The Pure Land Teaching by Mipham Rinpoche
A commentary by Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche
If one thinks: The scripture also indicates the necessity of amassing boundless merits. As merit is the main cause for realizing aspirations, without a vast accumulation of merit, rebirth in Sukhavati will not happen by wishing for it alone.
Refutation: Generally speaking, it is merit that causes the maturation of an aspiration; yet, merit itself is also subject to the individual forces of sentient beings – their karmic tendencies, capacities, and circumstances – such that it will result in an instantaneous rebirth or a protracted one. Nonetheless, as long as one is full of fierce faith, devotion, and yearning, a vast accumulation of merit will come along perfectly, and there is no need to rely on other means. It is because all those who now hear the Sukhavati and Buddha Amitabha’s name must have previously amassed incredible merits. The scripture says: “In future time until the Dharma disappears from this world, all the Buddhas will praise, propagate, and confer blessings upon this teaching that grants the swift accomplishment of the wisdom of omniscience. All beings who hear this teaching will accrue excellent virtues and grow the roots of many goodnesses. All of them in times past must have served the Buddhas and have been blessed by them. If one’s heart opens when hearing the Buddha’s name, one will be blessed by the Buddha and experience profound bliss. Striving to hold, read, and master this teaching, the devotees spread it widely and caused others to also embrace it enthusiastically. Even by merely copying the scriptures by hand and making it an offering, one will beget numerous blessings. The sutra also says: “Those who neglect the accumulation of merits will not hear this teaching; those who endeavor in the good deeds of the Bodhisattva will hear this teaching.” And: “If, upon hearing this unexcelled Dharma, one joyfully recalls the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and arouses sincere faith in them, this person must have been a friend of mine in past lives.” From scriptural passages such as these, it can be deduced that hearing the Buddha’s name now is a feat incredibly difficult to reach, akin to getting hold of a rare gem. Those fortunate ones so endowed must have amassed vast merit in times past, and it is foreseeable that they will surely be reborn in Sukhavati in the future. Forget that we ordinary beings cannot see our past and future lives or foretell attaining liberation and enlightenment; even the great arhats could not discern the complete picture of other beings’ mind continua. For example, the Venerable Maugalyayana failed to see if a layperson had the root of virtue to become a monk. Practitioners will attain different accomplishments due to myriad variations in their karma, circumstances, and capacity. One thing is for sure though: Anyone with confident faith and strong aspiration cannot fail to have fortunate associations. Arousing faith in Buddha Amitabha and Sukhavati gathers a vast accumulation of merit that surpasses those of offering jewels enough to cover millions of worlds, as cited from the sutras. The sutra also says: “Hearing the name of the Sugatas, one will never fall back from the path of liberation; until Buddhahood is attained, one will always possesses the siddhi of unfailing memory.” And, “One will not be born a woman and can recall all the Dharma teachings; one will be born in a royal family and uphold pure discipline; one will attain supreme concentration. One will also perform Bodhisattva’s activities and take delight in cultivating virtues, thereby accumulating boundless merits.”
In all, the fabulous qualities of Sukhavati are indescribable. Sentient beings, once reaching there and beholding the face of Buddha Amitabha who sits beneath the bodhi tree, will be endowed with the sage’s qualities of riddance and realization, and reach the stage of non-retrogression. In this way they will accomplish, in one lifetime, all the tremendous merits and virtues of various paths, which far surpass those of other Bodhisattvas. Therefore, for ordinary sentient beings who rely on Self-Power alone, it will take numerous kalpas to attain the same level as that of the Bodhisattvas in Sukhavati. However, fortunate ones imbued with faith and aspiration will be led, as if being forcefully dragged by the hair, to Sukhavati at the time of their death and henceforth perfect all the supreme qualities. To make an analogy: Whatever wealth a destitute person manages to garner through untold hardships will never match up to the treasure of a person who suddenly obtains a wish-fulfilling gem. In the same way, when cooperative causes and conditions—a sentient being’s virtuous roots and the Buddha’s incredible wisdom—come together, then exalted accomplishments that are otherwise improbable to attain will manifest in that person effortlessly.
Yesterday we used many scriptural citations to describe the causes and conditions leading to an excellent rebirth in Sukhavati. Today we’ll continue, starting with this:
“If one thinks: The scripture also indicates the necessity of amassing boundless merits. As merit is the main cause for realizing aspirations, without a vast accumulation of merit, rebirth in Sukhavati will not happen by wishing for it alone.” Some people believe: The sutras clearly say that it is necessary to accumulate merits for attaining rebirth in Sukhavati. Merit is the main cause for realizing rebirth; without it rebirth will be difficult. Therefore, if we merely recite Buddha’s name, generate bodhichitta, and vow for rebirth, our wishes will not necessarily come true. We must, therefore, commit ourselves to making vast offerings and helping the needy, or else there’s no hope for our rebirth. This kind of thinking, prevalent as it may be, is unsound. The following is the refutation.
“Refutation: Generally speaking, it is merit that causes the maturation of an aspiration,“ On the whole, possessing enough merits is indeed a contributing factor for realizing aspirations. For instance, before we wish for taking rebirth in Sukhavati, or for that matter benefiting sentient beings as a monastic in all our future lives, we must have some merits in our possession: this is indispensable. To accumulate merit, whenever we come into the presence of the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, eminent Buddhist masters, or sacred mountains, we should never miss the chance to declare our heartfelt aspirations before them. At the same time, we also make offerings, which can be as little as lighting a stick of incense or giving a piece of candy to each ordained monastic. By the blessing power of these supreme objects of our homage, our aspirations and offerings will be rendered extraordinarily significant. Scriptures like the Hundred Parables Sutra, One Hundred Stories About Karma, and the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish all mention the tradition of making offerings to the Buddhas when declaring one’s vows, which again emphasizes the importance of performing meritorious acts for the purpose of realizing wishes.
“yet merit itself is also subject to the individual forces of sentient beings – their karmic tendencies, capacities, and circumstances – such that it will result in an instantaneous rebirth or a protracted one.” Does it go without saying that anyone who has amassed merit will be reborn in Sukhavati? Not necessarily. The karmic momentum of each sentient being varies: Some people have purified away most of their heavy karma from previous lives, rendering their present life quite pure; others, however, have amassed evils, which are difficult to purify or transform, even if they supplicate to exalted objects of veneration. The capacities of sentient beings vary: Some are endowed with excellent strengths—confidence, wisdom, mindfulness, and so on—that will swiftly be manifested upon meeting minimal favorable conditions. Others are depraved and quite dull in their aptitudes. Furthermore, the circumstances and connections are also dissimilar for each person: Some have fortunate links with the Pure Land practice and can attain rebirth in Sukhavati by reciting Buddha Amitabha’s name; others may find the Pure Land practice not for them but feel an affinity for Zen, Mantrayana, or other schools for attaining realization. In sum, there are myriad differences in beings’ aptitudes, dispositions, and circumstances.
At a Dharma assembly, we may appear to perform a similar virtuous activity, but its fruition will vary according to each individual’s karma and capacity. For instance, a number of you will certainly achieve rebirth in Sukhavati at the time of death; some have to wait until the bardo state or in the next life; still for others, rebirth in the next life is out of the question; instead they fall into lower realms or take birth in other world systems, and their rebirth in Sukhavati lies many kalpas away. There are multifarious possibilities, so we can’t generalize flatly how rebirth will be attained. At present, there are a few hundred of you in this lecture hall. Some of you have been listening most attentively, missing not one syllable and absorbing the teaching; while for others, from the very start until now the teaching just goes in one ear and out the other; they may even harbor misconceptions and aversions against the lecturer and fellow students, thus piling up bad karma. Can it be said that if one listener of a teaching attains realization, then the rest of attendees will also obtain a similar realization? This certainly is not the case. People attend universities to get an education, and after graduation some turn out to be respectable intellectuals, while others are incarcerated for breaking the law. Even monastic graduates often meet diametric fates – I’ve learned from Dharma teachers of monastic colleges that some of their graduates rise to be monastery abbots or eminent monks who propagate the Dharma widely; others, however, revert to secular life, get involved in dealing illegal substances, and meet the pathetic ending of a death sentence.
Therefore, sentient beings will not simultaneously be reborn in Sukhavati due to various factors in their merit accumulation. “Nonetheless, as long as one is full of fierce faith, devotion, and yearning, a vast accumulation of merit will come along perfectly, and there is no need to rely on other means.” It says here that by merely generating fervent faith in and yearning for Buddha Amitabha, we can perfect the accumulation of vast merits. This is what we discussed earlier – with faith and devotion, visualization comes easily and we yearn for rebirth in Sukhavati, which automatically garners tremendous merit for us. Attaining rebirth in Sukhavati does not necessitate acquiring worldly wealth for this purpose. For instance, monastics need not drop everything to beg for alms in the cities just for the purpose of making monetary offerings. Why? Because so long as you have strong faith and devotion and urgently wish for rebirth in Sukhavati, essentially you have accumulated vast merits and no other gestures are needed. Therefore, a wish for rebirth in Sukhavati does not sanction the perfunctory performance of virtuous deeds, nor do the devotees have to feel bad for lacking money and being destitute. Things just do not happen this way!
” It is because all those who now hear the Sukhavati and Buddha Amitabha’s name must have previously amassed incredible merits.” Since all of you sitting here have heard Buddha Amitabha’s name, learned how to supplicate to him, or have participated in the Pure Land Puja, it can be deduced that, previously, you must have acquired a great stock of merits that in this life such auspicious connections are manifesting to you now.
“The scripture says: ‘In future time until the Dharma disappears from this world, all the Buddhas will praise, propagate, and confer blessings upon this teaching that grants the swift accomplishment of the wisdom of omniscience.’” In the sutra the Buddha said that the Pure Land teaching is the heart essence of all the Buddhas. Inasmuch as the Buddhist doctrine still exists in this world, the Buddhas of the three times will continue to honor it, praise it, and preach it. This teaching is the utmost blessing of the Buddhas; anyone who practices it is ensured to attain the Buddha’s omniscient wisdom. “All beings who hear this teaching will accrue excellent virtues and grow the roots of many goodnesses. All of them in times past must have served the Buddhas and have been blessed by them.” Those who have learned the teaching of Pure Land and the practice of phowa will attain excellent roots of virtue. This is made possible by the merits they have accumulated in previous lives from making offerings, services, or obeisance to all the Buddhas, and having been blessed by them. Otherwise, no such fortunate connections will appear in this life.
Most people consider their occasional hearing of Buddha’s name as a mere chance encounter. In the book Sprays of Wisdom, people recounted what inspired them to embark on the Dharma path or to take monastic vows. Such an incidence—a visit to a monastery, reading a certain book, or meeting someone—is usually regarded as fortuitous, a chance affair. However, that’s not what really happens. In Buddhism, nothing occurs randomly without causes and conditions. The roots of virtue have their unique ways to unfold for each individual. For instance, a man has a big fight with his family, triggering in him intense aversion and disappointment, which leads him to leave home and become a monk; this, as it turns out, is the way destined for his root of virtue to ripen.
Moments ago, a lay disciple kept me on the phone for twenty minutes. She said, “I had a fight with my boyfriend and I have never felt so devastated. Master, you’ve got to help me!” I replied, “I am afraid I can’t help much on matters like this. Now tell me, what happened exactly?” “My boyfriend and I have not talked to each other for four days, I don’t want to call him, nor does he want to call me.” I told her, “Why don’t you arouse your bodhichitta and give him a call?” “No, I don’t want to, lest I run into trouble. Things will get sticky.” “Then, don’t call him, he’ll call you in a couple of days.” “That won’t work either, I can’t sleep at night.” Later, she said she wanted to become a nun. I told her, “Don’t make this decision hastily, think it over for a few days!” So, this may be the way her karmic predisposition for becoming a nun comes to fruition.
No matter what, things do not happen by accident. This is applicable especially in terms of hearing Buddha Amitabha’s name, which came about only because you have previously followed the Buddhas deferentially. You may disagree: “If I had seen Buddha Shakyamuni or other Buddhas or had served them previously, I could have attained Buddhahood a long time ago.” Not quite. We’ve been in samsara for limitless rounds and had all kinds of experiences, which we cannot recall at all. Anyway, we must have amassed quite a bit of merits that in this life we get to hear Buddha Amitabha’s name.
“If one’s heart opens when hearing the Buddha’s name, one will be blessed by the Buddha and experience profound bliss.” In this life, we have taken refuge in Buddhism and heard the names of many Buddhas, especially Buddha Amitabha, so aren’t we lucky to overcome our misfortunes that have lasted for millennia? For us, weighted by heavy afflictions and torn to pieces by aversion, craving, and delusion, we have no way to counter the assaults of birth, sickness, aging, and death. Yet in this dire situation, we meet the sublime teaching. It indeed is a great honor; let’s rejoice in it!
“Striving to hold, read, and master this teaching, the devotees spread it widely and caused others to also embrace it enthusiastically.” This point is important. When you’re ready to teach the Dharma, don’t limit your topic to those of Mantrayana only. If your students are more inclined to the Pure Land practice, then promulgate it widely to benefit them. If that’s beyond your capability, you can recite the Buddha’s name to people, even for a single recitation. Moreover, if you find no people to be an audience, don’t forget insects or creatures—those you see in the summer fields or the animals to be slaughtered at the local marketplace. Let them hear your chanting of the names of Buddha Amitabha, Buddha Jewel Treasure, or Buddha Shakyamuni. The sound of your invocation will bring relief to these beings, freeing them forever from rebirth in the lower realms. Indeed, you can produce a great stock of merit! On the other hand, if you can’t even accept these notions, I am afraid your Dharma study remains only on the theoretical level, and you have disqualified yourself as a bona fide Buddhist who has taken refuge in Buddhism. Wouldn’t that be a joke?
Thus, we must be resourceful in regard to spreading the Dharma. To be effective it’s not necessary to possess a nice Dharma center or the title of an abbot of a monastery; all we need is a pure mind free from craving for fame and possessions. With such a motivation, quietly reciting “Buddha Amitabha” within the earshot of others for three or seven times, say, during a bus ride, you’re planting uniquely virtuous seeds in others’ mind-streams, even though they themselves may not have the volition to hear. You must be confident in what you can achieve. “Even by merely copying the scriptures by hand and making it an offering, one will beget numerous blessings.” Copying by hand the Amitabha Sutra and other Pure Land scriptures is a Dharma activity that will accumulate abundant merits for us.
“The sutra also says, ‘Those who neglect the accumulation of merits will not hear this teaching; those who endeavor in the good deeds of the Bodhisattva will hear this teaching.” The sutra also specifies that unless people have accumulated merits in the past, they will not hear of the Pure Land teaching in this life; only those who are rich with good roots and are on their way to accomplish the stages of the Bodhisattvas will be connected to this teaching.
