Venerable Pings Xiao
Since the True Enlightenment Practitioners Association began to propagate the Buddha Dharma, many prominent Buddhist groups have commented that “the dharma taught by Pings Xiao is very odd and differs totally from ours,” implying that the Association’s teachings are incorrect. Their goal is to marginalize the Association, yet they do not dare to openly call its doctrines heretical for fear of having to bear the grave karmic consequences of defaming the true Buddha Dharma.
Over nearly two decades of dharma propagation, the doctrines of the True Enlightenment Practitioners Association were seriously questioned and scrutinized on three occasions, while the prominent Buddhist groups in Taiwan have strived to find faults in its teachings. However, all these attempts have failed and the Association’s teachings have never been proven wrong.
The Dharma propagated by the Association is consistent with the contents of the three-vehicle sutras, and none of the prominent Buddhist group has been able to demonstrate otherwise. Therefore, their recognition that their dharma is different from the Association’s only serves to prove that they are the ones who have been “spreading and practicing” false dharma.
- The Buddhist True Enlightenment Practitioners Association -
Since its establishment in ancient India [Sindhu], the Chan School has been advocating the realization of the eighth vijnana - Tathagatagarbha, the unique and supreme self, as its cultivation objective. Given that all Dharma shares the same origin, after Buddhism spread to China, the Chan School continued to propagate the realization of the Tathagatagarbha, which according to the sutras, “does not see, hear, feel or know,” and is “the mind nature devoid of perception and contemplation.” In other words, the goal of the Chan School has never been to realize the conscious perceptive mind, whether in the thoughtless state or not.
The Buddhist True Enlightenment Practitioners Association teaches its followers to realize the eighth vijnana, Tathagatagarbha, just as all enlightened Chan School masters and practitioners throughout Chinese history have achieved. A thousand years ago, two distinguished Chan patriarchs, Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), a proponent of the Silent Illumination Chan [Mozhao Chan], and Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163), an advocate of the Hua Tou ("word-head") Concentration Practice, both declared that the realization target of the Chan School is the eighth vijnana, Tathagatagarbha. However, in recent years, many prominent Buddhist groups have unanimously opined that “the method of reaching enlightenment through the realization of the Tathagatagarbha taught by Pings Xiao is completely different from our realization of ‘the thoughtless pristine awareness and vexation-free conscious mind.’” This clearly shows that these Buddhist groups have been preaching the realization of the conscious perceptive mind, instead of the Tathagatagarbha realized by Hongzhi Zhengjue and Dahui Zonggao.
It should be crystal clear to the wise that these prominent Buddhist groups have been seeking enlightenment in the conscious mind, thus falling for the same misconceptions held by the non-Buddhist eternalists. The only difference is that the eternalists do not use Buddhist terminology to propagate their views, while those prominent groups use Buddhist terminology to preach non-Buddhist eternalist states related to the conscious mind.
- The Buddhist True Enlightenment Practitioners Association -
Restraining All Six Sense-Roots
and Continuing the One Pure Thought
Buddha-remembrance is a dharma door [Buddhist practice method] that accommodates practitioners of all capacities [the sharp, the average, and the limited] and fits especially well with the busy and stressful lifestyle of modern people. Easy to learn, it can be taken up by people of all ages and backgrounds: eighty-year-olds, three-year-olds, college professors, street peddlers, or even illiterate elders. With enough faith, everyone can more or less benefit from and respond to this method according to each one's capacity. If you can go deep into the Buddha dharma and carefully reflect upon it, you may even realize the true mind and see the Buddha nature through this dharma door. Regrettably, a small number of people who regard themselves as having sharp faculty do not deign to practice Buddha-remembrance and consequently miss out on the wonderful benefits it can bring to their Buddhist cultivation.
Although anyone can practice Buddha-remembrance, each person does not practice this dharma door in the exact same manner owing to individual differences in capacity and knowledge. I will first give an overview of the different ways of practicing Buddha-remembrance, starting from the easiest and moving to the most advanced.
1. Reciting the Buddha’s Name in a Casual Manner
Reciting the Buddha’s name in a casual, spur-of- the-moment fashion is normal if you have just started to practice the dharma door of Buddha-remembrance. You do not know why you should practice Buddha- remembrance and may not even aware that “Buddha- remembrance” and “recitation of Buddha’s name” are not the same. You hear about the many benefits of Buddha-remembrance and decide to begin practicing by chanting Buddha’s name aloud. When you chant the Buddha’s name orally, your mind is constantly occupied with discursive thoughts arising from greed, anger, delusion, arrogance, and doubts. Occasionally, you attend group practice of Buddha-remembrance, but will not go if the weather is bad or if you are not in the mood. In everyday life, you recite the Buddha’s name silently in your mind when you feel like doing it. Yet most of the time your mind is restless and possessed by deluded thoughts.
