(How I Embraced The Pure Land Teachings)
In my classes, I encourage all to ask questions, for almost half an hour before each lesson begins, to even email me if shy. This is so as I was personally relentless in active enquiry when I first learnt about the Pure Land teachings some 23 years ago. While chatting with friends who knew more, I just kept asking… till I eventually ran out of questions. There and then, I realised how I was foolish in having assumed the Pure Land teachings to be simplistic, when they are truly profound. (Emulating the Buddha’s teaching approach, I found the swift resolving of doubts through enquiry to be an efficient way to learn and teach.)
However, in the few years following acceptance of the Pure Land teachings in theory, I focused upon self-powered meditation practices, mainly Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing for training concentration) and Vipassana (mindfulness of thoughts, feelings and sensations for training insight). With regular practice, it became increasingly easy to quickly have calmness and clarity of mind. The blissfulness from meditation was unmistakable too. Yet, this led to a period of complacence, when I became so lax that I stopped practice entirely. This was until I signed up for a 10-day overseas meditation retreat in the year 2004.
To my horror, during the retreat, due to ‘rusty’ practice, I could not even watch my breathing to settle my mind for a single minute in a sustainable way. During the very last night meditation session of the whole retreat, out of shame and determination, I made the resolution to not budge the slightest, until I at least regained the highest standard of meditation I had in the past. Ideally, may there even be a breakthrough. After all, as I thought to myself, I had already spent much money and leave days to come for this trip! Right after I made up my mind, strange balls of pain started to form within my body.
What followed were the most physically painful moments of my life (and I already have had some very excruciating pains before). These balls of pain not only grew bigger, they moved more rapidly too. I straightaway knew that they were not ordinary pains, as normal pains would not be mobile. They were similar to the pains I felt when I first learnt meditation in the year 1991. The moment I gave up or stood up to walk away, they would cease. They were a manifestation of ‘illness’ due to my negative karmic obstacles (业障病), which sometimes arise when one is more serious about Dharma practice.
The pain became so intense that I thought I was going to die. The thought of ending the session did not even cross my mind due to firmness and ‘foolishness’ of my vow not to move. With what felt like stabbing pains all over, I was too disturbed to watch my breathing for a single instant. Suddenly… I remembered the practice of Nianfo (mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’). In my mind, I recited his name for three to four times. It was a call for help. It was not ‘perfect’ chanting, as it was erratic, with desperation and fear, not at all calm. Yet, I had never said his name so sincerely before.
Even with eyes closed, I ‘saw’ a thin layer of golden light embrace my body, as the balls of pain collapsed into only one, to shrink and disappear. More astoundingly, blissful waves that transcend jhanic bliss pervaded the whole body, immediately putting the mind to great ease. Amituofo’s other-power had flowed in to dissolve the negative karma and relieve the suffering within seconds. There is no way to fully describe the warm feeling of being totally cared for, with the greatest yet gentlest assurance ever. The closest parallel is the loving care of my mother when I was young and ill. It made sense why the Buddhas describe how they see us as their only children… except that their concern is truly greater than all our parents’!
The instant I felt the compassionate blessings of Amituofo, hot tears ran down my face uncontrollably. There was an overwhelming sense of gratitude and joy. For the rest of the session, I simply basked in the bliss gratefully, as I ‘automatically’ chanted his name with reverent thankfulness. I usually hesitate to share such experiences in case they are seen as attention-seeking, but it was the most humbling experience ever. It was not something to be proud of at all; only to be grateful for. It was not any attainment; just a brief taste of Amituofo’s great blessings. May this inspire more to Nianfo with greater conviction.
It was incredibly humbling because for too long was I over-confident of my self-powered meditative skills and ‘good’ karma, which turned out good-for-nothing in the face of strong past negative karma that can ripen at any time, including on my actual deathbed. It was also humbling because what Pure Land practitioners say is true, that Amituofo is always on standby, already radiating his light of blessings everywhere, awaiting our Nianfo to resonate with him. That my overly rationalistic mind made me pay little attention to others’ connection experiences and even brush them aside put me to great shame. I knew then, that I have to practise and share the Pure Land teachings.
Although I had the Three Provisions Faith (in Amituofo), Aspiration (to reach his Pure Land) and Practice (of Nianfo) to some extent, all my prior occasional Nianfo sessions lacked sincerity that holds the provisions together. I had treated Amituofo’s name as a neutral subject for meditation, like my breathing. What missing was the sincere sense of reverence and refuge for life. How moving it is, that despite this, Amituofo is still perfectly compassionate, patiently waiting for a fool like me to connect to him sincerely! How touching it is, that he likewise extends his blessings to everyone alive, near death and even deceased!
Although possible to enter the jhanas with Nianfo, without sincerity in Nianfo, there is only single-pointedness or concentration, without wholeheartedness (that leads to single-mindedness). This cannot connect to Amituofo as lack of sincerity is lack of the provisions. That said, sincere Nianfo is already a perfect meditative practice, according to the Mahasamnipata Sutra (Great Collection Sutra; 大集经) – ‘If a person is only mindful of Amituofo, this is named as the unsurpassable, profound and wonderful meditation.’ (若人但念阿弥陀，是名无上深妙禅。) This is so as it offers protection from all Buddhas and leads to Pure Land that ensures the swiftest progress to Buddhahood.
Despite us not being desperate ‘enough’ due to lack of life-or-death situations to be super sincere most of the time, it is nevertheless true that with utmost sincerity mindful of Amituofo, he will be there. Also assuring is that though helpful, great concentration is not crucial for connecting to him, for how many have it when sick or dying? Again, wholehearted sincerity that synergises the provisions is key, for blissful single-mindedness to arise after connecting to Amituofo. It is true, as the Immeasurable Life Sutra says, that 10, a few or even a single sincere chant, can connect to Amituofo. Even silent mindful chanting will work, for how many of us can chant aloud if very sick and dying?
It took me some time to discover Amituofo’s 33rd great vow – ‘… sentient beings of all kinds, in all immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha Lands of the ten directions, [including our world] who receive my bright light that touches their bodies, will have tenderness [suppleness; peace and bliss] of body and mind, that surpasses that of gods and humans…’ (… 十方无量不可思议诸佛世界众生之类，蒙我光明触其体者，身心柔软，超过天人…) This made total sense of my experience, of having wretched pain switch to sublime bliss due to Nianfo. Just as this further fortified my faith in Amituofo, I sincerely hope this strengthens yours too. May we all Nianfo as sincerely as we can in everyday life, and eventually reach Amituofo’s Pure Land!
 Having studied engineering, I was scientifically trained, and thus previously super-rational. Though I had some special spiritual experiences before, none had such clarity and intensity as the above. I also did not previously come across any accounts of very similar nature, thus having no subconscious reference point.
 My meditation was somewhat half-hearted during the retreat, which was partly why there was no substantial progress. Before the retreat, I had already decided that Nianfo would be my main practice for life. I had refrained from Nianfo during the retreat earlier out of respect for the retreat’s expectations. The experience further deepened my confidence of Nianfo. In fact, it made my faith in Amituofo unshakeable.
 The discipline to remain still with sincere Nianfo was self-powered effort, which enabled connection to Amituofo’s other-power upon realisation that my efforts were inadequate. The Nianfo was with a sense of total self-entrustment to Amituofo. In contrast, I had clung to my illusory sense of self too much before, such that it fenced me from his blessings that surrounded all this time. When let go off via sincere Nianfo, they are naturally experienced.
 It bothered me a little that though the centre had a Sakyamuni Buddha and Guanyin Bodhisattva image, there was no Amituofo image. With the lights turned off, the light of blessings seemed to come from the direction of the Buddha image in the middle of the hall, with the only other light from the oil lamp shining on the golden face of the Buddha. The plain image might as well stand for Amituofo too, as it was gold, as his body and light are.
 The weather was bitterly cold and rainy on almost all days of the retreat. On the morning after, it became sunny with especially glorious golden rays, reminiscent of the golden light of Amituofo. Also with gentle breezes, the scenery was wonderful, reminding me of how Pure Land is even more wonderful. It was as if a sign of transformation for the better, while I felt spiritually ‘reborn’. Perhaps it was mostly a reflection of my reaffirmed faith in Amituofo. Nevertheless, it was most invigorating. This was my first and ‘accidental’ Pure Land retreat!