by J.C. Cleary
This work presents a translation of the Amitabha Sutra, seminal text of Pure Land Buddhism, along with a translation of a commentary on the sutra by the eminent seventeenth century Pure Land Master Ou-i. It is appropriate to introduce the translations with a few words on the general nature of the Buddhist teachings and the specifics of Pure Land Buddhism, and a brief note on the life and times of Master Ou-i himself, and the moment in Buddhist history in which he worked.
Buddhism: Skill in Means
Buddhism has taken on many diverse forms during its two and a half thousand year history, but none has been more influential than Pure Land Buddhism. The special methods and techniques of Pure Land Buddhism are specifically designed to enhance the spiritual focus of all people. Pure Land practices can be integrated into the daily work and family life of anyone of any age, no matter what their circumstances, no matter how pressed they are for time, no matter what their karmic entanglements. For this reason, Pure Land Buddhism has always been immensely popular wherever it has been propagated, and has been the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in East Asia for the past thousand years and more.
According to the basic principle of Buddhist teaching, the principle of skill in means, it is essential that any presentation of the Buddhist message be adapted to the needs and capacities of the particular people to whom it is being offered. From the Buddhist point of view, then, it is not only perfectly legitimate, but absolutely necessary, that Buddhism should have taken on so many forms during its long history.
Within the perspective of skill in means, there can be no question of judging any particular form of the true Buddhist Teaching as higher or lower than any other form. People's needs vary, and so through the generations enlightened teachers acting out of wisdom and compassion have established teachings that vary in form, but still serve the same goal.
The only thing that matters is the effectiveness of any given formulation of Buddhism -- whether it leads people to act more charitably, to behave with self-restraint, to show patience towards others, to dedicate themselves to spiritual advancement, to perfect their powers of concentration, and ultimately to develop enlightened wisdom. There's a Zen saying: "Even false words are true if they lead to liberation; even true words are false if they become the object of attachment."
The champions of Pure Land Buddhism have always made the case that Pure Land methods are especially valuable because they are particularly effective in meeting the needs of the greatest number of people. When we face facts, most of us have to admit that we see little realistic prospect of achieving salvation through the eons of gradual practice spoken of in the Buddhist scriptures, or the heroic efforts of the Zen masters, or the years of esoteric dedication demanded by the Esoteric Schools. Pure Land practice, on the other hand, is explicitly designed as an easy way, open to all.
The Pure Land Teaching: Buddha-Remembrance
Pure Land Buddhism centers on faith in Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light Infinite Life. Amitabha has promised rebirth in his Pure Land to all those who singlemindedly invoke his name. Amitabha's Pure Land, called "The Land of Ultimate Bliss," is a pure realm where the ills of our world do not exist. Once reborn in the Pure Land, we are freed from the defilements and fixations that block the path to enlightenment here in our mundane world, and we can continue our spiritual progress under the direct tutelage of Amitabha and the assembly of saints and sages.
Pure Land believers show their faith in Amitabha's promise by taking a vow to be reborn in Amitabha's Pure Land. They practice their faith by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, by contemplating his qualities, by visualizing his image.
Pure Land practice focuses the mind on Amitabha. The tribulations of our world become a temporary inconvenience that cannot sidetrack us, as we make our way surely and steadily toward rebirth in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss. We no longer identify with the inevitable ups and downs of social roles and personal struggles -- we have faith that our true identity is as inhabitants of the Pure Land, and companions to Amitabha Buddha. We carry on with our work, and fulfill our social duties, but our real work is reciting Amitabha Buddha's name, and our real duty is clarifying our minds in "remembering" Amitabha Buddha.
Faith, vows, and practice go together and support each other in Pure Land Buddhism. In the words of Master Ou-i, whose commentary on the Amitabha Sutra is translated below: "Without faith, we are not sufficiently equipped to take vows. Without vows, we are not sufficiently equipped to guide our practice. Without the wondrous practice of reciting the Buddha-name, we are not sufficiently equipped to fulfill our vows and to bring our faith to fruition.
The hallmark of Pure Land Buddhism is what is called "reciting the Buddha-name," that is, invoking Amitabha Buddha by chanting his name. Through reciting the Buddha-name, we focus our attention on Amitabha Buddha. This enables us to achieve Buddha-remembrance, that is, mindfulness of Buddha.
To understand Buddha-remembrance, we must recall just what the word "Buddha" means. With a clear idea of the various levels of meaning of the word "Buddha", we can also see how Pure Land Buddhism fits into the whole spectrum of Buddhist teachings.
At the most general level, "Buddha" is a name for the absolute reality that permeates all particular forms of being; the special term for this is "Dharmakaya Buddha". "Buddha" is the ocean; everything in the universe, including ourselves, other life-forms, natural phenomena, the planets and the stars and the galaxies, are all waves on the Buddha-ocean. "Buddha" is our very substance and essence, but how many of us are aware of this minute to minute, not just as an abstract notion, but as a palpable experience?
"Buddha" is also the name for those who do actively experience this absolute reality in their daily lives, and tap into its inherent qualities of compassion, wisdom, power, and purity -- these are the enlightened ones, "the Buddhas". The Great Vehicle sutras constantly speak of "all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, in all the worlds of the ten directions." By this the sutras mean to let us know that countless beings in the past, present, and future, not only on our earth, but on all the worlds where sentient beings exist, have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience the one absolute reality, and become endowed with its power to communicate enlightenment.
Master Ou-i expresses it this way: "Fundamentally all the Buddhas manifest their teaching activities from within the Dharmakaya. They solidify sentient beings' affinity with the truth and strengthen their seeds of enlightenment ... They energize teaching vehicles and expound them to vast audiences. They plunge into the ocean of suffering where sentient beings dwell, and use their compassion to enable them to harmonize with the still light.
In this sense, Buddha has had and will have many different embodiments. The Buddhist scriptures name countless Buddhas, their worlds and their eras. Among the most well-known are such figures as Sakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha born in India, the propounder of the teaching of enlightenment for one era here on earth), or Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha, who will bring a new dispensation of wisdom and justice to the earth in a time to come), and Vairocana Buddha (the cosmic illuminator Buddha whose light reaches all worlds). Amitabha Buddha is one Buddha among many, but one with a special affinity for the people of our world.
"Buddha" as the one absolute reality is termed "the Dharmakaya", which means "the truth-body (Dharma Body) of Buddha" or "the body of reality". The Dharmakaya is "the true pure reality of all the enlightened ones, beyond characteristics, quiescent, beyond all theorizing, possessed of true pure virtues without limit, the everywhere-equal true nature of all things."
"Buddha" in the form of specific enlightened beings is termed "the Nirmanakaya", which means the "form-bodies of Buddha" or "the Emanation Bodies". The idea is that to communicate the teaching, Buddha must take on specific forms within the range of awareness of ordinary sentient beings, by emanating specific embodiments, the Nirmanakaya. "All Nirmanakaya arise from skill in means," according to the Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra. The perceived forms may vary, but the underlying reality of Buddha is one.
The word "Buddha" is also used to refer to the inherent potential for enlightened perception that all people share. According to Great Vehicle Buddhism, we all have "Buddha-nature", and the one great mission of all forms of Buddhism is to bring this to light, to make us aware of our Buddha-nature, and enable us to function by means of it in our daily lives. In this context, remembering Buddha, Buddha-remembrance, means remembering our own true nature, the capacity for lucid wisdom and selfless compassion that is our birthright. By becoming mindful of Buddha (i.e. reciting the Buddha-name), we are just regaining our real identity.
All forms of Great Vehicle Buddhism aim for Buddha-remembrance in this sense. What is distinctive about Pure Land Buddhism is that it teaches that reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha is the most effective and most widely applicable method of remembering Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism it was designed as a simple, universally accessible method through which ordinary people could come into contact with the enlightening essence.
Master Ou-i reflects this perspective on Buddha-remembrance consistently throughout his commentary on the Amitabha Sutra: "The name of Amitabha is the inherently enlightened true nature of sentient beings, and reciting the name of Amitabha reveals this enlightenment... If we are in accord with our inherently enlightened true nature for a moment, we are Buddhas for a moment, and if we are in accord with our inherently enlightened true nature moment after moment, we are Buddhas moment after moment."
The Vision of the Amitabha Sutra
This brief but colorful text,The Amitabha Sutra, gives the basic charter for Pure Land belief and practice. Following the usual model for sutras, it presents its message in the form of a talk delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha to an assembly including both humans and supernatural beings.
Buddha begins his lesson by proclaiming the existence of Amitabha and his Pure Land:
"West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called 'Ultimate Bliss'. In this land there exists a Buddha called Amitabha, who is expounding the Dharma right now.
"Why is this land called 'Ultimate Bliss'? It is called 'Ultimate Bliss' because the sentient beings in this land are free from the myriad sufferings, and experience nothing but happiness."
Buddha goes on to explain the significance of Amitabha and his Pure Land environment for the salvation of sentient beings:
"What do you think: why is this Buddha called Amitabha?
"The light of this Buddha is infinite, and shines on all lands throughout the universe without obstruction. Thus this Buddha is called Amitabha.
"Also, the life span of this Buddha and his people is an infinite number of immeasurable eons, and so he is called Amitabha.
"Amitabha Buddha attained enlightenment ten eons ago. What's more, this Buddha has innumerable disciples, all of whom are Arhats, and whose numbers are incalculable. Amitabha also has a following of innumerable enlightening beings, Bodhisattvas who follow the Greater Vehicle Teachings.
"None of the sentient beings who are born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss ever fall back into a lower realm. Many among them have only one more lifetime before enlightenment. These beings are very numerous, and their number is incalculable: they can be spoken of as innumerable.
"When sentient beings hear [of the Land of Ultimate Bliss], they must take a vow to be born in this land. Why so? So that they can be together with all these beings of superior goodness."
The sutra also describes the wonders of the Pure Land: trees made of jewels, jewel ponds, buildings made of precious stones, wondrous lotuses emitting colored lights, celestial music constantly playing, gorgeous flowers falling from the sky, the earth covered with tawny gold, birds communicating the Buddhist teachings in their songs. Everything in the Pure Land works together to remind the inhabitants of the truths of Buddhism. An ideal land indeed!
Above all, people in the Pure Land suffer none of the evils to which flesh is heir in our world. They are free from pain, from hunger, from sickness, from old age and death.
People in the Pure Land also benefit from being in the direct presence of Amitabha and his vast retinue of enlightening sages. Their own life spans become infinite, and they are guaranteed an endless sojourn in the Pure Land, until they too enter the ranks of the enlightened ones.
Master Ou-i further clarifies our view of the wonders of the Pure Land: "All the adornments of the dwellings in the Pure Land and the settings in which sentient beings are reborn in the Pure Land are created by the inherently real merits of the great vows and great deeds of Amitabha Buddha. That's why he can adorn all dimensions of the Pure Land, and embrace all the ordinary people and saints of all the worlds of the past, present, and future, and enable them to be reborn in the Pure Land."
Master Ou-i also reflects upon Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss from the perspective of Hua-yen Buddhism, where the interpenetration of infinite arrays of worlds is the basic medium of the enlightening being's perception. Master Ou-i stresses this in his comments on the passage in the sutra describing the inhabitants of Amitabha's Pure Land returning from their regular journeys to other worlds.
First, the sutra passage:
"Every morning the sentient beings of this land decorate their garments with multitudes of wondrous flowers and make offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas in other worlds. When it is meal time, they return to their own land, eating as they [circumambulate the teaching assembly]."
Master Ou-i comments: "This passage shows that in the Pure Land every sound, every sense-object, every moment, and even every step and every snap of the fingers, interpenetrates without obstruction the Three Jewels of all the worlds of the ten directions. It also shows that in our mundane world the defilements and obstructions are so serious that our world is separated off from the Land of Ultimate Bliss, even though it is not really separated from it. When we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, our merit will be so great that we will be separated from this mundane world called 'Endurance', without really being separated from it."
Significantly, the Amitabha Sutra does not only dwell upon Amitabha and his Pure Land in the West, but goes on to describe in turn the Buddhas and their lands in all directions. Master Ou-i explains this as if it is a matter of course: "Space in [any given direction] is infinite, and there are an infinite number of worlds there. Since there is an infinite number of worlds, there is also an infinite number of Buddhas who dwell in those worlds... That's why the sutra refers to 'countless other Buddhas'."
Again, the key is to comprehend that every particular Buddha is essentially an emanation of the one absolute reality, the Dharmakaya. Buddha is both one and many, as Master Ou-i reminds us: "Buddha has countless virtues, and so he must have countless names, names established according to the teaching situation. Sometimes these names are based on causal conditions, sometimes on results achieved, sometimes on inherent nature, sometimes on apparent characteristics, sometimes on practices or vows or other things...Each name illustrates a particular quality of Buddhahood. If we were to try to express all the qualities of the enlightened ones, we could talk till the end of time and never be able to finish."
