Realizing The Deathless Or Seeking Rebirth In The Pure Land?
(Buddhist Views on Life, Dying and What Comes Next)
Rev. Heng Sure, PhD
The topic of death and dying is something that Buddhists spend a lot of time with. What I am going to share with you today is virtually unknown out of Asia. There devotion rather than meditation is the number one form of Buddhist practice. In this country [America] people say, ‘Buddhism, meditation: same thing, right? They’re synonymous.’ But when you enter a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or Singapore, in Vietnam, Korea, and, more and more, Japan, you don’t find zafus and zabutons (meditation cushions and mats). You find bowing benches and big images of the Buddha. You don’t meditate; you recite the Buddha’s name. You practice a form called Pure Land devotion.
Numerically, historically, the most popular and enduring form of Buddhist practice in Asia over the last 700 years is devotion to the Buddha Amitabha [Amituofo]. Amitabha is a Sanskrit name that means limitless light. Amitabha , the Buddha of Limitless Light, is not the historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha of the Sakyamuni clan; he is another Buddha. On one occasion the historical Buddha said to his monks, ‘I am going to tell you something that you wouldn’t know about unless I opened it up to you.’ According to the Mahayana or northern tradition he told them about the vows of the Buddha named Amitabha. So, according to the Mahayana or northern tradition, at least, there are [at least] two Buddhas right from the beginning.
Like my teacher, the late Master Hsuan Hua, in addition to meditating and reciting the Buddha’s name, I do exegesis [explanation; commentary] of texts and lecture on them. This involves opening up the sutra – it’s kind of like lectio divina [holy reading]. I go into the text, using Chinese and English, and explain it line by line. These texts have been around for 2500 years and they need some interpreting to make them accessible.
About six or seven years ago, I was lecturing in Burlingame, California. I usually include stories in my lectures to make them more appealing, but on this occasion I didn’t have a story. So I said, ‘We’re learning about the Pure Land, about Amitabha. Is there anyone who has a story, a personal experience about someone reciting the Buddha’s name and going off to rebirth in the Pure Land at death?’ There were about sixty people in the audience, most of them Asian Americans, along with a fair number of Caucasians, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Since Burlingame is in the heart of Silicon Valley, a lot of them were Silicon Valley yuppies, high tech folks. I thought to myself, ‘What if they do the typical Asian thing and look at the floor as soon as you ask them a question?’ Unlike Americans who always have an opinion and immediately raise their hand and asked to be called on, the Chinese just clear their throat and say something like, ‘Grandpa is here and he can speak for the Wongs. And Mrs. Lee can speak for the Lees.’
But I thought I would try, so I asked, ‘Does anyone here have a story?’ Four hands shot up in the air. ‘Do I have a story about Pure Land? . . . Let me tell you.’ The first person to speak was a 35-year-old Stanford grad who was working for Sun Microsystems. He said, ‘My parents are Buddhists. I wasn’t much of a Buddhist myself, but my neighbor in the condominium, Mrs. Wong, we all knew that she was a Buddhist. She was in her 70s. We didn’t know much about her. She smiled all the time and was really sweet. She had a cat, and we always heard her tapping her little wooden fish as she chanted, “Namo Amituofo”. We heard her reciting the sacred name all the time, day and night.
One day we realized we hadn’t seen her for a couple days, so my wife and I went down to her apartment. We had a funny feeling as we knocked on the door and went in. There was Mrs. Wong, sitting on the bed with a smile on her face. She had a new dress on, incense lit, and a picture of the Buddha Amitabha in front of her. She said, “All of you, be good. Don’t worry about me. Take care of yourselves. You should believe in the Buddha. Goodbye.” And then she closed her eyes and died with a smile on her face. There was this very amazing feeling in the room. It was incredible. She was so blissful, and then she was gone, just like that, with a smile on her face. We, of course, did all the things you do when someone passes away. But we were amazed, because there was nothing but peacefulness. That’s my story.’
And then more hands shot up in the air. ‘My grandma, my grandma. I couldn’t believe it. Grandma was always a Buddhist and we knew it, but no one ever paid any attention to her. She was always cooking, always taking care of us, but who knew about grandma’s spirituality? One day she went to the hospital and checked herself in. Then she sat upright on her bed and passed away just as peacefully as could be, reciting the Buddha’s name. The doctors were amazed.’
