The Amitabha Sutra - The Great Arhats
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
He was accompanied by twelve hundred
and fifty great bhikshus, all of them great
Arhats, well known to everyone.
In this next passage from the sutra, we learn of the various groups present in the Amitabha assembly and the order of their listing. This order is significant. The monastics were named first because they had renounced the world, they always accompanied Sakyamuni Buddha, and they were responsible for propagation of the Dharma.
The bodhisattvas, taking the form of either monastics or laypeople, were listed in the middle because they represented the Middle Way and they did not always accompany the Buddha. Heavenly beings were named last because they had the forms of those living in this world, that of ordinary people and sages, and they had the responsibility of supporting and protecting the Dharma out in the world.
Accompanying the Buddha were “twelve hundred and fifty great bhikshus.” “Bhiksus” usually refers to ordained Buddhist monks of Theravada Buddhism. When the word “great” precedes bhiksu, it indicates that the person is a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism. The great bhiksus were students of the Buddha who joined him shortly after he had attained enlightenment. They were the three Kasyapa brothers and their students, totaling one thousand people in all; Sariputra and his students, totaling one hundred people; Maudgalyayana and his students, totaling one hundred people; and the elder Yasa and his group, totaling fifty people.
No longer erring in their speech, thoughts, or judgment, arhats have no karmic causes to hold them in the cycle of rebirth, and so they transcend it. We can begin to see why transcending in this way is so difficult. To eliminate the affliction of thoughts, we must first control our wandering thoughts. But we always have wandering thoughts. All the time and everywhere! Even at night, for our dreams are also wandering thoughts. And day or night, our thoughts are so numerous that we have an incredible number of them in just one second! Little wonder it is so difficult to transcend samsara by eliminating these afflictions. Fortunately, we have another method—the Pure Land Dharma door— which enables us to transcend through our belief, vow, and practice.
The great arhats spoken of in the sutra were “well known to everyone.” When people saw these arhats learning from the Buddha, they must have concluded that the Buddha was indeed virtuous and accomplished. Why else would these highly respected arhats be his students! The presence of the arhats in the assembly thus helped foster peoples’ confidence in the Buddha, enabling more people to learn from and emulate him.
Now that Sakyamuni Buddha is no longer in this world, how do we learn from and emulate him? We do so by adhering to the teachings of the sutras. While there are several Pure Land sutras for us to read, we should choose just one and then delve deeply into it, learning and chanting it for an extended length of time. Gradually, our thoughts and views will mirror the teachings in our selected sutra. When we can do this, we will be putting aside our views and ideas, and emulating Sakyamuni Buddha. We will live, work, and interact with people according to his teachings and, in doing so, help introduce the Dharma to others.
In his commentary on the Amitabha Sutra, Great Master Ouyi wrote that propagation of the Dharma depends on the sangha. In other words, monastics are responsible for the transmission of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. To help them accomplish this, Sakyamuni taught the six principles of harmony for monastics in a sangha to follow in daily life.
First is harmony in having the same viewpoints. It is important for sangha members to adhere to the same principles and methods for learning and practice. By closely following the teachings found in the sutras, members will gradually hold the same viewpoints— viewpoints that are the same as those embraced by awakened beings.
Second is harmony in observing the same precepts. These rules are the standards for daily life. The five precepts of no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, or intoxicants are fundamental for all sanghas. When the members observe these precepts, their mental, verbal, and physical karmas will be correct, and they will become role models for others.
Third is harmony in living together. To succeed in their cultivation, members of a sangha need to get along. The way to do this is to build on the precepts with the ten virtuous karmas of no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, enticing speech, greed, anger, or ignorance.
Fourth is harmony in speaking without conflict. This harmony adheres to the four verbal virtuous karmas of no false, divisive, harsh, or enticing speech. When people live and work together, bad verbal karma is easily committed, which brings about harmful consequences.
For example, a speaker did not mean to hurt another’s feelings, but was unmindful when uttering his words. Regrettably, the saying “more speech, more trouble” is too often true. It is better to speak mindfully and only when necessary. This will reduce painful regrets and worries of how to undo the harm that was done. Better yet, “speak one sentence less of chatter, chant once more the buddha-name.”
Fifth is harmony in experiencing the Dharma bliss. The mind of a sangha member should be sincere, pure, and impartial. This pure mind is the mind of compassion. The principal achievement from practice is happiness. As sincerity and compassion increase, so does happiness. As happiness increases, worries and fears decrease, and the mind dwells on what the practitioner chooses. And the most wonderful—and happiest— thought for a Pure Land practitioner to dwell on is the name of Amitabha Buddha.
Sixth is harmony in sharing benefits. In a sangha, all members have the same standard of living and share offerings equitably.
Through successful implementation of the six principles of harmony, a sangha will meet its responsibility of propagating the teachings. By studying their selected Pure Land sutra, the members will learn how awakened beings think and act. They will then know how to emulate these beings. As the sutra is chanted, the words describing the speech and actions of the Buddhas will fall like Dharma rain and be absorbed by each individual’s consciousness, watering the awaiting seeds of goodness.
— Chapter 3, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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