By naming some of these Buddhas, the sutra intends that we focus on the qualities associated with the meanings of the names, and let them add power to our work on the path. The litany of names heightens the effect of an array of the purified lands that the sutra is showing, to the benefit of sentient beings.
With so many Buddhas in the cosmos, why focus on Amitabha? Master Ou-i answers this question explicitly:
"Why not make the whole universe the focal point [instead of Amitabha's Pure Land]? -- There are three reasons. We focus on Amitabha's Pure Land because this makes it easy for beginners to orient their minds, because Amitabha's fundamental vows are more powerful, and because Amitabha has a special affinity with the sentient beings in our world."
Near the end of the sutra, after having prescribed the method of invoking the name of Amitabha, Buddha offers praise to all the other Buddhas, and acknowledges their praise of him for being able to teach the method of invoking Amitabha in the difficult conditions of a corrupt world:
"Just as I am now extolling the inconceivable merits of all the Buddhas, all those Buddhas are likewise extolling my inconceivable merits, with these words:Sakyamuni Buddha is able to carry out a most difficult and rare task. In the world 'Endurance', in an evil world of the Five Corruptions - the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of affliction, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life - he is able to achieve complete, unexcelled enlightenment, and to expound the Truth which beings in all worlds find hard to believe."
Reciting the Buddha-Name
In the Amitabha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha sets forth the parameters for the fundamental Pure Land practice of becoming mindful of Buddha by reciting the Buddha-name of Amitabha. Buddha says:
"If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his name wholeheartedly without confusion for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days, then when these people are about to die, Amitabha Buddha and all the sages who are with him will appear before them. When these people die, their minds will not fall into delusion, and they will attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha's Land of Ultimate Bliss. I have seen this benefit, and so I speak these words. If sentient beings hear what I say, they must make a vow to be born in that land."
Many forms of reciting the Buddha-name have been sanctioned and recommended by Pure Land experts: reciting the Buddha-name in solitude or in groups, silently (with the sound in the mind's voice and ear) or aloud, quietly or forcefully, when sitting, standing, walking or lying down, amidst the day's duties or before or after them. An allied method, combining Pure Land with Zen, is to recite the Buddha-name, while focusing on the point "Who it is who is reciting the Buddha-name?"
The prime goal is to focus on the Buddha-name "with mind unified and not chaotic, (ie singlemindedly)." Reciting the Buddha-name is one of the many many Buddhist practices designed to achieve this goal: its beauty is that it is safe and comparatively simple to use, and within reach of ordinary beings as well as saints. But even if we cannot achieve total concentration, reciting the Buddha-name is still beneficial. Master Ou-i explains: "When we speak of concentrating on invoking the Buddha-name with a mind that is unified and not chaotic we are using the Buddha-name to summon up the qualities of Buddhahood. Since the qualities of Buddhahood are inconceivable, the Buddha-name itself is also inconceivable. Since the merits of the Buddha-name are also inconceivable, even if we recite the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, it is still a seed of enlightenment, a way of persevering and ascending toward enlightenment without falling back."
Reciting the Buddha-name is one method among a range of Pure Land methods: visualizing Amitabha, contemplating the attributes of Amitabha, doing prostrations, making offerings, practicing repentance, cultivating a mindfulness of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, being mindful of discipline and of generosity. But Master Ou-i states that "Reciting the Buddha-name can be called the number one expedient among all the expedient methods, the supreme complete truth among all the complete truths, the most perfect of all the perfect teachings." This is because reciting the Buddha-name has special practical advantages: "If you consummate any of these practices [and dedicate the merits to rebirth in the Pure Land], you will be born in the Pure Land. The method of reciting the Buddha-name is the one that is the most all-conclusive in taking in people of all mentalities, and the one that is easiest to put into practice.
In Pure Land practice, invoking the name of Amitabha is a means to get in touch with the power of Amitabha himself. Our own feeble powers may be insufficient to bring us to the Other Shore, but Amitabha has provided us an access point through which we can reach his power, and be protected by the power of all the Buddhas.
Master Ou-i explains the essential role of Amitabha's power for Pure Land practitioners: "Amitabha is the guide of the Pure Land. By the power of his forty-eight vows, he receives the sentient beings who have vowed to practice Buddha-remembrance by invoking the Buddha-name and enables them to be born in the Land of Ultimate bliss, and never fall back from there.
"The essential point is that everything about Amitabha is infinite: his merits and his wisdom, his supernatural powers and his power in the Path, his embodiment and his environment, ; in expounding the teachings and liberating sentient beings...
"With his great vows, Amitabha creates the causal basis for sentient beings to multiply their good roots, and with his great deeds he creates the conditions for sentient beings to increase their merits. Amitabha enables us to develop Faith and Vows and recite his name, and from moment to moment achieve these merits...
"All the adornments of Amitabha act as an augmenting substance that stimulates the development of all the adornments within the minds of sentient beings."
From a far off point in time and space, Amitabha offers the invocation of his name as a doorway to the infinite, inviting us to come through and share in the infinite life of the Buddhas.
The Amitabha Sutra emphasizes this point again and again as it enumerates the Buddhas of the six directions. Sakyamuni Buddha says to his listeners:
"Why do you think this is called 'the sutra that is protected and kept in mind byand kept in mind by all the Buddhas'?
"If there are good men and good women who hear this scripture, accept it, and uphold its teachings, and they hear the names of all these Buddhas, all these good men and good women will be protected and kept in mind by all these Buddhas, and all of them will reach the level where they do not turn back from complete, unexcelled, correct enlightenment.
"Therefore, all of you should faithfully accept what I say and what all the Buddha have said."
We owe the commentary translated below to a man who lived in the first half of the seventeenth century in China. Like all eminent Buddhist monks in China, he was known under many names. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to him by just one of these names: Ou-I (pronounced "owe" "ee").
Master Ou-i was born into a society in the throes of social and political crisis, at a time of deep ideological divisions and self-doubt among the intelligentsia. He grew to maturity during the decay and downfall of the Ming dynasty, and lived to witness a prolonged civil war and finally the conquest of China by foreign "barbarians," the Manchus from across the northeast frontier.
By Ou-i's time, China had gone through several generations of unsettling but invigorating economic change: more trade, more mobility, more areas of life swept up into the cash economy. The entrenched imperial regime was increasingly out of touch with the needs of the society, and even with the ambitions and self-interests of the upper classes. Bitter factional struggles divided the elite political class, and the legitimacy of the whole system was called into question. New ideas, new forms of art and literature, new forms of social criticism and satire, bubbled to the surface in the turmoil.
In religion, it was an age where the five centuries old trend of "The Three Teachings Merging into One" was gathering momentum. More and more Chinese felt that the ideas and practices of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism should be combined and used to supplement and complete each other. Popular religious leaders preached new syncretic forms of religion, and worked to bring the gist of the Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist classics to a broader audience.
The most influential school of Confucian thought at the time was permeated by Zen Buddhist ideas. There was a new emphasis on the virtues of the common man and woman and their potential to equal the sages. A considerable fraction of Confucian gentlemen knew the language of Zen, mingled with Buddhist colleagues, and cultivated quiet-meditation and wisdom-in-action practices akin to Buddhism.
Many Buddhists turned to Taoist energy practices in an attempt to further their own religious quests. Buddhists went into elaborate internal visualizations, and exercises for opening energy channels. Tantric and Taoist influences blended into the mainstream of scriptural Buddhism and Zen to bring forth the style of Chinese Buddhism still with us today.
The vernacular literature of the time shows a strong current of skepticism towards all forms of religion, and a pervasive mistrust of authority figures of all kinds. Buddhist and Taoist monks and nuns are often portrayed as buffoons and hustlers, more interested in securing patronage and worldly favors than in anything spiritual. Confucian scholars are shown as a motley crew of conniving careerists, ruthless cynics, bankrupt idealists, and feckless dreamers. Men in power are pictured as venal, vindictive tyrants, unrestrained by any sense of justice or civic duty. People are shown going through the motions of Buddhist and Taoist practices in a half-hearted, mechanical way, not quite convinced that they will do any good, but with nowhere else to turn for relief.
