舍利弗！若有善男子、善女人，闻说阿弥陀佛，执持名号；若一日，若二日，若三日，若四日，若五日，若六日，若七日，一心不乱。其人临命终时，阿弥陀佛与诸圣众，现在其前。是人终时，心不颠倒，即得往生阿弥陀佛极乐国土. [If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his name single mindedly and without confusion, for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days, then when these people are about to die, Amitabha Buddha and all the sages who are with him will appear before them. When these people die, their minds will not fall into delusion, and they will attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Ultimate Bliss. ]
Amitabha Sutra has a special place in my heart because of this verse. This is because it sets the standard of attainment and from it, I have confidence that Pureland practice is not a mutated Buddhist practice.
To a Buddhist meditator, the ability to quiet the mind and have it totally concentrated is a prized skill. Upon full concentration, we attained Jhana. To put it simply, Jhana means that our mind is not scattered or confused. There is this awareness, this centredness, this being in the present and the mind is rested in a state where there are no thoughts. That Jhana state is mentioned in this verse as 一心不乱 (single-mindedly and without confusion)
In Thai Theravada meditation, we also recite a simple mantra like “Buddho” When we inhale, we mentally recite “Bu” and when we exhale, we mentally recite “Dho” Great masters such as Acharn Mun had taught this method and it is also reciting Buddha.
The challenge is to attain Jhana. It is very tough because our minds cannot let go. It is distracted and scattered by various thoughts. One moment we think of a past incident and in the next moment, we think about what we are having for dinner. The goal of our practice is to regain mastery over our minds. We train our minds so that we can make it stay at one-pointed awareness at the current moment. When we sit in meditation or recite Buddha, we want to achieve a state whereby we are doing just that. We want to stop our minds from jumping between thoughts.
Once we managed to quiet our minds, we experience a very relaxed state known as Jhana or Samadhi (refer to the posts on Kevatta Sutta for more descriptions about Jhana) The strength of our Jhana is measured by how long we can maintain it. Jhana is not a god-bestowed state. We need to actively maintain it. That is also known as Right Effort. In the beginning, one may only experience a glimpse of it before the mind becomes distracted again. Through practice, our mind becomes more disciplined and stronger. Thus our Jhana can sustain longer. A basic requirement for practitioners is to maintain Jhana for at least 1 hour. Otherwise, the Jhana is considered unstable.
Great masters have demonstrated their ability to stay in Jhana for extended periods of time. For example, Master Guang Qin was in Advanced Jhana for weeks. (a state whereby the breathing stops- but one is still very much alive)
Back to the sutra.
The requirement for rebirth in Pureland is actually the ability to maintain Jhana for a minimum of 24 hours! A totally concentrated mind that is solely focused on Amitabha Buddha’s name.
It may sound unattainable but Jhana is actually a very wonderful thing because 1 day can pass without us realizing it when we are in Jhana. The meaning of time simply dissolves. This is where Mahayana skillful means demonstrate its power. If we are seriously afraid of death and concerned about our afterlife; And we have complete faith in Amitabha and this method of practice; Then our practice should be similar to us hanging for dear life. That kind of mental attitude will make us super focused in our practice.
The logic is simple. How can we be thinking about having fried Chicken for dinner if we are truly concerned that our next breath will be the last one? We would have no problem letting go of everything else except Amitabha’s name. That will bring us into Jhana? The problem is that most of us have this mistaken notion that death won’t happen to us.
In addition to that, our mind is habitually distracted and clings to various subjects. It grasps at concepts, memories, sensory stimulants; just like an unrestrained monkey.
According to this verse, our practice can only be considered stable if we can maintain Jhana for at least 24 hours. Consequently, we won’t fall into delusion at our moment of death and can maintain mindfulness in Amitabha’s name.
The above is very important because many practitioners have a misperception that Pureland practice is a number game. They think that chanting longer hours means stability. That is a wrong understanding. We can join a chanting camp and be full of delusional thoughts. That 7 days of ceaseless chanting means nothing if we allow our minds to be scattered.
Once again, we need to remember the 37 Limbs of enlightenment. This is because it shows the way towards Jhana. A second misconception about pureland practice is that one intentionally scatters one’s mind through fantasizing about Pureland or Amitabha. When that happens, we are deluding ourselves and not concentrating. This usually happens when one tries to practice visualization and then gets it wrong. To put it simply, falling into dreamland for 24 hours is not Jhana.
May all be well and happy.
May the pandemic end.