How Does Niànfó Align Us To Our Buddha-Nature To Awaken Wisdom
Question: It is said that Niànfó (念佛) aligns us with our Buddha-nature (佛性) to ripen our wisdom. Is it such that we already have this wisdom? How does it work?
Answer: Here is the answer to the first question, by Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) –
奇哉！奇哉！ Marvellous! Marvellous!
一切众生皆有 All sentient beings all have
如来智慧德相， Thus Come Ones’ [Buddhas’] wisdom and virtues’ forms,
但以妄想执着 but with false thoughts and attachments,
不能证得。 are not able to realise them [yet].
–《华严经》 Flower Adornment Sūtra
The Buddha was commenting that all beings have Buddha-nature, that is the potential for spiritual purity, which has to be fully actualised for Buddhahood to be realised. Note the words “Thus Come Ones’ wisdom and virtues’ forms”, which means Buddhas’ wisdom is already ‘innate’ in us. However, there is a process needed to actualise this potential, to uncover this wisdom, as the Buddha also taught the following –
譬如销金矿， For example, like smelting gold ore,
金非销故有， the gold does not, with smelting thus exists.
虽复本来金， Although again with the original gold,
终以销成就， in the end, with smelting accomplished,
一成真金体， once accomplishing true gold’s essence,
不复重为矿。 not again becoming ore.
–《圆觉经》 Sūtra On Complete Awakening
譬如矿与金混，For example, like ore with gold mixed,
非初系纯金， it is not in the beginning connected to pure gold,
后始生矿。 later then giving rise to the ore.
须知金在矿中，It should be known that with the gold within the ore,
金仍非矿。 the gold is still not the ore.
炼矿出金， With smelting of the ore to extract the gold,
矿不杂金。 the ore will not be mixed with the gold.
– Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng
(Reply Letter To Xiāngyīn’s Layperson Huáng Sòngpíng’s Question)
Smelting represents spiritual cultivation, including the practice of Niànfó. The gold ore represents our nature defiled with the three poisons (三毒) of greed, hatred and delusion (贪嗔痴). The gold represents our pure Buddha-nature.
Niànfó is a practice to directly refine for this ‘gold’ above, by aligning or tuning to our Buddha-nature, which has the natural wisdom we need to unveil. How does this alignment work? When we Niànfó sincerely (i.e. wholeheartedly, single-mindedly), we are cutting off the three poisons, which is to smelt the gold ore. Because we have much impurities, the smelting requires practice, to reveal more and more of our Buddha-nature.
Even great Bodhisattvas on the brink of Buddhahood like Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva (文殊菩萨: who represents perfect wisdom) and Universal Virtue (Samantabhadra) Bodhisattva (普贤菩萨: who represents perfect practice), whose 10 great vows (十大愿) represent the essence of all Bodhisattvas’ vows, include the aspiration to Niànfó to reach Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛) Pure Land (净土), and to guide all beings to it too – as it is the swiftest path to Buddhahood for all.
It is taught that every Buddha-to-be must practise Niànfó eventually because you have to ‘keep your (spiritual) eyes on the prize’, to be constantly mindful of who you want to finally and similarly become – a Buddha. When there is absolutely nothing else on the mind but pure mindfulness of Buddha that is fully aligned to our Buddha-nature and that of the Buddha without any more wavering, we will become Buddhas ourselves.
As it is not easy to fully accomplish this here in Saṃsāra (i.e. the cycle of birth and death), where our three poisons are habitually and readily spurred into activity, making constant alignment to our Buddha-nature challenging, this is why we should make it to Āmítuófó’s Pure Land with sufficient alignment through Niànfó (especially on the deathbed). Reaching Pure Land, being in the company of Āmítuófó himself and his direct blessings, conditions there are the most conducive for us to become perfectly mindful of Buddha, to swiftly actualise the full potential of our Buddha-nature.
Question: If we are naturally pure with Buddha-nature, why are we with the three poisons?
Answer: This is because we are like gold ore naturally, which represents the potential of purity mixed with impurities, not gold directly. Just as gold ore exists in nature, we are like so too. True nature, when yet to be realised, accords with evil conditions, to then ‘become’ afflictions. When according with good conditions and pure conditions, then ‘becoming’ Bodhi (i.e. awakening).
The evil conditions include those of this defiled land (秽土), thus increasing our three poisons and evil karmas, trapping us in rebirth. The pure conditions include those of Pure Land, thus decreasing our three poisons and increasing pure karmas (净业), leading us to liberation.
(If we are naturally perfectly pure already, we will not backslide to become impure. If we are naturally completely impure already, we will not be able to become pure.)
Verses On Smelting For Gold
If we only have the impurities of ore,
how can we smelt to get the purity of gold?
If we only have the purity of gold,
why do we have the impurities of ore?
Since we truly have the ore of gold,
we are able to smelt to get the purity of gold.
The ores of gold
[with impurities and Buddha-nature (佛性),
the potential for purity]
are then sentient beings,
and the impurities of ores are then the three poisons.
The purity of gold is then our fundamental nature,
and the smelting is then spiritual cultivation.
Having perfectly and completely smelted to get true gold,
is to eternally depart from all illusory impurities.