Buddha-remembrance is a dharma-door [Buddhist practice] that benefits all practitioners of three roots [the sharp, the middling, and the dull capacities] and accessible to all of them. It especially suits modern people who are living a busy and stressful life. It is easy to learn and everyone can do it: eighty-year-olds, three-year-olds, college professors, peddlers, and even illiterate grandparents. With enough faith, everyone can more or less benefit from and become responsive to this method, according to everyone’s capacity. If you can get deep into the Buddha dharma [Buddhism] and carefully ponder over it, you may even actually realize your true mind and see your own Buddha-nature through this dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance. A very small number of people, who regard themselves as sharp roots, do not even deign to practice Buddha-remembrance; regrettably, they have missed a great advantage in their cultivation.
Even though anyone can remember the Buddha, due to a person’s capacity and knowledge, there are different levels in the practice. I will briefly discuss the ways of practicing Buddha-remembrance, classified from the easy to the advanced.
Reciting the Buddha-Name when one feels like it
This kind of person is just starting to learn the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance. He does not know why he should remember the Buddha, nor does he know the difference between “Buddha-remembrance” and “reciting the Buddha-name.” He, however, has heard of the benefit of Buddha-remembrance and has tried to learn it from someone, by starting with reciting the Buddha-name. Even though he recites the Buddha-name with his mouth, his mind is occupied with discursive thoughts arising from greed, anger, delusion, pride, and doubt, which are inseparable from his existence. He sometimes attends group practices of Buddha-remembrance; nevertheless, he will not attend when the weather is windy or rainy, or he is not in the mood. In daily life, he recites the Buddha-name silently only when he feels like it; most of the time, he is involved with his own thoughts.
Reciting the Buddha-Name without interruption
This person, having planted the cause of good roots and meritorious deeds in his past lives, has in this lifetime the favorable conditions of the help and guidance from good friends, and he often keeps the company of people who practice Buddha-remembrance. He gradually comes to know the reason why he should remember the Buddha and the benefit of Buddha-remembrance, and he has developed the ability to recite the Buddha-name continually. Sometimes he can fully concentrate on the Buddha-name, at which time he repeatedly recites the Buddha-name in silence.
In some cases, the person does not take the initiative to recite the Buddha-name, but he has the favorable condition that his parents, teachers, or friends were doing group practices of the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance. He may have witnessed a parent, a teacher, or a friend passing away while Buddhist friends recited aloud the Buddha-name at the side of the deceased; he may also have seen the peaceful and auspicious facial expression of the deceased; and he may have been moved by the solemn and comfortable manner of the people who recited the Buddha-name for a person at death. Due to his personal experience, he has accepted Buddha-remembrance as the dharma-door of cultivation. While reciting the Buddha’s name silently all the time, he also seeks to understand the vows and stories of the Buddha or the bodhisattva whose name he recites as well as the sublimity of His body and of His Buddha Land. He has begun to understand the benefit of Buddha-remembrance.
Remembering the Buddha by reciting His name
This person not only knows about the sublimity of the resident’s body and environment in Buddha Lands (Note: usually meant the Ultimate-Bliss Pure Land), but also has deep faith in the existence of the Ultimate-Bliss Pure Land. Besides, he also has deep faith in the forty-eight great vows of Buddha Amitabha as told by Buddha Sakyamuni, The World-Honored One [Bhagavan], and deep in his heart he makes an oath to be reborn in that land. Hence, he is exploring the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance, wishing to enter it in depth. Constantly pondering over and getting deeper in his studies of works on the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance with good, knowledgeable teachers, he has learned the difference between recitation of the Buddha-name and Buddha-remembrance. He has also learned that, at a group practice of reciting the Buddha-name, he should not only do oral recitation, but also mental recitation; not only do mental recitation, but also mental listening; not only mental listening, but also Buddha-remembrance. He has learned that he needs to continue Buddha-remembrance without interruption and that it is important to curtail distracting conditions, not allowing deluded thoughts to interrupt recitation of the Buddha-name and his Buddha-remembrance.
In weekly group practice or your own daily practice, you need to recite diligently the Buddha-name with Buddha-remembrance without interruption. During group practice, you should not sound the Buddha-name too loud lest it should hurt your Chi [energy flow] or health. The essential point is to keep the thought of Buddha-remembrance with recitation of the Buddha-name; as recitation of the Buddha-name is uninterrupted, the thought of Buddha-remembrance is also uninterrupted. When the mind is dull or the discursive thoughts are intruding, recite the Buddha-name with the group in a voice that is neither too loud nor too low and continue with Buddha-remembrance.
In your daily practice, recite the Buddha-name silently, or do mental recitation and mental listening; in other words, you can hear your silent recitation very clearly. Mental recitation and mental listening mean that you recite the Buddha-name silently and hear the sound of the Buddha-name in your mind with such concentration that the sound will be uninterrupted. Only a few people can accomplish this practice. Nevertheless, if you have accomplished this practice, you need to take a step forward and investigate the reason why you need to do mental recitation and mental listening. If you observe and think carefully, you will know that the purpose of mental recitation and mental listening is to dispel deluded thoughts by mental concentration. At this stage, Buddha-remembrance seems to be looming, but not very clear; sometimes, Buddha-remembrance is totally absent, and the mind is just in a state of concentration [samadhi]. Once you are aware of your state of mind by observation, you know whether you need to turn away from it. At this stage, you need to change from mental recitation and mental listening to mental recitation and Buddha-remembrance. While recitation of the Buddha-name in your mind is uninterrupted, you should also keep the pure thought of Buddha-remembrance uninterrupted. When reaching this stage in your cultivation of the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance, you probably have received some responsive signs from either the Buddha or a bodhisattva or even seen an apparition of His image. As a result, your confidence is reinforced and will not fade away.
Buddha-Remembrance without Appearance
For a person who can cultivate Buddha-remembrance at the level of no appearance, he must have in his past lives revered and made offerings to The World- Honored One, made offerings to the Three Jewels, planted widely in the fields of fortune, planted deeply his own good roots, and practiced both the Pure Land School methods and meditative concentration without neglecting either one. Besides, he must have been close to good, knowledgeable teachers and not followed just anybody’s words; and he must have been willing to explore and ponder over the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance in order to elevate his level of Buddha-remembrance. Hence, in this lifetime, even though his main practice is the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance, he does not neglect to acquire the knowledge in the practice of meditative concentration. Because he has acquired the fundamental knowledge in both the dharma-door of the Pure Land School and the dharma-door of meditative concentration, his mind, in the course of diligent and continuous learning and practice, has become rather subtle, and he can naturally reach the level of Buddha-remembrance without appearance. When he practices Buddha-remembrance, the Buddha’s name or image does not arise in his mind. Equipped with deep good roots, abundant merit and wisdom, he knows without any doubt that this dharma-door is truly remembrance of the Buddha, and he makes a single-minded decision to enter deep into this practice. He is also confident that after death he will be reborn in a higher grade in the Ultimate-Bliss Pure Land than otherwise possible. This practice is what Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta said in The Surangama Sutra: “Remembering and thinking of the Buddha … Restrain all six sense-roots and continue the one pure thought.” If you can practice, as a supporting practice, bowing down to the Buddha while remembering the Buddha without appearance, you can easily apply this dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance without appearance to your daily life and carry out the practice in both movements and stillness.
If a person has accomplished this dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance and can do it in his daily life, I would say that he has sufficient confidence in the Three Jewels as well as himself, that he will not abandon the Three Jewels in this lifetime, and that he cannot help having some thoughts about transcending the three realms. In your own or group practice, if you practice recitation of the Buddha-name diligently until the Buddha-name does not arise anymore, and you still can meditate single-mindedly on the Buddha without being distracted, then you will understand experientially the meaning of continuation of the one pure thought.
