By Master Jiankai (translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team; edited by Householder Fojin)
The merit of nianfo is inconceivable. Arguably, by committing countless transgressions and evil karmas life after life, sentient beings must suffer the retributions in the six realms and three domains as they are bound in samsara, much like fish confined to water and birds in woods, unable to free themselves. And yet, according to the Contemplation Sutra, those who attain birth on the lowest level of the lowest grade are the sentient beings who commit such evils as the five grave offenses, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality. With just a few recitations of the Buddha’s name, they will have their incalculable evil karma eradicated and be reborn in the Land of Bliss. That is just incredible.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Yogacara School scholars questioned this part of the Sutra. They even arbitrarily deduced that the scripture was merely referring to the future rebirth of the sentient beings in this category. Their argument is that nianfo is not really a form of cultivation and, because of this, the reciter lacks the necessary practice for rebirth even though he desires it. In the scripture, the Buddha says that anyone will be assured of rebirth even if he just recites the Buddha’s name ten times. These scholars’ interpretation is that the Buddha was just using an expedient means to arouse aspiration for rebirth, and should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this rather ill-informed view has caused great harm to themselves and other practitioners.
Master Daochuo once used a metaphor to describe the situation:
It is like an enormously thick rope, which a thousand men cannot break
but a young boy with a sharp sword can cut in two with ease.
So, how can you say, “a child is not strong enough to sever a rope?”
During the late North Wei Dynasty, China’s northern territories were separated into two realms, the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-77 CE) in the east and the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-81 CE) in the west. In the year 578 CE, after Emperor Wu had defeated Qi, he assembled all the Buddhist leaders of Qi and announced his intention to eliminate Buddhism because it drained the national treasury and wasted resources. He demanded a debate from the prominent Buddhist monks in court. Intimidated by the emperor’s mighty power and fury, no one dared to utter a word against the emperor except one old monk.
At that moment, a monk stepped forward, faced up to the raging emperor and rebutted the latter’s fallacious charges one by one. It was a tit-for-tat confrontation, and the fate of Buddhism was hanging by a thread. A slight mistake would make the situation irreversible. However, the monk did not flinch and, after several exchanges, Emperor Wu knew that he was in the wrong and dodged the monk’s points of argument.
The monk then protested sharply: “Your Majesty is abusing your power to destroy the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Are you not afraid of falling into the Avicii Hell?” The emperor became so furious that he frightened the five hundred monks to retreat several steps, fearing for the life of this outspoken monk.
That gallant monk was the renowned Master Huiyuan of the Jingying Monastery in the Sui Dynasty. Throughout China’s history, there were several persecutions of Buddhists ordered by the emperors. Each time, there were invariably “Dharma masters” who stood up for Buddhism. However, those who dared to give the emperor forthright criticism were rare. Master Huiyuan, acting like a Dharma Defending Bodhisattva, left us with a deep impression.
According to the Continued Biographies of Prominent Monastics, Master Huiyuan was very heavily built, being eight foot tall, and having a waist that was nine girths round. When giving Dharma lectures, his voice was as booming as thunder and as mighty as a lion’s roar that stunned and awed the audience. A monk of such impressive eloquence and imposing presence was definitely beyond the expectation of Emperor Wu. When Master Huiyuan stood up on behalf of other monastics and spoke, the Emperor was shaken and staggered.
Then again, what kind of protection could even the strongest man have? In the face of annihilation by an evil king, he was far too feeble to resist. Dharma-persecution is the result of collective karma, the force of which is overpowering. It is also irrevocable. Not even the stouthearted and robust Master Huiyuan could withstand that. The power of karma is colossal while the power of an ordinary being is negligible.
As Buddhist temples were being destroyed and scriptures burned, Master Daochuo also found himself trapped at the time in the middle of the mayhem. Bereft of a monastic home, he was like a wandering spirit. He was unable to study the sutra or hear the Dharma. How could Buddhists cultivate if no Dharma scriptures were available? Says the Great Jewel-Heap Sutra: “In the defiled Dharma-Ending Age, billions and billions will cultivate the (Sages) Dharma paths, but few will achieve liberation.” That is an extremely gloomy prospect for practitioners in the Dharma-Ending Age. So, even with sutras available, Buddhist practitioners have difficulty achieving liberation in the prevailing defiled environment, not to mention those without any sacred scriptures. One wonders whether Shakyamuni Buddha, with his great wisdom, thought of offering iniquitous ordinary beings a way out of misery under such circumstances?
The answer is yes, Shakyamuni Buddha did indeed think of that, and Master Daochuo found the answer. Based on the scriptures and the teachings that had been passed down, and taking into consideration the timing, causes and conducive conditions of the practice of the Dharma, he categorized Buddhism into two paths: the Sages Path and the Pure Land Path. Both paths are taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and are equally extraordinary and rare. However, the Sages Path relies on “self-power” which is more suited for cultivators with remarkable roots of potentiality and capability. It is a difficult path.
To ordinary beings like us, the Mahayana principles of true suchness and true emptiness are beyond the grasp of our minds. As to the Hinayana’s way, neither monastics nor laypersons are able to attain Arhatship through the severance of delusive views and delusive thoughts. There are those who can achieve rebirth in the realms of humans or heavens by observing the five precepts and performing the ten meritorious acts; they are, however, few and far between. Since these practices are not easy, it is difficult for them to become widespread and thriving. Yet, evil doings committed by ordinary beings are like thunderstorms and tempests! This is a universal truth.
Therefore, after probing himself really hard, Master Daochuo chose the Pure Land Path and advised others to do the same. Earnestly and bluntly he said:
Only the Pure Land Path can lead to liberation from samsara.
(To be continued)