For several decades before Master Ou-i came on the scene, a revival of sorts had been going on within Chinese Buddhism. There was a concerted attempt among Buddhist leaders to retrieve and reassemble the total heritage of Chinese Buddhism, the whole spectrum of formulations and teaching vehicles that had developed over the centuries. The Buddhist canon was published in handier, more affordable editions, and many collections of Zen koans were reprinted and put into circulation. There was no lack of rich and powerful patrons, and many Buddhist temples that had been ruined amidst the warfare that gave birth to the Ming dynasty in the 14th century were rebuilt in the 16th century.
For the last time in Chinese history, leading Buddhist monks from educated backgrounds were formidable figures in the intellectual life of the country, injecting Buddhist perspectives into the elite discourse of the time. But such involvement was perilous. Tzu-po Chen-k'o, the most famous Zen master in the generation before Master Ou-i, laid down his life protesting tyrannical government policies. Han-shan Te-ch'ing, another Buddhist leader, was defrocked and sent into exile when the patrons of his book printing and temple restoration projects were put on the defensive in court political intrigue.
Master Ou-i's life mirrors the unease of his time. It was a lifetime of intense spiritual struggle, marked by many personal crises and searching reevaluations of his practice. Over the course of his life, Ou-i tirelessly investigated one stream after another of Buddhist methodology and theory, searching for the key to attainment in a time and place when genuine teachers and sincere companions in the path were hard to find.
As a teenager, like other boys from well-off families, Ou-i was immersed in Confucian studies, in preparation for passing the exams that opened the way to enter the imperial bureaucracy, the most prestigious of all careers in the society. He even wrote anti-Buddhist essays, in the fashion of the school of Confucianism orthodox in government eyes -- essays that he later burned.
At twenty he felt a breakthrough as he was studying the Analects of Confucius: he felt that he had understood the mind of Confucius. The same year Ou-i's father died.
Ou-i now moved beyond the static normative philosophy of the orthodox Confucianism of Chu Hsi [d. 1200], which openly condemned Buddhism as amoral and immoral. He delved into the more dynamic streams of Confucianism inspired by Wang Yang-ming [d. 1528], which had incorporated many perspectives from Zen Buddhism.
In his early twenties Ou-i began to practice Zen. He left home and became a monk at the age of twenty-four, guiding his meditation with the Surangama Sutra. He got dramatic results and felt that the meanings of the sutras and of the Zen sayings had all become obvious. But he told no one about this, since he did not think he had attained the ultimate level. Ou-i admits that at this time in his life, like many intellectuals before and since, he felt that Pure Land methods were beneath him, and fit only for the common people.
Ou-i became gravely ill when he was twenty-eight, after his mother had died a lingering death. He found to his dismay that his previous realization did him no good when faced with a life-and-death crisis. From this point on, Ou-i combined Buddha-name recitation with his Zen practice. Such combined practice was a long-established trend in Chinese Buddhism. The premise was that reciting the Buddha-name was the functional equivalent of Zen meditation, providing an easier, and thus for most people more effective way to samadhi. After his mother passed away, Ou-i spent two years in seclusion pursuing the combined practice of Zen and Pure Land.
At thirty-one, Ou-i encountered a famous Zen teacher who showed him how degenerate Zen practice had become in their time. After this Ou-i turned away from Zen forms altogether: though he always acknowledged the genuine realization of the Zen masters, he had decided that Zen methods were too difficult for most people to follow, and that Zen in his time was mostly an intellectual plaything.
Ou-i now devoted his energy more and more to Pure Land practice. At the same time, he did research on the vinaya (the monastic codes of discipline), and read widely in the Buddhist scriptures and philosophical treatises. He made a deep study of T'ien-t'ai philosophy, a systematic synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism developed in sixth century China. Ou-i clearly felt no sense of incongruity between Pure Land Buddhism and the Buddhism of the sutras and shastras. His commentary on the Amitabha Sutra often uses T'ien-t'ai categories, and is firmly based on the ontology of Yogacara philosophy.
In his thirties, Ou-i became fascinated with the practice of chanting mantras, special sequences of sounds to connect the practitioner to higher realities. He devoted himself to the mantra of Ti-tsang, the Bodhisattva particularly associated with bringing salvation to beings in hell. During the period when the Mongols ruled China and patronized Tibetan Buddhism, the Tantric Buddhist practice of chanting mantras had been absorbed into popular Chinese Buddhism, where mantras were regarded as magical spells that could protect their users or even bring them supernatural powers.
