The Different Levels of Amitabha Practice
The historical Buddha Shakyamuni had disciples of many different capacities. Although he actually taught one single way to enlightenment, different parts of his teachings were taken as vehicles according to the capacities of his disciples. Basically, one can subdivide all of the Buddha's teachings into the two vehicles of Sutra and Tantra. Sutra is also called "the causal vehicle," because one builds up the causes for enlightenment. In Tantra, "the vehicle of fruition," one identifies with the fruit, or the different aspects of enlightenment.
To build up the causes for enlightenment means both to remove all causes for suffering and to practice the way which leads to the cessation of all suffering, to lasting happiness. In the Smaller Vehicle (Hinayana) the goal is liberation, because the illusion concerning a true self of the person together with all gross defilements is dissolved. In the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana) the goal is full enlightenment. On the basis of the wish to liberate all sentient beings from suffering, even the subtlest veils of ignorance are removed and the state of highest wisdom, of complete omniscience, is obtained. This highest wisdom is nothing but the true nature of our mind.
If one has very strong confidence in the true nature of the mind one can directly identify with fruition itself, the different qualities of enlightenment. Based on the teachings about the Buddha nature which is present in all sentient beings, the Tantric methods of the Diamond Way bring about a very quick result. It is said of the Diamond Way that the best practitioner can reach enlightenment within one single lifetime. This is extremely fast, especially when it is compared to the Sutra approach where enlightenment can be obtained only within aeons. But not every practitioner is able to use such powerful methods. Most traditions in the Mahayana are based on the Sutra approach. Only Tibetan Buddhism uses and transmits all the Tantric methods that the Buddha has given.
Enlightenment expresses itself in different forms. All the Buddha aspects that Buddha Shakyamuni taught can be summarized into the five Buddha families, and these five families can be condensed again into Vajradhara (Tib.: Dorje Chang), the Tantric form of Buddha Shakyamuni himself. All the Buddhas of the ten directions and also the high Bodhisattvas manifest a pure powerfield around themselves, which is their own pure land. Buddha Shakyamuni described the qualities of these pure lands in detail. He taught different methods to connect with the Buddhas and their pure lands because, compared to other methods, the practice of the pure lands is a relatively easy way to enlightenment.
Within the circle of the five Buddha families the Buddha Amitabha (Tib.: ÷pame, Eng.: Limitless Light) is the Buddha of the western direction. He bears this name, because the light radiating from his body pervades all the pure lands of all the Buddhas of the ten directions. Many aeons ago, in connection with his Bodhisattva promise, he made extremely strong wishes that he would be able to manifest a pure land which combines the qualities of all other pure lands, and that all beings who made corresponding wishes would be reborn there easily. As a result of these strong wishes he manifested the Pure Land of Great Bliss (Skr.: Sukha-vati, Tib.: Dewachen) at the time he accomplished Buddhahood.
The teachings on the qualities of Buddha Amitabha and his pure land are found mainly in the Smaller and Larger Sukha-vati-Vyu-ha, the shorter or longer Description of the Pure Land of Great Bliss (1st and 2nd century AD), and in the Amita-yur-Dhya-na-Su-tra, the Sutra of the Meditation on the Buddha of Limitless Life (3rd century AD). In addition to these three Sutras the method of getting in connection with the pure lands and taking rebirth there is praised in numerous Mahayana Sutras. These include some 200 Sutras and commentaries, such as the Avatamsaka, Surangama, Lotus and Prajnaparamita Sutras. Also the Treatise on the Awakening of the Faith by Asvaghosha explains this practice very clearly.
In general, there are four causes for a rebirth in the Pure Land of Great Bliss. The first and main cause is the wish to be reborn there. To visualize the Buddha and his pure land in one's mind as clearly as possible is the second cause. The third cause is to avoid negative actions and to practice positive actions. Finally, the fourth cause is to develop Bodhicitta, the Enlightened Attitude, the wish to obtain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings on the basis of love and compassion. But on the basis of these general teachings there exist many different levels of practice that the Buddha gave in correspondence with the different capacities of his students. It is these practices that one can divide into the two main categories of Sutra and Tantra which will be briefly described below.
In terms of the Amitabha practice, the Sutra level of teachings is the basis for the Pure Land School, which is the biggest Buddhist school in the world with more than one hundred million followers. This school's main practice is the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha together with three kinds of accumulations.
The first accumulation is confidence in the Western Pure Land and in Buddha Amitabha's promise to rescue all who recite his name, as well as confidence in one's own self-nature, which is intrinsically the same as his. To recite the Buddha's name is to recite the true nature of mind. The second is to make wishes, the determination to be reborn in the Pure Land, in one's pure mind, in order to be in the position to save oneself and others from all sufferings. The third is to practice, which in this school means that one mainly has to recollect the Buddha Amitabha, reciting the Buddha's name until one's mind and that of Buddha Amitabha are in unison, i.e., to the point of single-mindedness. Stable meditation and insight are then achieved. Besides recollecting the Buddha Amitabha it is also necessary to study the Sutras of the Mahayana, and to do various kinds of positive activities. In this way one can build a bridge to Dewachen, the Pure Land. But one can also say that these three aspects - confidence, wishes, and practice are actually one and the same in essence, as the one contains all and all are contained in one.
The main practice in the Pure Land School is to recite the name of Amitabha, but there are also three other forms. In one form one recollects the Buddha by looking at a statue or form of the Buddha. Another form is to recollect the Buddha by vizualisation, and a third form is to recollect the Buddha by meditating on the true nature of mind. The recitation of the name of a Buddha has the same effect as reciting a mantra. This is the connection to the Tantric or esoteric schools. Buddhist masters of different traditions often commented, "The method of reciting the name of a Buddha encompasses the Meditation (Zen), Sutra Studies, Discipline (Vinaya), and Esoteric Schools." This is because when reciting the Buddha's name, one rids oneself of all delusions and attachments, which is Zen. The sacred words 'Amitabha Buddha' contain innumerable sublime teachings, hidden in and springing forth from those words, which is the Sutra Studies School. Reciting the Buddha's name purifies and stills the three karmas of body, speech and mind, which is the Discipline School. The Esoteric School will be explained in the context of the Tantra level.
The formal title of the Pure Land School in China is Ching-t'u Tsung, corresponding to the Jodo Shu in Japanese Buddhism. Devotion to Buddha Amitabha was, prior to Hui YŁan (334 - 416), an optional practice within Buddhism. Hui-yŁan established this practice as an independent activity, and developed a Buddhist school around this practice by founding the White Lotus Society in the year 402. He emphasized the Buddha Amitabha's promise to cause all faithful beings to be reborn in his pure land, focusing on the practice of repeating the phrase known as the Nien-fo: "Na-mo A-mi-t'o Fo," literally meaning, "Homage to Amitabha Buddha." This practice is also used in the Japanese version of the Pure Land School, where it is called Nembutsu (Namo Amida Butsu).
The eminent 16th century Zen Master Chu Hung has said, "This (Pure Land) is the most primal and the most subtle and wondrous. It is also the simplest. Because it is simple, those of high intelligence overlook it. Birth and death are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. Consequently, all the myriad worldly and world-transcending teachings and methods are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. Right now, take this moment of mindfulness and be mindful of Buddha, remember Buddha, recite the Buddha's name. How close and cutting! What pure essential energy, so solid and real! If you see through where this mindfulness arises, this is the Amitabha of our inherent nature. This is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West (the meaning of Zen)."
In Zen Buddhism one has to understand the truth of self-nature Amitabha, Mind-Only Pure Land. As the Vimalakirti-Nirdesha Sutra states: "When mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure." Rebirth in the pure land is, ultimately, rebirth in our pure mind. This high level form of pure land is practiced by those of deep spiritual capacities: "When the mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure ... to recite the Buddha's name is to recite the mind." Thus, at an advanced level, Pure Land and Zen are the same in essence.
On the Tantra level, or the level of the Diamond Way, again many different forms of practice exist. The main focus of the Diamond Way is identification: to behave like the Buddha until one becomes a Buddha oneself. Even if one can already do the practice without having many special prerequisites, because the Buddha Amitabha made such strong wishes for all sentient beings, the practice actually becomes more powerful if one has received an authentic transmission from one's teacher. This transmission consists of the Amitabha empowerment (Tib.: wang), the 'oral transmission' or authorization for the practice (Tib.: lung), and the exact explanation how to practice in a correct way (Tib.: thri).
Every Tantra practice can be divided into two or three parts. The two parts are the development phase, where one builds up a certain visualization, and the completion phase of the meditation, where one dissolves whatever one has built up and lets the mind rest in its own nature. When divided into three parts, the aspects of practice are called "Mudra, Mantra, and Samadhi" in Sanskrit, and the Mantra recitation is added in connection with the development phase. The first part, Mudra, building up the form of the Buddha with all details in one's mind, functions to purify the defilements of the body and as a result of that to manifest the pure aspect of the body which is the emanation body of a Buddha (Skr.: Nirmanakaya). The Mantra recitation fulfills the purpose of purifying the defilements related to speech and to manifest the pure aspect of speech which is the body of enjoyment of a Buddha (Skr.: Samboghakaya). Finally, the function of the dissolving or completion phase (samadhi) is to purify the defilements related to mind and to manifest the state of truth or the body of phenomena of a Buddha (Skr.: Dharmakaya). These functions are basically the same, whether one takes a short, medium, or extensive form of Amitabha practice. The longest forms can last a day or more and include many different kinds of rituals like offerings, etc. Because the meaning of these practices is very profound, it is not possible to explain all aspects in this context.
The Diamond Way also contains a very special form of practice, one of the most profound teachings the Buddha has given. This is the so-called "Transference of Consciousness" (Tib.: phowa) or the practice of conscious dying. In the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism it is taught in the context of the Six Teachings of Naropa. It is also taught as a part of the Tantric Teachings of the Nyingma lineage given by the great Indian master Padmasambhava who was the main founder of Buddhism in Tibet.
During Phowa practice one learns to direct one's mind towards Buddha Amitabha and to transfer one's consciousness into the Pure Land of Great Bliss. Thus it is possible to establish a definite connection with the Buddha Amitabha and to arrive at a direct experience of this extremely pure and joyful state. This is especially useful at the time of death. Instead of being driven through the intermediate state (Tib.: bardo) into a new rebirth in the cycle of existence, one goes directly into the state of highest bliss, from where one can freely choose whether or not to come back for the benefit of beings. Being in the state of the Buddha himself one receives further teachings and develops very quickly towards the state of full enlightenment.
However, through this kind of practice it is even possible to realize more and more the pure nature of one's mind, which means to manifest the pure land here and now. In this case one doesn't need to send one's energy and awareness to the Pure Land and one needn't wait for the result to come when one builds up the causes. Instead, one can develop, in this lifetime, a huge capacity to benefit others and to liberate them from all sufferings. This is the actual meaning of the Phowa practice. It is a great gift, and the most powerful of all the different forms of Amitabha practice.