The Pure Land Teachings of Dharma Master Shan-tao

Written by: Gary Edward Link

For many Pure land Buddhists today, the recitation of the name of Amida Buddha
(skt:Amitabha, Ch:Amito-fo) is a common practice. But this was not always the case.

During the early years of Pure Land Buddhism in China, the main form of praxis was an intense visualization of Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, based up both the Kuan wuliang-shou ching (Contemplation Sutra) and the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra. These visualization techniques were derived from the sixteen contemplations that Shakyamuni Buddha taught to Queen Vaidehi in the Contemplation Sutra. These forms of praxis could often be difficult to achieve, and Pure Land practice, at the time, was broken into two camps, visualization for those monastics of superior capabilities and recitation of the name of Amida (nien-fo) for monastics of inferior capabilities. Though different Buddhist traditions at that time included both forms, visualization and recitation, visualization and the resultant attainment of Samadhi were considered to bring a higher form of birth in the Pure Land. Recitation thus resulted in a lower form of birth for the devotee.

The teachings of Shan-tao善導 (613-681) set out to change the way Amida’s name and Amida Buddha himself were to be understood. Although not widely known while alive, Shan-tao was one of the first to take Amida out from the background of many different buddhas and into the forefront of what is today, considered commonplace for Pure Land Buddhists. Shan-tao was the first to give Amida a soteriological dimension. His teachings on Pure Land eventually spread from China into Japan and once there were propagated into the lay community by Honen (1133-1212). So, what were these teachings that later lead millions of Pure Land Buddhists to recite the name of Amida as the main form of practice?

Shan-tao was born at Ssu-chou in the province of Anhui. He entered the priesthood at an early age and devoted himself to both the Lotus and Vimalakirti Sutras. As the story goes, one day he saw a beautiful painting of the Pure Land, and this painting had a profound effect on him, which lead him to aspire to be born in the Pure Land. So he visited Mount Lu, to begin his study and practice of Pure Land Buddhism. When he was still a young man, he went to see Master Tao-ch’o (562-645) and became his disciple. He studied with the master from 629-636, from the ages of 17-24. He devoted himself to the Contemplation Sutra, popular at that time, by using the Pratyutpanna Samadhi, and attained visions of both Amida Buddha and his Pure Land. Attaining Samadhi for Shantao became a clear verification of Shakyamuni’s teachings on the Pure Land, and a sure path to Buddhahood. As his devotion to Amida deepened and his concern for all sentient beings grew he went to Ch’ang-an to spread his message.

During Shan-tao’s time, the recitation of Amida’s name was commonly used in support of other Buddhist practices, such as sutra chanting, devotional practices, dharani’s and meditation. Shan-tao looked deeply into the Contemplation Sutra and developed a thought that changed the way in which birth in the Pure Land is perceived and practiced, making it possible for all beings to achieve birth in Amida’s Pure Land.

One of Shan-tao’s most famous works was the Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu, his
Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. Shan-tao’s commentary stated, “The ten times nien-fo taught in the Contemplation Sutra contains ten aspirations and ten practices. How? ‘Namo’ means ‘taking refuge in’: it also means ‘aspiring for birth in the Pure Land and transferring the merit of practice towards it.’ ‘Amito-fo’ is the ‘practice’ to be transferred for birth. For this reason, one can surely attain birth.” What is required is for the devotee to simply receive and make use of Amida’s merits; this can be done by repeating the name of Amida Buddha with a singleness of mind.

What Shan-tao is suggesting here is that we make use of the ‘Other-Power’ of Amida,
along with our ‘Self-Power’ of ‘taking refuge’ and ‘aspiring birth in the Pure Land.’ The practice to achieve this is, ‘Amito-fo.’ ‘Other Power’ and ‘Self Power’ are concepts developed by T’an-luan (476-542). Recitation of the Buddha’s name should be done single mindedly and wholeheartedly. So Master Shan-tao saw nien-fo as an easier way for sentient beings to attain birth in the Pure Land.

Another important teaching that contributed to his thought was ‘The Five Right Practices.’ Shan-tao divided the Pure Land teachings into two forms, and this form of
thought had its beginning with Tao-ch’o (562-645). Tao-ch’o made a distinction between the two gateways of the ‘Holy Path’ and the ‘Pure Land Path’. Shan-tao divided it still further into ‘right practices’ and ‘miscellaneous practices.’ The ‘right practices’ follow the gateway of the Pure Land and the ‘miscellaneous’ follow the gateway of the Holy Path, which contain all other teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Right Practices of the Pure Land Way are:
1) the right practice of reading and reciting Pure Land Sutras
2) the right practice of contemplation on Amida and His Pure Land
3) the right practice of doing prostrations to Amida Buddha
4) the right practice of reciting Amida Buddha’s name
5) the right practice of giving praises and offerings to Amida Buddha

These ‘right practices’ are acts that lead to birth in the Pure Land. ‘Miscellaneous practices’ would include the above five, but are directed toward other buddhas and pure lands (realms), such as Tushita Heaven. Of the five ‘right practices’, the fourth is
considered the most important to Shan-tao and is called the ‘act of right assurance’; the other four are termed ‘auxiliary acts,’ as they support nien-fo. Master Shan-tao says, “If we single-mindedly and wholeheartedly recite Amida’s name whether we are walking, standing, sitting or lying down, irregardless to time and duration, we will be born in the Pure Land with as little as ten recitations. This is called the ‘practice of right assurance,’ because it accords with Amida’s 18th Vow.” Which states:

“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who
sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.”

Shan-tao also states some advantages and disadvantages: “If we perform the right practice and the auxiliary practices, our hearts always remain intimate with and near to Amida, and we never cease to remember him. Hence these are called uninterrupted.
When we perform the other miscellaneous practices (all others), however, our concentration is always liable to be broken.”

When Shan-tao speaks of an intimate relationship with Amida he means that, “When
sentient beings arouse themselves to practice and always recite with their lips the name of the Buddha, the Buddha will hear them. When they constantly and reverently bow down to the Buddha with their bodies, the Buddha will see them. When they constantly think of the Buddha in their hearts, the Buddha will know them. When sentient beings remember the Buddha, the Buddha, also, remembers them. In these acts, the Buddha and sentient beings are not separate from each other. Hence they are called intimate karmic relations.”

With the statement above, Shan-tao begins to change the way in which we perceive Amida, by establishing a personal and intimate relationship with him. He does this by stating that Amida is a Sambhogakaya Buddha. Of the three different Buddha bodies, a Sambhogakaya Buddha has the body of bliss and glory, a reward body, after the fulfillment of vows as a bodhisattva (Dharmakara). Although a Sambhogakaya is a transcendent body beyond our ordinary sense perceptions, it can be perceived in samadhi, whether visualization or nien-fo samadhi. This personal relationship soon became for many, something that connected not only with monastics, but also the lay community. Many people in China and Japan dealt with horrific things, such as, disease on a grand scale, typhoons, hurricanes and wars. This intimate relationship with Amida became the very thing that gave comfort and eventually was salvation for many.

Next Master Shan-tao speaks of the ‘Three Minds’, taken from the Kuan wu-liang-shou ching (Contemplation Sutra), which says:

“If there are sentient beings who desire birth in that land, they must awaken in themselves the three kinds of mind. Then they will be born. What are the three minds? The first is the sincere mind; the second is the profound mind; the third is the mind with which one dedicated all merits (toward one’s birth in the Pure Land) and resolves to be born there. If one possesses these three minds, one will assuredly be born in that land.”

Shan-tao’s commentary on the sutra states: “‘Sincere’ means ‘genuine.’ This expression is intended to make clear that the understanding and practice that all sentient beings carry out through physical, vocal, and mental activities must necessarily be accomplished with a ‘truly genuine’ mind. One should not outwardly manifest the aspects of being wise, good, and diligent while inwardly embracing vanity and falsehood.” There are two forms of genuineness:
1) Benefiting oneself
2) Benefiting others

“The second is the profound mind. The profound mind is the mind of deep faith. It also has two aspects:
1) To believe firmly and deeply that, now in this present body, one is an ordinary sinful being involved in transmigration who has for countless kalpas been always sunk tumbling in the stream of cyclic rebirth, unable to find the karmic conditions for escape.
2) To believe firmly and deeply that Amida’s forty-eight vows enfold sentient beings in their embrace and that those who without doubt or reservation entrust themselves to the power of these vows will certainly attain birth.”

“The third is known as the mind that dedicates [all merits toward one’s birth in the Pure Land] and resolves [to be born there].”

Pure Land Buddhists today, owe a great deal of gratitude to Master Shan-tao. Many of the Pure Land practices that we know today are derived from his teachings. Recitation of Amida’s name is our life long practice, while chanting sutras, doing prostrations, contemplation, and making offerings help support this recitation. Our ‘nien-fo’ then becomes our vocal act; the ‘three minds’ become our mental act and our ‘benefiting others’ becomes our physical act. With this as our guide, we become ‘assured’ of our eventual birth in the Pure Land. Amito-fo.

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