2. Reciting Buddha's Name Regularly and Consistently
A person who recites Buddha’s name in a regular, consistent fashion planted numerous good roots and meritorious deeds in past lives, and therefore in the present life is always in the company of people who practice Buddha-remembrance and enjoys guidance from these virtuous companions. You gradually become aware of the reasons for and the benefits of practicing Buddha-remembrance and develop the ability to recite Buddha's name continually. Sometimes you can even focus all your attention on the Buddha's name, constantly reciting it in silence.
You may not have taken the initiative to practice Buddha-remembrance yourself but had the favorable conditions that your parents, teachers, or friends were active participants in group practice of Buddha- remembrance. When one of them passed away, you saw the peaceful, radiant physical appearance of the deceased and were moved by the solemn yet soothing manner of those chanting Buddha’s name at the side. This personal experience inspires you to cultivate Buddha-remembrance. You then constantly recite Buddha’s name in silence and also seek to understand the benefits of Buddha-remembrance, the vows and deeds of the Buddha (or bodhisattva) whose name you recite, as well as the magnificence of the Buddha’s pure land.
3. Buddha-Remembrance Through Recitation and Remembrance
At this stage, you are not only fully aware of the magnificent qualities of Buddhas’ pure lands (note: usually refers to Sukhavati, Amitabha’s Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss), but have deep faith in the existence of the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss as well as Buddha Amitabha’s forty-eight great vows as told by Buddha Sakyamuni, the World Honored One [Bhagavan]. Having an unshakable conviction that Buddha-remembrance can enable you to take rebirth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, you make an oath with utmost sincerity to be reborn there. For this reason, you explore and study the dharma door of Buddha-remembrance, wishing to enter it in depth. You spend a great deal of time pondering over this dharma door and reading the writings on Buddha-remembrance composed by virtuous and knowledgeable teachers, realizing the difference between recitation of Buddha's name and Buddha-remembrance. You come to understand that, at a group practice, you should not only chant Buddha’s name orally, but should accompany this oral chanting with mental recitation; not only do mental recitation but also listen in your mind; not only listen in your mind but also practice remembrance; not only practice remembrance but should eventually set aside all affairs and subdue all distracting thoughts so that the name and the thought of Buddha can be carried on continuously without interruption.
This kind of practice - recitation of Buddha’s name accompanied by continuous remembrance of Buddha - should be performed regularly on a weekly or daily basis. During group practice, you should not chant with too loud a voice or else it may harm your Chi [energy flow] or health. The key is to keep the thought of Buddha in mind during recitation of Buddha's name. As the recitation becomes unbroken, the thought of Buddha also becomes uninterrupted. When the mind is dull or when discursive thoughts decrease, chant Buddha's name with the group in a voice that is neither too loud nor too low and continue with the remembrance. In your daily practice, recite Buddha’s name silently and practice “mental recitation with mental listening.”
Once the mental recitation and mental listening are clear and distinct, you can switch to mental recitation and remembrance, that is, accompanying the silent recitation of Buddha’s name with remembrance instead of mental listening. Mental recitation and mental listening means you chant Buddha’s name silently while listening to the sounds of Buddha’s name with great concentration to make sure that the silent recitation is uninterrupted. Not many people can accomplish this kind of Buddha-remembrance. Nevertheless, if you are able to keep the silent chanting going clearly and continuously, then you are ready to take a step forward and investigate the function of mental recitation and mental listening. If you observe and carefully discriminate, you will see that the function of mental recitation and mental listening is actually to dispel wandering thoughts by keeping the mind in a state of mental absorption. The thought of Buddha during this practice is looming but not very clear. Sometimes it may be totally absent as the mind enters in a state of concentration [samadhi].
Once you can observe the state of your mind with such clarity, you will know that it is time to make adjustment to your method. Instead of mental recitation and mental listening, you need to move on to mental recitation and remembrance - maintaining a pure thought of Buddha in mind while mentally reciting Buddha’s name in a continuous manner. By the time you have reached this stage in your cultivation of the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance, you probably will have received some responsive signs from a Buddha or a bodhisattva, or have even seen an apparition of His image. As a result, your confidence is reinforced and will not regress easily.
4. Formless Buddha-remembrance
If you can cultivate at the level of formless Buddha- remembrance, you must have, in past lives, paid homage and made offerings to the World-Honored One and the Three Jewels, planted uncountable good roots and merits, and diligently cultivated both meditative concentration [samadhi] and the Pure Land methods with equal emphasis. In addition, you must have often sought the company of virtuous, knowledgeable mentors, without blindly following others’ words. You must have also earnestly explored and reflected upon the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance in order to steadily improve your practice. Hence, in this lifetime, even though your main practice is the dharma-door of Buddha- remembrance, you do not neglect to acquire knowledge of meditative concentration. Having established fundamental knowledge of both the dharma-door of Pure Land School and the dharma-door of meditative concentration, your mind, in the course of diligent and continuous learning and practice, becomes subtle enough to naturally reach the level of formless Buddha-remembrance. The Buddha’s name or image does not arise when you think of the Buddha.
