The Amitabha Sutra - Birds That Sing the Dharma
And there is more still—in this land there are birds of all sorts of wondrous
variegated colors: white cranes, peacocks, orioles, egrets, kalavinkas, and jivanjivas.
All these birds bring forth harmonious songs day and night. Their songs
communicate such Buddhist teachings . . .
From what Sakyamuni Buddha described, we can see the principal reason to be born in the Pure Land—to listen to the teachings. While birds in our world are reborn as such due to their karma, the birds in the Pure Land were created specifically by Amitabha Buddha to sing the Dharma. Listening to the beautiful songs in the Pure Land, beings there can learn even while strolling along the paths or resting by the ponds.
Sakyamuni specifically named white cranes, peacocks, orioles, and egrets because people in this world know of them. But in the Pure Land there are myriad birds, all far more marvelous than anything we know here. And so Sakyamuni introduced two of them: kalavinkas, whose name means “beautiful sound,” and jivanjivas, birds with two heads.
The “Buddhist teachings” spoken of in this passage refer to the seven major components of the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment. They are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of supranormal abilities, the five roots, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the eightfold path. In samsara, we focus primarily on the first three sets of components; in the Western Pure Land, we deepen our practice as we continue with the latter four.
We begin our practice of the thirty-seven limbs with the four foundations of mindfulness. These four enable us to observe a given situation with wisdom.
The first foundation of mindfulness is contemplation of the body as impure. Contemplation refers to the thoughts and views based on true wisdom. And so contemplation of the body as impure is our view of the body. If our body were pure, it would not cause us any problems. We would not become sick; we would not age. We would be in control of our body and always happy. The stark reality that we do become ill, that we will age, and that we are neither in control nor always happy should make us realize that our body is impure. It is but a bag of skin containing flesh, tissues, blood, and bones, with bodily wastes regularly expelled from its nine orifices. The body ages, grows ill, dies, and decomposes. Very honestly, there is nothing worth being attached to.
With this awareness of how to properly view our body, we can use it more wisely. While there is no need to pamper it, we do need to care for it. When tired, we rest for a suitable length of time. When hungry, we eat some simple, nourishing food. Sakyamuni Buddha did not tell us to cherish or indulge this body. But neither did he suggest that we abuse it. We are to understand what it is: a vehicle to carry us to our goal. What is that goal? To transcend samsara and be born in the Western Pure Land.
The second foundation of mindfulness is contemplation of feelings as suffering. As we have learned, suffering permeates our life. Even if we feel happy at this moment, experience teaches us that our happiness will not last. And when it ends, we will again experience discomfort if not distress. Or outright suffering.
Furthermore, we are not the only ones who undergo suffering. All beings in the cycle of rebirth experience three kinds of suffering. The three are the suffering from the feelings that arise from contact with unpleasant things, from the deterioration of form, and from the passage of time. The kind of suffering a being undergoes depends on which of the three realms—desire, form, or formless—the being is in.
The desire realm consists of the paths of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and the six lowest heavens. Beings in this realm undergo all three kinds of suffering: contact with unpleasant things, deterioration of form, and passage of time. These beings are ruled by their desires and feelings. To be governed by these is suffering, and the more one resists, the more one rails against it, the more one suffers.
The form realm consists of the next eighteen heavens. Beings in these heavens have achieved a certain degree of meditative concentration and have severed the five desires for wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep. But because form itself is subject to the cycle of creation, existence, and destruction, these heavenly beings still undergo birth, old age, sickness, and death. While they no longer experience the first kind of suffering, which arises from contact with unpleasant things, they do undergo the second and third kinds—suffering arising from the deterioration of form and suffering arising from the passage of time.
The formless realm consists of the four highest heavens. Beings in these heavens have achieved deep meditative concentration. With lifetimes that can last as long as 80,000 eons, they are the most advanced beings in samsara. Having realized that the body is the root of suffering and that form is the cause of misfortune, these heavenly beings do not have, or want, a physical body. Free of physical bodies, they do not experience the first two kinds of suffering.
But the third kind—suffering arising from the passage of time—still exists for those in the formless realm. Even in the highest heavens, the lives of the heavenly beings are finite. Once these beings deplete their good fortune, their lifetime will end. As they realize that their meditative concentration is not permanent, that it too will cease, they suffer intensely.
Nowhere in samsara—from the lowest hell in the desire realm to the highest heaven in the formless realm—are beings permanently free from these three sufferings that arise from feelings. Grasping the significance of this truth will help provide us with the motivation necessary to transcend samsara and, finally, leave suffering behind. We accomplish this by being born in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.
The third foundation of mindfulness is contemplation of the mind as impermanent. Sakyamuni explained that in just one second, hundreds of thousands of thoughts arise and then cease. We presume they are simultaneous and connected. We believe they are real. But Sakyamuni taught that our thoughts are impermanent for they are always changing. Since the ordinary mind is impermanent, with passing, wandering thoughts that are not real, there is nothing to attach to. And yet we regard this mind as “self ” or “I.” But how can “I” be real when my thoughts and mind are not?
Only that which is permanent and unchanging is real. Ending delusion and ignorance is real. Selflessly helping others is real. The Pure Land is real. And by practicing in accordance with the teachings in the Amitabha Sutra, we can go to that land, forever leaving impermanence and falsity behind.
The fourth foundation of mindfulness is contemplation of all things as without self, as dependent. Our always-wandering thoughts create a tangle of ceaselessly changing causes and conditions. These causes and conditions produce impermanent phenomena that are dependent on other impermanent phenomena. They are not independent. We are not in control, not at peace.
Contemplating the four foundations of mindfulness will help us see the truth. In samsara, the body is born from a womb and is tainted; in the Pure Land the body is born from a lotus and is pure. In samsara, feelings are suffering; in the Pure Land, there is great joy. In samsara, our constantly changing thoughts result in impermanence; in the Pure Land permanence abounds. And finally, in samsara, all things are without self-entity; in the Pure Land the beings have uncovered their buddha-nature and are at peace.
By contemplating these four foundations of mindfulness often, we will uncover wisdom and move closer to being born in the Pure Land.
Next in our practice of the thirty-seven limbs are the four right efforts.
This group of practices concerns unwholesome and wholesome states. The first and second right efforts are preventing new evil from arising and ending existing evil. Moreover, in addition to the avoidance and elimination of evil, virtues should be cultivated. We accomplish this with the third and fourth right efforts of generating new virtues and enhancing existing virtues.
The standards for virtue, which serve as the foundation for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are the ten virtuous karmas. The opposite of the ten virtuous karmas are the ten evil karmas. Why are these karmas called evil? As we read in The Seeker’s Glossary of Buddhism, “Buddhism is not dualistic, and, therefore, does not divide phenomena into absolute ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It recognizes ‘evil’ as ‘limitation’, and, therefore, purely relative. There is therefore no ‘problem of Evil’ as in theistic systems of thought. All evil is traced to desire for self. The ‘basic evil’ is the idea of separateness, and the Buddhist goal is the removal of evil by the eradication of every selfish inclination.”
If an evil thought has already arisen or a wrongdoing has already been committed, steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again. The evil karmas of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, enticing speech, greed, anger, and ignorance are harmful to all those involved. When thoughts of these unwholesome karmas are extinguished, wholesome and virtuous thoughts and behavior will follow.
The four right efforts underlie all of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. We should eliminate what is evil and give rise to what is virtuous. As an example, consider the paramitas of giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. Greed is bad; giving is virtuous. Committing wrongdoings is bad; observing the precepts is virtuous. Anger is bad; patience is virtuous. Laziness is bad; diligence is virtuous. An unfocused mind is bad; meditative concentration is virtuous. Ignorance is bad; prajna wisdom is virtuous.
We need to eradicate greed, wrongdoing, anger, laziness, an unfocused mind, and ignorance, and replace them with their opposites: giving, precept observation, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. Doing so, we will have continuous pure thoughts. Eventually, we will attain supreme, perfect enlightenment—buddhahood. For us deluded beings, wandering thoughts and misfortune are the norm. Sadly, meditative concentration and good fortune are not.
To counteract this, we need to practice the four bases of supranormal abilities, which are the next major component in our practice of the thirty-seven limbs.
The four bases of supranormal abilities are not superhuman powers that need to be acquired. We already have these abilities in our true nature. But too often they lie dormant. We have yet to reach the calm mind that allows our supranormal abilities to arise and function.
The four bases of supranormal abilities are strong aspiration, diligence, mindfulness, and inquiry. Widely used throughout the sutras, these terms have varying meanings depending on the context in which they appear. By studying both the sutras and their commentaries, we will better grasp these contextual meanings. For example, we can view the four bases in terms of what they lead to: contentment, constant joy, peace of mind, and understanding the truth.
The first base of supranormal abilities is strong aspiration, the intense longing to succeed in our practice. This yearning to achieve is the antidote to our laziness. As our aspiration becomes firmer, our laziness will abate. Gradually we will grow more content.
The second base of supranormal abilities is diligence, which leads to constant joy. Diligence enables us to continuously progress so that we move forward in our practice at a rate that suits our capabilities and levels. When improving every day, every month, and every year, how could there not be joy? What gives a practitioner joy? Progress, which comes from daily diligence. What is suffering? Remaining stuck in our cultivation or, even worse, regressing.
The third base of supranormal abilities is mindfulness, which leads to the peace of mind that a focused mind brings. For Pure Land practitioners, this is one-mind undisturbed as taught in the Amitabha Sutra. In one-mind undisturbed, one’s mind is not deluded. A commentary on the Ten Virtuous Karmas Sutra called this mindfulness “one mind correctly dwelling.” When our mind is “correctly dwelling,” whether mindfully chanting the buddha-name or when working, interacting with people, and engaging in tasks, it will be free of wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments.
At this point our mind will be at peace, for this is the state of one-mind undisturbed. On the other hand, if Pure Land practitioners’ minds dwell incorrectly—on wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments— they will not be at peace. Thus, “correctly dwelling” with one-mind undisturbed is crucial.
The fourth base of supranormal abilities is inquiry, or investigation. It is using wisdom, which will enable us to understand the truth. With this understanding, our mind will not be deluded and we will attain great freedom.
The four foundations of mindfulness—the body as impure, feelings as suffering, the mind as impermanent, and all things as dependent—will enable us to wisely observe situations in which we find ourselves.
The four right efforts—preventing new evil from arising, ending existing evil, generating new virtues, and enhancing existing virtues—will help us to be virtuous.
The four bases of supranormal abilities—strong aspiration, diligence, mindfulness, and inquiry—will help us to increase our meditative concentration and good fortune.
With these practiced in samsara, we will be prepared to progress further in our practice of the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment in the Pure Land.
— Chapter 16, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling