Question: In 维摩诘经 (Vimalakirti Sutra), there is mention of 八难 (Eight Difficulties) of learning, practising and realising the Dharma efficiently. 生在佛前佛后 (Being born before or after a Buddha’s time) is considered the eighth difficulty. Do beings of our time fall in this category?
Answer: [The other seven of the Eight Difficulties will be further discussed in courses mentioned below.] There are 2 ways of looking at this:
- Physically, yes, we are in this in-between category, born before Maitreya Bodhisattva becomes Buddha in our world 5.6 billion years later, and born after Sakyamuni Buddha entered parinirvana 2556 years ago.
- Spiritually, not all of us are in this category, if we are still living in the presence of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, which represents the Buddha’s essence – despite his physical absence, and us being unable to meet to learn from him in person. However, this applies only to those who really do learn and practise the Dharma diligently; not to those ignorant, lazy or uninterested.
In terms of (2), when we advance into post-Dharma Ending Age days (e.g. after about the year 9457 BE; 10,000 years after Sakyamuni Buddha’s parinirvana), there will truly be the absence of the Buddha(dharma) physically and spiritually from our world. Thus begins the ‘Dharma Ended Age’! As we speak, if we keep staying in this world life after life, and do not reach Pure Land as a safe sanctuary to further and perfect our Bodhisattva training, we will increasingly advance towards experiencing the full force of this eighth difficulty – which is of course very dangerous, unless we are non-retrogressible in spirituality already.
The Vimalakirti Sutra says 《菩萨成佛时，得一切具足功德国土，说除八难是菩萨净土。菩萨成佛时，国土无有三恶八难。》 (‘When Bodhisattvas accomplish Buddhahood, they will attain Buddha Lands complete with all meritorious virtues, as eradication of the Eight Difficulties is [the nature of, or the way to the accomplishing of] Bodhisattvas’ Pure Lands. When Bodhisattvas accomplish Buddhahood, their lands are without the three evil paths [hells, hungry ghosts and animals] and the Eight Difficulties.’) This speaks of the accomplishment of actual (tangible, physical) Pure Lands when Bodhisattvas become Buddhas. As such, with both physical and spiritual presence of Buddhas (perfected Bodhisattvas) who teach the Dharma, for the beings who reach these Pure Lands, their Eight Difficulties are totally eradicated. The fastest way for beginner Bodhisattvas to establish Pure Lands is to visit countless Pure Lands via Amituofo’s Pure Land (as enabled by his Vow #9 for supernormal travel), to actively learn from the best living examples of other Buddhas and their Pure Lands.
The other instance the Eight Difficulties are mentioned in Vimalakirti Sutra is this line –《住于八难。不得无难。同于烦恼。离清净法。》 This means that ‘Abiding within the Eight Difficulties, it is not possible to be without difficulties. Together with afflictions, parted from is the pure Dharma.’ This is another reminder on the urgency to leave this defiled world with the Eight Difficulties instead of dwelling in it indefinitely, and the easiest is by aspiring to be born in a 清净地 (‘Pure Land’). It is possible to train towards not being affected by any difficulties, but yes, it is very difficult for the average practitioner.
Q: Is it difficult to reach Pure Land?
A: There are two ways to reach Pure Land:
(I) As in the Vimalakirti Sutra quote above, when we perfect the Bodhisattva path and accomplish Buddhahood, Pure Land will be accomplished and thus reached. Right now, if one insists to stay in Samsara without a Buddha’s direct inspirational and instructional presence for a long time, without going to a Buddha’s already accomplished Pure Land to train better first, this is called 难行道 (Difficult Path), as coined by 龙树菩萨 (Nagarjuna Bodhisattva).
We have to note that even great Bodhisattvas like 普贤菩萨 (Samantabhadra Bodhisattva), whose 十大愿王 (10 Great King of Wows) in 华严经普贤菩萨行愿品 (Avatamsaka Sutra’s Chapter on Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Practices & Vows) represent all Bodhisattvas’ perfect vows, include Vow #10 to personally reach Amituofo’s Pure Land, and to guide all beings towards it. If we are far from being great Bodhisattvas like Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who are we to even imagine Amituofo’s Pure Land is not good enough for us?
(II) The contrasting 易行道 (Easy Path) towards Buddhahood (and reaching Pure Land) is to leave defiled lands with the Eight Difficulties, be they in part or totally, such as this world without the presence of a Buddha, by practising to reach an existing Pure Land to learn how to accomplish our own, before accomplishing our own. This is called the Easy Path because it is relatively much easier to, with our Self-power of personal practice, riding upon Amituofo’s Other-power of his vows, reach his Pure Land, which will immeasurably facilitate our progress towards Buddhahood.
Even though method (I) seems ‘more’ courageous and compassionate, it is truly much more difficult and dangerous a path towards Buddhahood for most. For those not truly capable, it is rash and foolish instead. We have to remember that going to Pure Land is not to heartlessly leave beings in Samsara behind. It is to be far-sighted with great compassion and wisdom, as seeking birth in Pure Land is enrolment into the best Dharma school to best learn the Dharma from a Buddha directly, to become better skilled in helping more beings with more effective skilful means. If we do not see going to a worldly school to pick up worldly skills as redundant, going to a spiritual school to master spiritual skills is even much more crucial.
The present physical absence of any Buddha in our world is already very dangerous. Sakyamuni Buddha clearly predicted the Dharma-ending age, which we are more than 10% into already. This is also why Sakyamuni Buddha emphasised, in the Infinite Life Sutra, that the Pure Land path is an ideal practice for beings of this age – even in its last days and a hundred years beyond. As warned by 智者大师 (Great Master Zhi Zhe) in 净土十疑论 (Treatise on the Ten Doubts about Pure Land: http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2013/05/the-faith-factor-strengthening-faith-through-the-treatise-on-ten-doubts-about-pure-land-run-3 ), not aspiring to reach Pure Land is actually somewhat immature if one has yet to attain non-retrogression in spiritual practice.
As the potential of spiritual backsliding is there, instead of being a Bodhisattva capable of helping many other beings, one might become but another one of these beings needing help from many Bodhisattvas. The fact that we are not yet great Bodhisattvas, while we are still ‘stuck’ in this Dharma Ending Age, we should recognise our shortcomings and lack of merits, and follow Sakyamuni Buddha and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s advice above, which are congruent with that of many other enlightened ones. The ideal way to do this is to learn more about the Pure Land teachings sincerely and systematically. (Pure Land courses can be found athttp://thedailyenlightenment.com/category/06 )