Equipped with abundant good roots, merits and wisdom, you know without doubt that formless Buddha- remembrance is the true way to practice Buddha- remembrance and therefore endeavor in this method resolutely. You are also confident that you will be reborn in a higher level in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.
Formless Buddha-remembrance, as a matter of fact, is the method taught by Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta in The Surangama Sutra: “Remembering and thinking of Buddha, to restrain all six sense-roots and continue the one pure thought.” If you also regularly practice formless Buddha-remembrance while making slow prostrations to Buddha, you can easily maintain formless Buddha-remembrance throughout everyday life in both movements and stillness.
I would say that a practitioner who has mastered formless Buddha-remembrance and can maintain it during daily activities has sufficient confidence in the Three Jewels as well as himself, and will not abandon the Three Jewels in this lifetime. Moreover, such a person cannot help having some thoughts about transcending the three realms.
In a personal or group practice, if you recite the Buddha’s name attentively until the Buddha’s name no longer arises but you can still focus single-mindedly and continuously upon the Buddha, then you will understand experientially the meaning of “sustaining one pure thought”.
When you apply yourself ever diligently, entering deep into mindfulness, contemplation, and practice, you
will arrive at the following insights: the image of the Buddha is not the Buddha, nor is the name we recite and the sounds we make when we vocalize the Buddha’s name; even an apparition of the Buddha is not the Buddha. The Buddha is one’s true mind, for Buddha is the enlightened one. The historical Buddha, Buddha Sakyamuni, who lived in India 2,500 years ago was a manifestation Buddha generated by his dharma-body [dharmakaya]. Buddha’s ultimate origin [noumenon, dharmakaya] has no birth and no death. The true Buddha is neither being nor emptiness, yet not separate from being or emptiness - it is one’s “true mind.” The Buddha we call to mind in our practice is essentially this true mind, which is inherently devoid of names, sounds, or forms. If this is the mind we are mindful of when we think of Buddha, then why is it necessary to employ names, sounds, or forms in our practice? When you can reach this conclusion through your own reasoning and analysis, you will be able to relinquish names, sounds, and forms, and advance to formless Buddha-remembrance.
Furthermore, if you can bring this pure thought from your sitting practice into your daily activities, you will see initial results in one to three days. Within one or two months, or even one or two weeks, a very diligent person who practices continuously and experiences it in depth will be able to remain in Buddha-remembrance effortlessly. The thought of Buddha will pour into your mind like a gushing spring; it will be present naturally without any willful effort.
Although Buddha-remembrance at this stage is formless, you are mindful of a particular Buddha and not all Buddhas of ten directions and you should know very clearly which Buddha is the object of remembrance. While this thought of Buddha is difficult to understand for many people, it will be easier if you have already mastered the practice of Buddha-remembrance through recitation. To help people who practice Buddha-remembrance reach the state of formless remembrance quickly, I have devised the supporting practice of slowly prostrating to the Buddha while doing formless Buddha-remembrance. To learn the details of this practice, you can request a free copy of Formless Buddha-Remembrance [Wu Xiang Nian Fo, (Chinese edition) published in 1993] from the Buddhist True Enlightenment Practitioners Association by mail.
The cultivation of formless Buddha-remembrance requires one to reduce, or preferably eliminate, one’s “clinging and grasping mind,” the “alert-probing mind,” the “mind of doubt,” and the “mind of arrogance.” Having the “clinging and grasping mind” makes it difficult for you to give up names, sounds, and forms; even if you can let go of them, you probably find it challenging to keep the pure thought going. If you cannot get rid of the “alert-probing mind” you might become unrestful or might hope to get some response from Buddhas or bodhisattvas; hence, you will find it difficult to remain settled in the state of formless Buddha-remembrance and to continue the pure thought.
If doubt is not removed, you might consider formless Buddha-remembrance to be groundless or question whether it is a real Buddhist practice or not. If you do not overcome the tendency towards doubt, you might choose to not give this dharma-door a try until it has become widely accepted, after ten, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years. It will be a shame if, at that time, you were too old to practice or had passed on to your future life, uncertain of the possibility of encountering this wonderful dharma-door.
As a matter of fact, quite a few ancient and contemporary dharma masters have discussed this dharma-door. However, in this dharma-ending age, those who circulate Buddhist books oftentimes neglect to propagate it because they believe this kind of mental state is too difficult to cultivate. On the other hand, a few individuals “conveniently” interpret the meaning of “Buddha-remembrance” taught by many great masters of the past as simply the recitation of Buddha's name. Consequently, practitioners who would like to practice Buddha-remembrance are confused and hesitant to place their trust in it.
It is hard for people of another kind of mentality to practice Buddha-remembrance - arrogant people. Some of them consider Chan practice the most superior. Even when they cannot find the “huatou” after trying for ten or twenty years, they still will not give up on it. They merit both respect and pity. There are others who bury themselves in the exhaustive studies of Buddhist scriptures in order to become renowned Buddhist scholars, but old age soon comes upon them as time goes by.
