The following is the fascinating story of how Great Master Yǒngmíng Yánshòu (永明延寿大师) (904-975), the Pure Land Tradition’s 6th Patriarch (净土宗六祖) and the Dharma Eye Tradition’s 3rd Patriarch (法眼宗三祖), came to known as a manifestation of Amitābha Buddha (阿弥陀佛). It illustrates how even fully enlightened beings skilfully co-operate to guide and inspire the masses when they manifest, even for those of later generations, such as us. This account also shows the sophisticated and kindly good humour of Buddhas, with which they amuse and illuminate.
In the Sòng Dynasty, as the Great Master was deeply respected by Wúyuè’s King (吴越王) Qián Chù (钱俶) (929-988), he was honourably conferred by him as the State Teacher (国师). One day, the King thought of offering a ‘Great Assembly Without Restrictions’ (无遮大会), by conducting a veg(etari)an meal offering for a thousand monastics (千僧斋), such that as long as one had left the household life, despite differences in being more junior or senior, he would universally and equally make food offerings to him or her.
Although there was supposed to be equal making of offerings, when setting up the tables, there were inevitably differences of seats placed higher and nearer to the King. No one was willing to take the seat nearest to the King, while everyone humbly urged one another do so. While modestly declining, all agreed that since Great Master Yǒngmíng was the King’s personal teacher, they should let him take the seat of honour. However, as the Great Master was also very humble, he too refused to take the seat.
As the nudging continued, came along a monk with big ears (大耳朵和尚) dressed in tattered robes, whom nobody recognised. Seeing everyone there declining while urging one another, he went to sit on the chair in question directly, thus ending the ‘debate’. Even though the King felt uncomfortable that his own precious teacher did not take the seat, while an unrecognised monk was sitting on it, he did not have the heart to ask the latter to change his position. As he was still a monk after all, he did not speak further on it.
After the meal offering, after everyone had dispersed, the King asked Great Master Yǒngmíng, ‘With my meal offering (供斋) today, did any noble (i.e. enlightened) being (圣人) come to receive the offerings (应供)?‘ The King felt that if a noble being came to do so, his blessings would be great indeed. For it was taught that whenever there are offerings made to a thousand monastics, as instructed by Śākyamuni Buddha, the honourable Arhat Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja (宾头卢尊者) will manifest discreetly to partake of that offered, thus allowing laypeople to plant in his field of blessings (种福田).
As Piṇḍola can manifest as an ‘ordinary being monastic’ (凡夫僧) who seems unenlightened, it is thus important to treat all monastics with equanimous respect, to support the monastic community on the whole. To emphasize this, in the 28th Secondary Bodhisattva Precept (第二十八轻戒) in the Brahma Net Sūtra (梵网经), the Buddha taught that if ‘the world’s people separately invite 500 Arhat and/or Bodhisattva monastics [for meal offerings, this is] not as good as with a monastic in turn, [inviting] one ordinary being monastic.’ (世人别请五百罗汉菩萨僧，不如僧次一凡夫僧。)
Great Master Yǒngmíng said, ‘There was one!’ The King asked, ‘Which person was it?’ ‘It was the ancient Concentrated Light Buddha (定光古佛; 燃灯佛: Dīpaṃkara Buddha, the Buddha who preceded Śākyamuni Buddha), who came to receive the offerings today.’ (With sincere offerings, even Bodhisattvas and Buddhas will come to partake of them.) ‘Which one was it?’ ‘The monk with big ears who sat on the seat of honour was the one.’ Upon hearing this, the King was very joyous, as he quickly sent men to chase after him. The men went everywhere to ask others, with reference to his prominent features – ‘Did you see a monk with very big ears? Which way did he go?’
Later, when they heard that he was in a mountain’s cave cultivating practice, the men went to prostrate before him, so as to invite him to return to the palace to receive more offerings and offer teachings. The monk with long ears only exclaimed, ‘Āmítuófó (i.e. Amitābha Buddha) spoke too much!’ (弥陀饶舌！) With that, he immediately passed away peacefully (圆寂). (What Concentrated Light Buddha meant, was that as Amitābha Buddha revealed his identity, he had spoken too much, though he himself also spoke too much [定光饶舌！], to reveal Amitābha Buddha’s identity!) Those present were stunned. Although they had found the ancient Buddha, yet, he had just departed.
Thinking about the monk with big ears’ last words, they realised that as Great Master Yǒngmíng was the one who said the monk with big ears was Concentrated Light Buddha, this surely means that Great Master Yǒngmíng is a returned manifestation (再来) of Āmítuófó! They then quickly returned to report to the King, that although Concentrated Light Buddha had left, Āmítuófó is still present. When the King heard of the departure, he was disappointed, but knowing that Great Master Yǒngmíng is a manifestation of Āmítuófó, he was extremely elated.
Rushing to meet Great Master Yǒngmíng with hastened steps, as he reached the door to exit, someone hurriedly entered to make a report, almost bumping into him. The King asked, ‘For what matter are you hurrying?’ He replied, ‘Great Master Yǒngmíng had just passed away peacefully!’ With great timing with his omniscience, he had offered incense and bade farewell to many, before sitting in the lotus posture to depart. After cremation, relics were found throughout his body.
Why did both ancient Buddhas depart so swiftly, upon disclosure of their identities? Of course, just in time, their missions were already accomplished before departure, as they re-manifest in other ways to help more beings. However, both were also, with their personal examples, living by the rule that all Buddhas instructed of all other enlightened ones, to inspire the masses only with their good conduct and pure teachings, not attracting by claims of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘supernormal powers’, which is what frauds readily do.
As taught by the Buddha in Śūraṅgama Sūtra’s (楞严经) ‘Section On Clear Instructions For Purity’ (清净明诲章) as a strict universal rule, when enlightened beings such as Bodhisattvas and Arhats skilfully manifest in all manners of form, monastic or lay in this Dharma-Ending Age (末法时期) to guide beings, they must to the end never reveal that they are enlightened, other than when approaching the end of life, discreetly with last words to inspire, as in the case of the two ancient Buddhas. This is to not confuse beings, who are too unenlightened to know who to believe as enlightened. As anyone alive can claim to be enlightened, including greedy, malicious and deluded liars, none should claim to be enlightened.
This also means that in the convoluted ‘spiritual marketplace’, those who openly claim to be enlightened in the name of the Buddha’s teachings are all frauds, as truly enlightened ones will be abiding by the Buddha’s instructions. What these frauds are doing is to ride upon the popular names of enlightened beings, whom they claim to be or represent, to ongoingly gather fame and fortune. In contrast, as exemplified by the two ancient Buddhas above, once their true identities are known, they will immediately depart, so as to preserve the integrity of their earlier altruistic deeds.
When asked if a noble being partook of the offerings, Great Master Yǒngmíng ‘could’ had directly said that there was himself doing so. However, this would go against the Buddhas’ rule. Thus, without lying about his identity or disclosing it, he directed attention to another noble being instead, who directed attention back to him. In this way, both disclosed each other, without personally breaking the Buddha’s rule to avoid self-disclosure. There was mutual-revelation without self-revelation. Being embodiments of truth, the Fourth Precept on truthfulness was fully upheld throughout. Both Buddhas then, did not only not ‘speak too much’, they truly spoke just enough to inspire us!
Among other manifestations, such as that in the first ‘Related Article’ below, as Chán Master Fēnggàn (丰干禅师) in the Táng Dynasty, with several similar parallels, this is the famous public case (公案) of how Āmítuófó once manifested as Great Master Yǒngmíng in our world. As Āmítuófó, being the founding teacher (教主) of the Western Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss (西方极乐世界), already accomplished Buddhahood ten kalpas (i.e. world cycles) ago, thus being a transhistorical Buddha, there is no record of his birthday in our world. However, as the 17th day of the 11th lunar month is Great Master Yǒngmíng’s birthday, it came to be regarded and celebrated as Āmítuófó’s sacred birthday.
How Guó Qīng Monastery’s Three Hermits Were Revealed
(First Case Of Āmítuófó Speaking Too Much)
Biography Of The Sixth Patriarch Of The Chinese Pure Land Tradition Great Master Yǒngmíng Yánshòu
Brief On Chán & Pure Land’s Four Categories
Great Master Yǒngmíng Is Āmítuófó
Mindfulness From Thought To Thought (2)
The Buddha’s Admonition Against Making False Spiritual Claims