If this person can apply himself ever diligently, entering deep into this dharma-door with mindfulness, contemplation, and practice, he will know clearly the following: the image of the Buddha is not the Buddha; the Buddha-name is not the Buddha; the sound of the Buddha-name is not the Buddha; and even the responsive apparition of the Buddha is not the Buddha. The Buddha is one’s mind, for Buddha means the enlightened one. Buddha Sakyamuni who appeared in India over two thousand and five hundred years ago was a manifestation Buddha, a display of His dharma-body [dharmakaya]. The original state [noumenon, dharmakaya] of the Buddha has no birth and no death; the true Buddha is neither existence nor emptiness and is not apart from existence or emptiness—it is one’s “true mind.” What you are remembering in your practice is actually this one mind, which has no appearance of names, sounds, or images; the Buddha you are remembering is this mind. Then, why is it necessary to employ the appearance of names, sounds, or images to help remember the Buddha? If a person can reach this conclusion through his own reasoning, he will be able to abandon the appearance of names, sounds, and images, and begin to do Buddha-remembrance without appearance. Furthermore, if he can extend this pure thought in his practice from a sitting posture to his daily activities, he will accomplish something in his practice in one to three days. For a very diligent person who practices continuously and experiences it in depth, in one or two months, or even one or two weeks, he will be able to stay in Buddha-remembrance without making himself do so. The pure thought of Buddha-remembrance will continue without stopping like a gushing spring; it will be present automatically without any willful effort.
Even though Buddha-remembrance at this stage is without appearance, you are not remembering all Buddhas in ten directions but only a particular Buddha. Without using any appearance, you know very clearly which Buddha is your object of remembrance. Although this thought of Buddha-remembrance is hard to understand because it has no appearance, it will be easier if you have already accomplished the practice of Buddha-remembrance by reciting the Buddha-name. To help people who practice Buddha-remembrance to enter the state of no appearance quickly, I have devised, as a support, the practice of bowing down to the Buddha while remembering the Buddha without appearance. To learn the details of this practice and for your reference, you can come to our Center and get a copy of my book Buddha-Remembrance without Appearance [Wu Xiang Nian Fo, the Chinese edition, published in 1993].
To cultivate the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance without appearance, you need to reduce or preferably remove any attachment, visualization, doubt, and pride from your mind. If you have attachment, you cannot abandon the appearance of names, sounds, and images; even if you can abandon these appearances, you probably cannot keep the pure thought going. If you do not give up visualization, you might suspect the presence of some ghosts or deities [elite ghosts who have freedom and powers] or hope to get some response from Buddhas and bodhisattvas; hence, you will find it hard to remain settled in the state of Buddha-remembrance without appearance and to continue the pure thought. In addition, if you do not remove your doubt, you might consider Buddha-remembrance without appearance groundless, or this dharma-door not really a Buddha dharma. If you do not remove your doubt, you might choose to delay your practice of this method until its propagation, after ten, twenty, fifty, or even one hundred years, has reached the stage of total maturity; it will be a shame, at that time, if you will be too old to practice or may even have died. Actually, quite a few ancient and contemporary masters have discussed this dharma-door. However, those who circulate Buddhist books in this dharma-ending age neglect to propagate it, because they think this kind of mental state is too difficult to cultivate. On the other hand, a small number of people conveniently interpret the meaning of “Buddha-remembrance” taught by many masters as recitation of the Buddha-name. Consequently, people who would like to practice Buddha-remembrance find themselves confused and unable to advance.
It will be hard for another kind of people to practice this dharma because of their pride. Some of these people value Chan practice above all else and will not abandon it, even though they still cannot find, after practicing ten to twenty years, the “huatou” [a short question in Chan practice]; these are awesome but pathetic practitioners. There are others who bury themselves in the exhaustive studies of Buddhist scriptures in order to become Buddhist scholars, yet, as time goes by, old age soon comes upon them. These two types of people usually do not want to bother with 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 symbolizes the purity and dignity of the Buddha dharma, but it grows in lowly mud. If a Buddhist student can remove his pride, then it will be easy for him to receive the dharma with humility and to have accomplishments in his cultivation of the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance. Since May 1989, I have been helping people to learn Buddhism through the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance. I perceive that pride can hurt Buddhist students in a deep, wide way. People without pride can receive the dharma easily and cultivate quickly; arrogant people tend to worship authority figures and do not believe in good, knowledgeable teachers who are not famous. Even if a truly good, knowledgeable teacher appears before them, they will not believe in him and hence miss the chance to follow him. Therefore, you must remove your pride if you want to enter deep into the dharma-door of Buddha-remembrance.