Four Methods of Buddha Recitation
Buddha Recitation does not consist of oral recitation alone, but also includes contemplation and meditation. Therefore, within the Pure Land School, there are, in addition to Oral Recitation, three other methods, namely: Real Mark, Contemplation by Thought and Contemplation of an Image.
1. Real Mark [Self-Nature] Buddha Recitation
This entails penetrating the Mind's foremost meaning -- reciting our own original Buddha Nature. It is to contemplate the Real Mark Dharma Body of the Buddhas, resulting in attainment of True Thusness Samadhi.
This method is really a Zen practice; however, since the realm revealed by the meditational mind is the Pure Land, it also qualifies as a Pure Land practice. This method is not for those of limited or moderate capacities -- if the practitioner is not of the highest capacity, he cannot "become enlightened and enter" into it. For this reason, few Pure Land teachers promote it and the proponents of the method are found chiefly within the Zen tradition.
Incidentally, I would venture to say here that while we are still treading the path of Practice, not having reached the stage of Perfect Enlightenment, all Dharma methods are expedients; Buddha Recitation is an expedient and so is Zen. According to the Three Pure Land sutras, Buddha Sakyamuni provided the expedient teaching of the Western Pure Land, and urged sentient beings to recite Amitabha Buddha's name seeking rebirth there. With this method, they can escape Birth and Death, avail themselves of that wonderful, lofty realm to pursue cultivation, and swiftly attain Buddhahood. Diligent Buddha Recitation also leads to Awakening, as in Zen; however, the principal goal of the Pure Land School is rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, while the degree of Awakening achieved is a secondary consideration.
Thus, the goal of Real Mark Buddha Recitation falls within Pure Land teachings. However, from the standpoint of an expedient leading to rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, it does not truly qualify as a Pure Land method within the meaning of the Three Pure Land sutras taught by Buddha Sakyamuni. This is, perhaps, the reason why Pure Land Patriarchs merely referred to it to broaden the meaning of Buddha Recitation, but did not expound it widely.
2. Contemplation by Thought Recitation
This entails meditation on the features of Buddha Amitabha and His Land of Ultimate Bliss, in accordance with the Meditation Sutra. (The Sutra teaches a total of sixteen contemplations.) If this practice is perfected, the cultivator will always visualize the Pure Land before him. Whether his eyes are open or closed, his mind and thoughts are always coursing through the Pure Land. At the time of death, he is assured of rebirth there.
The virtues obtained through this method are immense and beyond imagination, but since the object of meditation is too profound and subtle, few practitioners can achieve it. This is because, in general, the method presents five difficulties: i) with dull capacities, one cannot easily succeed; ii) with a crude mind, one cannot easily succeed; iii) without knowing how to use expedients skillfully and flexibly during actual practice, one cannot easily succeed; iv) without the ability to remember images clearly, one cannot easily succeed; v) with low energy, one cannot easily succeed.
Very few can avoid all five pitfalls. Thus, upon reflection, this method also belongs to the category of difficult Dharma doors.
3. Contemplation of an Image Recitation
In this method, the practitioner faces a statue of Amitabha Buddha and impresses all the features of that statue in his memory -- contemplating to the point where, even in the absence of a statue, and whether his eyes are open or closed, he clearly sees the image of Amitabha Buddha.
This method is also difficult, because it requires a great deal of energy, a faithful memory and skillful use of expedients. There are cases of individuals who have practiced it in an inflexible way and have developed headaches difficult to cure. Moreover, upon examination, this method of seeking rebirth in the Pure Land is not mentioned in the sutras. It is merely a technique to assist in the practice of Buddha Recitation, so that the practitioner can harness his mind and achieve right thought. Still, if we practice this method in a pure, devoted frame of mind, we can obtain a response, eradicate our bad karma, develop virtue and wisdom, and, through an "illusory" statue of Amitabha Buddha, awaken to His True Marks and achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
4. Oral Recitation
In this method, the practitioner recites, aloud or silently, either "Nam Mo Amitabha Buddha or "Amitabha Buddha." The short form (Amitabha Buddha) has the advantage of easily focusing the cultivator's mind, while the longer version facilitates development of a truly earnest, respectful mind conducive to a response.
This method, taught by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Shorter Amitabha Sutra, is the dominant form of Pure Land practice at the present time.
