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
[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].
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.
[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.
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
Many only seek [to chant] quickly, seek[ing to chant] many [chants], casually [and unmindfully] skimming [through], thus [making their practice] ineffective.
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
If able [to] gather [in the] mind, only then [can one be] called [a] true practitioner [of] mindfulness [of] Buddha.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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].
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
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].
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.
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].
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
Truly with Faith [and] Aspiration, stray [thoughts will by] themselves [be] controlled [i.e. subdued].
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.
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.
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
[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].
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.
[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.
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.