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Volume 7 no 2

Venerable Shen-Kai Answers
Amitabha - what does it mean?
To many "Amitabha Buddha" is a symbol of Buddhism. To some practitioners of Buddhism chanting or reciting "Amitabha Buddha" is a method of cultivation. What is the meaning of Amitabha Buddha, what is the intent in chanting "Amitabha Buddha and how does this work? Once again, the Bliss Compass endeavours to dispel any misconception and show us the blissful culture of Buddhism.

1. We often hear of Buddhism practitioners chanting Amitabha Buddha; what is the meaning of Amitabha?

Amitabha means infinite brightness, infinite life and infinite merits. Indeed, it means infinity of all that is good. Generally, people only know that Teacher of the Western Pure Land (or Western Paradise) is Amitabha Buddha. But they do not know that they also have within themselves a Pure Land and Amitabha. This is known as the 'Pure Land of the Mind' and the 'Own-Nature Amitabha'.

2. Since we also have Amitabha Buddha in our mind, how should we cultivate so that we can manifest our Own-nature Amitabha?

If somebody scolds me with unkind words, I shall respond by saying "Amitabha Buddha". By this, not only am I not accepting the abuse, in contrast the infinite brightness that illumines with the recital of "Amitabha Buddha" eliminates the darkness brought by the abuse.

ii. If somebody gives me a present, I shall say "Amitabha Buddha". By this I mean, "thank you very much". Therefore, not only do we have infinite brightness in our heart, by virtue of giving the giver shall have infinite blessings and merits as well. In this way, we are in spiritual union with Amitabha Buddha.

iii. If I see someone who is well endowed, good-looking, kind and peaceful, I shall remark "Amitabha Buddha". By this, I congratulate the person for having such attributes similar to the Amitabha Buddha. I compliment him as Amitabha Buddha to mean that he is similarly well endowed.

iv. If I see a student studying, I shall say "Amitabha Buddha". It is also acceptable if you say that he is very hardworking or very clever. However, sometimes an intelligent person may be fooled by his own intelligence. There is no guarantee that a student who does well in his studies now will definitely grow up to be good. But, when we use the name "Amitabha Buddha" to compliment him, then we evoke the brightness to illumine in him. Not only will he do well in his studies and his career, he will also be a Bodhisattva when he grows up, or even become Buddha someday.

v. If we happen to pass by an abattoir, a place where pigs, cows or other animals are slaughtered, and since we understand that the effect of the karma of killing is rebirth in the realm of hell, and we make a verbal comment to that effect, is it appropriate? While we do not know whether the person who is committing the killing will be reborn in hell, but when we speak of hell, we immediately strike a resonance with hell. Because suffering and darkness prevail in hell, at the mention of the word, we have already struck an accord with suffering and darkness. If we say "Amitabha Buddha" instead, then brightness spontaneously illumines in our mind and the image of the abattoir will not take root in our mind.

vi. If we come across two parties bickering, quarrelling or fighting with each other, we do not join in. By our participation, we plant the cause to be reborn in the realm of the Asura, which is not a desirable thing. We only need to have Amitabha Buddha in our mind and say "Amitabha Buddha" just once, and then in future we will not be in spiritual union with the beings of the Asura realm.

vii. If we chance on seeing some traders in the market cheating on the scales, we immediately say "Amitabha Buddha". Because cheating arises from greed which resonates with the realm of the ghosts, it is a cause for rebirth in such a realm in future. By saying "Amitabha Buddha" just once, then not only do we not resonate with the realm of ghosts but also we are in spiritual union with Amitabha Buddha and we become illumined with infinite brightness.

viii. People in general have a curious nature. If we stumble upon someone else's secrets, we are driven by our curiosity to peek into it to find out more. If this person is committing a crime, this may spell trouble: our life may be in danger. By saying "Amitabha Buddha" in our mind and we quickly distance from it, then we are in union with all that are virtuous and bright. We do not resonate with darkness.

ix. If we come across a drowning man, of course, we save him if we have the ability. However, if we could not be of help and in the meantime someone else is saving him, we say "Amitabha Buddha". By calling out "Amitabha Buddha" just once, it strikes resonance with the drowning person and he immediately attain the brightness and accomplishment of Amitabha Buddha. Then, our mind is also in spiritual union Amitabha Buddha.

x. If a person tells you tales about someone else, those tales are not your business. The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch states, "I see someone engaging in gossip-mongering, I do not participate. If I participate in the gossiping, then I have done wrong." That the person is wrong is his own business. Your participation means that you have also done wrong. If this person speaks a lot of ills about another person and in the end you say just once "Amitabha Buddha", that is good enough. If you participate in the gossiping, this person may go around speaking ill of you too. But, when you say "Amitabha Buddha", then you are in resonance with brightness and that person would not be able to invent gossips and speak ill of you. Therefore, "Amitabha Buddha" is indeed really very useful. Regardless of whether the situation is good, bad or neither good nor bad, when we say "Amitabha Buddha", our mind will be at ease and we attain brightness, and in this way we resonate with brightness.

3. How do we cultivate this habit of chanting or reciting "Amitabha Buddha"?

It is not easy to acquire the habit of chanting or reciting "Amitabha Buddha". If you say "Amitabha Buddha" but Amitabha Buddha is not in your heart and mind, then that would not do. We should have brightness in our mind all the time so that we are in spiritual union with Amitabha Buddha. In that way, when you say "Amitabha Buddha" and your actions, speech and mind are in spiritual union with Amitabha Buddha, then that is good enough.

4. How do we cultivate to have brightness in our mind?

Actually, it is quite easy to cultivate brightness in our mind. We must carry out the principle behind "The mind of the past cannot be grasped; the mind of the present cannot be grasped; the mind of the future cannot be grasped." (The Three Minds; Vol 6, Issue no. 4) The past is already gone and you cannot bring it back; the future is not here yet, and there is no way you can bring it here at this moment; and, whatever you have in your mind at this moment will not stay because as soon as the next thought arises in your mind, the previous thought ceases.

Therefore, we have to cultivate non-ego-form (i.e. not self-centred; not having the notion of "I" or "mine"). The ego gives rise to the notion of possession, for example, my wife, my husband, my houses and assets, my children, etc. And, we are not even clear about where actually is this "I".

5. What is "I"? Is it real?

Can anybody find the "I" in you? It is not an easy task. If you say "I can see you", who is this "I" that you are referring to? You may reply that the "I" is in fact your eyes. If you say, "I can hear you speaking of the Dharma", it is your ears not the "I" that heard me. Not only are the eyes and ears not the "I", even if they are, what about the nose, mouth, tongue, limbs, body, head or hair? They are not the "I" too. Since we cannot locate it, it does not seem meaningful to attach to this ego. Therefore, a Buddhism practitioner should comprehend this non-ego-form and maintain non-ego at all times. One will then realise that all forms are false (an illusion), including the ego-form. The "I" is false.

The "human-form" refers to the notion of a relative opposite when we encounter another person. Since we cannot find the ego-form or "I-form", how then can we find the human-form? We cannot. This is because the ego-form of the person whom we encounter is also not real; it is empty. The ego-form is empty, therefore, and naturally the human-form is also empty. Since the ego-form and the human-from are empty, it follows that the "sentient being-form" is also empty.

Thus, the sense of time, or the time-form is also empty. A Buddhism practitioner should cultivate to be detached from the 'Three Minds'[1] and the 'Four Forms'[2]: not grasping the mind of the past, the present and the future, and not attached to the notion of the ego-form, the human-form, the sentient being-form and the time-form.

[1] The Three Minds: (i) the past is gone and cannot be grasped. (ii) After this moment, the present becomes past and also cannot be grasped. (iii) The future is not here yet and therefore cannot be grasped too.

[2] The four forms: Form - Characteristics; (i) Everybody has an ego, this is the ego- form. (ii) When we see another person, we perceive the human-form. (iii) When thoughts arise in our mind, we perceive the sentient being-form. (iv) The continuity of these thoughts through time gives rise to the time-form.

6. What happens when we realised the non-existence of the Four Forms?

When you free yourself from all forms, you will realise that all things are in fact empty. Within this emptiness there is infinite brightness. When you realise this infinite brightness, then the Amitabha Buddha in fact resides in your mind.

7. Since the "I" is false, what do we do with it?

Although the "I" is false, we can still make use of it to cultivate merits [3] by performing all deeds that are meritorious. In this way we attain infinite merits.

When we perform meritorious deeds, it does not mean that we do them only for today. We did them in the past, we do them presently and we will do them in the future. We have ethics and our code of ethics must prevail in the past, present and future. Since we have infinite brightness and infinite merits - in the past … present … future … past … present … future … past … present … future …. This is the meaning of "infinite life".

In this way, we have manifested our "Own-nature Amitabha". At this time even though we are still at home and have not gone to the Western Pure Land, our home is already a part of the Western Pure Land.

[3] Merits: Non-arising and non-ceasing of the mind; deeds that are performed from a pure, enlightened mind, free from the Three Minds and the Four Forms

8. When we refer to the Pure Land, what does it mean?

The land of all the Buddhas of the ten directions (The ten directions of space, i.e. the eight points of the compass and the nadir and zenith) is called Pure Land. Where does a Pure Land come from? It comes from a pure mind; first and foremost, the mind must be purified, only then will there be Pure Land. Our mind is like the great earth because like the great earth, many things can grow from the mind. The mind is often likened to a planting field or land. Therefore, when a person is kind-hearted, he is said to have a "virtuous mind-land", "virtuous mind-field" or "bright mind-land". Our every decision and idea are all born of the mind. Therefore, whether it is heaven or hell, they are solely created by the mind. When the thoughts of the mind are virtuous, then they lead to virtuous actions. In this way, people ascend to heaven. If on the other hand, the mind thinks of evil, makes evil decisions and evil deeds are committed, then one descends to hell. Thus, heaven and hell are created by the mind.

If the mind does not attach to the thoughts of good or evil and in this way is purified, then "a pure mind begets a pure land". If each and every person's mind is pure, then the land of our country will also be pure.

Thus, it does not mean that people who seek to be reborn in the Western Pure Land in their next life can do so by virtue of their karma. It depends on the kind of karma. If it is virtuous, then rebirth takes place in a good realm, a higher realm. If it is evil, then it takes place in an evil realm, a lower realm. It is only when the karma is pure that rebirth can take place in the Western Pure Land.

Karma refers to whatever that we do - the actions of our body, what we say and what goes on in our mind. It is only when the actions, speech and thoughts are pure, that people can be reborn in the Western Pure Land. It is possible for us to be pure in the three karma's (actions, speech and thoughts) by reciting "Amitabha Buddha". It only takes one person's mind to be pure for it to bring about a positive effect on one's surroundings. When all the members of the family have purified their minds, all members of the society have purified their minds, the entire human race across the world has purified its mind, then a Pure Land on earth is achieved.

9. Besides chanting Amitabha Buddha, what else should one practise?

Practitioners of the method of chanting the Buddha's name not only recite "Amitabha Buddha", but in addition should also cultivate merits. It is stated in the Amitabha Sutra that rebirth in the Western Pure Land is not possible via conditions that are lacking in virtuous roots, blessings and merits. For instance, when we have practised and perfected the Six Parameters (1. Observing the Precepts, 2. Endurance, 3. Giving, 4. Zeal and Progress, 5. Meditation, and 6. Wisdom), then to be reborn in the Western Pure Land is a simple matter. If you have accomplished a mind that is as pure as the Amitabha Buddha's, then there is no necessity for Amitabha Buddha to come and guide you to the Western Pure Land. At that time you are already a great Bodhisattva. Not only can a great Bodhisattva go the Western Pure Land; he can go to any pure land as he pleases.

Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre