Almost three thousand years ago, Sakyamuni Buddha came to this world to teach the Dharma, the truth of life and the universe. To help us realize the truth of suffering and learn how to end that suffering, he compassionately taught 84,000 Dharma doors. It was necessary to speak so many methods because everyone has different capabilities. He knew that the best method for some people would not be the most suitable for others.
For example, in the Dharma Perfect Age, a time that occurred after Sakyamuni Buddha entered parinirvana, those who practiced the teachings succeeded in their cultivation primarily by observing the precepts. Practitioners in the next age, the Dharma Semblance Age, succeeded in their cultivation mainly by practicing meditative concentration.
Both these ages have passed, and we are now in the Dharma-Ending Age, an era of declining spiritual abilities. In this current age, people lack both the self-discipline to observe precepts and the capacity to focus their minds through meditative concentration. Indeed, their afflictions, ignorance, and bad habits have increased. It is all too easy to regress in one’s practice: advancing in one lifetime but losing ground in many more. These people need a different Dharma door.
Who are “these people”? We are.
What is the Dharma door we need? The Pure Land Dharma door.
To help us learn it, Sakyamuni spoke of it in various sutras and elaborated on it in the Infinite Life Sutra, the Visualization Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra.
Of these three sutras, the Infinite Life Sutra provides a detailed description of that land. It tells of the time when Amitabha Buddha was still a monk named Dharmakara and of the forty-eight vows Dharmakara made relating to the formation of the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. The sutra then presents the principle of cause and effect, explaining how both moral behavior and chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha will result in being born in the Western Pure Land.
The Visualization Sutra contains sixteen meditations, also with the goal of being born in that land.
The Amitabha Sutra, while also describing some of the physical elements of the Pure Land, is the sutra in which Sakyamuni urged people three times to make the vow to seek birth in the Western Pure Land. The Amitabha Sutra is one of the rare sutras categorized as self-spoken. Self-spoken means that Sakyamuni Buddha himself introduced the teaching when no one asked the relevant questions. This is what happened with this sutra. Although no one asked about the Pure Land Dharma door, Sakyamuni Buddha knew that it would be ideal in our Dharma-Ending Age. Not only does it teach us how to be born in the Pure Land, it also assures us that we can bring along our residual karmas. These are karmas that have yet to bear fruit. Even with these karmas, once in the Pure Land, we will never again regress in our practice and learning.
The full title of the Amitabha Sutra is Buddha Speaks the Amitabha Sutra. There are two Buddhas in this title: Sakyamuni and Amitabha. Throughout the sutra, the speaker is Sakyamuni. He was born as Prince Siddhartha almost 3000 years ago in present-day Nepal.
As the young prince grew up, he became increasingly aware of the suffering that all beings undergo. In time, he renounced his position as the future king and became a wandering seeker searching for the way to end suffering. Siddhartha studied under well-known spiritual
teachers including those of meditation and asceticism. He learned and excelled at all they had to teach him. But no one knew the way to end suffering permanently. And so he continued his search.
After several years, Siddhartha came to realize that the way to end suffering was through a balanced approach that avoided the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. It was through practicing in this manner that he reached the point where he attained enlightenment and was finally free. Free from what? Free from delusion and suffering. Free from samsara— the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Siddhartha was now Sakyamuni Buddha, the awakened one. He remained in this world for another forty-nine years, teaching others what he had realized. At the age of seventy-nine, he entered parinirvana, the passing away of the physical body of a Buddha.
The second Buddha spoken of in the sutra title is Amitabha Buddha. Many kalpas ago, a king named World Abundant heard a Buddha named Lokesvara teaching the Dharma. Delighted by Lokesvara’s teaching, King World Abundant awakened. Resolving to seek the supreme truth, he relinquished his throne and became a monk called Dharmakara. He then asked Lokesvara Buddha how to attain buddhahood and help all beings end suffering.
With Lokesvara Buddha guiding him, Dharmakara aspired to make supreme, wondrous vows, thoroughly contemplated what was good and bad about heavenly and human beings, and what was excellent and inferior about their lands. From these, he single-mindedly selected what he wanted and formed his great vows. For five kalpas, he sought and explored diligently, persevered respectfully and carefully, and cultivated merits and virtues.
Dharmakara made forty-eight great vows. He pledged that if his forty-eight vows were not accomplished, he would not attain buddhahood. In the eighteenth great vow, Dharmakara promised to guide us to his land if we mindfully chant his name aloud or silently ten times as we breathe our last breaths.
With the accomplishment of these forty-eight great vows, Dharmakara became Amitabha Buddha—the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life. Through his vows, he formed the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. An ideal land for us to learn and practice in, it is described in the sutra as having marvelous adornments including golden sand, jeweled trees, birds that sing the teachings, luminescent lotuses, flowers that float down from the sky.
But while these truly are wondrous physical attributes, they are also symbolic representations of the Pure Land principles and practice. The purpose of studying these principles and practicing them is to be born in the Western Pure Land—to be close to Amitabha Buddha and all the bodhisattvas, and to complete our learning and cultivation there so that we too can become a Buddha.
What is the problem with simply studying and practicing in this world?
It does not offer a suitable learning environment. There are far too many distractions; opportunities to practice are rare. Our human life span is far too short for learning all that we need to. In the Western Pure Land, however, we have an ideal learning environment, one created for us by Amitabha Buddha. And if we want to go to the Western Pure Land—with unwavering belief, the vow to be born there, and mindful chanting of the buddha-name—we can!
Sakyamuni told us that when we go there, all the Buddhas will be our teachers and beings of superior goodness will be our companions. Who are these beings? The beings of superior goodness in the lowest land, the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, are practitioners of the ten virtuous karmas. Those in the Land of Real Reward are equal enlightenment bodhisattvas. For example, both Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva are equal-enlightenment bodhisattvas. With them as our guides, and Amitabha Buddha as our teacher, how can we fail to attain supreme, perfect buddhahood!
The Pure Land is the best possible learning environment for us. Once there, our greed, anger, and ignorance will not arise. There are several reasons for this.
First, objects we think of will immediately appear before us, thus eliminating those conditions in which the thought of something can quickly develop into greed.
Second, everyone in the Western Pure Land is a virtuous person. Even if we have not completely eradicated our anger, it will not arise because there are no conditions for us to become angry.
Third, our senses will always encounter the Dharma. We will not be ignorant. As we live there, we will no longer have to consciously work at ending our three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance like we do here. With the passage of time, without any deliberate effort on our part, they will naturally fade away.
When we begin to understand all that Sakyamuni and Amitabha have done for us, we will feel grateful to both Buddhas. We feel grateful to Sakyamuni Buddha for having had the compassion and wisdom to know how invaluable this sutra would be for the beings suffering in the cycle of rebirth and to have taught it. We feel grateful to Amitabha Buddha for having spent five kalpas both in learning and in accumulating merits and good fortune, and using them to create an ideal land where we can practice and advance to buddhahood without falling back. A remarkable opportunity.
How do we avail ourselves of this opportunity?
With the three requisites of belief, vow, and practice, which are the guiding principles of the Amitabha Sutra.
As Great Master Ouyi wrote, “Without faith [belief], we are not sufficiently equipped to take vows. Without vows, we are not sufficiently equipped to guide our practice. Without the wondrous practice of mindfully reciting the Buddha-name, we are not sufficiently equipped to fulfill our vows and bring our faith [belief] to fruition.”
Belief is to believe that we too have buddha-nature and that through mindful chanting, we will be born in the Pure Land. It is to believe that Sakyamuni Buddha did not lie when he taught of Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land, and to believe that Amitabha Buddha did not fail to fulfill his vows. It is to believe in cause and effect, and that even if we chant with an unfocused mind, we are still planting the seeds for our future birth in the Pure Land. It is to believe that the Western Pure Land truly does exist far to the west. And deep within us.
Vow is the unwavering aspiration to be born in the Western Pure Land. We make the vow upon realizing that while the cycle of rebirth is filled with suffering, happiness abounds in the Pure Land.
Practice is to diligently and joyfully chant Amitabha’s name, single-mindedly and without confusion. We can chant in any language. For example, in Chinese, we would chant “Amituofo.” In English, since we do not have an established chant, we could simply repeat “Amitabha Buddha.” This buddha-name chanting is the form of buddha-remembrance that Sakyamuni spoke of in the sutra.
— Chapter 1, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling