How Do Nianfo Practitioners Reach Amituofo’s Pure Land?

Question: Simply explained, what is the requirement and process with which Nianfo practitioners (of mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha’s name – ‘Amituofo’) reach Amituofo’s Pure Land?

Answer: This can be learnt by looking closer at Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings in the ‘Amita[bha] Sutra’ (阿弥陀经) as translated by Great Master Kumarajiva (鸠摩罗什大师), with the parallel ‘Sutra Of Praises Of [Amituofo’s] Pure Land With Buddhas’ Gathering And Reception’ (称赞净土佛摄受经) as translated by Great Master Xuanzang (玄奘大师) for cross-reference and double verification, in terms of 3 stages. Below is the sutra text, followed by commentary in 14 parts (from ‘a’ to ‘n’) on them.

 阿弥陀经: … ‘若有善男子、善女人,闻说阿弥陀佛,执持名号,若一日、若二日、若三日、若四日、若五日、若六日、若七日,一心不乱,…

Amitabha Sutra: … ‘If there are good men and good women, who hear of Amituofo, faithfully [and firmly] uphold [mindfulness of his name], if for one day, if for two days, if for three days, if for four days, if for five days, if for six days, if for seven days, wholeheartedly without being scattered, …

称赞净土佛摄受经: … ‘若有净信诸善男子或善女人,得闻如是无量寿佛无量无边不可思议功德名号,极乐世界功德莊严,闻已思惟,若一日夜、或二、或三、或四、或五、或六、或七,系念不乱,…

Sutra Of Praise Of Pure Land With Buddhas’ Gathering And Reception: … ‘If there are, with pure faith, all good men or good women, who attain hearing of such Immeasurable Life Buddha’s name’s [Amituofo] immeasurable, boundless and inconceivable meritorious virtues, and his Land Of Ultimate Bliss’ magnificent meritorious virtues, having heard and contemplated, if for one day and night, or two, or three, or four, or five, or six, or seven, are connectedly [continually] mindful without being scattered, …

[a] In the context of this sutra, all who practise according to these teachings are considered good men and women.

[b] Having learnt of the name of Amituofo (and his Pure Land) is not enough, as there should be at least utmost sincere Nianfo (practice of recitation of his name), be it physically (vocally) or mentally (‘silently’).

[c] The duration for successful practice is not fixed, possibly short, for those who are very proficient practitioners, to possibly longer, for those less proficient, including after death but before rebirth to elsewhere. If already reborn elsewhere, with the right conditions, they can practise Nianfo too.

[d] The hallmark of success is when Nianfo becomes ‘wholehearted without being scattered’ (一心不乱). This is also translated as ‘connectedly [continually] mindful without being scattered’ (系念不乱), which means to be continually mindful (系念) is to be wholehearted (一心).

[e] The above is attained with Nianfo Practice powered by deep Faith in Amituofo’s vows to come to receive and guide, as taught in this sutra, also powered by earnest Aspiration to reach his Pure Land. This is how the Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice, which are requisites to reach Amituofo’s Pure Land, as detailed in its briefest form in Amituofo’s 18th great vow (see notes below),* are synergised and expressed.

[f] Note too, that when truly wholehearted, one will not be scattered, which is to be distracted by any other thought other than wholehearted Nianfo itself. This is a form of concentration that arises from wholehearted Nianfo, while having concentration first might not lead to this wholeheartedness needed, that expresses the crucial Faith and Aspiration. This concentration need not be high-level, as to be further explained below.

[2] 阿弥陀经: 
… 其人临命终时,阿弥陀佛与诸圣众,现在其前。…

Amitabha Sutra: … when these persons approach the end of life, Amituofo with an assembly of many noble beings, will appear before them. …

称赞净土佛摄受经: … 是善男子或善女人,临命终时,无量寿佛与其无量声闻弟子菩萨众俱,前后围绕来住其前,…

Sutra Of Praise Of Pure Land With Buddhas’ Gathering And Reception: … these good men or good women, when they approach the end of life, Immeasurable Life Buddha and his assembly of immeasurable Sravaka disciples and Bodhisattvas together, from the front, behind and around, come to abide before them, …

[g] It is with attainment of the above wholeheartedness without being scattered, that those about to depart for Pure Land are able to connect to Amituofo, who will arrive with his assembly to receive and guide them to his Pure Land.

阿弥陀经: … 是人终时,心不颠倒,即得往生阿弥陀佛极乐国土。’ …

Amitabha Sutra: … When these persons’ lives are ending, their minds will not be inverted, and they will immediately attain rebirth in Amituofo’s Land Of Ultimate Bliss.’ …

称赞净土佛摄受经: … 慈悲加祐,令心不乱。既舍命已,随佛众会,生无量寿极乐世界清净佛土。’ …

Sutra Of Praise Of Pure Land With Buddhas’ Gathering And Reception: … with loving-kindness and compassion blessing and protecting, enabling their minds to not be scattered. Then, having renounced their lives already, they follow the Buddha’s congregation, to be born with immeasurable life in the Land Of Ultimate Bliss’ pure Buddha land.’ …

[h] Note that it is only after Amituofo arrives to radiate light of blessings to protect and gather the Nianfo practitioners, that ‘their minds will not be inverted’ (心不颠倒), that is, their initially inverted minds are put upright. Being inverted means being ‘spiritually perverted’, to be with the Three Poisons of greed (in terms of attachment to the samsaric life about to expire), hatred (in terms of aversion to departure from the samsaric life) and ignorance (in terms of delusion and confusion of where one is going to).

