The Buddhist Practice of Chanting Amitabha
A three-lecture talk
Table of Contents
Appendix: Unification of Mind and Wind
In early 1994 a Buddhist in Indonesia wrote me to ask for books and brought to my attention the fact that this book had been translated into Indonesian and published over there in December 1993. I asked for a copy and received one five months later. It is entitled Pembacaan Berulang-ulang "Amitabha" and was published by Yayasan Penerbit Karaniya, Kotak Pos 1409 Bandung 40001, Indonesia. I am happy to see that my work had been appreciated.
May this work introduce the Buddhist chanting practice to more and more people all over the world!
November 22, 1994
El Cerrito, California
September 1, 1989
Before my teacher, Yogi Chen, passed away in November 1987, he had vowed to give this lecture 48 times in commemoration of Amitabha Buddha’s 48 great vows. Yogi Chen had given 45 of the 48 lectures. (Three of the 45 lectures were given by me on his behalf.) Unfortunately, he passed away before fulfilling his wish, and I vowed to give the remaining three. The 46th was given in Miami, Florida in January 1989; The 47th was given in Austin, Texas in July 1989; And the 48th lecture is being given today, here in Miami. This is why this meeting today is particularly important.
It took 10 years to complete the lectures in many parts of the world: San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Los Angeles, Taiwan, Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada, etc.
I am very happy to be giving this lecture in English for the following reason: When Yogi Chen was in India doing a 25-year retreat in one room, he had a dream that he saw Sakyamuni Buddha telling him to go to the United States to preach the Dharma. He also had a vision at that time that a Dragon King kneeled down to him and asked him to go to the United States to preach the Dharma. Yogi Chen had given the lecture in English only twice, so I am very happy to help fulfill the goal of preaching to the American people by giving this lecture in English today.
The lecture will consist of three talks: Why Do We Prefer Buddhism?, The Path to Enlightenment, and Why Do We Choose the Chanting of "Amitabha"? I will give a brief description of the basic attitudes of a practitioner and explain why these attitudes will be beneficial to you. On the last lecture I will talk about the methods and merits of the practice of chanting "Amitabha" as well as related practices.
Why do we prefer Buddhism? To talk about this, first we need to know what the basic teachings of the Buddha are. It would be impossible to enumerate all of the teachings which are contained in the 160 volumes of Tripitaka in one recent Chinese edition. My teacher, Yogi Chen, composed a chart in English that describes the essential teachings and practices of Buddhism in the order that they are to be practiced. This can be very beneficial.
I want to talk about the very basic, central philosophy of Buddhism. Once we have an understanding of the basics we can begin comparing it with other religions, then we will have some understanding of why we prefer Buddhism.
The basic idea of Buddhism is not to presuppose that there is something wrong with us but rather that our original nature is pure. Buddha’s teaching is that basically we are all pure and problem-free originally. Basically, we are all Buddhas, however, we are all in trouble. You may ask why. It is because we have wrong concepts and consequently we act in a wrong manner. The problems of society and the human race are also rooted in the basic problems of how we think, how we perceive the world, and how we act.
Many of the wrong concepts which Buddha classified as sorrows (e.g., greed and hatred) cause emotional disturbances and conflicts among people.
There are the wrong concepts called perversive views, meaning that our view of the world and what human relationships should be are incorrect. This causes us much trouble.
The most basic of all problems stems from the notion that a self inherently exists. This is a philosophical problem. Unless we know how this philosophical problem came about we will not understand what is meant by this. I will attempt to describe the problem.
In life we assume that people and things like furniture exist, and we take them for granted. However, if we look at it carefully and philosophically we begin to ask questions. For example, here we have a lamp which can be described by its color and shape. However, as I move my fingers around the lamp, notice that the light and color of the lamp are not only determined by its materials but also by the light from the bulb and the light in the room. Other factors can also affect the color of the lamp such as viewing it through colored glasses. So the philosopher begins to ask if there is such a thing as the color of this lamp?
Normally, we have no problem determining the color, but when we become very precise we have difficulty defining what the color of this lamp is. The same thing is true with shapes. For example, we would say the table over there is rectangular, however, if you try to draw a picture of it looking from one end you will notice that one end is wider than the other. That is what you actually see. The rectangular shape is actually an abstraction. We learn from experience that if we are fitting the table into a corner of the wall it is rectangular, but when we actually see it, we notice there is a discrepancy between what we think and what we see.
This is why philosophers began to ask the question—Is there something that we can call the table which is independent of where and how we see it? In daily life we assume this when we are buying a table. In general this kind of assumption helps to explain phenomena such as our house being there when we return home, or our cat returning after letting it out, etc. There is a problem that comes as a result of assuming that there is anything that exists independently of our perceptions. For example, today I say I really like this orange. Next time you see me you will remember that and offer me an orange. I may just have finished eating some fruit and would prefer something else, but you wouldn’t know that. Reality is always changing, but we tend to be led by our concept of a fixed world. That is how the problems come about and how we lose touch with reality.
Major and serious problems can result from having fixed notions of reality. For example, war is a big enterprise and people are led to wage it by very fixed concepts of people, nations, and other abstract things. What is the reality that Buddha tried to teach us? Philosophically, the question can be answered by saying there is no such thing as an inherently existent self. We must free ourselves from this kind of conceptual error because this is where our problems begin.
It is difficult to convince people that nothing exists independently of our perceptions because it is contrary to the assumptions adopted in our daily lives. However, that does not mean we could not function without these assumptions. A person who is free from all these prejudices and misconceptions will be very much alive and close to all beings. What is blocking people or beings from getting close is the concept of self. If one were free from this concept, we would not see each other as separate but rather see everyone as one with himself. The result of this freedom is that we would devote our lives to serving other beings. Buddha, realizing that people have different backgrounds, different levels of intellectual abilities and emotional maturity, guides us to a deeper level of understanding through his various teachings. Besides saying we should forget about viewing the world as fixed and permanent, Buddha also says we can view everything as of one nature and unity and act accordingly. Then it is easier to follow. If you adopt this view, then you will act as one with others.
It is difficult to convince people that we are all one because it is very clear when we look around at living beings and inanimate objects that we are seeing different things. How can we all be one? From our ordinary view this is something strange and even contrary to our common sense. The reason that Buddha has convinced many generations of Buddhists is because there is something beyond our ordinary experience. Buddha has been convincing over the years because those who follow his teachings begin to broaden their minds and learn something beyond ordinary perceptions and conceptions.
I would like to relate a personal experience to help you understand what it means when I say that we are all one. I have been a full time Buddhist practitioner doing things like chanting "Amitabha." Physical distance sets limits on our immediate senses. If I want to know what is going on in Hong Kong I would have to make a phone call. A Buddhist friend of mine returned to Hong Kong and I didn’t know what she was doing there. One night in my dream I saw that she was releasing turtles. When she returned to the United States, she said she had been releasing turtles in Hong Kong a few hours before my dream. This is hard to explain, but if you accept the view that we are all one, then it is very easy to explain because it is like one body. There is no wonder that you know how your right hand feels and also how your left hand feels. Another experience I had was with a friend in Miami who asked me to pray for a relative and also for her back pain. I just wrote the names in a book, put it in front of Buddha, and chanted a mantra. The next morning her pain was gone. She was in Miami and I was in El Cerrito (San Francisco area). So you see, if you adopt this kind of view, things like this happen.
Also, recently a friend of mine was complaining of pain in different areas of her body due to a traffic accident. Then I saw signs in my own body corresponding to where her pain was located. I have no explanation for this. It was a new experience for me, i.e., something that happened in another person’s body was felt in my body in the exact area.
If we believe Buddha’s teachings and act accordingly, we will be free from our troubles. Most of the pains in the body are caused by mental disturbances. We are not very peaceful inside, so our bodies also become tense and painful. If we accept this philosophy and live it accordingly, we will not only help others but will also receive great benefits for ourselves. We will then have the key to our happiness.
The question remains, how can we follow the Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives? I will attempt to summarize as follows: Right now our concepts are unavoidable because we grew up in a civilization and were conditioned by society as well as our own experiences. We have a set of values and opinions which are more or less self-centered and based upon self interests.
On the active side, we should try to become more open, and instead of caring only for ourselves, we should start caring for people in our immediate surroundings wherever we go. Instead of fearing involvement, we should open up a little bit for others here and there, and we will eventually become more open. On the passive side, we should try to give up our self-centered attachments. We have to learn to give up the many self-centered things we are holding onto. Until we can, a lot of energy and time will be spent thinking and worrying about our own problems, and this causes us burdens. Worrying won’t solve problems; Hence, we should stop worrying.
It is easy to say all of this, but very difficult to do, because the roots of our worries are things that are so important to us. At this point the preciousness of the Buddhist practice becomes significant. Through our practice, our minds gradually become free from preoccupation with ourselves. When we talk about the principles of opening up or giving up our attachments, it is something that can only be practiced when we are presented with a situation where there is a problem. The daily Buddhist practices are like regular tuneups for our well-being.
Through the daily practice of meditation and chanting "Amitabha" we will gradually improve ourselves so that we will be able to deal with worldly matters more openly and with less attachment. By each individual improving ultimately society will be saved.
Now that we have learned a little bit about the essentials of Buddha’s teachings, we want to know why we prefer it to the worldly approaches. There are many worldly problems facing us such as environmental pollution, population explosion, nuclear armaments, drug addiction, etc. We attempt to solve these problems by creating a system specific to each problem, however, a system is only as good as the people who run it. If the people are corrupt, no system will work. What is fundamental to the system working is the quality of the people running it.
Buddhism offers a fundamental solution as opposed to the patching up which is done when worldly solutions are applied. All aspects of our lives interact with one another, hence political and social activities cannot be separated in a clear cut manner from religion. If we compare activities that are guided by the ideal of unselfishly serving others to those that are not so guided, we will find them beneficial to all. This is one reason why we prefer Buddhism to mere worldly approaches.
There are things that are beyond our ordinary experience and knowledge. For example, let us say we are experiencing a drought because we didn’t build a reservoir or a proper irrigation system. We can remedy the situation through construction, but if the drought is due to an insufficient amount of rain for a long period of time, what could we do? It is our experience that whenever we deliver precious vases to the Dragon King and pray for rain, within one week the rain comes. Buddhas are beings who have reached beyond our ordinary perceptions and realize that if we work within the confines of human limitations, we can change the situation very little. By going beyond the human level, we find higher and more powerful beings. By accepting this teaching and doing the practice, each one of us is capable of gradually getting in touch with the world beyond. Miraculous things will happen and the results will be beneficial to all. This is another reason why we prefer Buddhism to mere worldly approaches.
We see these miracles happening even within the scientific world. For example, I remember the story of a scientist who discovered that the molecular structure of a substance formed a chain, as in a necklace. He had been trying to solve this problem for many years unsuccessfully, and then one night the solution came to him in a dream in which he saw a snake biting its own tail. That was the inspiration he needed to make his discovery. So you see, as humans we have this kind of ability which can help us in the development of our knowledge.
If we look at our political, social, and economic problems, the solutions are not adequate because our knowledge in these fields is not fully advanced. Let us take a look at the most advanced of all sciences, namely, physics. Newton’s laws were replaced by Einstein’s special theory of relatively which he tried to enlarge to a generalized theory of relativity. In this approach to Truth, it seems to me that physics is getting closer to what the Buddha taught, because Buddha’s basic teaching on the nonexistence of an inherently existent self implies that everything is one.
It follows that the distinction between subject and object, and observer and things observed is the beginning of mistakes. Let us consider our health as an example. We usually observe ourselves even though we are just one-person. This causes tension because we are splitting ourselves in two; The more we observe ourselves, the more tense we become. Hence, we need to learn to become like a baby who is not aware of his body and stop splitting ourselves in two. This would be a practical application of Buddha’s basic teaching.
Returning to our discussion on the advance of physics, we see that Einstein’s theory of relativity is far better than Newton’s laws. Newton’s laws are based on concepts of absolute time and space, whereas Einstein questioned these fundamental concepts and found that the abstract notions of absolute space and time had no really physical significance. It is not something we can measure. If we talk about time, we will need a clock. If we talk about space, we will need to specify an object of reference, thus we bring two basic abstract human mental constructs down to earth.