We spent the whole next hour exchanging Pure Land stories of what happened in these peoples’ lives. So, what can we make of all this? What in the world is going on? What I heard were testimonies of Pure Land devotion, the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, the number one practice of Buddhism in East Asia. All I can do is present these stories to you cold. You can make of them what you will. Now, does everyone go off to rebirth in the Pure Land with a smile on their face? No. These are devout practitioners, and the fact that in a group of 60 we had four stories is a very interesting testimony.
There is a volume called Stories of People Who Go out to the West. The stories have been collecting since the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century. The stories are about monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women, and the stories all agree – like the stories from 2002 – that someone who recited the name of the Buddha Amitabha with real devotion at the end of life went off to rebirth in the Pure Land peacefully, without raging against the dying of the light. That’s fascinating, because this form of Buddhist spirituality is unknown in the West, even though it’s number one in Asia.
Now, why is that? Basically, it has to do with the threefold formula the Buddha left: shila, samadhi, and prajna: Character, Concentration, Insight; or, Precepts, Concentration, Wisdom. All Buddhist practice begins with character. Fundamentally, with commitment you take the precepts, the first five of which are refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the use of intoxicants. Monastics take 250 vows to be a monk and 50 Bodhisattva precepts on top of that. But the foundation is the same. That’s the shila part.
Mind you, four of those precepts are the same [similar in spirit] as four of the Ten Commandments. (We think that the commandment to honor your father and mother should be a precept too. We’re still learning.) The foundation of morality is what allows you, when you meditate, or whatever practice you might use – recitation, meditation, prostrations, devotions, memorization of scripture, reciting mantras – to arrive at the state of samadhi, stillness and purity. With that stillness and purity insight can arise. When situations come up, you know what to do; you’re not confused. You work with your morality; you employ samadhi, stillness. You’re not knocked off your feet when life does what life does to you. When storms arise, insight allows you to make your way through the big waves. That’s the foundation: precepts, concentration, wisdom.
This devotional side is something that arose later [though it is also linked to the threefold formula], in China, as a response, I think, to historical developments. Chinese history is a long and painful history: famine, drought, floods. Locusts would come, the warlord would overthrow the emperor and become the emperor, and then he would be overthrown by another warlord. Armies and tax collectors would come. There was a lot of suffering, and it’s possible that the description the Buddha gave of the Pure Land of Amitabha seemed such an attractive alternative to the reality in front of their eyes that the Chinese picked up on the description of the Pure Land in the West and said, ‘I want to go there.’
The teachings of the Pure Land say that there was a monk by the name of Dharmakara who made 48 vows. He said, ‘In the future I want to create a paradise where suffering is over for anyone who recites my name at the end of life [where enlightenment is guaranteed].’ That essentially is the story. It’s a salvation story, a salvific story. It’s a story that is very appealing when life is tough. In order to go to the Pure Land, what is required is faith, vows, and practice (reciting). You have to believe that there is such a world. You have to want to go there. You have to say, ‘I will be born in that land.’ And then you have to recite ‘Namo Amituofo’. That [the Three Provisions], essentially, is the key.
One of the biggest appeals of Pure Land devotion is that anyone can do it. You don’t have to have a PhD in comparative religion, you don’t have to shave your head and put on a robe, although that helps. Men, women, young, old, all can be born in the Pure Land. For East Asia, this is the answer to the problem of death and dying. Of course, over the centuries people have adopted all kinds of ways to enhance devotion: there are praises, there is dedication of merit, there are methods for the bedside, there are things to do with the corpse. There are all kinds of ritual practices around the actual physical part of dying. But the main focus is, keep reciting. When the time comes you too will wake up from a lotus flower, born pure. The Buddha Amitabha will greet you, and you’ll be reborn in this land of utmost happiness.
There is more to the story, and it’s about what happens when you get to the Pure Land. There you study to be a Bodhisattva, and you make vows to return to the earth. So the Pure Land takes on the character of an academy or a seminary, a place where you learn to become a servant who leads others to salvation. So that’s the story. There is more to Buddhism than meditation [though reciting the name of Amituofo is a form of meditation too]. When you go into a Chinese temple and see all those Buddhas up front on the altar, the one in the middle is Amitabha who stands with his hand raised welcoming you to the Pure Land. ‘Have no fear,’ he says. ‘Recite my name, believe you will go there, want to go there.’ I’ll conclude with a song I composed. Since this is the West, I’ll sing it to the accompaniment of an Iroquois rattle.
A Buddha named ‘The Eternal Light’
Made a vow to save creation [all beings].
He made a land where suffering’s gone
A place of liberation.
So use his vows [by aligning to them] and be reborn,
In lotus flowers be lying.
You simply keep his name in mind
And never stop reciting.