Question: In the Amitā[bha] Sūtra (阿弥陀经), Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) taught that ‘[one] cannot, with few good roots’ blessed virtues [as] causes [and] conditions, attain birth [in] that [Pure] Land [of Amitā(bha) Buddha]’ (不可以少善根福德因缘，得生彼国).
Does this mean that even to meet the minimum criteria, one must have much positive karma or meritorious virtues, (here abbreviated as ‘merits’)? If so, how should they be accumulated?
Answer: To grasp the actual meaning of that sūtra line, the terms in it should first be understood, before understanding the teachings behind them, to be explained, and as summarised by verses that follow.
Good roots (善根): Spiritual foundations of being (relatively) free from the Three Poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion, for cultivation of blessed virtues.
Blessed virtues (福德): Blessings (福报: blessed rewards) from positive (i.e. wholesome; good) karma, and meritorious virtues (功德: merits), arising from virtuous deeds of body, speech and mind.
Causes [and] conditions (因缘): Good roots and blessed virtues are needed as causes and conditions respectively, for encountering these teachings, so as to give rise to the Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith (信), Aspiration (愿: Vow), and Practice (行) of wholehearted (i.e. utmost sincere) mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛) name, as stated as the basic criteria in his 18th Vow, to reach his Pure Land.
[Three Provisions in 18th Vow: ‘[With] utmost sincere hearts [of] joyful Faith, desire birth [in] my land [as Aspiration], even with ten mindful thoughts [as Practice]’ (至心信乐，欲生我国，乃至十念).]
Thus, the sūtra line does mean there must be much merits to attain birth. However, as most of these merits are shared by Āmítuófó with us when connected to him, they are not totally self-created. This is so as all non-Buddhas’ merits, from that of the greatest Bodhisattvas, to ours as lowly ordinary beings, cannot qualify to enter any Buddha’s immeasurably meritorious Pure Land. There must first be connection to the Buddha for ‘topping up’ our limited merits to karmically deserve entry.
Verse On Two Powers
Only relying [upon] Self-power,
definitely cannot [attain] birth [in Pure Land].
[With] Self [and] Other-power,
definitely attains birth [in Pure Land].
The Pure Land path thus requires both Self-power and Āmítuófó’s Other-power (as taught by Great Master Tánluán: 昙鸾大师). With the great support of Other-power, this is supposed to make it an Easy Path (as taught by Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva: 龙树菩萨). However, some with only understanding of Self-power wrongly believe that the sūtra line means Pure Land is not so easily reached, that much fully self-created merits are needed. Mistaking that the Three Provisions are not enough, this misinterpretation goes against the 18th vow.
Verse On Attaining Birth
[With] utmost sincere hearts [of] joyful Faith,
[and] Aspiration [for] birth [in his Land Of] Ultimate Bliss,
[powering Practice of] one [to] more mindful thoughts [of his name],
[is] attainment [of] birth [in the] Buddha Land [of Āmítuófó].
If much merits from Self-power are a must, with no Other-powered merits at all, the Pure Land path would become an even more Difficult Path, with the need to accumulate much great merits entirely by ourselves. We know it is not so as there are countless cases of those with clear auspicious signs of reaching Pure Land, despite not having done tremendous good in their final lives within this Sahā World, yet having nurtured the Three Provisions in time.
Verse On Swift Accomplishment
[With] Self-power [only is the] Difficult [Path of] practice,
[taking] long [to] attain [the] fruit [of] Buddhahood.
[With the] two powers (i.e. Self and Other-power) [is the] Easy [Path of] practice,
[that] swiftly accomplishes [the] Buddha path.
Connecting to Āmítuófó with wholehearted mindfulness of his name (i.e. 念佛: Niànfó) is the easiest and swiftest way to acquire merits. Thus, Niànfó can both eradicate karmic obstacles (消业障) and increase blessings (增福报).
Verse On Eradication Of Obstacles
[With] Faith [and] Aspiration mindful [of] Buddha,
[this] eradicates karmic obstacles,
[with] line [by] line [reciting the] Buddha’s name,
[this] accumulates meritorious virtues.
As the key practice taught in this sūtra is to ‘faithfully [and firmly] uphold [mindfulness of the] name [of Āmítuófó]‘ (执持名号), it is clear that increase of dual-powered Niànfó is the Main Practice (正行) for increasing good roots and blessed virtues. All other means are Supportive Practices (助行). The quality and quantity of all practices combined determines the grade of birth attained.
Verse On More Mindfulness Of Buddha
Diligence [with] more mindfulness [of] Buddha,
[leads to] much growth [of] good roots.
Diligence [with] more mindfulness [of] Buddha,
attains much blessed virtues.
Those insisting mainly Self-powered merits are needed might always remain doubtful for the rest of their lives, on whether they have created enough merits or not. Although this doubt might be imagined as being humble, logical and realistic, as if virtuous in nature, such doubt as the opposite of Faith, is really a defilement that arises from delusion, that insidiously prevents the very first provision of Faith in Āmítuófó’s Other-power from being nurtured properly.
Verse On Being Capable
Personally knowing [that with] Self-power [only],
[one is] not able [to] be capable [enough],
also rely [upon] Other-power,
[to] attain] immeasurable power.
With the foundational provision of Faith already weak, the second provision of Aspiration and the third provision of Practice will be shaky accordingly, making it difficult to reach Pure Land. Imagine when on the deathbed, still wondering if one has enough merits to make it, being more ‘mindful’ of self-doubt than wholehearted Faith in Āmítuófó, thus practising Niànfó half-heartedly, not connecting to him. This would be very unfortunate indeed.
Verse On Three Provisions
[With] profound Faith [in] Āmítuófó,
[and] sincere Aspiration [to be] reborn,
[powering] true Practice [of being] mindful [of the] Buddha[‘s name],
[one] definitely [will] reach [his] Buddha land.
How Do Niànfó Practitioners Reach Āmítuófó’s Pure Land?