In this HowTo series, we explore the Pureland Practice. The contents herein is set at level 100 ~ 200, meaning it’s targeted at introductory to beginners’ level.
100 – Introductory
200 – Beginner
300 – Intermediate
400 – Advanced
This article was first drafted in 2007 and intended for publication on this blog. It was later revised and published in the December issue of Vaidurya 2008. It is now published here for public reading.
Pureland Buddhism is ubiquitous in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. Throughout most, if not all, Chinese temples and monasteries in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hongkong, China, worldwide, pureland practise is more well known than perhaps meditation practises like anapanasati (breathing meditation) and satipatthana (Four foundations of mindfulness). In certain cases, a Buddhist may even know only to chant “Amituofo” and nothing about the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold path. Sometimes this is due to the literacy level in the audience and other times, due to the level of the sangha community. Try explaining the Four Noble Truth and Eightfold path to an 80 year old granny who can barely understand you or try getting youths to understand the dharma talks of elderly monks who only speak some native chinese dialects or who can only manage a strongly accented chinese dialogue. In such cases, it may prove trying for both parties.
Due to the increased literacy level of Singaporeans, such scenarios are fortunately, greatly reduced. The Sangha today are mostly conversant in English and Chinese and in certain cases even in a third or fourth foreign language. With language as a tool rather than a barrier, Buddhists can learn more about the Buddha’s teachings, as did the monks and lay folks did 2550+ years ago. This then bring us to the topic at hand, how do we learn and practise Pureland in today’s context? Is pureland practices only meant for the elderlies or can the younger generation embrace it just as well? Should we restrict ourselves to mere recitation of “amituofo” or should we do more? Is there such a need? If so, what else are we to do? These are some questions we will look at and offer some thoughts about it, hopefully intriguing you enough to think about it as well.
What is the Pureland school?
The Pureland school refers to a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that centres around a basic belief that while unenlightened sentient
beings reside in samsara (cycle of birth and death), Buddhas reside in worlds called Purelands, an existence that is somewhat apart from the six realms (also referred to as the five realms in Pali Canon). These worlds are manifested through the Buddhas’ boundless merits and individual vows, and hence each world differ slightly in style, structure and entry pre-requisites. Our world in contrast, are manifested through our individual and combined karma, which as it is, is filled with a mixture of temporary happiness and suffering, due to the varied defiled mental states in which we act. The Purelands are free of suffering in nature and conditions for defilements to arise, hence the namesake. Compare this to our world where conditions for defilements abound, and it almost seem like the natural decision to want to aspire for entry to Purelands.
Each pureland differ according to the vows and aspirations of the residing Buddha of that world. Some may make it a pre-requisite for only stream-enterers (Sotapatti) and above to gain ‘entry’ while others may ‘only’ require Bodhicitta as a pre-requisite. One particular pureland that is extremely popular amongst Chinese Mahayana Buddhist is the Sukhavati Pureland (极乐世界) where Amitabha Buddha is the presiding Buddha. So for most Chinese Mahayana Buddhist, pureland practice is almost always equivalent to recitation of “amituofo” (Chinese phonetic-translation of ‘Amitabha Buddha’). For the most of this article, we will focus on the Sukhavati Pureland (极乐世界)
There are three prerequisites to entry to Sukhavati Pureland: 1) Faith-confidence 2) Vows-Aspiration and 3) Practise
Most interpret this to have the faith that Amitabha Buddha would come to ‘pick us up’ when our time is up. Faith is that and more. Faith in Buddhism is more of the confidence in the Buddha, his Teachings and the Sangha community of monks and nuns. This includes the confidence that the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truth and Eight-fold path is true. To have this confidence requires us to learn about it and then reflect and compare with our own experiences to verify our ourselves its validity. It is through this self-verification that we gain confidence.
Having faith here also includes understanding some core teachings central to pureland teachings. Amongst them, one should learn and realise that samsara, this cycle of birth and death, is suffering (The First Noble Truth of Suffering) and is full of conditions conducive for our defilements to arise. In addition, one should know and have faith that the purelands are conducive for practise in many ways. Here I would summarise into three parts: 1) Internally and 2) Externally and 3) Dharma Teachers. Internally, there are no physical sufferings of any sort and enjoy much bliss. Some think that, one may then enjoy all sorts of sensual pleasure and vices there. That is incorrect. In Buddhism, ultimate bliss is usually expressed as the absence of suffering. Further, it is said that any joy one may experience in pureland will not lead to an arousal of defilements. Hence, no sensual pleasures or vices there. Without sufferings and conditions for defilements, our mind can be calmer and more conducive for learning and practising the Dharma.
Externally, all the things we need is there for our perusal; we don’t need to study worldly knowledge to make a living, and we don’t need to spend a third or more of our life at work! In this way, we can devote so much more time to learning and practising. In addition, even the environment, with its birds and heavenly-like music, would speak of the various Dharmas and arouse thoughts relating to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In this way, amongst others, the western pureland is known as extreme bliss (极乐).
Perhaps the best part about the pureland is that the teachers there are amongst the best! Chief of them all is Amitabha Buddha flanked by none other than
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva 大悲觀世音菩薩 and Mahasthama Bodhisattva 大勢至菩薩. Having enlightened teachers is definitely a plus point in pureland as they have Perfect Wisdom and Skilful means to teach us according to our mental capacity and inclination.
But having confidence is not limited to thinking that pureland is a wonderful place to be in for learning and practising the Dharma. Having confidence is actually an active process of learning the Dharma to affirm one’s conviction. So as part of Faith-confidence, one should start learning the Dharma and it should should at the very least result in taking refuge in the Triple Gem, the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha.
With renunciation, we seek to be liberated from samsara and not to continue with self-centred lifes that is concerned with only pleasure and enjoyment. Instead we earnestly aspire towards rebirth in the purelands. Further, we should also see that others around us, including all sentient beings, are still mired with delusion, suffering in samsara. Seeing thus, we should develop bodhicitta, making strong vows to attain Enlightenment in order to show the path to others so that they may also, rightly practising the Noble Eightfold path, attain to Nirvana.
Hence, a brief understanding of vows and aspiration in pureland should be at least three-fold: 1) Renunciation towards samsara, 2) seeking rebirth in the purelands and 3) Developing Bodhicitta to learn the complete Dharma here and now, and later in the purelands in order to benefit other sentient beings.
All talk and no walk, is day-dreaming. A ship with proper maps and bearings but no movement gets nowhere while a ship on high speed in the wrong direction is either going to go aground or run out of fuel. Grounded in the proper teachings, and setting one’s goal firmly, one should move forth and start practising.
The practice in the Pureland school follows the standard Three-fold Practice of Precept, Concentration and Wisdom. At a minimal, it takes the form of the recitation of the Buddha’s name, at the higher level it involves learning the Buddha’s Teachings and meditating to realise the True Nature of all Phenomena.
As a pureland practioner, one should have taken refuge in the Triple Gem starting in the first stage of Faith-Confidence. From there, one should further observe at the very least the Five Precepts and where possible, the Eight-Precepts on a regular basis.
Having purity in one’s precepts forms a strong foundation for further learning and practise of Concentration and Wisdom.
At the core of pureland practices is the Recitation of the Buddha’s name. Before one begins reciting the Buddha’s name, one should aspire to purify one’s bodily, verbal and mental karma and be mindful while doing so. Firstly, when one is reciting the Buddha’s name, one should not be doing any bodily actions that is unwholesome or against the precepts. Further, since one is either reciting verbally or mental, one’s verbal karma should be purified and not engaged in falsehood, harsh speech,
idle talk or divisive speech. Lastly, one should be mindful when one’s mind has strayed or wandered away. When it has wandered away, one should be aware of it quickly and bring the mind back to the recitation at hand. In this way, the three-fold karma is purified.
Secondly, with the mental training through recitation of Buddha’s name, one should be mindful when one incline towards unwholesome body, speech and mind. Knowing so, one should steer one’s mind away by reciting the Buddha’s name. In this two ways, one’s precept may be upheld.
Practise: Concentration & Wisdom
In addition, this ‘recitation’ or recollection (念) can be practised at different levels that lead to further development of Concentration and Wisdom. Note that the following practices inevitably
reinforces if not support the practise of the precepts, but are not the highlight of this introduction here.
