How Can Niànfó Prevent The Worst Rebirth To Attain The Best?

The most intense negative karma
of the most evil in the universe
is incomparable in magnitude and quantity
to the boundless meritorious virtues
of the most enlightened in the universe.
[To be continued…]

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Introduction: In the ‘Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra’ (那先比丘经), the Chinese equivalent of the Pāli version of the ‘Milindapañha’ (Questions Of Milinda), is this enlightening dialogue (62nd question and answer) on the power of mindfulness of Buddha (Niànfó: 念佛), between the Arhat Venerable Nāgasena and King Menander (Milinda) –

Sūtra: The King again asked Nāgasena, ‘You śramaṇas [monks] say, that those in this world who do evil until a hundred years old, when approaching the moment of death with mindfulness of the Buddha, after death, they will all attain birth in the heavens above. I do not believe these words. Again, you say, that killing one life, with death, one immediately ought to enter hell. I do not believe these words.’


Comments: The King was expressing doubt of how even those who have done much evil are able to use mindfulness of Buddha when dying, to not only avoid a worse rebirth, but have a better one too. He also doubted how one who had killed only one person will however take swift rebirth in the worst realm. It is natural to have these doubts as the weightage of much and less evil karma created in these instances do not seem to tally with their results in terms of having better and worse rebirths respectively.

Sūtra: Nāgasena asked the King, ‘If one holds a small pebble and puts in on top of water, will the pebble float or sink?’ The King said, ‘This pebble will sink.’ Nāgasena said, ‘If enabling the holding of a hundred pieces of large boulders, by putting them on top of a ship, will this ship sink or not?’ The King said, ‘Not sink.’ Nāgasena said, ‘Within the ship, the hundred pieces of large boulders, due to the ship, thus do not sink.

(那先问王:如人 持小石置水上,石浮耶没耶?王言:其石没。那先言:如令持百枚大石置船上,其船宁没不? 王言:不没。那先言:船中百枚大石,因船故不得没。)

Comments: Nāgasena first replied by using the the analogy of how even a small pebble, here representing the already heavy negative karma created by killing just one person, has the result of directly sinking into a lower realm when put into water, here representing the moment of dying. This is while even a hundred large boulders, here representing even much heavier negative karma when put on a ship can easily stay afloat, with neither boulders nor ship sinking due to the latter’s support. Using a modern analogy, the boulders can even be lifted up by a helicopter onboard.

Sūtra: One although originally with evil, for a short while [or one moment] mindful of Buddha, using this [skilful means of practice] thus does not enter hell, then attaining birth in a heaven above. That small pebble sinking, is like one who does evil and does not know the Buddhist sūtra[s’ teachings], after death then entering hell.’ The King said, ‘Excellent!’


Comments: Nāgasena next elaborated that even those who were evil, yet able to (truly repent and) be mindful of Buddha sincerely in time, even if not for long before taking rebirth, they can thus avoid lower rebirths and attain higher rebirths. The evil, however, who do not know how to practise accordingly thus fall to the lower realms directly like the pebble. To this answer, the King expressed praise, as Nāgasena had explained with an appropriate analogy (on how it was logical for the karmically very negative to be saved by connecting to a much greater karmically pure power).

Extended Comments: Likewise, it is possible for those who have done little good, who connect to a greater pure power to have a higher rebirth. However, it is also possible for those who have done much good, who create intense negative karma (such as nursing great hatred) right before rebirth to have a lower rebirth. (Existing good karma created can still bear fruit later when conditions better.) As death can occur suddenly, to avoid possible fall to a lower realm, it is best to practise mindfulness of Buddha in everyday life, such that it will be a natural habit to do so when dying.

Pure Land Comments: As the general practice of mindfulness of any Buddha creates immense positive karma personally, while the Buddha’s merits and blessings also flow over to dilute one’s negative karmic effects, this by default leads to a higher heavenly rebirth. However, if mindful of a Buddha’s name (which is the easiest Niànfó practice), such as ‘Āmítuófó’ (阿弥陀佛: Amitābha Buddha) with specific faithful aspiration to reach his Pure Land, this will be accomplished. (Note that Pure Land as a blissful Dharma school that guarantees enlightenment transcends all limited heavens.)

While some see it ‘unfair’ that the evil can be helped, the truly repentant are already not truly evil, while they did create positive karma in the past, to be able to know of Āmítuófó in time. For great evil ones bound for hell, the only spiritual lifesaver to prevent fall is this precious skilful means of Niànfó. That said, no one should sabotage themselves by assuming it is alright to do great evil now, as long as they do repent and Niànfó when dying. This is so as the more evil wilfully done now, the harder it will be to repent and Niànfó later, when more karmic obstacles ripen.

For most, even those not very evil, escaping Saṃsāra with only limited self-power is very difficult. Completing Nāgasena’s analogy, we should thus use our self-power to sincerely connect to Āmítuófó’s other-power, to ride upon his ship of great compassionate vows, to be rescued and ferried across Saṃsāra’s sea of birth and death (cyclical suffering), and reach the shore of his Pure Land for refuge. There, we can perfect training to reach the farther shore of Buddhahood. We will also become fully capable and willing to rescue others still rising and falling in the realms of rebirth!

[… as continued]
If the most evil truly repent
and truly connect to a Buddha,
the latter can truly rescue the first,
and truly guide them to Pure Land.

Stonepeace | Books

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