The Amitabha Sutra - A Most Difficult and Rare Task
Just as I am now extolling the inconceivable virtues of all the Buddhas, all those Buddhas are likewise extolling my inconceivable virtues, with these words: “Sakyamuni Buddha is able to carry out a most difficult and rare task. In the Saha World, the World of Endurance, in an evil
world of the Five Corruptions—the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of afflictions, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life—he is able to achieve Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment, and to expound the Pure Land teaching, which all beings in all worlds find hard to believe.”
“All those Buddhas” refers to all the Buddhas in the ten directions, including Amitabha Buddha. The ten directions include the six directions we have just learned about plus the intermediate directions of the northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest. “My inconceivable virtues” is a reference to the merit of Sakyamuni Buddha. What is this inconceivable merit? That he was able to achieve supreme, perfect enlightenment, and to expound the Pure Land teaching, which all beings in all worlds find hard to believe.
In his commentary on the sutra, Great Master Ouyi put Sakyamuni Buddha’s inconceivable accomplishment into perspective. “Explaining the gradual teaching to the beings in this evil world of the five corruptions is easy; explaining the immediate teaching is difficult. Explaining the immediate teaching other than the Pure Land teaching to the beings in this evil world of the five corruptions is still easy; explaining horizontal transcending of the immediate Pure Land teaching is particularly difficult. Explaining horizontal transcending, immediate practice, immediate attainment, and wondrous visualization of the Pure Land teaching to the beings in this evil world of the five corruptions is already not easy. But the most difficult of all is explaining this teaching that requires no laborious practice but mindful buddha-name chanting for one to advance directly to the level of non-retrogression—a unique, wondrous, and most beneficial method that is beyond imagination.”
Gradual refers to the attainment of the level of non-retrogression over a long period of time. This attainment takes a long time because a practitioner has to progress through many stages. Immediate refers to the quick attainment of non-retrogression. Quick, because a practitioner progresses without stages.
Today it is especially difficult to expound the immediate teaching of horizontal transcendence. Why? Because in this Dharma-Ending Age, many people prefer to hear the gradual teaching. For them a stage-by-stage progression would seem logical. After becoming a stream-enterer, one becomes a once-returner, then a non-returner, and then an arhat. This gradual stageby- stage methodology makes sense to them and is therefore easier to believe.
With the immediate teaching, by mindfully chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, we will be able to transcend the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness, be born in the Western Pure Land, where there is no retrogression, and achieve buddhahood. But hearing of such an achievement, people very often doubt this teaching. How can someone accomplish buddhahood so quickly by doing something as simple as chanting a Buddha’s name? And so they reject this teaching, thinking that it just sounds too good to be true.
Yet, even in the face of such difficulties, Sakyamuni Buddha was able to propagate this Pure Land immediate teaching. Moreover, he taught it in our “Saha World, the World of Endurance, in an evil world of the Five Corruptions—the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of afflictions, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life.”
As we previously learned, it is the world that is evil, not those who dwell in that world. Given that all beings have buddha-nature, all beings are intrinsically good. But having not yet uncovered their innate wisdom, they mistake wrong for right and right for wrong. Ignorant and deluded, the beings have the misfortune to dwell, not in a Pure Land, but in the evil world of the five corruptions.
The first corruption is the corruption of the age.
Corruption is pollution. Age is time. The corruption of the age means we live in troubled times. Today, the sky, land, and water—everything—is polluted. People are likewise contaminated in mind, body, and spirit. We need, therefore, to be discerning about those whom we interact with, as well as carefully choose the situations that we encounter. By doing so, we will be better able to maintain a pure, unpolluted mind.
To help us accomplish this mind, we can strive to attain the six principles of harmony: harmony in having the same viewpoints, in observing the same precepts, in living together, in speaking without conflict, in experiencing Dharma bliss, and in sharing benefits. Additionally, we should mindfully chant the Buddha’s name and wholeheartedly study our selected Pure Land sutra.
The second corruption is the corruption of views.
This corruption tells us that people, with vastly different opinions, hold many erroneous views. One of our most problematic incorrect views, which leads us to commit untold negative karmas, is the belief that the physical body is “I.”
The Buddha taught that the body is not “I.” Rather, a body is a living organism composed of various systems, not unlike a machine consisting of many connected parts.
These systems comprise multiple organs, which are made up of billions of cells, and these, in turn, are made up of countless atoms. The atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We thus begin to see that a body is a combination of many elements. It comes about due to many conditions. And a body changes ceaselessly. It is impermanent. It is illusory. A body is merely a vehicle; it is something that beings have and use. It is not “I.”
Another significant corruption of views is dualism. Dualism arises from our wandering thoughts and attachments. Whereas we may be aware of our more obvious wandering thoughts and attachments, we are not aware of the subtle ones. These thoughts and attachments lie deep in our store consciousness. Although buried, they can arise all too easily.
