‘virtual’ and ‘unreal’, like a dream or a soap bubble. However, the Land of Bliss is an unconditioned realm of nirvana, manifested and created by Amitabha Buddha, so all the merits and virtues he offers to sentient beings are permanent, absolute and real.

Reciting Amitabha Buddha summons him to embrace you. He dedicates his ‘real’ merits and virtues to you in the form of light. This energy is real and can overrule the ‘unreal’ karma that governs the fate of sentient beings in this mundane world. This is how the former far surpasses the latter’s power.

Master Tanluan also said that the number ‘ten’ in the 18th vow is not a quantitative measurement. He defined ‘ten’ as ‘single-mindedly’ without any other alternative and intermittence in mind. ‘Even only ten times’ means ‘one exclusively recites Amitabha’s name in a consistent and persistent manner till the end of one’s life.’

The situation is similar to the holding-fast of Amitabha’s name for one day, for two days, till seven days, the only practice leading to rebirth in the Pure Land mentioned in the Amitabha Sutra. We should recite exclusively “Namo Amitabha Buddha” hereafter, no matter whether we are walking, standing, sitting or lying down, whenever and wherever the conditions are, just recite exclusively, until Amitabha Buddha welcomes and receives us at the end of our life. ‘If one exclusively recites and recites in consistent and persistent manner until the end of one’s life, one’s chance to be reborn is ten out of ten, a hundred out of a hundred’, as said by Master Shandao in The Praise of the Rite of Rebirth.

Master Tanluan interpreted ‘Amitabha-recitation in ten times’ with a set of eight questions and answers. This should be able to clear up any worries of most Pure Land practitioners. Most people worry about the influence of inconceivable karmic forces that drag them in the Six Realms, and they doubt the power of Amitabha Buddha that receives them to the Land of Bliss near the end of their lives. Tanluan’s inquiry helps us build sincere faith and the full confidence and trust needed for exclusive Amitabha-recitation. Purity of faith will be essential to lead us to the Land of Bliss of Amitabha Buddha.
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