Question: In Pure Land practice, there are many teachings on experiences of auspicious signs (瑞相) when approaching the end of life, such as seeing Amitābha Buddha (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó) coming to receive the departing.
However, Śākyamuni Buddha also taught this in the Vajra (Diamond) Sūtra《金刚经》- ‘If with forms seeing me, with sounds seeking me, this person is practising an evil path, not able to see the Thus Come One.’ (若以色见我，以音声求我，是人行邪道，不能见如来。) How can the above be reconciled?
Answer: Śākyamuni Buddha also taught this in the Amitā[bha] Sūtra《阿弥陀经》- ‘Śāriputra, if there are good men and good women, who hear this said about Amitā[bha] Buddha, firmly uphold mindfulness of his name [i.e. Āmítuófó], if for one day, if for two days, if for three days, if for four days, if for five days, if for six days, if for seven days, wholeheartedly without being scattered, when these persons approach life’s end, Amitā[bha] Buddha, with many in his noble assembly will appear before them. When these persons’ lives are ending, their minds will not be inverted, and they will immediately attain rebirth in Amitā[bha] Buddha’s Land Of Ultimate Bliss.’ (舍利弗，若有善男子、善女人，闻说阿弥陀佛，执持名号，若一日、若二日、若三日、若四日、若五日、若六日、若七日，一心不乱。其人临命终时，阿弥陀佛，与诸圣众，现在其前。是人终时，心不颠倒，即得往生阿弥陀佛极乐国土。)
Here, we can see clearly that Śākyamuni Buddha was speaking of Amitābha Buddha and his noble assembly manifesting their pure forms to guide good men and women towards his Pure Land, for swift progress towards Buddhahood. Note that the ones wholeheartedly mindful of Amitābha Buddha are supposed to focus only on reciting (and hearing) his name sincerely, without craving to see his form or to hear his voice in the same moment, which is to seek the Buddha in form or sound – or this would be functioning of the scattered mind, thus making the recitation no longer wholehearted.
According to the karmic law of cause and effect (因果) and the vows (愿) of Amitābha Buddha to protect and guide, when mindful of the Buddha sincerely, upon connection to the Buddha’s blessings, the one who appears sincerely to guide is definitely a genuine manifestation body (化身) of the Buddha, while those who are not of the Buddha will disappear. Thus will we know who to follow safely. The Buddha’s form seen in this way, as empowered by him, will be pure, different from that seen by mere craving, imagination or visualisation. This also means that the ‘Buddha’ seen (and heard) without sincere mindfulness, might not be genuine, possibly arising from personal hallucinations and/or demonic disturbances to confuse. The way to know if this is genuine is to sincerely recite the Buddha’s name, to see if the ‘Buddha’ disappears or remains.
Although the dying are guided by telling them to, ‘Recite the Buddha’s name, to see the Buddha, and to follow the Buddha’ (念佛，见佛，跟佛), to offer them a clear sense of purpose, the practice to focus on, for effecting what will arise naturally later, is just to ‘recite the Buddha’s name’. With focus only on creating the cause of reciting the Buddha’s name sincerely, the effect of seeing the Buddha will arise naturally, for following the Buddha then.
Thus, these two sūtra teachings do not contradict each other at all. What the Buddha meant in the Vajra Sūtra is that the essence of the Buddha, which is what makes him truly a Buddha, in terms of the all-pervading Dharma Body (法身) and Dharma-nature (法性) cannot be seen by attachment to forms, sounds and such – because Buddha-nature (佛性) is not limited to any particular form, sound and such. He did not say that all forms of the Buddha are evil or useless, as all Buddhas need to use their own inspiring forms to teach the Dharma, as an essential skilful means.
As long as we have yet to realise Buddhahood, we will still need ‘to borrow the false, to cultivate the true’ (借假修真). Even Śākyamuni Buddha’s body in our world was a manifested form, necessary to attract disciples, to teach them the Vajra Sūtra, with the sound of his voice! Even the Dharma in terms of words and sounds are kinds of forms in our minds, to be used for contemplation and realisation. Likewise, even the manifested Amitābha Buddha who comes to receive beings on their deathbed is a necessary skilful means to guide them to his Pure Land.
Since we are already habitually attached to forms, the Buddhas have to use forms as relative (i.e. conventional) truths to teach us the Dharma. If not doing so, there will be no way to teach us anything at all. There will also be no way for any Buddha to console and guide the dying, or for any Buddha to create a Pure Land as an ideal Dharma school. Even upon reaching Pure Land, it is full of forms. However, all the forms there are pure, unlike all the defiled forms here. Thus, even the Buddhas who have realised emptiness (空) will ’empty emptiness’ (空空), which is to not be attached to emptiness, so as to manifest skilful forms to guide all beings to Buddhahood.
With pure forms, including the immeasurably meritorious Reward Body (报身) of Amitābha Buddha present in his Pure Land, along with everything and everyone in its environment, they will not create further attachment to forms, while guiding us to see the absolute (i.e. ultimate) truth taught in the Vajra Sūtra, then leading us to the Middle Path (中道) ‘between’ true emptiness (真空) ‘and’ wonderful forms (妙有). As in the Amitābha Sūtra teaching above, even before reaching Pure land, the mind will already be ‘not inverted’ (不颠倒), thus without defiled attachments. Full realisation of the above Three Truths (三谛) on emptiness (空), the false (i.e. forms) (假) and the middle (path) (中) for Buddhahood there will be swift. Thus will the true form (实相) of the Buddha, which is the same as the Dharma Body (法身) be ‘seen’, to be personally realised.
As we are still attached to forms, we might as well utilise the most skilful of means in Pure Land. If forcibly ‘leaping’ to ‘non-attachment’ to forms despite still needing to use forms, there will be no way to learn the Dharma – not even from a Buddha standing before oneself. Even the Vajra Sūtra’s teaching is not to be attached to. If attached to emptiness, this becomes ‘formalism’, with emptiness becoming a rigid form in the mind too. This is called obstinate emptiness (顽空) or attachment to emptiness (执空), which disregards the reality that since we are still in a world with relative forms, we still need to function accordingly, by relating to them conventionally, without simply ‘rubbishing’ all as ‘unreal’. Forms of birth, ageing, sickness and death, of oneself and others remain ‘real’, to be dealt with skilfully.
As a Buddhist saying goes, ‘Rather be attached to form great like Mount Sumeru, and not fall to emptiness little like a mustard seed.’ (宁可执有如须弥山，不可落空如芥子许。) This is so as forsaking forms renders one unable to realise perfect wisdom via any form, or to express compassion of any form. As the teachings in the Vajra Sūtra are on subtle truths, in this Dharma-Ending Age (末法时期), no one dares to say they have already realised them, while those who claim so are usually just attached to theoretical emptiness – impractically and dangerously.
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Does The Diamond Sūtra Say There Is No Pure Land?
Are The Forms In Pure Land Also Illusory?