“And: ‘If, upon hearing this unexcelled Dharma, one joyfully recalls the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and arouses sincere faith in them, this person must have been a friend of mine in past lives.’” Anyone hearing this teaching, even merely one sentence of it, has essentially accomplished the recollection and visualization of the Buddhas. There are six objects of our “recalling” the Three Jewels, precept, generosity, and benevolent gods, as elaborated in The Sutra of Recalling the Three Jewels. As Buddhist disciples, we must always remember the Three Jewels, generosity, precepts, and the benevolent gods. The “gods” here refer to the protector deities, worldly gods, and spirits who guard the Dharma, to whom we should always feel grateful for their help. Amid this degenerating age rampant with obstacles, we have nonetheless enjoyed smooth sailing in our learning, contemplating, and meditating of the Dharma for many years. This is a credit to the safeguarding of Dharma Protectors and the blessings of the Three Jewels. Their benevolence is indispensable, without which hindrances would have surfaced one after the other, making even giving one lecture to a dozen people improbable. The fact that we now have kindled faith in the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas indicates that we must have had some connections with them in past lives, having been their spiritual kindred, retinues, or disciples.
“From scriptural passages such as these, it can be deduced that hearing the Buddha’s name now is a feat incredibly difficult to reach, akin to getting hold of a rare gem. Those fortunate ones so endowed must have amassed vast merit in times past, and it is foreseeable that they will surely be reborn in Sukhavati in the future.”
Hearing the name of Buddha Shakyamuni or Buddha Amitabha is by no means an inconsequential or random event. In fact, it is a momentous one brought about by the vast merits we have accumulated in past lives. Normally, when people get a windfall or make a fortune, they consider themselves very lucky. For example, not long ago an American won a lottery equivalent roughly of two hundred thousand RMB; he was ecstatic and everyone else wanted to be him. Hearing the name of Buddha Amitabha, on the other hand, seems to be something ordinary to people, no big deal at all. Yet, in terms of the ultimate benefit, which one is truly valuable? Think it over. The Pure Land School offers superb possibilities; as long as we have faith and inclination in taking rebirth in Sukhavati, we’ll make it. According to our Guru’s own words, his master Lama Lodro once bid him: “In your later years, you must spread the Pure Land practice far and wide: through this activity you’ll lead countless sentient beings to Sukhavati.” This account can also be found in our Guru’s biography, which you should find time to read. Anyway, in this life we have made a connection to our Guru in one way or the other, if we miss this opportunity to accomplish rebirth in Sukhavati, our very human existence is wasted.
Everyone who receives this Pure Land Teaching now is advised to emulate our Lama Rinpoche in vowing to take rebirth in Sukhavati at the end of this life. So long as we’re most sincere in making this aspiration, the promises of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will never fail us, even if the sky were to collapse. Those who attend this lecture series at other places or at later times should vow likewise as soon as the teaching is heard. The blessings of lineage masters are inconceivable, and the power of Buddha Amitabha’s vows and wisdom is ineffable, and through these auspicious connections, a future rebirth in the Sukhavati is ensured. At present, not only have we received the empowerment for the practice of Buddha Amitabha, but also we have recited the Buddha Amitabha’s name for quite a while. When these auspicious conditions are unfolding for us, it’s most crucial to vow for rebirth, without which the chanting of the Buddha name would become nothing more than lip service and offer no certainty in rebirth.
Human life swiftly comes to pass in a number of decades; in twenty years, perhaps half of you here will be gone from this world. Just today, an old khenpo and I were reminiscing of years past. We found out that many of our peers with whom we sat together in our Lama Rinpoche’s classes have already passed away, and only a handful of us are still around. Life is indeed fleeting. Yet many people, mindless of this fact, busy themselves with the affairs of family, career, business, and whatnot, thus wasting their precious human opportunities. For us, as monastics residing in the peaceful Larung Valley, we should know better and be prepared in this aspect. That is, we vow that at the juncture of leaving our body and this world behind, we will be able to recall Buddha Amitabha single-mindedly and achieve rebirth in Sukhavati.
Mipham Rinpoche used the phrase “it is foreseeable,” meaning through the convergence of auspicious causes and conditions, rebirth in Sukhavati is assured. He drew this conclusion by logical reasoning, not by direct perception. Why? “Forget that we ordinary beings cannot see our past and future lives or foretell attaining liberation and enlightenment; even the great arhats could not discern the complete picture of other beings’ mind continua. For example, the Venerable Maugalyayana failed to see if a layperson had the root of virtue to become a monk.” Mipham Rinpoche acknowledged that as ordinary beings, we know nothing about our past and future lives. But not only we, even the eminent arhats during Buddha Shakyamuni’s time were similarly incapable. For instance, when a lay patron wished to take monastic ordination, Maugalyayana could not see, as far as his clairvoyance allowed, any good roots this layperson had planted in this regard. Only the Buddha could tell that many kalpas ago, this patron was reborn as a caterpillar who fell off on a leaf into a stream and was carried around a stupa for three times by the current, and this incident was enough to qualify him to become a monk. Indeed, arhats still have the “four types of ignorance,” which we have studied in Mipham Rinpoche’s Norbu Ketaka. Therefore, to discern the flow of a sentient being’s mind is very tricky, and only the Buddha’s words can be taken as the valid measurement.
“Practitioners will attain different accomplishments due to myriad variations in their karma, circumstances, and capacity.” Sentient beings have different karma, conditions, and faculties; consequently, the results of their achievements also vary: Some of them attain arhatship, some reach the levels of Bodhisattvas, still others vow to stay in the world to continue to deliver sentient beings . . . All these can happen in accordance with each individual’s inclination. “One thing is for sure though: Anyone with confident faith and strong aspiration cannot fail to have fortunate associations.” Whether one has a connection with Buddha Amitabha mainly depends on one’s faith and devotion. Often people ask me: “Is this practice meant for me?” or, “What is my karmic affinity for the Mantrayana?” To them I always ask in return: “Do you have faith and devotion in it? If you do, then you have a connection.” Or, they ask: “Master, do I have a karmic relation with you?” I answer: “Do you have faith and devotion in me? If you do, yes.” I think this is a safe way to reply, instead of me making assumptions. In all, the arising of genuine faith and aspiration in the Pure Land practice is definitely related to a favorable karmic predisposition, which is distinct from the connection that enables one to hear the Buddha’s name. “Arousing faith in Buddha Amitabha and Sukhavati gathers a vast accumulation of merit that surpasses those of offering jewels enough to cover millions of worlds, as cited from the sutras.” This is explained earlier with a teaching of the Pure Land sutra: “Not even the merit of cloud banks of offerings of precious jewels that permeate the three-thousand-fold universes can compare with that of hearing the holy name Buddha Amitabha once, while solemnly joining hands in the mudra of prayer.” Therefore, hearing the holy name of Buddha Amitabha, concentrating single-mindedly on Buddha Amitabha, or arousing pure thoughts will generate merit that is inconceivable.
“The sutra also says: ‘Hearing the name of the Sugatas, one will never fall back from the path of liberation; until Buddhahood is attained, one will always possesses the siddhi of unfailing memory.’”
“And, ‘One will not be born a woman and can recall all the Dharma teachings; one will be born in a royal family and uphold pure discipline; one will attain supreme concentration.’” The Aspirational Prayer to the Realm of Great Bliss says: “May I be reborn in a royal family and no longer be a woman, may I maintain pure discipline in all of my future rebirths, I prostrate to the Sugata Amitabha.” Meaning, if one hears the name of Buddha Amitabha, even once, and is mindful of his holy name, one will be able to uphold pure precepts in all future lives and never be born a woman, which in some cultures is an inferior birth in terms of religious practice. All these prayers will be answered if we make heartfelt prayers to Buddha Amitabha.
In the sutra it says that women are at a disadvantage for the spiritual path because they have stronger emotions, are prone to doubt, and in many cultures have a lower status than men, which allows them no freedom to pursue the Dharma. In his 35th Compassionate Vow, Buddha Amitabha said: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, women in the immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha-lands of the ten directions who, having heard my Name, rejoice in faith, awaken aspiration for Enlightenment and wish to renounce womanhood, should after death be reborn again as women, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” Well, does it mean that all women are bad? That’s not what it means. Lhala Chodri Rinpoche in his commentary said: “Even reborn in a female body, some women are quite remarkable: They live contently with few desires, hold themselves gracefully with propriety, and are wise and compassionate. Having just one such woman beats having one hundred men.” This is good news for women. Indeed, nowadays the world is overwhelmed with many bad men. When Lhala Chodri Rinpoche said that one good woman is worthier than one hundred bad men, even this ratio did not do justice for the situation. I think saying one good woman beats one thousand men is more apt. He also quoted from the scriptures: “from an inferior body comes loftier attainments,” meaning women can achieve a high level of realization unreachable by corrupt men!
Once a college student asked me, “Women are discriminated against in Buddhism, why? And why would the Buddha favor men over women?” I replied, “This trend is seen not only in Buddhism, but the whole world faces the same awkward situation. Women, in general, are limited in certain capacity and have not been in a leadership position—just count, among all the countries in the world, how many of them have women as their leaders?” Regardless, in Buddhist history there have been many accomplished female practitioners who have made significant contributions in spreading the Dharma and benefiting beings. In sum, the Buddha’s statements against women were made in terms of certain mental or physiological disadvantages that come with a female body.
“May I be reborn in a royal family and uphold pure discipline.” We pray to be reborn in a noble family in all our future lives and to upkeep pure precepts. If we wish to observe precepts, it is important to pray for Buddha Amitabha. On the path of training, Bodhisattvas usually aspire to live a monastic life because they want to be free from the entangled life of a householder. If we pray to Buddha Amitabha now, in the future we’ll not be reborn into an ultra-rich family, nor into an utterly destitute one, since both of them are obstacles to entering a monastic life.
Long ago, an evil king had a prince who embraced Buddhism and practiced virtue. The prince witnessed his father’s perverted way of ruling the country and thought to himself: “If I inherit the throne after my father’s passing, I’ll also reign the country in nonvirtuous ways, and that will surely plunge me into the hell realm.” The prince requested his father’s permission to become a monk, which was denied. One day, the price saw a pitiable person walking with a cane and begging with a broken bowl. The prince asked the beggar, “I wished to become a monk but was unable to do so simply because I was born into an emperor’s family of wealth and nobility. You don’t have my kind of drawback, why don’t you become a monk?” The beggar replied: “I cannot, because I lack a monk’s necessities of begging bowl, robes, and so forth.” The prince offered him the provisions and said, “When you attain accomplishment, do come back to let me know.” The beggar then took monastic ordination and, after studious study and practice, finally attained arhatship. He flew to the palace and displayed his miraculous power to the prince, saying, “I have accomplished the level of an arhat, which would have been impossible without your patronage in the first place. I came here to pay my respect and gratitude to you.” The prince reflected: Previously, this person was unable to become a monk because he was born as a destitute beggar; my offering enabled him to enter the monastic order and attain accomplishment. For myself, I can’t become a monk because I was born into a wealthy family, how sad! I therefore wish to dedicate the merit of my offering in this way: “In the future, may I not be reborn into a very wealthy family, nor be born into a very poor family. Instead, may I be reborn into a family of moderate means, and may I always renounce the worldly life.” (This verse is usually recited as an aspiration prayer when practitioners are receiving precepts or starting a retreat.) The prince, as it turns out, was the previous incarnate of the venerable Shariputra. Hence, if we pray to Buddha Amitabha that until enlightenment, we’ll enter the monastic order in all lives and practice the Dharma, such wishes will come true easily. “One will also perform Bodhisattva’s activities and take delight in cultivating virtues, thereby accumulating boundless merits.”
“In all, the fabulous qualities of Sukhavati are indescribable. Sentient beings, once reaching there and beholding the face of Buddha Amitabha who sits beneath the bodhi tree, will be endowed with the sage’s qualities of riddance and realization, and reach the stage of non-retrogression.” The Sukhavati is fantastic beyond our wildest imagination. After taking miraculous rebirth in that land, immediately we come face to face with all the Buddhas of the three times, and all our afflictive and cognitive obscurations are eradicated. Realizing the wisdom that sees the no-self of the individual and the no-self of phenomena, we reach the Bodhisattva stage of non-retrogression.
“In this way they will accomplish, in one lifetime, all the tremendous merits and virtues of various paths, which far surpass those of other Bodhisattvas.” The Bodhisattvas in Sukhavati possess superb qualities unmatched by those of ordinary Bodhisattvas on the level of earnest aspiration. This is echoed in the 22nd Compassionate Vow of Buddha Amitabha: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, Bodhisattvas in the Buddha-lands of other directions who visit my land should not ultimately and unfailingly reach the Stage of Becoming a Buddha After One More Life, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment…”
Given that the retinues of Buddha Amitabha are all Bodhisattvas who have only one more lifetime to go before enlightenment, sentient beings will attain many inconceivable feats once they have taken rebirth in Sukhavati. In this aspect, however, there are different interpretations. For instance, Master O-Yi of Han Buddhism delineated nine grades of rebirth determined by how sincere or sloppy the Buddha’s name had been recited by each individual. This notion implies that rebirth can happen with residual karmic load. In Tibetan Buddhism, Drukpa Rinpoche also acknowledged that ordinary beings could be found in Sukhavati. However, from Mipham Rinpoche’s viewpoint here, beings reborn in Sukhavati must belong to the sages of the 1st Bodhisattva Bhumi and above. Such a stance is also held in sutras like the Amitabha Sutra and the Visualization Sutra. Why? It’s because upon arriving in Sukhavati, sentient beings instantly eradicate both afflictive obscurations and cognitive obscurations, and accomplish fully the six kinds of clairvoyance. These limitless qualities are impossible for ordinary beings to possess, so it can thus be deduced that there are no ordinary beings in Sukhavati.
Mipham Rinpoche’s view differs from those of other masters who posit that sentient beings take rebirth in Sukhavati at higher or lower grades, as determined by their different degrees of aspiration. I think whichever viewpoint you decide to subscribe to will be fine. Although great masters interpreted the sutras differently, the bottom line is that once sentient beings are reborn in Sukhavati, even if they’re still ordinary beings, they will never fall back to samsara (some interpreted this as never falling into the lower realms). They may choose to return to samsara, but their mode of rebirth is nothing like ours. For them, it’s a call to help sentient beings after having “graduated” from the training in Sukhavati, not because they are “expelled” from Sukhavati due to retrogression. These scenarios have been explicated in various Pure Land scriptures; we need not argue too much about the grade of rebirth.
