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The Different Levels of Amitabha Practice
By Manfred Seegers 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.: Öpame, 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.
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Also the Treatise on the Awakening of the Faith by Asvaghosha explains this practice very clearly. and Esoteric Schools. and developed a Buddhist school around this practice by founding the White Lotus Society in the year 402.. 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. Hui-yüan established this practice as an independent activity. which is the biggest Buddhist school in the world with more than one hundred million followers. and to do various kinds of positive activities. Devotion to Buddha Amitabha was. i. one rids oneself of all delusions and attachments. the Sutra level of teachings is the basis for the Pure Land School. hidden in and springing forth from those words. which is the Sutra Studies School. and practice are actually one and the same in essence. in one's pure mind. as the one contains all and all are contained in one. the Sutra of the Meditation on the Buddha of Limitless Life (3rd century AD). Stable meditation and insight are then achieved. the Pure Land. "The method of reciting the name of a Buddha encompasses the Meditation (Zen). The sacred words 'Amitabha Buddha' contain innumerable sublime teachings. This is the connection to the Tantric or esoteric schools. 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. The recitation of the name of a Buddha has the same effect as reciting a mantra. to the point of single-mindedness. the Enlightened Attitude. Sutra Studies.416). but there are also three other forms. as well as confidence in one's own self-nature. and a third form is to recollect the Buddha by meditating on the true nature of mind. The third cause is to avoid negative actions and to practice positive actions. which in this school means that one mainly has to recollect the Buddha Amitabha. Another form is to recollect the Buddha by vizualisation. reciting the Buddha's name until one's mind and that of Buddha Amitabha are in unison. Discipline (Vinaya). in order to be in the position to save oneself and others from all sufferings. The Esoteric School will be explained in the context of the Tantra level. It is these practices that one can divide into the two main categories of Sutra and Tantra which will be briefly described below. prior to Hui Yüan (334 . which is Zen.Amitabha Practice The teachings on the qualities of Buddha Amitabha and his pure land are found mainly in the Smaller and Larger Sukha-vati-Vyu-ha. which is the Discipline School. an optional practice within Buddhism. corresponding to the Jodo Shu in Japanese Buddhism. But one can also say that these three aspects . Surangama.e. The third is to practice. He emphasized the Buddha Amitabha's promise to cause all faithful beings to be reborn in his pure land. The second is to make wishes. Finally. The first accumulation is confidence in the Western Pure Land and in Buddha Amitabha's promise to rescue all who recite his name. The first and main cause is the wish to be reborn there. The Sutra Level In terms of the Amitabha practice. speech and mind. focusing on the 2 di 4 . In general. there are four causes for a rebirth in the Pure Land of Great Bliss. such as the Avatamsaka. The main practice in the Pure Land School is to recite the name of Amitabha. In one form one recollects the Buddha by looking at a statue or form of the Buddha. To recite the Buddha's name is to recite the true nature of mind. which is intrinsically the same as his. To visualize the Buddha and his pure land in one's mind as clearly as possible is the second cause. This school's main practice is the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha together with three kinds of accumulations. These include some 200 Sutras and commentaries. the shorter or longer Description of the Pure Land of Great Bliss (1st and 2nd century AD). the fourth cause is to develop Bodhicitta. Buddhist masters of different traditions often commented. Reciting the Buddha's name purifies and stills the three karmas of body.confidence. wishes. Besides recollecting the Buddha Amitabha it is also necessary to study the Sutras of the Mahayana. and in the Amita-yur-Dhya-na-Su-tra. the wish to obtain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings on the basis of love and compassion." This is because when reciting the Buddha's name. the determination to be reborn in the Pure Land. Lotus and Prajnaparamita Sutras. The formal title of the Pure Land School in China is Ching-t'u Tsung. In this way one can build a bridge to Dewachen.
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. Because it is simple. the aspects of practice are called "Mudra. because the Buddha Amitabha made such strong wishes for all sentient beings. These functions are basically the same. building up the form of the Buddha with all details in one's mind. the 'oral transmission' or authorization for the practice (Tib. 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. "This (Pure Land) is the most primal and the most subtle and wondrous. and the exact explanation how to practice in a correct way (Tib. Consequently." Thus. so solid and real! If you see through where this mindfulness arises. This is 3 di 4 . Pure Land and Zen are the same in essence. 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. 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. rebirth in our pure mind.. Right now. This high level form of pure land is practiced by those of deep spiritual capacities: "When the mind is pure. or extensive form of Amitabha practice. The Tantra Level On the Tantra level. all the myriad worldly and world-transcending teachings and methods are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. where one dissolves whatever one has built up and lets the mind rest in its own nature. ultimately. Mudra.Amitabha Practice practice of repeating the phrase known as the Nien-fo: "Na-mo A-mi-t'o Fo. Mantra. The two parts are the development phase. where one builds up a certain visualization. recite the Buddha's name. Every Tantra practice can be divided into two or three parts. again many different forms of practice exist. it is not possible to explain all aspects in this context. etc. Because the meaning of these practices is very profound. the Buddha land is pure . one of the most profound teachings the Buddha has given. The Diamond Way also contains a very special form of practice. This transmission consists of the Amitabha empowerment (Tib.: Samboghakaya). Finally. those of high intelligence overlook it.: Nirmanakaya). the Buddha land is pure. "Homage to Amitabha Buddha." This practice is also used in the Japanese version of the Pure Land School. this is the Amitabha of our inherent nature. 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. and the completion phase of the meditation. or the level of the Diamond Way. the practice actually becomes more powerful if one has received an authentic transmission from one's teacher. remember Buddha. The first part. This is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West (the meaning of Zen). Even if one can already do the practice without having many special prerequisites. As the Vimalakirti-Nirdesha Sutra states: "When mind is pure.: lung)..: Dharmakaya).: wang). to recite the Buddha's name is to recite the mind. The longest forms can last a day or more and include many different kinds of rituals like offerings. and Samadhi" in Sanskrit. Birth and death are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. medium. In the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism it is taught in the context of the Six Teachings of Naropa. The eminent 16th century Zen Master Chu Hung has said. where it is called Nembutsu (Namo Amida Butsu). take this moment of mindfulness and be mindful of Buddha.: phowa) or the practice of conscious dying. whether one takes a short. It is also the simplest.: thri). Mind-Only Pure Land. and the Mantra recitation is added in connection with the development phase." literally meaning. at an advanced level. This is the so-called "Transference of Consciousness" (Tib. 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." In Zen Buddhism one has to understand the truth of self-nature Amitabha." Rebirth in the pure land is. How close and cutting! What pure essential energy. The main focus of the Diamond Way is identification: to behave like the Buddha until one becomes a Buddha oneself. When divided into three parts.
one can develop.: bardo) into a new rebirth in the cycle of existence. This is the actual meaning of the Phowa practice. from where one can freely choose whether or not to come back for the benefit of beings. one goes directly into the state of highest bliss. in this lifetime. a huge capacity to benefit others and to liberate them from all sufferings. Being in the state of the Buddha himself one receives further teachings and develops very quickly towards the state of full enlightenment. 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.Amitabha Practice especially useful at the time of death. 4 di 4 . through this kind of practice it is even possible to realize more and more the pure nature of one's mind. However. Instead. and the most powerful of all the different forms of Amitabha practice. which means to manifest the pure land here and now. It is a great gift. Instead of being driven through the intermediate state (Tib.