A brief examination of the four methods of Buddha Recitation shows that the Real Mark [No. 1] and Contemplation of an Image [No. 3] methods are not mentioned in the Three Pure Land sutras. They are referred to only in the Buddha Recitation Samadhi Sutra and a few other sutras or commentaries. Both of these methods are secondary expedients to expand on the true meaning of Buddha Recitation; they are not recognized methods traditionally taught by Pure Land Patriarchs.
The Real Mark method has the unique advantage of teaching the profound and exalted meaning of Buddha Recitation. However, it is too lofty to embrace people of all capacities and "strays" in the direction of Zen. The Contemplation of an Image method is merely a subsidiary technique and is not easy to practice. These two methods, therefore, are not recommended for Pure Land practitioners. Likewise, the Contemplation by Thought method [No. 2], although expounded by Buddha Sakyamuni and leading to immense virtue, is reserved for those of high capacities. In the present Dharma-Ending Age, few can practice it.
In conclusion, only Oral Recitation embraces people of all capacities, leads to swift results and is easy enough for anyone to practice. Oral Recitation, practiced earnestly and correctly, will bring a response; in this very life, we can immediately see the features of Amitabha Buddha and the adornments of the Western Pure Land and awaken to the Original Mind. Even if we cannot attain True Mark in this life, we will certainly attain it after rebirth in the Pure Land. For this reason, the Thirteenth Pure Land Patriarch, Master Yin Kuang, wrote the following words of praise:
Exclusively reciting the Name will bring attainment of True Mark,
Without contemplation we will still see the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
Ancient masters have also commented:
Among Dharma methods, Pure Land is the short cut for attaining the Way.
Within Pure Land, Oral Recitation is the short cut.
Nowadays, this method is the most popular form of Buddha Recitation.
Ten Variants of Oral Recitation
As indicated above, Oral Recitation is the most common Pure Land method at the present time. However, this method has many variants, to accommodate the circumstances and capacities of the individual. A few of these variants are summarized below.
1. Reflecting the Name Recitation
With this technique, the ear catches the sound as the mouth recites, examining each individual word and each individual phrase, to make sure they are clear and distinct, phrase after phrase. There are two ways of hearing, with the ears or with the mind. Although the ears "hear deep inside," the sounds do not reside anywhere. The practitioner gradually forgets everything inside and out -- even body, mind, realm, time and space -- with only the Buddha's name remaining.
This technique of "reflecting the name," makes it easy for the cultivator to filter out deluded thoughts and swiftly achieve one-pointedness of mind. The Surangama Sutra expresses this very idea when it states, in the words of the Bodhisattva Manjusri:
This common method of concentrating the mind on its sense of hearing, turning it inward ... is most feasible and wise. (Wai-tao, tr. "The Surangama Sutra," in D. Goddard, ea., A Buddhist Bible, p. 260.)
2. Counting Rosary Beads Recitation
In this method, as the mouth recites, the hand fingers the rosary. At first, thoughts are tied to the rosary beads, but later on they gradually move away from the beads, leading to the state of one-pointedness of mind. This technique increases the power of recitation in the same way that a cane enables a mountain climber with weak legs to ascend higher and higher.
With this technique, we should write down the number of recitations per session or per day. This has the advantage of forcing us to keep an exact count, eliminating the affliction of laziness. However, we should take care not to be too ambitious, attempting to achieve too much too soon, or our recitation will not be clear and distinct. The ancients, while reciting the Buddha's name over and over, did so in a clear, distinct manner thanks to two factors: "correct understanding" and "correct concentration of mind." Elder Master Ou-I, the Ninth Patriarch of Pure Land once taught:
There is no better or loftier way to reach the state of one-pointedness of mind. At first the practitioner should finger the rosary, keeping an exact count, while reciting the Buddha's name over and over in a clear, distinct manner, 30,000, 50,000 up to 100,000 times each day, maintaining that number without fail, determined to remain constant throughout his life. Such recitation will, in time, become second nature -- not reciting being reciting. At that time, recording or not recording no longer matters. If such recitation, accompanied by earnest Faith and Vows, did not lead to rebirth in the Pure Land, the Buddhas of the Three Periods (past, present and future) would all be guilty of false speech. Once we are reborn in the Pure Land, all Dharma methods will appear before our eyes.
If at the outset we seek too high a goal, are over-confident and eager to show that we are not attached to forms and marks, preferring to study according to the free and perfect method, we reveal a lack of stability and depth in our Faith and Vows as well as perfunctoriness in our Practice. Even if we were to lecture exhaustively on the Twelve Divisions of the Dharma [all the teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni] and become enlightened to the 1,700 Zen koans, these would merely be activities on the fringes of life and death.
