Paths to the Lotus Pond
In this book are gathered my works in English on Pureland Buddhism, with the exception of The Buddhist Practice of Chanting "Amitabha" because it stands by itself as a book, and hence it is listed as a reference. In the appendices are gathered articles that are related or useful to actual practice
All Chinese terms in the original works are replaced by their Pin Yin equivalents. A Pin Yin Glossary is provided at the end of this book for checking their Chinese equivalents.
According to the Pureland teachings, there is a wonderful louts pond in Amitabha Buddha's Pureland. People who aspire to be reborn in this Pureland and practice diligently the chanting of Amitabha will gain a miraculous rebirth on one of the lotuses in this pond. Hence, the title of this book is Paths to the Louts Pond.
May the Pureland teachings conveyed through these two books bring to the world the peace and joy resulting from diligent practice of chanting Amitabha.
On Chanting "Amitabha"
Under the guidance of the Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen
The most popular practice adopted by Buddhists is the chanting of "Amitabha," the sacred name of the Buddha of the Western Pureland . Whenever I talk to people, I like to talk about the benefits of doing this practice. I talk from my own experiences and understanding of Buddha's teachings. Since many people know only a little about Buddhism, I present my ideas in simple words, with the sincere hope that the benefits will be shared by all who are prompted to do this practice.
Let me, first of all, talk from my own experiences:
In 1976, when I was a graduate student in the Group in Logic and the Methodology of Science at the University of California , Berkeley , I came across a Chinese Gong-fu novel Tian Long Ba Bu (i.e., the eight departments of gods, dragons, etc.) The author incorporates some Buddhist philosophy into his story. Driven by a Logician's fondness for accuracy, I wanted to verify his version of the Buddhist philosophy, hence I went to the East Asiatic Library on campus. Alas! There were thousands of books on Buddhism in the library, and I didn't know where to start. Back home in Taipei we had a copy of the Diamond Sutra on the altar, so I felt a kind of familiarity with it. Thus, I began my study on Buddhism by reading various annotations on this Sutra. The next three years I read quite a few books on Buddhism; gradually my interest shifted toward the study of classical Chan (Zen) stories (i.e., the Gong-An's of Chan masters.) Nevertheless, I gradually came to realize that reading by itself is not a reliable method. On the one hand, my interpretation of the same story would change from time to time, and I wouldn't know when I had the right one; on the other hand, even if my understanding of the philosophy were quite good, it was not readily applicable when I had to face the facts of life. The practice of chanting "Amitabha" is consistent with the profound philosophy of Buddhism. As long as I couldn't grasp the essence of Chan at once, I might just as well adopt this practice, the step-by-step path which is generally recommended for being safe and sound.
I worked rather hard on it; I tried to stick with it all the time. While chanting "Amitabha" I would even ignore visiting friends or relatives. Three months later I felt mentally and physically a bit more relaxed than before. During my first year of doing this practice, I chanted, on the average, ten thousand "Namo Amitabha Buddha" per day. Gradually I gained some supernatural experiences. At the time my accumulation had reached four million repetitions, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to move on to the tantric path of Tibetan Buddhism. I voluntarily gave up my social activities so that I had more time for my practices. On the day after I received my Ph.D., I donated all my logic books to either the Math Library or the Logic Group's small library. I have been a full-time Buddhist practitioner ever since.
Although I'm now doing the more advanced tantric practices, I still adhere to my daily chanting of 1,000 repetitions of "Amitabha." Since our lives are impermanent, if I fail to realize the tantric goal of attaining Full Enlightenment within this body, I'll definitely need to reach out for the salving hand of Amitabha Buddha. Until today ( 12/09/92 ) I have accumulated 8,426,000 repetitions of "Amitabha." After each and every Dharma activity I always turn the merits to all sentient beings for their rebirth in Amitabha's Pureland.
Let me tell you one of my supernatural experiences:
Some people think that chanting Buddha's name is superstitious or self-hypnotic. In fact, the numerous records of Buddha's miraculous responses to faithful Buddhists' appeals are still well preserved today in the Buddhist literature. They certify that, although supernatural experiences are not common to people in general, Buddha's answer to our calls can be realized. However, there are still people who do not accept these records as evidential, and even consider these as mere propagandas. Thus I, serving as an eyewitness, would like to reveal my own story.
If I cited my dreams as examples, the critics would say: "You are so crazy about Buddha while you are awake; no wonder you dream of Buddha when you sleep. How could this be accepted as an example of supernatural experiences? It is nothing but your own imagination!" Therefore, the example I give below is not a dream; it happened when I was fully conscious and among a group of over 1,000 people.
The 16th Karmapa, the spiritual head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism , came to San Francisco six years ago. My guru Yogi Chen led my wife, our son, and me to attend the Black Crown Ceremony bestowed by His Holiness. The origin of this ceremony is, briefly, as follows: the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, attained Buddhahood and manifested as the Buddha Chakrasamvara; simultaneously 100,000 dakinis (i.e., female Buddhas) gathered around and cheered him in celebration. Each and every one of them offered him one thread of her hair, and the hairs are woven into the Black Crown for him to wear.
Since then there have been 15 reincarnations of Karmapa, and they all wear this holy crown. However, this spiritual crown is not visible to the ordinary human eye; only those with great faith or high spiritual attainment may witness its presence. The fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, was invited by the Chinese emperor Yong Le of the Ming dynasty to go to Nan-jing. So he went to China and gave the emperor many tantric teachings. Once during a ceremony the emperor witnessed the presence of the spiritual Black Crown on his teacher's head, hence he ordered a replica made and offered it to Karmapa. Karmapa accepted the gift and agreed to the emperor's request that whoever sees this crown will receive the same blessings as seeing the spiritual one.
Thus began the tradition of Karmapa's Black Crown Ceremony, and each generation of Karmapa had conducted it over and over again to bless the faithful. Before the ceremony my guru taught me the mantra of Karmapa, and instructed me to recite it during the ceremony so as to become more receptive to the blessings. Guru Chen also explained to me that concurrent with the present Karmapa's wearing the crown, the first Karmapa would be spiritually present and we should stand up to express our respect.
The ceremony began with lamas reciting the ritual text and playing the ritual music, then His Holiness put the Black Crown upon His head. We stood up and I continued to recite the mantra in my heart. Right at that instant, when the Crown rested on His head, a strong force filled me. My blood circulation sped up and the force was so powerful that I shouted out the mantra in spite of myself. In the presence of so many people during a meditative ceremony, I knew quite well what my manners should have been. Nevertheless, such a force had never been experienced by me before, nor did I expect it. It simply came and took me over. Karmapa supported the Crown with His right hand, while reciting the mantra of Avalokitesvara and counting a crystal rosary with His left hand.
At the end of one round of the 108 beads, His Holiness took the Crown off. The force was with me all that time and the outburst of chanting from my mouth--to be more precise, from my heart--just kept going. Then, with the coming down of the Crown, the force left me, and my chanting quieted down. I was baptized by the Grace of Karmapa, the Dharma King. My experience, in Buddhist term, is called the sign of receiving initiations . In other words, I had, in fact, received the blessings. I was the only one there who did the shouting.
Afterwards I asked only my wife and our son to see if they also shared the same experience; they did not feel the force. It is not because Karmapa's blessings are partial to anyone, rather it's because I had accumulated over four million repetitions of "Amitabha," and that made me spiritually more receptive to the Grace of Karmapa. I hope that the above eyewitness account would help people understand that Buddhism is not just a philosophy, but also contains spiritual contents that could be experienced.
Living in this world, each one of us has more or less some worries. The universal problems of overpopulation on Earth, safety of the uses of nuclear energy, environmental pollution by industrial wastes, etc., plus the personal problems of health, career, social relations, family, etc., all weave into a web of sorrows. We would seem to be no better than the insects hanging on a spider's web. Aging, sickness and death arrive in no time, and we have no escape from them. Our lifelong efforts in the pursuit of wealth, fame, fun and pleasures will neither prevent the misfortunes nor prolong our lives.
Upon death all worldly efforts become futile, and the habit of worldly worries would render a peaceful departure impossible. Worldly things and worldly concerns take up the best of our time and energies, bring us numerous sorrows, and disturb us unceasingly up to our final moments. Were death the end of our consciousness, then the suffering would last but one lifetime. There are numerous records of reincarnations in the histories of mankind; how could we just ignore them as insufficient proof? Even today there are new evidential cases of reincarnation reported by researching scientists.
Buddhism teaches that our mentality at our final moments has the most influence on the outcome of our next rebirth. Shouldn't we reflect upon the goals and ways of our lives? Wouldn't it be better to go after a way of life guided by the wisdom of Buddha who is free from all sufferings? The teachings of Buddha are applicable, not only to our individual ways of life, but also to the direction and path for the human race. In a word, Buddha teaches us to "Forget yourself; Serve others!" A detailed and precise presentation of Buddha's teachings is beyond the scope of this talk, hence we go no further on this.
However, I would like to emphasize the fact that Buddhist practices can lead to the following:
1. The development of inner strength and tranquility that pacifies the storms of life.
Above all, the most precious thing about Buddhism is its ultimate goal of achieving complete liberation from all suffering for all sentient beings.
There are Buddhist books collecting records of people who had obtained rebirth in the Pureland of Amitabha. Due to their diligent practice of chanting "Amitabha," many of them knew in advance the time of their departure from this life. Hence they could make their final arrangements in time, and bade friends and relatives adieu with grace, as if they were about to set out on a long journey. Moreover, their departures were often accompanied by miraculous phenomena, such as the coming of Amitabha Buddha with His holy attendants to welcome the dying person, supernatural lights, heavenly music coming from the sky, and/or extraneous fragrance, etc. In contrast, we ordinary people neither know when we'll have to leave, nor have any guaranty for a peaceful ending.
We may encounter an inopportune death, such as drowning, freezing, being shot, crushed or burned to death, or death due to diseases like cancer, heart attack or AIDS. After death we would go through endless transmigrations in the six realms--heaven, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell--and endure countless repetitions of sufferings; while those who have gone to the Pureland of Amitabha Buddha are forever free from this vicious recycling of sorrows; we couldn't help but envy them. Fortunately Buddha's teachings are not patented by them; owing to the boundless compassion of Buddha, as long as we are willing to learn and practice the teachings diligently, we shall be at ease with life and death, and be liberated from all suffering.
Buddha gave various teachings to different people, always choosing the most appropriate one to suit the students' levels and needs. All the teachings from Buddha are sure paths leading to complete liberation, but which one is the best for ordinary people? The traditional choice is the practice of chanting "Amitabha." Even today it remains the most popular practice adopted by Buddhists all over the world.
From the Talk above we know that Buddhist philosophy is based on empirical spirituality and that Buddhist practices are indeed beneficial. Now I am going to explain the practice of chanting "Amitabha," using learning to swim as my favorite analogy. No matter how many books on swimming you have studied in great details, if you haven't tried it out in water, you won't be able to swim! Children who live by the ocean and play daily in the water learn to swim in no time, without reading any book on the subject. Most of them can even dive, surf and somersault in water; they are at ease and have a lot of fun! Of course, if they were to become experts, reading the right books would be helpful. But if their goal is simply to be able to swim, then reading becomes unnecessary. Likewise, studying Buddhist books is very important, but understanding the teachings without carrying out the practices will not float you through the tidal waves of life. Chanting "Amitabha," at the beginning, is like children wading; although with just a few tries a day, gradually they learn to float.
Numerous are the books on Buddhism; abstract and complicated are the terms and theories contained therein. One could hardly expect a thorough grasp of its essence in a short time. Furthermore, real understanding of the teachings can be gained only through the extraordinary experiences that come with the actual practices. The habit and experiences of chanting "Amitabha" will enable one to gain insights into Buddha's teachings. Moreover, the essential benefits of Buddhism would be tasted by the practitioners, and this is what really matters.
As modern men we generally have good common sense about diet and hygiene. We are selective and particular as to what to eat, how much to take, and how to combine and prepare the food. In contrast, we are generally quite careless about our consumption of spiritual foods. Willy-nilly we take in the commercials and gossips from television programs, newspapers or magazines. Upon reflection we would seem to be a spiritual dump filled up with all kinds of junk. This junk will not get us out of our sorrows; yet they are sure to incite our worldly desires or reinforce our prejudices.
Thus we become even tenser and more sorrowful. What a waste of life! If we build up the habit of chanting "Amitabha," it would be like drinking milk or fresh water, or eating nutritious food. A sorrowful mind is like a glass of muddy water; as the pure drops of "Amitabha" drip in continuously, at first the muddy water runs over, finally it becomes a cup of clear water--pure, clean and ready to serve. People who chant "Amitabha" not only benefit themselves. They will try to persuade others to do the same so as to share the same benefits. They will also help dying people by chanting "Amitabha" near the deathbed, or pray for people who are in trouble. In fact, the basic principle behind all Buddhist practices is to help all beings to achieve Buddhahood. Hence chanting "Amitabha" would transform one into, so to speak, a glass of fresh water that would quench others' thirst.
The holy name "Amitabha" can purify our minds, because Buddha transmits His blessings through it. Beginners could hardly sense this; old-timers may become aware of it. It is analogous to tuning in for a radio or television station. "Amitabha" is the particular frequency or channel that we want; our practice of chanting it, is an attempt to tune in. Beginners, with all sorts of worldly concerns in their minds, cannot concentrate on the chanting. Even while they are chanting "Amitabha" loud and clear, deep down inside there are still many thoughts running through, therefore, they are not tuning in to Buddha.
No wonder beginners cannot see Buddha's presence. Nevertheless, it is more a matter of sincerity and concentration than time, so it is also possible for a beginner to sense Buddha's grace, especially in the case of people who had done much practice in their previous lives. In general, however, we need to build up the habit of chanting "Amitabha," then gradually its strength will overcome our indulgence in worldly thoughts. Only then, with a pure mind, can we feel the transmission of power from Buddha. Like a 24-hour radio station, Buddha is transmitting His grace constantly; but we are unaware of it, simply because our minds are not tuning in.
Some advanced practitioners have witnessed the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the dream state; the more advanced ones have seen the holy ones in meditation, which is a state of high concentration with ease. Some practitioners have even visited the Pureland of Amitabha Buddha either in dream or in meditation. These dreams differ from the ordinary ones in that the contents are orderly, symbolic and in agreement with the teachings; they can be recognized by experienced practitioners and be interpreted systematically.
Some of these dreams show concurrent distant events, foretell the future or impart teachings; they are indeed meditative states of a lesser degree. We should not discard them as mere dreams and confound them with the ordinary ones that reflect and extend our confusions, desires, and emotions.
When worry comes, it wouldn't be stopped: we would lose our appetite, forget our thirst, and sometimes even stay awake all night worrying. Suppose you say to yourself: "I won't think about this anymore!" Such a thought just shows that you are still tied up with it. So it seems that there would be no easy way to leave one's worries behind. Moreover, the things that vex us are various and abundant. On our backs we are carrying so many burdens picked up along the road of life--no wonder the years could have hunched our backs. Chanting "Amitabha" is a simple yet sure way out.
All worldly thoughts and emotions are intertwined. The whole complex could be activated by the slightest stirring of any limb, although we might not be sensitive enough to be aware of this. It is not unusual for trivial arguments to lead to big fights, or minor misbehavior to be taken as great offenses; all the tiny, insignificant annoyances in the past may be triggered by a careless remark into a volcanic eruption. The holy name "Amitabha" is transcendental and free from the whirlpool of sorrows. It is ideal to do this practice at the same time daily, for at least a certain number of repetitions. The fixed schedule would help us to form the habit of practicing daily. The preset minimum number of repetitions would make sure that our practice won't deteriorate. Ideally, one should gradually raise his minimum to a higher number, just as swimmers would gradually increase their number of laps.
Besides the daily practice, it would be helpful to chant "Amitabha" whenever possible, e.g., while driving, waiting, bathing, doing chores, etc., and even in dreams. One may chant "Namo Amitabha Buddha" (meaning homage to the Amitabha Buddha, and the name "Amitabha" means boundless light and infinite life), "Amitabha Buddha," or simply, but with equal reverence, "Amitabha." As time goes by, our hands will slowly be untied from holding the big bags of sorrows on our backs. Then one day, all of a sudden, the bags will be off our backs, because we have joined our hands with Amitabha's.
Jogging has been a popular exercise in recent years because it is simple, effective and beneficial. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be very useful, unless you did it regularly and persistently. Chanting "Amitabha" resembles jogging in that profound changes would ensue only after long-term practices. Chanting "Amitabha" is the spiritual jogging for our minds; it will increase our wisdom and endurance, and produce a healthy and mature mentality. Why don't we get into the habit of spiritual jogging? We may even unify the physical jogging with the mental one. Just add the chanting to your jogging by running to the beat of "Amitabha, Amitabha, Amitabha, ..."
The resulting concentration will improve the effectiveness of your jogging. Moreover, the mental jogging becomes a daily rush toward the spiritual summit of Enlightenment. Daily the repetitions would bring us a certain height upward. The spiritual strength which ensues would shelter us against the storms of life; the spiritual power that may be acquired by devotees could even render help to sentient beings in distress.
We would like to take care of our family members, especially aging parents and growing kids. Nevertheless, unless we ourselves are dependable and well-off, we could even become a millstone to the family. Who in the world has the guaranty that no accident will befall him? The habit of chanting "Amitabha" would invoke Buddha's mercy to protect us--afflictions would be eased and things would change for the better. One who constantly chants "Amitabha" keeps a pure mind; he would naturally do no harm, but good. Consequently he will be well-received by society, and live a stable and happy life.
Taking good care of our folks involves not only the provision of physical comforts and mental amusements, but it is also important to comply with their wishes and likings. But, most of all, we should endeavor to help them feel peaceful and calm when they are sick or dying. This is of course no easy job, but it is not impossible. The best thing to do is to convert the whole family into Buddhists; preferably all would gather together to do this chanting day by day. This will bring about a harmonic and peaceful atmosphere in the family. When someone in the family is sick or dying, remind him to chant "Amitabha" and the rest of the family would take turn in chanting along beside him. Under Buddha's blessings the one-mindedness of the whole family would relieve the suffering and conquer the distress. Best of all, the deceased would get rebirth in Amitabha's Pureland.
Even when the person needing help, be he a family member or not, has no experience of Buddhist practices, he may still receive Buddha's blessings through our chanting and praying for him. It is customary for Buddhists to pray for the joy and happiness of all sentient beings. I believe that our sincere concern for others' well-being should include easing their pains and sufferings, especially when they are sick or dying. Handing patients over to the hospital, leaving the funeral to the undertaker, and paying the bills are not good enough; we should strive for spiritual help that are direct and most significant to the sick or dying. These considerations are among the reasons that led me to give up worldly activities for Buddhist practices.
The practice of chanting "Amitabha" won't cost you a dime. Maintaining the holy name in your heart will keep your mind clear and pure. Isn't it better than indulging in self-centered wishful thoughts compounded with emotional entanglements? At least it would be more relaxing and effortless. I have savored the flavor of chanting "Amitabha," and I do pray that you will also have the same good fortune. Please realize your chance by trying it out. Good luck and best wishes!
July 27, 1986 Written during a retreat
This article focused on the chanting of the holy name of Amitabha Buddha, but the ideas therein are not limited to this specific holy name only. For those who want to practice chanting, they may select other Buddhist holy names or mantras according to personal inclinations, for example, Namo Healing Buddha, Namo Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin) Bodhisattva, Namo Ksitigarbha (Di Zang) Bodhisattva, Om Mani Peme Hung, etc. The key point is to engage oneself deeply into one practice, i.e., to base one's chanting practice mainly on one specific holy name or mantra and practice it frequently. For other holy names and mantras besides the main one, one may chant a few repetitions during regular morning or evening sessions or at some other time. The wisdom and compassion of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are based on Non-Self, and they are indivisible in Limitless-Oneness. Therefore, one may choose any one of their names or mantras for practice.
This supplementary explanation is added in response to Ms. Yun-hua Huang's request.
The Active Aspect of Chanting Amitabha
A Dharma Lecture given in Chinese by Dr. Yutang Lin
Good evening, dear Dharma friends. I speak on this topic today because some Buddhists feel that chanting Amitabha is a practice only for beginners or the uneducated, while some non-Buddhists mistake chanting for something passive and evasive; therefore I feel a need to explain that chanting Amitabha is actually a very active endeavor. First, I would like to explain the reason for chanting Amitabha . Someone may ask: what is the point of merely repeating a few words orally? It does not seem likely that worldly problems could be solved by chanting Amitabha ; yet some people even chant full time. How could people simply ignore worldly matters?
Why is chanting Amitabha an active endeavor? First, we need to ask whether there are problems in the world, and how could those problems really be resolved? The common answer is undoubtedly that we can solve those problems by various political and economic means; however, we all know that the efficacy of those means of solving problems is all very limited. Even if laws are very well written, when people are unethical, not only would they take advantage of legal loopholes, but would also misuse the law to commit immoral activities. However, when people are good, negative things would not happen even if relevant laws do not exist. Therefore, the fundamental solution depends on everyone having a pure heart.
If everyone's heart is pure, problems in life would be fewer; even when problems do arise, people would help each other out. Let's investigate carefully. Everyone encounters problems in life such as birth, aging, sickness, death, etc. When someone is having these problems, how much help can you give him or her? Strictly speaking, all forms of worldly help are all very superficial. Even if the social welfare system is very well established and most people are helpful toward one another, there would still be people who haggle about everything and live in vexation for their whole lives.
The United States is probably the richest and strongest country in the world, but you can see that although American youngsters are relatively wealthy, they still have many problems such as drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, AIDS, and mental illness often leading to suicide. They are living in a very good environment, unlike some Africans, who may be suffering from starvation. Why do young Americans have so much unhappiness? The reason is that nobody teaches them how to solve their fundamental life problems. Therefore, it shows that if there is no peace and tranquillity of mind, even extensive external help cannot solve those problems. In general, we would find it tiresome even when taking care of only a few who are our own children, not to mention taking care of lots of people; so helping others is a very difficult task. Therefore, in order to really, fundamentally, and thoroughly solve the problems and help oneself as well as others, we need to make sure that everyone will have peace of mind.
In order to help us attain peace of mind the Buddhist teachings do not proceed by indoctrination with a set of concepts, nor does it teach everyone to fit into a single mold. If, however, the Dharma imposed a uniform model on us, then no matter how good such a method might be, competition and struggles would still persist in the world. This is because everyone has his or her natural needs, but good supplies of things are limited, and hence selfish thoughts and activities would arise. Consequently, it is very difficult to make people conform to systems or institutions.
However, what Buddha teaches us is a method that can thoroughly solve those problems of life. This method does not impose anything extra upon us. It says that all of us basically have a primordially existent aspect which is very pure and good. As long as this purity can manifest itself, selfishness and struggles can be transcended. We have all sorts of problems because we are limited by our bodies and cultures, which generate all sorts of biases, and then induce a "self-attachment" that centers on the individual, the family, the country, the society or the culture. From our self-centered point of view, there are certain things that we all do and seem to be good for us; hence we recognize those things as correct and good. However, when we encounter other equally valid ways of doing things, we may come to realize that the difference is simply a matter of views; it is actually not a matter of right and wrong. You think that you are right, and people with different views think that they are right.
The formation of our preferences, prejudices, and biases are formed by the way we were brought up, our education and cultural backgrounds. As humans, we also have human limitations; for example, humans cannot hear certain sounds that are audible to dogs. Some people can see ghosts but others cannot. These are limitations of our biological senses. If you can transcend your biological and cultural limitations, you will understand that, actually, all beings are equal as sentient beings, and from Buddha's view at the time of his enlightenment, all sentient beings are of one and the same entity. The meaning of this oneness is not that I cannot differentiate this person from that person; the meaning is rather that, from the point of view that we are all sentient beings, all our minds are interconnected, and such interconnection is not limited by time and space. Such an idea may seem too abstract, and someone would even question whether this oneness is just a kind of illusion. For those skeptics, transcending cultural limitations may still sound plausible, but how can we transcend our biological limitations? Not to mention "transcending time and space!"
Before Buddha attained enlightenment, he saw the problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death in human life. Realizing that the throne was not very meaningful because it could not solve those problems when they would arise, he set out to solve these fundamental problems. After many very difficult ascetic practices, Buddha gradually elevated his spiritual state even to the same level as the heavenly Gods; however, he was so brilliant that, at that point, he could still sense a very subtle veil of "self-attachment." His final enlightenment was attained through destroying this finest and most fundamental "self-attachment" and thereby returning to the primordial state. The oneness that Buddha realized at that time, according to the Sutras and scriptures, was to be able to see clearly the Karma of all sentient beings of the three times, past, present and future. We are not Buddhas; so how can we know whether what the Sutras say are real or not? What can we rely on in order to accept and believe the Sutras? We can rely on the fact that, when we practice according to the methods spelled out in the Sutras, we will gradually discover that we can actually go beyond the limitations that we once thought were there.
For example, once when I was sitting in meditation, Mr. Xianwei Zeng, a Dharma friend from Miami , phoned me and said that his friend in Los Angeles had passed away. He asked me to perform Phowa (a Buddhist tantric method to transfer the consciousness of the deceased to Amitabha Buddha's Pureland) for his friend. Since I was meditating at that moment, I did not answer his call; I just heard his message through the telephone answering machine. While I was listening, the face of an old man with white hair, white mustaches, and small but bright eyes appeared in front of me on my right. After I had finished meditating, I immediately practiced Phowa for that deceased person. Then the same old man reappeared and walked into the Amitabha Buddha that I visualized; I could also see that he was somewhat hunched. I then phoned Mr. Zeng to tell him that I have just practiced Phowa for his deceased friend. I told him about the old man's appearance, which he confirmed, even though, as a matter of fact, I had never seen this person before, not even in photographs. Mr. Zeng called me from Miami , the deceased was in Los Angeles , and I was in the San Francisco Bay area; all these places are hundreds of miles apart. You may say that these things happened to me because I have some special power, yet that is not true. These things can happen to anyone of us, as long as our minds are pure, because we all possess such innate abilities. Others can also have this kind of experience; for example, when a very close relative passes away, he or she might approach you in a dream asking for some "hell-bank notes" or the deceased might appear to you even though he or she had passed away in a distant place.
Why do these incidents happen so rarely to us? It is because there are too many worldly vexations in our minds covering up our innate abilities. These vexations were not accumulated in just one or two days. They have been accumulating through life after life's self-centered thoughts, such as: I want this or that; my family wants this or that; how I want things to be, and haggling over this or that. When you are in the habit of haggling and grasping, you cannot get out of that mental framework. You are always surrounded by the self-centered thoughts, and you cannot even see what is beyond those thoughts and vexations, and because of habits you even do not want to leave such a state of vexations. How then can one get out? Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach us a method that works on the root of the problem. The reason why we have such vexations is that we are so accustomed to thinking that I want this or that, to such an extent that we cannot get out of those thoughts. Hence, to solve the problem at the root is to work on our self-centered thinking. In other words, we take ourselves out of where we "always think about things related to us." Every single one of us has only a limited mental capacity which is used completely in relation to the self; in order to get out, one has to make use of a thought that is completely unrelated to the "self." Anything else will not get you out of that self-centered frame of mind. For example, when thinking of numbers, we will immediately associate with things like money, birthdays, etc. However, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas give us an object that is completely unrelated to the "self"-- the holy name of a Buddha. All worldly things are interconnected, but a Buddha's name is transcendental. You have to understand that the rationale of this method is to solve our problems at their root. Chanting the holy name of a Buddha is a very safe and solid method of practice. Of course, it is impossible to get out of all self-centered thinking immediately. Since you have been accustomed to this kind of thinking, it would be painful and unbearable to be forced out. However, chanting Amitabha everyday is like someone who is used to staying indoors, going to the door and looking outside for a while, and then a little longer day after day; then when you get used to the outside environment, you will be able to go out eventually.
