Teachings in Chinese Buddhism

    (8) The Teachings on the Expedient Path of Buddhist Practice   

Recollection of the Buddha (s. buddhanusmrti) and the idea of a Pure Land are skilful means (s. upaya) common among different schools and different vehicles (s. yana) in Buddhism. However, the most common practices, particularly in the Pure Land school, involve recollection (s. smrti) of the Amitabha Buddha and seeking rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss (s. Sukhamati or Sukhavati).

The practice of the recollection of the Buddha on the Expedient Path is most completely expounded in Chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra — "Samantabhadra’s Practices and Vows." This particular practice is clearly explained therein as

"The Ten Great Vows (s. mahapranidhana) guide one on the path to the Land of Ultimate Bliss."

(The Ten Great Vows refer to ten vows as well as ten ways of practice.)

Recollection of the Buddha means to recollect and contemplate the Dharma Body (s. dharmakaya) of the Buddha, the virtues of the Buddha, the stately appearance of the Buddha, and the name (s. namadheya) of the Buddha so that the mind is freed from distraction and restlessness (s. aviksiptacitta). Recollection of the Buddha is not just the recitation (s. japa) of the name of the Buddha, but includes the following practices:

1. Paying reverence to the Buddha.

2. Praising the virtues of the Buddha (The name of the Buddha reflects the virtues of the Buddha. Thus, reciting the name of the Amitabha Buddha is equivalent to praising and recollecting the virtues of all Buddhas).

3. Making immense offerings (s. pujana) to the Buddha.

4. Making a frank confession of one’s mistakes (s. desana) before the Buddha and sincerely asking for pardon (s. ksana).

5. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Buddha (and of all Bodhisattvas).

6. Requesting the Buddha to revolve the Dharma wheel (s. dharma-cakra-pravartana).

7. Requesting the Buddha to live on this world, working for the liberation of all sentient beings.

8. Learning from the Buddha and practising the Dharma.

9. Following the example of the Buddha, to help, comfort and teach all sentient beings according to their needs.

10. Transference of merits (s. parinama) to all sentient beings, hoping that all sentient beings may attain Buddhahood.

These are the practices of the recollection of the Buddha. Since the practices simply involve mindfully meditating upon Buddha (s. adhimoksa), and are free from any complicating dependence upon special external requirements, they can be easily accomplished. To recollect the infinite Buddha is in fact to contemplate the vows and practices of all Buddhas (i.e. infinite Buddha-nature variously personified). The mind meditates upon the Buddhas presiding over the ten different directions (e.g. Amitabha Buddha in the Western Paradise). This entails penetrating the Realm of Dharma (s. dharmadhatu) and leads one to rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

The most systematic commentary regarding this practice can be found in "The Sastra of The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana". It describes four stages of practice as below:

1. Mahayanist novices, whose minds are not strong, may lack the confidence to realize Buddhahood or to avoid rebirth in lower realms. They are not yet ready for the stage of cultivating confidence by themselves. The expedient means for them to practice is thus to concentrate on contemplating and recollecting the Buddha, especially the Amitabha Buddha, and to transfer the immeasurable virtues accumulated through this practice for taking rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Confidence can then be established gradually, and can be sustained by sensing the strong vibrations rippling throughout the Universe emanating from the ardent will, power and virtues of the Buddha. (N.B. This differs from the Real-Mark (Self-Nature) Recollection of Buddha).

2. The initial stage of a Bodhisattva’s career essentially entails extensive practices aiming to cultivate confidence (i.e. the Stage of Cultivating Ten Virtues of Mind). Such practices involving the recollection of the Buddha on the Expedient Path, such as paying reverence to the Buddha; making a frank confession of one’s mistakes and asking for pardon; rejoicing in the merits of others, transference of merits etc., all become skilful means for overcoming unwholesome karma (s. karmavarana). In turn these expedient means help develop practices on the Profound Path of Buddhist Practice, such as generosity (s. dana), morality (s. sila), patience and perseverance. Confidence is further strengthened thereby.

3. For those Bodhisattvas who have firmly established their faith and confidence, making a frank confession of their mistakes and asking for pardon becomes a skilful means to achieve mind concentration (s. samadhi); while the practices of offering, paying reverence, praising and rejoicing in virtue become skilful means to develop the stock of supreme merit. These will assist one to accomplish all great vows equally and to perfectly support the growth of both wisdom and compassion. Confidence and faith can then be further developed in order to achieve the supreme enlightenment.

4. When a Bodhisattva enters the Realization of Dharma Dhatu of the Ten Bodhisattva Stages (s. dasa-bhumayah) he still practises recollection of the Buddha through actions such as making offerings to the Buddhas of the ten different directions, requesting the Buddha to revolve the Dharma wheel etc.; all with the purpose of benefitting all other sentient beings. The Manjusri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who have sought rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, belong to this type of Bodhisattva. They definitely differ from those Mahayanist novices who lack the confidence to successfully realize Buddhahood, or who fear the loss of confidence during the practices.

Recollection of Buddha on the Expedient Path of Buddhist Practice is a consistent feature of the training of a Bodhisattva throughout its various phases. It is followed in a proper sequence and gradual progress is made thereby, subject to the spiritual potentialities of individuals. According to "The Great Wisdom and Perfections Sastra" (s. "The Mahaprajna Paramita Sastra") there are different emphases on the Expedient and Profound Paths for different Mahayanist novices due to the variability of their spiritual potentialities. However, from the perspective of the Bodhi Path (s. bodhimarga) as a whole, there is no contradiction between the Expedient and Profound Paths and it is wrong to discriminate against either of them. Those who have not read Chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra, "Samantabhadra’s Practices and Vows", will not understand the profound meaning of the recollection of the Buddha on the Expedient Path. For those who do not read the sastra of The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana, it will be difficult to understand the different stages of practice involved in the recollection of the Buddha (which is consistent with The Great Wisdom and Perfection Sastra and The Dasabhumi-Vibhasa Sastra written by Nagarjuna). I would recommend these sutras and sastras to anyone practicing recollection of the Buddha so that they will not misinterpret the immense teaching of this practice and blind themselves to its profound meaning.

(Translated by Tan Beng Tiong, edited Ke Rong, proofread by Shi Neng Rong. (6-9-96)

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