This advice is indeed a compass for the Pure Land practitioner.
3. Breath-by-Breath Recitation
This technique consists of reciting silently or softly, with each breath, inhaling or exhaling, accompanied by one recitation of the Buddha's name. Since life is linked to breath, if we take advantage of breath while practicing Buddha Recitation, we will not be apart from Buddha Amitabha in life and at the time of death, when breath has stopped, we will be immediately reborn in the Pure Land. The practitioner should remember, however that once he has mastered this technique, he should recite aloud as well as silently. In this way, the power of recitation will be strengthened and the will to be reborn in the Pure Land more easily developed. Otherwise, his resolve will not be earnest and he might "stray" into the practice of the "Five Meditations to calm the mind" of the Theravada tradition.
4. Continuously Linked Recitation
With this technique, the practitioner recites softly, each word following the one immediately before, each phrase closely following the previous phrase ...
During this practice, through discretion and patience, there are no empty time frames and therefore "sundry thoughts" cannot intrude. The cultivator's feelings and thoughts are intense, his mind and mouth move boldly forward reciting the Buddha's name; the power of right thought embraces everything, temporarily subduing ignorance and delusive thought. Thus, the light of transcendental samadhi breaks through and shines forth.
From early times, Pure Land practitioners would avail themselves of this method when their emotions and thoughts wandered or were in a state of confusion.
5. Enlightened, Illuminating Recitation
With this technique, the practitioner on the one hand recites the Buddha's name and on the other, "returns the light" and illumines his True Nature. He thus enters into the realm of ultimate transcendental emptiness; what remains is only the consciousness that his body-mind and the True Mind of the Buddha have become one -- all-illuminating and all-encompassing. At that time, meditation rooms, cushions, gongs and all else have disappeared. Even the illusory, "composite body" is nowhere to be found.
With this practice, even while our present "retribution body" is not yet dead, silent illumination is attained. Uttering the Buddha's name, the practitioner immediately achieves the state of samadhi. There is no swifter method for common mortals to enter the realm of the saints.
Unfortunately, we cannot understand or practice this method unless we are of the highest capacity. Therefore, its scope is rather modest and limited.
6. Bowing to the Buddha Recitation
This technique consists of making bows as we recite the Buddha's name. Either we recite once before each bow or we bow as we recite, regardless of the number of recitations. The bowing should be supple yet deliberate, complementing recitation, bowing and reciting perfectly synchronized. If we add a sincere and earnest mind, body, speech and mind are gathered together. Except for the words Amitabha Buddha, there is not the slightest deluded thought.
This method has the ability to destroy the karma of drowsiness. Its benefits are very great, because the practitioner engages in recitation with his body, speech and mind. A lay practitioner of old used to follow this method, and each day and night, he would bow and recite an average of one thousand times.
However, this practice is the particular domain of those with strong mind-power. Lacking this quality, it is difficult to persevere, because with extended bowing, the body easily grows weary, leading to discouragement. Therefore, this method is normally used in conjunction with other methods and is not practiced in exclusivity.
7. Decimal Recording Recitation
This is the inscription technique of Buddha Recitation, taking each ten utterances of the Buddha's name as a unit. Individuals with short breath spans can divide the ten utterances into two subunits (five utterances each) or three smaller subunits (two three-utterance units and one four-utterance unit). One rosary bead is fingered after each group of ten utterances is completed.
With this practice, the mind must not only recite, it must also remember the number of utterances. In this way, if we are not diligent we must become so; otherwise, it will be impossible to avoid mistakes.
This technique, in general, is an excellent expedient forcing the cultivator to concentrate his mind and is very effective with those subject to many errant thoughts. Elder Master Yin Kuang used to recommend it to Pure Land practitioners.
8. Lotus Blossom Recitation
As he recites, the practitioner contemplates the four colors of the lotus blossom (blue, yellow, red and white), one color after another without interruption. With his first utterance of the Buddha's name, he visualizes a huge, blue lotus blossom before his eyes, emitting a blue light. With the second utterance, he visualizes a yellow lotus blossom, emitting a yellow light. The third and fourth utterances are accompanied, respectively, by visualization of red and white lotus flowers, each color emitting its own light. He then repeats the visualization in the same sequence. As the flowers appear, he imagines a vague, lingering touch of pure, soft lotus fragrance.
Ancient masters devised this method because many practitioners in the T'ien T'ai School, despite using all available techniques, found it difficult to stem their errant thoughts. This method uses various forms and colors to focus mind and thought. These forms and colors take the marks of lotus blossoms in the Seven-Jewel Pond of the Pure Land ("one utterance of the Buddha's name, one jeweled lotus blossom"), because the lotus blossoms appearing in the Pure Land are inseparable from the lotus blossoms created by the virtues of the reciting mind. At the time of death, the mind-consciousness of the practitioner relies on these jeweled lotus blossoms to achieve rebirth in the Western Pure Land.
If the Pure Land cultivator should discover that he has an affinity with this technique, he should apply it and quickly enter the Wonderful Lotus Blossom Buddha Recitation Samadhi.
9. Recitation Amidst Light
This method was specially designed for certain practitioners who, as soon as they close their eyes to recite, suddenly see filthy forms and marks (ugly grimacing faces, for example), or dark forms and colors swirling around.
With this technique, the practitioner, while reciting the Buddha's name, visualizes himself seated in the middle of an immense, brilliant zone of light. Within that zone of light, when his mind has quieted down, the practitioner feels bright and refreshed. At that time, not only have deluded thoughts been annihilated, filthy, evil forms have also disappeared. After that, right thought is reinforced and samadhi is, in time, achieved.
Although this is a special expedient to destroy evil deluded marks, even the practitioner who is not in this predicament can apply this method to clear his mind and enter deeply into the Buddha Recitation Samadhi.
10. "Contemplation of the Buddha" Recitation
The methods of contemplation taught in the Meditation Sutra are very important and lead to immense virtue, but they are not a popular expedient for sentient beings in the Dharma-Ending Age. Nevertheless, since the ancient masters did not wish to see the special benefits of the meditation method go unused, they selected the easiest of the Sixteen Contemplations (Contemplation of Amitabha Buddha) and combined it with Oral Recitation to form the Contemplation of the Buddha-Oral Recitation technique. (Recitation is predominant, with contemplation of the Buddha occupying a subsidiary position.)
Each day, after reciting the Buddha's name, the practitioner reserves a special period of time for concentrating his mind and contemplating the Embellishments and Light of Amitabha Buddha. This method is derived from Contemplation Number Thirteen in the Meditation Sutra, in which Buddha Amitabha is visualized as some sixteen feet tall and of golden hue, standing at the edge of the Seven-Jewel Pond. If the practitioner cannot yet visualize the Seven-Jewel Pond, he can picture Amitabha Buddha standing before his eyes in a zone of light, in open space, the left hand held at chest level and forming the auspicious mudra, the right arm extending downward in the position of "welcoming and guiding."
To be successful in this meditation, it is necessary, at the outset, to visualize the body of Amitabha Buddha in general, then concentrate on the urna (white mark between the eyebrows). This mark is empty and transparent, like a white gem with eight facets ... The urna is the basic mark among the thirty-two auspicious marks of the Buddhas. When this visualization is successful, thanks to the affinity thus created between Amitabha Buddha and the practitioner, other marks will appear clearly, one after another. However, to ensure success, the practitioner should read through the Meditation Sutra memorizing the thirty-two auspicious marks of Buddha Amitabha before commencing his practice.
With this method, Buddha Recitation should be primary, because if the practitioner does not succeed at visualization, he can still fall back on recitation to ensure rebirth in the Pure Land. In truth, however, recitation aids visualization and visualization complements recitation, so that these two aspects work in parallel, leading the practitioner toward the desired goal.
Although this technique is somewhat more difficult than the others, if it can be accomplished successfully, immeasurable benefits are achieved. It is therefore described here at the very end, to foster diligent practice.
As stated earlier, these ten variants of Oral Recitation are also the ten basic techniques to combat the various mental hindrances faced by Buddha Recitation practitioners. Pure Land books discuss several dozen variants. However, they are merely techniques using, inter alia, a loud voice or a low voice at busy moments or at times of leisure. They cannot as such qualify as methods of recitation. For this reason, the author has singled out these ten basic variants of Oral Recitation to combat the obstructions of drowsiness and mind-scattering. They are the methods best suited to the majority of today's practitioners. The cultivator can try them out and select the one that fits his particular case.
Buddhism of Wisdom & Faith: Pure Land Principles and Practice
Dharma Master Thich Thien Tam
Translated and edited by the Van Hien Study Group
Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada