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The Amitabha Sutra - The Five Roots and the Five Powers

. . . the Five Roots, the Five Powers, . . .

Root means “being able to sustain and grow.” As the five roots are cultivated, the five powers are nurtured and strengthened, doubt is dissolved, and virtues are successfully developed. The five roots are like a tree growing. Early on, it’s a seedling with shallow, undeveloped roots. Over time, it grows into a sapling and eventually into a tree able to withstand the fiercest storms. Just like that seedling, the five powers will likewise become stronger. Both the five roots and the five powers have the same components: belief, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

The first root, belief, gives rise to the diligence root. The diligence root gives rise to the mindfulness root. The mindfulness root gives rise to the concentration root, which gives rise to the fifth root, wisdom. These five roots then develop into the five powers, with the wisdom root generating the first power, belief. The deeper and stronger the roots, the deeper and stronger the powers. Since all five powers arise from the wisdom root, the wisdom root nurtures the five powers.

The first of the five roots and the five powers is belief. It is the foundation of our practice and one of the three requisites for birth in the Western Pure Land. Belief is to be confident and not to have any doubt. We believe in our practice of chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, knowing that it is the right practice for us. We also believe in our support practices; for example, the ten virtuous karmas and the six paramitas. Ultimately, belief in the Pure Land method will help us transcend the cycle of rebirth.

We can learn about the importance of belief through an account of Master Dixian, the forty-third patriarch of the Tiantai school, and his old friend who wanted to become a monk. They became friends when they were children, even though they came from different backgrounds. The educated Master Dixian came from a well-to-do family while his friend was illiterate and came from an impoverished family. When the friend grew up he had a difficult life, mending broken pots and dishes. Every day, he carried his tools on a pole as he walked around town struggling to earn some money.

One day, he went to visit his childhood friend, Master Dixian, who had by then become a monk. After staying at the monastery for a few days, he told the master, “I want to become a monk.”

“Why?” asked the master.

“Life is filled with suffering. I really must become a monk,” the friend replied.

The master said, “Don’t joke with me. Just stay here for a few days and then go back to your work.”

Why wouldn’t the master let him become a monk? Because he thought that his friend, now in his forties, was too old to adjust to the rigors of monastic life. The training would be too difficult for him. As to chanting the sutras or learning to lecture on them, he couldn’t read. If he lived in the monastery, others would look down on him. It would all be too difficult. Therefore, the master denied his friend’s request.

But the friend persisted. “No, I have to become a monk. I don’t want to mend pots anymore.” The master was now in a quandary. Recalling their close childhood friendship, he finally said to his friend, “If you're sure that you want to become a monk, you have to agree to my conditions first.”

The friend replied, “No problem. You are my teacher. I will accept whatever you say.”

The master said, “Very well, I will tonsure you, but you will not take the monastic precepts because the fifty-three days of formal training will be too difficult for you. Nor will you live in this monastery afterward. There are many small deserted temples in the countryside. I will find one for you to stay in.”

Master Dixian then arranged for some local lay practitioners to see to his friend’s basic needs. An elderly woman was found to cook for him and do his laundry.

The master told the new monk, “Just chant Amitabha Buddha’s name. When you are tired, take a rest. When rested, resume chanting. Persevere with the chanting, and you will surely benefit from this in the future.”

The uneducated monk sincerely followed the master’s teaching. A rare student indeed!

Dedicating himself solely to his mindful chanting, he did not leave the temple for three years. Then, one day, he went out to visit his friends and relatives.

Upon returning to the temple, he told the woman who cooked for him, “There is no need to prepare food for me tomorrow.”

She thought to herself, “He has not left here for three years. Today he went to visit his friends. Maybe his friends invited him to a meal tomorrow and that’s why he told me not to cook.”

The next day, the woman went to the temple around noon to see if the monk had returned. After calling out to him and receiving no reply, she went into the temple to look for him. Finding him standing upright, his chanting beads in his hand, she again called out. But still he did not respond. Moving closer to him, she realized that he was dead!

He had died while standing, chanting the buddha-name.

The woman was astounded. She had never seen anything like this in her life. Bewildered, she rushed off to tell the others who also looked after the monk. Not knowing what to do either, they sent a messenger to notify Master Dixian.

It was three days before the master arrived at the temple. When he saw the still-standing monk, he announced admiringly, “Your becoming a monk has borne fruit. Not one of the Dharma masters or abbots at any of the famous temples and monasteries can match your achievement.” The monk had focused on chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha. After just three years, he was born in the Pure Land! Even after he died, he was still standing. He did not die of illness, and, in fact, knew in advance when he was going to pass on. His success was due in no small part to his unwavering belief.

The second of both the five roots and the five powers is diligence. Diligently applying ourself to our primary practice enables us to make focused progress. As we begin to see some results, we will enjoy the practice and not tire of it. Diligence can also be applied successfully to everything we do. Whether chanting, working, or completing other activities, we do so steadily. When it is appropriate, we take a break. After a reasonable time, we return to our task. If we keep striving and are always diligent, we will eliminate our habit of laziness, initially in everyday duties; ultimately in our Buddhist practice.

Looking at the thirty-seven limbs, we see that diligence appears several times. If we wish to be born in the Pure Land, we must be diligent in our daily practice for without diligence our roots will remain shallow and our powers weak.

The third of the five roots and the five powers is mindfulness, which will improve with our diligence. Mindfulness means “keeping in mind”: keeping both the primary practice and the supplemental means in mind. As buddha-name chanting practitioners, our most important practice is to keep the name of Amitabha Buddha always in mind, using the name to check our wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments.

The fourth of the five roots and five powers is concentration, a focused mind. This is the mind that no longer seeks externally, for it knows that everything we need is already within us. By focusing our mind on chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, we will reach the state where we are continuously aware of him. At that point, there will be no need to worry about how to act. With our mind focused on Amitabha’s name, we will react from our true nature and do what is right naturally.

Amitabha Buddha is the root of our concentration in the Pure Land Dharma door. Our every thought should accord with Amitabha and with the Pure Land teachings. As it is said, “When one accords with Amitabha Buddha in one thought, one is Amitabha Buddha in that thought. And when one accords with Amitabha Buddha in every thought, one is Amitabha Buddha in every thought.”

The fifth of the five roots and five powers is wisdom. As we have seen, the first root, belief, leads to the root of diligence, then to the root of mindfulness, then of concentration, and finally of wisdom. The root of wisdom, in turn, leads to and nurtures the five powers. Wisdom can eliminate all doubts and improper beliefs, help us overcome our afflictions, and uncover our true nature. It enables us to naturally know the difference between true and false, proper and deviated, right and wrong, beneficial and harmful. With wisdom, we will thoroughly comprehend everything we encounter, knowing how to interact appropriately with things and situations. When our wisdom has deep roots, we will not waver; we will be firm and unshakable. When the five roots grow into the five powers, these powers will enable us to help not only ourself but others as well.

— Chapter 17, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling

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