For instance, the moment we judge something to be short in length, we also immediately think of its opposite, long. When we think of far, we juxtapose it with near. Thinking of big, we also think of small. Everything is thought of in dualistic terms. Our most apparent dualistic concept is the differentiation of “you” and “I”: “you” as counter to “I,” and vice versa, “I” as counter to “you.” From such thoughts of the opposites as something different, disagreements will arise, eventually causing conflicts and, in time, war.
Our erroneous understanding of both causes and effects is another major corruption of views. With causes, for example, we may mistake a non-cause for a cause. Consider how most people think about financial gain. In their attempts to acquire it, they devise various ways to make money. But these are not the causes that will result in wealth. Having wealth is a karmic result. How do we get this karmic result? Sakyamuni taught that the cause which will result in having wealth is the giving of wealth. If we are unwilling to practice such giving and are instead stingy, then we will ultimately fail in our quest for financial gain. Our cause is wrong.
What about the mistaken views of effects? One example is thinking that good fortune is unrelated to wholesome deeds. Or the other extreme: that misfortune is not related to unwholesome deeds. Lacking understanding, we do not realize why things happen as they do.
But the most serious erroneous view of cause and effect is simply not to believe it, not to believe the natural law of causality.
If we want to have good rewards, we must know to cultivate good causes. Good causes bring about good effects. Bad causes bring about bad effects. To think that we can create bad causes and still get good rewards goes against natural law.
The third corruption is the corruption of afflictions.
There are five major kinds of afflictions.
The first major affliction is greed. Unable to let go of selfishness, we are caught up in personal attachments, always craving to have the world conform to our desires and expectations. We have yet to grasp the reality that everything—things, people, ideas, events— in our world called Endurance is impermanent: nothing can be possessed because nothing can be held on to. As the Diamond Sutra says, “all conditioned existences are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow.”
The second major affliction is anger. When our greed remains unsatisfied, and things do not occur as we desire, we give in to anger. We may yell and strike out. We may quip sarcastically. We may smolder with resentment. The one thing we fail to do is exercise patience. Or even remember that we should. And so, failing to react wisely, once again our anger destroys our peace of mind and that of others close to us.
The third major affliction is ignorance. Functioning from self-interest and personal viewpoints, we are ignorant— unable to tell true from false, good from bad, right from wrong, virtue from evil, or beneficial from harmful. Just as selflessness is the antidote to greed and patience the antidote to anger, innate prajna wisdom is the antidote to ignorance. When we uncover this wisdom, we will naturally and intuitively know what is moral and correct.
The fourth major affliction is arrogance. Not having eradicated our dualistic view of life, we still perceive everything as such. Dualism not only occurs in thinking of self and others, it also permeates our opinions. We become convinced that our views are right and those of others are wrong. As our ideas and opinions become firmly entrenched, we descend into arrogance. The antidote for arrogance is humility. Humility is the sincere and honest virtue that arises from the realization that no being is superior to another. Fundamentally, because all beings have buddha-nature, we are all equal.
The fifth major affliction is doubting the sages’ teachings. Questioning the truthfulness of the teachings of awakened beings, we think, speak, and act as we always have: selfishly and erroneously. Questioning how the teachings can help us, we stubbornly cling to our mistaken viewpoints and residual habits instead of immersing ourselves in practices that will ensure our progression toward enlightenment.
The five major afflictions of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt about the sage’s teachings are extraordinarily tough to eliminate. And yet it is crucial that we do so because these thoughts and mindsets affect both our words and our actions. When our thoughts are selfish and harmful, our speech and actions will likewise be selfish and harmful.
The fourth of the five corruptions is the corruption of sentient beings.
In referring to us, Sakyamuni Buddha often used the word “being.” This way of addressing us not only reminds us to awaken, but it also helps us understand the truth. This body of ours is not real. When various conditions combine, the phenomenon, a body, comes about. When these conditions separate, the phenomenon ceases to exist. Therefore, we cannot take this phenomenon, this body, as real because it is not permanent.
The fifth corruption is the corruption of life.
Due to our negative karmas, our lifespans are decreasing. The escalation in natural and human-made disasters, conflicts, and wars is causin
g many more people to die young. We are facing increasing toxic environmental and chemical pollution, which are now being shown to result in life-threatening medical conditions. As our children struggle to survive in the world we are creating, it is very likely that our current average lifespan will end up being longer than that of our children.
Fortunately, even in this world of the five corruptions, it is possible for us to utilize the transformative benefits of our Pure Land practice. Through faith, vow, and practice, we can transform evil into perfect goodness. As Great Master Ouyi advised, “Faith and vows and the adornment of the name of Amitabha transform the corruption of the age into an assembly of purity, transform the corruption of views into infinite light, transform the corruption of afflictions into the eternal still light, transform the corruption of sentient beings into beings born from lotuses in the Pure Land, and transform the corruption of life into infinite life.”
— Chapter 45, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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