Translations

Nianfo Guidance For Monastics & Laity 致法师与居士之念佛开示

净土宗十三祖印光大师
(复又真师、觉三居士书)

The Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang 
(Reply letter to Venerable Youzhen and layperson Juesan)

Section [A]: Sincere & Clear Nianfo Cuts Stray Thoughts

念佛之人当恭敬至诚,字字句句,心里念得清清楚楚,口里念得清清楚楚。

Translation:
[Nianfo] practitioners of mindfulness [of Amitabha] Buddha[‘s name: Amituofo] should [have] reverence [with] utmost sincerity, [with] word [by] word [and] line [to] line, within [the] mind chanting very clearly, [and the] mouth chanting very clearly, [for listening to just as clearly].

Note [1]:
Nianfo should be practised with utmost sincerity. Be it verbal or silent chanting, they must done clearly, for listening to clearly, without paying attention to everything else, which are to be considered as stray thoughts. If stray thoughts arise, one should simply return to practise as above.

果能如是,纵不能完全了无妄念,然亦不至过甚。

Translation:
[If] really able [to do] thus, even if not able [to] completely [be] without stray [i.e. false or deluded] thoughts, [they will] however also not go as far [as to be] overly excessive.

Note [2]:
The way to reduce and end stray thoughts is by sincere Nianfo, while chanting and listening to one’s Nianfo more and more clearly. With the mind more and more wholeheartedly occupied, stray thoughts will have no space to arise within the mind.

Section [B]: Chant Not Too Much Too Quickly

多有只图快、图多,随口滑读,故无效也。

Translation:
Many only seek [to chant] quickly, seek[ing to chant] many [chants], casually [and unmindfully] skimming [through], thus [making their practice] ineffective.

Note [3]:
Although it is best to go for high quantity of high quality Nianfo chants, if there is need to choose between quantity and quality, quality should come first. For example, it is better to chant less but well, than to chant much but not well. Quality is defined by having sincerity (as powered by Faith and Aspiration) and clarity, as above. It is naturally with practice of higher quantity of chants that higher quality will arise, although ideally, practitioners are able to eventually have high quality in chants despite low quantity of chants.

If going for higher quantity of chants, quality should never be compromised along the way, since quality is the first priority, to be maintained or increased. Chanting quickly, usually for higher quantity of chants, is alright only if quality is not compromised in each chant, and from chant to chant. While quicker chanting can keep out stray thoughts easier, it is also easier to drop in quality, and be less sustainable due to more energy needed.

Section [C]: How To Connect With Amituofo

若能摄心,方可谓为真念佛人。

Translation:
If able [to] gather [in the] mind, only then [can one be] called [a] true practitioner [of] mindfulness [of] Buddha.

Note [4]:
Gathering in the mind to focus only on Nianfo is true quality Nianfo practice. Again, it is by having sincerity (as powered by Faith and Aspiration) and clarity, as above, that the mind is naturally gathered in.

大势至菩萨以‘如子忆母’为喻。子心中只念其母,其余之境皆非己心中事,故能感应道交。

Translation:
Great Power Arrived Bodhisattva, with ‘like a child recollects the mother’, [used it] as [an] analogy [in the Surangama Sutra’s Section On Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva’s Perfect Penetration With Mindfulness Of Buddha: 楞严经大势至菩萨念佛圆章. When a] child’s mind within [is] only mindful [of] the mother, the other conditions [are] all not matters within [the] mind, thus [is one] able [to] connect [to Amituofo by being sincerely mindful his name, for] response, [and] mutual interaction.

Note [5]:
Sincere mindfulness of Amituofo is like the mind of a lost child being only mindful of the mother, to connect with, without being mindful of all other matters. It is with such mindfulness that Amituofo can be connected to.

又曰:‘都摄六根,净念相继,得三摩地,斯为第一。’ 所言心、口、耳悉令清楚者,即都摄六根之法则也。心口念而耳听,眼、鼻决不至向外驰求,身亦不至倨傲放肆。今人念佛,多多都是不肯认真,故无效耳。

Translation:
Also, [as] said, ‘[to] gather [in the] six roots, [with] pure mindfulness [of] Buddha [in] continuous succession, [to] attain Samadhi, [as] this is [the] foremost [method].’ That said, [of the] mind [root], mouth [i.e. tongue root and] ear [root] all enabled [to function] clearly, [this] is [the] method, ‘[to] gather [in the] six roots’. [With the] mind [and the] mouth chanting and [the] ears listening, [and the] eyes [and] nose definitely not reaching outwards [to] run [and] seek [after other matters, the], body also [does] not reach [towards] arrogant unbridledness [i.e. non-restraint]. Today, [of] those mindful [of] Buddha, many are all not willing [to be] earnest [i.e. sincere], thus [making their practice] ineffective.