But as Ou-i pursued his studies, he learned that Tantric Buddhism discourages the random use of mantras as potentially dangerous, and in fact demands extremely rigorous discipline as a prerequisite for the use of mantras, to safeguard against mantra-practice amplifying faults and distorting perceptions. Ou-i stopped teaching mantras to others, and restricted his own recitation practice to the Buddha-name, the one universally safe invocation.
In his late thirties, Master Ou-i became more and more a public teacher. He lectured and wrote extensively, explaining the sutras and shastras. This was the period when the Ming dynasty entered its death spiral, as peasant rebels routed the imperial forces throughout North China, and the Manchu armies stood poised to invade from the Northeast. Master Ou-i himself was in the Yangtse River delta region, which for the time being was still safe from these political upheavals.
Despite his own preference for Pure Land methods, Master Ou-i had a completely non-sectarian view of the different forms of Buddhism: "The potentials and circumstances of sentient beings all differ, and so all different forms of the Buddhist Teaching have been devised, some open, some closed, using all sorts of terminology. The Teaching is expressed effectively to all sentient beings according to what they are ready to hear." At the age of thirty-nine he had a great revelation and saw that the differences between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism only existed because all three teachings were just expedient means, adapted to different needs.
Another serious illness that struck when he was forty-six prompted Master Ou-i to reconsider his own Buddhist practice, and devote himself completely to Pure Land practice. In his final fifteen years of his life he produced a remarkable volume of scholarship, authoring some seventy-five works in which he explicated not only the major Buddhist sutras and shastras, but also various Confucian classics, and even the Book of Change. His commentary on the Amitabha Sutra was written when he was forty-nine, in the space of nine days.
Master Ou-i died in 1656, at the age of fifty-seven. The story goes that in his last testament he had instructed his disciples to collect his bones after the cremation, grind them up, mix them with flour, and bake them into cakes to be scattered around the mountain for the birds and beasts to eat, so they could form a karmic link with the Buddhist Teachings. The disciples did not have the heart to follow their master's wishes, and instead enshrined his bones beside the great hall at Lingfeng Temple.
Master Ou-i's Commentary on the Amitabha Sutra
Master Ou-i wrote his explanation of the Amitabha Sutra not as an intellectual exercise, but to provide a practical service to Pure Land believers. In his own words:
"My hope is that every line and every word of this commentary will serve as resource materials ("life provisions") for Pure Land practitioners, and that as soon as they read or hear what is written in this work, they will progress together to the point where there is no falling back from the path to enlightenment."
In his commentary Master Ou-i explained the Pure Land teaching in terms of the Buddhist philosophy of "Mind Only". There is only one reality: Dharmakaya Buddha, the Buddha-Mind, the One Mind. All things are just waves, ripples, evanescent bubbles, appearing in the ocean of this One Mind: all worlds, all Buddhas, all sentient beings, all times, all places, all worlds, all the lived experiences of all beings in all worlds in all times.
Note how the One Mind worldview emphasizes our link to the absolute, without effacing our individuality. The Buddha-Mind is all that exists, but we too have Buddha-nature, and our own personal little minds are permeated by the Buddha-Mind, even if we do not recognize it. All that ignorance, delusion, and bad karma can do is screen us off from an awareness of our true nature, our Buddha-nature, our essential integration in the One Mind. But when we use our petty little minds to assess or to access the One Mind, it is literally like ladling out the ocean in a teacup. This is where the compassionate expedient means of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas come to our rescue. All true Buddhist teachings are situation-specific channels designed to bring us to the realization of the One Mind. The true Buddhist teachings vary in form and application, but are one in intent.
In his commentary Master Ou-i constantly refers to the fact that the apparently wondrous and even unbelievable powers of reciting Amitabha's name are inherent in our connection to the One Mind. "We must realize that there is no name of Amitabha apart from the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment, and there is no way for us to penetrate the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment apart from the name of Amitabha. I hope you will ponder this deeply!"
The connectivity of the One Mind is the key to resolving the typical objections skeptics raise to Pure Land ideas:
"Question: If Amitabha's Pure Land is a hundred billion worlds away from here, how can we be reborn there instantly?
"Answer: A hundred billion worlds are not beyond this moment of the true nature of mind that is before us right now, since fundamentally there is nothing outside the true nature of mind. When we rely on the power of Buddha that is inherent in our own mind, what is so hard about being born in the Pure Land instantly?"