These two types of people usually do not want to stoop to the practice of Buddha-remembrance or to be in the company of people who practice Buddha- remembrance. We know it is not without reason that the lotus flower is an icon in Buddhism. The lotus flower, which grows from mud, symbolizes the purity and dignity of Buddha Dharma. If Buddhist learners can remove arrogance, it will be easier for them to receive the Dharma and to have accomplishments in the cultivation of the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance with humility.
I have been helping people to learn Buddhism through the dharma door of Buddha-remembrance since May 1989 onwards. From my personal experience, I have seen firsthand that arrogance can hurt Buddhist learners deeply and broadly. Humble people receive the Dharma readily and progress quickly in their cultivation whereas arrogant individuals tend to worship authority figures and do not believe that a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor is not necessarily famous. Even if a truly virtuous, knowledgeable mentor appears before them, they will still not believe him and hence miss the chance to learn. Therefore, you must rid yourself of arrogance if you want to enter deep into the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance.
From Phenomena Based Practice to Wisdom Based Practice - the Ordinary Mind is the Buddha’s Mind
While formless Buddha-remembrance is called formless, it is not Buddha-remembrance in true reality [dharmata]. What the word formless conveys is the lack of any worldly characteristics, such as names, sounds, images, and the likes.
True reality is without form, but the absence of form is not necessarily the True Reality. The difference between the two lies in the fact that formlessness refers to the absence of forms in the worldly sense, as in formless Buddha-remembrance, pristine, thoughtless awareness, sentient beings residing in the formless realm, vacant space, and so on. True reality, however, cannot be understood through any worldly concept; the true suchness [bhuta-tathata], the Buddha nature, bodhi, and nirvana are all in this category.
Furthermore, in Mahayana Buddhism, true reality does not mean the absence of form alone. It is also defined by the non-duality of emptiness and being. It is neither form nor apart from form; it is without form but is not non-form. It is neither emptiness nor being and yet not separated from either. Thus it is called the “middle way.” Given that this truth is beyond those who have only realized the true mind but have not yet seen the Buddha nature, how is it possible for an ordinary person to comprehend it through sheer speculation?
The mental state in formless Buddha-remembrance indeed exists and although it is formless, it is distinct from true Reality. This has been documented since ancient time. In order to assist practitioners of both Chan and Pure Land in this dharma-ending age, I have named this practice Formless Buddha-Remembrance based on the following passage from volume four of The Great Jewel Heap Sutras [The Ratnakuta Sutras]: “The one without form has no physical body or any kind of physical form; it has no name, no language, and no manifestation.”
Formless Buddha-remembrance, in spite of its desertion of characteristics, is still a method of Buddha- remembrance on the cause ground. If you have accomplished this dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance, you will find that the thought of Buddha springs to your mind like a gushing spring. The “dharma joy” felt from this experience will fade away and finally disappear with the passage of time as you get used to it. If you continue to practice formless Buddha-remembrance, sooner or later you will be abruptly seized by an introspective question: “Who is remembering the Buddha?” Or you may be swept off your feet, lose all sense of direction, and drop into a black barrel the moment a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor throws you the question “Who is remembering the Buddha?” Hereafter you will be consumed each and every moment by an intense doubt. It is like a delicious but steaming hot dumpling which is stuck in your mouth because you don’t want to swallow it or spit it out. Now you will have to call upon your solid skill of formless Buddha-remembrance to thoroughly probe into this doubt without using language. One day the epiphany will come: “the physical body, its perceptions and sensations, the illusory mind and vijnanas, none of them are me; the real me is the mind that never had a single thought.” Right there and right then you confirm your realization without hesitance. Henceforth, you are acquainted with the origin and the source of all life forms and can uncover the invisible true mind. Never again will you mistake the thoughtless, pristine awareness for it.
Like a person who has found the nose they had never noticed, upon realizing the true mind, some burst out into cackles, some weep in rapture, and still others remain inscrutable, settling calmly in the true mind. In any case, you will suddenly experience a lightened feeling that your body and mind have turned clear and pure.
The realization of the true mind entails the simultaneous elimination of the misconceptions about the self, which in turn extinguishes skepticism about true reality and consequently remove all misconceptions about the precepts. Upon severing these three fetters, one’s practice of formless Buddha-remembrance becomes Buddha-remembrance of the fruition ground. However, at this stage, you are only “heading towards becoming a saint” of the sound-hearers vehicle [sravaka] and not considered a real saint. For you regard emptiness, one end of the two extremes, as reality at this point, since you have not realized the true reality by seeing the Buddha nature but have only found the true mind. The next cultivation target, therefore, is to see the Buddha nature and progress to Buddha-remembrance in true reality.
5. Buddha-Remembrance in True Reality
Not many practitioners of Buddha-remembrance are able to accomplish formless Buddha-remembrance. It is even rarer, and remarkable for that reason, for one to uncover the true mind through formless and contemplative Buddha-remembrance, thereupon cutting off the three fetters. Sadly and lamentably though, most of the time, the realization of the true mind marks the end of one’s cultivation. After the practitioner receives validation of awakening, he is usually advised by his master to maintain this realization through Buddha- remembrance; no further teaching, learning, and cultivation take place beyond this point. Time and resources are squandered in idleness as the practitioner does not know that he needs to work toward seeing the Buddha nature by means of contemplative Buddha- remembrance.
If you are practicing Buddha-remembrance on the fruition ground and are aware of this fact, you should drop all worldly engagements to seek a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor [maybe different from the first one] who can help you further. When you come across such a mentor, after verifying your realization and examining your capacity, the mentor might give you a slap, fling an apple, or wave a fist right in front of your eyes. If none of these tricks suffice to induce you to see the Buddha nature, the mentor will assign one or two dharma sayings for you to ponder over.
If you commit earnestly and diligently toward your practice, then it is only a matter of time before you stumble upon your own Buddha nature. It could be the sensation of hot or cold, a fall to the ground, the barking of a dog, the sight of flowers and leaves, joy, sadness, or anything around you, that prompts you to see your Buddha nature in one corresponding thought, thereupon shattering your ignorance once again. You then realize that your Buddha nature is pervasive. Patting yourself on the head, a grin spreads across your face as you can’t help but laugh at your own stupidity - the Buddha nature has always been right in front of your nose, yet you were never aware of it. You can’t help looking around, touching and feeling everything in sight to experience its ubiquity.
Alternatively, you might come to this breakthrough during meditation or contemplation. After the moment of coming into correspondence, you follow all of the surrounding sounds, finely experiencing the ubiquity of the Buddha nature. Even when the meditation is over, you continue to experience the presence of Buddha- nature everywhere.
Once you have seen the Buddha-nature, you will understand what is meant by practicing Chan and Pure Land together. At this stage, you dwell single-mindedly in a luminous awareness, without discursive thought, language, rules of thinking, or worldly speculation. Beyond description, the essence of such a state can only be captured by the word “awakening.” This is actually the state of “single-mindedness in principle,” where one sees the origin of all Buddhas. It is also called the dharma-body Buddha [dharmakaya]. Hereafter, for seven or even seventy consecutive days, you dwell in a luminous awareness, unaffected by drowsiness and distractions. Deluded thoughts do not arise and no thought can take your focus away. Instead, in all sense-objects - sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations - you observe the true existence and the true emptiness of your Buddha nature, as well as how it gives rise to all dharma. At night, you may not feel sleepy and lie in bed with a lucid mind till dawn; or you may wake up at three or four o’clock in the morning fully refreshed, rise, wash up, offer incense, prostrate to Buddha, and then say to yourself, “Actually I have never ever prostrated to Buddha!” The body, the mind, and the physical world have all lost their realness.
When you read the sutras which talk about the Ultimate Truth, you find the words close to heart, as if they are all describing the workings of your own mind. When you tell others your observations and experiences, listeners might think you are just expounding on the profound ultimate truth and tease you saying, “You have to get beyond the terminology and do more real practice,” to which you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. There are a lot more benefits and virtues that come with seeing the Buddha nature, which are only known to those who have experienced them, so I shall not go into the details here.
Opening the Mind without Employing Expedient Methods
What we have gone through in the previous sections are the stages that most people go through to reach the stage of contemplative Buddha-remembrance [seeing one’s Buddha nature comes after recognizing one’s true mind]. It needs to be pointed out that a person with superior capacity can realize the true mind and see the Buddha nature (the dharma-body Buddha [dharmakaya]) at the same time and without the help of a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor.
The chapter Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta on Perfect Mastery of Buddha-Remembrance in The Surangama Sutra states: “If sentient beings hold the Buddha in mind, the moment will definitely arise when they see Buddha.” In this quote, “will arise” means that one will surely see Buddha in a future lifetime when one reaches the state of “single-minded in principle” [noumenon]. The “Buddha” that one shall see does not refer to an embodiment or an apparition of Buddha but one’s own intrinsic Buddha - the dharma-body of all Buddhas and all sentient beings. Upon seeing, a person will suddenly awaken and think “I never would have thought that this is the dharma-body of all Buddhas and the ‘original face’ of all sentient beings.” If this practitioner of Buddha-remembrance has studied Chan, he would also say, “Knowing where the Tucheng monk (refers to venerable Guang Qin [1892-1986] of Tucheng, Taiwan) once stood, I could have given it thirty good cane strokes.”
The process of cultivating Buddha-remembrance in true reality, from the emergence of “doubt” until the moment of seeing the Buddha nature, is a demonstration of how “the mind opens without employing expedient methods” (The Surangama Sutra). Why are no expedient methods necessary to facilitate this process? It is because the mental state in formless Buddha- remembrance corresponds extremely well with the intangible nature of the true reality, thus enabling you to cultivate Chan without having to learn it, to contemplate a “huatou” without having to study it, to bring up the sense of doubt spontaneously without going through head-breaking struggle, and to open the mind without the aid of a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor. The entire process of “opening the mind” may take as short as one day or as long as ten years, while some even have to wait till the next lifetime. Therefore, it is said, “the moment will definitely arise when they see Buddha.” The realization will occur sooner or later; your mind will certainly “open.”