Let us consider the space for an x-ray and space for a human being. If we try to walk through a wall it would be impossible, but an x-ray can penetrate a wall. So, what space is to an x-ray may not be the space for a human. Let us consider two balls of different sizes. The space relative to the balls is different. When we move the balls in a room one at a time, we discover the balls cannot fit into the corners, we also learn that the larger ball cannot get as close to the corners as the smaller one. There are limitations in their respective spaces. For space to have a physical meaning, it must be defined with respect to a certain object. Similarly, time is also relative to a given clock. When the clock is nearby, it is easy to tell time. But when the clock is at some distance, we will need some form of communication to tell time, and the communication will take some time. Thus, we see that the position of a clock with respect to a given frame of reference in space is significant. Consequently, in Einstein’s theory, time and space coordinates are inseparable.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity describes things better than Newton’s laws, however, restraints had to be put on the kind of frame of references used. If it is the truth, then we should be able to describe it from any kind of frame of references, not just from a particular one. Truth should always remain constant, for example, the length of a pen should remain the same, independent of how and where it is measured. Hence, Einstein tried to relax the restraints put on the frame of references. Gradually, it was learned that you cannot say that this part is unrelated to that part.
Time is no longer unrelated to space; They are related parts of one system. In order to go from the special theory of relativity to the general one, Einstein found out that things would be simpler if he used the notion of a field. This means we have to know how all the masses are distributed and we have to involve everything. Finally, there is an Uncertainty Principle that says in describing the movement of atomic particles, we have our limits. You may ask why. We have our limits because the moment we start to observe something, our presence becomes a part of the whole picture and affects the whole picture. So we can never see the whole truth because our observation distorts it. Therefore, to reach the truth we should not make a distinction between a subject and an object in the first place. Knowing the philosophy of Buddhism will help us understand where science made mistakes and how science is evolving toward this understanding. That is why we prefer Buddhism.
We have learned to rely on worldly approaches and we cling to this because it is all we know. However, if we accept that there are things beyond and follow the teachings of Buddha, we will have beneficial results. No one has a monopoly on experiencing the truth of Buddha’s teachings; Anyone who practices Buddhism will benefit. This is another reason why we prefer Buddhism.
It does not mean that we have to give up all worldly things. What we prefer is simply that our lives be guided by the teachings of Buddha. It means that we will not be so narrow-minded and not be so confined to human knowledge only. We obtain our knowledge as we would try to draw a map of the universe. We are so limited and know so little. It was recently discovered that the planet Neptune has more moons than previously thought. It will always be like that. The more we learn the more we realize how ignorant and how limited we are. Now that we understand that there are things beyond, we should try to practice Buddhism.
Why do we prefer Buddhism to other religions? All religions address the world beyond; However, the main difference in Buddhism is that Buddha tries to free us from all kinds of limitations and wants to liberate us completely. Only the theories and practices of Buddhism can lead one to ultimate freedom. To achieve this, Buddha teaches us that everything is of one nature. Because it is the nature of all things, then it will be everywhere. In order to show all sorts of colors, this basic nature cannot have its particular color, so as not to interfere with the other colors. Thus, it follows that this basic nature possesses no particular property. It is like a T.V. screen which is turned off.
We are all confined by the notion of our selves as well as others?selves, and things such as relatives, society, nations, etc. These limitations imprison us. Buddha tries to use the concept of oneness to bring us out of our limitations. We begin to think of a Blank Essence; Everything our senses perceive is just an appearance of the same nature. So we begin to feel one with everything, knowing this Blank Essence is nowhere to be found by itself, but it is everywhere and everything. With this notion we become completely free of all limitations because the notion of Blank Essence sets no limit. There is no other religion like this. Other religions either teach you to work toward life in Heaven or to become one with God. However, God is still not free from the notion of a Self. For example, in Hinduism they talk about a Higher Self, and in the Bible we read that God still has anger. Thus, other religions cannot teach us how to gain complete freedom. Buddha made it clear in the Diamond Sutra that his teachings are like rafts. They help people to get across a river, but once ashore people should not be burdened by them. This shows how free Buddhism is. This is the main reason why we prefer Buddhism to other religions.
In Buddhism there are well-defined practices and stages of Enlightenment. Buddhists are not inimical to other religions. One who understands Buddhism is tolerant of other religions, respects the deities of other religions, and considers other religions?teachings as basic and supplementary to Buddha’s teachings. These are more reasons why we prefer Buddhism to other religions.
Nowadays there are some "new" religions that try to synthesize Buddhism, Christianity, Moslem, etc., into one. Unfortunately, on the one hand, they haven’t understood what distinguishes Buddhism from the other religions; While on the other hand, what they propose is just a patchwork that lacks a coherent unifying principle. This is why we prefer Buddhism to such a "new" religion.
Question 1: Besides Emptiness, is there anything else that Buddha discovered in his Enlightenment?
Answer: Actually, Buddha’s teachings say that even Enlightenment itself is not an achievement in the sense that you gain something new; It is just a freedom from delusion. Basically, we are all enlightened, but deluded like the sun which is covered by clouds. That is why we say we gain nothing. We are just free and the clouds are removed. Buddha once saw Emptiness, i.e., oneness of all things. From this, great compassion arose. That is why Buddha preached for so many years out of his great compassion to help release people from their wrong notions. We are basically all the same, but confined by our wrong notions. Old habits are difficult to change; Particularly when we suddenly face a situation, we are apt to follow old habits. We are controlled by our prejudices, preferences, attachments, etc. Buddha realized that to actually free people, it is not enough that his teachings are understood. That is why he devised practices to be followed which will gradually free us; That is why the Buddhist practices are so important.
Question 2: I feel very discouraged. Everything you said I understand, but I would really like to dissociate myself from myself.
Answer: Don’t be discouraged. You have become accustomed to doing this all of your life so it is impossible to just stop. Now that you understand that this is the source of your trouble, then Buddha gives you something else to think about. Your habit will gradually change because your concentration of your mental energy will be away from yourself. The more you practice, the more your energy is diverted away from yourself and you will get results. There are ways to change, but it takes a long time. Because you have been thinking about yourself for so many decades, you have to work very hard to change.
Question 3: Does meditation help you more than chanting?
Answer: Yes, but chanting is also a kind of meditation. For those of us who lead busy lives, it is difficult to sit down and try to concentrate for even five minutes. If you study the teachings, you will learn that the ones who can seriously start to practice meditation are those who have given up the worldly life. Don’t be discouraged because chanting is a form of meditation which can be done anytime you think about it; Even when you are busy you can chant, "Amitabha, Amitabha, ..." After you have formed this habit for years, you will go into meditation naturally while chanting. If you run around all day and then try to sit for 30 minutes, your mind will still be running around; This can be dangerous. You may be sitting but your mind is still running. By chanting "Amitabha, Amitabha, ..." you don’t have to be able to concentrate immediately; Your concentration grows gradually over years of chanting. From concentration on "Amitabha," you will gradually learn to concentrate on other things because you have learned how to concentrate on one thing. This is a safe practice for people who are busy with worldly lives.
Question 4: But while you are chanting, you have to concentrate on it. You can’t chant and concentrate on other things.
Answer: It is difficult to try to think of the chanting all the time. However, don’t get discouraged. Just keep chanting and gradually it will become a natural part of you.
Question 5: Why don’t we have one of those gadgets that gives you an electric shock every time you have egoistic thoughts? It worked on a dog, why can’t it work on people to change patterns of behavior?
Answer: By changing only the behavior patterns you would be creating a puppet. Besides, it is hard to decide what is egoistic and what is not; If your motivation for this approach is for your own interest, then the whole thing is still egoistic.
Question 6: Is everything ego until supreme Enlightenment?
Answer: We reach many levels before reaching the final level. We will reap the benefits of partial Enlightenment.
Question 7: Meditation gives us many benefits but the ego problem is overwhelming.
Answer: Your practice must include actions in your daily life. Begin to be considerate of others even in competition or games. If we free ourselves from self interest, the games just become a sport; It need not be ego-centered.
Question 8: Not everything is ego. For example, when we are riding a bicycle, we forget we are riding. So, there is no ego involved.
Answer: Andrey said that the best time he had swimming was when his thoughts had stopped. Of course that doesn’t mean the ego has vanished. If you can free yourself from your thoughts, you can perform better than when you are disturbed by them. In order to eliminate the final traces of ego we have to first stop the thinking and become free from discursive thoughts. Through chanting "Amitabha" these discursive thoughts will die down and eventually die out. This does not mean that afterwards we are incapable of thinking. It means that when we are doing something we are one, we are free from observing ourselves or others. The act is pure and that’s why they talk about the Zen of tea ceremony, gardening, flower-arranging, archery, etc. We are actively doing something but we become one with everything and forget the self. It is very difficult, yet not impossible to attain this state by studying the theory and doing the practice. The actual practice is the most essential part in eliminating the ego. The theory will help us understand why we chant and meditate and convince us to do it.
Question 9: So you have to do chanting 24 hours a day?
Answer: No, only ideally would we chant 24 hours a day. Most people cannot do that, but we should constantly remind ourselves to try to develop the habit of chanting.
Question 10: I think of karma as similar to the Christian faith. They believe that God is there to reward if you are good and punish if you are bad. But in Buddhism there is no God or Christ. There is karma which is brought on by ourselves.
Answer: Well, what they have in common is the concept of the cause and effect relationship. The Christian theory has difficulty explaining why everyone is not created equal; Why are some created fortunately and others disabled? If we really go deep into theology, explanations can be found. The important thing is, be it favorable or unfortunate, how we live according to Buddha’s teachings and what benefits we can get from it spiritually. The Christians might explain inequality by saying that in either case the soul has an equal chance to learn the teachings of God. At the time of Christ, simple people such as farmers, fishermen, etc., followed Christ’s teachings without questioning it much. They had faith and tried to live a life of goodness. In Buddhism there are also basic and simple teachings showing ordinary people how to live a life of goodness.
Question 11: I read about the Pureland and the misery of different reincarnations and transmigrations. That sounds like the equivalent of hell.
Answer: That’s a good question. In the Christian teachings there are a Heaven and Hell, and you try to avoid Hell and go to Heaven. In Buddhism you have a wonderful Pureland and terrible transmigration; You try to be free from the transmigration and go to the Pureland. Isn’t that the same as Christianity? In a sense, yes. Ordinary people have difficulty acting on the concept of no attachment and no self. In order to reach ordinary people Buddha taught in ways that people were familiar with. Hence, the teaching of striving for Pureland does make use of our interests as motivation and seems to create a kind of attachment. Nevertheless, the practice of chanting "Amitabha" will gradually lead us to the freedom of no self. Furthermore, the Buddhist Pureland can be anywhere. When your mind is free from the domination of self, you are in Pureland.
Question 12: We are always praying and asking Buddha to help us. Is this part of this teaching?
Answer: Ordinary beings don’t know how to reach the stage of no subject and no object. Hence, Buddha teaches us ways that involve the duality of subject and object. If we rub two pieces of wood together creating a spark, then when a fire starts both pieces of wood will burn. It is the same with Buddhist practices that involve the subject/object distinction. Although it appears there are a subject and an object as in the two pieces of wood, as your practice reaches perfect purity, the subject/object distinction will fade away just as the two pieces of wood burn away. If we practice Buddhism long enough, we will eventually become free from this feeling of separation. We just have to have faith and keep practicing, and we will gradually sense the self being reduced. When we encounter certain situations, we will be calmer and happier than before.
Question 13: So the oneness is in all forms, not just people?
Answer: Yes, if we have a boundary somewhere, then within it am I and outside of it are you. It has to be boundless. Of course, we can’t perceive this now, but we can be open to it in our practice. Because our ability is very limited, we cannot help everyone, but when we are practicing Buddhism our thoughts should include everyone. I have edited a book in Chinese ²b·~´Â¼Ç½Ò¹|Åª¥» which I recently translated into English, and is in the process of being typed and put into booklet form. It is called Pureland Daily Practice (note, it was published in October 1989 for free distribution). In the beginning we visualize our father on the right side and our mother on the left side. In front of us are all our relatives, friends, and foes, from this or previous lives; Behind us are the hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, the humans, the asuras and heavenly beings. Namely, all beings in the Dharmadhatu ("universe") are doing the practice with us, facing all the Buddhas in the sky. This is one way to enlarge us to a limitless stage. From Buddha’s point of view, all is actually one, so our practice actually benefits everyone. If we stop thinking only of ourselves and the immediate, through Buddhist practices we will grow spiritually. Our notion of a self is not only the cause of our physical pains but also limits our growth. Buddha is described in the Sutras as having a perfect appearance with a protuberance on the top of his head. Ordinary people don’t have that because we limit ourselves too early by our worldly concepts. As we grow and become fully developed, we also will have a perfect appearance with a protuberance on top of the head. As humans, we are very limited in our ability to change things. Even when we understand things intellectually, we have difficulty achieving change. With the understanding that all are one, prayers can make a difference.