Master Ou-i constantly brings the matter back to practicalities. The aim is to get in touch with the One Mind, which is omnipresent but commonly unaccessible to people -- the means are judged according to what is effective.
"Reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth means believing that Amitabha's Pure Land in the West is an inherent feature of our own minds, the creation of our own minds. It means using the great name of Amitabha, which is inherent in our minds and the creation of our minds, as a focal point to concentrate our minds on, so that we never forget it for a moment."
Master Ou-i stresses that it is precisely because the One Mind is all-pervasive that ordinary people can reach the Pure Land. He says that by reciting the Buddha-name, "You merge with Buddha from moment to moment, without bothering with visualization or meditation, and [by doing so] you immediately witness perfect illumination, with no excess and no lack. Those of the highest faculties cannot go beyond this level, while those of the lowest capabilities are also able to reach it. Of course the way Amitabha appears to people and the level of the Pure Land into which they are born is not the same [for those of different faculties]."
At another point, Master Ou-i takes a step further in pointing out where Amitabha's Pure Land figures in the scheme of interpenetrating worlds through which the One Mind is revealed: "Why do we have to wait until our life in the mundane world is over before we can be born in the Pure Land's jewel ponds? All we have to do is to develop Faith and Vows and recite the Buddha-name right now, and the lotus bud in which we will be born in the Pure Land is already in bloom, and the image of the Pure Land's golden dais appear before us--at that moment we are no longer inhabitants of this mundane world."
The urgent concern that Ou-i expresses throughout the commentary is that people should actually have faith in Amitabha, vow to reach the Pure Land, and begin reciting the Buddha-name. "If we think that there is some other method besides Pure Land practice that can extricate us from our corrupt world, we are lost in a welter of empty arguments inside a burning house."
A perennial question in Pure Land communities is how the practitioner's state of mind affects the effectiveness of Buddha-name recitation. Master Ou-i stresses that perfectly focused recitation, coupled with faith and vows, is the optimum practice, but reminds us that even reciting the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind still plants seeds of future attainment. His comments offer a mix of warning and encouragement. Here are three samples:
"Reciting the Buddha-name with a scattered mind does not guarantee being reborn in the Pure Land, since a good thing done in a diffuse, scattered way is no match for the evils that have accumulated from time without beginning."
"The only way [to eliminate bad karma] is to recite the Buddha-name until the mind is unified and undisturbed in Buddha-remembrance. Then it is like a powerful warrior breaking out of an encirclement, so even three armies cannot hem him in any more. Invoking the Buddha-name is a seed for becoming enlightened. It is like an indestructible diamond."
"Even if you invoke the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, the merits and good roots are still incalculable -- how much the more so when you invoke the Buddha name with a unified mind that is not in chaos!"
As always, the "answer" depends on the point of view and the level of truth in which the answer is operating.
On one level -- shall we say the level of conventional reality, the level of our lives as sentient beings and Buddhist practitioners -- we must recite the Buddha-name to the point that our minds become unified and unconfused before we can be protected and kept in mind by the Buddhas, as the sutra promises.
On another level, the level of absolute reality and the One Mind, as Master Ou-i points out, "The compassion of the Buddhas is inconceivable, and the merits of their names are also inconceivable. Therefore, once you hear a Buddha-name, no matter whether you are mindful or not, or whether you believe in it or not, it always becomes the seed of an affinity with the truth. Moreover, when the Buddhas bring salvation to sentient beings, they do not sort out friends and enemies: they go on working tirelessly for universal salvation. If you hear the Buddha-name, Buddha is bound to protect you. How can there he any doubts about this?"
Perhaps looking back over the twists and turns of his own religious quest, and looking ahead to his own approaching demise, Master Ou-i saw the moment of death as a key test of what a person has achieved in the work of the spirit. If the momentum of deluded habits and attachments still remains, he warns, it will drag us off into further suffering in future births. For the final time, Master Ou-i exhorts his readers to come to their senses and believe the message of the sutra:
"The only way out is to develop faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, and rely on the power of an outside Buddha to help our own Buddha. Amitabha's vows of compassion are certainly not empty promises. If we develop faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name, when we die Amitabha and the assembly of saints will appear before us to lead us away. That way we will achieve an undisturbed mind and be free to be reborn in the Pure Land."