Question: It is said that Nianfo (mindfulness of Amituofo’s name) aligns us with our Buddha-nature 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 Sakyamuni Buddha –
奇哉！奇哉！ Amazing! Amazing!
一切众生皆有 All sentient beings have
如来智慧德相， Tathagatas’ [Buddhas’] marks of wisdom and virtues,
但以妄想执着 but because of deluded perceptions and attachments,
不能证得。 are not able to realise them [yet].
– 华严经 Avatamsaka Sutra
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 “Tathagatas’ marks of wisdom”, 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， Like smelting of gold ore,
金非销故有， the gold does not, because of smelting exists.
虽复本来金， Although regaining the original gold,
终以销成就， in the end, it is by smelting accomplished.
一成真金体， Once becoming true gold’s substance,
不复重为矿。 it cannot again become ore.
– 圆觉经 Sutra Of Complete Enlightenment
譬如矿与金混，For example, [when] ore [and] gold [are] mixed,
非初系纯金， [it is] not [in the] beginning all purely gold,
后始生矿。 later beginning [to be] “born” [from] ore [by smelting].
须知金在矿中，[It] must [be] known [that although the] gold [is] in [the] ore,
金仍非矿。 [the] gold [is] still not ore.
炼矿出金， [Having] smelted ore [to] extract [and refine the] gold,
矿不杂金。 [the] ore [does] not mix [with the] gold.
– 净土宗十三祖印光大师 （答湘阴黄颂平居士问书）
– Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang
(Reply letter to Xiangyin’s Layperson Huang Songping)
Smelting represents spiritual cultivation, including the practice of Nianfo. The gold ore represents our nature defiled with the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. The gold represents our pure Buddha-nature.
Nianfo is a practice to directly refine for this ‘gold’, by aligning or tuning to our Buddha-nature, which has the natural wisdom we need to unveil. How does this alignment work? When we Nianfo sincerely (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 Manjusri Bodhisattva (who represents perfect wisdom) and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (who represents perfect practice), whose 10 great vows represent the essence of all Bodhisattvas’ vows, include the aspiration to Nianfo to reach Amituofo’s Pure Land, 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 Nianfo 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 Samsara, 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 Amituofo’s Pure Land with sufficient alignment through Nianfo (especially on the deathbed). Reaching Pure Land, being in the company of Amituofo 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.