The Amitabha Sutra - Good Men and Good Women
If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his
name single-mindedly and 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 his whole assembly will appear before them.
Here Sakyamuni Buddha spoke to Sariputra of “good men or good women” who single-mindedly chant the name of Amitabha Buddha from one to seven days. What is the standard for being a good man or a good woman? In other schools, it is fulfilling the ten virtuous karmas. In the Pure Land school, the standard is to be mindful of Amitabha Buddha. When we are sincerely mindful of him, we will resonate with his mind of goodness. This will naturally fulfill the ten virtuous karmas. Good speech and good actions will follow from our mindfulness just as water naturally flows downhill.
Anyone who has tried to chant the name of Amitabha Buddha single-mindedly can appreciate just how difficult it is.
When we first begin to chant, we do so with a scattered and chaotic mind. This is a mind in which our erratic thoughts bombard us continuously as we attempt to chant. And it seems that the harder we try to focus, the more chaotic our mind becomes. Quite honestly, our mind has been chaotic for a very, very long time. We were simply not aware of it. Now, after trying to focus our mind time after time, we realize just how scattered and chaotic our thoughts are. This realization is vital if we are to progress in our practice. For as an ancient practitioner warned, “even if one chants the Buddha’s name until one’s throat is hoarse, one’s chanting with a scattered and chaotic mind will be futile.”
It will be futile because chanting with a scattered and chaotic mind will not result in being born in the Pure Land in the current lifetime. Luckily for us, the practitioner’s warning does not mean that such chanting is worthless. At the least, it will result in good fortune, though this good fortune will be enjoyed only by being reborn as a human or heavenly being in a future lifetime.
As we continue diligently with our chanting, little by little our mind becomes less chaotic. We gradually begin to chant with a scattered mind. This describes an unfocused mind, one that is not yet able to concentrate solely on the buddha-name. And so sometimes we will be mindful of Amitabha Buddha, and at other times we will have wandering thoughts. While a scattered mind is not our goal, with this mind we are at least able to begin to use the buddha-name to reduce and even keep our wandering thoughts at bay. When our chanting is not sufficient to accomplish this, we can simultaneously visualize Amitabha, our lotus flower, or the other adornments of the Pure Land while we chant.
What we are striving to attain is constant mindfulness. This is spoken of in the Infinite Life Sutra as “single-mindedly concentrating on mindfully chanting the buddha-name.” Constant mindfulness is to continuously hold the name of Amitabha in our mind, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. With constant mindfulness, we will no longer have afflictions like selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, or arrogance. We will be using one pure thought—that of Amitabha Buddha— to replace all wandering thoughts.
When we are born in the Western Pure Land through mindful chanting, we will still have wandering thoughts. At that point, we will not yet have eliminated them. We bring them along because they are still with us. What about residual karmas? We also bring along these remaining karmas. Once in the Pure Land, our continued chanting will further reduce these wandering thoughts and residual karmas, gradually eradicating them all. In time, we will attain the state of one-mind undisturbed.
To be born in the Western Pure Land, we should always regard ourselves as beginners. We should also remember what we have learned. No matter what conditions we encounter, irrespective of the various emotions or ideas we may have, we should not attach to the conditions. Indeed, we should not attach to anything of this world. Rather, we should practice to achieve constant mindfulness, to have the name of Amitabha Buddha in our mind twenty-four hours a day.
In this sutra passage, Sakyamuni spoke of chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name “for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days.” The Infinite Life Sutra says ten days, and the Visualization Sutra specifies just one day on the condition that we truly repent. The number of days differs because to help everyone, Sakyamuni Buddha taught different methods to different people. The ultimate purpose of our practice is to attain constant mindfulness. We cannot assure ourselves that when we are about to die we will be in this state, and so we need to prepare, even for thirty or forty years.
Once we achieve these states, we will not lose them. Rather, we will be more diligent and work even harder. We will be filled with Dharma bliss and will receive unimaginable benefits. To appreciate the benefits that are possible through diligent practice, we can consider the account of Venerable Yishou who lived four centuries ago. Venerable Yishou chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha while doing walking meditation in a small area that was covered with flat stones. So diligently did he practice walking meditation that he wore holes in the stones. When the stones were replaced, again he wore them down.
Despite his determined practice, Venerable Yishou encountered a serious karmic enmity from a past lifetime. This enmity was reborn as the young orphaned boy whom Venerable Yishou raised. He was a rebellious boy and as time passed, his misdeeds grew more flagrant. When Venerable Yishou spoke to him about this, the boy’s behavior became even worse. Finally, one night, he and some other boys attacked Venerable Yishou when the Venerable was doing his walking meditation. They beat him until he died. But throughout the attack Venerable Yishou continued chanting.
One might ask why such a terrible thing would happen to a monk who practiced so diligently. We need to understand that had Venerable Yishou not practiced so well, he would never have been able to continue chanting until the moment he died.
This account appears in a book that tells of people who were born in the Pure Land. The commentary for this particular account points out that we should always repent. Repent without needing to know what particular bad deeds we did in the past. Just realize that the number of times we committed them is incalculable, and the pain we caused immeasurable. And no matter what happens to us, we should never allow our belief to be shaken. Or our vow to be born in the Pure Land to be forgotten. Like Venerable Yishou, we need to be determined and chant the buddha-name “single-mindedly and without confusion.”
How do we do this?
First, we bring the thought of “Amituofo” into our mind. Then, as we chant or say “Amituofo,” our ears hear and our mind concentrates on and embraces “Amituofo.” Thus, the mind, the mouth, and the ears are all absorbed in this chanting. If intoning silently, we listen to and concentrate on our voice in our mind.
This manner of chanting will help us focus and concentrate our mind for “one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days.”
— Chapter 33, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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