All your mental powers are originally on the side of the "self," but, with things changing bit by bit through chanting Amitabha everyday over a long period of time, you will notice that your body will gradually loosen up. Normally, because our minds are all seriously entangled, our bodies are also tense. Problems like stomachaches, headaches and insomnia may arise when we are busy at work. Usually, we worry about many things; then, without realizing it ourselves, the body becomes very tense. However, by chanting Amitabha with concentration over a long period of time, you could really feel the loosening up of your body. Why is this so? You are originally very vexed, and the entire capacity of the mind is grasping at those vexations, causing the body to be tense. When you chant Amitabha , you will gradually loosen up layer by layer. Based on my experiences in chanting Amitabha , I could say that our attachment starts with very subtle mental ones, and then our bodies are affected as layer upon layer of entanglements are added. The outermost layer consists of very coarse entanglements which are the physical discomforts that we notice easily. These coarse entanglements will loosen up if we do good deeds and practice the chanting of Amitabha , prostrations, etc. However, unless we sincerely desire to abandon self-attachments completely, those mental entanglements will not really be untied. If you set a limit to the goal of your practice, those entanglements could never be untied.
The purpose of chanting Amitabha is for one to reform completely including the subtlest and deepest places in the mind. You need to change this selfish mind and to understand that this self-nurturing mind is actually harming you. If you only care for yourself, you will not be able to see things truly because the mind is completely biased. Even though you may be a good person free from bad motives, you still think only for your own well-being and thereby, in effect, have surrounded yourself with a wall, where you are enclosed and will remain encaged, in the sense that your life cannot extend beyond this wall of mind. When you care only for yourself, there will bound to be problems, because no one in the world can guarantee that you will not get old or that aging does not affect you. When you love only your children, who can guarantee their longevity? Who can guarantee a good marriage and career for them? Anything could happen; there are all sorts of ups and downs in life, and no one is protected from them! Of course, according to Buddhism, this is the result of Karma (cause and effect). If you had committed many bad deeds in the past so that consequences in this life are undesirable, you need to gradually change your conduct in this life by doing as many good deeds as you can and to refrain from doing bad deeds. However, at a deeper level, if we do only a few good deeds which cannot compensate for the bad deeds committed in the past, then we would still experience ups and downs in this life. If you care only about yourself or a few persons, when can your mind become peaceful? It never can! Therefore, once you understand this point, you would know that thinking only about yourself is the same as doing harm to yourself.
On the contrary, you should consider the fact that everyone has the same problems of birth, aging, sickness, and death, and that everyone is capable of experiencing happiness and suffering. How then can we increase everyone's happiness and reduce their suffering? If you can look at the world and guide your conduct with this line of thinking, you will become peaceful. Why? When one's mind opens up like that, although there will still be problems in life, how one handles these problems would be very different. As people realize others' problems are the same as their own, everyone would be willing to help one another! Problems could then be resolved easily. Everyone dies, but if you have universal love, even after the ones who are close or related to you have passed away, you can still serve and take care of others who are alive. Then your life would become very much alive and would not be reduced to a withering stalemate. Even though you may wish to take care of your children for their entire lives, there are still many aspects that you cannot possibly take care of. If you do not teach them how to open up to serve and love others, they might live in vexation for their entire lives, and so would you. Everyone would be trapped in entanglements such as constantly worrying about: how are my sons and daughters? And the children would be similarly trapped: how are my father and my mother? No one would become happy this way, so what's the point of remaining so?
If you engage in Dharma service, you will gradually obtain liberation. Why? It is not necessary that you engage in some special activity. As long as you, even though remaining in your position, change your basic attitude to that of serving others instead of arguing with others over how much work to do and how you are compensated. Don't go for the haggling route, go for the service route. The more you serve, the more worthwhile you will feel upon your death. You can bring nothing with you when you die. Take a walk in the cemetery, and you will see each one has only a tombstone! Even this may not be found by your decedents after a hundred years. Particularly in modern society, many people do not even know where their grandparents' graves are. At the end there will be at most a tombstone there; what's the point of competing? Worldly things are not as steadfast as they seem to be! In order to pass away peacefully and to live joyfully for the rest of your life, you can rely only on your loving heart. As you serve others with one measure of effort, you would obtain one measure of peace; only this has lasting value and is of real comfort. Do not be fooled by the "self."
Furthermore, engaging in Dharma service can actually be very easy; it is not necessary that you do go to certain places to do something special. As long as you give others a hand wherever you can in daily life, and that would be a correct approach! For example, if you see a child falling, you should not be uncaring because the child is not yours, instead you should help the child up immediately. That is what we should do. If a stranger is feeling thirsty, you simply offer him a cup of water. That is what we should do. If your mind is entirely on serving others, your whole life will become meaningful; other worldly things are not worth competing for.
If you think along these lines, you would understand that chanting Amitabha is a very active endeavor. It is not a way to evade worldly problems, but is based on a clear view as to how such problems can be fundamentally resolved. Some people claim to have the intent to improve society and cry out numerous political ideologies; however, eventually those people are just trying to force others to accept their ideas. In reality, it is still the same, just a group of people ruling over others. If those reformers are not pure at heart, or if they become corrupted after gaining power, then it is still the same. Even though during revolutionary movement those reformers had made wonderful pledges, once they are in power, they would in turn become the object of revolution because they have become the same as the previous rulers. So we can see that this is not the way to really solve the problems. Besides, some things cannot be forced upon others; for example, although small children have a pure heart, it is unlikely that one can teach them how to have universal love for others. We have gradually learned to have loving kindness for others only after experiencing much suffering in life and then realizing the painful results of being selfish; this is also a kind of enlightenment. Hence, it is impossible for one to force others or control others, all one can do is simply to manage oneself.
Chanting Amitabha is a kind of enlightenment; the process starts with taking charge of oneself; then when one's mind becomes pure, the society would have one less bad person and less problems. Starting from there, when you can practice to the degree that you can make others feel impressed and touched, only then can you function as a Bodhisattva. If you are not mature and knowledgeable enough, but you think you are practicing the Bodhisattva's path and intervene in others' business, insisting on your views without seeing that you are speaking without sufficient understanding of the matters; how bad would that be? You would be simply messing up others' business! Therefore, the practice of chanting Amitabha entails profound insight and mature considerations; it is actively solving fundamental problems in the world. Think for yourself, how many minds are so pure as to be capable of enduring such solitude and constantly chant Amitabha ? How many? It is not an easy practice. However, when you are getting bored and lonely but you can still persevere with the practice, that boredom by itself would become an assisting condition for the development of your mental strength. Those who chant Amitabha well are no longer bothered by worldly matters. Therefore, he or she would not be greedy and would be free from the suffering due to greed. Facing a given situation, some may feel angry, but others may say there is no need to be annoyed, and still others may even not be disturbed at all-- those who can do this are liberated from it. Therefore, when you chant Amitabha frequently, you are naturally liberated from many things. While others are suffering from this and that, you would not even have those problems; for you many problems would be transcended by just a repetition of " Amitabha. "
Who knows what will happen in life? In Malaysia traffic accidents are very common. Although you are sound and healthy now, if you are caught in an accident, you might even lose a limb. When encountering these incidents, without spiritual strength, one would blame god and others. Some would grumble for the rest of their lives, while others might need a few years before getting rid of this attitude. If you have been practicing, even though there is no guarantee in life, when you encounter misfortunes, you will be more capable of handling the situation peacefully and realistically.
So far I have not yet emphasized that chanting Amitabha can actually enable one to receive blessings from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The reason for my not doing so is that, generally, novice practitioners cannot easily feel the blessings of Buddhas. Therefore, I started the talk with only general principles. However, all sincere practitioners who have had certain miraculous experiences should also inform the public of such facts. Buddha has realized the oneness of all, and has transcended the limits of time and space. When you believe in Buddha and chant his name, you can easily become connected to him. From my own experiences in Buddhist practices, there is no way to describe fully the sensation that one experiences when one receives blessings from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It can only be described by a comparison to receiving a charge of electricity. A force would suddenly surround your entire body, and one's feeling of the body will be gone. Blessings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are truly that strong, as experienced by people like me, who have been practicing for a long time. When you chant Amitabha , you are gradually connecting yourself with Buddhas and are also gradually obtaining such blessings. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach us to be good, to do good deeds and not to do bad things. When we follow these guidelines, our personal Karma will improve and thus reducing some of our problems. Major misfortune could thus be reduced to smaller incidents. Furthermore, protectors of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will protect you to ensure the safety and stability of your whole life.
If you can teach your children the practice of chanting Amitabha , they will have protection that no one can take away! If you give them worldly things instead, the more you give them, the more troubles they will have. If they cannot manage those things, it will be very troublesome, and they might even become the victim of others' avarice. We should be mindful of Buddhist practices; they are genuine. I have learned that someone is about to pass away tonight, and some of you will attend him by chanting Amitabha during his final hours. This illustrates how useful the chanting of Amitabha is. For that dying person nothing except chanting Amitabha can really help now. Some people who had practiced chanting Amitabha for a long time, when dying, urged others to help by chanting Amitabha loudly because they realized that chanting was really helpful at the time of dying. The problem of death is mainly due to people having lost their innocence in life. Ideally, the processes of birth and death should both be natural and relatively painless. When a child is born, since he or she is so pure and innocent that the body is very soft and tender, he or she experiences comparatively little pain. Why do we suffer so much when dying? It is because the body has been entangled and stiffened for the entire life. Ordinary ways of thinking involve too many worldly considerations and calculations; as a result, ligaments and wind channels are either convoluted or blocked. All of this will gradually happen with aging. At the time of death, when one's consciousness is trying to leave the body, can you imagine how tormenting it would be if the ligaments and wind channels are either convoluted or blocked? Very much so, of course. However, if you start the practice of chanting Amitabha now, after a long time, both your body and mind will gradually loosen up, and death will then become just a natural process without suffering. That is why for those who had practiced chanting Amitabha for a long time, their bodies would still be soft and supple even after many hours have passed. As those people had solved the problems related to death before death actually comes, death then becomes only a natural process without suffering. Life is unpredictable; no one knows when death will arrive. Chanting Amitabha will eventually yield fruitful results. It is good for the practitioner as well as for others.
There are also other ways to practice Buddhism, such as meditation, Chan, Tantra, etc. So, why do we advocate chanting Amitabha ? Generally speaking, we are all occupied by worldly matters, career and family, and we do not have enough time to concentrate our efforts completely to practice. Of course, it would be best to practice full time but, just as only a few people in the whole world can work up to compete in the Olympic games, full time practitioners are also very few. It is impossible for ordinary people like most of us to attain a high level of practice immediately. However, if you are willing to do training at home and participate in local tournaments, you may gradually become capable of participating in the Olympic games. Those more profound methods of practice require full devotion in order to obtain any results. However, if we can start with chanting Amitabha regularly, then when the pure thought of Amitabha, Amitabha, is continuously ever present, we might be able to devote fully to the practice of meditation, Chan or Tantra.
A safe and stable practice for ordinary people like us is the step by step approach of chanting Amitabha . There is no need to form an organization, lest there would be a lot of problems related to personal relationships, interests, etc., jeopardizing the whole purpose of practice. Everyone's view differs; so even when each individual has good intentions, there could still be disputes. For example, when an old father is seriously ill in bed, his sons and daughters, due to their love for the father, could quarrel over whether or not it is better to bathe him. Some think that bathing is good for him, but others think that bathing could cause him to easily catch cold afterwards. Each side would insist on their own views to the extend that fighting could erupt. Things in the world are indeed very difficult; serious conflicts can still exist even when everyone wants to do good.
Chanting Amitabha would reduce these kinds of problems. Each one needs only to do well with one's chanting practice; and there is no possibility of being misguided or deceived. Everyone just chants individually until the benefits are really felt, then one would know how to advise others on chanting Amitabha . As to advising others to adopt this practice, you need to proceed gradually because it cannot be pushed. For example, when you see someone suffering, you can counsel that person to open up, help him or her see that life is impermanent, and there is a way to go from vexation to liberation. There is one more important point: when a person is suffering, would he or she open up easily just because someone else tells him or her to do so? Of course not! Can he or she let go just because someone else tells him or her to do so? Of course not! Without the spiritual strength built from chanting practices, when you suffer very much from illness and physical weakness, what can you do to obtain relief? The situation would be totally different for those who have regularly practiced chanting Amitabha because those people would have already opened up and let go of worldly sorrows a long time ago. That is the result achieved inconspicuously through years of chanting Amitabha . If the force of your chanting practice is strong enough, you would not suffer in situations where others would. This kind of liberation will be achieved only through long-term diligent practice. Why would you not suffer in those situations? Since you are all loosened and unclogged inside, you will naturally feel different. You can see that the top of my head was originally going to become bald, but, after all these years of practice, new hair is now coming out again without any medical treatment at all. That shows, as long as you practice well, the body and mind will change naturally. The reason I am talking about this, is to help people understand that chanting Amitabha is useful; helping a dying person by chanting Amitabha is also very useful. Besides, chanting Amitabha is also very useful for calming one's mind.
In general, as long as you can make it a habit to practice, you may also choose to chant sutras or certain long mantras. However, I prefer advising people to chant Amitabha . Why? The purpose of this practice is ultimately to help us in situations of life and death. In case of an emergency, like a dangerous car accident, you need to be able to cry out " Amitabha " immediately without even thinking about it, and, at that moment, only this pure thought should be in your mind. Even when one is old, weak, or sick, etc., one would not have to be bothered to remember what the next sentence is. After all, there are only four syllables to the word Amitabha . You simply need to say "Amitabha, Amitabha," and can easily rely on it. If you can get into the habit of chanting, you need to chant most urgently at the time when you suffer the most. You would then have a chance to pull yourself out from suffering and vexation. How could you spare yourself from suffering if you do not have something to rely on? So this point is very important; the chanting amounts to a lifesaving rope that you can hold on to in case of an emergency.
In the ultimate sense, "one should abide nowhere while the mind arises;" we do not need to abide anywhere! Isn't chanting Amitabha "abiding somewhere?" However, when the ultimate has not yet been achieved, one needs something to hold on to; otherwise, how could we get help? Besides, that the mind "should abide nowhere," does not mean to be tied down by the concept of "abiding nowhere" and refusing to get hold of anything. What immediately follows is "while the mind arises;" that is to say, one should have no attachment on one hand, and to lively apply oneself on the other hand. So, actually, chanting Amitabha is exactly in accordance with "abiding nowhere while the mind arises." Why? Right after I chant " Amitabha ," it has passed by already; i.e., the " Amitabha " just chanted is already in the past, and I am not staying with that word. What I now chant is a new instance of " Amitabha. " This is an instance of lively applying oneself! If fact, a true understanding of "one should abide nowhere while the mind arises," would lead to lively activities and limitless applications, instead of being tied down. The flexible and lively original state is called "abiding nowhere while the mind arises." Who said that all the instances of " Amitabha " chanted are the same one? You are just being tied down by the concept of their being the same word. If you can liberate yourself from the sphere of this concept, each " Amitabha " you chant is a new one. When you are chanting Amitabha , you are also practicing "abiding nowhere while the mind arises." You are practicing lively application, practicing to achieve pure application such that this thought is simply " Amitabha ."
If your mind can be purified to the extent that only " Amitabha " remains in your thoughts, then you will gradually approach Samadhi while you practice the chanting. You do not need to learn meditation separately, the same Samadhi experience would naturally arise during your chanting of Amitabha . If you can achieve this in your thoughts, i.e., achieving purity and liberation with the thoughts, you will gradually realize the state of liberation in form, sound, smell, taste, and touch. You could even achieve liberation while watching television-- even though the scenes on the screen could be very violent or indecent, when your mind is pure, you would see them as no different from " Amitabha ."
That may sound too abstruse; nevertheless, you need to understand that eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind are basically one entity. You need only to learn to be pure in the applications of the six senses: form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental activities. However, it is very difficult to purify the complex experiences all together; hence, you should start from the thoughts. When you achieve Samadhi in thinking, then that experience will gradually and naturally spread to other senses. Therefore, chanting Amitabha will not result in being confined to Amitabha ; rather, with the help of "Amitabha," one would become a lively person.
What is the meaning of "Amitabha" ? It means infinite life and infinite light. Infinite life means limitless in time, and infinite light means limitless in space; the most important emphasis is on this "limitlessness." Implied in this "limitlessness" is "oneness." The Buddha light of Amitabha illuminates all. It does not illuminate only you without illuminating others; Buddha illuminates everyone equally. Besides, Amitabha Buddha is everyone's primordial Buddha nature; in other words, we are originally like that. Therefore, when one attains liberation as a result of adopting Buddhist practices, one has simply returned to the original state. This attainment is not like winning championships in sports where continuing efforts are needed to remain on top. Liberation, however, is just a returning to one's original purity.
When you start chanting Amitabha , you know that Amitabha means "limitlessness," but, after practicing for a long time, you would transcend the sphere of meanings. Genuine "limitlessness" must transcend even human conceptualization. In guiding us the Dharma begins with using concepts because we are all living within the bounds of concepts. All concepts are limited and making distinctions; how then can we break through the bounds of concepts? We say " Amitabha " means "limitlessness," meaning that first we need to abandon the limitation of all other concepts. This is not to say that eventually we cannot make distinctions. We will still be able to make distinctions; otherwise, how can Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin, Chenrezig) transform into thirty two kinds of emanations to give salvation in whatever way that is most suitable? He can still make distinctions and make use of the distinctions flexibly without being bound by the distinctions. The problem facing us is that once we make distinctions, we are bound by them. Hence, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach us limitlessness, telling us not to be bound by distinctions, and to learn compassion of the same entity, to be able to open up, love and serve others. After chanting Amitabha for a long time the thought will become pure; once the thought is pure, conceptualization will naturally disappear. The meanings do not disappear purposely. If there is any intention, then one still remains in concepts and can not get out. Without any intention, the transcendence occurs naturally. After practicing for a long time, thoughts will become very pure, just " Amitabha ." Thoughts of " Amitabha , Amitabha . . . " continues without considering the meaning.
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas teach us Limitless-Oneness, and they also pass down many ethical rules to regulate our lives so as to assist in gradually attaining Buddhahood. However, when we unexpectedly encounter events in life, we ordinary people would not be able to remember so many rules; what we need is a very basic principle for practical guidance. This principle can be described from two sides: the active side is to open up, the passive side is to let go of attachments. We are now very limited-- we would feel very troubled about many things mainly because our vision is limited, and we might blame others or our fate by grumbling. However, as you grow older and have seen more of life, you might say, "Luckily, things were not any worse. It could have been even worse." When faced with the same situation, you might have suffered much when you were young, but then you look at it again when you get old, you could feel that it was actually not too bad. Therefore, when we learn Buddhism, we are learning the wisdom born of our predecessors' accumulated experiences. Thus we might spared ourselves avoidable suffering. We should learn to open up: always take into consideration the long term consequences and all various perspectives. Looking at others' situations and realizing that there is so much suffering everywhere, you will easily become liberated from your preoccupation. If you tell others these principles when you help them, then they would also be able to let go of their worries easily.
Opening up on one side, and no attachment, i.e., to let go, on the other side. Worldly things are ultimately of no avail; what really is your money? The instant you die, the money will no longer be yours. However, if while the money is still in your hands you can use it to benefit others, then those benefitted would gratefully acknowledge, "It was given by so and so; it was done by so and so." and thus the money became truly yours. Only money spent for the common well-being will become truly yours. If you let it just sit there, that is not really yours. Zhu Yuanzhang was an orphan at an early age, and hence became a Buddhist novice monk because he had no other way to feed himself. Nevertheless, eventually he conquered all of China and became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. If your children are really capable, you do not need to worry about them; inheritance could even turn out to be a burden. If you leave a huge inheritance to your descendants who are incapable of handling it, they might become the target of some malevolent persons. It would be better to simply let them live happily on their own. What you can really give and benefit them are these Buddhist teachings; these teachings would enable them not to become preoccupied with comparing and competing with others. Then they would live peacefully and happily for the rest of their lives.
That is all I can think of right now. If you have any questions, especially questions about the practice of chanting Amitabha , please by all means ask me. As long as you have a clear understanding, you will chant Amitabha with more interest and confidence. One additional practice worth recommending is a weekend retreat. A weekend is one and a half day long in Malaysia , so Dharma friends can take turns in practicing and supporting retreats. The key rules to follow in conducting retreats are the prohibition of speech and the confinement of one's sphere of activities. For example, you can specify a room and a washroom as the boundary of your retreat and stay within it. During retreats, do not answer telephone calls; do not read newspapers, magazines and letters; do not allow visitors; do not watch television or listen to radio; and do not talk to yourself either. In retreats, you can chant Amitabha , prostrate to Buddha, read sutras and scriptures. You can still have three meals, bathe or shower, sleep, but no snacks. This is to practice solitude and concentration on Dharma practice. If you can endure solitude, your vexation would lighten while your spiritual strength would grow alongside, then you can handle problems in life more easily. Please do practice!
A Question from the Audience
Q: I do not have an altar at home; May I just light up three incenses in the morning and then chant Amitabha in sitting?
A: Yes, you may do so. One good thing about the practice of chanting Amitabha is that it can be done anywhere, and cleanliness is not a problem. Women can chant the holy name during menstruation or while delivering babies. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are like loving parents who would not be deterred by the dirtiness of their babies' excretion but would voluntarily clean it up. One can chant even in the toilet or anywhere else. The main purpose is to achieve Limitless-Oneness through chanting. Therefore, you can chant at any time, and try to chant continuously all the time. Chanting Amitabha may seem very simple, but you will realize that indeed it is very difficult once you are actually practicing it. For novice practitioners, right after the first chanting of " Amitabha " and before the second one begins, many scattered thoughts would have arisen already. It is very difficult to achieve the state where there is not a sense of separation between any two consecutive chants of Amitabha . It is very difficult to maintain the continuity of chanting Amitabha in one's heart. Very profound efforts are involved in achievements of this practice!
Unification of Mind and Wind
Written in Chinese by Dr. Yutang Lin
The ancient sages of the Pureland School passed down a method of chanting "Amitabha," which combines the mind and the wind (breathing), that is, chanting while concentrating on breathing. This method enables one to achieve single-mindedness while chanting "Amitabha." The practice of Buddhist Tantra is based on the teaching of the undifferentiability of mind and wind ; therefore, they aim at achieving the unification of mind and wind through mental and/or breathing training. However, the practice of Tantra requires devoted and intensive engagement, and hence, it is not within the reach of everyone.
In this article, I would like to introduce a method which is based on the original practice of the Pureland School , but enriched with a simplified tantric visualization for ordinary Buddhists to practice. Thereby, we may soon achieve the goal of purifying one's own mind . This method consists of deep breathing; therefore, it is also beneficial to one's health. It is indeed a wonderful practice, having many merits. I would hope that Buddhists who engage in this practice of chanting "Amitabha" will spread this method to others so they can share the benefits.
II. the Practice
Sit or stand in a place with fresh air; chant "Amitabha" silently, slowly and continuously. Visualize the air of the entire universe being transformed into the white light of wisdom and compassion by Amitabha Buddha. Close your mouth, and slowly inhale the air through the nostrils to the abdomen; visualize that after the light has entered, it fills your entire body. Hold the breath for a few moments. Slowly exhale through your nostrils, simultaneously visualizing that all your sickness, karmic hindrances and sorrows are transformed into black, foul-smelling air, leaving through the nostrils. This black air is then purified by Amitabha's light of limitless Buddha power.
Keep repeating the above breathing and visualization. Visualize your body continuously being filled with Amitabha's light, and your karmic hindrances and sorrows being reduced more and more. During the last round of practice, think of your entire body as cool, fresh and bright, with all your karmic hindrances and sorrows eradicated. Then, fold your palms together, thank Amitabha Buddha for the blessing, and pray for all sentient beings to receive this grace.
Beginners should practice continuously for fifteen minutes or less; later on, the session may be gradually prolonged. The period of breath holding should be increased naturally and non-forcefully.
September 19, 1990 El Cerrito , California , U.S.A.
The Five-Variation Chanting of “Amitabha”
Text by Yutang Lin & Kathleen Gorman
I have adopted the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” from a common chanting tape and reproduced this portion repetitively in one long tape. Three hundred copies of this latter tape have been reproduced and offered to the public. Among other benefits, this tape can be used in our daily practice and as a companion to a dying person. That is why I wish to promote the circulation of this tape. While presenting this tape, I used to hand out a few short articles to explain the marvelous benefits of this chanting method. Now I am compiling all these articles into this booklet, with the addition of the music score, for long-term circulation. So far, the popularity of this tape has been beyond my expectation. Some people use the tape for morning and evening practice sessions. Some play it while driving to and from places. Meanwhile, some use it to help the dying persons to maintain their right mind.
I heartily wish that everyone who comes across this tape would try to practice the chanting and thereby obtain its supreme benefits.
1. A brief introduction to the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha”
Venerable Guan Ben presented in his book “Commentary Writings from the Fragrant Light Attic” a detailed study of the origin and content of the five-variation chanting method. He had also created new melodies and provided the music scores in that book. His intention was to purify the society by shaping the custom of chanting this divine music, and thereby bring about the ultimate salvation for all beings. Chanting “Amitabha” may be used as a group activity. It may also serve as a joint entertainment for the whole family. While chanting “Amitabha” our heart-felt feelings would come forth naturally. While listening to it, Buddha's name becomes engraved in our hearts.
Chanting “Amitabha” can thus bring forth very powerful and effective results. The peaceful melody of this chanting would calm and purify our minds. Hence, I am very pleased to follow Rev. Guan-Ben in promoting this chanting method.
In the following passage, I will quote Rev. Fa Zhao, the fourth patriarch of the Chinese Pureland School, about how he saw Amitabha Buddha in meditation and how the Buddha instructed him to spread this teaching:
Wise people should know that this five-variation chanting method, the associated sutra?chanting and visualization techniques are not my personal ideas. It is a sacred teaching that I have not revealed till now. I am afraid that the future generations might have doubt about this teaching and thus would fall into the lower realms. Besides, it is clearly stated in the holy scriptures that teachings can be given to those who are not already of the same faith and practice, only with the intention to benefit them. Now, having mercy on them, I will reveal it briefly.
On April 15, 766 A .D., I was at the Mi Tuo platform of Heng Shan (a famous mountain in Hu Nan , China ). For the sake of achieving Buddhahood for all sentient beings and nothing else, I made a great vow to practice ninety consecutive days every summer for the rest of my life. This practice involves chanting “Amitabha” without rest in a Dharma-practice place. That was the first summer that I began to carry out this vow of mine. I was diligently and sincerely devoted to the practice. On the night of the fourteenth day I was alone in the Dharma-practice place at the northeast corner of the platform. At midnight I was thinking: “Currently there are numerous marvelous Purelands of the Buddhas in the ten directions. There are uncountable numbers of Bodhisattvas who frequently receive teachings on the unsurpassing and profound Dharma, and have obtained the supernatural powers to save infinite number of sentient beings. The reason that I am not involved in such great events could be nothing but the heavy obstacles that are consequences of my past sinful karmas. Since I do not belong to the holy assembly, I can not save other sentient beings.” I felt very sad upon this thought, and tears started to roll down my cheeks. In deep sadness I began to chant “Amitabha” in a mournful voice. While thus chanting, suddenly there appeared a phenomenon: The houses of my practice platform suddenly disappeared, all I saw were numerous platforms filling the universe, and they were emitting bright lights of five colors. Suddenly there appeared before me a golden bridge that instantly brought me to the Western Pureland . I prostrated to Amitabha Buddha.
The Buddha smiled happily and told me: “I know your mind is purely filled with the intention to benefit all sentient beings and is without any selfish thought. It is wonderful that you have made such a vow. I know of a wonderful and powerful practice which is far more precious than the priceless diamonds. I am now bestowing this teaching to you for wide spreading to and benefitting of all heavenly or earthly beings. Numerous sentient beings, who come across this precious Dharma, will obtain liberation from Samsara.”
I asked the Buddha: “What is this precious Dharma? Please instruct me! Please instruct me!” Amitabha Buddha replied: “There is a priceless five-variation pure chanting of ‘Amitabha.'” This method is suitable for all sentient beings in the impure world. Just by listening to this chanting for a short while, all would generate the Bodhi mind. As it is described in the Infinite Life Sutra, the five sounds of the jeweled trees are precisely this five-variation chanting.
Through this connection sentient beings can chant Buddha's name and will be born in my Pureland at the time when they will leave the world. All of you, who are spiritually poor and suffering, will be able to remove all sufferings by coming across this priceless jewel of Dharma. It is like a patient obtaining the needed medicine. It is like a thirsty person obtaining water. It is like a hungry person obtaining food. It is like a naked person finding clothing. It is like a person in the darkness getting light. It is like obtaining a boat for one to cross the vast sea. It is like discovering a treasure. Thus ease and happiness are ensured. Why is that? All sentient beings who encounter this Dharma treasure will be able to chant the Buddha's name.
By so doing, they are sure to cross the ocean of suffering and reach the shore of no regression in just one lifetime! After that, they will quickly accomplish the six prajna-paramitas, possess the all knowing wisdom and quickly become Buddhas. Thus they are sure to enjoy the supreme peace and incomparable happiness.
Then the five-variation chanting of the Buddha's name and the sutras were heard all across the Pureland, with sounds coming from the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, water, birds, trees, etc. I remembered it partially and pleaded to Buddha: “Through your blessing I have been entrusted with this teaching. If I have doubt and do not practice this method diligently, I shall remain in the suffering realms forever. After I shall have consistently practiced this method, would all sentient beings who hear about this method also generate the great Bodhi mind and chant Buddha's name? Would they enter into deep samadhi? Would they quickly obtain Buddhahood? Would they obtain the profound benefit?”
Amitabha Buddha then spoke: “Just as you follow this five-variation method and chant my name, then Bodhisattvas, trees, birds, water, etc., and numerous music from my world will harmoniously chant ‘Amitabha' in the sky. Thus human as well as non-human beings will be converted without the need of your efforts to save them individually. All those who will come across this chanting would generate the Bodhi mind, happily and faithfully receive it and begin to practice the chanting of ‘Amitabha.' By this merit, at the end of the practitioner's life, I will come to welcome him or her to my Pureland. The practitioner would definitely obtain an unusual benefit that he or she would come to know only later.”
After Buddha said the above, I suddenly saw my body back in the Dharma-practice place. Having seen this auspicious phenomenon, I felt happy and excited. Ever since then I have chanted Buddha's name as I was taught. Just as Amitabha foretold, I have no more doubt whatsoever. I heartily pray that I may, in this and future lives, always teach this wondrous method to sentient beings in Samsara and thereby deliver all of them to the Pureland of Ultimate Bliss. I heartily pray that they may then soon become Buddhas. May all who hear or read about this chanting method be free from doubt or slander.
2. The circulation of the five-variation chanting tapes
From a Buddhist chanting tape I have adopted the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha,” and recorded it repeatedly into one tape. Thus the whole tape becomes an endless run of the five-variation chanting. It so happened that each side of the tape ends with a complete chant of “Amitabha” in the first variation, and hence it continues naturally into the beginning of the other side which is also in the first variation. Such a nice and harmonious coincidence could be nothing but the grace of Buddha!
This tape may be played frequently at home. The atmosphere will be transformed into a peaceful and harmonious one, and the Buddha's name will be naturally planted deep into the heart of every family member.
Listening to the tape during illness, one will feel peaceful, comfortable, and the karmic obstacles will gradually be removed. As a result, one's health will be restored sooner. This tape may also be used to help a dying person. It is easier to play the tape and maintain the chanting of “Amitabha” by a machine than to gather friends to help with the chanting. One should prepare a small tape recorder which can be powered by AC or DC against the loss of power. This recorder should be placed right next to one's bed so that it can always be reached easily.
After I made this tape, I played it once or twice every day. Only two days later, while sleeping at night, I suddenly heard a loud playing of this tape for about one minute. There was no one in the vicinity playing this tape then. I had heard about such mystical experiences before. Now that I have personally experienced it, I keenly appreciate the deep blessing from Buddha and the Bodhisattvas.
Presently, I have reproduced forty-eight tapes and sent them to my friends in the Dharma for sharing. I further wish that this tape will be reproduced and distributed by them so that the Dharma sound will be dispersed everywhere and all sentient beings benefitted.
August 23, 1986
3. The spreading of the Dharma music
The five-variation chanting tapes distributed last time were very popular. Professor Shi-Lun Tian of Taiwan , Mr. David Zeng of Miami , Ms. Mei-Ling Jiang and Mr. David Yang of California also re-taped many copies for further circulation. Mr. Feng-Wen Jian of Taiwan has sent me a tape that contains five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” accompanied by piano. This version is even more pleasant to listen to. Because the forty-eight tapes made last time have all been given away, I have asked Ms. Mei-Ling Jiang to make a ninety-minute tape of repetitions of the new version. I have reproduced forty-eight copies of this new tape for circulation.
4. A letter to Professor Shi-Lun Tian (Number 1)
October 27, 1986
Dear Madam Tian,
Compared with mere repetitions of the Buddha's name, singing Buddha's name seems to be more effective in cutting through the limitations of rationality. One naturally pours one's feelings into the singing, and thus the chanting becomes whole-hearted. I have purchased a small tape recorder and carried it with me. Wherever I go, I would play it to let people hear this chanting and thereby create a good karmic connection for them. When I enter my car, I would use the recorder in the car to play this chanting tape. On occasions such as praying in the cemeteries for the lonely spirits, offering food to pigeons, or setting turtles, birds and fish free, I always play this tape. Playing this chanting tape all the time helps me to detect if the chanting in my mind is continuous. My second son, Frank, is twenty-three months old. Initially, he was only able to chant along “TUO FO.” Due to constant playing of the tape, he can now sing along the whole name “NA MO A MI TUO FO.” He frequently requests to have this tape played. If we want our children to chant Buddha's name, playing this tape will naturally bring our youngsters into the subtle method of singing Buddha's name. Therefore, I am grateful to Rev. Guan-Ben who was the first person to promote the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” in recent history.
May Buddha's grace be with you!
5. A letter to Professor Shi- Lun Tian (Number 2)
October 28, 1986
Dear Madam Tian,
It will be easier to help more people during their final hours. Furthermore, any person who accidentally tunes in to this program may gradually become a long-term audience.
We can further form a “Pureland” TV station which transmits only the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” The screen should display the statues of the three holy deities of the Western Pureland —Amitabha Buddha accompanied by the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Vajrapani. The background should show a scenery of the Ultimate Bliss World. Before the statues there should be the offerings of incense, lamps, flowers, fruits, etc.
The management for this type of radio or TV station is very easy. Most of the time only the machine is running. We only need someone to maintain the machines in good working condition. The fund may be obtained from the donation of the general Buddhists. You are a respected leader in both international and Taiwan Buddhist organizations. If you would promote this idea, I am sure that the majority of the Buddhists will respond to your call and establish a permanent organization for the spreading of this chanting.
6. A letter from Ven. Khoo Poh Kong
December 1, 1986
Dear Mr. Lin,
Before this ideal can be realized, it would be nice to have someone following your idea in first making such video tapes. Then each Buddhist family may have a copy to play frequently and thereby plant the seed of chanting “Amitabha.” Through eyes and ears, the impression of Buddha's image and name will be deepened. If someone would utilize the modern technology to produce a video tape on the Sixteen Visualizations of Pureland, it will be greatly beneficial to the Pureland practitioners. It will familiarize the practitioners with the Pureland visualizations and help them to obtain rebirth in the Western Pureland . This may be achievable through organizations such as the Buddha Educational Foundation in Taiwan . Your letter dated November 22nd was also received. I have also received two packages of “The Merits of Practice in Cemeteries.” Thanks for providing me Mr. Sun Yi's address. Today I have sent him fifty booklets and other Chenian Chinese booklets (about five to a dozen each) through surface mail. Mr. Sun can then distribute them to friends who like it. The article entitled “Comments on the Summary of the Naga King Sutras” has been received. Thank you for allowing me to read your manuscript before its publication.
May you be happy in Buddha-Dharma.
7. A letter to the Manjusri Culture Center
May 27, 1987
Dear Members of the Center,
This is because sixty-minute tapes will require more frequent change of sides, while one-hundred-twenty-minute tapes are thinner and hence easier to break. I, therefore, choose the medium length tape. The benefits of the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” are described in the attached articles and correspondences.
Your Center has been diligently promoting Buddha Dharma and has made numerous contributions. It is greatly respected by all. I am humbly offering one tape with explanations to your Center. Perhaps it can be considered for use in your Dharma spreading endeavors.
Best wishes in the Dharma!
8. A true recording on the chanting of “Amitabha” that accompanied Yogi Chen's entering Nirvana
My Guru, Yogi Chen, entered into Nirvana in Berkeley , California on November 13, 1987 at 9 A .M. At that time both Ms. Bao-Lian Tan, serving at his side, and a visiting Mr. Cai heard the heavenly music of five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” It was clear and melodious. The realizations of Yogi Chen are unfathomable. He had experienced the identification with the Adi Buddha, the Great Pleasure Vajra, etc. And yet, at his time of entering Nirvana, he purposely showed this method of five-variation chanting on Amitabha. Under this exhibition of a miracle was the following teaching that sprang from his great compassion: through the door of practicing this chanting, one can easily escape from Samsara. As we remember this auspicious inspiration which was his last teaching, we should practice this chanting diligently and promote it vigorously so that we might show our gratitude to both Buddha and Guru for their infinite kindness.
January 16, 1988
9. A score of the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha”
Written in Chinese
Chanting of Buddha’s name when made into songs will be sung from the depth of people’s hearts, and hence, will move others’ spirits. Not only can it purify the singer’s mind, but it can also harmonize the whole society; thus, it is of great merit. That is why the ancient sages passed down the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” In the Tibetan tradition there is also the popular melody of singing the Mantra of Avalokitesvara. I have given a brief introduction to the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” in booklet No. 4 of the Chenian Memorial Series (note: Chapter 4 of this book). In this booklet we have provided a music score for the beautiful Tibetan singing of the Mantra of Avalokitesvara.
Members of the Miami Buddhist Association tried to compose a song for the Mantra of Mahasthanaprapta, so that each of the Three Holinesses of the Western Pureland would have a mantra song to be propagated. When I heard about this, I spontaneously sang out a melody for this mantra; however, I did not know anything about composing, and I got only three phrases with an ambiguous rhythm. Fortunately, Mr. Kuan-Shu Song of Miami kindly pointed out the problems to me, so I completed the song with four phrases. This is how I obtained the mantra song contained in this booklet.
A popular Chinese chanting of the Holy Name of Amitabha with four notes for the four syllables is simple, stable, and helpful for the practice. Therefore, I have included it in this booklet. Upasaka Song-Yi Tang of Tao-yuan, Taiwan, who has released more than one million lives over the past twenty years, mentioned in one of his letters to me that he had a tape of this chanting; and every time after playing it, even though the tape had been taken out of the machine, he could still hear the song for ten minutes. He had tested it repeatedly and this miraculous result occurred without fail.
After the songs for the mantras of Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprapta became available, it would be regretful if the mantra of Amitabha was left out. Therefore, at first I designed a visualization for chanting this mantra, visualizing the Dharmakaya light of the whole Dharmadhatu going up and down through the Central Channel to help open it up. Then I composed the song.
The mantra of Green Tara, who is a transformation of Avalokitesvara, is also very popular. After one sitting meditation I composed the melody for this mantra. The first phrase was an extension of the first phrase of the melody of Avalokitesvara’s mantra, and the remaining three phrases just came out naturally. In one minute I finished composing the whole song.
All the music scores contained in this booklet were arranged by Upasika Chun Jane Chen. All the songs included in this booklet are related to the Holinesses of Pureland; hence, it is entitled “Pureland Melodies.” Our aim is to help people’s practice; therefore, the melodies are all very simple. Those pieces that I composed came out naturally from my heart. Although they are not academic works, may be they will produce echoes in other practitioners’ hearts.
I hope that this offering of my elementary work will stimulate some Buddhist musicians to compose more beautiful melodies for mantras.
July 2, 1990
This morning the number of Dragon Vases that we have offered went up to 300.
A Visualization for Singing the Mantra of Amitabha
The compassionate vows of Amitabha Buddha encompass all sentient beings in the Dharmadhatu; he helps them reach the “Utmost Joy Pureland,” i.e., returning to the original pure nature of the Dharmadhatu, by operating his limitless Buddha power.
This visualization for singing his mantra is based on the above understanding.
Before singing the mantra visualize the following: the whole Dharmadhatu is a boundless blue space; below are the sentient beings, transparent yet intangible like a rainbow; the blue sky above represents the Dharmakaya of Amitabha Buddha (in fact, the whole Dharmadhatu is his Dharmakaya, not just the upper part); you appear as a Nirmanakaya of Amitabha Buddha, hollow as a bubble and transparent like a rainbow; your Central Channel is as thin as your pinkie finger, and it is red outside and white inside.
While singing the mantra, visualize as follows:
The first phrase:
Om—All sentient beings below are transforming into sky-blue light.
Ah Mee Da Wa—The blue light enters from below into your Central Channel and ascends to the top.
Sheh—The blue light goes out from the top of the Central Channel and merges into the Dharmakaya light.
The second phrase:
Same as the first phrase, but the light becomes brighter.
The third phrase:
Om—The Great Compassion and the Great Power of Amitabha Buddha above are manifesting as sky-blue light.
Ah Mee Da Wa—The blue light enters into your Central Channel from above and descends to the Bottom.
Sheh—The blue light goes out from the bottom of your Central Channel and shines upon all sentient beings, thereby, making them appear more brilliant than before.
The fourth phrase:
Same as the third phrase, but the light becomes brighter.
In this visualization, the Great Compassion (Buddha’s compassionate vows of saving all sentient beings), the Great Power (Buddha’s limitless merits for purifying sentient beings’ karmas), and the Great Wisdom (of returning to the original pure nature of Dharmadhatu) are unified. The “going up and down” of the Dharmakaya light would make the practitioner’s body cool, comfortable and tranquil; besides, it would help open up the Central Channel. This practice utilizes the view of the whole Dharmadhatu to help develop the Central Channel.
This practice consists of singing the mantra and doing the visualization simultaneously, but you don’t need to sing it out loud. During the practice, if you go into a deep meditative state, you can stop the singing, and even the visualizing. Just let the Dharmadhatu appear and stay by itself.
June 21, 1990
The Mantra of Amitabha Buddha： Weng A Mi Da Wa Xie
Amitabha： A Mi Ta Ba
The Mantra of Avalokitesvara： Weng Ma Ni Bei Mi Hong
The Mantra of Mahasthanaprapta：Weng Ban Zha Ba Ni Hong Pei
The Mantra of Green Tara： Weng Da Lei Du Da Lei Du Lei Suo Ha
How to Teach Youngsters the Chanting of “Amitabha”
A talk transcribed by Manli Peng, Ann Klein, Chun Jane Chen
My talk was based on my Chinese article titled “Hou Sheng Nian Fo.” It was delivered to members of the Miami Buddhist Lotus Society on July 29, 1991 in Miami , Florida . Dr. Manli Peng kindly transcribed my talk for publication. When I reviewed her transcript I realized that my spoken English needed a lot of refinement. Hence, I started to rewrite it based on the transcript.
My sincere thanks to Dr. Manli Peng for her many days of hard work resulting in a very useful transcript, to Ann Klein for her improvement on my writing, and to Chun Jane Chen for her typing.
How to Teach Youngsters the Chanting of “Amitabha”
This is an interesting topic. I decided to write this Chinese article because I had experience in teaching my two sons to do Buddhist practices and wanted to share my experiences with other Buddhist parents. Another reason that prompted me to write this article was a dream I had a few days earlier. I saw in that dream a piece of paper that resembled the first page of an article. The title was clearly written in Chinese: “Hou Sheng Nian Fo,” and the text was marked by dots only. The title means youngsters chant “Amitabha.” Reflecting on the meaning, I took it to be a sign indicating that Buddha was assigning me the job of writing on this topic. Thus, I began to think about what I could say on this matter, and then I wrote this article in Chinese. This topic is very important for bringing up Buddhist youngsters, so today I have chosen to talk about it in English, based on my Chinese article, thereby making it available to the English speaking world.
Generally speaking, the holy name chanted need not be restricted to that of Amitabha Buddha only. We may chant the name of other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or their mantras. Nevertheless, it would be more conducive to spiritual progress if we concentrate on chanting only one holy name or mantra as our main practice. The remarks made in this talk are applicable to Buddhist chantings in general. Hence, you do not need to switch to the chanting of “Amitabha” if you are already accustomed to chanting other holy names or mantras in Buddhism.
If you have not chosen a certain chant for your main practice, I would like to recommend that you choose a short one, for example, “Amitabha.” The reason being that a short one would be easier to maintain in our minds throughout the ups and downs of life. Even when we become weak, sick, or are in a crisis we would like to be able to continue the chanting to maintain peace of mind and receive Buddha's blessing. A short one would be easier to recall and keep in mind.
My article begins with this question: How does one who practices the chanting of “Amitabha” induce the youngsters to do the same?
According to the Buddhist teaching, one's consciousness enters the mother's egg upon conception. Therefore, we begin the teaching of chanting from the time of pregnancy. The parents should chant “Amitabha” or sing the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” You are welcome to write me for a free copy of this melodious chanting tape. The parents can also play this tape for the baby and themselves. These practices will reduce the Karmic hindrances and increase the merits and wisdom of both parents and child.
During labor the mother is advised to chant “Guan Yin Pu Sa (Avalokitesvara).” This will reduce her pain and help secure a safe delivery. Mrs. Bi-Rong Wang, a mother of three from Atlanta , Georgia , asked me to mention this application of the chanting practice because she herself had experienced its marvelous benefits. She had noticed that children thus born have a nicer temperament.
During infancy we show the baby images of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas by either carrying him or her to the altar or setting up some images in a place where he or she can often see them, for example, somewhere near the cradle. We can also play the tape of the melodious five-variation chanting of “Amitabha” often so that the baby lives in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. When we caress the baby or gently rock him or her to sleep, it would be nice to chant “Amitabha” softly or silently. While taking care of the baby crying in the middle of the night the parents might get upset sometimes, then they may want to chant to calm themselves down. Only when the parents are at ease can the baby be calmed down by the peaceful feeling that they convey.
When we teach children with visual or auditory disabilities we need to make use of their remaining faculties. For example, we could show an image of Buddha to a deaf child and play the chanting tape for a blind child. (Of course, these suggestions apply to all deaf or blind persons, regardless of their ages.) In case the child is unfortunately both blind and deaf we can gently pat or caress him, carry him or lead his way in circumambulation (walking clockwise in a circle), while chanting “Amitabha.” In this way the child can sense the peace and harmony of chanting. Under such loving care of the parents, the child's temperament will become more gentle. Furthermore, we can give the child a string of beads and teach him to move the beads one by one with his fingers. This amounts to “chanting” by touching.
Parents who work hard to take care of children, especially those with a disability, would find chanting “Amitabha” very helpful in freeing their minds from worries and complaints, and in inducing a pure, fresh and peaceful state of mind. Consequently, the chores become easier to handle, and the parent-child relationship becomes smoother and sweeter.
Since our goal is to help develop the habit of doing a practice rather than to provide the excitement of stimulations, the emphasis is not on showing a lot of variety. We simply provide in a natural way the same image for the child to look at frequently. For example, place or hang an image of Amitabha Buddha in the child's room, on his desk, or on the wall facing his seat. Likewise, we choose one chanting tape and play it most of the time; and we give him a string of beads to “chant” by hand.
Communication between minds are not limited to our usual senses of sight, hearing, etc. Occurrences of supernatural communication are frequently experienced by spiritual practitioners. Therefore, when we chant “Amitabha” for a blind and deaf child we should not hold on to the mistaken notion that he cannot sense it. We need to chant with the understanding that the child can fully “sense” it. In fact, the effect of chanting is not limited by space or time. The touch of a person worrying is very different from that of a person chanting. When we are in the presence of a person who has been doing Buddhist practices for years we will sense that there is a difference. It is a harmony of serenity, clarity and profound compassion that permeates the atmosphere. Therefore, it is very helpful to others that we do chanting daily so that when we need to convey our love and sympathy through touch, the receiver will greatly benefit.
We need physical exercise to keep our bodies in good health. Similarly, we need mental exercise to keep our minds in good spirit. Chanting “Amitabha” is a simple practice which helps to keep our mind active in a pure and concentrated way. Ordinarily, if we do not use our minds regularly, they will become dull and scattered; and if we use our minds for worldly activities, it is inevitable that we will become entangled in self-centered thoughts. Therefore, in order to maintain our mental equilibrium, it is of great benefit to adopt a simple practice like the chanting of “Amitabha” for daily spiritual exercise.
Once a blind and deaf child is accustomed to moving the beads, he will gradually enjoy doing it because his mindfulness is constantly working while he moves the beads. Furthermore, this is a simple activity which is intuitive and direct, i.e., without the involvement of conceptual framework. Therefore, it induces the growth of one's inner purity. The blind and deaf children are fortunate in that they are not subject to pollution by human conceptualizations. Their natural purity is intact, and hence what they need is simply some repetitive activities to keep their minds active. Moving the beads is their “chanting of Buddha” because Buddhahood means returning to our original purity and they stay in touch with that purity through this activity.
On a daily basis set a definite time for the whole family to get together to chant “Amitabha” or sing the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” It is very beneficial to form such a habit in educating youngsters. Unless they are taught ways to maintain their purity of mind there is no telling what they might pick up from the schools, the streets and their friends. They are constantly under the surreptitious influences of television, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, etc. If the parents do not set good examples for them and give them proper instructions along the way of their growth, it is very likely that they could be led astray by pursuits of vanities and pleasures. It is important to start forming these habits while they are still very young, otherwise it may be too late when they get older.
Sometimes children might be reluctant or do not want to join the family service. The parents should not force them to do the practice or punish them for that, but rather simply insist on having their presence in the room. The very young ones can be allowed to have food or toys with them. In this way they will not develop repulsive feelings toward the practice; besides, their presence makes it a passive participation, and they will not feel that they are entitled to ignoring these gatherings. If parents do not insist on the minimum requirement of the child's presence, then as he grows older it will become even more difficult to introduce the practice to him. For these family practices it would be better to do only those that are simple or attractive to the children, for example, singing “Amitabha,” chanting and circumambulating, making offerings, prostrations and playing musical Dharma instruments.
If the children become restless or noisy while they are attending the family service, the parents should gently tell them to quiet down, and such admonishing should be given just a few times. If they do not obey, the rest of the family should simply continue the practice without stopping to correct them. Thereby the family service will not turn into chaotic shouting and frenzied crying. Nevertheless, they are not allowed to leave the room; otherwise they will have learned that making a fuss is a sure way to avoid the gathering. After the rest of the family has completed the routine practices, the parents should comfort the ones who misbehaved with gentle advice and encouraging words, trying to persuade them to do at least a little bit of the practice together with the parents. Such a gentle and gradual approach will in the long run prove to be effective and without backlashes. Since it is a daily task that will continue for years, it takes a lot of patience and kindness on the part of the parents. And we, as parents, can improve our own patience and kindness through such endeavors.
When small children approach the altar, they tend to touch objects on the altar and play with them, and the adults out of cautiousness will tell them to stop playing or stay away. Consequently, children may get the wrong impression that they are not supposed to be near these objects, or they may develop a sense of uneasiness toward the Dharma instruments or images. We certainly do not want to have this kind of result. We would like them to feel dear and natural toward the Dharma. Therefore, first of all, our attitude should be gentle and encouraging. Although we still need to be aware of the possibility of accidents, we should not automatically stop them in a stern manner. Instead, we should teach them the proper way to use these objects, allowing them to play with the Dharma instruments as long as nothing is damaged, and telling them the significance or related stories in terms that they can understand. If they want to have Buddha images or Dharma instruments for themselves, we should try to make these available for them. If what they desire is too costly or impractical, we should try to satisfy them with substitutes, for example, a small statue in place of a big statue or a poster in place of a statue.
When children are taught to use the musical Dharma instruments to accompany chanting, it will increase their enthusiasm in the practice. When I gave lectures in Austin , Texas , the children of the members of the local Buddhist group were gathered in the adjacent room. They tapped the wooden fish and the Qing (metal musical bowl) while singing the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” Their tempo was clear and their singing was full of devotion and absorption. I believe that Buddhists who had the chance to see their performance would enjoy having their own children to do the same; it was so lovely!
The lady who taught these children the chanting told me an anecdote: Once she reminded the children that while chanting they should not think of anything else. A three-year old replied, “I cannot think of anything else while chanting.” Concentration is a natural quality of a pure mind, and adults tend to lose it owing to the accumulation of their attachments. Chanting practiced on a daily basis will gradually bring back our natural purity and its accompanying merits.
As soon as your child is old enough to do certain Dharma activities, let him participate in them. When Howard, my first son, was five-years old, my late guru Yogi Chen told me to help him set up his own small altar so that he could practice the daily offerings of incense, water and candles. When Frank, my second son, was five-years old, Howard taught him how to empty, clean and set up the offering cups at the end of a day. Howard started to string prayer beads and duplicate singing “Amitabha” tapes for free distribution at age seven. He started the chanting of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva even earlier, at age three and half. These are some examples of what kind of Dharma activities that children can do as they grow up.
Now Howard is fourteen years old and in charge of duplicating tapes for free distribution. He makes sure that we always have ten copies of the chanting “Amitabha” tape available. Whenever people who have received the books and tapes we sent write back to thank and tell us how helpful those materials have been to them, I share this feedback with my sons so that they understand that their participation actually helps people. Once they understand the benefits, they would like to help with Dharma service. Do not ask them to work for the Dharma in an authoritarian way. Not understanding the significance may cause them to resent the extra work asked of them.