Once you can see the Buddha nature, once your mind is “opened,” any dharma-door of Buddha- remembrance you practice - be it oral recitation, visualization, or formless - is essentially Buddha- remembrance in true reality. Why is that so? Because the true reality is separate from all worldly characteristics yet exists together with all characteristics. It is neither emptiness nor being and at the same time both emptiness and being. Insofar as you have thoroughly understood and mastered the practice and principle of Buddha- remembrance and can teach others how to go about it, you are qualified to say that “One recitation of the Buddha’s name encompasses both phenomenon and principle [noumenon].”
Your practice at this stage has taken on an entirely different dimension than before your mind “opened.” Your Buddha-remembrance is now remembering the mind with the mind, that is, you are thinking of Buddha’s true mind with your own true mind. The one that remembers and the one being remembered are the same. [Editorial note: Although the mind that can remember is illusory, it is nevertheless produced by the true mind and is part of the functions of the true mind. Therefore, to an enlightened person, the one that remembers and the one being remembered are not two separate entities.] The difference between you and Buddha is that Buddha has perfected His wisdom, samadhi, merits, and virtues and you have not. Looking ahead, while you will never again fall back into the three evil paths, there is still a long way to go before you can attain Buddhahood - an understanding that humbles you when you think about the Buddha in your practice. Thinking about other Buddhists who have not reached this level, compassion and sympathy will fill your heart and motivate you to dedicate yourself to helping them achieve step by step what you have.
If you have reached the level of Buddha- remembrance in true reality, you will be received by Buddha Amitabha at the end of your life, if you wish, and will be born in the highest level of the highest grade in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. You will be given a comforting sign before death. Immediately after dying, you will be taken to the pure land on a diamond [vajra] platform and realize “patience of non-arising dharma” in sudden awakening upon seeing Buddha Amitabha. In the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, you can travel in an instant to all Buddha lands in ten directions to pay homage and make offerings to innumerable Buddhas. After you sequentially receive predictions for Buddhahood from all Buddhas, you will return to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss and acquire uncountable dharani, the door of total retention.
At this stage you have already received many tremendously beneficial virtues of liberation from your cultivation. If you are insulted in public, for instance, you can ignore it and no anger or animosity will develop in your mind. Nevertheless, you should not become complacent because of this. In addition to assisting other learners to practice Buddha-remembrance, you should continue to cultivate Buddha-remembrance in a broad sense. The main focus of your cultivation now should be the acquisition of seed-wisdom and cultivation of the four basic levels of meditative concentration [dhyana]. A noteworthy advantage of having entered the true reality and eradicated most vexations is that you can progress in your cultivation of meditative concentration ten or a thousand times faster than those who have not. Once you have attained the four basic levels of dhyana, you should progress to reflection dhyana, forging dhyana, mastery dhyana, and cultivation dhyana. All these dhyana are meditative concentration [samadhi], which in turn will generate hundreds of thousands of samadhi over course of your cultivation along the Buddhahood Way, equipping you with the ability to benefit uncountable sentient beings. Therefore, you should not be satisfied with the level of Buddha-remembrance in true reality and further your cultivation of the Buddha Dharma.
Clearing up Doubts
Some people might say, “This article is about Buddha-remembrance, so it should not be talking about Chan as well.” This article actually focuses on the twists and turns [adjustments] you need to make in order to move forward in your Buddha-remembrance. Most people who practice Buddha-remembrance by reciting Buddha’s name remain at the stage of mental recitation and mental listening, not knowing that they can move on to mental recitation and remembrance. Some have reached the level of mental recitation and remembrance but do not know that they can leave behind all characteristics and advance to formless Buddha- remembrance. Others are even troubled when the Buddha’s name no longer comes forth during their practice or do not know that when the thought of Buddha arises in one’s mind continuously, it is an indication that one is ready to switch to contemplative Buddha-remembrance, an adjustment that marks the shift from phenomenal practice to wisdom based practice of the principle. I have also seen some practitioners who are held up at the level of formless Buddha-remembrance due to insufficient knowledge or a rejection of Chan, thus missing the chance of “seeing the Buddha” and proceeding to Buddha-remembrance in true reality, or missing the chance to be born in the highest grade and level in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. All these problems can be attributed to deficiency in knowledge about making adjustments.
Although there are 84,000 dharma-doors of liberation in the Buddha Dharma, the cultivation of each dharma-door must eventually correspond with the Ultimate Truth (the True Reality). Be it the concentration [samatha] and insight [vipasyana] meditation of the Tiantai School, the Chan contemplation of the Chan School, Buddha-remembrance of the Pure Land School, or any other dharma-door, the final stage of cultivation leading up to the realization of the ultimate truth is all Chan in essence. During the course of cultivation, some adjustments are always necessary for any dharma door; the purpose of which being to train your concentration by transforming a distracted mind into a focused one. With a satisfactory level of concentration, you are then able to explore the true mind and observe its emptiness-nature. After “seeing” the invisible true mind (attaining enlightenment), you continue to contemplate Chan and eventually see your Buddha nature, realizing the true reality and bringing forth the wisdom to benefit others.
Adjustments take different forms and manners in various practice methods. Despite so, the underlying principle is the same. This means that Chan is not exclusive to the Chan School but is present in all dharma doors of liberation. The protracted course of cultivation in all dharma doors that precedes the final stage of Chan is invariably for the building up of your concentration skills and knowledge. Only when both are adequate will you know when and how to make appropriate adjustments - then Chan will show itself when time is ripe.
“To restrain the mind is to observe the precepts, adherence to precepts produces concentration, and concentration brings about wisdom” - this is a condensed summary of the way to liberation. The general principle underlying the adjustments required in any dharma door is to move from form to formless and then adapting to the true reality. Once the true reality is realized, there is no form or formlessness to speak of anymore. Hence we have the Tiantai School’s claim that “the principle and the phenomena are not two”; the Chan School’s saying that “The mountain hues are nothing but the pure body; the babbling of the brook is the vast, long tongue of the Buddha proclaiming the wonderful Dharma”; and the Pure Land School’s statement that “One recitation of the Buddha’s name encompasses both phenomenon and principle.”
The principles and guidelines for making adjustments are applicable to the practice of any Buddhist schools or sects. In one sutra, the Buddha mentions that to the east of our Saha world there is a world without linguistic form called Unfluttered. Yet the Buddha of that world can still teach the Dharma to bodhisattvas. Likewise, the practice of formless Buddha- remembrance does not rely on any symbols or language to facilitate bodhisattvas to uncover the true mind. Without associating the thought of Buddha to linguistic forms, a practitioner gradually improves and adjusts his practice until he can contemplate the “huatou,” thereby advancing to contemplative Buddha-remembrance and eventually personally realizing the true reality of dharma realm. I will cite a passage from volume two of the Mahayana True Principle of the Six Paramita Sutra to prove my point:
“At that time, Bhagavan said to long-lived Anada again: ‘The world called Unfluttered has no suffering and the three evil paths are unheard of….Its land is magnificent and pure, where only Buddha, the king of dharma, teaches dharma to all bodhisattvas without the use of language or speech. When bodhisattvas come to see the Buddha, they joint their palms together in reverence, fix their eyes intently and steadily on the Buddha, and attain the Buddha-remembrance Samadhi. Thus this world is called Unfluttered. What is Buddha-remembrance Samadhi? It is not attained through forms, nor through sensation, perception, formation, or vijnana; not through wisdom of long before, or there after, nor from what one sees and hears at the moment.’ The Buddha told Anada, ‘This Buddha-remembrance Samadhi is inconceivable. It does not rely on any dharma yet observe all dharma through the true reality. It is without speech, manifestation, characteristic, and name - that’s what is called the Buddha-remembrance Samadhi.’”
In the above passage, the world Unfluttered, as told by The World Honored One, does not have language and speech. When the bodhisattvas in that world visit their Buddha and receive His teachings, as long as they respectfully joint their palms and behold Buddha with an intent and fixed gaze, they will naturally attain the Buddha-remembrance Samadhi and immediately realize the wordless and speechless intrinsic Buddha; in other words, they enter the true reality directly through the expedient of formlessness. Why do the bodhisattvas in this account not have to go through the levels of Buddha-remembrance, starting with recitation, before they attain Buddha-remembrance Samadhi? Obviously, it illustrates that contemplative Buddha-remembrance refers to the particular process through which one ponders and seeks the true reality. The aim of Buddha- remembrance is to see the real Buddha - the true reality of the dharma realm - which is the real meaning of “seeing the Buddha.” Why do I say so? The World Honored One makes it very clear that Buddha- remembrance Samadhi is not attained through the dharma characteristics of form, sensation, perception, formation, or vijnana. Nor can it be achieved through the wisdom of the twelve links of dependent arising, nor is it derived from the dharma of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing which we experience here and now.
Buddha-remembrance Samadhi is beyond the imagination of your conscious mind. When you realize in one corresponding thought, the intrinsic Buddha that is inherently detached from the functions of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing, you then observe through prajna wisdom that this intrinsic Buddha is the root origin of all dharma of the five aggregates and is essentially birth-less by nature. The intrinsic Buddha, in which the dharma-seeds of five aggregates are stored, its various perfect functions can give rise to the various dharma of the five aggregates in accordance with specific conditions and they are also birth-less. Hence, this is the true nature of all existing dharma. The intrinsic Buddha is the true reality of all dharma. Buddha-remembrance Samadhi is the wisdom you obtain when you observe personally and directly the true nature of all dharma. With this understanding, you can pick and choose among the many dharma-doors of liberation and quickly enter the Way.
