Question: The Infinite Life (Sukhavativyuha) Sutra says that ‘excluded [from possibility of birth in Pure Land] are those who created the five heinous misgivings, who slandered against the right Dharma’ in the 18th Vow of Amituofo [as below], while the Contemplation (Amitayurdhyana) Sutra says ‘those who attain birth [in Pure Land] as the lowest level of the lowest grade’ can also be ‘beings who created karma that is immoral [not good], [via] the five heinous misgivings’. How do we reconcile what seems to be a contradiction? Here are the sutra excerpts:
If, when I [Dharmakara Bodhisattva] attain Buddhahood [as Amituofo], beings of the ten directions with complete [wholehearted/single-minded] sincerity [至心], firm faith [确信] and joyful devotion [爱乐] who desire to be born in my land, and are mindful [of my name ‘Amituofo’] for even ten [thought] moments should not be born there, may I not attain perfect awakening. Excluded are those who created the five heinous misgivings, who slandered against the right Dharma.
– Infinite Life Sutra
佛告阿难及韦提希：下品下 生者，或有众生，作不善业，五逆十恶，具诸不善，如此愚人，以恶业故，应堕恶道，经历多劫，受苦无穷。如此愚人，临命终时，遇善知识，种种安慰，为说妙 法，教令念佛，彼人苦逼，不遑念佛。善友告言：汝若不能念彼佛者，应称无量寿佛。如是至心，令声不绝，具足十念，称南无阿弥陀佛。 称佛名故，於念念中，除八十亿劫生死之罪。於莲华中，满十二大劫，莲华方开，观世音、大势至、以大悲音声，为其广说诸法实相，除灭罪法。闻已欢喜，应时即发菩提之心，是名下品下生者，是名下生辈想，名第十六观。
The Buddha said to Ananda and [Queen] Vaidehi, ‘Of those who attain birth [in Amituofo’s Pure Land] as the lowest level of the lowest grade, or beings who created karma that is immoral [not good], [via] the five heinous misgivings and the ten evil acts [ten unwholesome deeds: of (1.) killing (2.) stealing (3.) sexual misconduct (4. divisive speech (5. harsh speech (6.) false speech (7.) idle speech (8.) greed (9.) anger (10.) wrong views], having all kinds of immorality, such fools should, due to evil karma, fall to the evil realms, and experience many kalpas [1 kalpa is about 1343, 840, 000 years] of boundless suffering.
If such a fool, when nearing the end of life [dying], meets a good-knowing adviser [spiritual friend], who encourages [consoles/comforts] one in various ways, telling one the wonderful Dharma, teaching and urging one to be mindful of [Amita(bha)] Buddha [Amituofo], [and] if such a person is pressed by suffering, with not enough time to be mindful of Buddha, the good friend tells one these words, “If you cannot be mindful of that Buddha, you should chant [call the name of; be mindful of] ‘Amitayus [Immeasurable Life] Buddha [Wu Liang Shou Fo; Amituofo]’. With such sincerity of mind [and heart], let this voice be unceasing [continuous], completing ten moments of mindfulness, chanting ‘Refuge in [Homage to] Amita Buddha [Namo Amituofo]’.
Due to chanting of the Buddha’s name, within moment to moment mindfulness, the misgivings of life and death of eighty kotis [1 koti is about 100 million] of kalpas are extinguished [diluted by the merits created by oneself and as shared by Amituofo through connection with him]. Within the lotus flower, after 12 full great kalpas, when the lotus flower blossoms, Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta [Bodhisattvas], with their voices of great compassion, extensively teach that person the suchness of all dharmas, which extinguishes one’s [remaining] misgivings [upon realising them]. Having heard [learnt] these [teachings], one rejoices, and immediately aspires to the mind [and heart] of Bodhicitta [to guide one and all to awaken; to attain Buddhahood]. This is called one who is born of the lowest level of the lowest grade, [and] is called the contemplation of the lowest grade [with the highest and middle levels of the lowest grade together], called the sixteenth contemplation.”