[i] ‘Their minds will not be inverted’ (心不颠倒) is also translated as ‘enabling their minds to not be scattered’ (令心不乱), which means their minds BEFORE connecting to Amituofo (in the state of ‘connectedly [continually] mindful without being scattered’; 系念不乱 or ‘wholehearted without being scattered’; 一心不乱) should had been more scattered than AFTER connecting to Amituofo. This implies that their minds were not necessarily highly concentrated at firstThe inverted (颠倒) mind also means the scattered (乱) mind. It is with the uprighted (not-scattered) mind due to connection to Amituofo’s blessings, that his Pure Land can be reached.

[j] To be clearer, there are two states of being ‘not scattered’ (不乱) in the second sutra’s translation. The first is to be ‘connectedly [continually] mindful without being scattered’ (系念不乱), and the latter is ‘enabling their minds to not be scattered’ (令心不乱). As the latter arises after connecting to Amituofo, it must be the truly great state of concentration, more so than the first, which is more in terms of being wholehearted in Nianfo. This is an important point to note as some practitioners might be disheartened by assuming the need to cultivate great concentration entirely by themselves to make it to Pure Land, thus losing faith that their wholehearted (and continual) Nianfo will suffice for connecting to Amituofo to enable great concentration.

[k] To summarise, the 3 stages, in sequence, to reach Amituofo are to be

[1] ‘wholeheartedly without being scattered’ (一心不乱) or ‘connectedly [continually] mindful without being scattered’ (系念不乱),

[2] ‘Amituofo with an assembly of many noble beings, will appear before them’ (阿弥陀佛与诸圣众,现在其前) or ‘Immeasurable Life Buddha and his assembly of immeasurable Sravaka disciples and Bodhisattvas together, from the front, behind and around, come to abide before them’ (无量寿佛与其无量声闻弟子菩萨众俱,前后围绕来住其前) and

[3] ‘their minds will not be inverted’ (心不颠倒) or ‘enabling their minds to not be scattered’ (令心不乱).

[l] There is a common misconception that Stage 1 to be reached must be ‘single-mindedness or single-pointedness in terms of high-level concentration’, without which the other two stages cannot follow. Of course, if one is able to attain relatively stable concentration, it is good. However, it must be ‘wholehearted or connectedly mindful without being scattered (一心/系念不乱)’, which by itself is actually already enough to connect to Amituofo. It should be known that this requisite is not great (or high-level) meditative concentration because it is after Stage 2 occurs, that is, Amituofo being connected to, that Stage 3 of being not inverted or scattered (颠倒/乱) occurs.

[m] Stage 3 must thus be a spiritually higher state than Stage 1. In fact, Stage 3 is when there will be great meditative concentration in terms of Samadhi From Mindfulness Of Buddha (念佛三昧), due to connection to Amituofo’s light of blessings, as detailed in his 33rd great vow (see notes below).** Note too, that by the very nature of Nianfo practice, this samadhi is possible only with connection to Buddha. To summarise, it is such that wholehearted Nianfo leads to connection to Amituofo, which gives rise to great concentration. It is not that mere great concentration in Nianfo leads to connection to Amituofo, as such concentration might lack wholeheartedness.

[n] Note too that as Nianfo practice is supposed to be the Easy Path. If it demands high-level concentration straightaway, even before connecting to Amituofo, it would be a Difficult Path. Since Nianfo is the most skilful means for practice, even in the last days of the Dharma-Ending Age with spiritually weak sentient beings, it cannot be so difficult to nurture enough Self-Power to connect to the Other-Power of Amituofo, such that high meditative skills are needed. However, there should still be ongoing sincere, diligent and regular Nianfo practice in everyday life to express and strengthen the Three Provisions, to ensure that they will be adequate for reaching Amituofo’s Pure Land.

* 第十八十念皆生我国愿:我得佛,十方众生,至心信乐,欲生我国,乃至十念,若不生者,不取正觉。唯除五逆,诽谤正法。

Eighteenth Vow Of All Born In My Land With Ten Mindful Thoughts: If I attain Buddhahood, if the ten directions’ sentient beings, with utmost sincere hearts of joyful faith, desire birth in my land, even with ten mindful thoughts, should not be born there, I shall not attain right awakening. Only excluded are those with the Five Heinous Transgressions, who slandered the right Dharma.

** 第三十三蒙光触身获益愿:设我得佛,十方无量不可思议诸佛世界众生之类,蒙我光明触其身者,身心柔软,超过天人,若不尔者,不取正觉。

Thirty-Third Vow Of Receiving Light That Touches Body For Attainment Of Benefits: If I attain Buddhahood, all the ten directions’ immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha lands’ kinds of sentient beings, who receive my bright light that touches their bodies, will have bodies and minds with gentle suppleness [peace and bliss], that surpasses that of gods and humans. If not so, I shall not attain right awakening.

Namo Amituofo : Shen Shi’an (Translation & Commentary)

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