Question: A friend commented that those who recite Amituofo’s (Amitabha Buddha) name (nianfo) to seek birth in Pure Land should first understand ‘Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?’ because only when we discover the ‘true master’ (our Buddha-nature), will Buddha recitation have meaning and rebirth be assured. Is this true?
Answer: This is not true. That interpretation is one of the variations that later evolved from the Zen (Chan) tradition after the Buddha’s time; it is definitely not from the actual Pure Land tradition. True Pure Land practice as taught by Sakyamuni Buddha does not require asking ‘Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?’ We know this clearly as the Buddha never mentioned this method in any sutra.
In the Zen tradition, the question is sometimes used as a huatou (mondo: Zen question), which builds up doubt to spur insight into one’s true self (Buddha-nature). In orthodox Pure Land practice however, to ask this question, especially when one is doing nianfo, is to entertain a constantly distracting stray thought, that makes actual single-minded mindfulness of Amituofo impossible in the moment. To demand that the answer be realised before beginning to nianfo is generally not very practical, as we shall see.
As long as one already has some Faith (based on understanding about Amituofo and the related core Pure Land teachings) and Aspiration to be born in Pure Land (as in the Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice: https://purelanders.com/2010/04/01/the-three-provisions-of-faith-aspiration-practice), one can begin proper nianfo Practice, which will naturally further increase Faith and Aspiration. Of course, even if we lack proper Faith and Aspiration, we can nianfo too. However, as proper practice is based upon the provisions, they should be fortified for reaching Pure Land.
When we nianfo sincerely, we are already practising to align our unrealised Buddha-nature with Amituofo’s realised Buddha-nature, to thus advance in awakening ours. The ‘true master’ we focus upon is Amituofo though, whom we take total and safe refuge in; not our Buddha-nature, since it is not realised fully yet.
If we can easily realise our Buddha-nature completely by ourselves (using self-power only) in this single lifetime, we should long be Buddhas already, and there would be no need to reach Pure Land – which was created and is sustained by the great compassion and wisdom of Amituofo – exactly for facilitating the perfect realisation our Buddha-nature.
To know how difficult it is to realise Buddha-nature in a sustainable way, you might want to ask your friend if he or she has done so through practice yet, and whether he or she thinks she is even near the goal. It is precisely because it is not easy, that the Pure Land tradition advocates nianfo practice to connect our limited self-power to the immeasurable other-power of Amituofo’s blessings, to ride upon his great skilful vows to reach his Pure Land, where our Buddha-nature will be more efficiently and completely realised.
The Three Provisions are all that is needed for birth in Pure Land. True Faith and Aspiration are expressed through wholehearted nianfo Practice. Birth in Pure Land is assured when the Three Provisions become unshakeable. This is something we will realise for ourselves through sincere practice, with which unmistakable auspicious signs will gradually manifest through the blessings of Amituofo to affirm and further encourage our right practice. For some, due to lack of effort in strengthening the Three Provisions in everyday life, a strong connection might not made so readily, but possibly at their deathbeds, if the Three Provisions become adequate in time.
Please be careful not to learn about Pure Land teachings from those whose main study and practice are not of the actual Pure Land tradition, as they might be ‘creatively’ (mis)intepreted in other ways that digress from the real teachings. Just as we would, given a choice, not learn the Buddha’s teachings from non-Buddhist teachers, we should learn Pure Land teachings directly from Pure Land practitioners as the most relevant and first-hand source.
It is also wise to join an appropriate circle of supportive spiritual friends (e.g. Pureland Practice Fellowship) who continually motivate us to advance in the same direction with group learning, practice and sharing; instead of spending disproportionate time with those who might confuse us or ‘dilute’ our main practice of nianfo, despite their good intentions to ‘educate’ us on what is ‘proper’ practice. Only when we become strong in understanding the Three Provisions should we discuss in-depth about Pure Land practice with those offering different views. Not doing so, our Three Provisions might be weakened by such dialogues instead.
Procrastinating nianfo practice due to thinking Buddha-nature should first be realised is to put the cart before the horse. If we do not realise our Buddha-nature adequately through huatou practice up till the moment of death, while not having practised proper nianfo, the destination of rebirth will be uncertain – especially if one is unable to switch to wholehearted nianfo in time, while having inadequate Three Provisions due lack of effort in strengthening them all along. If the provisions are missing, Pure Land cannot be reached.
In this sense, when facing shortage of time for practice, it is much wiser and safer to nurture strong Faith and Aspiration in Amituofo through Practice of nianfo in everyday life, than to only nurse ‘lifelong’ doubt about one’s Buddha-nature – because death is eventual and we might die any time.
This is not to say Pure Land and Zen practice cannot be practised in a complementary manner in our lifetime, but that there should be prioritising according to the above advice, while not confusing one practice with another, as not only might this not support the objective of reaching Pure Land, it might greatly jeopardise the possibility.
It is noteworthy too, that Sakyamuni Buddha clearly taught in the Sutra of Immeasurable (Infinite) Life, that the Pure Land practice he advocated is the most practical for most beings for the longest period of time – since his time until now and beyond. It is especially relevant and crucial in this Dharma-Ending Age, that we are advancing more deeply into – when the average individual’s capacity to awaken by self-power alone will be increasingly weakened.
The Sixth Pure Land Patriarch Great Master Yong Ming’s ‘Brief On Four Categories’
(Teaching On Four Possible Combinations Of Pure Land & Zen Practice)