Books Excerpts

Why Good Roots Matter

Here is a collection of teachings by Master Ouyi (9th Patriarch of Chinese Pure Land tradition) on the nature of good roots (善根 : Shan4 Gen4) and how they relate to Pure Land practice.

How Good Roots Are Needed

Amitabha Sutra: ‘One cannot be born in this land through minor good roots, blessings, virtues and causal connections. If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his name singlemindedly and without confusion, for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days, then when these people are about to die, Amitabha Buddha and all the sages who are with him will appear before them. When these people die, their minds will not fall into delusion, and they will attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Ultimate Bliss.’

Master Ouyi: Good roots stem from the Bodhi Mind [Bodhicitta], the direct causal basis. Other meritorious actions that promote the path, such as charity, discipline, and meditation, bring merits and virtues. [See ‘Notes’ below] Literalist disciples of the Lesser Vehicle (shravakas) and Pratyeka Buddhas, have few[er] good roots. The meritorious deeds and virtues of human beings and gods, defiled as they are, are also few. These will not enable you to be born in the Pure Land. [Beings who have yet to give rise to the Bodhi Mind can seek birth in Pure Land, where it will be given rise to.] Only if you have faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name will each and every repetition of the Buddha-name be amply supplied with good roots and merits. Even if you invoke the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, the merits and good roots are still incalculable – how much the more so when you invoke the Buddha name singlemindedly without confusion.

[By invoking the Buddha-name], you will bring on a response – the impression is made and the seal is lifted – Amitabha and his holy retinue come to you without coming, and extend a hand to lead you off. You, the person practicing Buddha-name recitation, recognize Amitabha in your mind, and you go to the Pure Land without going, placing yourself in a jewel lotus there.

When the sutra speaks of ‘good men and good women’, it does not matter whether they are monks and nuns or householders, or whether they are high-ranking or low-ranking or old or young. No matter what your station in life, all you have to do is hear the Buddha-name, and the good roots you have accumulated over many eons immediately ripen, and all forms of evil and perversity are transformed into virtues.

‘Amitabha Buddha’ is the all-inclusive term for the myriad virtues. When you use the name of Amitabha to summon virtue, all the virtues are engendered. Thus, reciting the name of Amitabha is the correct practice, and you do not need to get involved with other practices such as visualization or meditation. Reciting the name of Amitabha is the simplest and most direct method. If you hear [the Buddha-name] and believe in it, if you believe in it and make vows, then you are fit to recite the Buddha-name. If you do not have faith and do not make vows, it is as if you never heard [the Buddha-name] at all. Merely hearing the name of Amitabha [without faith and vows] may become a long-term causal basis [for your enlightenment], but it cannot be called the ‘wisdom that comes from hearing’. Reciting the Buddha-name is a matter of being mindful of the Buddha-name from moment to moment – thus it is the ‘wisdom that comes from reflecting [on what you heard]’.

Notes: On the subject of rebirth, [Zen Master Hsing An] stated, quoting the Amitabha Sutra: ‘the Sutra says “You cannot hope to be reborn in the Pure Land with little merit and virtue and few causes and conditions or good roots.” Therefore, you should have numerous merits and virtues as well as good roots to qualify for rebirth in the Pure Land. However, there is no better way to plant numerous good roots than to develop the Bodhi Mind, while the best way to achieve merit and virtues is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. A moment of singleminded recitation surpasses years of practicing charity; truly developing the Bodhi Mind surpasses eons of cultivation. Holding firmly to these two causes and conditions assures rebirth in the Pure Land’ (Thich Thien Tam, Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith, sect. 11).

How Mindfulness of Amituofo Creates Good Roots

Question: Reciting the Buddha-name is a partial practice, an auxiliary practice. Why do you call it a principal practice?

Answer by Master Ouyi: Basing ourselves on the One Mind, we speak of faith, vows, and practice. There is however no order of precedence here, nor is naming three aspects [Three Provisions] a set definition. Without vows and practice, we cannot speak of true faith. Without practice and faith, we cannot speak of true vows. Without faith and vows, we cannot speak of true practice. Relying fully on our faith and our vows, we recite the Buddha-name. Thus faith, vows, and practice seem to be three things, but all three are fully present in every repetition of the Buddha-name. This is why reciting the Buddha-name is called the cause and condition for good roots, merits and virtues. The Meditation Sutra means this when it says that by invoking the Buddha-name, from moment to moment we are clearing away the bad karma of eighty million eons of birth and death. Without great merits, virtues and good roots, how could we clear away bad karma on such a grand scale?

How Amituofo Increases Good Roots

Master Ouyi: All the adornments of the dwellings in the Pure Land and the settings in which sentient beings are reborn in the Pure Land are created by the inherently real merits of the great vows and great deeds of Amitabha Buddha. That’s why he can adorn all the Four Pure Lands, and embrace all the ordinary people and saints of all the worlds of the past, present, and future, and enable them to be reborn in the Pure Land.

With his great vows, Amitabha (Amituofo) creates the causal basis for sentient beings to multiply their good roots, and with his great deeds he creates the conditions for sentient beings to increase their merits. Amitabha enables us to develop faith and vows and to recite the Buddha-name, and from moment to moment achieve these merits. All this is already accomplished: it is not just happening now, nor is it yet to happen. All the adornments of Amitabha act as an augmenting substance that stimulates the development of all the adornments within the minds of sentient beings. Amitabha in toto merges with sentient beings: all his powers merge with ours. Thus the Amitabha Sutra says that the Pure Land “is complete with all these merits and adornments.

How Good Roots Dilute Bad Karma

Question: Can we also clear away bad karma if we invoke the Buddha-name with a scattered mind?

Answer by Master Ouyi: The merit and virtue of the Buddha-name are inconceivable, so how could they not clear away bad karma? But reciting the Buddha-name with a scattered mind does not guarantee being reborn in the Pure Land, since the good roots created by a diffuse, scattered recitation is no match for the evils that have accumulated from time without beginning.

We must understand that all of space could not contain our accumulated evils, if they took on physical form. Every repetition of the Buddha-name might wipe away the bad karma of eighty millions eons of birth and death, but even if we recited the Buddha-name day and night for a hundred years, the amount of bad karma which would be wiped out is like the amount of dirt under a fingernail, while the amount of bad karma remaining is like all the dirt on earth. The only way [to eliminate all bad karma] is to recite the Buddha-name to the point of singleminded concentration. Then it is like a powerful warrior breaking out of an encirclement, so even three armies cannot hem him in any more. In all instances however, invoking the Buddha-name is a seed for becoming enlightened. It is like an indestructible diamond.

How Good Roots Can Ripen

Master Ouyi: When Sakyamuni Buddha was in the world, there was an old man who asked to become a monk. The congregation of five hundred monks all said the old man was lacking in good roots. Buddha however said: ‘Countless ages ago this man was being pursued by a tiger, and cried out “Namo Amitabha Buddha [Namo Amituofo]!” Now the good roots from that occasion have become ripe: he has met me and found the path. This is not something that followers of the Lesser Vehicle can perceive.’ This story, as well as the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, show that even those who invoked the Buddha-name in a scattered, confused state of mind have planted the seed of Buddhahood. How can we not believe them?

– Excerpts from ‘Mind Seal of the Buddhas: Patriarch Ou-I’s Commentary on the Amitabha Sutra’

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!