Try to connect the family activities with the Dharma. For example, when reading to children, use books on the past lives of Buddha or other children's books that contain Buddhist teachings on impermanence, tolerance, compassion, giving and sharing, etc. Take children to Dharma activities such as releasing of turtles, birds and fish, Dharma talks, group practices, visiting monasteries or cemeteries, going on pilgrimages, etc. Encourage them to participate in charity activities or community services.
Once my son Frank asked me, “Why do we chant ‘Amitabha'?” My answer was as follows: Occasionally we are sick and feel uncomfortable, we run into something and get hurt or feel pain, we feel lonely, we are scared of darkness, or we are angry. At times like these when our body is in discomfort or our minds are not at ease, if we remember to chant “Amitabha” and repeat it for a while, gradually our minds will calm down, and then the bodily pains will not feel so bad or the darkness will become less scary. As we chant “Amitabha” we have Amitabha's company in our hearts, so we are no longer alone and need not feel lonely. Everyday we need to eat, drink and exercise to keep our bodies in good health; similarly, everyday we need to chant “Amitabha” because it is both a wonderful spiritual food and a purifying exercise for our mind. It will naturally lead us to live a peaceful and happy life.
I hope that my answer to Frank's question given above will serve as an example of how to explain the meaning of chanting to children.
The next question is—is there a need to teach children the chanting of “Amitabha”? Yes, indeed, there is such a need. It is never too early to start this education because children also have emotional ups and downs, and hence they also need to learn how to maintain their mental balance. Besides, the practice can be taught without resorting to abstract words. We can simply let them start by listening to the melodious five-variation chanting of “Amitabha.” If we play this chanting tape often, the family is bathed in a harmonious atmosphere. This will help the children to grow robustly in body and mind.
The methods employed in teaching children the chanting of “Amitabha” should be carefully chosen; our attitude should be kind and gentle; and we must be patient. Only then can we expect and get good results. When a child is angry or upset, we need to comfort him or her, and talk to him or her to calm him or her down. We talk to the child to find out what is upsetting him or her, and then we try to lead the child to look at things from many angles. Thereby we may be able to bring the child out of his or her entanglements. We can suggest an activity that the child would like to do and join him or her in doing it. Only after the child has calmed down or become happy can we play the chanting tape or ask him or her to join us in Dharma activities.
While teaching children we should not be confined to using only Buddhist terminology. It would be better to exemplify humbleness and care for others in our daily lives rather than repeating idealistic talks.
Do not force children to do Dharma practices. Right now they have to listen to the parents, but when they grow up they will not do it unless they want to. If children are forced to do Dharma practice, they will resent it and associate Dharma practices with oppression. Then it is inevitable that they will want to discard these practices as soon as they are on their own. Such cases would be, in my view, tragic.
Another reason for teaching children the chanting of “Amitabha” is that youngsters are also not free from impermanence. Death comes to people of all ages! If you visit a cemetery and read the tombstones, you will see many who died in the womb, in stillbirth, in infancy, in childhood or in their teens. Accidents may happen to anyone. In Miami many people have a swimming pool in their backyards, and there are young children who have drowned in these swimming pools. By teaching children the chanting of “Amitabha” we could help them to obtain a better rebirth in case they die young.
Now and then I go to cemeteries to pray for the dead, and read the inscriptions on the tombstones, thereby learning of many short life-stories and gaining an intuitive sense of the transience of life. I have invited my sons to go with me on these visits, but I have never ordered them to come along. Sometimes they joined me, and we walked among the tombstones and chanted. I asked them to read the tombstones to find out how long the deceased have lived, how long one of a married couple out-lived the other, etc. I especially pointed out to them the fact that there were even babies buried here, not to mention children and teens. Thus, they have witnessed and learned that death is a natural part of life, that life is short and hence precious. Therefore, we should make good use of it while we are still alive. Visits to the cemetery and praying for deceased ones have not produced a fear of death in my sons. Instead, when they hear in school that someone has passed away, after they return home they ask me to pray for the deceased.
Generally speaking, older people are more likely to turn to religion because they have gone through life and encountered many situations, and thus realize how limited we all are. We need the teachings and practices of religion to help us maintain at least a balanced mentality, or even achieve inner tranquility and happiness. Youngsters, except those who have been reared from a religious background, are less likely to be even interested in religious practices or theories. How are we going to show them the benefits of chanting “Amitabha”?
The first and foremost point is that we need to do the practice diligently ourselves; we teach others by setting examples ourselves. No one can persuade others the value of a practice without doing the practice himself.
The second point is that we give advice only when the time is right. We should not keep repeating our views or try to indoctrinate the youngsters if they are not interested in the subject. If we keep advising people who are not interested, they will become resistant or feel offended. It simply will not work. Next time they will even avoid getting close to us. It is better to wait until they ask what we are doing and why, then it is their question and we are not forcing our views on them.
Another opportunity to talk to them about chanting is at a time when they are suffering from worldly sorrows. Then we should first analyze their situation for them, pointing out the sources of their problems and give advice on practical solutions. We can then recommend that they try the chanting practice as a means to release their worries and tensions. We also explain the long term benefits of a daily chanting practice, emphasizing its merits based on our own experiences.
For example, if a youngster is in a difficult situation we can show our empathy by sharing our experiences of such difficulties with him or her. Further, we can mention many other difficult situations that people have gone through; thus we help him or her enlarge his or her views, and his or her situation becomes more tolerable. We advise the youngster on how to handle the situation so that the result will be better for all involved. Finally, we recommend the chanting practice, explaining that without such mental exercises it would be very difficult for us to keep our heads above the muddy water of worldly sorrows.
The central theme of our advice is the Buddhist teaching that egoism is the root of all our sorrows. A life free from the slavery of egoism is peaceful, harmonious, open and delightful. In order to enjoy such a life, we all need to work on the elimination of our self-centeredness. When we are not blinded by our self-centeredness, we will see the obvious fact that we are all very fragile and we all want love, peace, and all the good things that life may offer. Nevertheless, the resources are limited, so we simply have to save and share. Overpowering others by force will bring us only temporary advantages at the expense of others' miseries, and then we live in fear of losing our possessions and become enslaved by our possessions.
Although the elimination of one's ego is very difficult to achieve, it is not impossible. When we look at the whole human race, progress toward the elimination of the ego seems like it could never become a reality. Nevertheless, if we do not advocate and practice this ideal of non-egoism, whatever we are enjoying now may soon be lost. (added later: Looking at the riots in Los Angeles in April 1992 one immediately realizes the often overlooked importance of religious teachings and practices. There are limits as to what the law and police can do. The best solution to the problems of our world does not lie in laws and powers, but in the good will among people.)
Chanting “Amitabha” is a practical method for eliminating our self-centeredness. It is a slow, sure and safe practice. It will enhance the clarity of our minds because it helps to pacify our scattered thoughts. It will open up our minds because basically we are limited only by our self-centeredness. Chanting “Amitabha” also trains us to concentrate.
From the above it becomes obvious that chanting is not a passive way to escape from the world; rather, it is a practice for purifying our minds. Only with a clear and pure mind can we render excellent services to people. As we concentrate on repeating the holy name “Amitabha” our minds become free from selfish desires and obstinate prejudices. Thus our minds return to their original intuitive and dynamic state. We employ this method daily to purify our intentions so that we may actively serve people with a pure and empathic mind.
There is an old Chinese saying: “Youngsters are formidable; how do we know that the coming ones are inferior to the present ones?” Youngsters are less deeply entangled in the worldly ways, and hence have a simpler outlook on things. Once they have learned the significance of the chanting practice, quite often they will diligently practice it and even become very devoted. Therefore, we should not look down upon young practitioners.
In a classic Chinese book on military strategy it is said, “Put the army into a dead spot, then it will survive.” That means once the army is in a desperate situation, it will exert its maximal force for survival and consequently come through. Similarly, in order for our chanting practice to bring about a spiritual renaissance we need to learn, first of all, the fragility and transience of our lives.
In our daily lives we are accustomed to unconsciously assuming that life will go on as usual. We make so many plans for next year, five years, ten years, retirement and old age. However, there is no guarantee that we will live that long. When we drive a car on the streets we do not know if the other drivers are drunk, senile, absent-minded, angry, etc., hence our lives are not completely in our hands. We can easily get sick and we do not know when we will encounter a deadly fire, a flood, a hurricane or an earthquake. We are all on nature's death roll and we do not know when our time will be up.
Even if we are lucky enough not to encounter any major personal disaster in our lives, eventually we will have to face death alone. We are deeply attached to living; while death means the unknown, fear and grief. The more wonderful our lives are, the harder it is for us to give them up. Nevertheless, an instant and complete relinquishment of possessions and separation from dear ones awaits every one of us. Hence we need to prepare for our death by practicing renunciation.
Chanting is a training on renouncing our attachments and prejudices. If we build it into a daily exercise, then gradually we will sense the openness, freedom and relaxation that comes as a result of our spiritual growth. Furthermore, we will be able to face death, be it our own or others', with ease and understanding. Reflections on death will sober our minds and show us what is more important in our lives than our worries and fights.
Death may knock on our door at any moment. When we do our chanting practice, we should be aware that death may be already on the doorstep outside. In this way our practice will become pure and sincere. Also we may use our daily chanting practice as a rehearsal for our final exit from the stage of the world of the living. This will help reduce the wild chases in our minds and add concentration to our practice because when we look back from the moment of death, things are simply either insignificant or helplessly unchangeable. At the moment of death we want to rely on chanting “Amitabha” because the only thing available to us is our consciousness and we use it to communicate with Buddha by calling his name for his compassionate help.
If we chant “Amitabha” daily with the awareness of death's approaching, then we will surely gain the benefits of this practice; consequently, we will live in happiness and die in peace. My best wishes to you and may Buddha bless you all!
Playing with Health Balls
As I walk my son Andrew to and from Harding Elementary School on weekdays, I play in both hands a pair of health balls. This has attracted much attention from many passers-by along the way and parents, teachers and students at Harding. Many have asked me to explain about this exercise or show them how to do it. I was even invited by teachers in room 11 and room 13 to give their students (from kindergartners to second graders) a short talk and demonstration on this exercise. Previously, I wrote an article in Chinese and English on this practice; it was entitled “Chanting with Health Balls.” Now that I have had more experiences with this exercise and more related ideas to offer, I am writing this new a
rticle based on the old one.
Human hands are sensitively connected to the rest of the whole body. Hence, by massaging different parts of the hands, various parts of the body can be stimulated. Feet and ears are similarly related to the whole body. Chinese medicine teaches healing techniques that involve massage or acupuncture applied to these sensitive parts. However, to promote one's general well-being no professional knowledge is needed; all one needs is to adopt some simple exercises on a daily basis. For example, one may adopt the habit of massaging ears whenever one is waiting for a green traffic signal, or one may walk barefoot on pebble paths for fifteen to thirty minutes daily. This article talks about a traditional Chinese hand exercise called health balls.
This exercise originally was taught by a martial art master in the Ming dynasty of China . To this day it has remained a well-know exercise for the promotion of good health. It is a popular exercise in some parts of China , especially in Bao Ding of He Bei province, the place where it originated.
To play with health balls, one holds two balls of equal size and weight in one hand and, using the fingers, rotates them constantly. Depending on the individual, some would find the clockwise rotation natural, while others would find the counterclockwise rotation natural. It seems that there are two types of hands as far as this rotating movement is concerned. First practice rotating in the direction that is natural to you, and later practice rotating in the opposite direction only after you have already become familiar with the natural rotation of balls. A beginner should practice with only one hand at a time, and alternately practice with either hands. Eventually, it is better to practice rotating the balls both clockwise and counterclockwise alternately because they are complementary exercises, and in this way the full potential of the usage of hands will be realized. Through this gentle exercise the fingers become dexterous and the whole body experiences constant waves of soothing massages.
The health balls found in the stores in San Francisco 's Chinatown are made of metal, cloisonne or stone. There are four or five sizes. One needs to choose the size that suits ones hands by trying them out. It is advisable for beginners to start with metal balls because at the beginning it is inevitable that the balls would slip and fall frequently. The metal and cloisonne balls are hollow with sounding boards inside. Each pair of balls contains sounding boards of different pitches so that the chorus is harmonious. It is said that listening to this sound while rotating the health balls may pacify the mind. For Buddhist practitioners who are interested in practicing the meditation on listening as taught by the great Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the Surangama Sutra, this would be a good source of sound to listen to. The stone balls do not come with the sound effects, but it is a blessing when you want to practice in public without disturbing others nearby. Besides, it feels much more comfortable than the metal balls which sometimes would produce static. Cloisonne balls do not feel comfortable; therefore, I have never practiced with them.
I began my practice with small metal balls because my fingers could not rotate the bigger ones with ease and even then, the small balls would fall through my fingers. After becoming accustomed to rotating one pair of balls at a time, I practiced rotating one pair of balls in each hand simultaneously. It soon became apparent that rotating the balls counterclockwise in the right hand and clockwise in the left hand are easier to do, because in that way, the thumb pushes the balls toward the pinkie. When I tried to rotate the balls in the reverse direction it became very awkward. In fact, I had never used my fingers in that way. Practicing health balls opened up a new horizon for my dexterity.
After using the small health balls for a few days, I could hardly feel their presence in my hands. I then switched to the larger balls and felt comfortable with them. While practicing the health balls, I become more aware of the areas on my hands that are tense or sore and, gradually, also other parts of my body that are not at ease. Doing this exercise does help release tension. Whenever I become tired of reading or writing, I walk around and play the health balls. In this way, my body soon returns to a relaxed and supple condition. Sometimes I walk barefoot on pebbles in my yard while simultaneously playing the health balls. (It is so comfortable to walk barefoot on pebbles warmed by the sun.)
Now I have practiced health balls for more than a decade. During this time I gradually became aware that, while rotating the balls in my hands, my lower arms, my upper arms, and then even the back and front of my torso are also involved in very subtle ways. After months of practice, I first became aware of the involvement of my lower arms because they were no longer as stiff as before. Then, gradually I sensed the upper arms are also moving, and much later even the back of my body. Now I sense all the above mentioned parts are involved in the exercise, especially the whole arms. When I play the health balls I feel the balls are soft and the fingers move so smoothly that it would seem automatic.
Playing health balls would be an ideal exercise for people of all ages because it is gentle, and helps improve one's dexterity and circulation of blood and inner air (Qi). It is an exercise that one can do almost anywhere, without clumsy and expensive equipment. Health balls are suitable especially for the old or disabled. This exercise can promote the circulation of blood and inner air; consequently, it could prevent arthritis. It keeps one alert, and hence is a good preventive measure for Alzheimer. It is known to have helped calm down children with hyperactivity. It is well known that occupational stress and the lack of ergonomic awareness have caused many serious health problems. The practice of health balls may turn out to be an effective and economic solution to such occupational problems.
After months of practice I can rotate simultaneously one pair of health balls in each hand in any direction I want; both clockwise, both counterclockwise, or one clockwise and the other counterclockwise. Experienced practitioners can even play with three or four balls in each hand simultaneously. In fact, one can even combine this exercise with activities such as Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi) or dances, etc. I have also combined this exercise with walking backwards. Walking backwards helps me to develop some muscles that I have seldom used, and the need to look backwards provides an opportunity to turn my neck to the right rear and left rear alternately as an exercise. I carry a pair of health balls with me on long trips to help adjust my physical condition. To all kinds of people I spread the message of the benefits of this exercise, and I bought health balls for members of my family.
Any physical exercise should be free from mental distractions to be beneficial. With concentration all activities are neatly accomplished. While practicing the health balls it would help induce harmony of body and mind by chanting the name of a Buddha or a mantra. Christians may chant a short prayer such as the prayer of Jesus: Lord, Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Buddhist practitioners, who are well versed in the chanting practice and are determined to continue their chanting practice until their rebirth in Buddha's Pureland, may use health balls instead of prayer beads and do without the counting of numbers of repetitions. As physical exercise the rotation of health balls is more beneficial than the monotonous movement of prayer beads by the thumb.
While the health balls are rotating, the rotation is constant and yet the positions are impermanent. This observation serves well to illustrate the significance of a fundamental Buddhist teaching that one should not be confined by either side of the dualistic views. The reality as such cannot be encompassed by one-sided views; we had better not be limited by our own prejudices and lose touch of reality.
May all who come across this article become interested in this practice and benefit from adopting this practice. If health balls are not readily available in your surroundings, you can still begin the practice with any round object such as two large marbles or walnuts.
March 31, 1999
Related works: Black Sandalwood Balls
“Chanting” Practice for Disabled Persons
Edited by Ann Klein
In the Surangama Sutra (Leng Yan Jing), there are many special practices recommended by great Bodhisattvas who had attained Enlightenment through those practices which use only the functioning of a particular human faculty such as hearing, seeing, etc. Nevertheless, in the traditional teachings of the Pureland School of Buddhism there is hardly any mention of what a disabled person could practice in case he is unable to chant the holy name of “Amitabha.” Today there is a greater awareness for the well-being of disabled persons. Thus I felt an urgent need for introducing practices for disabled persons based on the basic principles underlying the practice of chanting “Amitabha.”
In August 1991 I wrote an article in Chinese, titled “ Can Zhang Nian Fo, ” to introduce “chanting” practices for people with various kinds of disability. It is included in my book “Yi Qu Shi Tan” which was published in 1991, 1992 and 1994 for free distribution. The present work is essentially based on that article.
A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is the impermanence of all things. Disability is also an impermanent condition which may befall on any one at any moment. The aging process brings with it various degrees of disability, and death will bring us total disability of physical functionality. Therefore, the practices introduced in this work are pertinent not only to those who are disabled but also to all of us.
May these practices bring peace and even Enlightenment to those who adopt them as daily practices. May the great Bodhisattvas who realized Enlightenment through practices involving special faculties, especially the all compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa) who taught us to practice nonattachment through hearing, bless these practitioners.
“Chanting” Practice for Disabled Persons
Without regular exercise the physical functions of our bodies may deteriorate; likewise, the mental capabilities of our minds also need proper training and use to remain clear and alert.
Training of the mind may be divided into two aspects: concentration practice and broadening of view. The former may help one to become free from distractions, indolence and absent-mindedness, while the latter may lead to the broadening, deepening and harmonizing of Wisdom and Compassion. It is essential that these two types of training be unified in balance, although usually the practical sequence of practice consists of doing the concentration practice first.
The practice of chanting “Amitabha” trains in both concentration and broadening of view. To maintain the pure thought of “Amitabha” requires concentration, while the consequential detachment from personal worldly considerations brings about a natural broadening of mind. Through years of devoted chanting of the holy name “Amitabha” a natural balance of concentration and broadening evolves. As the mind becomes purer and purer, one's innate wisdom and compassion develop naturally in a balanced way. Using ordinary language and appealing to common sense, I have written the following works to provide in-depth exposition on these principles and offer insight obtained through my own practice:
These books are for free distribution; interested readers may write me for a free copy.
Long-term and devoted practice of chanting “Amitabha” will bring about a constant feeling of peace of mind and an open attitude toward life and the world to such an extent that one's tranquility transcends the ups and downs of life and physical and mental well-being and suffering. Through the ages many Buddhist sages and teachers advocate to the general public the practice of chanting “Amitabha” with the hope that all may become free from suffering and abide in tranquility through adopting this practice. Nevertheless, in most cases there is no mention of how or what to practice in case a person is disabled. In order to fulfill the compassionate vows of all Buddhas which leave no sentient beings out, I am abstracting the underlying principle from the chanting practice in order to formulate various practices that will be suitable for persons with different kinds of disabilities.
Basically the practice of chanting a holy name or a mantra is to maintain the clarity and tranquility of mind through repetition of an expression, and thereby eventually achieve purity of thoughts. Therefore, a “chanting” practice for a disabled person should make use of a functioning faculty to do simple repetitive acts in order to maintain the clarity of mind and eventually attain one's original purity which is beyond the pollution of worldly considerations.
Keeping in mind the principle above, I will introduce various “chanting” practices with respect to particular human faculties. The classification below is a natural one because it is divided by the use of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind.
1. “Chanting” by eyes:
Choose an image of a Buddha or Bodhisattva for daily viewing. Sit quietly at a set time for a definite period and simply look at the image attentively. If the image chosen is small in size, one may carry it along for frequent viewing. Gradually it will become so familiar that as soon as one thinks of it, it will become vividly present just as though it is right in front of the person.
One may also choose instead of a holy image a written holy name, mantra or tantric seed syllable for this practice. The key point of this practice is that the object of viewing should remain the same to facilitate the maturity of realization.
2. “Chanting” by ears:
Choose a chanting tape to listen to daily at a set time for a definite period, preferably a melodious one such as the Five-Variations Chanting of “Amitabha” (Wu Hui Nian Fo). It would be ideal to carry it with you and play it all the time; at least one would make use of commute hours by playing it in the car. Sooner or later the chanting will automatically play continuously in the practitioner's mind.
3. “Chanting” by nose:
There are two kinds of practice during which one would:
Be mindful of the breath and follow its flow in and out through the nostrils.
Be mindful of the sense of smelling without exercising value judgments.
Both of these practices may be conducted on a daily basis or whenever one wishes. They should not be practiced simultaneously.
4. “Chanting” by tongue:
There are three kinds of practice during which one would:
Audibly or silently chant “Amitabha” with slight movement of the tongue.
Rhythmically touch the upper palate with the tip of the tongue.
Be mindful of the taste in the mouth without exercising value judgments.
All three practices may be conducted on a daily basis or whenever one wishes. They should not be practiced simultaneously.
5. “Chanting” by body:
There are four kinds of practice during which one would:
Prostrate to an image or the holy name of a Buddha with concentration and reverence at every step of the process.
Hold a string of beads in one hand and continuously use the thumb to move the beads one at a time. Be mindful of the movement at all times.
Use the tip of fingers to feel the pulse on the other wrist; be mindful of the pulsation.
Use a hand, foot, finger or toe to tap a rhythmic tempo; be mindful of each tapping.
All these practices may be conducted on a daily basis or whenever one wishes.
6. “Chanting” by mind:
Continuously maintain a holy name, a mantra or a melodious chanting in one's heart as often as possible. This is the key point of a chanting practice. Generally speaking, any thought related to the merits or teachings of Buddha is a “chanting” on Buddha.
Both the daily yoga of tantric Buddhism and the Pure Conduct Chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hua Yan Jing Jing Xing Pin) are teachings on relating daily activities to the “chanting” on Buddha in the general sense. They teach us how to purify our minds in a lively manner free from artificial rituals.
After reading this article a person with normal faculties still intact can choose one of the practices mentioned above to exercise his mind. In case one becomes disabled through aging or accident, one may make use of this knowledge to practice “chanting” in one of the above ways or in a way designed by oneself in accordance with the same basic principle.
To people who are already disabled in some way without knowing in advance these “chanting” practices we may try to convey the message to them and show them in whatever way we can how to do one of these practices.
As to seriously disabled persons such as those in temporary or permanent coma or during the death process, although there is no way for them to learn of any practice, nevertheless we can pray for them and chant or play chanting tapes by their side to help relieve their burden of Karma and increase their merits. Whenever we dedicate the merits of our daily practice or Dharma activities to all sentient beings we should remember to especially include all those who are in such difficult situations as to be unable to do practice themselves.
Salutation to Amitabha Buddha!
Salutation to the compassionate and merciful Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who saves all beings from all suffering and hardship!
Salutation to Green Tara, a transformation of Avalokitesvara, born from his compassionate tears!
Seminar in Zen and Pureland Buddhism
A Lecture Sponsored by the Department of Religion
The First Meeting
Professor Rogers: In January 1991, in Kathmandu, the capital of the mountain Kingdom of Nepal , we met at a place called the Vajra Hotel. Those of you who have studied Buddhist tradition know that vajra means a thunderbolt vehicle which is the third of the great vehicles in Buddhism. The Hinayana, a smaller or lesser vehicle; the Mahayana, the great vehicle; and then either the Vajrayana, the thunderbolt vehicle or the Tantrayana, the Tantric path, which characterizes Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana also came to China and then to Japan as the great Shingon, the True Word or Mantra Sect of Buddhism. So, we met in this Buddhist setting; the hotel run by Tibetan Buddhist.
Out of the group that traveled to the Buddhist holy sites in Nepal and India , there were many interesting people: two physicians, a clinical psychologist, an ACLU lawyer, someone who had done a lot of tracking in the Himalayas , an artist and a professor of philosophy. When you meet a new group of people there is a kind of chemistry that goes on, and you try to figure out how to fit in with the group that you will be with for three to four weeks.
I guess gradually it was Dr. Lin that I was struck by as someone who really knew what he was doing. The rest of us knew a little about Buddhist tradition and a little about what people do on a pilgrimage; but from the very beginning, Dr. Lin seemed to be very connected, devoted, purposeful, and focused. So, out of a sort of Southern hospitality, I said, “Oh, you have to come to Washington and Lee University to see us sometime.” That was about it. But after I came back here I said to myself, “It would be really great if he could come,” and he has come. We will be with him this morning and tomorrow night, his lecture at eight o'clock, and again on Wednesday. He has read all the questions that each one of us put together anticipating his visit. So here is Dr. Lin!
Dr. Lin: I have read your questions and they are very good. You have so many questions and we have so little time, therefore, I will first give a short talk hoping that some of your questions will be resolved by it. After the talk we will discuss whatever questions you might have then.
First of all, I would like to emphasize that what Buddha tried to explain to us is not just theory, not just certain views that he tried to persuade us to have. He tried to convey an experience which was the result of his pursuit of how to solve the problems of life, death, sickness, old age and suffering in the world. The solution he found was an experience which was direct and intuitive, but too difficult to express. Therefore, at first, he was going to remain silent about it, but then, out of his compassion, he began to teach people on the problems of life and their solutions.
Over the years Buddhism has spread to different people in different localities. In order for different people to understand the essence of Buddha's teachings, it is presented more or less differently in various localities . Consequently, many systems of thoughts have developed within Buddhism, and Buddhism has become manifold. It has thus become rather difficult for us to get to the quintessence of Buddha's teachings. Nevertheless, I think the easiest way to understand Buddha's teachings is to try to look directly at the experience that he tried to communicate to us. That experience, in simple terms, is his realization of his oneness with the whole universe; and it is a Limitless-Oneness.
People might ask, “How can there be such a Oneness with wars going on in the world?” Usually I answer this question by offering some examples of my personal supernatural experiences. Since the questions raised by this class are far deeper, I will even try to explain the very experience that Buddha realized. Although it is not my own experience, fortunately, my late teacher, Yogi C. M. Chen, did attain the experience of Limitless-Oneness and revealed it to me. He also told about that experience in his books.
In that experience, everything, including one's own body, disappears. There is nothing left, except the light of blue sky everywhere. In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism this is called “the Dharmakaya Light.” Dharmakaya Light is the basis of Dharmakaya, the Buddhist terminology for the universe. Nevertheless, the concept of Dharmakaya assumes that all things are basically on the same footing, which goes beyond the distinction of reality and non-reality, while the usual concept of the universe implies the factual existence of things and distinguishes between reality and illusion. In Buddhism, Dharmakaya is the collection of all Dharmas, i.e., all things as they are. Hence the chair that I am sitting on, and the thoughts and sensations I have, are considered equally as Dharmas. So we cannot replace the term “Dharmakaya” with the term “universe” at will.
When can one experience this Dharmakaya Light? According to the Tibetan tantric teaching there are several possibilities. One possibility is that at the moment of sneezing, one might get a glimpse of the Dharmakaya Light. The other possibility is at the moment of fainting. Another possibility is at the moment of death. For people without preparation for death by practicing Buddhist tantric methods, the Dharmakaya Light they experience at the moment of death is fleeting, lasting for less than a second. Nevertheless, the possibilities that I have mentioned so far are not situations that we can enter at will, and therefore cannot be used for practice.
However, there are other possibilities. For example, during deep and sound sleep one might experience the Dharmakaya Light. One may also experience it at the peak of sexual intercourse. Such a peak cannot be reached by ordinary people because they have already discharged before reaching it. Tantric practitioners who have training in visualization and breathing to a certain extent will be able to have sexual intercourse without discharge. Thereby they can reach the peak of sexual union and see the Dharmakaya Light. In Tantric Buddhism one goes through many preliminary practices so that one becomes able to use sleep or sex for spiritual advancement.
Finally, the Dharmakaya Light may be attained through meditation. Chan (Zen) is a kind of Tantric practice that tries to reach the Dharmakaya Light through meditation—a meditation that engulfs one's whole being. The experience of the Dharmakaya Light is possible only for very mature practitioners who are able to reach a near-death stage through meditation. Naturally the following question arises: Are there characteristics of the Dharmakaya Light experience that are recognizable to practitioners who begin to approach it? Indeed, there are.
My late teacher revealed that there are four characteristics of this experience that are common to all practitioners who are entering it, and that these four characteristics occur simultaneously:
The first characteristic is called “Bright Image,” i.e., all things appear to be brighter than usual, as if they were seen through a crystal. This particular characteristic occurring alone is not too difficult to attain. Usually when people go into meditative states they have this experience.
The second characteristic is called “No Thoughts,” i.e., while fully awake one's thinking process has stopped; there is not a thought in one's awareness. Consequently, one is not even aware of this “No Thoughts” occurring. It is only later when one reflects upon one's meditative experience that one realizes what happened.
The third characteristic is called “No Duality,” i.e., one is free from the dualistic sense of subject versus object antagonism.
The fourth characteristic is called “Ceased Breathing,” i.e., one's breathing becomes ever finer and slowly comes to a halt. There is no air in or out through the nostrils. However, at this moment one's abdomen begins to expand and contract in rhythm, and this is called “inner breathing” because the air is still moving inside the body. Our normal breathing, in contrast, is called “outer breathing.” The characteristic of “Ceased Breathing” means that one's outer breathing has stopped.
According to my late teacher, Yogi Chen, when one attains the Dharmakaya Light, even the inner breathing has stopped. At this stage even one's heartbeat has stopped. Such a meditative state is thus very close to death. Ordinarily our heartbeats are considered to be beyond our conscious control, and yet practitioners of meditation can slow them down or, in rare cases, even stop them completely through meditation. When one's inner and outer breathing stops, one's body will be completely filled with air, and then this air bag will shatter, i.e., the boundary between inner and outer air disappears and one's inner air becomes one with the air outside. (This does not mean that our physical body will shatter into pieces.) At this point one goes into the Dharmakaya Light experience.
I myself have had experiences of the above-mentioned characteristics of the Dharmakaya Light experience: Bright Image, No Thoughts, No Duality and Ceased Breathing. Nevertheless, I have not had the experience of the Dharmakaya Light because my meditations are not deep enough. The stopping of the outer breathing is not very difficult to achieve; many practitioners of meditation have had this experience. As one's meditation goes deeper, the breathing automatically becomes finer and slower, and eventually stops by itself. As soon as the outer breathing stops, the inner breathing begins. It cannot be achieved by intention because as long as one maintains thoughts, the outer breathing cannot stop.
Once I had an experience of the outside air pouring into me while I was doing “Powa,” a Tantric practice to help deceased people enter Buddha's Pureland. All of a sudden, without my intention or expectation, the air outside came into me, not through the nostrils but from all directions; and then went into the Amitabha Buddha that I visualized in front of me.
I mention all these personal experiences to help you understand that those characteristics mentioned above, although they sound incredible, are indeed achievable.
When Yogi Chen talks about Chan (Zen) in his writings, he is talking about this Dharmakaya Light experience and its utilization in all aspects of life. The utilization of this experience is to base our living in this final realization of Limitless-Oneness.
When we talk about this Dharmakaya Light experience as the Enlightenment experience, it does not mean that the goal of Buddhism is to practice meditation to such an extent that one is very close to death and then remains useless. Rather, it is the true beginning of Buddha's Wisdom and Compassion. The Wisdom based on this Dharmakaya Light experience goes beyond the worldly wisdom that is limited by our normal sensations. The Compassion based on this Dharmakaya Light experience accepts all without reservations. The wonderful interplay of Wisdom and Compassion results in the infinite teachings and other salvation activities of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Based on the degree of realization of Dharmakaya Light, Yogi Chen classified the Gong An's of Chan, i.e., the anecdotes of Chan masters' teachings, into four levels. He wrote a book on this entitled “The Lighthouse in the Ocean of Chan. ” At the first level, you simply enter the Dharmakaya Light experience, hence, the first level is called “Entrance.” In Chan it is often denoted by the drawing of a big circle. Why is a circle used to represent the Dharmakaya Light? In the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya Light, everywhere can be the center and then it is of equal infinite distance to all sides; similarly, the center of a circle is of equal distance to all points on its circumference. Of course, the Dharmakaya Light actually has no boundary.
Although I cannot emphasize the importance of the Dharmakaya Light experience enough, it is still not something that we want to have attachment for. Its significance lies in the fact that, prior to this experience, one has never actually been free from the dualistic conceptualization of “me” and “others.” As long as there is such a distinction, one cannot truly love others. When there are no difficulties, when we have enough to share, of course, it is easy to love one another. At times of shortage or hardship, fighting becomes inevitable for people with a sense of self. Only people who have experienced the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya Light can truly love others as themselves. It is not because that experience has transformed them; rather, it is because the experience is a vivid manifestation of their having returned to their original purity.
Furthermore, the motivation to serve others will spontaneously emerge from the Dharmakaya Light experience because it is a real experience of being one with all. One then no longer does good because of believing in some conceptual framework of goodness or for rewards in the future or in Heaven. Rather, it is simply out of a profound sense of Oneness that it has become mandatory to act for the well-being of all.
If one who has had the Dharmakaya Light experience becomes attached to it, then he will stay in it. Thereby he cannot help ordinary sentient beings through direct involvement. This is not the best possible way to serve others who are still in the whirlpool of worldly sorrows. Therefore, after one has attained the Dharmakaya Light experience and has practiced to the extent that he can enter it at will, he should come out from that meditative state. Yogi Chen pointed out that such a freedom from attachment to the Dharmakaya Light experience is a major step on the path toward complete Enlightenment. In his classification it is the second level, which is labeled “Exit.”
The third level is called “Use.” After one has exited from attachment to the Dharmakaya Light experience, one practices infusing the Limitless-Oneness of Dharmakaya Light experience into all daily activities, and thereby rooting our thoughts and actions in the oneness of all. We are accustomed to selfish desires and actions, and to self-centered thoughts and talks. Even when one has purified oneself to the extent that one has had the Dharmakaya Light experience, it might still be just a fleeting moment of awakening. Therefore, one needs to practice penetration and utilization of the awakening in one's daily life. When one has mastered utilization of the awakening in daily activities, then one may bestow Enlightenment on those who are ready even through simple daily encounters. In the history of Chan there are numerous such examples. One famous story is the bestowal of Enlightenment on a devoted disciple by the Bird Nest Master, who simply blew a feather in his own palm.
Finally, one has become so mature in the utilization of the awakening experience that it has become one's nature and there are no traces of practice or endeavor. This fourth and final level is therefore entitled “Finish.”
Chan, as I explained above, is the quintessence of Buddha's teachings. All Buddhist teachings are rooted in the Dharmakaya Light experience and guide us toward this experience. The above is only a brief explanation of Chan. For detailed study and guidance on practice, please read Yogi Chen's “The Lighthouse in the Ocean of Chan. ”
In Buddhism there are many systems with their respective stipulation of stages. Among all these various teachings, Chan is a direct teaching at the ultimate stage. It is not a beginner's course; hence most of us need to start our Buddhist practice with easier methods. Many of the questions that you have raised are due to a lack of understanding of the different stages in Buddhism. For example, some of you considered meditations leading to concentration as Chan practices, without realizing that such practices are only basic but not intrinsic to Buddhism. Concentration practices are common to Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.
The next question is—how to approach Chan, or how to attain Chan through practice? There are many traditional approaches that are developed by different masters and marked by their individual styles. They are the so-called Schools of Chan, e.g., Lin Ji, Cao Dong , etc. Of course, we need to respect and learn the traditional teachings. However, one should also realize that there is no way which is the only true way to attain Chan. Hence we should not be too attached to the individual styles.
When the masters helped their disciples as recorded in the Gong An's, the Chan anecdotes, they did not have preconceived ideas in mind. A Chan master simply acts in response to the situation raised by the student. It is analogous to a man with eyesight who naturally extends a helping hand to a falling blind person. The way he helps is in response to the way the blind person is falling. Hence we cannot simply try to imitate his hand movements in order to gain his eyesight.
The master tried to aim at and destroy the self-centeredness of the student at that instant; and when the student was ready, he experienced it and got the essence of Buddha's teachings instantly. Later, people tried to record incidents like these to convey the inconceivable teaching; and they called the teacher's responses “methods,” as if there was a general way or approach. Actually each response was unique to the given situation relative to the student at that particular moment. As the time and place change, so do the student and the teacher's response. Hence, we should not just imitate the actions of Chan masters in order to achieve Enlightenment.
This is pointed out by the saying: “A Chan practitioner walks the path of birds.” Birds fly in the sky, leaving no traces; similarly, a Chan practitioner's activities cannot be grasped. If we take a photo of a bird in the sky and think that it is still there in the sky, then we are certainly mistaken. Likewise, if we read a Chan anecdote and think that the master's response is the answer for all times to come, then we have been misguided. This is precisely what the Chan masters tried to avoid when they taught without resorting to the holy teachings as recorded in the Sutras and Sastras. Only with this kind of proper understanding can we go into the study of Chan anecdotes.
Let us consider a question raised by one of you: “I used to think that Zen is the same as Buddha Nature. What is the difference?”
The difference is that “Buddha Nature” is just a concept, while Chan is the actual realization of Enlightenment. As a conceptual tool, “Buddha Nature” helps to dissolve the boundaries of all our concepts; thereby we may become free from the views and thoughts that we have held. Nevertheless, it is just a concept. If we do not enhance it by actual practice, we will never experience the freedom from conceptual limitations.
Another question from you that is of interest is, “Is sitting meditation really the way to reach Zen?”
According to Yogi Chen's teaching, in the Chinese Chan tradition, one starts the sitting meditation only after one has had the Chan experience. Before one attains the Chan experience, one needs to travel to look for a teacher with real attainment, and then practice according to the teacher's instructions. After one has attained the Chan experience, at first one has no mastery over that experience and it is just a fleeting glimpse of the Dharmakaya Light happening by chance. Therefore, one needs to practice sitting meditation in solitude in order to stabilize that experience and gain mastery over it. The goal at this stage is simply to become able to enter and exit the Chan experience at will.
Only after one has mastery over the entrance and exit of Dharmakaya Light can one expand the practice to ordinary daily activities. In the Chinese Chan tradition, it is even said that one should not go into retreat before one has obtained the Chan experience of awakening. One needs to do many good deeds to help sentient beings and visit Chan masters until one becomes mature and meets a master who, with one act such as a blow or a shout, breaks up your ego.
Some even experienced awakening during their pilgrimage from master to master: one saw his own image in the water; one heard the sound of a stone hitting a bamboo; while another saw a peach blossom; and they instantly awakened. There is simply no one or definite way to obtain the awakening experience, and in these cases, the water, the stone and the flower are the masters. This is called “the Direct Transmission of Dharmakaya.”
After one has gained mastery over the entrance and exit of the Dharmakaya Light experience, one no longer needs to stay in solitary retreat. Then one can live on a mountain where there are only a few people, and practice combining the awakening experience with simple daily activities. One no longer has to stay only in one room, but may walk around on the mountain of his retreat, a natural environment without complex human relations.
When one becomes quite at ease with this practice in the mountain, then one will go down into the city to practice while mingling with people. Hui Ke, the second Patriarch of the Chinese Chan School , was a monk, and yet for his practice at this stage he went to gambling houses and brothels. One's greed and concern over gain or loss are operating during those kinds of involvements. The advanced practitioner is trying to penetrate those fundamental attachments with the awakening experience and thereby become truly free from them. The complete purity of mind thus obtained has been tested with real situations, and is therefore applicable to life. One then devotes one's life to service based on such purity.
Before one reaches such purity, the subtle traces of attachments may still emerge occasionally and this should be taken care of. Consequently, the distinction between the actor and the observer is still working in one's consciousness, and one's activities are not pure and natural. Furthermore, when good deeds are the result of conscious control, there is no telling when righteousness may yield to desires or impulses.
The Chan use of the Dharmakaya Light experience is to spontaneously sublimate all our self-centered tendencies to their original purity in Limitless-Oneness. There is no longer a chance of one's self-centeredness working behind one's activities. One becomes at ease with his desires and impulses because he no longer lives in their shadows but stays in the openness of the whole universe as one.
When the second Patriarch went to the prostitutes, people ridiculed him because he was a monk who was supposed to remain chaste. The second Patriarch simply replied, “I am training my own mind; it is none of your business.” Nevertheless, this kind of training is not for beginners to take up. It is training at the very last stage. In order to dig out the roots of all one's desires, it is necessary to go into situations where desires are rampant. The practitioners at this stage will visit or stay in a cemetery at night. At that stage they are already able to see ghosts. They will use the scary sights and sounds to enhance the stability of their Dharmakaya Light, and thereby transcend the ordinary fear.
We are not at such an advanced stage, nor have we had the Dharmakaya Light experience. Can we still practice sitting meditation and gain some benefits, or should we start it only after we shall have had the Dharmakaya Light experience?
Sitting meditation does not have to be the advanced Chan practice. It can be a simple practice of observing one's breathing, or concentrating on one point. To reach the Dharmakaya Light experience, it is necessary that we have the basic meditational ability to concentrate on one point. Hence, we can still practice sitting meditation and gain some benefits. However, even for the very basic sitting meditations, it is very important that one is consistent in one's mind and activities, and not attached to worldly things.
If we study the Chan anecdotes carefully, we will notice that those Chan practitioners, in order to obtain awakening, gave up everything and went on a quest looking for a Chan master. Such a pilgrimage might continue for years as they travel from master to master. How many of us could do such a thing? How many of us would give up everything for such a spiritual quest?
Further, although Chan is undefinable and without a definite method or answer, still, traditionally there are two methods which have been passed down. One method is to ponder a Hua Tou, i.e., a question that deeply puzzles one. This pondering should be kept up continuously without a break until one attains the awakening experience. It may take days, weeks, months or years. This could drive an ordinary person crazy, and hence it is dangerous unless the practitioner has completely renounced worldly life.
Indeed, the aim of this practice is to break up the hold of one's rationality (but it is not to break up one's rationality). Whenever we are acting within the confines of concepts, we are aware of the subject/object distinction, and hence we cannot be one with our immediate experience. Hence to reach the Limitless-Oneness of the Dharmakaya we need to go beyond rationality. An analogy would be like trying to escape from a mental cage by drilling at one point until the drill goes through. In the case of Chan awakening, it is not just creating a hole, it is comparable to the whole cage collapsing.
How many of us can keep pondering one question all the time? That actually requires training in advance. Therefore, the sitting meditation for concentrating on one point is preparatory for the real Chan practice.
People often try to understand Chan, instead of by complete devotion and involvement, by observations made from an on-looker's standpoint. Consequently, their remarks are apt to be contradicted by some known Gong An's. For example, some would tell us that the Chan practitioners are practical in the sense that they work daily for their livelihood. The First Patriarch Bodhidharma sat in meditation facing a wall for nine years waiting for someone mature enough to receive the transmission of the quintessence. What kind of practical mindedness was exemplified by the First Patriarch of Chan? Thus we see that working daily for livelihood is not essential to Chan.
Seeing the example set by Bodhidharma, some would tell us that sitting meditation is the way to attain Chan. Nevertheless, when the Second Patriarch, Hui Ke, came to ask for teaching from Bodhidharma, the transmission had nothing to do with instructions on sitting meditation.
Hui Ke was no ordinary man; Prior to going to Bodhidharma, he had studied the sutras and realized that he did not have the real attainment. Therefore, he went to Bodhidharma for teaching on the quintessence. He stood outside for three days and nights in the snow waiting for Bodhidharma to pay attention to him. The snow covered his feet up to the knees. Finally Bodhidharma broke the silence and asked, “What do you want?” Hui Ke replied that he would like to receive the teaching on the essence of the Dharma. Bodhidharma said that the ancients gave up their lives in order to obtain such teachings; hence, such teachings could not be given lightly. To show his determination and appreciation of the teaching, Hui Ke cut off his left arm at the elbow and presented it to Bodhidharma.
Seeing this, Bodhidharma said, “Now that you have sacrificed the well-being of your body for the Dharma, you have thereby shown your appreciation of the Dharma; nevertheless, the quintessence of the Dharma cannot be obtained from others.” Hui Ke said, “My mind is not at peace; please pacify it for me!” Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind; then I will pacify it for you.” Hui Ke remained silent for a while and then said, “I cannot find my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “I have pacified it for you.” When one realizes that there is no mind to be found, then there are no more disturbances of mind. During this famous episode there is no mention of sitting meditation.
The above shows that there is really no definite way to attain awakening. That is also the reason why a Chan practitioner goes from one master to another in search of the one who would bestow awakening on him. It is also recorded in the Gong An's that some Chan masters would point out to a visiting student that another master was the right teacher for him. They even knew who was a suitable teacher for whom. Practicing a method is more or less an outward imitation; only the inner realization of a true master and the inner maturity of a devoted disciple can meet and bring about union in the Limitless-Oneness. Hence, for Chan students it is of utmost importance to take refuge in a true master.
The other method in the Chinese Chan tradition is the “Running and Shock” method. The practitioner runs clockwise in a circle, with his left shoulder lifted and body leaning a little bit toward the right; his left hand moves back and forth a lot, and he runs faster and faster. Suddenly the teacher or an attendant makes a loud noise. Upon hearing the noise, the practitioner stops running and stands still. Such a running and shock practice may sometimes bring about the Dharmakaya Light experience.
We usually take it for granted that air goes through both nostrils. It is taught in Tantric Buddhism that practitioners of meditation have learned that sometimes the air will go by itself through only one nostril. Often the air goes in through the left nostril and comes out through the right one. Therefore, the practitioner runs in the particular way described above so as to help more air go into the body. When the body is full of air, and one runs very fast and suddenly stops in response to a shock caused by a loud noise, the conditions may bring about the extraordinary Dharmakaya Light experience.
Rinzai and Soto, the Japanese Chan schools, originated in the Chinese tradition and are named after the Chinese Patriarchs. Last night I heard Professor Rogers mention that in one of these two schools, I do not recall now which one it is, the student is not given something to work on; rather the student may come to the teacher when he has questions to ask. To me, such an arrangement contains a hidden teaching. It would be interesting for you to ponder over why the arrangement is such that the student goes to the teacher only when he has questions. The hidden teaching in this arrangement is beyond the actual questioning and answering between the student and the teacher. In other words, the arrangement contains a Hua Tou in itself, i.e., a puzzle to ponder. You might want to think about this before our next meeting, and then we can talk about it next time.
Professor Rogers: To think about what?
Dr. Lin: Why the arrangement is such that the student comes to the teacher only when he has questions. You see, it is not the case that the teacher has something to give to the student. Rather, the teacher offers an answer only when the student has a question. The teacher seems to be waiting passively. Why is he like that?
So far I have not answered all the questions that you wrote down for me. Nevertheless, I believe it is better to ask new questions now that you have heard my talk, rather than my going through the list of questions you previously had.
Question from a student: When you talked about losing the sense of subject and object, is that differentiating between yourself and other objects or beings? Could you explain that more?
Dr. Lin: It is something that one realizes upon reflection only after one has come out of that state, just as one becomes aware of the degree of one's tension only after becoming relaxed. Furthermore, it is a personal experience that is almost impossible to communicate to people who have not had the same experience. Still I can tell you something to help you understand it.
Usually when we sit on a chair we are constantly aware of our body resting against the chair; without making any effort we sense the boundary between two objects. However, as a result of my meditational practice, the sense of boundary between two objects simply disappears by itself. The sense of a boundary was a natural sensation which I realized later to be unconsciously maintained by conceptual distinctions.
Thus, losing the sense of subject and object distinction is not just a conceptual thing; it is something one can actually experience.
Right now we can try the following experiment: try to imagine that you are at the center of a ball of air or light, and imagine that the ball is getting larger and larger. Since you have not practiced this before, naturally you will sense a limitation to such expansion. Can anyone tell me where you have sensed a boundary? Or, in other words, do you sense some obstacle to your imagined expansion?
One student: This circle that we are sitting in (referring to the seating arrangement in the room)
Dr. Lin: Yes. You are limited by the walls. Whenever we enter a room, our notion of space will be limited by the walls. Only when we try to expand the space in our minds do we come to realize that we have such conceptual boundaries. This does not mean that walls do not exist or that we can go through walls. Rather, it simply means that it is not necessary for our minds to be unconsciously limited by our senses. The so-called “supernatural” abilities are simply expressions of the mind when it is awakened to and freed from the limitations ill-imposed by our normal senses. It takes practice to free our minds from all these kinds of unconscious presumptions. When we are free from unconsciously self-imposed mental blocks, we will be able to see a new world and live our lives differently. That is why we need these kinds of spiritual practices and that is where the significance of such a spiritual practice lies.
The traditional ideals such as “Love thy neighbors; all people under the sky are brothers and sisters; ...” are not just empty words. It is possible for one to attain such spiritual freedom enabling one to truly feel like that. Physically our growth is limited; spiritually we are all capable of unlimited growth. Life is an opportunity for such growth, that is where its true significance lies. In comparison, all other things are just transient. Spiritual growth is an eternal quest for humanity, and it is the only source of true happiness in our human existence. Whoever has enjoyed freedom from the ego will selflessly serve others.
Another way to reach the presumption-free state is through the practice of pure or direct experiencing. This is the “Vipassana” practice, also referred to as “insight meditation.” There are two kinds of Vipassana practices: One kind is training oneself to think in accordance with Buddha's teachings (this is not the kind that I am referring to), and the other kind is training in observation and awareness by simply observing one's sensations, breathing, thoughts or emotions without involvement or reaction.
To people who have not done such practices it would seem to be a waste of time because one simply sits still, becomes introspective, and does not react. Nevertheless, it is indeed a training in experiencing things as they are. We have been so dominated and prejudiced by our thoughts that most of the time we lose touch with our immediate experiences, especially the subtle sensations. We cannot see the world as it is; and our actions are guided by our limited views. Distortions lead to more distortions and ultimately cause considerable confusion.
We are constantly under tension because of such distortions and confusion. We do need to learn to unwind in order to have a clear mind and a happy life. As we pay attention to our experiences as they are, the grip of our conceptual framework gradually loosens. People are usually quite blind as to what is actually going on, and simply push forward with their plans, desires and views. Pure experiencing has an awakening effect that will refresh our awareness and sensibility. As a result we will be more in tune with reality and become more empathic to others' situations.
Pure experiencing will purify our minds thereby freeing us from our prejudices and attachments. A booklet of mine called “The Practice of Singing Along” describes a pure-experiencing practice that I have invented. The key point is to try to sing along with songs from a tape being played, not segment by segment, but rather sound after sound. One tries to sing along by intuition, not memory.
I began my practice by using a French tape because I do not know this language. Although we cannot understand a foreign language that we have not learned, still we should be able to hear every sound as it is spoken. Unfortunately, we tend to mentally close our hearing to foreign languages as we have difficulty capturing the spoken sounds. On the one hand, this is our sense of economy working, i.e., we simply ignore what would be of no avail to us. On the other hand, such habitual tendencies become automatic mental blocks to our ability to learn or readjust. That is why language learning is natural to small children, but a tremendous task for many adults.
When I practice singing along, I try to sing at the same time I hear the song; otherwise, it would be from memory rather than a direct experience.
Question from the class: But you must be a little bit behind it; aren't you?
Dr. Lin: Well, it takes practice to achieve that. Right now you think that it certainly takes time for the sound to reach me and for me to imitate it out loud.
(Dr. Lin made a sound by striking the desk.)
This sound as it occurred was, in fact, beyond our concepts of who made it and where it came from. We had an immediate sensation that involved no thinking. As long as we have a sense of this being a sound coming from a place outside of ourselves, then our faculties are not functioning intuitively. The natural functions of our faculties are being interfered with by distinctions made on an unconscious level based on culture and personal past experiences. Through practice, all these add-ons will gradually weaken and finally fade away. It is possible to reach the state in which the sound you hear is felt as yours. The sound is just there, free from the distinction of being yours or mine. When you can experience just pure sounds, then you will be able to sing along simultaneously with the song being played.
The importance of this practice lies in the spiritual freedom it will bring. After I had practiced singing along for one year using the same French tape, gradually I was able to do it. Also, as I sang along, the “Bright Image” that I mentioned earlier would appear.
Question from the class: Is it the Dharmakaya Light?
Dr. Lin: No, that is not the Dharmakaya Light. “Bright Image” simply refers to the experience of seeing everything brightly.
When one is singing along closely, one becomes so concentrated that one cannot cling to anything. Normally, one tends to cling to the sounds one has just heard, and this clinging will prevent one from hearing the forthcoming sounds properly. Similarly, if one anticipates anything, then the anticipating attitude will interfere with one's perception. Hence singing along also frees one from anticipation. It was my experience that the practice of singing along can bring one into meditative states that are free from clinging and anticipation.
As I entered that meditative state, tears simply rolled down my face; I intuitively sensed that we are fundamentally the same and that we have been deceived by superficial differences into making divisions among human beings. Differences in culture, country or species do not matter; as sentient beings we are all the same.
If I were born as you, then what your mother says would be as dear to me as to you; and that is the reason why children can learn several languages easily. To children, all languages are as natural as their mother tongue. Adults have made the distinction between native and foreign languages, so they learn through translations. Consequently, the learning process is slow and clumsy. Instead of the natural way of immediately responding, we adults are constantly translating or checking the grammar when using a second language. In this way we lose our natural ability to be direct and simple.
Once we have purified our minds through such practice, we will realize the underlying truth of what people are doing when they kill each other in wars—it is the same as killing their own parents. This kind of realization is the real benefit of Buddhist study and practice, especially the practices. Only through adopting these practices will one see the fundamental truth. It is different from brainwashing by ideologies. Buddhist practices simply clear your mind's eye so that you can see the truth yourself; you will really sense it.
Question from a student: I am having trouble understanding the difference between transcending desires such as greed and using it as an excuse to act out one's desires.
Dr. Lin: First of all, you have to answer to yourself whether you are sincere or not. Only when you practice sincerely and your concern goes beyond the ordinary limits of yourself, your family, and your country, does the transcendence have real meaning. One's personal greed becomes an insignificant thing when one sees the whole picture—so many people are suffering; life is so fragile; there are so many natural calamities and yet people are adding on suffering by fighting. When one's mind is broadened to see and care for all this, then it becomes free from personal gains and losses.
As to those people who use ideals as pretexts for promoting their self-centered interests, I think they are indeed suffering a great loss. In the final analysis, what can they truly gain by this? They are only falling deeper and deeper into the tiny prison that they are building for their own confinement. I have only sympathy for them. What we need to do is to help them see the vastness and freedom of Limitless-Oneness.
In this context, the old saying, “Your destiny is really in your hands,” is valid. Our intentions, sincerity, and actions can make a great difference, so we ought to be careful. Self-centered people are living in misery, because even if they can fool others all the time, they can never fool themselves. In view of the liberation experienced by Chan masters, selfish people are missing the best opportunity that life has to offer, and wasting life by rushing into wrong directions. How pitiful!
Question:In meditation you reach the point where you lose the concept of yourself and another, so it is all one. But when you have to withdraw from that meditative state, and it reaches the point where you do not see a distinction between yourself and others, do you not have any concept of self?
Dr. Lin: Well, by the definition of Buddhahood, that is the case. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the awakening experience will render one ignorant of worldly ways. The purer one becomes, the clearer one sees the underlying motives of others.
In practice the main problem is how to apply the Oneness that one realizes through meditation in daily life. In real life “there are no free lunches.” Of course, realization of Oneness does not mean that based on your realization you will get a “free lunch.” The main point is that one has gained the freedom to see the whole spectrum. Consequently, one sees clearly what is at the root of human suffering. There are things that we can do little about, like natural calamities; however, man-made sufferings can be reduced and even prevented from happening by our efforts.
There are different ways to solve human problems: politically, socially, economically, etc. These ways are limited and more or less superficial. The fundamental solution to human problems is a common awareness that we need to be good ourselves and kind to others. The laws are very limited; it all depends on how they are interpreted, carried out, and to what extent they can apply. Law enforcement can capture only some illegal dealings, and sometimes punishes the innocent by mistake. Laws may regulate human affairs, but cannot be a source of compassion and goodwill.
Once we realize the importance of everyone being good and kind, we should start improving ourselves. This is not self-centered because it is not out of a sense of trying to be superior, but just the result of seeing the whole picture and recognizing that this is the foundation for a solution to our problems. Besides, others will follow only after we have set good examples ourselves. We can improve ourselves through practice, and we have control only over our own activities. Others can be influenced only when they are willing to listen to us. If we start with criticizing others, it will simply be a waste of time and energy.
When you begin to improve yourself, outwardly it seems that you are the same as before; you still have things in life to take care of. Nevertheless, you are now living with an open and new perspective, and your motives are no longer self-centered. Previously, we tried to get more for ourselves, so we thought and acted in terms of competition. With the new perspective of the oneness of the whole, we work in cooperation for harmony and peace. If the situation involves competition, we avoid it by starting on a new route. An old Chinese saying goes: “One step backward, and the ocean becomes expansive and the sky spacious.” That means when one is all wrapped up in worldly entanglements, if one will only yield a little bit, then one will see that life is in fact not so narrow. Life is full of possibilities; simply yield and live in peace.
Question: How does the concept of “no self” come up?
Dr. Lin: At the level of being a concept, all concepts are just man-made devices. We have been bound by our concept of a self, so Buddha gave the teaching on “no self” in order to free us from the concept of a self. It is not Buddha's intention to give us another conceptual cage; His teaching is not for us to live within the concept of “no self,” rather it is simply a guide toward experiencing freedom from “self.”
Some people may get the correct message upon hearing the teaching of “no self,” while others may be misled into thinking that there is still something to hold onto. Therefore, Chan masters help people get the message by doing without the traditional teachings of Buddha. They convey directly the experience of awakening, which is essentially beyond the reach of concepts and speeches.
The effectiveness of communication is relative to the understanding of the parties involved. Hence, concepts, as tools for communication, are bound to be limited in their range of applications. Once we realize this limitation, we will be able to use concepts as tools more effectively.
Professor Rogers: Dr. Lin, in the introductory part of your talk you talked about the four characteristics like things becoming brighter, etc. I think you referred to that as the real stuff. I feel very uneasy when I hear that, because that is something very different from where I am, and I am not sure if I desire it; but if I was to get that, I would need to desire it, so it sort of sets up a kind of dualism that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
Dr. Lin: Right. That is precisely why my teacher was breaking the tradition when he revealed all these experiences. The tradition of Chan is not to talk about it so as to avoid the problem you have just raised.
Let us consider the following famous Gong An: A monk sat in meditation. Upon seeing this, his teacher began to rub a brick on the ground. The monk asked, “What are you doing?” The teacher replied, “I am polishing it into a mirror.” The monk retorted,” How could you succeed in that?” The teacher replied, “Likewise, one cannot become enlightened through meditation.” The basic teaching here is that as long as you have the idea of attaining Enlightenment then you will never get it, because the idea itself becomes a block in the path of reaching oneness with all.
Why did my teacher run such a risk and break the traditional silence? Nowadays so many people are talking about Gong An's that Chan has been degraded into a mere play of words and wits. Many people think their witty remarks and guesses are “answers” to the Gong An's, and that is all Chan is about. Hence, in order to dispel such errors, my teacher revealed the experiences with the hope that someday some serious practitioners may be able to reach it, and feel reassured by duplicating the experience he revealed to us, even in the absence of a living master.
Besides, the Chan practice is never trying to reach this or that experience. It simply offers a Gong An for the practitioner to ponder, and nothing else. So, please forget about the desire to reach something. The method is simply to work on a Gong An.
Professor Rogers: So, these statements are simply put out there, so that if we have that kind of experience, then we know that is it; and there is nothing that we can do about having that experience.
Dr. Lin: Yes, in a sense, there is nothing you can do about having that experience; however, in another sense, there is. Now that you have learned the principles of Buddhism, you can start trying with some simple practices. Gradually you will approach it. It is like planting a tree: it needs sunshine, fertilizer, and a daily supply of water. At first you do not see anything; years later the tree is there. There is nothing you can do to speed up its growth; just wait patiently. You simply need to keep up with the watering, adding of fertilizer and weeding. Similarly, we simply need to keep up with our daily practice, and the spiritual maturation will gradually take shape.
Professor Rogers: You are suggesting that there are many practices?
Dr. Lin: Yes. There are different practices for different people at different stages. Now we can talk about why I recommend chanting. Of course, meditation is good, and concentration practices are good. However, if we study it carefully, we will notice that in the Sutras, before a meditational technique is given, there is a short paragraph that says, “When this person has realized the futility of worldly endeavors and given them up, then he goes to a secluded place and starts to practice the following meditation.”
The popular approach nowadays is to adopt the meditational techniques and encourage everyone to start practicing them without even mentioning the existence of such a preliminary step. Why do we need to mention this preliminary step? Whoever is so busy with his daily life, especially our modern complex life with speedy communication and mobility, is bound to have a mind full of thoughts and tensions. Such a person cannot simply sit down and concentrate on one point for, say, thirty minutes.
If he tries to do that, then the result is that he will be concentrating on the running around in his mind for thirty minutes. If there is no conflict or worry in his mind, then no harm will be done. Otherwise, the conflict or worry will be magnified through the “meditation” and the prejudice, attachment and tension will become even stronger. Consequently, the meditation will produce ill effects, therefore, it is very important that one first prepares oneself for meditational practice. One needs to gradually reduce one's worldly desires and involvements, and build up a sincere desire to obtain the fruits of meditation.
In comparison, the chanting of “Amitabha” is more suitable for beginners of Buddhist practice. It is a way to free our minds from our customary views and thoughts and to stop our entanglements within our thoughts. Since all our worldly thoughts and concepts are connected in a self-centered way, there is no one ordinary concept that we can use without implicitly touching the net of our worldly thoughts and concerns. “Amitabha” is the name of a Buddha. It is not connected with our worldly entanglements. We practice to form a new habit of chanting such a holy name or a mantra in order for the old habit of running around in a self-centered circle to fade away.
We build up the length of chanting gradually from, say, five hundred repetitions a day for months to a thousand a day, just as we gradually increase the number of rounds of our daily jogging. We have only so much energy and we are accustomed to devoting all of it to our self-centered ways. With the gradual development of the habit of chanting, our energy finds a new direction and moves away from holding onto preconceptions and precautions. It is a slow and gradual change and there will be no abrupt conflict; hence it is safe for everyone to adopt. If we keep up the daily chanting, even though it is a gradual change, some day we will be free from attachments and prejudices.
Will this new habit become a new prison for us? It will not. The reasons are as follows: A mantra consists of pure sounds, so it has no meaning and no conceptual boundary. If it is a holy name such as “Amitabha,” what does it mean? “Amitabha” means infinite light and infinite life. Infinite light is limitless in space; and infinite life is limitless in time. The basic structure of our conceptual universe is thereby dismantled. There is nothing for us to hold onto. Thus, it is clear that the chanting practice will not form a new prison for us.
Chanting is also a kind of meditation. It changes us step by step, so it is slow and safe. Other meditational practices, especially the Chan endeavor of pondering constantly on a Hua Tou, involve direct confrontation with one's self. One attempts to destroy one's self-awareness; it is like a life-or-death battle between one's understanding of no-self and one's habitual self-awareness and self-centeredness. Very few people have the courage to face such a duel, not to mention the ability to conduct it well. Hence, we need to know our own level, and then choose a practice that is suitable and therefore profitable for us. For most of us who still have worldly involvements and human relationships to worry about, chanting is a safe practice.
If you are from a Christian background, it is not necessary to chant “Amitabha.” Within the orthodox Christian tradition there is a practice which mainly involves the chanting of “the Prayer of Jesus.” The short prayer is like a mantra, and it says: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal of this practice is to repeat it to such an extent that, for the rest of one's life, whenever the heart beats once, one has recited the prayer once.
When one is serious about developing this practice, at the beginning one can still go on with one's ordinary daily life, but one chants the prayer whenever one remembers, or at least keeps a regular daily session for the practice. According to the orthodox Christian literature, in the end the practitioner needs to go into retreat to do this practice under the guidance of a master who has had experiences in this practice. Why does one need the guidance of an experienced master? When one is devoted to a spiritual practice, on the one hand, one is fighting with one's ego to obtain purity; and on the other hand, one will encounter temptations from evil spirits. Hence, the guidance and protection provided by a master is of great benefit and importance.
Tomorrow morning I will go to the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Park to perform “Powa,” a Tibetan Tantric ritual, for the deceased. The aim of this ritual is to transfer the consciousness of the deceased to the Pureland of Buddha so that they will no longer suffer in transmigrations. People who are interested in observing this ritual are welcome to join me. We will meet at ten o'clock at the statue of Stonewall Jackson in the cemetery. It will last for twenty to twenty-five minutes. The ritual itself is short but I will give a brief explanation to help you understand it prior to the ceremony.
Professor Rogers: So, this is really part of your practice—in any community you visit, you go to the cemetery?
Dr. Lin: Yes, to pray there for the deceased. My late Guru, Yogi Chen, used to do this, and I am continuing the practice.
The experience of visiting a cemetery will help you understand tomorrow night's lecture on impermanence. Actually, visiting cemeteries is in itself a practice of impermanence.
Professor Rogers: So, I do not know whether you demolished our practice of sitting ...
Dr. Lin: No. When you sit in meditation, one way is to try to concentrate on one point. Chanting “Amitabha” is simply trying to concentrate on this one point— “Amitabha.”
Professor Rogers: Your suggestion to us is that we need to prepare for our meditation. Maybe our class is, in a way, ...
Dr. Lin: The class can continue to do the sitting practice without running into the risks I mentioned because you are doing it for only twenty to thirty minutes at a time and only three times a week. The effect of such a practice is so little that there cannot be a big problem resulting from it. Although you are not prepared, you are not going into deep water to swim. You are only getting your feet wet, so there can be no danger.
(The whole class burst into laughter.)
Question from a student: In Buddhist teachings it is said that all sentient beings and all inanimate things, like grass, stones, etc., are Buddha. Does it mean that ...
Dr. Lin: All are really one to Buddha, namely, people who have had the awakening experience. In that experience Buddha could not distinguish between animate and inanimate; he could not even point to an object and call it something. He can function only after he has come out from that experience. For us, we need to first achieve that experience in order to realize the truth of Oneness. The teaching is a theory, a conceptual tool; it tells us to start thinking in terms of the Limitless-Oneness. From our ordinary point of view, the teaching is false. Nevertheless, if we want to have that experience, we need to follow the teachings and begin to see things from the Oneness point of view. Only then will we be able to savor Oneness someday.
How can we be sure that we are not mistaken in following the Buddhist teaching? We do not have the Oneness experience; how do we know that it is true or even attainable? The answer is that as we walk on this path we will grow and have more and more experiences that assure us of its correctness and benefits. Many extraordinary experiences that occur are difficult to explain and are even contrary to our common sense.
For example, a Buddhist friend Mrs. Young went back to Hong Kong for a short visit. I did not know what she was going to do over there. One night in my dream I saw her releasing turtles which is a Buddhist practice done to save lives. When she came back to the United States , I checked with her and found out that my dream occurred only a few hours after she actually did that in Hong Kong . If we take an airplane flight to get there, we will realize how far away it is, and in comparison, how tiny the sphere of our immediate senses are. How do we explain this?
If we follow the teaching, it says all are essentially one; then there is no wonder that we can see things happening afar because all are connected as one. We simply need to loosen our preconception of physical limits, and then extraordinary things will happen.
Besides, according to my experiences, the messages that we receive do not come in a random way. It has always been information that is of significance and relates to me in some way; and only as much as I need to know is revealed.
Another example is as follows: Before I began to plan for my pilgrimage to Bodhgaya where Sakyamuni became enlightened, I had a dream in which I saw that I would go to Nepal before I would return to Taiwan . Since I knew no one in Nepal , I did not know why I would be going there. In that dream I also saw a well-dressed Lama giving blessing to people, so I told my wife that I would probably see the Dalai Lama over there. I also told Professor Pryor, who was making arrangements for the pilgrimage, about this. The dream occurred more than one year before my pilgrimage took place in 1990.
Even when we went on the pilgrimage in January 1990, we did not know that the Dalai Lama would be there. Then in Varanasi Professor Pryor announced that the Dalai Lama would be in Sarnath the following day, and that we had been granted an invitation to attend the ceremony. So we actually saw him in India . This event becomes not so mysterious when we understand that all are actually one. This example also shows that our preconception that the future is unknown to us is not absolutely true.
I receive phone calls from people in Taiwan , Malaysia , Canada , Miami , New York , Los Angeles , etc., asking me to pray for someone who has passed away, or someone undergoing surgery, etc. I have had feedback from many people testifying that the prayers helped or worked. How do we account for prayers working for total strangers in vast distances? If it does not help, why do people keep calling me? I simply put their names down in a book, set it on the altar before the Buddha, and chant some mantras. That is what I do; and it works. If you do Buddhist practice, someday you may have this kind of experience yourself.
Question from a student: What is the Buddhist view on what is called fate, fortune or destiny?
Dr. Lin: Basically the Buddhist teaching is based on the law of cause-and-effect operating within the context of transmigrations, i.e., before Enlightenment all sentient beings go through life after life in the six realms of heaven, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell.
The course of one's present life is partly determined by one's actions in past lives, and partly determined by one's actions in this life. One's actions in this life may or may not yield fruits in this life; the fruit of one's actions may become mature in future lives.
Events that have happened already are determined by previous actions, hence they are fated in that sense. Nevertheless, events that have not yet happened may be changed, if only we know and work in advance on the causes for change. Hence, the law of cause-and-effect does not mean fatalism. It is precisely because of the law of cause-and-effect, changes are possible, Enlightenment can be work at, and fatalism does not hold.
Question from a student: I do not know about transmigration; but according to Buddhism, is there an origin?
Dr. Lin: Well, to this kind of question, even if someone gives you an answer, you will never know if it is true or not; it is purely theoretical. The Buddhists say that the transmigration is from time of no beginning.
The emphasis of Buddha's teaching is rather on the reality of suffering—the speedy arrival of old age, sickness and death, and on how one may be free from all this. Work on these real problems; do not spend time on those that are not real problems.
Professor Rogers: But we think it is a problem.
Dr. Lin: Right. Then the way out is to tell you that it is from time of no beginning. Anyway, if you like, please check it yourself.
(The whole class laughed.)
Professor Rogers: Thank you, Sensei (Japanese for teacher.)
The Second Meeting
Professor Rogers: We have placed great emphasis, I think, thanks to Dr. Lin, on the importance of practice in how you reach whatever it is that the Sutras, the scriptures, are talking about. We have our sort of academic practice which is sitting. In reading your journals, I thought we were making good progress; we were not thinking about reaching Enlightenment or any sort of dramatic kind of experience, and I am very comfortable with that. In a sense, Dr. Lin is speaking from the Buddhist point of view, and this is the first Buddhist we have heard from in this class in a formal sense. I think he is raising questions about our sitting practice. He is introducing the notion of chanting as something that may be safer or more appropriate to this sort of modern age when we simply are not going to take leave from society.
We are about to look at Shinran whose personality was shaped by Medieval Japan during a time of chaos when there was the sense that there was nothing you could do to affect the stage-by-stage movement toward something called “Enlightenment.” It was uniquely shaped by Japanese culture and the times. So, Shinran not only critiqued zazen (sitting meditation), he would say that chanting with any kind of purpose would be ineffectual during such a chaotic time.
The sitting meditation practice that we have been doing as shaped by Professor Follo has been very helpful. Dr. Lin, coming from years of practice in a very complex Tibetan Buddhist form of practice, is saying that the most helpful thing for most of us in this present age is chanting. Now we are going to look at Shinran who advocated the “practice of no practice;” according to him, there is no practice that is effective.
So, that is where I am at the moment—somewhat confused, and very pleased that Dr. Lin will be with us for the next two hours. We will do our ordinary regular practice during the last half hour.
Dr. Lin: What I was saying last time was that sitting meditation may not be appropriate for people who are not well-prepared. It does not mean that you cannot try it. I think it is good for you to have some experience with it. My emphasis was rather on the point that, if you want to have serious results, you have to take into account the preparations for meditation. Otherwise, when you go too deep into meditation, you might run into problems.
Of course, it is good for you to try it and gain some experience of a spiritual practice. Most of you have probably never tried to look into yourself to see what is really going on. You probably did not know that you could calm yourself down by watching your own breathing. There are things to be learned through meditation practice. Hence, it is beneficial for you to have some experiences with meditation.
Your meditation experiences will help you understand that chanting is another method of meditation. After you have done a lot of chanting you will notice that the same meditation experiences will occur. Tantric Buddhism teaches that the mind and the wind (breathing) are an inseparable unity. Since they are one, we can reach calmness of mind through breathing. We watch the breathing; when it becomes subtle and even, the mind calms down, too. Vice versa, when we do the one-point concentration practice, as our thoughts fade away and our attention gradually becomes fixed on the point of concentration, our breathing becomes more and more subtle and even, almost unnoticeable and can even stop. It is a two-way street; you can reach any point from either side, and the two approaches complement each other.
As to the “practice of no practice,” this is saying that, based on the Buddhist philosophy, what we are trying to do is to undo. The goal is to reach a state of effortlessness because we are simply learning to unlearn worldly habits and views so that we can return to our original purity, which requires no effort whatsoever to maintain. Shinran talked about the “practice of no practice,” and yet he did practice the chanting of “Amitabha.”
Professor Rogers: Only in thanksgiving, not in order to ...
Dr. Lin: Yes, in that kind of mood, but he did the chanting.
Professor Rogers: Or, the chanting did itself for him; it was effortless.
Dr. Lin: Well, yes. But that is just to say that one's chanting should be so pure that it is going on all by itself, that the one who chants should not maintain the second thought, “I am doing the chanting.” It does not mean that the chanting practice stopped.
Professor Rogers: That is right.
Dr. Lin: Right. So, actually there is the chanting. When Shinran gave the teaching he was simply trying to direct the practitioners to avoid the mistake of attaching to the accumulation of merits, which is again a self-centered thing. It does not mean that one is refraining from the chanting practice. To us, at this moment, the ideal final stage is only a theoretical thing; hence we do need to adopt a “practice of no practice” to move toward Enlightenment.
When the chanting is pure, there can be no other thoughts. Thus “chanting in thanksgiving” does not mean that one keeps a thought of thanking Buddha; it is rather a teaching on chanting with a humble and thankful attitude. As the practitioners advance on the path, they will experience the benefits of this practice, and a sense of gratitude will arise in them. Finally, when they become enlightened through the help of this practice, they will spread the teaching of chanting to repay the grace of Buddha; the basic way to teach is by personally continuing the chanting practice to set an example for others. Thus chanting in thanksgiving is a never ending process.
Now I am going to answer some questions from Leann Foster.
Leann's first question: Having said that one cannot set Enlightenment up as one's goal (therefore you would never reach it) what can one think of as a goal or objective without impeding one's own progress in Zen?
Dr. Lin: Actually the answer is contained in what I have just said. Nevertheless, in this question it is specific to Zen; and it is the same as your fourth question which asks, “How do you reach oneness/nothingness?” These various terms all refer to the final stage of Buddhahood. It depends on how you do it and what stage you are in. I think, at your stage and under your present circumstances, chanting is a gradual and safe approach. But you need to be careful so as not to fall into the self-centered sense of “I am doing it” or “I am trying to reach something.” Simply develop chanting as a daily exercise and keep it for the rest of your life. If thoughts other than the holy name you are chanting arise during chanting, do not be distracted; simply continue to chant and let the other thoughts come and go on their own. If you keep chanting daily for years, you will experience spiritual growth and openness yourself.
As to Zen, you have to give up everything, find someone who has had real experiences, and just follow the master's instructions without asking questions. Only then will you have a chance to get Enlightenment.
Leann's second question: How do you set up a goal for practice when the philosophy is already understood and accepted?
Dr. Lin: First, you compare the paths in Buddhism to find out which one is suitable for you. If you want to do the meditations, that is fine; but be aware of the preparations. For example, the Eight-fold Noble Path is given in the order: Right Views, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation. One needs to learn Buddha's teachings to obtain Right Views; then one adjusts one's thinking to conform to the Right Views. One's speech and actions should also conform to Buddha's rules of conducts. One's livelihood should be consistent with Buddha's teachings. One should not adopt a profession that is against Buddha's teachings. In short, one needs to be consistent, inside and out, in conforming to Buddha's teachings. Only then can one practice mindfulness and meditation without the risk of ill effects. Meditation should be part of a Buddhist's daily life; and a Buddhist's daily life should be an extension of his meditation practice.
Leann's third question: How can you reach mindfulness and no thought at the same time?
Dr. Lin: What is mindfulness? Can you listen to music? Yes. When you listen to music, do you need any thoughts? No, however, usually when one is listening to music, thoughts do arise. Mindfulness is simply a natural ability to pay attention to something. When we do the mindfulness practice, we try to concentrate without distractions or interruptions. For example, when we listen to music, we just listen to the sounds without having thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, we will have a chance to reach “no-thought.” Usually it is easier to start with concentration on one point, and as one goes deeper into concentration, the thoughts will gradually fade away. After mastering that, one can try to concentrate on flowing things like music, and still achieve “no-thought.” “No-thought” does not mean that one loses the ability to think forever; it is simply a state of mind when the thinking process becomes unnoticeable.
In this practice, again we need to be reminded of the importance of a consistent Buddhist way of life. It would be impossible for a person who is holding onto a complicated worldly life to achieve no-thought through mindfulness practice. That is the reason why the Sutras teach us to give up worldly things before we seriously start a meditation practice. A very simple life, even in seclusion, with nothing to worry about, is conducive to achieving “no-thought.”
Nevertheless, it does not mean that one should live in seclusion or follow a simple life for the rest of one's life. At first we need a simple environment to practice concentration on one-point. After we have mastery over that, we should try to apply the ability to concentrate in ever-complicated situations. The object of concentration need not be one-point; it will be moving, changing, and ever-complicated. The whole process of learning should be gradual and natural. One can still think, but there is just one thought at any given time. Usually one thinks and evaluates the current thought simultaneously, or says something while thinking about other things at the same time. The result of concentration practice will be such that what one says is exactly what one has in mind at that instant.
Last time we played the tape of chanting “Amitabha,” I could see at once that you cannot concentrate on just listening. This is due to your lack of practice of just listening. Before we became complicated beings, the ability to just listen was originally natural to us.
Professor Rogers: How could you tell that we were not listening?
Dr. Lin: Well, I simply looked at you and I could see.
Question from a student: Could it have to do with cultural differences? If we were accustomed to listening to that music repeatedly, could we not attain the state of mind of just listening?
Dr. Lin: It is independent of what you are listening to. At first, for such practice, it is easier to use instrumental music or foreign songs, because if it is something that you can understand, then the meanings will interfere with your pure listening.
Since each one of you has a copy of my book “The Buddhist Practice of Chanting Amitabha,” there is no need for me to go into a comprehensive discourse in support of the chanting practice. My purpose today is to recommend the actual adoption of this practice because that is the only way for you to share its benefits. I will go over the key points for the actual practice of chanting.
First, develop it into a daily practice. Set a regular time, and also a minimum amount of repetitions (e.g., five hundred or one thousand repetitions of “Amitabha”) for your daily practice. A regular schedule and a set amount will help you form the habit of chanting daily. With perseverance you will experience the good results of having peace and ease.
Second, do not work on dismissing distractions; simply maintain your chanting. During chanting, if you notice that your attention has shifted to other things, or that emotional ups and downs are present, do not try to push them away or judge them. The more you try to do this, the more you are distracted from concentrating on “Amitabha.” Simply return your attention to “Amitabha” and maintain the chanting. This is the key point in gradually becoming free from distractions.
Third, practicing the five-variation chanting of “Amitabha,” a melodious singing of “Amitabha,” is very helpful. Singing it will naturally involve our emotions in the chanting practice. We can simply listen to it, especially when we are too tired to chant. The melody has the effect of embedding the chanting deeply into us. When we simply repeat “Amitabha,” the breathing is shallow, and the mind may stay at the intellectual level, but when we sing “Amitabha,” the breathing is deep, and our whole being is more likely to become totally involved in it. The aim of the chanting practice is to renew the whole being, not just at the intellectual level. Besides, a song propagates itself in a natural way among people; there is no need for us to try to persuade others, we simply play the tape and people will enjoy listening to it and may even learn the chanting by heart.
Fourth, whenever you learn of someone's passing away, chant “Amitabha” as a prayer asking for Buddha's blessing for the deceased. Visit cemeteries and chant “Amitabha” for the deceased there. Stay near a dying person and chant “Amitabha.” When we have impermanence in mind, our chanting will be pure and we will practice diligently. We will want to make good use of our precious lifetime to purify ourselves through the chanting practice. Only when we become pure in mind can we serve others well.
Fifth, if you are interested in doing this practice, you can simply keep chanting in your mind anytime, anywhere. For example, when you are waiting in line, instead of incessantly thinking about yourself, chant “Amitabha.” When you are in a traffic jam, play the chanting tape, and the traffic jam will be easier to take.
These are the essential points of the chanting “Amitabha” practice. I have some booklets for Professor Rogers, and you are welcome to borrow them or make copies for yourselves. The following is a brief comment on each booklet:
“The Practice of Singing Along”: this is the practice I talked about.
“A brief Introduction to Setting up a Buddhist Altar”: this one is for people who want to chant in front of an image of Buddha. I have posters of Amitabha Buddha for free distribution.
“The Seed of Bodhi”: the main point of this essay is that one should refrain from criticizing others because our knowledge of others is very limited. When we criticize others, they need not change, and we are simply wasting our energy. Instead, we should be aware of our ignorance; thereby we will become innocent. When we become innocent, it is easier for us to advance on the spiritual path.
“On Chanting Amitabha”: this is a short essay for everyone.
“Pureland Daily Practice”: this is for people who, in addition to chanting, want to do recitation of Sutras, prostrations, chanting of mantras and dedication of merits. It is structured around the three Holinesses of Amitabha's Pureland. Thus, the practitioner makes prostrations to them, and recites their sutras and mantras.
The section at the beginning of this last booklet teaches us how to visualize during the practice so that the whole universe is involved in the practice. We should visualize the following: in the sky in front of us, all holy beings are present surrounding the Amitabha Buddha, and all sentient beings, friends and foes alike, are surrounding us, all facing the holy beings and doing the practice with us. The holy beings are present to bless us all. If we continue to think in this way, our minds will broaden and we will approach the Limitless-Oneness.
The Sutras selected were translated by me. They are “The Amitabha Buddha Sutra,” “The Heart Sutra,” and a section of “Surangama Sutra” on chanting Buddha's name; they are related, respectively, to Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, and Mahasthanaprapta—namely, the three Holinesses of Amitabha's Pureland.
This practice will take about thirty minutes, which is quite suitable for modern busy people. The practitioner can extend the period of the session at will by simply chanting more repetitions of “Amitabha.”
In the preface to this booklet I mentioned some English versions of the Heart Sutra that are available. There I also explained some particular points in my version of the Heart Sutra which was translated, not from the original in Sanskrit, but from the Chinese version that is popular in China , Japan and Korea .
For example, in the Sutra, the Chinese word “Kong” is actually an abbreviation for the term “Kong-Xing” which stands for the Sanskrit term “Sunyata.” In the known versions it is usually translated as “Emptiness” or “empty of inherent existence.” Using “Emptiness” may lead to the misunderstanding that nothing exists. “Empty of inherent existence” is correct, but difficult to understand for people who do not have a philosophical background. One needs to learn first through philosophical discourse the meaning of “inherent existence” in order to understand the teaching of no such inherent existence.
I tried to bypass such a circular and difficult path. Let us avoid the abstruse concept of “inherent existence” altogether and, instead, use a different concept that is easier to understand and will still lead us to the same spiritual goal. The concept of Empty Essence was already contained in the Yogacara tradition of Buddhism. The idea is to introduce the notion of an Empty Essence that is common to all phenomena. Since it is common to all, it cannot have any characteristics of its own. For example, if the universal essence is white, then it cannot show red, only pink. This would be contradictory to being universal. Thus, it is empty of color, texture, smell, sound, taste and mental characteristic. My innovation is to call it “Blank Essence” instead, so as to avoid the misunderstanding of nothingness, and improve the understanding of this universal concept.
Why do we need such a concept? We have been accustomed to using concepts that have particular characteristics setting boundaries. Consequently our minds are quite limited to certain patterns of thinking. In order to free us from such conceptual limitations, we use the concept of “Blank Essence” to unify all things and thereby gradually, through practice, diminish their conceptual boundaries.
However, this notion of “Blank Essence” is, after all, still just a conceptual tool. Thus, eventually we need to let go of even this concept in order to attain non-duality in all our experiences. Therefore, the teaching says that the Blank Essence is nothing other than the particulars of our experiences. The Blank Essence is everywhere, but nowhere to be pointed at because it lacks particular characteristics. In other words, first you use the concept to erase all conceptual boundaries, and then you also let this remaining concept go. That is how a practitioner of this approach becomes free from all concepts.
By using “blank” to describe this universal essence it will be easier for people to understand the function of this essence. It is the basis of all phenomena, just as a blank sheet of paper is the basis of all the things painted on it, or a blank T.V. screen is the basis of all the things which appear on it.
I will now give a brief explanation of my version of “The Heart Sutra,” and then talk about my Sastra, “The Heart of Sublimation Through Limitless-Oneness Compassion Sastra” which runs parallel to “The Heart Sutra.”
[In July 1991 I gave a detailed talk on this topic in Miami , and subsequently wrote a refined transcript of it. It has been published as a book entitled “Wisdom and Compassion in Limitless-Oneness.” Hence, rather than presenting the remainder of my talk in this book, I list it as a reference at the end of this book.]
As to the choice of “sublimation” over “perfection” for my translation of “paramita,” I have the following remark to add:
“Paramita” means to reach the other shore—from this shore of suffering in transmigration to the other shore of peace in Nirvana. The Buddhist liberation from suffering is not an escape from the world, but rather a purification of one's mind to its original purity, thereby transcending self-centered suffering and transforming one's life into selfless services to others.
Escaping from suffering is just a reaction; it is not a solution to the problem. Purification of the mind enables one to stay in the world and simultaneously be free from suffering; it is beyond the original level. Since “perfection” may be relative to a given level, I prefer using “sublimation” which indicates transcendence of any given level.
Pureland Daily Practice
written under the guidance of the Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen
Under the guidance of my late guru, Yogi C. M. Chen, I compiled in Chinese Daily Recitations for Pureland Practitioner (Jing Ye Zhao Mu Ke Song Du Ben) in 1986. Up to now there are four printings of that booklet, totaling 10,000 copies. I am now translating it into English so that more Buddhists may use it
The basic instruction of Yogi Chen for this booklet was that the center of attention should be all Three Holinesses of the Western Pureland, namely, Amitabha Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprapta. Hence, the prostrations, sutras and mantras center on them. Yogi Chen emphasized practicing visualization of the whole Dharmadhatu and including the Heart Sutra (Xin Jing) as one of the basic sutras of the Pureland School . Thus, the practices here are to be visualized as done by all sentient beings together; and the Heart Sutra is included to familiarize the practitioners with the most basic philosophy of Buddhism. The inclusion of the magnificent images of the Three Holinesses at the beginning of the booklet was also Yogi Chen's instruction.
While translating the Buddha Expounding Amitabha Sutra (Fo Shuo A Mi Tuo Jing), I consulted the following works:
Amitabha Buddha Sutra, translated by F. Max Muller, and revised by Yogi C. M. Chen in Chenian Booklet Series No. 131.
Fo Shuo A Mi Tuo Jing Jiang Hua, Nan Ting Fa Shi.
In this translation, instead of the literal translation of Guang Chang She Xiang as wide and long tongue, I chose to bring out the meaning of superior power of speech. I hope that this will make more sense for readers in general, without the slightest implication of disbelief in Buddha's supernatural powers.
While translating the Heart Sutra, I consulted the following works:
The Heart Sutra, translated by Lu K'uan yu, and revised by Yogi C. M. Chen in Chenian Booklet Series No. 131.
Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, London , 1986.
The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom, Douglas A. Fox, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston/Queenston, 1985.
The Heart Sutra Explained, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., State University of New York Press, 1988.
In this translation, instead of the common interpretation of Emptiness (Kong) as empty of inherent existence, I chose to interpret it as Blank Essence, which in Chinese would be Kong Xing. I hope that this will offer beginners a different perspective to the central idea of Buddhism. Indeed this may help beginners to reach some insight even before they become accustomed to the philosophical analyses explaining the problem of inherent existence. In short, the idea is that everything is of one nature, called Blank Essence. It is blank in the sense that it has no specific quality, thereby it may exhibit all sorts of qualities, dependent upon the particular conditions. Moreover, this Blank Essence is inseparable from the particulars in our experiences, hence it is everywhere but nowhere to be found by itself. Critically such a notion may be judged to be insignificant in the sense that it, in fact, refers to nothing. Nevertheless, by adopting and confirming it through constant practice, one may realize the spiritual truth of the oneness of all things.
Paramita (Bo Luo Mi Duo), meaning to reach the other shore, is commonly translated as perfection. In this translation I chose to translate it as sublimation. Because perfection may mean just an accomplishment on a certain level, while sublimation brings out the transcendental aspect of the Buddhist practices that are rooted in the philosophy of Sunyata.
While translating the Section on Mahasthanaprapta of the Surangama Sutra, I consulted the following work:
Da Fo Ding Shou Leng Yan Jing Jiang Yi, Yuan Ying Fa Shi.
The mantras are presented in accordance with the pronunciation of my guru, Yogi Chen. The tantric tradition teaches that the most effective use of mantras comes from following the guru's pronunciation wholeheartedly, without the distractions resulting from other considerations. In my Chinese original, the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit mantra of Great Compassion was listed as an optional practice. In this English version, I have included a transliteration of the Tibetan mantra of Great Compassion into the regular curriculum. The appendices of the Chinese original have been omitted.
May whatever merits generated through this work be shared by all sentient beings and thereby shorten their path toward Full Enlightenment.
Foreword to the Second Edition
The Heart Sutra presented in this edition is a revised version of my original translation. Only minor changes are made to elucidate the meaning.
Three appendices have been added. My Sastra on Limitless-Oneness Compassion is included to compliment the wisdom teaching of the Heart Sutra. For a detailed exposition on the unification of wisdom and compassion, please read my book, Wisdom and Compassion in Limitless-Oneness.
The Unification of Mind and Wind introduces an effective method of chanting which unifies chanting, visualization and deep breathing into one practice. The chanting of “Amitabha” is the core of this daily practice, therefore this wonderful method is recommended to the practitioners.
On Chanting Amitabha provides a simple explanation in daily terms of the benefits of this practice to people who have no prior contact with Buddhist teachings.
The size of this manual and that of the printed words have been enlarged to facilitate daily practice.
Thanks to Ann Klein for improving the English of this edition and to Chen-jer Jan for formatting the entire book.
First, present the offerings of incense, candle, water, etc., then stand facing the images of the Three Holinesses of the Western Pureland, i.e., Amitabha Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprapta. Visualize as follows: The Three Holinesses are surrounded by the holy beings of the Western Pureland , and this assembly is in turn surrounded by all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and holy beings of the Ten Directions and the Three Times of the past, present and future. They all look down with great Compassion upon the sentient beings in the six realms of transmigration.
On one's right and left side stand one's father and mother, respectively. One's relatives, friends, creditors or foes of this or previous lives gather in front of oneself, while sentient beings in the six realms gather behind in the following order: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, asuras and heavenly beings. All of these beings stare up at the holy beings. The holy beings and the beings in transmigration are infinite in number and fill the whole Dharmadhatu.
Visualize that all sentient beings are simultaneously doing this practice with you, and that the holy beings, who are the objects of our veneration, are pleased to grant their blessings by reciting the sutras and the mantras with us.
Repeat each one of the following salutations three times; each repetition is to be accompanied by one prostration.
Namo Amitabha Buddha!
Namo Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara!
Namo Bodhisattva Mahasthanaprapta!
Namo holy beings of the Western Pureland !
Namo Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and holy beings of the Ten Directions and Three Times!
2. Recitation of Sutras
Buddha Expounding Amitabha Sutra
from the Chinese translation by Kumarajiva
Thus have I heard. Once Buddha was in the garden of the alms giving elder Anathapindaka that contains Jeta's grove, located in the country of Sravasti. With Him there were one thousand two hundred fifty great monks; all well known great Arhats. They were the great disciples such as the elder Sariputra, the great Maudgalyayana, the great Kasyapa, the great Katyayana, the great Kausthila, Revata, Suddhipanthaka, Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola bharadvaja, Kalodayin, the great Kapphina, Vakkula and Aniruddha. There were also the great Bodhisattvas such as the Dharma prince Manjusri, the Bodhisattva Ajita, the Bodhisattva Gandhahastin and the Bodhisattva Constant diligence. Also present were Sakra, the King of sky gods, and countless other beings of the various heavens.
Then Buddha told the Elder Sariputra:
To the West ten thousand billion Buddha lands from here, there is a world named Utmost Joy. There is a Buddha, called Amitabha, in that land. He is preaching right now. Sariputra, why is that land named Utmost Joy? The sentient beings of that land are free from all kinds of suffering, yet enjoy variegated pleasures, thus it is named Utmost Joy. Furthermore, Sariputra, the Utmost Joy Land is enclosed by seven rows of railings, seven layers of nets and seven rows of trees, all made of four kinds of jewels, hence, that land is named Utmost Joy.
Furthermore, Sariputra, in the Utmost Joy Land there are ponds made of seven kinds of jewels and fully filled with water with eight kinds of merits, and their bottoms are covered with gold sand. The stairways on the four sides are made of gold, silver, beryl and crystal, and lead to towers adorned with gold, silver, beryl, crystal, diamonds, red pearls, and coral. The lotus flowers in these ponds are as large as the wheel of a chariot. They are blue and emitting blue light; yellow, emitting yellow light; red, emitting red light; or white, emitting white light. They are sublime, wonderful, fragrant and pure. Sariputra, the Utmost Joy Land is complete in such meritorious grandeur. Again, Sariputra, the land of that Buddha is constantly filled with heavenly music and the ground is made of gold. Three times daily and three times nightly there falls from the sky a rain of heavenly Mandarava flowers. Regularly, in the early morning, the sentient beings of that land carry all sorts of wondrous flowers in their skirts to make offerings to the ten thousand billion Buddhas of other places. By breakfast time they have returned to their own land to have a meal followed by a meditative walk. Sariputra, the Utmost Joy Land is complete in such meritorious grandeur. Furthermore, Sariputra, In that land there are all sorts of wonderful birds of variegated colors: white cranes, peacocks, parrots, saris, Kalavinkas and shared fate birds. All these birds sing harmonious and sublime melodies three times daily and three times nightly. These melodies propagate the teachings on the Five Roots, the Five Forces, the Seven Bodhi branches and the Eightfold Right Path. Beings of that land, upon hearing such melodies, all turn their thoughts toward the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sariputra, you should not say that these birds are born as a result of their sinful karma. Why is it so? There are no three bad realms in the land of that Buddha. Sariputra, in the land of that Buddha there is not even the name of a bad realm, not to mention the reality of such. All these birds are miraculously produced by Amitabha Buddha in order to propagate the Dharma sounds. Sariputra, in the land of that Buddha breezes wave the rows of jeweled trees and the jeweled nets, thereby, producing sublime and wondrous sounds. This is analogous to hundreds and thousands of harmonious kinds of music playing simultaneously. Whoever hears such sounds naturally develops a mind that fixes upon the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Sariputra, the land of that Buddha is complete in such meritorious grandeur.
Sariputra, what do you think, why is that Buddha called Amitabha? Sariputra, the brightness of that Buddha's light is immeasurable, it shines upon lands in the ten Directions without any hindrance, hence, He is called Amitabha—infinite light. Further, Sariputra, the life span of that Buddha or anyone of His subjects is countlessly and boundlessly innumerable kalpas, thus, He is named Amitabha—infinite life. Sariputra, ever since Amitabha Buddha awoke to Full Enlightenment it has been ten kalpas. Furthermore, Sariputra, that Buddha has innumerable boundless sravaka disciples, all of whom are Arhats, and their number is beyond the knowledge of arithmetic. The number of Bodhisattvas in that land is likewise innumerable. Sariputra, the land of that Buddha is complete in such meritorious grandeur. Further, Sariputra, sentient beings who are born in the Utmost Joy Land will not regress on the path toward Enlightenment. Many among them are candidates for Buddhahood and will be born as humans just once more in order to achieve Buddhahood. Their number is so great that it is beyond the knowledge of arithmetic and can only be described as countlessly and boundlessly innumerable.
Sariputra, sentient beings who hear the above should vow to be born in that land. Why is it so? Because then one may enjoy the company of these aforementioned most benevolent people. Sariputra, it is impossible to be born in that land with only a few good dispositions, meritorious and moral causes and conditions. Sariputra, if there is a good man or woman who hears about Amitabha Buddha and keeps chanting His holy name for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days or seven days with one mind free from distractions, then such a person, upon the end of his life, will see Amitabha Buddha and His holy assembly appear before him. At the time of death this person's mind will not be perturbed and will take rebirth in the Utmost Joy Land of Amitabha Buddha. Sariputra, I see such advantage, hence I say such words. Whosoever hears this should develop the vow to be born in that Land.
Sariputra, just as now I am praising the advantage of the inconceivable merits of Amitabha Buddha, in the Eastern Universe there are Buddhas such as Immovability Buddha, Meru Form Buddha, Great Meru Buddha, Meru Light Buddha, Wondrous Voice Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, in the Southern Universe there are Buddhas such as Sun Moon Lamp Buddha, Famous Light Buddha, Great Flaming Shoulders Buddha, Meru Lamp Buddha, Immeasurable Diligence Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, in the Western Universe there are Buddhas such as Immeasurable Life Span Buddha, Immeasurable Form Buddha, Immeasurable Pennant Buddha, Great Light Buddha, Great Brightness Buddha, Precious Form Buddha, Pure Light Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, in the Northern Universe there are Buddhas such as Flaming Shoulders Buddha, Most Superior Voice Buddha, Impeccable Buddha, Rising Sun Buddha, Net of Brightness Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, in the Nadiral Universe there are Buddhas such as Lion Buddha, Famous Buddha, Fame Light Buddha, Dharma Buddha, Dharma Pennant Buddha, Dharma Holding Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, in the Zenithal Universe there are Buddhas such as Pure Voice Buddha, King of Constellations Buddha, Supreme Incense Buddha, Fragrance Light Buddha, Great Flaming Shoulders Buddha, Adorned with Variegated Jewel Ornaments Buddha, King Teak Tree Buddha, Jewel Flower Merits Buddha, Seeing All Truths Buddha, Like Meru Mountain Buddha, equal in number to the sands of the river Ganges . Each Buddha in his own land displays his superior power of speech and spreads the following honest words throughout his domain of one billion world systems: “You sentient beings should have faith in this sutra that praises the inconceivable merits and is favored by all Buddhas.”
Sariputra, what do you think? Why is this sutra named the Favor of All Buddhas Sutra? Sariputra, if there are good men or women who hear, accept and uphold this sutra and hear the names of these Buddhas, all these good men or women will be favored by all Buddhas and will never regress on the path toward the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment. Therefore, Sariputra, all of you should believe and accept these words of mine and those of the Buddhas.
Sariputra, those people who have vowed, vow now, or will vow to be born in the land of Amitabha Buddha will never regress on the path toward the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment. They have been born, are born or will be born in that land. Hence, Sariputra, all good men or women, if they have faith, should vow to be born in that land.
Sariputra, just as I am now praising the inconceivable merits of those Buddhas, likewise they are praising my inconceivable merits by uttering the following: “Sakyamuni Buddha is capable of rare and most difficult accomplishments. He is able to achieve the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment in the land of Toleration during the corrupt age of Five Obscurities—those of the era, the views, the sorrows, the sentient beings and the lives, and to preach to the sentient beings such teachings that are difficult to believe by all worldlings.” Sariputra, you should realize that it is extremely difficult for me to accomplish the heavy task of achieving the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment in the corrupt age of Five Obscurities and to preach to all worldlings such unbelievable teachings.
Thus Buddha concluded the preaching of this sutra. Sariputra, the monks and the worldlings—heavenly beings, humans, asuras, etc., all rejoiced in hearing the teaching of Buddha, and they accepted the teaching with great faith. They all prostrated to Buddha and then departed.
The Heart of Sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom Sutra
translated into English by Dr. Yutang Lin
Whenever Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practices deeply sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom, He intuitively perceives that the five aggregates are of Blank Essence, thus transcending all suffering and difficulties. “Sariputra, phenomena are inseparable from Blank Essence, and Blank Essence is inseparable from phenomena; phenomena are identical to Blank Essence, and Blank Essence is identical to phenomena. Feeling, conceptualization, motivation and consciousness are also inseparable from and identical to Blank Essence.”
“ Sariputra, the characteristics of Blank Essence of all these things are: neither born nor deceased, neither dirty nor clean, neither increasing nor decreasing. Therefore in Blank Essence there are no phenomena, no feeling, conceptualization, motivation, consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, odor, flavor, touch, impression; no eye-species up to and including no perceptual-consciousness-species; no Ignorance and no elimination of Ignorance, up to and including no senility and death and no elimination of senility and death; no suffering, its causes, its transcendence, the path toward its transcendence; no Wisdom and no attainment. Since there is no attainment, by sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom, a Bodhisattva's mind has no attachment. Since there is no attachment, there is no fear. There is freedom from perversive delusions, and Nirvana is realized.”
“ Buddhas of the past, present and future attain the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment by sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom. Therefore sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom is known to be the great wondrous mantra, the great open mantra, the unsurpassable mantra, the no-equal-rank mantra, capable of eliminating all suffering, truthful and without deceit. Hence, the mantra of sublimation through Transcendent Wisdom is to be proclaimed.” So He utters the mantra:
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
The Section on Bodhisattva Mahasthanaprapta's Achieving Complete Unification
translated into English by Yutang Lin
The Dharma Prince Mahasthanaprapta and fifty one Bodhisattvas of his kind rose from their seats and prostrated to Buddha by touching His feet with the top of their heads. Then Mahasthanaprapta told Buddha: As I recall, a long time ago, as many kalpas back as the number of sands of the river Ganges , there was a Buddha in the world, named Immeasurable Light Buddha. Beginning with this Buddha, during one kalpa, there were twelve Buddhas, one succeeding the other. The last Buddha of this sequence was named Transcending Sun and Moon Light. That Buddha taught me the Samadhi of Chanting Buddha's Name.
For example, if there are two persons, and one keeps remembering the other, while the other keeps forgetting the first, then such two persons either come across each other without a meeting together, or see each other without a mutual recognition. If two persons remember each other dearly and deeply, then even from life to life, they would stay together, like a body and its shadow, in unseparable harmony.
Buddhas of the Ten Directions compassionately remember sentient beings, just as a mother remembers a child. If the child runs away, what is the use of her remembrance? If the child remembers the mother just as the mother remembers the child, then the mother and the child will not be far apart even through many lives. If sentient beings wholeheartedly remember Buddha and chant the name of Buddha, then immediately or in the future they will surely see Buddha. Being not far from Buddha, hence, not dependent on disciplines, they will naturally open up their minds. Just as the body of a person imbued with perfume will smell fragrant, likewise this practice is named the Adornment with Fragrance and Light.
While I was in the causal stage I realized the Patience of Non-Born through the mind that chants Buddha's name. Now I stay in this world to attract people who chant Buddha's name in order to guide them to return to the Pureland. Buddha, you inquire about how I attained complete unification. I had no preference over using any one of the six sensory organs, but withdrew from all the distractions produced through them, and maintained the continuation of pure thoughts by chanting Buddha's name, thus I attained Samadhi. Hence, I recommend this practice to be the foremost one.
3. Chanting of Mantras (three times each)
Chinese Pin Yin is used to transliterate the mantras below.
The Mantra of Amitabha Buddha:
Weng A Mi Da Wa Xie
The Mantra of Avalokitesvara:
Weng Ma Ni Bei Mi Hong
The Mantra of Mahasthanaprapta (Vajrapani):
Weng Ban Zha Ba Ni Hong Pei
The Mantra of Great Compassion:
Na Mo Ye La Zha Ya Ya
Na Mo A Ya Ga La San Ga Ya
Pi Lu Zha Na
Bu Ha La Zha Ya
Da Ta Ga Da Ya
Na Mo Sa Wa Da Ta Ga Da Bei
A Ha Dei Bei
San Ya Ga San Bu Dei Bei
Na Mo A Ya A Wa Luo Ke Bei Xia Ya Ya
Pu Ti Sa Duo Ya
Ma Ha Sa Duo Ya
Ma Ha Ga Lu Ni Ga Ya
Da Ya Ta Weng
Da Ra Da Ra
Di Li Di Li
Du Lu Du Lu
Yi Zha Wei Zha
Zha Lei Zha Lei
Zha Zha Lei Zha Zha Lei
Gu Shu Mei Gu Shu Mei Wa Lei
Yi Li Mi Li
Zi Di Za Ra
Ma Ba La Ye Suo Ha
The Mantra of Rebirth in the Pureland:
Na Mo O Mi Duo Po Ye
Duo Tuo Qie Duo Ye
Duo Di Ye Tuo
O Mi Li Duo Po Pi
O Mi Li Duo Xi Dan Po Pi
O Mi Li Duo Pi Jia Lan Di
O Mi Li Duo Pi Jia Lan Duo
Qia Mi Ni
Qia Qia Nuo
Zhi Dan Qie Li
Suo Po Huo
4. Chanting Amitabha
Set a number yourself for your repetitions. For example, start with one thousand repetitions daily and gradually increase your number of repetitions.
5. Dedication of Merits
May the merits of this practice be shared by all sentient beings.
May all beings in the Dharmadhatu soon adopt this Pureland practice.
May we accumulate immeasurable merits before the end of this life.
May we be welcomed by Amitabha Buddha when it is our time to depart from this world.
May we get rebirth in the Utmost Joy Pureland and realize our own Buddha nature.
I finished compiling the Pureland Daily Practice in the evening of August 21, 1989. The next morning, just before I woke up, I dreamed that in my house on top of a bookcase there were three boxes of birdies just hatched from their eggs, and in my dining room all over the floor were tiny white swans with golden beaks also just hatched from their eggs
I believe that this is a very auspicious omen, signifying that many practitioners will be reborn through adopting this Pureland Daily Practice. The birdies on top of the bookcase signify that the practice is based on knowledge, yet goes beyond studies. The swans on the floor in the dining room signify that those practitioners who do the practice as regularly as people taking meals, will obtain solid grounding.
I recorded and explained this dream in order to encourage and add faith to the practitioners of this practice. May the blessings of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha be with you always!
A Brief Introduction to the Holy Image of Amitabha Buddha
This image of Amitabha Buddha was painted by Reverend Dao Zheng (Dr. Guo Hui Zhen, before her ordination) while she was suffering from serious cancer. The proportion of this image follows exactly the specifications as set down in the Sutra on Measurements for the Making of Buddha Images. Even the Swastika on the chest correctly rotates clockwise, which is rarely the case nowadays. Reverend Dao Zheng chanted more than 4.8 million repetitions the holy name of Amitabha Buddha during the painting of this image. This is certainly a holy image of Amitabha Buddha made completely up to the standard. Once in an inspired dream, I was distributing copies of this image to the public. The color of this image was painted by airbrush to exhibit the luminescence of the Buddha’s rainbow-like body. The original painting is a large piece of 4 feet by 8 feet. The painting process was extremely arduous, as detailed in the book she dictated, Causes and Conditions of Painting the Buddha Image.
May all who have the opportunity to see, hear and worship this image be blessed by the Buddha, increase and broaden their wisdom and compassion, so as to achieve Enlightenment soon and provide salvation to all sentient beings.
Two Practices of Impermanence
My sincere thanks to Harold Rossman, Helen Harvey and Ann Klein for their improvements to the writings contained in this booklet.
Thanks to Chun Jane Chen for typing the manuscript and Andy Ellis for his help with formatting and laser printing.
The aim of Buddha’s teachings is to free us from attachments and limited views so that we may become pure in mind and live happily and spontaneously. In order for Buddha’s teachings to penetrate our lives and minds and ultimately bring about a spiritual rejuvenation, we need to adopt some Buddhist practices on a daily basis. Prior to adopting any Buddhist practice, one needs to be reminded of the fact of the impermanence of life.
Having impermanence in mind helps us become free from worries and more appreciative of what we all have in common. Consequently, a feeling of being “in the same boat” grows and leads to cooperation and harmony.
Without being mindful of impermanence we tend to make wishful and elaborate plans which in the end prove to be delusive and useless, not to mention the emotional roller coaster that we ride through when the experiences of life are filled with expectations and disappointments. Without a vivid realization of the impermanence of all things in life and of life itself, we tend to be incessantly engulfed in our thoughts, emotions and relationships. For many of us a reminder of impermanence will serve as the wind that clears the cloudy sky.
Over the years I have found two practices of impermanence very effective. One is the keeping of a Record of Impermanence, and the other is to take walks in a cemetery.
I use a small notebook to write down the names of deceased ones I have known, and I call the notebook a Record of Impermanence. In this booklet I present the English version of an essay, originally written in Chinese and published in 1988, on this practice.
Following the practice of my late guru, Yogi Chen, I am accustomed to visiting cemeteries in order to pray for the dead. My residence is in the vicinity of a cemetery; hence I have gradually formed the habit of taking a walk in the cemetery for my daily exercise. In the cemetery I choose to walk along the rows of tombstones and read them one by one. Each time I leave the cemetery I notice that the walk has had a cleansing effect on my mind. Such walks turn out to be not just a physical exercise but also a spiritual one. In this booklet I present my reflections on this practice in lyric form; they are entitled, appropriately enough, “Learning from the Dead.”
Sometimes when I walk in the cemetery I carry lighted incense sticks, chant “Amitabha,” and scatter rice as nectar for the dead. But the main point of this practice is to read with one’s heart the inscriptions on the tombstones.
Learning from the Dead
As I walk in the cemetery
All the things that we worry about,
The dead are my real teachers;
Suddenly I see that life could end
Anyone we come across is sure to be
May all who are lost in the sorrows
Keeping a Record of Impermanence
On February 10, 1988 it occurred to me that keeping a record of the names of all those deceased people whom I had met would help awaken in me a keen sense of impermanence. To a full-time Buddhist practitioner like me it would be very beneficial. I found a small blue-covered 1987 daily notebook in my drawer, so I made use of this unused but out-dated notebook. On the first page I wrote “A Record of Impermanence,” and in the daily blanks I filled in names I remembered.
As I put down each name, past events began to come to mind one by one. There were some whose names I no longer remembered, so I put down a name for the relationship; some whose names were unknown to me, so I put down a brief description; and some even passed away before they were named. Some I met only once; some I was with for years. Some whose death came as a surprise from thousands of miles away; while others’ were a gradual daily face-to-face good-bye. Some died of sudden illness; while others died of lingering sickness. Some committed suicide because of difficulty in school; while others because of an unhappy marriage. Some were murdered by business partners; while others were killed by romantic competitors. Some died in the womb; some died in infancy; some died a teenager, like a flower in bud; some died suddenly in their prime years; some died in the snare of old age and sickness; some died in the quietness of a long and peaceful life. At age forty-one I alone had witnessed such a vast variety of cases of impermanence.
Facing the fact of impermanence and considering that every moment there are thousands of people passing away, I intuitively realized the futility of worldly arguments and competitions. How I wished to use such a transient and precious life-time to offer some positive contributions to the world.
I put this record of impermanence, with its pages open, on the altar near the lotus seat of Green Tara—a transformation of the great compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin Pu Sa). I lit an incense stick and prayed that these deceased ones would be blessed by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, especially by the Green Tara, and thereby attain liberation from the sufferings of transmigration.
That night, just before I fell asleep, as my thoughts had quieted down, suddenly I sensed that I had held a subtle delusive thought in the past that death was not my problem. Such a delusive thought might well be present in the minds of many of us without our realizing its presence. After all, death seems to be so distant from the reality of our on-going daily life. Earlier that day I came to face the concrete cases of impermanence and thereby unintentionally shattered the delusive thought I had carried. Delusive thoughts are hiding deep down in our consciousness and obscuring our perspectives, hence they are hardly recognizable. Only at the moment of their shattering can we get a fleeting glimpse of them.
Immediately following this intuitive realization came another: At the moment of death we are to separate from everything in the world. This may be obvious to anyone who reflects on death; nevertheless, I had never had such an awareness arising from the depth of my mind. We need to practice being detached from all things lest we suffer at the end. Otherwise, as we look back, at the moment of death, we will realize that our lives have been infested with worries and quarrels over trivialities. What a waste! Whenever I am entangled in sorrows, I think: If this were the final moment of my life and I were entangled in these matters, would my life have been worthwhile? Such reflection usually pulls me right out of my sorrows, and the sky looks blue and sunny again!
The next morning I discovered that the incense stick I had lit and offered for my prayer, although completely burned, remained whole with its body turning in a recurving way and its head pointing toward the right hand of the statue of Green Tara. Her right hand extends downward with an open palm, signifying her salvation activities. I took a picture of it and the photo is reprinted at the beginning of this book. In this photo the blue cover of my Record of Impermanence can be seen at the seat of the Green Tara. To me, this inspiring occurrence indicated Buddha’s compassionate blessing in answer to my prayers for the deceased ones, and approval of the practice of keeping a record of impermanence.
Since that day I have continued to keep my records of impermanence. Whenever people ask me to do Powa (a Buddhist tantric practice to transfer the consciousness of deceased ones to the Pureland of Buddha) I also enter the name of the deceased in my book. Although I had not met all of them in person, by doing Powa for them I established a wonderful Dharma connection. Besides, Powa is for the benefit of the deceased ones, and naturally reminds us of the reality of impermanence, of its immediacy and unpredictability. (By the way, sometimes when I did Powa for deceased people, I saw them appear before me.) Some of the names in the record were entered sporadically later because only then they sparked my memory. This shows that although impermanence of life is a reality, nevertheless, in our normal daily life it is very easy for us to neglect and forget about it. The practice of keeping a record of impermanence would constantly remind us of the reality of impermanence, lest we indulge ourselves in insignificant worldly pursuits and suffer from resulting turmoil. It would help safeguard the purity and freshness of our minds so that wholesome ideas would sprout and grow into kindness and compassionate activities.
To learn arithmetic thoroughly we should not only be able to do exercises in the book but also be able to apply it to real-life situations. Keeping a record of impermanence is not only to practice Buddha’s teaching of being mindful of impermanence but also to connect the teaching with our personal experiences to benefit us on a down-to-earth level. Only by unifying the theoretical with the practical can we actually receive the essence of Buddha’s teachings. Since the cases of impermanence that we put into writing are ones that we have actually witnessed, been personally involved in, and even suffered for, they have tremendous impact on us and carry with them supreme power of persuasion. My awakening to the presence of delusive thoughts is a good example of the effectiveness of this practice.
There are many practices of impermanence in Buddhism. For example, meditations on death (to meditate on the certainty of death’s arrival, the unpredictability of the time of death, one’s helplessness and loneliness at the moment of death, etc.), observation of the changing scene of our mental activities, chanting Buddha’s name near someone who is passing away, and visiting cemeteries to pray for the dead. Keeping a record of impermanence can be an easy but helpful addition to the other practices. This record is to be placed on the altar so that the deceased ones are under the blessing of Buddha and thereby we may practice an act of great compassion. As we write down the names, we do not distinguish between friends or foes, family members or acquaintances; therefore, it is also a practice of equal-love-for-all.
I hope that everyone who reads this article will adopt this practice and thereby share its benefits.
This essay was written in Chinese
Translated on May 8, 1992
A Brief Introduction to Setting up a Buddhist Altar
Written in Chinese
This essay briefly presents Guru C. M. Chen’s teaching on the meanings and principles of setting up a Buddhist altar so as to provide a practical manual for the beginners. References are listed at the end for those who are interested in further studies.
A. The Meanings of Setting up a Buddhist Altar
1. To invoke holy beings to come down and stay so as to enrich the wisdom and compassion of the practitioner and his family daily until the Perfect Enlightenment is achieved.
2. All sorts of attendant practices such as prostrations, offerings, praises, etc. are included in the daily practices so that, firstly, the merits for achieving enlightenment are accumulated by deepening the relationship of Refuge; and secondly, the Bodhicitta is nourished through extending the merits toward the attainment of Buddhahood for all sentient beings.
3. By means of gazing at Buddhas, lighting lamps, burning incense, offering flowers, prostrating, etc., the functions of the five sense organs are completely absorbed in the Buddhist practices and hence the purification of the practitioner’s mind is enhanced and accelerated.
4. It is easier to form an unalterable habit by doing the daily practices not only at a regular time but also at a definite place.
5. The grandeur and serenity of a Buddhist altar would demonstrate the practitioner’s faith in taking the Refuge and give visitors chances of acquainting with and taking delight in such practices.
B. The Location of a Buddhist Altar
It is ideal to set up a Buddhist altar in a dedicated room. If the building is of two or more stories, it is proper to set it up on the top floor. If there is no dedicated room available, a quiet place or a room which can be closed up for quiet meditation at the regular practice time should be selected.
The orientation of a Buddhist altar depends on the main Buddha worshipped. If the practitioner majors in the Pureland school, the main Holiness should be Amitabha Buddha. And hence the altar should be oriented toward the East. In case of the Healing Buddha who eliminates misfortunes and prolongs lives, it should be oriented toward the West. (All notes below are added into the English translation by Dr. Lin. Note 1: Amitabha Buddha’s Pureland is in the West, hence the altar ideally is to be set up such that when we face Him, we are facing the West. A similar remark applies to the case of the Healing Buddha whose Pureland is in the East.) If the wall available is not of the ideal orientation, it is also fine to ignore this point. It is proper to select a wall with sufficient illumination so that it is easier for the practitioner to concentrate on gazing at the holy images.
C. The Installation of the Images of Buddhas
The images of Buddhas selected should have been made according to correct rules. Try to avoid those made of fragile materials, such as porcelain, so that they will not be damaged in accidental falls.
In general, holy images complete with a seat are to be selected for an altar. However, in case of an antique image that had been worshipped by some virtuous Buddhist for a long time, even though it is scarred and cracked a little, it is still fine to welcome it home with respect and continue worshipping.
It is proper to ask a virtuous Buddhist practitioner to perform the invocation ceremony for a Buddhist image so as to bring in the body, speech, mind, merits and activities of the depicted holy being. If a Buddhist statue is hollow, it should be fully filled in advance with sutras, mantras, holy relics, jewels, dried pine or cypress leaves, etc., by the practitioner who is going to conduct the invocation. If there is no virtuous Buddhist practitioner near by, it is also fine to install and worship the images first and get the invocation done in the future when chances arise.
The Buddhist images hung on the wall should be positioned according to their status. Usually, they are hung in rows from top down in the order of guru, yidam, dakini and protector. Again, in the rows, they should be arranged in the order of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, or of Buddha, Bodhisattva, Pratyekabuddha and Arhat. There are two ways to arrange the images in a row:
1. The superiority is from right to left—the highest one starts from the right most side of the wall (i.e. the left hand side of the practitioner when he faces the wall).
2. The superiority starts from the middle and then in turn to its right hand side and its left hand side as follows.
(8) (6) (4) (2) (1) (3) (5) (7) (9)
The shape and size of the images should also be taken into consideration so that the resultant combination would be symmetrical and nice looking. Hence, one of the two ways introduced above can be chosen to produce the best arrangement possible. (Note 2: On one altar, the two ways introduced above may be applied respectively to different rows. For example, the images on the wall may be arranged according to the second way, while the holy statues on the table may be arranged according to the first way.) The image of a yidam and the image of its mandala should be hung in a column but not in a row. The mandala can be either over or under its yidam. For example, the picture of the Western Pureland may be hung over or under the image of Amitabha Buddha but not beside it. The superiority on the right as mentioned above is an ancient custom of Sakyamuni Buddha handed down in India and Tibet. The images of the three Holinesses of the Western Pureland as drawn by the Chinese painters usually follow the Chinese custom of superiority on the left, and hence with Avalokitesvara and Mahasthanaprapta on Amitabha’s left and right respectively. If both Bodhisattvas are painted facing toward the Buddha, we are obliged to follow the underlying local custom in our arrangement. If the three images are not on one sheet of paper and the two Bodhisattvas are facing forward, then it is more proper to put Avalokitesvara on the right (Note 3: and mahasthanaprapta on the left of Amitabha Buddha) according to Sakyamuni’s original custom.
If the wall chosen is not large enough for hanging all the images, some of them may be hung on the other three walls of the room. On each wall, the images should still be installed according to the principles explained above. The images of protectors may be hung on the wall opposite to the alter at lower positions so that they can pay attention to the instructions of Buddhas. It is also fine to add an offering table with offerings under the images of protectors to form an altar dedicated to these Dharma protectors.
Buddhist statues may be placed on the altar table. If there is only one table, arrange the statues near the wall and the offerings before them. (Note 4: Some altar uses two tables: a higher one set near the wall for placing the statues and a lower one in front for placing the offerings.) The order of arrangement is still determined as mentioned above. If there are two or more rows, do not let the bigger statues block the view of the smaller ones. It is proper to have the altar table and the offering table covered with majestic cloths or decorated with carved designs of auspiciousness.
It is proper to put the sariras (Note 5: i.e., relics of holy Buddhists) in a miniature sarira stupa with transparent glass windows and place it on the altar table for worshipping.
D. The Location of the Bookshelves for Sutras
All Buddhas are born from the Dharma (Note 6: i.e. Enlightenment is achieved through following the Buddhist teachings), hence sutras and mantras may only be placed over or beside the Buddhist images or statues to show respect. It is a mistake to put sutras and mantras under the images of Buddhas or offering tables. Sutras or mantras may also be placed on the altar table for worshipping. Make sure that nothing is placed on top of them (Note 7: except protective or ornamental coverings.) If there is only one bookcase which is not for the exclusive use of sutras, sutras and mantras should be placed on the top shelves; Buddhist books and the audio cassettes of Buddhist hymns and Amitabha chanting, the middle ones; and books on other religions or worldly affairs, the bottom ones.
Those practitioners who intend to circulate, free of charges, Buddhist books and images may assign a part of a bookcase or set a dedicated bookcase near the Buddhist altar or in the parlor for that purpose so that visitors may select and pick up whatever they are interested in.
E. The Placement of the Dharma Implements
Dharma implements, such as a wooden fish, hand bell, Dharma wheel, bell and vajra, etc., may be placed in front or on either side of the Buddhist images on an altar table. A Buddhist rosary may be coiled clockwise to form a lotus seat with three loops so that the father and-mother beads stand upright on the seat. While picking up a set of bell and vajra, cross the hands with the right one over the left one and take the vajra with the right hand, and the bell, the left one. The way of putting down the bell and vajra is the same as the way of picking them up. Hence the bell is placed closely on the left of the vajra on the table. The female Buddha’s face on the bell handle should face the practitioner. If there is a Tantric drum (Damaru), it should be placed, standing on its side (instead of one drumhead flat on the table), to the right of a vajra. If a Dharma wheel can not stand steadily by itself, its handle may be inserted into a cup filled with rice. Tantric implements, such as ritual daggers and curved knives, should be placed close to the holy beings who use them. If they are set flat on the table, their sharp ends should face away from the images so as to defend against demons. If they stand upright, their sharp ends should point downwards. Hence daggers are sometimes inserted in a tube filled with rice. The counters for counting the numbers of chantings, offerings or prostrations may also be placed on the edge of an altar table. The board for prostrating and the cushions for worshipping or meditating may be placed in front of an offering table. If there is room under the table, they may be stored in there when they are not in use.
F. The placement of the Offerings
A censer may be placed in the middle of an offering table. The censer should be filled with incense ash or fine sand (Note 8: so that incense sticks may be inserted to stand upright.) It may also be filled with rice first, and then, after a fair amount of incense ash has accumulated, the contents thereof are sieved to preserve the ash. A censer may also be used for burning powdered or shredded sandalwood. The way is to burn the powdered sandalwood first, and then gradually add the shreds of sandalwood. In order to prevent the walls from getting smoked, a censer with cover for incense to lie in may be used. If an incense stick extinguishes before it is entirely burned up, it may not be lit again, but it may be placed in a censer for lying incense and be reused. (Note 9: An incense stick that stands up in a censer and fails to burn through is called a “beheaded” incense. It is considered irrespectful to offer the rest of that stick while it stands. When we use the remaining parts in a lying position, we consider it as mere incense powder.) Do not pull out and extinguish an incense which is still burning. Do not use the electric counterfeit incense sticks with tiny bulbs in place of the real ones. In case it is forbidden to burn incense in a rented house or room, at least, three or five pieces of sandalwood should be offered on the table.
A pair of lamps may be set on the left and right sides of the offering table in front of the Buddhist images. It would be better to have lamps that are majestically decorated with dragons or lotus flowers. It is best to use small red bulbs for the lamps and leave them on all the time. Besides, butter lamps, peanut oil lamps or candles may also be added as offerings.
A couple of flower vases should be placed on both sides of an offering table. Beautiful and decorative vases which are not fragile, for example, Cloisonne vases, are preferable. Fresh flowers in season are recommended. Artificial flowers which are well arranged would also be fine. In this case, whenever the fresh flowers become available, they may be offered in additional vases. Several peacock feathers may also be offered in the flower vases. Flowers of thorny plants should not be offered to Buddhas. They may only be offered to Dharma protectors who are brave beyond being afraid of thorns. When the flowers in a vase are well arranged, the best looking side should be turned toward the Buddhist images.
In front of the censer, a row of offering cups may be set up. In Exoteric schools, three cups of clean water may be offered. In Tantric schools, seven, eight or nine cups may be used according to different traditions. The offerings in the cups are essentially the same for all traditions. Eight cups stand for eight offerings; they are, starting from the right side of the images, water (for washing), water (for drinking), flowers, incense (for burning), lamp, saffron (for perfuming), food and music respectively. Usually seven cups of water are offered. Food is offered beside them. (Note 10: In this case, although all seven cups contain only water, they are visualized as the seven kinds of offerings, besides food, mentioned above.) The sixth cup of water which stands for saffron may be added with a few drops of perfume. (Note 11: instead of saffron, but not in addition thereto.) The distance between two adjacent cups (Note 12: measured from rim to rim) is about the length of a long grain of rice. On the offering table in a retreat room, two rows of offering cups may also be set up. The row nearer to Buddhist images is for Buddhas. The other row which is nearer to the practitioner is for the practitioner who possesses the Buddha Pride of his yidam. This row of cups start from the right hand side of the practitioner for what they stand for as explained above.
Usually, a Tantric practitioner would offer a mandala. It consists of seven or thirty seven offerings. In addition, The Nyingma School practitioners offer their special trikaya mandala.
All kinds of fruits in season or food may be offered. Generally, Exoteric practitioners make only vegetarian offerings. Tantric practitioners include meat in their offerings but they should not kill or ask other people to kill in order to get the meat. Only meat available from markets may be purchased for offerings.
G. The Adding and Replacement of the Offerings
It is proper to add or replace the offerings before each meal. Incense may be offered at any time, but at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. If the oil lamps or candles other than the unceasingly lit lamps can not be offered very often, they should be lit in the evening or during daily practices. The water in vases for the fresh flowers should be replaced every two or three days. The withered flowers should be removed when noticed. Artificial flowers may be replaced after several months. Before going to bed or after the evening practice, visualize the offering water to be nectar and then pour it away to feed hungry ghosts. Dry the cups, pile them up in two sets and put them upside down on the table. (The sixth cup for the water added with perfume is placed alone. The others are all in one pile.) If the cups cannot be piled up, they may be placed upside down separately. After getting up in the morning, set the seven cups in place again. The fourth one may first be placed before the censer as the central reference, and then set the left and right three ones respectively. Then pour the water into the cups from a teakettle and repeat “Om Ah Hum” while pouring. (Note 13: Fill the cups four fifth full.) Whenever one makes offerings, one should repeat “Om Ah Hum.” The mandala should be added with rice. If there is no time to replace the rice in the mandala everyday, it should be done on the four days when offerings are made to gurus, yidams, dakinis, and protectors respectively. (In order, the four days are the eighth, fifteenth, twenty fifth and twenty ninth of each month in (Note 14: the Chinese or Tibetan) lunar calendar. For a Nyingma School practitioner, the eighth is replaced by the tenth which is a special day of Padmasambhava.) All food offerings should be removed after the period of burning up one incense or one or two days before they would become spoiled so as to avoid the contrary result of committing a sin. The value of offerings depends more on the sincerity of the offerer, hence offerings that are specially bought or prepared for Buddhas are best. Food for ourselves may also be offered to Buddhas before we take it so that we can obtain the Buddhas’ blessings. While eating, one visualizes the food to be nectar. The offerings removed may be taken by ourselves or be given to the beings outdoors while repeating the Giving of Leftovers Mantra: “Om Woojeedza Palingda kaka Kasee Kasee” so that they can also share Buddhas’ grace. All the rice removed from the mandala may be fed to birds. The incense, candles, rice, matches, etc., for making offerings may be stored in the drawers of the offering table or under it for convenience. Matches are poisonous, hence they should not be placed on the offering table. If there are small children in the family, the matches and candles should be stored at other higher places so that they cannot be reached and played by kids.
H. The Disposition of an Altar during Traveling or Moving
When you are out traveling, you had better ask someone else to do the offerings at the altar as usual and you yourself should also make a remote offering of food before each meal. (Note 15: Before each meal, chant “Om Ah Hum” three times and visualize the food has been offered to all Buddhas and their attendants, including the holy beings worshipped at your own altar.) If nobody else can do the offerings at home for you, you first visualize that all the holy beings on your altar melt into light and enter your heart cakra or the hand held Dharma wheel that you usually use. Then remove the fresh flowers and those food that would become rotten, extinguish the candles and pour away the offering water. While traveling, offer your food to the holy beings in the Dharma wheel brought along with you before each meal, or visualize that you are offering the food to the holy beings in your heart while you are eating. After you have returned home, then visualize that the Holy beings come out as lights from your heart or the Dharma wheel and return to their images respectively.
When you are going to move or just to move the altar to another room, visualize that the Holy beings enter your heart cakra or a Dharma wheel in the form of lights before you move anything on the altar. After you have set up the Buddhist altar again at the new place, then visualize the Holy beings return to their images in the form of lights. If there is a virtuous Buddhist practitioner near by, an invocation ceremony may be performed again.
I. Concluding Remarks
The very brief introduction above is intended for practical applications so that explanations on the profound theoretical significances are omitted. I hope that the beginners would set up their Buddhist altars accordingly, start to do the preliminary practices, such as offerings and prostrations and form a habit of practicing at a regular time and a definite place. And please do not be content with what you have learned from this, but study further the supplementary readings listed below so as to understand the differences between worshipping a Buddhist altar and a godly altar, the way to establish a proper relationship with the Buddhist images and the meanings and symbolizations at various levels of the multitude of offerings.
Written during an isolated retreat on December 16, 1986
Chanting Practice for Christians
For a Christian, the main spiritual practice, besides attending church services and Bible studies, seems to be prayer. It is not easy to formulate a prayer. It involves: 1) knowledge of the Christian teaching, 2) awareness of the immediate concern of the person or group conducting the prayer, and 3) expression of faith, willingness to follow divine guidance instead of one's selfish interests, and good will toward all. A prayer usually lasts for only a short time, but the difficulty one encounters in life may linger on indefinitely. After all that one can think of has been uttered in a prayer, what more can be done to sustain one in the light of the Christian teaching? Bible study is a good alternative to prayer. Is there any other spiritual practice in the Christian tradition that may be of great help but does not demand much use of reasoning? Indeed, there is one maintained in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The practice is to repeat a short prayer continuously; and the prayer, called the Prayer of Jesus, is as follows:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
If a Christian forms the habit of repeating (silently or audibly) this prayer daily, at a definite time for a certain number of repetitions, e.g., 1,000 repetitions continuously, then it will become easier for him or her to establish a spiritual affinity with the Grace of Jesus. In time of difficulty or crisis, a Christian who is accustomed to this practice can easily or even automatically rely on this practice to stay in touch with the divine Grace. Due to the shortness of this prayer, continuous repetition of it becomes a kind of spiritual chanting. Hence, the usual employment of reasoning in a prayer is bypassed and one may readily become absorbed in the spiritual communion which is beyond words and conceptuality.
The teachings on this practice as preserved in the Russian Orthodox Church include more advanced training for the more devoted Christians. They include silent repetitions done in solitude for years until the prayer is repeated automatically with each heart?beat. A Christian attaining such mastery often exhibits an ability to provide spiritual healing of diseases or perform exorcism effectively. Interested readers may consult the following book: On the Prayer of Jesus , Ignatius Brianchaninov, tr. by Father Lazarus, Element Books.
There are many good reasons and benefits for ordinary people to adopt a chanting practice. I have written an article, On Chanting “Amitabha,” which contains detailed explanations. Christian readers may simply substitute “Amitabha” with “Jesus” or the Prayer of Jesus and find the reasoning similarly applicable. When people ask me for advice, I often recommend a chanting practice. To Christians seeking my advice I recommend chanting the Prayer of Jesus so that they may get the spiritual help within a familiar context based on a faith already established in their hearts. I hope that the spiritual growth they will cultivate through this practice would eventually carry them upward toward higher spiritual quests.
Thanks to Ann Klein for editing this article.
El Cerrito , California
The Heart of Sublimation through
Limitless-Oneness Compassion Sastra
Dr. Yutang Lin
“Sudhana! The Limitless-Oneness of all these things transcends existence and non-existence, attraction and repulsion, plurality and singularity. Therefore the Limitless-Oneness contains phenomena, contains feeling, conceptualization, motivation, consciousness; contains eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; contains color, sound, odor, flavor, touch, impression; contains eye-species up to and including perceptual-consciousness-species; contains Ignorance and elimination of Ignorance, up to and including senility and death and elimination of senility and death; contains suffering, its causes, its transcendence, the path toward its transcendence; and transcends Loving-kindness and loss. Since there is transcendence of loss, by sublimation through Limitless-Oneness Compassion, a Bodhisattva's mind is free from attachment. Since there is no attachment, there is no criticism. There is freedom from prejudiced discriminations, and Nirvana is realized.”
“Buddhas of the past, present and future attain the Unsurpassable Right and Full Enlightenment by sublimation through Limitless-Oneness Compassion. Therefore sublimation through Limitless-Oneness Compassion is known to be the great mind mantra, the great loving-kindness mantra, the indiscrimination mantra, the all-encompassing mantra, capable of enduring all suffering, absolute and joyous. Hence, the mantra of sublimation through Limitless-Oneness Compassion is to be proclaimed.” So He utters the mantra:
Tolerance, tolerance, tolerance for all, tolerance with joy, bodhi svaha!
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