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My First Encounter with Pure Land Buddhism in the Shandao Tradition

By Alan Kwan
Buddhistdoor Global | 2014-11-21 |
The triad of the Western Pure Land: Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Mahasthamaprapta. From blog.udn.comThe triad of the Western Pure Land: Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Mahasthamaprapta. From blog.udn.com
Shakyamuni’s “Secret Message” for Ultimate Liberation
Many people have the general impression that Buddhism is very difficult to understand. Just as in many other subjects, there are specific terms, definitions, and jargon in Buddhism, which are usually confused with the more literal meanings that are in common use. Moreover, the concepts expounded in the Buddhist teachings are so profound that they do not conform to our conventional way of thinking. This is why many scholars consider Buddhism to be a philosophy rather than a religion.
I began my study of Buddhism in a systematic and analytical way. For more than 20 years after I took Refuge in the Triple Gem I tried my best to understand its true essence, but regretfully my knowledge remained very minimal and quite superficial.
However, I cannot say that I did not gain anything from my years of study and practice. For instance, I feel calm when I meditate in a serene environment, although I get anxious again when I return to my family, office, and social circle. I know a little more about the universe and life, but I am still caught up in greed, hatred, and my projections. Sometimes, I find that the more I know about a concept, like liberation from the cycle of rebirth, the more questions and confusion arise in my mind.
As a Buddhist devotee, I know that liberation from reincarnation within the Six Realms is the first hurdle to overcome on the path to Buddhahood, and is the basis of all the teachings given by Shakyamuni Buddha. However, it seems that no one can tell me with any certainty how to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth in this present lifetime. I am in despair, but still I have faith in Shakyamuni Buddha. I believe that Shakyamuni must have given us a “secret message” instructing us how to liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth and death, but as yet, I have not discovered it.
Pure Land Buddhism is the Gateway
People are ignorant of birth and death, and some are unsure about the meaning of life. It is when we seriously consider the problem of liberation from reincarnation within the Six Realms and try hard to solve it that Pure Land Buddhism comes into its own. I have noticed that towards the end of their lives, in fact almost all Chinese patriarchs aspired to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, no matter to which Mahayana school they belonged.
I am of the firm belief that the Pure Land school of Buddhism is my gateway to eternity, ultimate enlightenment, and liberation. However, at the same time, I have the contradictory impression that Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching for slow-witted, illiterate old couples who are unable to read sutras or interpret the profound concepts in Buddhism.
I have tried to examine Pure Land Buddhism from different angles, hoping to gain some insight into its true nature. Based on my limited knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism, I find that the Pure Land tradition emphasizes faith rather than wisdom—it relies on the power of Amitabha Buddha (other-power) rather than on our own effort (self-power). The main practice of Pure Land Buddhism is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, and is in fact so easy that everyone can do it anywhere, at any time. However, I really know nothing about the faith-oriented practices in Pure Land Buddhism, and do not know how to practice to develop my faith.
The Transition from “Mind-oriented” to “Faith-oriented” Buddhism
Without proper guidance, I found it difficult to shift from the “mind-oriented” Buddhist teachings to the “faith-oriented” Pure Land tradition. Indeed, I used to apply “mind-oriented” principles to Pure Land practices like contemplation of Amitabha Buddha and single-minded recitation of his name. As such, I felt that Pure Land teachings were not easy at all but even more demanding, difficult, and confusing. But a practice based on faith alone seemed far too abstract.
Apart from this dilemma between wisdom and mindfulness I had other problems, such as keeping the precepts and cultivating the Six Paramitas, which are basic requisites for Buddhist practitioners. I did not understand how these important virtuous practices were related to the Pure Land practices, or what I had to do if I wanted to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Then, in late 2010, I had the chance to read some books written by Master Huijing, which were based on the teaching of Master Shandao, the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism. He elaborated on the teaching of “deliverance by Amitabha,” and I began to understand the true meaning of the 18th vow, which is Amitabha Buddha’s fundamental vow. This helped me to cement my connection with Amitabha and the Pure Land school.
Joy upon Hearing of the Fundamental Vow
When I first heard of the concept of full reliance on the power of Amitabha’s vows, and particularly the 18th, in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, I had the same feeling of joy as when I heard of Buddhism for the first time—I started to study and practice Buddhism 25 years ago in an attempt to understand the reality of the universe and the meaning of life. The more I learned about the Law of Causal Conditions in the three times, the stronger my desire to be liberated from the dynamic cycle of birth and death, which is the primary source of suffering. Now, when I discovered that I could let go of all conditioned dharmas and the expedient teachings on practices based on self-power, I felt relieved and so much more relaxed.
I understand the significance of the 18th vow and the pre-eminence of the power of Amitabha’s vows with regard to our rebirth in the Land of Bliss. If I entrust myself to Amitabha’s deliverance and recite his name exclusively for the rest of my life, as stated in the 18th vow, I am assured of rebirth in his Land of Bliss.
My heart is full of joy, as I have full confidence that I will be reborn in the Land of Bliss at the end of this present lifetime. I recall a passage in the Contemplation Sutra that says: “Seeing the utmost beauty and bliss of that land, [Queen Vaidehi and all sentient beings] will rejoice and immediately attain perseverance in the non-arising of all dharmas.” Master Shandao indicated that there are three other meanings of “perseverance in the non-arising of all dharmas,” namely perseverance in joy, perseverance in enlightenment, and perseverance in faith. Namo Amituofo!
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