Question: Is the path of seeking birth in Amitā[bha] Buddha’s (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó) Pure Land spiritually cowardly?
Answer: It is definitely NOT so. To clear this misunderstanding, we have to understand the true nature of the Easy Practice Path (易行道). In the Chapter On Easy Practice (易行品) of the Ten Abodes’ Vibhāṣā Treatise《十住毗婆沙论》by Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva (龙树菩萨), he taught the relevant parts below, as followed by notes on them.
论: 诸佛所说，有易行道，疾得至阿惟越致[即是‘阿鞞跋致’]地方便者… 是乃怯弱下劣之言，非是大人志干之说。
Treatise: [Of] all [teachings] that [the] Buddhas speak, [there] is [the] Easy Practice Path, [to] swiftly attain reach [of the] ground [of] Avaivartikas [for non-retrogressible (i.e. non-backsliding) progress towards Buddhahood via Pure Land , as the most] skilful means… [This] is thus [for the spiritually] timid, weak [and/or] inferior as said, not [for those with] great beings’ [i.e. Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas (菩提萨埵摩诃萨)] Aspirations [愿] [and] Practices [行] as said.
Note: Those [spiritually] ‘timid, weak [and/or] inferior’ (怯弱下劣) are sometimes mistaken to simply be the ‘cowardly’. The true meaning should be seen in direct contrast against those with ‘Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas’ Aspirations and Practices’ (大人志干). In short, all who are not yet great Bodhisattvas are considered spiritually weaker and inferior.
Not that they must also be timid, but if they have misplaced courage due to overestimation of their currently limited capacities, with underestimation of the countless challenges ahead, which is often the case for those yet to be great Bodhisattvas, this is surely unwise. Our contrast with great beings means the Easy Practice Path is especially suitable for all ordinary beings like us, who are indeed far from being great Bodhisattvas. Even if with great Aspirations, as long as we lack equally great Practices that resulted in great realisations, we still do not qualify as great Bodhisattvas.
Since reaching of Pure Land requires the Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice to be adequate, there will be great confidence and thus no fear when doing so. If so, how can seeking birth in Pure Land be cowardly? Reaching Pure Land will also enable all to most courageously progress with no slightest backsliding on the Bodhisattva path towards Buddhahood, to be perfectly confident in most efficiently guiding all beings to Buddhahood.
Treatise: [The] Buddhas’ teachings have immeasurable [Dharma] doors. Like worldly paths, [there] are [the] difficult [and there] are [the] easy, [with] land paths [for] travelling [by] foot thus [with] suffering, [and the] water path [for] riding [a] ship thus [with] bliss. Bodhisattva paths [are] likewise thus, either with [many difficult and] diligent practices [needed], or with Faith [as] skilful means, [the latter for] Easy Practice [to] swiftly reach [the ground of] Avaivartikas.
Note: Just as there are difficult and easy paths for travel in our world, the Buddha’s teachings for progress towards Buddhahood can be classified similarly. Despite the Buddha’s teachings being countless, all of them are classified as Difficult Practice Paths (难行道), with the exception of the path of advancement to Buddhahood through birth in Pure Land being the Easy Practice Path (易行道).
Travelling by foot on land to a faraway destination represents the painfully slow journey to Buddhahood, which is filled with innumerable disheartening obstacles, terrible dangers, sudden backslides and possibilities of getting lost, as this relies only on one’s limited Self-power (自力), to exert much effort. Travelling by water on a ship is joyful instead, as it is smooth, safe and swift, by faithfully connecting our Self-power to ride along with the great Other-power (他力) of Amitābha Buddha’s great vows, to be received and guided to his Pure Land.
Just as it is not considered courageous (i.e. not timid) but unwise to embark on a Difficult Path without adequate readiness for what to expect, it is not considered cowardly but wise to embark on the Easy Path to reach Buddhahood. A false sense of courage and strength with superiority complex is not only useless, it can be harmful to our spiritual lives. In our very next lives, if not in Pure Land, ordinary beings like us will not remember even our names in this life, what more our precious spiritual Aspirations and Practices. Since we also cannot remember our past lives’ names now, we know this will be true. This is the reality check we must have.
Especially since already in this Dharma-Ending Age with increasing challenges to practise the Dharma well, as urged by Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) in the Immeasurable Life Sūtra《无量寿经》, we should pay special attention to the Pure Land path, to ensure liberation will be attained.
If one swiftly desires [to] reach,
[the] ground [of] non-retrogression [for progress to Buddhahood,
one] should with reverent hearts [and minds],
[faithfully and] firmly uphold recitation [of the] name [of e.g. Amitābha Buddha].
Note: It is most noteworthy that Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva himself, despite already being a First Ground Bodhisattva (初地菩萨), set an excellent example by personally expressing his Aspiration to reach Pure Land. This can be seen in his verses of praises below. As predicted by Śākyamuni Buddha to arrive to further expound upon his teachings, Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva is considered the ‘Common Founding Patriarch Of The Eight [Mahāyāna] Traditions’ (八宗共祖). Compared with us, he was surely with considerably more spiritual courage, strength and superiority. Yet, he still expressed appropriate humility by recognising that his qualities were still not yet that of Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas.
His Aspiration to reach Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land makes great sense as all will become Avaivartikas there, who are Eighth Ground Bodhisattvas (八地菩萨), who will not retrogress from the swiftest progress towards Buddhahood. They would then exceed the lowest criteria to be Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas, who are at least Seventh Ground Bodhisattvas (七地菩萨). Since we should aspire to swiftly attain Buddhahood, and since there is no swifter path to become great Bodhisattvas, the Pure Land Practice of sincere (i.e. wholeheartedly reverent) mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha’s name (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó) should be embraced.
[Of] Amitā[bha and] other Buddhas,
and all great Bodhisattvas,
reciting [their] name[s with] wholehearted mindfulness,
likewise attains non-retrogression.
Note: As one’s Main Practice (正行), focused mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha will suffice as he is connected to all other Buddhas and great Bodhisattvas. The below are selected ‘Verses Of Praise Of Amitā(bha)] Buddha’《礼赞阿弥陀佛偈》in the same chapter, which also serve as exhortations to reach Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land.
[As] one [who is] able [to be] mindful [of] this [Amitābha] Buddha,
[who has] immeasurable power [with] majestic virtues,
[will] immediately enter [definite] non-retrogression,
therefore [am] I always mindful [of Amitābha Buddha’s name].
Note: The moment there is profound (i.e. deep) Faith in Amitābha Buddha and utmost sincere Aspiration to be born in his Pure Land when mindful of his name, one will instantly become non-retrogressible in this Practice to reach his Pure Land, for non-retrogressible progress towards Buddhahood. Here, we see Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s clear Aspiration to reach his Pure Land, also with his expression of Practice.
[As] if one [who] aspires [to] become [a] Buddha,
[with one’s] mind mindful of Amitā[bha Buddha’s name],
immediately for [one will Amitābha Buddha] manifest [his] body,
therefore [do] I take refuge for life [in Amitābha Buddha].
Note: Once there is the most profound Faith in Amitābha Buddha and utmost sincere Aspiration to be born in his Pure Land when mindful of his name, which is usually when approaching the end of life for most, he will manifest to receive and guide instantly. Here again, we see Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s clear Aspiration to reach his Pure Land, also with his expression of refuge.
[As the] ten directions’ present Buddhas,
with various kinds [of] causes [and] conditions,
praise that [Amitābha] Buddha’s meritorious virtues,
I now take refuge for life [in him and] prostrate [to him].
Note: This is a reminder to us that all Buddhas everywhere with great skilful means praise Amitābha Buddha, so as to urge us to seek birth in his Pure Land. Here yet again, we see Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s clear Aspiration to reach his Pure Land, also with his expression of reverence.
I now likewise thus, [as all other Buddhas do],
praise [Amitābha Buddha’s] immeasurable virtues,
with these blessings [from praise as] causes [and] conditions,
may [Amitābha] Buddha always [be] mindful [of] me.
Note: When we are mindful of Amitābha Buddha’s name sincerely, it is already praise of him. The truth is, the immeasurably compassionate Amitābha Buddha is already and always mindful of all beings, while we are not yet or not always mindful of him. With him already ready to connect to us, what left is for us to connect to him as much as possible. Once again, we see Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s clear Aspiration, also with his creation and dedication of meritorious virtues, to reach his Pure Land.
Conclusion: As we can see above, from Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s teachings and personal example, seeking birth in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land is definitely not spiritually cowardly, although it does welcome all who are rightly apprehensive of the Difficult Practice Path too. The Easy Practice Path is not only immeasurably wise for swiftest personal advancement to Buddhahood, it is also immeasurably compassionate for swiftest advancement through the stages of Bodhisattvahood, for guiding all other beings to Buddhahood. Thus is it praised and recommended by every single Buddha.
As taught in the Āvataṃsaka Sūtra’s (华严经) last Chapter On Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Practices And Vows《普贤菩萨行愿品》, even the greatest Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas on the brink of Buddhahood, such as Samantabhadra Bodhisattva himself, who are Equally Awakened Bodhisattvas (等觉菩萨) on the brink of Buddhahood, whose Aspirations (i.e. Vows) and Practices represent that of all great Bodhisattvas, vow both to personally reach Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land (which he already did), and to continually guide all beings to it.
Surely, those who are great Bodhisattvas, having even greater wisdom than Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva, already know the immeasurable worth of reaching Pure Land, for their final stint of learning and practice for Buddhahood. This is why Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva taught that the Easy Practice Path is ‘not [for those with] great beings’ Aspirations [and] Practices as said.’ This path then, is clearly for all of us said, who should follow it accordingly.
Ten Abodes’ Vibhāṣā Treatise (Chapter On Easy Practice)
Do Pure Land Aspirants Forsake Other Beings?
Some Verses Of Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva’s Exhortation To Be Mindful Of Buddha
Namo Amituofo : Translation and notes by Shen Shi’an