The Amitabha Sutra - Non-retrogression
None of the sentient beings who are born
in the Land of Ultimate Bliss ever fall back
into a lower realm.
This sentence assures us that all the beings in the Pure Land have reached the level of non-retrogression. This also means that they are always improving. The swiftness of their unceasing improvement is possible thanks to the support of Amitabha Buddha and the excellent learning conditions in the Pure Land.
In comparison to those conditions, ours here in samsara are woefully inadequate. How so? Being reborn as a human is incredibly rare; and when we do finally obtain a human rebirth, we may not live in a place where we can hear the teachings. Or, upon our hearing of this Dharma door and wanting to practice the teachings, we find that friends and family members oppose our practice. Perhaps our surroundings are so pleasurable that we are too distracted to practice. Alternatively, our surroundings may be so harsh that all we can think of is surviving for one more day. One way or another, we lack the good fortune to have suitable conditions for practice.
On the other hand, we could indeed be fortunate enough to hear the teachings, have time to practice, enjoy the support of friends and family members, and possess favorable surroundings for practice. But what if in the face of all our advantages we became arrogant and self-absorbed? We could squander our good fortune on personal enjoyments. Or feeling lazy and complacent, we could dismiss the urgency of practice saying there will be time another day.
For these and so many other reasons, we all too often regress in our practice to attain buddhahood.
The quickest way to attain buddhahood is to make continuous progress—to reach the level of non-retrogression. For beings like ourselves, this is best accomplished in a land that is tailored to accommodate our needs and shortcomings. And so Sakyamuni told us that of all the pure lands, we should seek birth in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, a land so ideal that Buddhas in the ten directions teach the Pure Land method and encourage all beings to seek birth there.
We can further appreciate the importance of this sutra passage assuring us of non-retrogression when we consider five fundamental reasons why we will never fall back in that land.
First is Amitabha Buddha’s twentieth vow. Of the beings who sincerely practice and chant his name, he said that at the end of their lives, along with an assembly of bodhisattvas, he would come to escort them. In an instant, they would be born in his land and become non-retrogressive bodhisattvas.
Furthermore, Amitabha concluded all forty-eight of his vows with the same pledge: if he did not fulfill the particular vow he would not attain perfect enlightenment. Sakyamuni told us that Amitabha became a Buddha ten kalpas ago. This is our assurance that all of Amitabha’s forty-eight vows were indeed fulfilled, including the vow of non-retrogression for all those born in his land.
Second, Amitabha supports all beings who sincerely chant his name. Due to this support, all those in the Pure Land will never again regress. But one does not even have to wait to be born in the Pure Land to receive Amitabha’s help. Those who sincerely practice and vow to be born in the Pure Land will receive his support even now, even here in samsara.
We can see how this works upon reading Amitabha’s thirteenth and fourteenth vows. In these two vows, he pledged that when he became a Buddha, his light would be infinite. Universally illuminating the ten directions, it would be unsurpassed by any other Buddha’s light and would exceed by a quadrillion times that of the sun and the moon. All beings who saw his light, who were illuminated by it, and who felt it touch their bodies, would be peaceful and joyous. They would perform virtuous deeds with compassion and eventually be born in his land. If all this were not so, he would not attain perfect enlightenment.
With his infinite light, Amitabha found a way to help and support us even while we are still in samsara. But if Amitabha’s light is illuminating the ten directions, why do we not see it? We are not yet truly sincere in our chanting. It is as if, on a cloudless day, the sun shines brightly all around us, but we stand gripping an open umbrella directly overhead. In ignorance, we block the very light that is streaming unabatedly toward us.
Third, even the trees, railings, birds, and celestial breezes in the Pure Land teach the Dharma. None of these happen in our world. We do not get to learn from the trees or the birds, from the nature that surrounds us. There is no continuous teaching, and so it is much easier for us to regress in our learning. And even when we do listen to teachers or read their books, it is still very easy to be lazy and to have wandering thoughts. In the Pure Land, however, we will be immersed continuously in the teachings. With Amitabha’s support, our mind will naturally be pure and proper.
Fourth, in our world, one teacher instructs many students. In the Pure Land, each being has a manifestation of Amitabha for a teacher. Furthermore, beings in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together who wish to learn from other Buddhas can go to the lands of those Buddhas to learn from them. Beings in the Land of Real Reward who want to learn from other Buddhas will see a manifestation of that Buddha right in front of them. Thus, the beings in the Pure Land can effortlessly learn from countless Buddhas. How can anyone possibly regress with such extraordinary conditions and such excellent teachers!
Fifth, depending on the level of attainment in the Pure Land, afflictions will either be held at bay or eliminated. Amitabha has created a world in which afflictions— which are serious obstacles to our progress—do not have any opportunity to arise. Therefore, there is no cause to bring about an effect that will trigger our regression.
For example, in accordance with his fifth vow, everyone has the same appearance. In our world, some people are very attractive, which can lead to arrogance. Others may not be as fortunate and, thus, suffer from feelings of low esteem. Both arrogance and a sense of inferiority are afflictions. The perfect equality of appearance in the Pure Land assures that such afflictions do not materialize, which in effect leads to their elimination.
These are the five fundamental reasons why we will always improve in our practice in the Pure Land. Because of such reasons, we will attain the three stages of non-retrogression. Those who have perfectly attained all three levels are bodhisattvas of the seventh ground and above.
The first stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s level. One eliminates the affliction of views and, in so doing, attains the level of a sage, a being who has accomplished his goal.
The second stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s practice. One continuously progresses on the bodhisattva path and perseveres to fulfill the vow of “sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.” Practitioners at this second stage do not fall back into seeking only their individual attainment. Now observant of others, they voluntarily go to them when their conditions have matured and they are ready to learn.
The third stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s mindfulness. One will never again fall back because every thought accords with prajna wisdom, the wisdom innate in the true nature.
These are the three stages of non-retrogression we attain by being born in the Pure Land. This wonderful attainment is due to Amitabha Buddha’s support.
— Chapter 29, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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