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The Two Rivers and a White Path, Part Three: The Summons of the Two Buddhas
The meaning of walking along the white path
In my last article, we discussed the meaning of the white path that an Amitabha devotee walks along. Master Huijing explains it as follows: All of us are iniquitous beings with heavy karmic obstructions. Although we recite Amitabha’s name, our mind inclined to Amitabha’s deliverance is still narrow and limited, like a white path of four to five inches wide, while our mind of greed, hatred, and false thoughts is wide and deep, just like the boundless ocean.
Nevertheless, if we always remind ourselves about this and reflect on our own mind, so that we will naturally feel remorse all the time, our heart will become gentle and soft. Moreover, we should gradually realize that, with the grace of the Buddha, we can attain Amitabha’s deliverance in the present life, and be liberated from reincarnations within the Six Paths.
The above statement points out that, while walking along the white path, we don’t need to use a fire extinguisher and water pump to neutralize the fire and water, because Amitabha Buddha promises he can protect us when we are threatened by greed and hatred. If we stop reciting Amitabha’s name in this situation, and instead practice other virtues in order to eradicate greed and hatred, we are bound to lose the battle against fire (hatred) and water (greed) in this life, and continue to be reborn in samsara.
A voice from Shakyamuni Buddha on the eastern bank
Master Shandao continues to explain his famous parable in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. He writes:
The traveler turning toward the west to cross over on the white path is the practitioner who goes straight towards the west and dedicates all merit attained in various practices.
The voice calling out from the eastern bank and exhorting the traveler to go forward to the West is the Buddha Shakyamuni; and the traveler hearing the voice is the practitioner’s karmic condition to hear and find Shakyamuni’s teachings, even though the Buddha is no longer in the world and we cannot see him.
The brigands calling out to the traveler after he has taken but a couple steps are the followers of different interpretations, other practices and deviant views. They expound their teachings and confuse the practitioner, causing him to commit evil and retrogress, thus losing the path to Buddhahood.
It is interesting to note that a Pure Land practitioner cannot see Shakyamuni Buddha, but can hear his voice because the Buddha entered nirvana more than 2,500 years ago. The voice represents the three Pure Land sutras spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha. We should take his advice to earnestly aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and leave the cycle of rebirth in this world as soon as possible.
“Taking a step or two” means “commencing the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation for rebirth.” As a beginner in practicing exclusive Amitabha-recitation for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, he is always criticised, discouraged and confused by people of different understandings, mixed practices and deviant views by saying, “You always commit evil karma, so you must fall back from the Path.”
A Pure Land practitioner should not lose his faith in Amitabha’s deliverance, or change their mind of aspiration to rebirth in the Land of Bliss under any circumstance, particularly when he encounters the threat of greed and hatred. It is the reason why Master Shandao writes this parable that can protect a Pure Land practitioner’s faith and serve as a defense against the challenge of heretical views.
Amitabha Buddha’s call from the western bank
Master Shandao continues to write:
The voice calling out from the western bank is the Buddha Amitabha, expressing his wish to deliver all beings through his Vow.
The traveler reaching the western bank, being greeted by his good friend and rejoicing, is the practitioner at last arriving at his final destination after long kalpas bound by his evil passions and lacking any causal condition of leaving the cycle of rebirth. Encouraged by Shakyamuni to take the path to the west, and summoned by Amitabha’s boundless compassion, the practitioner sets out and treads the path of the Vow’s power, taking no notice of the rivers of water and fire, but giving his full attention and trust to the words of the two sages. After death he attains rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and upon seeing the Buddha his rejoicing knows no bounds.
Thus we end the explanation of the parable.
This means that we believe and follow trustfully Shakyamuni’s direction and the calling of Amitabha. We don’t need to worry about or pay heed to the rivers of fire and water. In the analogy, “water” refers to human greed and affection, and “fire” anger and hatred. The idea or thought that arises from our mind is nothing more than manifestation of either one of these two.
Even when we recite Amitabha’s name, our mind is still inevitably entangled with greed and hatred. It is good for us to learn about such situation. We don’t need to care about it, but just neglect it, focus on walking on the white path leading us towards the designation.
“Keep walking” means keep reciting “Namo Amitabha” exclusively for the remainder of our life. It implies that we are still on the‘white path that is accomplished by Amitabha’s vows, so that we are naturally protected by Amitabha’s light and are secured all the way through to the Pure Land without any obstruction.