- 持名念佛 (持名念佛) Buddha’s Name recitation
- 观想念佛 (觀想念佛) Buddha’s Image recollection
- 功德念佛 (功德念佛) Recollection of Buddha’s Qualities
- 实相念佛 (實相念佛) Ultimate Reality (Dharma) Contemplation
Practise: C&W: Buddha’s name recitation
As mentioned earlier, it is the verbal or internal recitation of the Buddha’s name. Done to fruition, it can lead to calming of the mind. Depending on individual, one may find it easy to recite a 3~4 syllabus name or a 84-name mantra or even a mantra over thousands of characters, so name recitation may appeal to some but not others.
One can recite either “南無阿彌陀佛” (Namo Amituofo) or simply “阿彌陀佛” (amituofo). Some folks incorrectly think that “南無阿彌陀佛” means there is no Amitabha Buddha in the south! This is totally incorrect. In Buddhism, terms like names or terms that has meanings that are incompletely expressed in a foreign language are left ‘untranslated’. Their phonetic translations are used instead to avoid loosing or corrupting its meaning. In certain cases, it is left untranslated when the term is especially honoured or held in high esteem, as is the case for most names.
“南無” should be pronounced “namo” as in “Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato samma sambuddhasa” in the Pali and Sanskrit chanting. It means homage or salutation. So reciting “namo amituofo” is akin to paying homage to Amitabha Buddha while reciting “amituofo” is reciting of Amitabha Buddha’s name.
Practise: C&W: Buddha’s Image recollection
Another method is to recollect the Buddha’s image. This involves the visualisation of the Buddha’s image as a form of development of concentration. At one level, it is just the visual form, but at a deeper level, it is to see the “Buddha-ness” or Buddha-Nature in all sentient beings. This aids in the development of qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity towards all sentient beings.
Practise: C&W: Recollection of the Buddha’s qualities
At another level, it is the recollection of the Buddha’s qualities. The Buddha, a perfectly enlightened One, has amassed innumerable merits and wisdom, and so in many ways is worthy for us to aspire towards. One practice starts with the earlier visualisation of the Buddha’s image. This visualisation lead to a basis for concentration (Sramatha). It can then be the basis for the corresponding qualities of the Buddha for each of these marks. This then becomes the recollection of the Buddha in terms of his qualities.
Another way to recollect the Buddha’s qualities is to start with learning and reciting the Buddha’s epithets such as 1) 如來 Tathagata 、2) 應供 Arahant 、3) 正遍知 Samyak-sam buddha、4) 明行足Vijja carana-sampanno、5) 善逝Sugato、6) 世間解 Lokavidu、 7) 無上士 Anuttara、8) 調御丈夫 Purisa dhamma-sarathi、9) 天人師 Sattha Deva-manussanam、10) 佛 Buddha、11) 世尊 Bhagavat.
Recollecting in this way, one abides by the qualities of the Buddha and becomes focus.
Practise: C&W: Ultimate Reality (Dharma) Contemplation
This contemplation refers to what is commonly known as vipassana (觀) or insight wisdom and in Buddhism, it refers to seeing how things really are. Some commonly known contemplation are recollection of the Emptiness of All phenomena (Madhyamika school), or that All phenomena is Consciousness-Only or that All phenomena is Impermanent, subject to Suffering and hence not fit to be considered as self. Reflecting in this way, one develops wisdom and ultimately sees the way they really are, removing ignorance and becomes Enlightened.
nAs the Buddha said in the Diamon sutra and the nikayas-agamas, “He who see the Dharma, sees the Tathagata. He who sees the Tathagata, sees the Dharma.” Hence the Contemplation and Seeing of Ultimate Reality, is synonymous with Contemplation and Seeing of the Tathagatha, the Buddha.
In this brief introduction to the Pureland School and its practices, we find that it is very rich in the learning of the Dharma and steep in the practice of Precepts, Concentration and Wisdom. Far from the stereotype image of mere recitation of Buddha’s name, it is a practise that is still very relevant today and can be applied at various stages by different people with different inclinations.
In future, we hope to explore the existence of pureland here on Earth and perhaps even take a look at two other controversial views: 1) Does pureland exist discretely apart from this world we know and 2) Pureland in Theravada Buddhism. For now, let’s start our practise and develop our pureland now.
Thanks to a tip-off, I’ve updated this post and fixed the truncated text.
20110306 – 念佛功德 -> 功德念佛