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The Common Title: Sutra

A sutra is called a “tallying text.” It tallies with the wonderful principles of all Buddhas above and with the opportunities for teaching living beings below. Each time I explain a sutra, I add more meanings to the word. If I told you all of the meanings at once, you would never remember them, or if you did, the next time I spoke about it you would say, “I know all about it, a sutra strings together, attracts, is permanent, and is a method. The Master certainly is repetitious.” So I explain the term “sutra” bit by bit. In this commentary on the Amitabha Sutra I will discuss five of its meanings:

Basic Dharma. The Buddha reveals the origin of Dharma with his teaching by means of Four Kinds of Complete Giving:

a) Mundane Complete Giving, using ordinary methods of expression,

b) Curative Complete Giving, curing each living being of his particular problem,

c) Complete Giving that is for everyone, teaching for the sake of all living beings,

d) The Complete Giving of the Primary Meaning, giving the highest principle to all beings.

Ultimately, the Dharma cannot be spoken because there is no Dharma to speak; but by practicing the Four Kinds of Complete Giving, the Buddha reveals it. Thus the word sutra has the meaning of Basic Dharma.

  • Subtle Dharma. Unless the profound and wonderful doctrines are elucidated in the sutras, no one can know of them.
  • Bubbling Spring. Principles flow from sutras like gushing water from artesian wells.
  • Guideline. To make guidelines, ancient carpenters and stonemasons used a string covered with black ink, held the string taut, pulled it up, let it snap and made a straight, black line. A sutra is also like a compass and square, used for guiding people.
  • A Garland. The principles are linked together in the sutras like flowers woven into a garland.

The word sutra also has four additional meanings:

  • Strings Together. Sutras string together the principles of the Buddhadharma.
  • Attracts. Sutras attract living beings who are in need of the teaching.
  • Method. The methods used in cultivation which have been employed from ancient times right up until the present are set forth in the sutras.
  • Permanent. Sutras are permanent and unchanging; not one word can be left out or added to them, and heavenly demons and non-Buddhist religions cannot harm them.

The word sutra also means “a path.” If you wanted, for example, to go to New York and didn’t know the way, you might run west instead of east. You could run all your life, but you would never get to New York. Cultivating is also like this. Unless you know the road, you may practice forever, but will never arrive at Buddhahood.

Sutras are also a canon, fixed documents to rely upon when cultivating according to Dharma. Sutras also explain worldly dharmas. You can find any doctrine you wish in the sutras.

Sutras are everyone’s breath; without them men are lost. We should step outside of our stuffy rooms to breathe the fresh air of the sutras. People can’t live without air or sutras.

You ask, “I don’t study sutras or the Dharma, so I don’t breathe that air, do I?”

Your breathe it, too, because the Dharma air fills the world, and whether or not you study it, you breathe it all the same. Everyone shares the air. Students of the Buddhadharma exhale Buddhadharma air and non-students breathe it in. You can’t avoid this relationship.

Sutras are also food for the spirit, and have many uses. When you’re melancholy or depressed, recite sutras, for they explain the doctrines in a wonderful way, which dispels your gloom and opens your heart.

Sutra is the common name of all sutras; this sutra’s particular name is the Buddha Speaks of Amitabha. There are many sutra names, because the Buddha left limitless unbounded Dharma-jewels in the world; but of these hundreds and thousands of sutras, none go beyond the Seven Classifications.

The Seven Classifications of Sutra Titles

In order to clarify their content, sutra titles are divided into seven types by their reference to person, dharma, and analogy.

Single Three. Three of the seven titles are established by reference to either person, dharma, or analogy.

  • The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra refers only to people. Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha are both people who cultivated and became Buddhas.
  • The Great Parinirvana Sutra is an example of a title classified by reference to a dharma. Nirvana is the dharma of non-production and non-extinction.
  • The Net of Brahma Sutra is a title established only by reference to analogy, the analogy of the net of the Great Brahma King. The net in the Brahma heaven has many holes in it, like a fish net, and there is a gem in every hole. Each gem radiates more brilliantly than an electric light and they shine upon each other – light shines upon light, reflected through the interstices of the net. They interillumine, without conflict. One light, for example, would never say to another, “I hate your light, lamp. It’s terrible! I’m the only one who can shine around here.” Lamps don’t fight with each other like people.
The net of Brahma is an analogy for the precepts. Each precept is like a gem, and those who have left home are one of the Three Jewels because they keep the precepts purely. Members of the Sangha cultivate to have no improper thoughts concerning their environment. Thus they transcend the material world, attain purity, and shine like gems in the net of Brahma.

Double Three. Titles established by reference to a combination of either person and dharma, person and analogy, or dharma and analogy are called “double three.”

The Sutra of Questions of Manjushri is a title established by reference to a person, the greatly wise Bodhisattva Manjushri, and the Dharma he requested, Prajna. Only the most intelligent Bodhisattva knew to ask about the meaning of Prajna. One of great wisdom requesting the dharma of great wisdom classifies the sutra title according to person and dharma.

The Lion Roar of the Thus Come One Sutra is a title established by reference to a person, the Thus Come One, and an analogy, the Lion Roar. The Buddha speaks Dharma like the lion roars, and when the King of Beasts roars, the wild beasts tremble. So, in his Song of Certifying to the Way, the Great Master Yong Jia wrote,

The roar of the lion is the fearless speaking;
When the wild beasts hear it,
their heads split wide open.
Elephants run wild and lose their decorum,
But gods and dragons, in silence, hear it with delight

The Buddha speaks the Dharma like the fearless lion roars. When the lion roars, the other animals are frozen with fright. Elephants are usually quite sedate, but they lose their powerful authoritarian stance. Gods, dragons, and the rest of the eight-fold division, however, are delighted.

The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Blossom Sutra is an example of a title established by reference to a dharma and an analogy, since the wonderful Dharma is analogous to a lotus flower.

Complete in One. The seventh classification contains references to all three subjects: person, dharma, and analogy.

    • The Great Means Expansive Buddha Flower Adornment Sutra. In this sutra, Great, Means, and Expansive refer to the wonderful Dharma of realizing Buddhahood; Flower Adornment is an analogy – the causal flowers of the ten thousand conducts are used to adorn the supreme virtue of the fruit.

The Twelve Divisions of Sutra Texts

In addition to the Seven Classifications of Sutra Titles, the texts comprising the entire Tripitaka, or Buddhist Canon, may be divided into twelve categories:

  • Prose lines.
  • Repetition of the meanings presented in the prose lines in short “verse lines” makes the text easy to remember.
  • Predictions of Buddhahood. Although future Buddhas have not yet realized Buddhahood, the present Buddha predicts their eventual accomplishment and gives them each a name.
  • Interjections do not fit with the principles which come before or after them. They arise alone, like the short verses in the Vajra (Diamond) Sutra .
  • The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra belongs to the category of sutras “spoken without request.” The Sound Hearer Disciples were not ready to understand the doctrines of the Pure Land dharma-door, and the Bodhisattvas hadn’t conceived of this method or heard of Amitabha’s vow to save all beings. Everyone said that reciting the Buddha’s name was an old woman’s pastime and that those with wisdom did not need to study it. This is a serious mistake because unless you recite the Buddha’s name you continue to have useless scattered, lustful, desire-ridden thought. Reciting the Buddha’s name gets rid of discursive thought. One who recites the name all day long will have no discursive thought. The absence of such thought is wonderful. The wonderful Dharma purges us of greed, hate, and stupidity. When I was seventeen I wrote a verse:

The King of all Dharmas is the one word “Amitabha.”
The five periods and the eight teachings are all contained within it.
One who singlemindedly remembers and recites his name
Will enter into the still, and bright, and unmoving field.

Reciting the Buddha’s name is much better than all of your crazy ideas!

This sutra describes the practices leading to the Buddha’s Pure Land. Bodhisattvas didn’t ask for this Dharma because they simply did not understand the subtle advantages of reciting the Buddha’s name. Since no one asked for this wonderful Dharma, Shakyamuni Buddha spoke without request.

  • Causes and conditions are also spoken by the Buddhas.
  • Analogies.
  • Past events discuss the events in the lives of the Buddha’s disciples.
  • Past lives discuss the events in the past lives of the Buddha.
  • Universal writings explain principle in an especially expansive way.
  • New sutras are those which have never been spoken before.
  • Commentaries.

The essential message of this sutra teaches us to recite the name “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” Amitabha Buddha has a great affinity with living beings of the Saha world. Before realizing Buddhahood, he made forty-eight vows and each one involved taking living beings to Buddhahood. At that time, he was a Bhikshu named Dharma Treasury. He said, “When I realize Buddhahood, I vow that living beings who recite my name will also realize Buddhahood. Otherwise, I won’t either.”

This is similar to the vow made by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in the Great Compassion Heart Dharani Sutra: “If anyone who recites this spiritual mantra does not obtain whatever he seeks, then this cannot be the Great Compassion Dharani.”

By the power of his vows, Amitabha Buddha leads all beings to rebirth in his country where they realize Buddhahood. This power attracts living beings to the Land of Ultimate Bliss, just as a magnet attracts iron filings. If living beings do not attain enlightenment, he himself won’t realize Buddhahood. Therefore, all who recite his name can realize Buddhahood.

The dharma-door of reciting the Buddha’s name receives those of all three faculties and accepts both the intelligent and the stupid. People with wisdom have superior faculties, ordinary people have average faculties, and stupid people have inferior faculties. But whether one is intelligent, average, or stupid, if one recites the Buddha’s name one will definitely be born transformationally from a lotus in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. One will not pass through the womb but will enter a lotus flower, live in it for a while, and then realize Buddhahood. Whether you are stupid or wise, you can realize Buddhahood.

You say, “I don’t believe you can realize Buddhahood simply by reciting the Buddha’s name. It’s too easy. It’s like borrowing Amitabha’s power to realize Buddhahood.”

You should not disbelieve this because a long time ago, Amitabha signed an agreement with us which said, “after I realize Buddhahood, you can recite my name and do so as well.” Since we signed our names, if we recite, we are sure to become Buddhas.

Furthermore, reciting the Buddha’s name establishes a firm foundation and plants good roots. For example, there was once an old man who wanted to leave home. Although he was about seventy or eighty years old, couldn’t get around well, and was aware of his impending death, he thought he could easily leave home and be a High Master of Buddhism. When he arrived at the Garden of the Benefactor of Orphans and the Solitary, he found that Shakyamuni Buddha had gone out to receive offerings. His disciples, the Arhats, opened their heavenly eyes and took a look at this man’s past causes. Seeing that he hadn’t done a single good deed in the past eighty-thousand great aeons, they told him that he couldn’t leave home.

When he heard this, the old man’s heart turned cold and he ran, thinking, “If I can’t leave home, I’ll kill myself.” Just as he was about to throw himself into the ocean, Shakyamuni Buddha caught him and said, “What are you doing?”

”I wanted to leave home,” cried the man, “but the Buddha wasn’t at the Garden, and the great Bhikshus told me that I couldn’t because I have no good roots. My life is meaningless. I’m too old to work, and no one takes care of me. I might as well be dead.”

Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Don’t throw yourself into the ocean. I’ll accept you.” “You will?” said the man. “Who are you? Do you have the authority?”

Shakyamuni Buddha said, “I am the Buddha, and those Bhikshus are my disciples; none of them will object.”

The old man wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “There’s hope for me,” he said.

The old man’s head was shaved. He became a monk and immediately certified to the first stage of Arhatship. Why? When he heard that he couldn’t leave home, he had decided to drown himself; although he didn’t really die, he was as good as dead. “I’ve already thrown myself into the sea,” he said, and relinquished all his attachment to life. He saw right through everything, won his independence, and certified to the first stage of Arhatship.

This bothered the Bhikshus. “How strange,” they murmured, “the man has no good roots. We wouldn’t let him leave home, but the Buddha accepted him and now he’s certified to Arhatship. People without good roots can’t do that. Such a contradiction in the Teaching will never do! Let’s go ask the Buddha.”

Then they went before the Buddha, bowed reverently, and asked, “We are basically clear-minded. How could that old man without good roots certify to Arhatship? How can the Buddhadharma be so inconsistent?”

Shakyamuni Buddha said, “As Arhats, you see only the events of the past eighty thousand aeons ago. More than eighty thousand aeons ago, the old man was a firewood gatherer. One day in the mountains he was attacked by a tiger and quickly climbed a tree. The tiger leaped and snapped his jaws, but missed.

“This tiger, however, was smarter than the average tiger, ‘I’ll show you,’ it said. ‘I’ll chew through the trunk of the tree and when it falls I’ll eat you.”

“Now, if a mouse can gnaw through wood, how much the more so can a tiger. Tigers can make powder out of human bones. It chewed half way through the tree and terrified the old man whose life was hanging by a thread. Then he remembered, ‘In times of danger, people recite the Buddha’s name,’ and he called out, ‘Namo Buddha!’ which scared the tiger away and saved his life. After that, the old man forgot to recite, and so on this side of eighty thousand great aeons, he failed to plant good roots. However, the one cry of ‘Namo Buddha’ was the good seed which has now ripened and allowed him to leave home and certify to the fruit.”

Describing The Substance

The second of the Five-fold Profound Meanings is Describing the Substance. Once you know a person’s name, you learn to recognize him on sight. “Is he fat or thin, tall or short?” You don’t necessarily have to see his face, but can recognize him by his form. “Oh, it’s him.”

This sutra is a Mahayana Dharma, spoken without request, and takes the Real Mark as its substance. The Real Mark is no mark. There is no mark, nothing at all, and yet there is nothing which is not marked. Unmarked, it is true emptiness, and with nothing unmarked, it is wonderful existence.

All marks are the Real Mark:

The Real Mark is unmarked

With nothing unmarked.
It is without marks and also without any non-marks.
It is neither without marks nor is it marked by no marks.

While in the midst of marks, one should not hold onto marks, for they are not the Real Mark. True Suchness, the one true Dharma Realm, the Thus Come One’s Store Nature, all are different names for the Real Mark.

Clarifying the Principle

Unless you understand the sutra’s doctrine and objective, you will not understand its principles. So now we will examine the one by means of the other. It is just like knowing a person’s name and then discovering his occupation.

The principles of this sutra are faith, vows, and practice holding the Buddha’s name; these are the three prerequisites of the Pure Land dharma-door. One who goes on a journey takes along some food and a little money. One who wishes to go to the Land of Ultimate Bliss needs faith, vows, and the practice of holding the Buddha’s name.

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