Question 14: Do you mean the Sutras? How am I going to pray?
Answer: We just pray directly to Buddha as though he were our father or mother. Buddha’s compassion is so great that he will listen to us as though each one of us is his only child. We tell him our problems and that we want to improve ourselves and help others, then things will work out. Perhaps not immediately. In fact, sometimes it seems that things get worse, but we must be patient. In the long run we may find out that these were better arrangements and we didn’t have the ability to see the whole picture in advance. If you don’t know how to pray, just chant Buddha’s name and things will begin to happen.
Question 15: Chanting can become a tranquilizer, can’t it?
Answer: In the beginning it may serve as a tranquilizer for a disturbed mind. The mind has to be tranquilized before it can develop soundly. Our main concern is chanting "Amitabha" and letting everything else go. If we start worrying about something else, the chanting loses its power and again we are splitting ourselves.
Question 16: Is it good to visualize the letters as you say Amitabha’s name to help keep the mind from wandering?
Answer: Actually, for beginners it would be better to visualize just at the beginning that all beings are chanting together. Then concentrate only on the chanting, without doing any visualization.
Question 17: If you chant it aloud, what about listening to the sound?
Answer: If we chant aloud we should listen to the sound to help concentrate on the practice.
Question 18: I have the tape (Amitabha Chanting) in my car. Sometimes, I chant with it but I found by just listening to it I can concentrate better.
Answer: That’s fine, actually the main point is that you can be one, but you are not one and that’s the problem. If you find it’s easier for you to concentrate by listening to it, then just "chant" by listening to the chanting. That is O.K.
September 2, 1989
First, I would like to tell you of several incidents that took place which illustrate that things can happen to help you when you really work for the Dharma.
During my long trip here, I developed a problem with my hemorrhoids. My friend, David, has a friend who is an acupuncturist, but unfortunately the only time she could see me was during my scheduled lecture time. Helen, the acupuncturist, had a cancellation which enabled me to see her during a time which fit my schedule. I didn’t even pray for it. I believe that when you sincerely work for the Dharma, things will be arranged for you. Imagine how difficult it would have been for Helen to reschedule the appointment to fit my schedule.
The second thing happened in the morning before I flew here. My father called me from Taipei, Taiwan, to tell me that the 4th reprint of Yogi Chen’s monumental work, Buddhist Meditation, was completed. When I came here, I learned from Sophie that some of you had already donated money toward the cost of the printing. In fact when I decided to reprint this important book, I didn’t have money from Buddhist friends at that time, so I had to use my wife’s money to do it. I recently met a lady whose family runs a shipping company, and she was willing to help ship these books without any charge.
David gave me a book on healing hands and asked for my opinion. Some people are born with this kind of ability, and some obtain it through practice which may or may not be a Buddhist practice. In Buddhism, we are aware of this, yet we do not emphasize it simply because it is not our final goal. Enlightenment is our goal; However, through Buddhist practice, this kind of ability may come forth naturally without your pursuing for it. For example, this kind of ability was never a goal of mine, but now I find that my prayers can help people, and when I touch people who have faith they often feel better. So my reply to David’s question is yes, there is such a wonderful thing, but the best way to get this side-benefit is to concentrate only on the Dharma practice.
Now, let us talk about the path to Enlightenment and the basic attitudes of a practitioner. There are books available in book stores which talk about this subject in great detail. Here, I would like to present an outline of the path to Enlightenment, namely, the eight stages of Enlightenment, which was taught by my late Guru, Yogi C. M. Chen. Yogi Chen outlined the path using the following analogies:
You may wonder why it is ordered like this. In order for you to become a Buddha, it is necessary to have the Wisdom of Sunyata. You have to practice through meditation so that the basic philosophy of Buddhism becomes your central thought, not just at the intellectual level of understanding, but your whole view of the world, your thinking, and your actions should all be based on it. Only then it becomes your wisdom. This kind of wisdom can only be obtained by the power developed through meditation.
In order for you to develop the power of meditation (Samatha) you need first to broaden yourself with activities of compassion so as to gradually get rid of self-centered habits. How do activities of compassion come about? After you realize that Buddha’s teaching of wisdom and compassion is the right way of living, and you are willing to live in that way, you will then begin to change your self-centered way of life to a life of selfless service for other people. You learn to act compassionately only after this kind of strong determination is made which is the planting of the seed of Bodhicitta.
But before planting this seed you must learn good conduct by following Silas which are rules of conduct prescribed by Buddha. This is like building a fence to protect the sprout of the seed from being eaten by deer; Your Bodhicitta is then protected and has a chance to grow up. Before you build the fence, you need land to build the whole structure of Buddhist practice. This land is the renunciation of worldly things, thereby turning our minds toward the Dharma. The more you give up, the bigger your land is, and the more space you have for growth.
How can we have this kind of renunciation? We are used to thinking that life continues day after day and death seems to be a very remote thing. We don’t have a vivid awareness that everything is changing, that impermanence is a reality, and that death may come at any moment. Our daily lives are based upon so many beliefs and so much faith which is not so well founded; We consciously or unconsciously ignore the fact of impermanence. The understanding and acceptance of impermanence will shed light on our preconceived notions and our beliefs, thereby, giving us a chance to review them in that light, and come out of the shade of the attitude that life goes on without end. If you go to a cemetery, you will see that life can end at any age, even within the mother’s womb. Then you might start to ask yourself questions like: What is the meaning of my life? Suppose that my life should end in the next moment, what have I done? Would I still want to engage in these meaningless activities? Our lives have been tangled up with so many small, unimportant things and activities: Would I still fight with other people over trivial things? Wouldn’t I, instead, do something nice for others? Etc. All these reflections will help us lean toward living a healthy and meaningful life, and improve our personal characters and relationships with others. Hence, it is very important to ponder impermanence.
I recently discovered a way to grasp the concept of impermanence by using a small notebook to write the names of deceased persons whom I have met personally. In cases when names were unknown, I wrote a description. I had even forgotten some of their names; Some persons I recalled only days or months later. This forgetfulness is sound and healthy because that is how we are able to carry on with life; It also shows that we need to be reminded about the fact of impermanence. Having done this, when I went to bed that night, I suddenly sensed something—I had a slight, foolish notion, a self-deceit that death would not happen to me. It sounds ridiculous, but it is the kind of thing that you are able to realize only after you have come out of it. Similarly, when you experience physical tension, it is only after you have become relaxed that you realize how tense you were. It is very difficult, yet this practice can help to elucidate impermanence to you. Every time you enter someone’s name into such a book, it reminds you of impermanence.
Another benefit of doing this practice is to remind us that we must give up everything when we die. Everyone knows intellectually that this is true and that we walk the path of death alone, but it was the first time in my life that I, from the bottom of my heart, recognized and felt departure from everything. Because of this realization, I know that it is very important to practice letting things go from my mind right at the present moment so that I could have real freedom, and I could ease the pain of departure at the moment of death. That night I put the book on my altar in front of the Green Tara who is a transformation of Avalokitesvara. I prayed that the Green Tara would save all these beings.
The next morning I discovered that, as the incense stick burned, it curved downward and turned toward the Green Tara’s right palm whose fingers point downward. This gesture signifies her salvation of sentient beings. The incense stick stayed that way for several days. It’s quite extraordinary for a burned incense stick to form that shape, not to mention staying in that shape for several days. I took a photo of it and printed it in my Chinese book entitled ×³~ÀHµ§ (Notes Along the Practice Path). I think that means Green Tara answered my prayers and approved of this practice.
People with whom you had personal contact, no matter how long ago or how short the meeting was, carry a sense of reality to you. Hence, their death touches you more than that of those whom you have never met. It reminds us of our impermanence as well as the fact that death may come at any time.
Since then I have been practicing this. Whenever people ask me to pray for someone who has passed away, I pray and also enter the name into my little book, Record of Impermanence (the toll is 175 now). This means I have done Powa (a tantric practice of transference of consciousness) for people more than one hundred times. It is a service I do for anyone who informs me when someone has passed away.
We have just discussed why it is necessary for the Buddhist practice to be arranged in the order mentioned earlier, and now we can look into it a little deeper. Once you have grasped the notion of impermanence, then renunciation won’t be so difficult. What do we mean by renunciation? Avoiding the world and hiding in the mountains may mean renunciation, yet the true renunciation is not merely physical isolation. First, you study the teachings of Buddha and realize that there are stages beyond the ordinary stages. By achieving the higher stages we can really help others as well as ourselves; Then you decide to devote the rest of your life to this work. In order to achieve this, you need some training to improve yourself. For example, if you want to be a doctor you need to go to medical school and study longer than other people, or if you want to defend your country in time of war, you need to leave home and join the armed service.
You have to prepare for renunciation gradually, not by abruptly leaving all your responsibilities and going off to the mountain to enjoy your meditation. For beginners, you need to cut off your social activities in order to save time and energy for studying the Dharma and doing the practice. By studying Buddha’s teachings, one knows that there is a long path to Enlightenment which cannot be achieved without complete devotion. So one establishes the willingness to cut off worldly activities in order to devote oneself completely to the quest of Buddhahood. This is the real meaning of renunciation. Once you sense that life is so fragile and short, and understand the great benefit of putting efforts into this path, then it is only natural that you will want to do the renunciation. We have to use our very limited time and energy for a greater purpose.
You will no longer want to spend your life on self-centered things because one of the teachings of Buddha is that we are all one. In a sense you cannot live by yourself. You cannot be happy if you care only for yourself or just a few people; You will be doomed to unhappiness because nothing is permanent, and when your loved ones pass away you will lose everything. If you care for everyone, then although this one or that one may go, there are still many more for you to work for. You will feel very happy and safe, for the only way to be safe is to learn to love everyone equally. Wherever you go, you don’t have to worry about differentiating between dear ones and enemies because you are free from those kinds of worries. That is how we become free.
In order to make certain that you preserve your renunciation, you also need to adhere to the Silas. For example, Buddha said you do not gamble, then you should not gamble. Similarly, you should give up other bad habits, such as using intoxicants, etc. If you are one who is still in trouble, how can you help others? That is why, for our renunciation, Silas are also very important.
The Bodhicitta is very important. Why do we want to renounce? Our motivation is to finally attain Buddhahood. Right now we don’t know what Buddhahood is, but we should be working for everyone to get the best for all. If you have this kind of goal, then you will be motivated to give up worldly attachments. If you really have this kind of high goal, then it’s very easy for you to try to improve yourself by obeying the rules of conduct. The real way to observe Silas is through self-discipline from within. We want to discipline ourselves because of Bodhicitta, and because we know that it is something that is truly desirable. Although we have bad habits, we know that if we want to get rid of them, we have to change ourselves. That’s why we follow the Silas. So, you see, it is all interrelated.
Although this is a very broad outline of the stages of the path, having learned this will help you have a better understanding when you go on to study books on this topic. In fact, even after you have studied you will need to formulate something like this for your own use someday, because very few of us are capable of remembering complicated systems. You always need rules of thumb to help you in daily life, so that is why this kind of outline is very precious and important. It will make it easier to remember the main stages of the path. Whenever you have a problem, for example, about renunciation, then you will look at the stage that comes before it and after it. In this way you can make certain that each step is very firm and secure.
If you understand all of the stages of the path, you won’t be inclined to go in the wrong direction. Let us say, for example, that you are at the stage of renunciation and are satisfied with your ability to heal people with your hands. If you go no further with your practice, then knowledge of these stages will be a reminder that the goal of Buddhahood is at much higher lever. This is simple and clear. It outlines the stages of the whole path, indicates the main check points on the path, and it is readily understood and memorized. That is why it’s very important and useful.
Now, I would like to talk about the Six Paramitas which constitute the essential practice of Mahayana. Paramita is a Sanskrit word meaning to reach the other shore. When you are in transmigration, you are on the shore of life and death. In order to be safe, you have to sail across the ocean of sorrows to reach the other shore; Through adopting these practices, you will be able to reach the other shore, which is the stage of Buddhahood. There, you are eternally free from transmigration and its suffering, but once you become a Buddha, it doesn’t mean that you stay on the other shore. You will be working like a lifeguard, trying to help other beings out of the ocean of suffering. That is the meaning of to reach the other shore. Before helping other beings you must reach the other shore first, because if you don’t have the ability, how can you help others?
What are the basic practices that help us reach the other shore? Usually, the Six Paramitas are translated into English as the Six Perfections. I think it means that by adopting these practices you will become perfect. When I was doing the translation for the booklet titled ²b·~´Â¼Ç½Ò¹|Åª¥» (Pureland Daily Practice), I chose to use Sublimation for Paramita. The reason was not to be different from others, but to make it clearer. So many people are using Perfection; It has become a standard translation. Yet, I offered readers a chance to understand these practices in another way. Why did I use Sublimation rather than Perfection? It may be interpreted as from a state of imperfection to a state of perfection, however, it may still be at the same level. But actually what the Buddhist practice tries to do is to make the central philosophy of Buddhism become the central thought of yours, thereby, you are released from your present stage and you go on to a higher stage. Thus, it is a process of sublimation, going to a higher and purer level.
What are the contents of the Six Paramitas? The first one is giving, the second is obedience, then patience, diligence, meditation and finally wisdom. All of these are, in a sense, the central practices of Mahayana, and of Bodhisattvas. First of all, why are they given in such an order? At the first stage, they want you to free yourself from self-centeredness through the practice of giving. If you have attachment to material or nonmaterial things which are beneficial to you, then you want to keep them for yourself. In that case, it would be difficult for you to be obedient to the rules of conduct. The Silas are designed in such a way that, on the one hand, they keep you from getting into trouble; On the other hand, they mature you by asking you to do service for others. However, for someone who has strong attachments to his personal well-being or to his belongings, it is very difficult to do more for other people, because he always comes first. That is why the first stage is to practice giving.
Through giving you free yourself from attachments, on the one hand, and you broaden yourself, on the other hand. You begin to learn why we are all one. Your attachment to material comforts or self-interests form a big blockade between you and other people. Through giving, the wall will gradually crumble, and only after it’s gone will you see that we are all one. Originally the wall did not exist; It was built by your own mind. That is why the first stage is giving. Only those who can give freely can follow the rules of conduct; Whenever there is conflict, one becomes accustomed to giving up self-interests. Then it is easier to follow the rules of conduct, instead of following one’s own interests.
Why does patience come next? The patience here is not the kind of patience that an adult has when he endures receiving a vaccination without crying. The whole thing is directed toward Buddhahood; The patience here is rather difficult. If you want to live a life of renunciation, you have to stop all worldly, social activities; Your friends may feel offended and you will have to face the consequences of their possibly disliking you. In order to practice Buddhism, you have to tolerate many things, for example, if you are the only Buddhist in a Christian family, others may laugh at you or criticize you. You need patience to continue your practice which can be developed through practicing obedience to the Silas. The patience you develop during the stage of Silas-keeping enables you to face many difficulties that you may encounter later in life. Someone who has this kind of patience can use its strength to practice diligence. It is not easy to be constantly diligent. You may be able to remain diligent for a period of a few days, however, the path of Buddhism requires a long-term effort to develop which could take one or many lives. So, in order to be constantly diligent, you need a very strong foundation of patience.
We shall examine the practices involved in meditation. At first you must learn to concentrate on one point; This is called Samatha. After you have developed this kind of ability, you practice Vipasyana by using the power of Samatha. Vipasyana is doing contemplation or visualizations with single-mindedness. You may visualize certain images, seed-words, or Buddha, or use the power of Samatha to contemplate the meaning of Buddha’s teachings. When you have developed your ability of Samatha and Vipasyana to the extent that they are balanced, it is called Samapatti.
Sometimes the practice of visualization or contemplation may weaken your ability to concentrate because now you are thinking of something far more complex. With continued practice you will gradually reach the stage where you can do it in a balanced way, i.e., visualization simultaneously with good concentration. From this stage of Samapatti, you gradually achieve Dhyana which refers to the stages of attainment of meditation practices. In order to reach the various Dhyanas, you have to go through a long sequence of practices. For some people it means decades or even a lifetime of meditation. It is not only a matter of a long period of time, but also a matter of diligence. Without practicing diligently, you will never achieve Dhyana.
Finally, why does wisdom come after Dhyana? This is a subtle point. When you read the Sutras and understand the philosophy you might think that you have acquired this wisdom. But do you have the wisdom? The wisdom here is not just book knowledge. It’s not just a certain system of concepts; Nor does the wisdom here mean the wisdom of Buddha at the final stage. When one reaches the final stage of Buddhahood, the wisdom of Buddha at that time is knowing and understanding everything. We are now talking about perfection and sublimation, i.e., the practices that will lead us to Buddhahood; This is not the final stage. Of course, it is related to Buddha’s wisdom, and it comes from Buddha’s teachings. Buddha gave us the teachings in words so that we would have the ideas to work on, but understanding those words alone is not enough. You have to make those ideas concrete in your mind through meditation. Only through the power of meditation can Buddha’s teachings become the central part of you, the real heart of you. This is the kind of wisdom you need to reach Buddhahood. One uses this wisdom to guide oneself and others on the path toward Buddhahood. I have just explained why the Six Paramitas are arranged in that order.
Now, we want to talk about the Six Paramitas from another point of view. Notice that in each one, others are involved or interrelated. For example, in the practice of giving you may be giving either material things or fearlessness. When you see an animal that is harmed or a child who is crying, you comfort them. Those are examples of giving fearlessness, i.e., freeing sentient beings from fear or difficulties. Also, there is the giving of Dharma. You learn the teachings of Buddha and you try to convey the teachings to people who know less or have no knowledge of the Dharma. By practicing giving, you are following the rules of conduct of Buddha. On the one hand, Buddha encourages you to do it to benefit others, and on the other hand, you are staying away from bad deeds.
When you give someone something, be it of a material or a spiritual nature, the recipient may say that this is not good or not what he likes, then you need to practice patience. Not to mention when you try to give Buddha’s teachings to, say, a Christian. He may say, No, no, I am a Christian, what you say is wrong. You have no respect for God; You are wrong. Again you need to be patient. We don’t want to become enemies of others. You just wait until the time comes when they want to listen to you, and then you can explain the teachings to them again. That is how patience is involved in giving.
In order to practice giving perfectly, you have to be diligent; You try to do it with great effort. Constantly ask yourself: What can I do in this situation to help more people? So diligence is involved in giving. When you are giving, it’s also a chance for you to practice meditation. When you are giving something to others, you understand that the point of giving is to carry out the philosophy of caring for others, of realizing oneness with others. So you meditate on that. The reason for giving is not because the person is liked by me or is useful to me, but because he is a sentient being. Although I’m doing only one act of giving, it is as if I’m giving everything to everyone, i.e., I will be giving to whomever needs it. That is how meditation is involved in giving. Furthermore if you have practiced Samatha and Vipasyana, you can make use of them in all sorts of practices. For example, when doing daily practice, we concentrate on visualizing all beings in the Dharmadhatu doing it with us; When we make offerings to Buddha, we visualize that all beings are making the same offerings to Buddha.
What is the wisdom involved in giving? The basic wisdom is the realization (not just the understanding) that there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. All things are in oneness; That is the wisdom involved. Using the explanations I just mentioned as an example, you can try to think about how the other practices are involved in the practice of obedience, patience, etc.
Now, we are going to examine the Six Paramitas in yet another light by trying to connect them with the essential teachings of Buddhism, namely, that all things are in Limitless-Oneness. Whenever we encounter a situation, the guideline for our practice is, on the active side, to try to open up, and on the passive side, to try to give up our attachments. Let us look at the practice of giving. If you understand the meaning of oneness of all, this practice is very meaningful. Through giving (and sharing), you are opening up and giving up your attachments.
Traditionally, we classify giving into three areas: the giving of material things, the giving of fearlessness and the giving of Dharma (Buddha’s teachings). We can use other terminology to describe these classifications so that they may be related to modern concepts. The main purpose of Buddhism is liberation. We want to be liberated from transmigration, from suffering, and from the root of suffering—self-centeredness. Freedom from wants is achieved through the giving (and sharing) of material things. Freedom from fear is achieved through the giving of fearlessness, and Freedom from prejudices is achieved through the giving and learning of the Dharma. We can reach this kind of understanding by thinking about the Dharma all the time, and when reading something, try to see the connection with the Dharma, then you will have a better understanding of both. We all prefer liberation and freedom, but how can we achieve it? First, we must learn that all is one, and then you are no longer confined to yourself. That is the starting point; By practicing it in daily life you will become liberated from self-centeredness. Practicing obedience to the Silas will help you to have pure mind. The Silas are rules that forbid you from doing certain things that harm others or yourself. If you feel the oneness of all, you won’t hurt anyone; If you can regard everyone just as you do yourself, then how can you hate them or harm them? You would simply treat them well.
These are the principles that I have extracted from my Buddhist studies and practices. You may want to review all the Paramitas from this point of view. What makes you impatient? How can you become more patient? If you can give up your preferences, you will be more patient. If you think of the basic principle of oneness, of the active aspect of opening up and the passive aspect of giving up attachments, then you will have better results going over each of these Paramitas. You will have a better understanding of why we do all these practices, and they will make a lot more sense; They are all connected.
Now, I want to talk about the basic attitudes of a practitioner. Let us start with mistakes that we should avoid. We can begin with a common problem, namely, that we are deceived by our preconceptions; We are so confined by our judgment of facts and of people, that we lose touch with the reality. Or we may say that the reality we live by is a deluded one, twisted by our self-centeredness, and by our self-interests. Basic to all of these are selected experiences. For example, I have a certain impression of a person and I hold on to that, then I assume he is always like that. That is a mistake, he is not always like that. That day he might be particularly upset for some reason, and that is why he acted in that manner. Frequently, we make the mistake of judging people by the behavior we see at that moment. Another example of deluding oneself can be seen when an artist, upon completion of his painting, falls in love with the lady in the painting. He is the master, but he has become the slave of his own creation. We paint people according to our preconceptions, then our actions are based on what we have painted. This is a mistake.
Another kind of mistake is that after having learned some of Buddha’s teachings, we use this knowledge to criticize others rather than improve ourselves. We forget that the essential step is to work on ourselves. What is the use of criticizing others? It only wastes our time, creates more problems, and certainly does not help improve others. The only one that you can really change and improve, is yourself. Criticizing others is one of the basic traps that we tend to fall into after we have learned some Dharma. This is one thing we should try to avoid.
What is very beneficial to us as practitioners is to understand and maintain a sense of how limited and how finite we are in terms of our time and energy. When your mind has really opened up, you will realize that each one of us is so tiny, and so insignificant in the material sense; The world won’t be any different with or without us. When your mind opens up like Buddha’s, then you will start to work for the goodness of all. You will no longer be insignificant because you are connected with all, and everything you do will have a lasting effect. Even after you pass away, it will continue to benefit others. My teacher passed away, and yet we are still benefiting from his teachings.
Even though we can achieve greatness in the oneness of all, our physical presence is very limited. We have a very short life-span and very limited energy, hence, we don’t want to waste time on things that are not beneficial. That is why we need to concentrate our time and energy on improving ourselves. This is not self-centeredness because we try to improve ourselves according to the teachings of Buddha. Gradually we will become freer, and spiritually more advanced in the sense that we are wiser and more compassionate with others. Eventually, people will ask for our teachings and guidance, only then can we help others by giving them teachings, by guiding them. So this is not self-centeredness, it is just the realization that we are so limited that we need to conserve our energy to work on something that is eventually beneficial to all. Hence, it is a good practice to think of ourselves as an elementary school student when we are learning Dharma, and keep up with our practice as though it were homework assignments from our teachers. Once we become high school students, we are inclined to skip classes and not care about finishing our homework; That is not good. We won’t advance that way. We have to work as elementary school students do, concerned about doing homework every day.
When we start to criticize others, it is harmful to ourselves because we are increasing our own prejudices. How much do we know about other people? In most cases it is very little. We see something and start to criticize; It is very likely that we are not fair to them. Because people are very different, Buddha’s teachings are given at various levels. The teachings given to advanced students may be too difficult for beginning students. For example, elementary students are taught not to lie and always be truthful, but when they grow up and face a complicated world, they learn that sometimes white lies are okay. For example, when you don’t want to bother people to prepare lunch for you, you might say: I have eaten already, and that’s okay. Information regarding national security must be kept secret and you may have to lie to do this. Under such circumstances, lying is good, but this is completely wrong in the eyes of elementary students. But how could you expect an elementary student to understand this? Since things can be so complicated, it is better not to judge other people.
There are other things that are helpful to practitioners, and you should try to look at life as perfect for our practice, precisely because it is imperfect. At the first level, we realize that no one has complete control over things, there are ups and downs in life all the time. What is essential for us to understand is that things will not necessarily go well for us because we are now practicing Buddhism, but it will help us learn to handle difficult situations. Our final goal is liberation which means that we remain in peace and harmony in any kind of situation. Our goal is not only to be able to stay above water, but also to be able to save others even in the most turbulent water. From this point of view, we can see that life is perfect for our practice just because it is imperfect. Eventually all of these things will be gone and our spiritual maturity will be the only thing that will always remain our own. That is the most essential thing in life. If we look at things this way, then difficulties become opportunities for us to improve ourselves. We all have the capability of unlimited spiritual growth. We need to understand this view and make use of every opportunity to further our spiritual growth.
In life there are all kinds of situations that enable us to practice Buddhism. Although there are so many Sutras, they can only give us general principles. There is no way to enumerate all the possible situations which we might encounter in our lives. We have to learn how to handle the immediate situations so that we act in conformity with Buddha’s teachings on wisdom and compassion. Our whole life is a process of learning; Who can say that there is only one way to handle each situation? If you want to improve yourself and you understand the principles, then each time you are presented with a new situation, you won’t handle it in a routine way, but rather attempt to apply the principles of Buddhism in a better way. Actually, we have much to learn, for example, how to say things that do not hurt people’s feeling without using flattery or engaging in idle conversation.
Sometimes people complain that in Buddhism there are too many Sutras to study; For Christians there is only one Bible to read. Of course, they have more than just one Bible, they also have many theological theses, but most people know just one Bible. For Buddhists there are a few popular Sutras, but the whole collection of canonical teachings, precepts or theses, called the Tripitaka, consists of hundreds of volumes. Ideally, one is encouraged to study all of these teachings, but for most of us we don’t have the time for that much study. However, we could look at it as a gold mine for us to dig into. The Tripitaka offers many ways to approach Buddhahood, and many explanations describing many different situations to enable us to learn more. Thus, we are thankful for such a bountiful spiritual legacy.
The other reason is that each one of us is so different, so each one needs to explore to find out the teaching that is suitable for him. My wife, for example, studies the Sutras, but right now the book she finds to be most beneficial to her is one called Peace Pilgrim. It is a book about a lady who is not Buddhist oriented, but spent the last 27 years of her life walking through all the states in America. She wore a tunic with Peace Pilgrim printed on the front, and the mileage she walked printed on the back. She carried no money. She didn’t ask for food or shelter; She simply accepted offers when provided by people’s kindness. One fourth of her time she stayed outdoors overnight; She missed, at the most, four or five consecutive meals. She had a very simple message of peace, namely, overcome evil with good, hatred with love, and falsehood with truth. My wife found in that book many teachings of Buddha although they are not explained in traditional Buddhist terminology. My wife said they appeared to be simpler, easier to understand, and had relevance to many real-life situations. She felt that this book was most beneficial to her. Peace Pilgrim also said that there is nothing new in her message. The main thing is to put her ideas into practice, and through the practice, you can make changes. What good is knowledge if you don’t put it into practice? Buddha’s teaching is so alive; He does not confine us to the Tripitaka. In Buddhism everything is a possible source of teaching for you, everything is part of Buddha. That is why some people find it in flower arrangement, in music, in painting, etc. They call it the Zen of this, the Zen of that.
When you want to practice the Dharma, you are supposed to start by following prescribed basic practices just as someone who is learning to paint has to start with the basics such as doing sketches, and then copying the works of masters. Likewise, in learning calligraphy, one starts by practicing the basic strokes and then copies the masters. At first you learn how to handle the material, then you learn through imitation and then you gradually start to develop a style of your own. Before you can be creative, you must develop insight and a style of your own because you cannot be creative if you are empty inside.
How can an artistic expression bring out the insight of an artist instead of being merely an art object? It is done through the artist’s realization of his oneness with his work. Of course, you go through stages of practice to achieve that, but why do some people become masters, while others remain just craftsmen? Only a master’s work would bring forth echoes from people’s hearts. What makes the difference? I think the difference lies in the ability to make a selfless expression. How did they become masters? They are those who gave up other things, and continued to pursue mastery of their artistic expression even under very difficult situations. Some of them even died of hunger, and sometimes their work was appreciated only after their death. In doing anything, if you really put yourself into it, you will gradually learn that the key is to become one with it. Based upon my understanding of Buddhist practices, I began to appreciate what other people were doing in other areas. They are going through a similar process. At first, one fights for mastery over the material. The means of expression are separated from the user, and the mastery will come only after you have sensed the oneness. The masters understood that, and they can use it to teach you the oneness through those practices.
At first, the practices may seem to be just external rituals, like the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or archery. If you really devote yourself to one thing, you’ll learn to become one with it. After you have learned how to be one with one thing, then you will know how to be one with everything. I don’t know about flower arrangement, or tea ceremony, yet I can appreciate why people are doing it, and what they are getting through these practices.
In order for you to appreciate the best, and to achieve the best, you must do it wholeheartedly and devote yourself completely to it. There is no way that you can get insight merely by luck; It always comes through efforts. It is very fair, in a sense; The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.
There is one final point that I want to emphasize. Of course, we try to bring the Buddhist practices down to earth, in the sense that we want to live our daily worldly life in accordance with the Buddhist principles. However, in doing this, you have to be careful that you do not allow Buddhist principles to become contaminated on the worldly level. For example, a group of people want to spread the Dharma so they form an organization. They end up fighting for domination over the organization and control of the properties. Thus, all of their time and energy is consumed in fighting.
Once I read a newspaper report that in Japan, out of a class of more than twenty novice monks, only two were sincere practitioners and wanted to devote their lives to Buddhist practices. All the rest were eldest sons of Japanese monks, and their reason for becoming monks was simply to qualify for inheriting their father’s temple. After their ordination, they went home and got married, and someday will pass the position on to the next generation. What is the difference between this kind of lineage and the worldly family tree? They are not studying the Dharma with a pure motive, they seem to be doing it only for the property. That is completely wrong; You are degrading Buddhism on the worldly level. How can you expect liberation and Enlightenment to come from this kind of practice? This is something to which we should be very alert. We should always be careful about upholding the principles, and try to sublimate worldly attachments, instead of degrading the purity of Buddhism.
Question 1: Pureland should be right here?
Answer: It depends on where you are on the path toward Enlightenment. Theoretically, Buddha’s Pureland is everywhere. Practically, when you become a Buddha, everywhere is Pureland. Thus, it can be right here. Some practitioners who do the meditation very well can, whenever they want to, see the Pureland of Amitabha Buddha just as it is described in the Sutras. It depends on one’s achievement. My teacher mentioned one monk named Pu Guan (´¶Æ[), in Si Chuan (¥|¤t), China, who could see Amitabha Buddha any time he wanted to. He liked to carry pails of sugar water to a hill and pour it to feed the ants. He said when he chanted "Amitabha Buddha" all the ants followed him in chanting "Amitabha Buddha." So it is a matter of where you are on the path. I want to emphasize this point because if you don’t know about these kinds of high achievements, and you just capture the words Pureland can be here, then you start to think that, since the Pureland is already here, you don’t need to practice. You will be making a big mistake. To realize that Pureland is right here, we need to practice Buddhism to purify ourselves first.
Question 2: Who is Di Zang Wang Pu Sa (¦aÂÃ¤ýµÐÂÄ, Ksitigarbha, Earth-treasury Bodhisattva)?
Answer: He is the Bodhisattva who vowed never to become a Buddha until everyone was free from transmigration. In order to help everyone first, he would have to be the last one to become a Buddha. To carry out his vows, he went to the place where people needed help the most, i.e., in Hell. He went into Hell to preach the Dharma and give those suffering beings some rest; In doing so, he is not suffering. He is still experiencing the enjoyment of a Bodhisattva, just as Buddha had once appeared to us in this ordinary world to preach the Dharma after he had become enlightened.
Question 3: Can an enlightened person describe Enlightenment to others?
Answer: Well, yes and no. It depends on the other person’s level. To an ordinary person it is impossible, but to people who are on the verge of becoming enlightened this is possible. In Chan (ÁI, Zen) this is called picking and pushing simultaneously, just as when a young bird is coming out of the egg, the mother is helping from the outside. One is pushing and the other is picking; They are picking and pushing at the same time. In Chinese we call it Cui Zhuo Tong Shi (Ôu°Ö¦P®É). For example, there was one Chinese Chan master who was called Bird Nest because he lived in a bird nest on top of a tree. His disciple had served him by carrying water and bringing food to him for over 10 years. Finally, the disciple thought, After so many years, I am still not enlightened. I had better go somewhere else to find it. So, he said, Teacher! I’m sorry. After so many years I still have not gotten it from you, so I am leaving now! The teacher asked, Oh! Where are you going? What for? The disciple said, I am still seeking Enlightenment. The teacher said, Oh! You want that? Oh! I have a little bit here, too! So he picked up a piece of feather from the bird nest, put it on the palm, and just puffed at it. At that instant, the disciple became enlightened. The disciple had already been through so many years of service and the master was constantly giving him the blessing.
The Buddhist idea is that essentially the whole problem is your self. If we can free ourselves from that notion, then we can see the truth. Truth is right here! We are just blinded by our own wrong concepts; So, the student had to wait. At first when he started to serve his master, he probably had many complaints in his mind: He is making me work so hard. Today it’s snowing, but I still have to get him water. ... Gradually that kind of thinking went away by itself. Through these practices, the student finally became ready; Then at that time anything could make the student enlightened. It was possible at that time because the student and the teacher had become one.
Question 4: The question is more about describing Enlightenment in words?
Answer: In words it is also possible because some teachers would make others enlightened by the use of speech. Sometimes the words need not even come from a teacher. A monk was constantly doing the Chan practice 24 hours a day, pondering just one question. Some people consider questions like, Who am I? or Who is chanting "Amitabha"? They no longer chant, but just keep asking themselves this question?I>Who is chanting "Amitabha"?; This is in order to cut through your conceptualization. You just keep doing it, without really thinking. You use a question to bring out your doubts; Keep doubting and you will become preoccupied with that for many, many years. Your conceptualization will then be broken up suddenly.
One day this monk was walking by a building and a prostitute on the second floor was singing a Chinese love song, "If you have no heart (µL¤ß, Wu Xin), I also have no heart." It means, If you no longer love me, then I also don’t care about you. This was a love song sung by a prostitute, but for that monk who had been thinking about the problem for so many years, he heard, "If you have no mind, I also have no mind." (Xin ¤ß in Chinese also means mind.) He became enlightened because he suddenly realized that there is no ordinary mind such as your mind and my mind. He became free from those concepts. He became enlightened, even though the words were from a prostitute who, indeed, was his guru. That is why we say that Buddha also teaches through the Dharmakaya, meaning that anything could help us become enlightened.
Question 5: If an enlightened person tries to describe Enlightenment to one who is not enlightened, there will not be an understanding, no matter how well it is done.
Answer: Usually, it’s indescribable.
Question 6: No, no, not because it’s indescribable, but because of the perception of the other person.
Answer: No, no, here, we can put it even simpler, it’s the limit of language because language is based upon the distinction of subject and object. The moment you start to use words, you have conceptualization, and conceptualization is the result of the distinction between subject and object. So, in that sense we also know one thing for sure—we will never be able to explain Buddhism using science because science starts with concepts. If we use science to interpret Buddhism, then we would have to limit Buddhism to the scientific point of view, and most scientists don’t understand Buddhism well enough.
Recently, there was a Chinese article written by an electrical engineering professor. He tried to interpret the Heart Sutra using science, by saying that in Einstein’s theory of relativity there are real space and unreal space; The unreal space is time. Then he started to interpret the Sutra. At one place in the Sutra he interpreted the word ªÅ (Sunyata, Emptiness) as the real space; Then at the other place he said here we should interpret the same word as unreal space. Boy! What a fundamental mistake! In the Buddhist philosophy, the Emptiness is everywhere. You can’t say you have it here and not there. Yet, he even divided it into two parts; It is certainly a mistake. It is understandable that this kind of mistake is committed by a scientist who doesn’t understand Buddhism well enough, but what is amazing to me is the fact that it has been published by a Buddhist magazine.
Question 7: Science can’t approach higher levels of Buddhism because science is restricted by systems. The whole concept of science is not mature enough to explain anything now, but I think it is erroneous to say that it never will be.
Answer: But it will never explain Buddhism because empirical science relies on our senses.
Question 8: Not really. In nuclear science there are no senses.
Answer: There is! Otherwise, how do you confirm their theories?
Question 9: Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t really about senses; Mathematics loses senses.
Answer: I said there are two basic parts, one part is based on the senses, and the other part is the theoretical construction. You don’t even have to consider the limitation of the senses. The theories themselves are based upon the subject/object distinction. You start with using words and then that’s it! That is the basic limitation.
Question 10: Would it be fair to say that any rational process cannot touch on a non-rational subject or area.
Answer: No, because one of Buddha’s ways is to teach in the rational way because this is what we are accustomed to. He gave you so many teachings, and tried to persuade you to do the practice. Once you start doing the practice, then you begin to reduce your over-rationality in the process; It is connected in that way. Finally, when you reach the other shore, you are free from it, but that doesn’t mean you are no longer able to use it. Just the contrary, you come back again and start to spread the teachings; You use the rationality again. So that is just how free you are. When you say you are free from rationality, that means you are not bound by it, but you can use it. You see. that’s real freedom.
Question 11: One could say that an enlightened being has no freedom because there is only one correct act under every given set of circumstances.
Answer: It is not true that there is only one correct act under one given set of circumstances because it depends on your theory of correctness. Buddha’s power is limited in the following sense. Buddha explained the limit of his supernatural power as follows: Buddha’s power is inconceivable, however, the power of sentient beings?karmas is also inconceivable. This means I have all the ways to help you out, but you have all the ways to escape me; It’s just a matter of the law of cause and effect. I can arrange all kinds of ways for you, but you have to walk the way yourself. If you don’t want to walk, what’s the use? In that sense Buddha is not any bit supernatural.
Question 12: Well, spiritually when we use languages we’re always ultimately faced with paradoxes.
Answer: Well, I don’t know. We shouldn’t say so unless we have proof that everything will become a paradox. What we can say is that the starting point is the point where we begin to have mistakes because, you see, we have to use languages and concepts as instruments to help us convey experiences and carry out daily transactions. But the tool is not perfect, and you can be damaged by its defects. In order to avoid that, you have to be free from the domination of those tools. You have to be able to see it as it is, just a tool. Then you can make good use of it.
Question 13: You’re sitting out in nature, surrounded by lakes, mountains, and so on; It is sunset and you get a marvelous feeling, you experience the oneness of everything. What is that? It’s joy, it’s contentment. It doesn’t last, but it’s a definite wonder.
Answer: Well, I think, at that time, it’s also because of you. Not everyone will sense that. At that time you were so absorbed by the beauty of nature, and that absorption made you feel so good. At that time, you were so absorbed by the view that you forget about yourself for the moment and that’s when the feeling of oneness came in. At other times you are preoccupied with your self.
Question 14: But you can’t maintain it!
Answer: That’s why you need the practice. You need the meditation.
Question 15: You can have Enlightenment, but if you don’t have the knowledge for practice, it will slip away on you.
Answer: Right, right! Because, you see, those are just transient feelings, not final realizations. That’s why we need to do our daily practices to make it become something stable.
Question 16: But when it happens, you don’t practice. You simply guard yourself against slipping back into your selfishness, your ego.
Answer: Yes, and also it needs to be a conscious effort. Whenever you sense you have such a nice feeling, you should try to remain in it for as long as possible. That helps.
Question 17: But aren’t you clinging to it?
Answer: No. This is a practice, a device. Buddha gives you these kinds of devices. The more you follow, the closer you get to that stage; When you reach there, you will be free from this attachment also. You have raised a question on a subtle point. You might ask, for example, Why do we chant "Amitabha" all the time? Isn’t that a kind of attachment? No, it is not, because this is no longer something based only on your self-interest. This is something that you do only after you have a firm conviction that Buddha’s teachings have real significance and you can really benefit everyone by doing this. Also, this is the way by which you can free yourself from other things, so it is different; It is no longer that type of self-centered attachment. It’s a choice based upon Buddha’s guidance; It’s a method. When you try to cross an ocean, you need a ship; You don’t abandon the ship before you reach the other shore! In the Diamond Sutra, it says: But if after you have crossed over to the other shore, you still carry the raft on top of your head, you?I>ll look very silly. So, Buddha’s teaching is so complete; It is always clear as to when to hold on, and when to give up.
Question 18: In the process, it may not all come at once. It may come in bits and pieces if you go along the Buddhist path.
Answer: Yes, but it’s not like bits. It is more like greater and greater things. It is not like one part here, and one part there. It is actually a kind of growing, like from a small tree to a big tree.
Question 19: What I talked about was just a little bit to start with.
Answer: Yes, you just had some feeling, but you appreciate that and you try to keep it.
Question 20: I try to develop it within, so that when I come to it next time, it will be better.
Answer: Yes, and then gradually you try to do it in daily life. Even when you are not seeing the sunset, you try to bring up that feeling in your actions; Then your life will be beautiful.
Question 21: But you don’t use discursive thinking, analyzing it, and so on.
Answer: That’s right. That’s what I mean by staying in it, without thoughts to disturb it, you just stay in that feeling.
September 3, 1989
I am going to talk briefly on the reasons why we choose the practice of chanting "Amitabha," and later we will mention other basic practices that are related to this. The various practices are of different levels of difficulty. We begin with recitation to purify our mind, and then we go on to meditation. Through the training of meditation we learn to concentrate on whatever we want. At that time our breathing will naturally become subtle, and we begin to do the breathing practice. Of course, here you can say some form of meditation involves breathing practice as we use breathing to do the Samatha practice of concentration, but now we are talking about more advanced breathing practice like the Tantric breathing practice.
The next step is on the breathing. The Chinese names for these steps are Nian ©À (recitation), Guan Æ[ (visualization), Qi ®ð (breathing), and Zhen ¯u (Suchness). Suchness means the realization of Emptiness, of Sunyata. When we want to practice the Suchness, it would be helpful to have previously done some meditation and breathing practice. The reason is because in Tantric Buddhism the basic concept is that the mind and the wind (breathing) are undifferentiated, i.e., wherever our mind (our thoughts) goes, the breathing follows; Furthermore, wherever our wind goes in the body the mind will be controlled by that. They are interrelated. So, if you want to calm your thoughts, you can do it by using breathing to bring the air down into your abdomen, and in that way you can control your mind through your wind practice. You can also control your wind through your mental practice. When you practice Samatha, as your meditation improves, your breathing becomes subtler.
If you want to experience Suchness, it is better to have had experience in practicing meditation and breathing. Then it is like knowing both ends of a two-way street, and it will be easier for you to reach the middle point where mind and wind are one. From this point of view, the reason we want to do the chanting of "Amitabha" is because it belongs to the basic stage of practice, hence, for ordinary people or beginning practitioners they can just do the recitation. But it is not unrelated to the higher stages because once you have done the recitation for a while, you will gradually concentrate on your recitation; That is a form of meditation. Also, the recitations will purify your breathing, and it will become subtle instead of coarse. When ordinary people are angry or happy, and their lives are led by emotional ups and downs, their breathing becomes coarse. But people who have meditation training understand that breathing will become even and subtle. Actually it can even stop outwardly. Thus, on the one hand, chanting is a basic practice, and on the other hand, it is not confined to the basic stage. So it is very beneficial.
We are emphasizing the chanting of "Amitabha" because most people are busy with their daily lives, and they have very little time for this kind of daily practice. Consequently, what we can hope for them is not to achieve Buddhahood in this life, but to pray for rebirth in the Pureland through this practice of chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha. They will continue their practice in Buddha’s Pureland because there they will no longer have the worldly worries. They can concentrate on their practice, achieve Buddhahood, and then come back to this world to help others.
The idea here for beginners is to stay with one particular chanting practice. For example, if you have been chanting "Guan Yin Pu Sa" (Æ[µµÐÂÄ the Chinese name for Avalokitesvara), then you just keep chanting it because you are already accustomed to that. It is fine to just stay with that, likewise, you may stay with chanting "Amitabha Buddha." According to his vows, his main wish is to help beings to be reborn in his Pureland upon the time of death. Although those people have not done much practice, through the help of Amitabha Buddha, they can be reborn there. There are other Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, like the Healing Buddha whose special vows are to help those who are sick or in trouble. Hence, for those practitioners who want to emphasize their activities on helping others to be free from sickness and troubles "Healing Buddha" would be a suitable name to chant.
For example, if you chant the holy name of Avalokitesvara, his function is, on the one hand, to help beings who are sick or in trouble, and on the other hand, to help beings get rebirth in the Pureland. Thus, it should be clear that I am not emphasizing only the chanting of "Amitabha." If you have already been doing a particular one, just keep doing it. The main thing is that you form a lifelong habit of chanting on one particular holy name or mantra, then this one will become very powerful. This power is accumulated through habit and concentration. If you chant too many things, your efforts are scattered, hence, it is difficult for any one to become powerful.
Another reason for emphasizing the chanting of "Amitabha" is for group practice. We try to persuade more and more people to understand Buddha’s teachings, and to do some chanting. Once we agree on one holy name, then our Buddhist group can chant together at meetings.
Another reason for adopting this kind of chanting practice is that it is a way to transfer your preoccupations from your self to something that is not only not your self, but also unrelated to worldly things. Furthermore, chanting "Amitabha" is related to Great Compassion and the Wisdom of no-self. Consequently, the practitioner will liberate himself through selfless service to other people.
One more reason for chanting "Amitabha" or the name of other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, is that it is based on a spiritual reality. When you are chanting, you obtain the help directly from Buddha because Buddha’s Dharmakaya is everywhere, hence, you are inseparable from Buddha. Every minute you are helped or cared for by him or her. You can sense that, only when you lose your self, you merge with the whole Dharmakaya. Otherwise, the other way for you to sense the help of Buddha is for Buddha to appear in certain forms that you can relate to, for example, Buddha appearing in human form. Actually they can appear in different forms to different beings, but they appear to be similar to us so that it is easier for us to relate to them. Thus, you can relate to them almost like your own father or mother. Because of the feeling of closeness, it is easier to become one with the Buddha.
Another reason to practice the chanting of "Amitabha" is because of the impermanence of all things. Everything is impermanent, especially our lives; We don’t know when it will be our time to say goodbye to this world. Hence, when we chant "Amitabha," it is like buying insurance because when death occurs, we won’t have to go through the suffering of transmigration again. Therefore, we want to have this basic insurance to make sure that we will transcend the suffering of transmigration. Besides, if you realize that things are impermanent, then you could also ask yourself the question: Why do I always have to hold on to myself? It is only such a tiny thing in the universe, why do we hold on to this? Actually, it is changing, too. We are always changing, and yet we hold on to an abstract notion of something as though it does not change when we know that is not true! But how can we really give up the little self? You have to have a method, and chanting "Amitabha" is one way. It is unrelated to any worldly thing. Worldly things are, in one way or another, related to your self because that is how societies are formed—based on the notion of the individual. By emphasizing chanting of "Amitabha," we do not mean that you don’t need to study Buddhism. We also encourage people to study, but if you don’t have enough time to do both, it would be better to do the practice. The practice is like taking medicine; It helps to eliminate the concept of the self. Studying is another mental game. It may not have the force to really benefit you, but if you practice the chanting, and you find it really beneficial, then gradually you should study the theory of the teachings of Buddha. It might help you later.
You may wonder why this is true. Sometimes people are eager and happy to do the chanting in the beginning, but after a while they become relaxed, and even encounter other people criticizing them and asking, Why are you doing such a crazy thing? Then they begin to have doubts and may even stop the practice. If you know the teachings, and have some idea as to why we do this, then you can solve those kinds of problems. You would be able to explain to others why it is beneficial to do this practice and in that way you not only help yourself, but you also help others. Note that whenever others have questions that you cannot answer satisfactorily, those are also your problems because when you encounter those problems in the future, you will also be bothered by them. So, any question that you cannot answer is your problem, and that is why you should try to work out a solution for it.
One more reason for emphasizing the chanting of "Amitabha" is because of its shortness. In Chinese, the pronunciation is Na Mo A Mi Tuo Fo («nµLªüÀ±ªû¦ò, six syllables); Some people chant only A Mi Tuo Fo (four syllables). Likewise, instead of chanting "Amitabha Buddha" we chant only "Amitabha" which consists of only four syllables. Some people like to recite a whole Sutra; They do that all their lives, and this is very good, of course. Some people like to recite a very long mantra, such as the Great Compassion Mantra (¤j´d©G) which is very popular. This is also very good. However, when I think of propagating a practice for everyone, I want it to be something that you could use, even when you are in very difficult situations such as in sickness or the process of death. In those very difficult situations, you want to be able to hold on to it in order to maintain your mental stability. I thought it would be better to have something that is very easy; That is why I emphasize it. But it doesn’t mean that I discourage you from doing something that you have been doing and are accustomed to doing. I am merely pointing out that during those difficult moments in life, a short one is very convenient and practical. In fact, the force of your practice is built up through your habit of daily practice and even though it consists of only four syllables, its chanting is very powerful.
Suppose you have chosen from now on to recite only "Amitabha," and that you keep doing this diligently for a long time. Occasionally, you will find that all of a sudden, without any conscious effort, you are starting to chant something a little bit different. It may become, for example, "Namo Amitabha" or "Amitabha Buddha," or sometimes it may even become "Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa" (Æ[¥@µµÐÂÄ, Avalokitesvara) and at that time it will be a natural thing. It is like subconscious communication. As it occurs, don’t change it, but rather, just maintain it for a while until it naturally stops. You don’t say, Oh! I decided to recite "Amitabha", so I have to switch back.
However, after that natural flow has faded away, and you want to do the practice, always go back to the one that you have consciously chosen, thereby, you can maintain the force of habit without disrupting natural spiritual expressions. This is a subtle point.
The next thing is, of course, that we want not only to chant "Amitabha" monotonously, but also to chant it like what we did with the five-variation chanting, i.e., we want to sing it. Singing is very important. From my own experience, even after chanting "Amitabha" several million times, when I compared it with my first singing of the five-variation chanting of "Amitabha," I found that my emotion went into the singing more naturally. Music has that effect on us.
So we try to make use of this, particularly to help us merge our whole being into chanting through singing. Otherwise, you would just study the books, intellectually choose it, and then begin to do it. Then it may remain a mere intellectual practice for a long, long time before you become emotionally affected.
So singing "Amitabha" is very beneficial, particularly for babies and small children. You have no way to force them to do the monotonous chanting; It is very dry, you know. Nevertheless, if you just play the singing "Amitabha" tape, then without your asking, they will learn it by heart, as they do with the T.V. commercials. This is one way to help these beings.
We have the singing "Amitabha" tapes for free distribution. For dying persons, it is very difficult to maintain a group of people by the bedside to do the chanting 24 hours a day for several days, especially in our present situation in the United States where there are relatively so few Buddhists. It is very important that you have a tape recorder and a copy of this tape with you, so that when the time comes you can help yourself.
Of course, it doesn’t preclude other people from helping you. Make sure that the chanting tape is always there. Have you read my booklet on the five-variation chanting of "Amitabha"? When my teacher, Yogi Chen, passed away, two persons who were nearby heard heavenly music of this five-variation chanting; It was exactly the same as the tape that we were giving out for free distribution. No one was playing the tape. It was a miraculous display of heavenly music. Through this inspirational event, Yogi Chen’s last teaching was that this singing "Amitabha" is a very beneficial practice, and hence, we should practice it. Furthermore, we emphasize this chanting because it is a simple practice. I compare it to learning swimming by using the analogy that when you are practicing chanting, it is like small children who live by a river or a sea, playing in the water daily; Sooner or later, they will become good swimmers. We are going to become good swimmers in the ocean of life through playing with our mind. We play, according to Buddha’s teachings, "Amitabha, Amitabha, ..." and gradually we become free in life.
Another analogy is also quite useful. If you watch people learning to swim, pay particular attention to the young children, the very beginners. You will notice that one major obstacle in their learning is their holding on to the edge of the pool, or the lifesaver. That, indeed, makes it more difficult for them to swim. In order to really learn to swim you have to let go. Likewise, when you learn skating, it is the same thing. Beginners, you know, like to hold on to some person or the sides of the rim, but that is why they can’t really do it. You have to let go. I would like to point out that in life the thing we are holding onto is our self, and that is why we are not free. This is a good analogy, I think, as it shows vividly what is stopping you, namely, your attachment to your self.
We emphasize this practice because of its simplicity. There are so many theories in Buddhism, and you can spend your whole life trying to understand them. After you have learned something new, you might have forgotten what you previously learned because there are so many schools with different emphasis on various points. But, what you really encounter in life are situations which will require instant responses. You won’t have time to study all the theories. What you need is an immediate answer. This kind of practice helps you with this problem because it frees you from your prejudices and worries so that you are more in touch with reality. Hence, your response is better. People, without help from this kind of practice, become fixed and inflexible in their thinking and behavior. To remain fresh and young in life you need something to cut through your rigidity and this is something that will bring about those kinds of results.
Now, we come to another reason for practicing the chanting. In order to go beyond the ordinary senses and reach the supernatural, Samatha meditation is indispensable. Supernatural abilities will grow based on the power of Samatha. Some people are born with obvious supernatural abilities. Samatha is the foundation of all these things, nevertheless, real Samatha is not easy to achieve because ordinary people like us are so busy with so many things that it is very difficult for us to achieve Samatha. Even if you practice it regularly, your concern is still the worldly life; Hence, you can hardly achieve real Samatha. However, in chanting there is a way to gradually achieve Samatha. If you are busy in daily life, and you force yourself to sit down for 30 minutes a day, then it is an abrupt change. You then jump back into the ocean of life again, and get mentally roughed up. Sometimes it could even become dangerous because the deeper the Samatha you develop the greater the conflict is between the two aspects of your life. But by chanting, you are transforming yourself gradually; You will become addicted, and then your whole life changes naturally and gradually. That is a safe way because you don’t go through a forced transition.
There are other things to consider which are related to our chanting practice. One important thing is that we should establish for ourselves a daily practice by setting a definite time aside, and a time when you will not be disturbed. It would be even better if you do it at the same place every day, preferably in front of an altar. We want to make use of everything to help build this habit. A fixed time, a fixed place, and a fixed ritual. Now that I have translated into English the booklet Pureland Daily Practice, you might want to use it for your daily practice. You chant the same thing every day, and gradually the force of habit will arise. Hence, daily practice is very important.
Another important thing to do is to spread the message to other people by giving them the booklet, and inviting them to some Dharma meetings. This is very important because the more people you influence, the more chance you will have of living in a Buddhist community, and dying with the accompaniment of chanting "Amitabha."
Another way to expand the merits is to go to cemeteries to chant "Amitabha" to the ghosts. Every evening you may give a little bit of rice to feed the ghosts while saying the mantra Om Ah Hum three times, and then leave the rice outside. The rice is transformed by the mantra to become Buddha’s nectars; By taking these nectars, the ghosts become related to Buddha. The next morning you throw the rice out for the birds, and they become connected with Buddha. These are things that you can do to help yourself become related to the whole Dharmadhatu in the Buddhist way; In this way everyone will eventually be liberated through their connection with the Buddha.
Question 1: It upsets me when I am trying to explain things to my friends and parents, such as demonstrating the chanting of "Amitabha," and they don’t seem interested.
Answer: Yes, I know. You should not force it upon people who are not enthusiastic at the time. When you do the daily practice, visualize that your parents and friends are among all the beings in the whole Dharmadhatu who are practicing simultaneously with you; Then there will gradually be some results in the direction you desire.
If you practice diligently and you become a sincere practitioner, people will sense your sincerity. Furthermore, you will better be able to persuade people because when you know so much of Buddha’s teachings you will be able to conceive of suitable ways to persuade various kinds of people. First, work on your own practice in order to improve it; There is no need to rush in trying to persuade others. Sooner or later people will encounter difficulties in life, and at that moment, if they find you reliable, they will come to you and ask for your advice or ask to have a chat with you. Then you can tell them how beneficial it has been for you to do the practice, and then they might want to try it. Another important thing is to play the chanting "Amitabha" tape whenever you have a chance; Thereby, more people will hear the music. Some people like it and they feel peaceful when they hear the chanting of "Amitabha" (the singing one). To those people, you say, Why not take this tape? It’s a free gift! So, that is one way to reach people.
Question 2: I chant on the way home while driving on the expressway or when I am in a shopping center because I feel a lot of tension. Is that all right? It’s not concentration, but it helps relieve pressure.
Answer: That is, of course, all right, but I think you should not chant it too loudly as people might think that you are odd. Just chant naturally, like someone is humming. The reason I say this is because, I think, if you act in an eccentric way, people might be afraid to follow your example. We just do it naturally and quietly, and some people will recognize you as the guy who was chanting. Perhaps they will recall the chanting, instead of you. That is one way to help them, too.
Question 3: But is it all right when I am flying somewhere to chant to myself, I mean, I don’t say it out loud.
Answer: That’s fine, too. It is better then no chanting at all. Indeed, the surrounding atmosphere will become peaceful while you are chanting quietly to yourself.
Question 4: But at home, when I’m alone, should I chant out loud?
Answer: Not necessarily. The main point is to regulate it, depending on whether you are tired or not, whether you feel like it or not. For example, after one day of teaching you may be very tired, why do you need to sing it out loud? There is no need. It is enough to just peacefully listen to it. The main idea is to purify your mind through chanting that holy name all the time.
Question 5: Sometimes, while driving a car with a friend who is not a Buddhist, I just sing Buddhist songs instead of preaching. The friend did not say, Oh! that’s peaceful. Instead, he said, Gee, you act like you are crazy. Even while driving a car, you are singing Buddhist songs. You see, you try to do it skillfully, as best as you can, but still some people will criticize you.
Answer: Even so, from the Buddhist point of view, a bad relationship is still better than no relationship. A bad relationship can still be improved in time, but no relationship means that there is nothing to improve. Hence, you don’t need to feel so bad. Furthermore, we can try to find other Buddhist music tapes, those that are more like ordinary music, or those that are played only with musical instruments. Then your friend might not be so annoyed, and he may even like it.
Question 6: One of my tenants listens to rock and roll music, and I said, I can’t stand it. How do you like my Buddhist chanting? She said, It drives me crazy. It’s boring, repetitious and mechanical. See, if I don’t play the music, there is no chance to plant a Dharma seed in her, but if I play it, she hates it.
Answer: There are other tapes that are not repetitious, just use another tape.
Question 7: Why is the mantra of the Heart Sutra never recited? Even when they recite the Sutra, they do not include the mantra.
Answer: Chinese Buddhists do include the mantra when they recite the Heart Sutra. Most people recite the Heart Sutra as a whole, probably because of its conciseness.
Question 8: I am a little bit confused now. Isn’t it important to do sitting every day, just meditation without chanting?
Answer: Yes, that is important; However, meditation is not something to rush into. For beginners, I feel that it would be better to chant more first.
Question 9: Can you use "Amitabha" as a mantra?
Answer: Yes, because it is just one phrase for you to chant.
Question 10: So you think it is better to chant before you try to just sit without doing anything?
Answer: Yes, because just sitting is much more difficult. You see, if you do a lot of recitation, it will pave your way naturally. Later you will find sitting meditation much easier. You can try just sitting there and chanting "Amitabha, Amitabha, ..." without saying it out loud. Be careful not to fall asleep. When you feel you are falling asleep, you chant it out loud to drive away sleepiness.
Question 11: Should we visualize anything when we chant?
Answer: Well, you don’t really need to visualize anything. Just sit in front of Amitabha. That is the best way.