– Sutra of Contemplation of Amitayus Buddha
Answer: Let us first look at the five heinous misgivings (五逆罪):
- Patricide 杀父
- Matricide 杀母
- Killing an Arhat 杀阿罗汉
- Wounding a Buddha (e.g. causing a Buddha to bleed 出佛身血)
- Creating a schism in the Sangha 破和合僧
To kill one’s parents [do (1) and (2)] is considered heinous and bound for rebirth in the deepest (Avici) hell because this betrays one’s original fields (sources) of gratitude (恩田) while to do (3) to (5) is to ‘destroy’ one’s fields of merit(-making) (福田). In the Sutra of the Most Victorious King of Bright Golden Light (金光明最胜王经: http://cbeta.org/result/normal/T16/0665_003.htm), (1) and (2) are grouped together as one misgiving, while slander against the right Dharma is listed as one of the five misgivings created from body, speech and mind. (由身语意造无间罪︰恶心出佛身血、诽谤正法、破和合僧、杀阿罗汉、杀害父母。)
There are some ways to avert such a rebirth by extinguishing such negative karma. One of them is to recite the dharani in ‘The Sutra Spoken By the Buddha on the Great Dharani that Extinguishes the Five Heinous Misgivings’ (佛说灭除五逆罪大陀罗尼经: http://cbeta.org/result/normal/T21/1399_001.htm) with utmost sincerity (which would include deep repentance) till the end of this life. To frequently receive and recite it creates merits equivalent to that from mindfulness of a thousand Buddhas. (常能顶戴受持读诵。是人所获功德。如持千佛无异。) Interestingly, the Amita[bha] Sutra says those who uphold it will be mindfully protected by all Buddhas:
Shariputra, if there are good men and good women, who hear [learn] this sutra accept and uphold it, and who also hear the names of all [those] Buddhas, all these good men and good women will be mindfully protected by all Buddhas, and will all attain the Stage of Non-retrogression for [realising] Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi [Supreme (Unsurpassable) Perfect (Correct) Awakening (Enlightenment); Buddhahood].
– Amita[bha] Sutra
The key method of upholding the sutra is via practice of mindfulness of Amituofo’s name. It is worth noting that ‘The Sutra Spoken By the Buddha on the Great Dharani that Extinguishes the Five Heinous Misgivings’ (佛说灭除五逆罪大陀罗尼经) does not mention guarantee of upholding the mantra leading to birth in Pure Land (though this is possible if there are the Three Provisions too, of Faith, Aspiration and Practice), in contrast to the Rebirth Mantra / Dharani (往生咒), which is also known as ‘the Spiritual Mantra that Can Uproot All Karmic Obstacles for Attaining Birth in Pure Land’ (拔一切业障根本得生极乐净土神咒) which is based on the Three Provisions. As we can see:
Moreover, Shariputra, Amita[bha] Buddha [Amituofo] has a fundamental esoteric dharani and spiritual mantra, which is named ‘the Spiritual Mantra that Can Uproot All Karmic Obstacles for Attaining Birth in Pure Land’ [Rebirth Mantra]. Now is the mantra thus said:
Na Mo A Mi Duo Po Ye. Duo Tuo Qie Duo Ye. Duo Di Ye Tuo. A Mi Li Du Po Pi. A Mi Li Duo. Xi Dan Po Pi. A Mi Li Duo. Pi Jia Lan Di. A Mi Li Duo. Pi Jia Lan Duo. Qie Mi Ni. Qie Qie Nuo. Zhi Duo Jia Li. Suo Po He.
The Buddha said, ‘If there are good men and good women, who can recite this mantra, Amita Buddha will often be above one’s head, protecting one day and night, not letting enemies take advantage, ensuring peace and safety in this life; when nearing the end of life, allowing departure for rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss [Amituofo’s Pure Land].
– The Sutra Spoken By the Buddha on the Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra of Amita Buddha
Fixed karma (定业) refers to karma that is so gravely negative (such as the above) that it seems to be unresolvable other than by bearing fruit (e.g. the five heinous misgivings). This concept of karma that seems ‘fatalistic’ urges us to be mindful not to do great evil. However, as all phenomena is empty (being impermanent and subject to change), karma is still dynamic – even the worst. It is just that so-called fixed karma is difficult to dilute unless there is great self-effort (Self-power) in tandem with the assistance of Other-power (e.g. of a Buddha or Bodhisattva). ‘The Mantra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva that Eradicates Fixed Karma’ (地藏菩萨灭定业真言) from ‘The Sutra of Dharani Collection’ (陀罗尼集经) is said to be able to transform fixed karma. The mantra is ‘Om Bo La Mo Lin Tuo Ning Suo Po He’ (唵钵啰末邻陀宁娑婆诃) However, the Rebirth Mantra and just the name of Amituofo can do so as well, as both connect to the boundless merits and compassion of Amituofo.
Back to the question of whether there is a contraction in the first two Pure Land sutra excerpts above, the answer is that there is none. The 18th Vow of Amituofo in the Infinite life Sutra states that ‘Excluded [from birth in Pure Land] are those who created the five heinous misgivings, who slandered against the right Dharma’. If one who has done so is able to repent of these misgivings and practise in time with the Three Provisions before death, one is still able to make it to Pure Land, thereby validating the Sutra of Contemplation of Amitayus Buddha, where it is stated that ‘those who attain birth [Pure Land] as the lowest level of the lowest grade’ can also be ‘beings who created karma that is immoral [not good], [via] the five heinous misgivings’.
This is also to say if one does the above evil but is unrepentant, or even slanders the right Dharma, especially in the context of the Pure Land teachings, one would be unable to be born in Pure Land. Though the Contemplation Sutra does not speak of slanderers of the right Dharma being unable to reach Pure Land, when one does the five heinous misgivings, one already slanders the Dharma in principle and action. One who slanders the right Dharma is also one who lacks Faith, and Aspiration to practise to be born in Pure Land.
The 18th Vow thus cautions us against doing great evil in everyday life, while the Sutra of Contemplation of Amitayus Buddha expresses the power of the compassion of Amituofo in being willing to receive ex-great evil-doers even on the brink of death. This urges repentance while offering much solace and hope. When one has Faith in the Pure Land teachings, one would not slander them, and will practise accordingly instead. Without appropriate repentance, Faith, Aspiration, and Practice, one cannot reach Pure Land. Can the extremely evil reach Pure Land? Yes and no, as dependent on the conditions above. In a sense, the extremely evil can never reach Pure Land, while one who has seriously repented of one’s past evils is no longer extremely evil.
If one had done great evil, does it contradict the law of karma that one can still be born in Pure Land? No, because birth in Pure Land is still based on the workings of the law of karma. Based on the principle of the dedication of immeasurable merits (pure karma), Amituofo is able to overwhelm (dilute) one’s negative karma. We should note that Amituofo’s boundless merits are always inconceivably greater than one’s limited evil. This is called the principle of ‘carrying one’s [negative] karmic load for rebirth [in Pure Land] 带业往生’. When Pure Land is reached, the continual blessings of Amituofo and its environment are such that the remaining negative karma will have no conditions to ripen, while one continues to purify oneself.
For an evil person desperate on the deathbed, it will usually be very difficult to urge him or her to practise visualisation of Amituofo or mindfulness of the Rebirth Mantra (or any longer mantras, such as ‘the Great Dharani that Extinguishes the Five Heinous Misgivings’). As such, the safest and most skilful means to escape hell is via mindfulness of Amituofo’s name. In ‘The Sutra Spoken By the Buddha on the Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra of Amita Buddha’, the Buddha also taught that the name of Amituofo is itself already an unsurpassable mantra, with benefits that encompass and transcend that of the Rebirth Mantra:
Moreover, Shariputra, Amita Buddha’s name is complete with immeasurable, boundless, inconceivable, profound, esoteric, rare [and superb], refined [subtle], wonderful [profound] unsurpassable merits. Why is this so? Within the three words ‘A-Mi-Tuo [Ta]’ Buddha, there are all Buddhas of the ten directions and three periods, all Bodhisattvas, Sravakas, Arhats, all sutras, dharanis, spiritual mantras, immeasurable [Dharma] practice methods. This is because that Buddha’s name is equal to the unsurpassable Dharma of the true and ultimate great vehicle [Mahayana]. It is the unsurpassable, rare [and superb], pure and complete [whole] profound practice. It is the unsurpassable, most victorious, refined [subtle] and wonderful [profound] dharani.
Should one ideally practise both mindfulness of the Rebirth Mantra and Mindfulness of Amituofo’s name on the deathbed? If we look at the 18th Vow of Amituofo again, we can rest be assured that mindfulness of his name alone will be enough.
It is also worth noting that the focus of the Three Provisions of a sincere once evil person desperate for a safe rebirth on the deathbed can be much more powerful and focused than an average person in everyday life. Even if such a person has yet to attain perfect single-mindedness, one nevertheless has no doubt or second thoughts about other avenues of rescue. This leads to the arising of great Faith and Aspiration. While spending 12 great kalpas in a lotus flower might seem very long, this versus suffering innumerable kalpas beyond imagination in Avici Hell, after which one rises very slowly to the lower realms above, this is truly a great relief!
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Repenting in Time: How the Lowest Grade Can Make It
The Name of Amituofo is The Supreme Mantra