Something I noticed in the Contemplation of Amitabha [Buddha] Sutra recently:¹
7. Then the World-honored One said to Vaidehī, “Whoever wishes to be born there [the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha] should be practice the three acts:
first, caring for one’s parents, attending to one’s teachers and elders,
compassionately refraining from killing, and doing the ten good deeds;
second, taking the Three Refuges, keeping the various precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct; and third, awakening aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta), believing deeply in the law of causality, chanting the Mahayana sutras, and encouraging aging people to follow the teachings. These three are called pure karma.”
The Buddha further said to [Queen] Vaidehī, “Do you know that these three acts are the pure karma practiced by all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future as the right cause of enlightenment?”
But how do you reconcile this with another statement made later when the Buddha describes the nine-grades of followers who are reborn in the Pure Land? Here he is describing the situation of the lowest level of the lowest grade:
When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging to be mindful of the Buddha; but he is too tormented by the pain [wracked with guilt and imminent rebirth in the lower realms] to do so. The good teacher than advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha then you should say instead, “Homage to Amitāyus Buddha”‘. In this way, he sincerely and continuously says, ‘Homage to Amitāyus Buddha’ (Na-mo-o-mi-t’o-fo) ten times. Because he calls the Buddha’s Name, with each repitition the evil karma tha twould bind him to birth and death for eighty koṭtis of kalpas is extinguished….
The first statement seems fairly clear from a Buddhist perspective: if you aspire for rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha, you should also aspire to assiduously follow the pure Buddhist practices to generate the necessary karma to effect rebirth in the Buddha’s Pure Land.
But the second statement provides a kind of “failsafe” in that if one hasn’t been doing these things, and is otherwise destined to be reborn in the lower realms², then simply reciting the name will extinguish the negative karma and allow one to be reborn.
The trouble though, is that I feel some Buddhists focus so much on the second statement that the whole point of the rest of the sutra is obscured.
I hear (and have met) some Pure Land Buddhists, teachers and writers, describe themselves with a mixture of apathy and self-pity: I am a bad Buddhist, I can’t even follow one precept, I think all kinds of unwholesome thoughts, I’m terrible at meditation, and so on and so forth. I resonated with this for a long time, but now not so much.
Part of me thinks that this is kind of using the Pure Land teachings as a crutch, especially when one cannot cope with their own failures in Buddhist practice. They fail, and then just resign themselves using explanations such as Dharma Decline, karmic circumstances, personal faults, etc.
But I really believe this sutra is telling us to keep trying, and keep making an effort, because it’s not just about doing the bare minimum to be reborn in the Pure Land, but to really cultivate wholesome qualities, develop insight, do good, and one’s rebirth in the Pure Land just reflects that. It’s about effort, not results. The author of the sutra realized that not everybody can be a great saint, and achieve the highest possible class of rebirth in the Pure Land, hence the second statement is intended to be inclusive. At the same time, the fact that sutra encourages over and over again to practice wholesome deeds, meditate and live a virtuous lifestyle also means that the sutra doesn’t want you to just do the bare minimum either.
Find your comfort zone, and push the boundaries a little bit, day after day, week after week. The results will not just speak for themselves in the hereafter, but in this life too.
That’s Buddhism at its best.
¹ Translation by Hisao Inagaki in The Three Pure Land Sutras by BDK English Tripitaka.
² The realms of animals (raw survival), hungry ghosts (constant craving and hunger) and hell (torment, strife, etc).