“Therefore, for ordinary sentient beings who rely on Self-Power alone, it will take numerous kalpas to attain the same level as that of the Bodhisattvas in Sukhavati. However, fortunate ones imbued with faith and aspiration will be led, as if being forcefully dragged by the hair, to Sukhavati at the time of their death and henceforth perfect all the supreme qualities.” Relying on Self-Power alone, it will take innumerable kalpas, not to mention one lifetime, for a person to attain the same level of accomplishment of the Bodhisattvas in Sukhavati. However, by relying on the unimaginable power of Buddha Amitabha and by reciting the Buddha’s name, ordinary beings ensnared in karmic afflictions like us can be reborn in Sukhavati and become endowed with superb qualities. That is, our faith and aspiration plus Buddha Amitabha’s blessings will converge into a strong force that can thrust us into the Sukhavati at the time of our death. This can be called either “rebirth by Other-Power” or “rebirth by Self-Power.” Why is it a “rebirth by Self-Power”? If we fail to supplicate to Buddha Amitabha and to aspire for rebirth in Sukhavati, we’ll sever the cord of interdependence with them. The fact that Buddha Amitabha has unfathomable blessing power and that he had indeed created an incredible Pure Land would mean nothing to us. That is, if we have not created the conducive causes and conditions on our part, Buddha Amitabha will seem powerless to reach us, as reflected in the so-called the “three inabilities of a Buddha” – The Buddha can’t deliver sentient beings who have no connection to him; the Buddha can’t deliver completely all the infinite sentient beings; and the Buddha can’t overturn an immutable karma. Therefore, if we ourselves lack the requisite faith and aspiration, rebirth in Sukhavati will be tough.
We, as the disciples of our Guru Wish Fulfilling Jewel, are fortunate in this aspect. When our Guru made a pilgrimage to the Wutai Mountain in 1989, he specified the recitation of the Samantabhadra’s Aspiration Prayer as our main practice. Moreover, he aspired that whoever made a connection with him will be reborn in Sukhavati. This came from his observation of causes and conditions at the sacred mountain. On the first day when he was walking toward the Dharma-teaching dais, he listened carefully to the Sangha members’ chanting of the Samantabhadra’s Aspiration Prayer. At the moment he sat down, the recitation came precisely to this verse:
In that pure land, may I actualize every single one of all these aspirations!
May I fulfill them, each and every one, and bring help to beings for as long as the universe remains!
Our Guru considered this timing to be rather auspicious, and his visit to the Wutai Mountain in the Han area presaged his wish to deliver every sentient being linked to him to Buddha Amitabha’s Pure Land. In the light of this strong karmic connection, shouldn’t we all vow for a rebirth in Sukhavati? We must commit ourselves to this goal! We aspire for rebirth in Sukhavati with faith and yearning, and with the indispensable bodhichitta intention. Without generating bodhichitta, we may imagine Sukhavati as a place to escape to from samsara’s sufferings, where all our needs are provided and we no longer have to do any chores such as cooking or fetching water; or that arriving in Sukhavati is like taking a sightseeing tour to the United States for our own enjoyment. This kind of attitude is wrong. Our Lama Rinpoche has reminded us time and again that the purpose of taking rebirth is not for our own sake but for bringing benefit to sentient beings, a vow we always make as Mahayana practitioners. Our capacity as of now is quite limited; we can’t deliver ourselves, let alone countless other beings. However, a method is available to us now—by connecting to Buddha Amitabha, we’ll be born in Sukhavati and gain unlimited qualities and miraculous powers that will enable us to benefit beings effortlessly. To reiterate, our goal is not our own happiness, but rather helping sentient beings. However, if we do not reaffirm this intention constantly when we’re still alive, we are unlikely to remember it at the dying moment. Therefore, we must become familiar with our ultimate goal well in advance.
As to the issue of “whether bodhichitta is needed for rebirth,” Dharma teachers have different ideas. Master Jing Kong of the Han Pure Land School stresses the generation of bodhichitta, which he infers as having a pure mind and that, in turn, equates to chanting the name of Buddha Amitabha single-mindedly. Shih ChyiRong, another Dharma teacher from Taiwan, says that it’s impossible for us to generate bodhichitta at our current level; we should therefore strive in chanting the Buddha’s name wholeheartedly to attain rebirth in Sukhavati at death, and subsequently we arouse bodhichitta and elevate our grade gradually. Those who have already established bodhichitta in life will arrive in Sukhavati at the highest grade. I am unclear about the sources of these statements, but they are likely to exist in the scriptures or are the oral instructions given by eminent masters of the past. Anyway, this is what I think: Trapped in this Saha world now, we must vow for a rebirth in Sukhavati. And when we engage in the Pure Land practice of chanting the Buddha’s name, we must affirm our intention: “I vow sincerely to deliver all sentient beings to Buddhahood; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, please be my witnesses!” Such a reminder may sound repetitive, yet I feel it’s very crucial, since it is only by relying on Buddha Amitabha’s unfathomable blessings that we’ll gain the immense ability to bring sentient beings to Buddhahood.
This was a point our Lama Rinpoche always emphasized. At that time we felt he was making the vows himself and it had nothing to do with us, which, as it turned out, is quite the opposite. Our Lama Rinpoche also said, “I am talking verbosely these days, some of you may feel I’m babbling too much. But after I leave this world, you will feel I have not talked to you enough.” Indeed, that’s how we feel now. Looking back, we have not remembered well many of our Lama Rinpoche’s teachings; how we wish he had talked to us much more! On the surface, our Lama Rinpoche said, “I must first take rebirth in Sukhavati in order to attain perfect qualities; only after that will I be able to deliver sentient beings from suffering.” But in truth, such a rebirth did not need to be his concern; he only demonstrated this in order to educate us. Therefore let’s make vows that we’ll stick to our own practice, whether it’s Zen, Great Perfection, or the Middle Way, with our final goal to be taking rebirth in Sukhavati and, afterward, returning to samsara to benefit sentient beings in all ways. If we hold such a mindset at the time of death, through the blessing power of Buddha Amitabha we cannot help but be escorted to Sukhavati.
“To make an analogy: Whatever wealth a destitute person manages to garner through untold hardships will never match up to the treasure of a person who suddenly obtains a wish-fulfilling gem.” For instance, a poor person works very hard to accumulate wealth over many decades, while another person suddenly gets hold of a wish-fulfilling gem that will grant any wish. Can the wealth of these two be compared? No way. Even if the poor person goes through innumerable trials and hardship, the wealth he gathers will be, after all, limited. The other person, by his sheer luck of possessing the wish-fulfilling gem, can enjoy without toiling unlimited wealth. In the same vein, if we exert tremendous effort in practices other than the Pure Land’s, there’s no guarantee for us to attain an accomplishment comparable to those of the Sukhavati Bodhisattvas. However, if we rely on the Pure Land practice, by striving over a relatively short period of time, we will achieve supreme qualities.
Therefore, let’s abide by the Pure Land practice: wherever we are, we must always find time to recite the Buddha’s name. These days there is a common problem in the temples of Han Buddhism tradition, that is, only older people practice the Buddha name chanting and younger folks feel self-conscious about joining in. This actually doesn’t make sense. Considering the huge merit generated by honoring the Buddha and reciting his name, why don’t you partake in this activity? Some people think they are excused since they are Mantrayana practitioners. In Guangzhou, a few householders said to me at a gathering: “We don’t have a Mantrayana center in the city, thus we have no place to go and can only read books on our own or idle time away at home.” I asked them, “There is a big temple in your city center, isn’t there? I heard it is well attended, why don’t you go there?” “We have not been to the Han temple yet, since we are in the Mantrayana tradition.” I said: “Well, it’s not that critical to have a Mantrayana center here. You may as well go to the Han temple when you have time.” They said,” But, those going there are mostly older people, we feel out of place joining them.” “There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Look, even though you may have a high degree (a few are PhDs), your worldly knowledge is nothing to compare with the profound Pure Land teachings. Do not become pompous simply because you are a PhD and so forth. You should go to the big temple to pay homage to the Buddha and chant the Buddha’s name, which will incur great merit.” Hearing this, they nodded their heads and said, “Yes, Yes,” but their expressions betrayed otherwise. In truth, Buddhism is non-sectarian, whether you’re in the Sutra or Mantra tradition, you should rejoice in any activity that will generate virtue and accumulate merit. This is a rather important point.
“In the same way, when cooperative causes and conditions – a sentient being’s virtuous roots and the Buddha’s incredible wisdom – come together, then exalted accomplishments that are otherwise improbable to attain will manifest in that person effortlessly.” Like the example of obtaining a wish-fulfilling gem, we can now accomplish incredible tasks; that is, by relying on the merging together of our good karma and the Buddha Amitaba’s wisdom power, we will attain realization swiftly.
This being the case, is there any reason to doubt rebirth in Sukhavati? Absolutely not. The power of Buddha Amitabha is unfathomable; the good root of a sentient being is also unfathomable. Once these two forces meet, rebirth becomes inevitable. Many of you sitting here, I believe, must have generated enormous faith in Buddha Amitabha, which is a guarantor of rebirth. Therefore, hold this faith dearly; you will be fully entitled to take rebirth in Sukhavati!
24. To attain rebirth in Sukhavati, it is necessary to accumulate vast merits. Does this imply that unless one spends tons of money on making offerings and helping the needy, one will fail rebirth? Please explain your reasoning.
25. Please use the scriptural authority to elaborate on the excellence of the Pure Land practice and of hearing the name of Buddha Amitabha.
26. Do you have a karmic connection with the Pure Land practice of Buddha Amitabha? Why?
27. Why did the Buddha often disparage women in the sutras? Did his admonition apply to all women? What do you think?
28. Are there ordinary beings in the Sukhavati? What are the different views of Buddhist masters on it? What is your own stance? Why?
29. What are the three inabilities of a Buddha? What is your opinion about this?
30. Why shall we aspire for a rebirth in Sukhavati? What are the wrong ideas you heard from people around you? How do you plan to help them?
31. If the city you live has only Sutrayana’s temples devoted to Buddha name chanting but no Mantrayana ones, what should you do as a Mantrayana practitioner? Having learned this Pure Land Teaching, do you deem the practice of Buddha’s name chanting suitable only for the elderly? Please share your thoughts on it.