Question 12: But you said, "To visualize all sentient beings..."
Answer: Oh, yes, but you do that visualization before you start chanting. First, you visualize and then you start to chant. Once you have started the chanting, your emphasis is on the chanting. You just think that all sentient beings are chanting with you, and in that way you will not be distracted. For beginners, this is much better. Some advanced practitioners can do both simultaneously.
Question 13: I like to do chanting and meditation in silence, but I do not have time to do both. Sometimes I just do this: While breathing in, I chant "Ami" in my mind, followed by breathing out, chanting "tabha" in my mind. Thus, both are combined into one practice.
Answer: You are combining breathing with chanting and this is very helpful. Yes, it is a good way to practice. I read in Chinese Buddhist literature that this method is called the path of paths meaning that it is the most superior practice. Combining breathing and chanting into one practice is very powerful. When I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I had a Chinese friend Teh Min Wang whom I had the occasion to meet 10 years later. At that time he said: You told me one thing that has been beneficial to me, namely, the practice of chanting "Amitabha" combined with breathing. He said that whenever he couldn’t fall asleep, he just did this practice, and it always helped him go into a sound sleep.
Question 14: It is still easy when you say "Amitabha" without thinking for your thoughts to come in. That still happens to me, the other thoughts still come in.
Answer: Right, but you should think that your emphasis is on "Amitabha," so you just keep doing it without trying to drive other thoughts out. The moment you try to drive something out, you are being distracted. Your thoughts come naturally as a result of your habits, but don’t worry about them. You just keep chanting, and gradually, without the support of your attention, your habitual thoughts will die down and fade away.
Question 15: Sometimes for a couple of minutes I’m thinking many different things and not even chanting. Is that natural?
Answer: Right, that’s natural for beginners. You simply cannot help it. The moment you notice that you are not thinking of "Amitabha," you return to it at once. The key is just to go right back to it.
Question 16: In order not to have my mind wander I say, "Amitabha one, Amitabha two, ..." just to give me more concentration on it.
Answer: Well, it would be better just to concentrate on the name of Amitabha instead of chanting numbers. However, if you do daily practice, one good method is to set for yourself a certain number of chanting to be done during each practice session, just as an elementary school student having daily homework assignments. In that way you will be certain to chant that number each day.
Question 17: What about using the prayer beads?
Answer: That’s how we count without having to count the numbers. You can set it to be 10 rounds or five rounds. Each round is 108 times, but you count it as only 100 times. The eight times are omitted to compensate for those distracted chanting.
Question 18: Do you concentrate on the chanting inside your brain?
Answer: Well, you just maintain the thought, "Amitabha"; Don’t worry about where it is.
Question 19: How about the following way? First, offer water, fruit, cakes, etc., to Buddha; Then, visualize the light of Buddha going into those food and drinks; And then give them to people.
Answer: It is a good practice. We think of food and drink that have been offered to Buddha as having been blessed and transformed into Buddha’s nectar. People who eat them will have a good connection with Buddha and become spiritually mature much faster.
Question 20: You mentioned the dangers of meditation for people who are not ready for it and yet rush into it. What would be some of the dangers besides the obvious ones you mentioned? What are some of the specific manifestations of these dangers?
Answer: Well, when your ability of Samatha becomes stronger, and yet your intentions are still not based on Bodhicitta, i.e., not pure, then your attachments will come up as images. You will see all kinds of things; You might attract beings that you couldn’t see before who are of your kind. They will come to communicate with you, and some will even try to take hold of you.
Question 21: But that stops the moment you have the Bodhicitta or that of the same power or that of the same effect?
Answer: Well, actually, if you really have the Bodhicitta then you are at least a beginning Bodhisattva, and you will have fewer difficulties. However, one important point here is to get protection by taking refuge in the Triple Gems?I>Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. If you don’t do spiritual practices you may not sense it, but when you do, for those who are sincere in taking the Buddhist refuge and know the meanings of taking the refuge, their spiritual practice will be protected by the Dharma protectors. It is important to have a guru to guide your practices, and his protectors will protect you.
Question 22: I often find that when I meditate in the morning, it will be great, but when I start to meditate later for the second time, or even the third time, it gets very disruptive and falls apart.
Answer: That is because in the morning you are fresh from your night’s rest. By the second and third time you have used up your energy on other activities, therefore you cannot concentrate as well.
Question 23: I thought it was because I was meditating too much!
Answer: Well, what did you do in between?
Question 24: I was very quiet. I don’t have any problems; I was just walking a little, reading and gardening.
Answer: The best thing to do in between, instead of sitting down and reading, would be walking, especially out in the open, and breathing the fresh air. After one sitting you should walk or do some light exercises, so that your circulation will go back to normal, especially in the lower part of your body.
Question 25: But eventually the second and third meditations should be as good as the first one?
Answer: Well, that’s hard to say. Theoretically, yes, but I think in your case the main reason is simply that you are older now, and you get tired more easily. Those are concentrated stages, and they use a lot of energy. You don’t need to push too hard; One good sitting in meditation is better than three bad ones.
Question 26: I know if I take a nap, then it is better.
Answer: Right, however, don’t lie down to sleep right after one sitting. You should walk, and do some exercises for at least 15 minutes to help the circulation, and then you may lie down.
Question 27: About circulating the chanting "Amitabha" tape. Recently I got in contact with a so-called "New Age" group. They enjoyed chanting the mantra, but they do business by selling books and tapes. If I give them this "Amitabha" tape, they will sell it for profit and this is against our principle of nonprofit Dharma activities. If I don’t give them the tape, it would seem to be contradicting my wish to circulate it to many people, because they have many customers.
Answer: My thinking is as follows: you freely offer this tape to them in order to help them. Later what they do with it is their business; You don’t ask them to sell it. You don’t say, Oh! Since you have wider contact, you should circulate it. Let it be up to them. Our main concern here is that more people will get the benefit.
Question 28: Is there any different effect between chanting very, very slowly as compared to chanting faster?
Answer: Well, at different times you use different methods to achieve the same purpose of concentrating on "Amitabha." When you try to calm yourself down, you may slow down your chanting. When you want to wake yourself up, you would quicken the pace. Otherwise, you would just keep a normal pace. Similarly, whether you chant out loud or not, in high pitch or low pitch, may be regulated to balance your frame of mind at the time.
Question 29: I took the vows and am a very serious practitioner. Ninety percent of the time I believe in Buddhism and yet, every so often, I say, How did I go from being a total atheist for 35 years, to now believing I can talk to my deceased mother and I can heal people with chanting? Maybe all this is nothing, what am I doing? How do you remove this skepticism? Is there an element of doubt with everybody or just me?
Answer: When you have some doubt, there is no need to force yourself to believe. That is not good. My advice is simply?I>don’t give up your practice; Even though you have doubts, don’t worry. As long as the doubts do not stop you from doing the practice, as time goes on, you will gradually have more experiences which will help remove your doubts. But if your doubts stop you from doing your practice, then it would be better to consult your teacher. Right now you have some belief in Buddhism. Where does that come from? It comes mainly from your own experiences. Likewise, the more experiences you have, the more you will become convinced.
Question 30: I volunteered to introduce to the New Age Bookstore the Great Compassion Mantra. They seemed to be impressed, and asked if I had a chance to give a talk which they would announce on their monthly calendar. I was reminded by a Buddhist friend: Don’t try to be a teacher. If you go there to show them how to chant "Amitabha Buddha", to demonstrate your chanting or to explain the benefits of chanting, then you are just showing off your ego. Nevertheless, it seems to be a good opportunity for me to propagate the Dharma. What shall I do? To go or not to go?
Answer: No, I don’t think that is the ego working. In many cases people are closed to what they already have. They don’t want to open up to anything new, but this will give them a chance to open up. I think you should give them the opportunity. Just go and do it. It’s only for the spreading of Dharma, and is not only non-egoistic, but indeed altruistic.
Question 31: If they do not invite me, do I still volunteer my service?
Answer: Even volunteering is good as long as your motive is pure. If we don’t reach out, then others will have even less of a chance to learn about Buddhism. Therefore, every one of us should do his part to try to bring it out to the public.
Question 32: If your mind is open then you don’t even need to talk. People will begin to feel something, the vibration.
Answer: Yes, it’s a matter of your mentality. When your mind is open, people will sense that, even when you are inactive.
Question 33: They will come to you, and they will start to hang around you.
Question 34: How is Buddha different from God? We can talk to Buddha. I know Buddha is not our creator or judge, like the Christian God, but there is an element of communicating with those higher beings. How is that different from Buddha?
Answer: In Buddhist Sutra, Buddha also talked about Gods, many heavenly-beings who are Gods, and even different levels of heavens and Gods. But his basic teaching is that nothing has a permanent self, and that we are mere transitory products of conditions. In that sense Buddha did not deny the existence of Gods, but only denied the absolute existence of Gods. Just as Buddha asked Gods to protect his teachings, so we can also pray to Gods. We, as Buddhists, want to preach Dharma, and do some practices, therefore, we need help from the protectors; And Gods, as Dharma protectors, can help us. That is why we pray to Jesus. We can pray to the Christian God, but, as Buddhists, we don’t take refuge in him. Since they are still rooted in the wrong concept of the existence of an absolute self, they are still bound within the cycle of transmigration. So, we can ask for their help, but we do not take refuge in them. Besides, we need to respect them because they are beings with great merits and great powers. If you respect them, you will get the benefits of their protection. If you ask them they will protect you. You tell them: I am a Buddhist, I want to practice Buddhism, and the teachings of Buddha is the Truth. Gods know that it’s the Truth. You tell them: Please, help me! So I can practice Buddhism. They do want to help you.
When my teacher, Yogi Chen, was in Kalimpong, India, the landlord wanted to raise the rent because too many refugees had arrived from Tibet. Kalimpong is at the border. He wanted to raise the rent despite the original agreement that there would be no increase for three years. So, my teacher, a Buddhist practitioner, prayed to the Christian God, because the landlord was a Christian. That night the landlord, for the first time in his life, saw God in a dream, and God said to him, You should go and pray with Mr. Chen. So, the next morning, he came crying with joy and said, I will never raise your rent! See, God does help Buddhists.
Question 35: Now, I am really confused.
Answer: Well, you simply ask for their help, and you also respect them.
Question 36: I don’t believe in them!
Answer: Oh, you should not be disrespectful to them. That you don’t believe in them is one thing, but whether they are Gods is another thing. You had better be respectful to them. Otherwise, they may cause you trouble.
Question 37: My sister says that we are idolaters.
Answer: That’s because she doesn’t understand the meaning of having an image on the altar. It is one way to help you do the practice. We know perfectly well that it’s just an image, but having an image there helps us to visualize easily. Besides, there is something that they don’t know, namely, that we can actually invite the Buddha to come and stay in the images.
Question 38: I believe that Buddha is somewhere or everywhere. But I don’t believe that it has to be there.
Answer: No, it doesn’t have to be just there, but it is possible to invite him to stay there permanently for this group or these practitioners. That is what I was doing earlier today when I was throwing rice on the images. For example, in January, Helen Chao, the acupuncturist, got one painting of the Three Holinesses of the Western Pureland. She hung it on a wall in her apartment. It’s not near the window and it has no glass over it. She and her friend took pictures of it without using a flash, and what, do you think, came out? There were golden lights surrounding Amitabha Buddha and Guan Yin. We just saw it today and she had given Sophie one such photo before.
One member of the audience added: By the way, it’s not just an ordinary picture. Helen Chao practiced on a daily basis after Dr. Lin had invited the Three Holinesses to come and stay in it. She has practiced on a daily basis for one year. Now it’s no longer just an ordinary picture.
Question 39: Is there just one Buddha?
Answer: It’s like this, if you practice and you eventually become a Buddha, we will call you Buddha Ann, and if he becomes a Buddha, we will call him Buddha Boris. When you become a Buddha, you completely lose your self, and all things become one. Nevertheless, we can still talk about Buddha Ann, Buddha Boris, and so on.
1. May virtuous gurus remain with us and those departed return soon!
2. May perverse views and violence soon become extinct and Dharma spread without hindrance!
3. May all beings proceed diligently on the path and achieve Buddhahood before death!
4. May all beings develop Great Compassion and never regress until they reach perfect Buddhahood!
5. May all beings develop Great Wisdom and never regress until they reach perfect Buddhahood!