To experience the benefits of Buddha-remembrance, as a beginner in this dharma-door, you should participate in regular group practices and study the works of a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor to augment your personal practice of Buddha-remembrance through recitation. During the course of diligent cultivation toward the stage of formless Buddha-remembrance, you might encounter extraordinary signs, such as seeing light, smelling fragrance, seeing a golden image of the Buddha, and the likes. These signs, albeit delightful and encouraging, should not be attached to. On rare occasion, (one in ten thousand may experience this) you might even see the Buddha speaking the Dharma to you in your meditation. If that happens, you must verify all teachings by the Three Dharma-Seals and the “Four Dharma to Depend Upon” before following them. Some people experience relaxation, coolness, joyfulness, compassion, dwindling of arrogance, or entering into samadhi after they have mastered formless Buddha- remembrance. These are all signs of reaching a state of mental absorption, so you need not to be alarmed but should continue to deepen your practice.
In recent years, I have come across a few Buddhist learners who reached the mental state without language and deluded thoughts through contemplating Chan or contemplative Buddha-remembrance and regarded this mental state of formless Buddha-remembrance as the “true self” [true mind]. They described this mental state to their mentors and obtained certification of enlightenment. The problem is, if this mental state without language and deluded thoughts is the true mind, then the minds of all wordless animals and the pristine awareness in meditative concentration should be the true mind as well. So why are those animals and those who dwell in pristine awareness not enjoying the virtues of liberation? It must be emphasized that only a truly virtuous, knowledgeable mentor is able to discern the subtleties of true versus false enlightenment and guide practitioners to the right views and right path. The pristine awareness is not the true mind in spite of its thoughtlessness. Nor is the seeing of flowers (projected by the mind) during meditation a sign of realization. Such misconceptions, if not clarified, will blind you from recognizing the emptiness-nature of the true mind, let alone witnessing the non-duality of true reality, namely the state of emptiness and being.
For the reasons above, the guidance of a truly virtuous, knowledgeable mentor is extremely important when a practitioner is entering the level of contemplative Buddha-remembrance. A truly virtuous, knowledgeable mentor is one who has already entered the level of Buddha-remembrance in true reality himself. He can see the Buddha nature without losing it, is proficient in the understanding of the ultimate truth, and possesses skillful means to teach others how to proceed from form to formlessness to true reality. One must keep in mind that such a mentor is not necessarily well known. But famous or not, he can show the practitioners the proper way to cultivate Buddha-remembrance and verify their realization, ensure that they do not mistake the deluded mind for the true mind, or deluded awareness for true awareness. He is able to lead practitioners to the level of Buddha-remembrance in true reality through the right stages and help them abandon obsession with exotic experiences that take place during meditation.
Fortunately, the number of such virtuous, knowledgeable mentors in Taiwan is on the rise and it is not difficult to find one. It is more important for a practitioner of Buddha-remembrance to establish faith and confidence, subdue arrogance, bring forth the bodhi mind [the aspiration for Buddhahood], and practice the bodhisattva’s way of life. Without these qualities, you would not recognize a virtuous, knowledgeable mentor even if he were standing right in front of you.
In this article, I have discussed five levels of Buddha-remembrance, from phenomena based practice through to the principle based practice. Though mastering formless Buddha-remembrance is not an easy task, it is not as difficult as it seems if you commit yourself to it with diligence, employ skillful means, and progress in the right steps. As for Buddha-remembrance in true reality, while it is beyond the reach of most people, it is not a stage entirely impossible to reach. If you have attained formless Buddha-remembrance Samadhi, constantly dwell in mindfulness, rid yourself of arrogance, bring forth the bodhi mind, and pray to the Buddha on your knees to guide you to a virtuous, knowledgeable teacher, you will for sure meet the right teacher who may bring you to an awakening with a few words. If you have not yet found a virtuous, knowledgeable teacher, it means that causes and conditions have not all matured yet. Do not be discouraged. Continue to reflect upon your practice. Even if you cannot see the Buddha nature in this life, you will be able to in the future as long as you are reborn as a human.
If you have the disposition of a bodhisattva, after you have mastered formless Buddha-remembrance, you may be able to personally realize the true reality after two, three years of self-cultivation and validate your realization by multiple scriptures and treaties. On the contrary, it is not possible to seek the true reality through Buddha-remembrance if you do not bring forth the magnanimous mind of a bodhisattva and remove arrogance and timidity.
Lastly, I would like to extend my heartfelt encouragement to all Buddhist learners through this prayer: May all Buddhists engage in the practice of Buddha-remembrance; contemplating and remembering Buddha, such that all will see the Buddha in this life or in the future, and benefit sentient beings with magnanimous heart.
An article in Chinese by Venerable Pings
published in Ci Yun Magazine, 1991
Translated into English in 2010
Revised in 2013