Note [6]:
The foremost practice method for attaining Buddhahood via reaching Amituofo’s Pure Land is to gather in the six senses, by only sincerely and clearly chanting with the mind and mouth, and by sincerely and clearly hearing it with the mind and ears, while not using any other senses for anything else.

Section [D]: True Nature Of Stray Thoughts

又不念佛时,妄想虽多,无由而知。非不念时无妄想也。

Translation:
Also [when] not mindful [of] Buddha, although stray thoughts [are] many, [they are] not able [to] be known. [It is] not [that] when not mindful [of Buddha, they are] without stray thoughts.

Note [7]:
It is not that Nianfo spurs the rise of stray thoughts, as when practised properly, it lessens them instead. However, during practice, everyday stray thoughts, that we tend not to be mindful of might become more noticeable. Yet, they are not supposed to be paid attention to during Nianfo.

譬如屋中虚空,纵极好的眼,也看不见有灰尘。若窗缝中照来一线之太阳光,则见光中之灰尘飞上飞下,了无止息。而光未到处,仍然不见有灰尘。

Translation:
For example, [like] space within [a] house, even if [with] extremely good eyes, [one] also cannot see [that it is] with dust. If [from a] window crack shines in a beam [of] sunlight, thus seen within [the] light [is] dust flying up [and] flying down, completely without cessation [or] rest, while where [the] light [has] yet [to] reach, [is] still not seen [to be] with dust. 

Note [8]:
The dark house’s space represents our minds lacking mindfulness, in which there is much constant dusty activity, which represents our stray thoughts rising and falling unceasingly. The beam of sunlight represents mindfulness, within the scope of which we are able to see our stray thoughts.

是知念佛时,觉得有妄想,还是念佛的好处。不念佛时,完全在妄想窠里,故不知也。

Translation:
[It] is [to be] known [that] when mindful [of] Buddha, [even if] feel[ing that it is] with stray thoughts, [it] is still [with] advantages of mindfulness [of] Buddha. When not mindful [of] Buddha, [one is] completely in [the] nest [of] stray thoughts [instead], thus not knowing [so].

Note [9]:
Even having Nianfo practice, that has some stray thoughts rising and falling, is better than not practising at all, which is to let even more stray thoughts habitually proliferate. We should practise because we have stray thoughts, so as to lessen them; and not give up practice because we have stray thoughts, which will let them grow undetected. As we are imperfect, this is why we need to practise.

Section [E]: Importance Of Faith & Aspiration In Nianfo

又念佛一法,要紧在有真信切愿。有真信切愿,纵未到一心不乱,亦可仗佛慈力带业往生。

Translation:
Also, [for this] one method [of] mindfulness [of] Buddha, [what] important is [to] have true Faith [and] sincere Aspiration. Having true Faith [and] sincere Aspiration, even if yet to reach single-mindedness without [being] scattered, [one] also can rely on Buddha’s power [of] loving-kindness [to] carry [one’s negative] karma [to be] reborn [in his Pure Land].

Note [10]:
As above, what powers sincere Nianfo is Faith and Aspiration. Sincerity can also be said to be the central quality, to summarise the essence of the Three Provisions – of true Faith, sincere Aspiration and Nianfo Practice, as their ‘binding agent’. As long as the Three Provisions are adequate, Amituofo will be able to guide us to be born in his Pure Land – even if there is no great concentration, and even if there is much but sincerely repented negative karma.

若无信愿,纵能心无妄念,亦只是人天福报,以与佛不相应故。固当注重于信愿求生西方也。

Translation:
If without Faith [and] Aspiration, even if able [to have the] mind without stray thoughts, [this] is also only human [or] heavenly blessed rewards [attained], therefore with [the] Buddha not corresponding thus. [One] certainly should pay attention [i.e. emphasise] on [nurturing] Faith [and] Aspiration [to] seek birth [in the] Western [Pure Land].

Note [11]:
Without the first two of the Three Provisions, of Faith and Aspiration powering the third provision of Practice, such ‘practice’ does not qualify as the third provision. As the Three Provisions are interconnected, true Practice is ‘with Faith and Aspiration being mindful of Buddha(‘s name)’ (信愿念佛). Even when doing Nianfo without stray thoughts, if it lacks Faith and Aspiration, Amituofo will not be connected to, for guidance to his Pure Land. With only some positive karma created, at most, one might be reborn in a better human or heavenly life, which is still being trapped in Samsara.

Section [F]: Cut Dangerous Stray Thoughts With Sincere Nianfo 

真有信愿,妄当自已。 

Translation:
Truly with Faith [and] Aspiration, stray [thoughts will by] themselves [be] controlled [i.e. subdued]. 

Note [12]:
As Nianfo with Faith and Aspiration is sincere, true and quality Practice, that only chants Amituofo’s name clearly and listens to it clearly, with this fully occupying the mind, stray thoughts will have no space to intrude and interrupt.

倘平日有过头妄想,欲得神通、得名誉、得缘法、得道等,如是完全以妄想为自己本心,越精进勇猛,此种妄想越多越大。若不觉照,永息此妄,则后来还会著魔发狂,岂但妄想而已乎?固宜汲汲息此过头妄想也。

Translation:
If [on] ordinary days with excessive stray thoughts, [such as having] desires [to] attain supernormal [powers], attain [higher] reputation, attain [the] Dharma [of] causes [and] conditions, attain [the] path [and] others, thus completely with stray thoughts as one’s original [i.e. fundamental] mind, [the] more diligent, bold [and] powerful [one is in ‘practice’], such kinds [of] stray thoughts [will grow] more and greater. If not [with] awareness [to] observe [this, to] forever cease these stray [thoughts], thus, later still, will [one] come [in] contact [with inner and/or outer] demon[s to] go mad. How can it be, [to] only [think they are] stray thoughts [and] nothing more? Indeed should [one] eagerly strive [to] cease these excessive stray thoughts.

Note [13]:
While having pure spiritual aspirations to improve is commendable, there should not be entertaining of stray thoughts with greed for higher spiritual attainments, as such greed will be a defilement. With impure motivation to further practise, such defilements will grow. Once aware of this, there should immediately be return to sincere Nianfo as defined above, which will cease such stray thoughts.

Section [G]: Focus Upon Amituofo Will Do

做功课,当依功课章程。念佛归位,有加释迦、药师二佛者,亦无碍。论理,未念之前礼佛,则系释迦佛也。

Translation:
[When] doing practice, [one] should rely on rules [of] practice. [With] mindfulness [of Amitabha] Buddha [always] returned [to, if] with addition [of] Sakya[muni], [and] Medicine Master, [with these] two Buddhas, [it is] also without obstruction. [If as above], by reason, before recitation, prostrate [to the] Buddha, thus connec[ting to] Sakya[muni] Buddha [first, as he is our fundamental teacher].

Note [14]:
For the clear purpose of reaching Amituofo’s Pure Land, when doing chanting practices, there must be the main focus on sincere mindfulness of Amituofo’s name, practising it for the longest period of time during daily practice session(s). It is sequentially respectful and customary to, if choosing to be mindful of more than one Buddha’s name, at least chant homage to Sakyamuni Buddha thrice first, as he is the one who introduced Amituofo to us.

世人多以人情为事,人无不求消灾延寿者,故加念药师佛。实则阿弥陀佛与十方三世一切诸佛,威神功德悉皆齐等,非念阿弥陀佛不能消灾延寿也。 

Translation:
[As] worldly people mostly with [worldly] human emotions do matters, [there are] no people [who do] not seek [to] dispel calamities [and] extend life, thus adding mindfulness [of] Medicine Master Buddha [to practice]. In fact, Amitabha Buddha [i.e. Amituofo] and [the] ten directions’ three periods’ all Buddhas, [have] awe-inspiring meritorious virtues [that are] all identical [and] equal, not [that mindfulness of] Amitabha Buddha [is] not able [to] dispel calamities [and] extend life.     

Note [15]:
As all Buddhas are equally perfect and interconnected, Nianfo in terms of Amituofo’s name is also able to dispel calamities and extend life. Especially as Amitabha Buddha is also known as Amitayus Buddha, the Buddha Of Immeasurable Life, he is able to heal and extend the lives of beings in this Saha World, and guide beings to his Pure Land for completely lasting healing and immeasurable life. As such, it is alright to focus on Nianfo Practice in terms of Amituofo’s name only.

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