Entering a Pureland Retreat
A talk given by Guru Yutang Lin
Reviewed and Revised by Guru Yutang Lin
Say something about "Retreat" first. Retreat is important for our Dharma practices because usually when we are in contact with people, we run around, our mind has many things that cannot calm down. But if you stay in retreat, after a few days, usually three days, you sense that the mind becomes quiet down. And, of course, the main point of retreat is, we want to use that period to concentrate on our Dharma practices. And, fundamentally there are two requirements about "Retreat," one is "Silence." That doesn’t mean that you cannot repeat Buddha’s name or mantras, but you don’t talk, not even to yourself. And also, you confine your activity to a pre-set area. Ideally, you know, in retreat you don’t see people at all. And, of course, you have no communication with the outside world. And, why, why do we practice in retreat? To me, it is basically because we want to practice "dying." Because when we are dying, you know, you probably lose the ability to communicate with others, and you have to face it all alone. So, right now when you are still healthy, strong, you try to experience that kind of loneliness. And if you can handle death, you know, still feel at ease, then most of the problems in life you can handle.
And now come to the Pureland teachings. First, I want to say a few words about this painting. It was painted by a nun in Taiwan years ago. She was originally a Physician treating cancer patients, but then she got cancer herself, so she gave up worldly engagements and became a nun. And she lived for quite a few years, and she painted this one during that period after she became a nun. And the original one is about 4 feet by 8 feet, so it was difficult to paint, she has to hang it up on the wall and use stairs (ladder) to climb up to do the painting. And one special characteristic about this painting is that, she studied some Sutras that set, ah—regulations on how to paint a Buddha image, and followed that exactly. So, this one is different from ordinary ones you see because they just paint, you know, what they like—they don’t know about the regulations. And this Buddha is called "Amitabha Buddha." "Amitabha" means "Boundless Light," and another aspect of "Amitabha" is "Amitayus" which means "Boundless Life." So, it is boundless in space and in time. And this Buddha is different from Sakyamuni Buddha because Sakyamuni Buddha was a historical figure—we can say there was a person here, he became a Buddha. But this Buddha we know about Him only through Sakyamuni Buddha’s words. And, in the Sutras, it is described how grandeur the Pureland is of this Buddha. And there are only good people there, good Dharma practitioners. And even though there are birds there, but those are not born of karma, they are transformations of the Buddha. So, even the birds will sing to praise Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
And the main teaching of this Pureland School is that, once you learned there’s such a nice place, if you believe in it, then you want to gain rebirth there instead of staying here in Samsara. But, you see, this kind of teaching is trying to direct your mind away from worldly engagements because if you are over concerned with worldly matters, then you don’t have space of mind to do any Dharma practice seriously. So, the School also emphasized that their followers should aspire, vow to gain rebirth there. And, in addition to having faith in such a Pureland, and also aspire to be reborn there, the main practice of this School is the repetition of the name "Amitabha." The reason is because when this Buddha was a monk, before he became a Buddha, he developed 48 vows saying, "I want to become Buddha—when I want to become Buddha." And I translated it into English and Julita translated it into Polish. If you are interested, you know, you can study it later on your own. But the main point of these vows is like this, He said, "When I become a Buddha, unless everyone in my Pureland is as glorious as myself; otherwise, I won’t become a Buddha." Then you will think, how could it be possible that all the beings there are Buddhas? But if you understand the basic philosophy of Buddhism that when one becomes Buddha, one simply returns to the limitless oneness. So in limitless oneness, he is identical with all the rest, so all the rest are also Buddhas. And in the vows they are also saying, you know, you have to be good ethically, you have to do certain practice, understand the teaching of Buddha, and then you can be reborn there. You have to make efforts.
But one special vow there is that, even some people have done evil things in life, if at the time of death, he is fortunate enough to meet someone and tell him about the repetition of Buddha’s name, then He promised to come and welcome that person to the Pureland. And this sounds too easy because you’ve done a lot of evil, and at the end you say "Amitabha, Amitabha…" and then you get there. But actually if we look at it carefully, you know, it’s not easy for someone who knows nothing about "Amitabha," and at the time of death can have the faith, and whole-heartedly just repeat this; it’s almost impossible! So, actually for one to be able to repeat "Amitabha" at the time of death, one has to repeat it all one’s life because any moment you can die.
And, the traditional teaching says the order is: have faith, have vow, aspiration, and then the practices. But, how can people readily accept this kind of faith—there is a Pureland, so wonderful? And also, if they don’t have the faith, how can they decide to make the vow, say, "I want to be reborn there"? Nevertheless, it is still possible to begin with just the practice. You don’t know if there’s a Pureland, you have no vow to be reborn there, but if you do this practice as a concentration practice, you'd sense the benefits if you do it a lot. You sense the benefit—ah—in your body you feel relaxed, in your mind you feel calmer. Why is it that repeating the Buddha’s name can have this kind of effects? Because usually whatever we think is something related to the rest of the world, so you have no way to escape from this network in your mind. But the name "Amitabha" has NO connection with the world, and the reason that we cannot escape is because we are so used to thinking about self-centered things. So, the way to unlearn is to develop this new habit because if you say, "Oh, I want to forget about this, untangle it"—you are still tangled with it. Only when your mind is on something else, then this part, because no attention to it, it will gradually go away. And also, for us we are accustomed to grasping to something. So, if you just say, "Oh, let go and sit there quietly," it’s impossible because everything just come out inside. And this practice is using our habit of grasping but grasping something unrelated to the rest. And we all know that sometimes the thoughts come out is beyond our control, we have no control. And the way to really free ourselves from this mess is that by sticking to this "Amitabha," you keep saying "Amitabha, Amitabha…"—it takes effort and your energy is there, and then gradually all the other thoughts—because you no longer spend your energy on them—they gradually die away.
And to adopt this practice, usually it’s best if you do it daily, starting with, say, oh, five hundred repetitions, one thousand repetitions, and if you can set a particular time for doing it, that’s even better. Because if you don’t set a routine lesson to do, then very soon you forget about it, then it cannot help you. And if you have the Buddha image, you know, you can make three prostrations, and then start the practice. Prostrations to Buddha can help reduce our karmic debts, and also help us develop wisdom. And usually we do the counting by using mala—the standard mala has one hundred and eight beads. The 108 beads do not include the two at the joint. And then you say, "Amitabha, Amitabha, Amitabha…" (while your fingers move the beads one at a time with each repetition of the holy name), and after one round, it is counted only as having said one hundred times—the eight times to compensate for your distractions.
And—so, enough talk about this practice, and the main point of the retreat is to engage in some practice. And when you do it on your own, you know, actually any time you can do it; you’re washing dishes, you’re walking on the street, any time you can do it. It need not be a set-ritual because the key point is to develop a new habit so that your mind can become free from worldly engagements. And it is not necessary that you sit, you can walk. So, just feel comfortable and do the repetition. So, we will start—each one saying, either silently or loud, doesn’t matter—you repeat "Amitabha"—that’s the name of the Buddha.
From the audience: Can I have a question?
Q1: Some people make vows to save all beings, typical Mahayana, vows called "Bodhisattva Vows," which needs engagement in the world and its matters to save the beings. And here we aspire to be reborn in the Pureland, afar from this world, so that, isn’t it contradictory?
A: No. Because the goal to be reborn there is because that’s a better place for cultivation of your Dharma, and when you are capable of coming back to help others without being pulled down by others, then you come back.
Q1: That’s how I felt.
A: That’s a good point, yes.
Wisdom Lotus: Sandra said that it's possible to walk in the garden if somebody wants to go walking, behind that building.
A: Yah, yah, sure, sure. And the point is this: When you start to repeat "Amitabha, Amitabha…" you will notice that inevitably other thoughts come, but at that time don’t pay attention to those, don’t say, "Oh, this is wrong. Oh, I want to fight this." Those are wrong because that means you are attracted by the other thoughts. So, you just keep coming back to "Amitabha"; that’s the key point. And we have a list, the…
Wisdom Lotus: We have "Sadhana of Amitabha."
A: No, no, no, I mean the Pureland teaching, the list—references. At my website there is a category called "Pureland Teachings," so there are many things there, and I will talk about some of them later, but right now we do this.
September 22, 2014