A Boy Wielding a Sword. The Strong Connection with Nianfo
By Master Jingkai
The merit of nianfo is inconceivable. Arguably, by committing countless transgressions and evil karmas life after life, sentient beings must suffer the retributions in the six realms and three domains as they are bound in samsara, much like fish confined to water and birds in woods, unable to free themselves. And yet, according to The Contemplation Sutra, those who attain birth on the lowest level of the lowest grade are the sentient beings who commit such evils as the five grave offenses, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality. With just a few recitations of the Buddha’s name, they will have their incalculable evil karma eradicated and be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. That is just incredible.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Yogacara School scholars questioned this part of the Sutra. They even arbitrarily deduced that the scripture was merely referring to the future rebirth of the sentient beings in this category. Their argument is that nianfo is not really a form of cultivation and, because of this, the reciter lacks the necessary practice for rebirth even though he desires it. In the scripture, the Buddha says that anyone will be assured of rebirth even if he just recites the Buddha’s name ten times. These scholars' interpretation is that the Buddha was just using an expedient means to arouse aspiration for rebirth, and should not be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this rather ill-informed view has caused great harm to themselves and other practitioners.
Master Daochuo once used a metaphor to describe the situation:
It is like an enormously thick rope, which a thousand men cannot break
but a young boy with a sharp sword can cut in two with ease.So, how can you say, “a child is not strong enough to sever a rope?”
During the late North Wei Dynasty, China’s northern territories were separated into two countries, the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE) in the east and the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581 CE) in the west. In the year 578 CE, after Emperor Wu had defeated Qi, he assembled all the Buddhist leaders of Qi and announced his intention to eliminate Buddhism because it drained the national treasury and wasted resources. He demanded a debate from the prominent Buddhist monks in court. Intimidated by the emperor’s mighty power and fury, no one dared to utter a word against the emperor except one old monk.
At that moment, a monk stepped forward, faced up to the raging emperor and rebutted the latter’s fallacious charges one by one. It was a tit-for-tat confrontation, and the fate of Buddhism was hanging by a thread. A slight mistake would make the situation irreversible. However, the monk did not flinch and, after several exchanges, Emperor Wu knew that he was in the wrong and dodged the monk's points of argument.
The monk then protested sharply: “Your Majesty is abusing your power to destroy the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Are you not afraid of falling into the Avicii Hell?” The emperor became so furious that he frightened the five hundred monks to retreat several steps, fearing for the life of this outspoken monk.
That gallant monk was the renowned Master Huiyuan of the Jingying Monastery in the Sui Dynasty. Throughout China’s history, there were several persecutions of Buddhists ordered by the emperors. Each time, there were invariably “Dharma masters” who stood up for Buddhism. However, those who dared to give the emperor forthright criticism were rare. Master Huiyuan, acting like a Dharma Defending Bodhisattva, left us with a deep impression.
According to the Continued Biographies of Prominent Monastics, Master Huiyuan was very heavily built, being eight foot tall, and having a waist that was nine girths round. When giving Dharma lectures, his voice was as booming as thunder and as mighty as a lion's roar that stunned and awed the audience. A monk of such impressive eloquence and imposing presence was definitely beyond the expectation of Emperor Wu. When Master Huiyuan stood up on behalf of other monastics and spoke, the Emperor was shaken and staggered.
Then again, what kind of protection could even the strongest man have? In the face of annihilation by an evil king, he was far too feeble to resist. Dharma-persecution is the result of collective karma, the force of which is overpowering. It is also irrevocable. Not even the stouthearted and robust Master Huiyuan could withstand that. The power of karma is colossal while the power of an ordinary being is negligible.
As Buddhist temples were being destroyed and scriptures burned, Master Daochuo also found himself trapped at the time in the middle of the mayhem. Bereft of a monastic home, he was like a wandering spirit. He was unable to study the sutra or hear the Dharma. How could Buddhists cultivate if no Dharma scriptures were available? Says The Great Jewel-Heap Sutra: “In the defiled Dharma-Ending Age, billions and billions will cultivate the (Sages) Dharma paths, but few will achieve liberation.” That is an extremely gloomy prospect for practitioners in the Dharma-Ending Age. So, even with sutras available, Buddhist practitioners have difficulty achieving liberation in the prevailing defiled environment, not to mention those without any sacred scriptures. One wonders whether Shakyamuni Buddha, with his great wisdom, thought of offering iniquitous ordinary beings a way out of misery under such circumstances?
The answer is yes, Shakyamuni Buddha did indeed think of that, and Master Daochuo found the answer. Based on the scriptures and the teachings that had been passed down, and taking into consideration the timing, causes and conducive conditions of the practice of the Dharma, he categorized Buddhism into two paths: the Sages Path and the Pure Land Path. Both paths are taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and are equally extraordinary and rare. However, the Sages Path relies on “self-power” which is more suited for cultivators with remarkable roots of potentiality and capability. It is a difficult path.
To ordinary beings like us, the Mahayana principles of true suchness and true emptiness are beyond the grasp of our minds. As to the Hinayana’s way, neither monastics nor laypersons are able to attain Arhatship through the severance of delusive views and delusive thoughts. There are those who can achieve rebirth in the realms of humans or heavens by observing the five precepts and performing the ten meritorious acts; they are, however, few and far between. Since these practices are not easy, it is difficult for them to become widespread and thriving. Yet, evil doings committed by ordinary beings are like thunderstorms and tempests! This is a universal truth.
Therefore, after probing himself really hard, Master Daochuo chose the Pure Land Path and advised others to do the same. Earnestly and bluntly he said:
Only the Pure Land Path can lead to liberation from samsara.
The essence of the Pure Land Path is rooted in the Eighteenth Vow of The Sutra of the Infinite Life:
By the power of Amitabha Buddha’s vow, sentient beings of all kinds of aptitude who recite the Buddha’s name “even just ten times” will be born in his Land of Ultimate Bliss. No afflictions and no evil karmas can prevent their rebirth.
That is a fact and the truth, the famous primal vow of Amitabha Buddha.
The Buddha’s teachings are voluminous and it is next to impossible to learn them all, especially for unenlightened ordinary beings. While the Bodhisattva’s way is precious and superior, it is beyond our ability to grasp, like the reflection of a flower in the mirror or the reflection of the moon in the water. Therefore, the study of Buddhism should be a vigorous process of selecting and filtering, and finally settling on the Dharma path which is most appropriate for each individual. When Master Daozou abandoned the study of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and decided to choose the Pure Land Path, it showed courage and wisdom, great resolve and an ability to reflect. He was able to see his own folly and evil, accepting that he was in a sorrowful state. He had to admit that he was not carved out to cultivate the Sages Path and needed to change direction. He decided to embark on the Pure Land Path, focusing exclusively on the recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha. He relied on the Buddha’s wisdom and cultivation, which is like emergency relief to us iniquitous beings of the poorest roots.
It can be said that the most profound and core part of the Buddhist Dharma for generations is about “non-self-power.” It teaches us to abandon reliance on our own efforts. Instead, we should rely on the Buddha’s power. Only then will one derive the benefits of cultivation without having to cultivate, and be a practitioner without the need to practice, which is actually the true practice. For instance, in The Contemplation Sutra, after elaborating on all Buddhist practices, including meditative and non-meditative ones, Shakyamuni Buddha gives us the biggest revelation : to give up “self-power practices and rely on the “Other-power” in accordance with the Buddha’s vow.
So how to abandon the self-power approach and turn to the Other-power, the Buddha’s vow? In the Main Discourse of the Sutra, the thirteen meditative and three non-meditative visualizations cover all self-power Dharma paths. But in the section of Circulation, after he has expounded them all, Shakyamuni Buddha leaves them behind and exhorts his disciple Anand:
You should bear these words well in mind. To bear these words is to hold fast to the name of Amitabha Buddha.
These words guide Buddhist practitioners to the origin of all Dharma paths. It is simply the recitation of the name of Amitahba Buddha: Namo Amituofo, the Pure Land path. It is like a thousand rivers converging to the sea. These words are in effect saying : give up the meditative and non meditative Dharma paths and focus single-mindedly on the practice of the Pure Land path of Amitabha-recitation. This is the purpose of the Contemplation Sutra.
Master Daochuo's disciple Master Shandao puts it categorically: “The Buddha’s primal wish is for sentient beings to recite the name of Amituofo, resolutely and exclusively,” which clearly states the rationale behind the categorisation of the Sages Path and the Pure Land Path.
We can gather that after Master Daochuo unraveled the confusion regarding which practice is the best for iniquitous ordinary beings, he heeded the Buddha’s advice, courageously and joyfully quitted the Sages Path, and embraced and entered the Pure Land Path. He spent the rest of his life preaching The Contemplation Sutra two hundred times, clearly distinguishing the two paths and leading his followers to the Pure Land Path, a path relying on ‘Other Power’ and an ‘Easy Path’. He opened himself up to the light of Amitabha Buddha which enveloped him all his life.
Master Daochuo’s spiritual path illustrated how true and beyond doubt the Eighteenth Vow is. Amitabha’s promise that “if [sentient beings]. . .who recite my name even ten times should not be born in my land, may I not attain perfect enlightenment,” awakens the virtuous propensity rooted in us. The primal vow of the Buddha is where the hearts and minds of generations of the patriarchs of the Pure Land School such as Master Daochuo dwell. They wholeheartedly defend and propagate it. How can practitioners who have the aspiration not follow and abide by it enthusiastically?
The name Namo Amituofo is an incredible sword, its sharp blade is forged and tempered by Amitabha Buddha over incalculable eons.
Master Daochuo explained it with a metaphor: One day, a thousand warriors tried but could not break an enormous rope ten meters thick. A young boy thought it was fun; he picked up a sword and sliced the rope in two with one swift stroke. The master meant to say that since the rope was too huge to be of any use, we should ignore it. Instead, his attention was drawn to “the boy wielding a sword,” and the rope was cut in half. Simple!
That enormous rope represents our afflictions. The karmic barriers are so huge that the Buddha has warned us, “In the Dharma-Ending Age, among those practicing the Sages Dharma paths, hardly anyone will achieve liberation.” Still, many cultivators today boast, “Affliction is Bodhi, Birth-and-Death is Nirvana,” meaning affliction is not the problem; once the mind is purified, everywhere is a pure land, so why bother seeking rebirth only in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land? They insist that rebirth is not possible if our afflictions are not subdued. Yet, over history, there are countless cases of great cultivators of the Sages Path being defeated by their afflictions and wasting their lifelong cultivation.
But, it was the sword in the boy’s hand that put an end to the enormous rope in a single swift stroke. How much force does “the boy” apply to “wield a sword” when his muscles and bones are not fully developed? Apparently, not much, only “a swift slash,” effortlessly like dancing.
Therefore, what cuts the giant rope and eradicates the immense afflictions, no matter which way you look at it, is the sword, the name of Amitabha Buddha. It’s not the boy nor any mortal. The sword itself has the great merits and virtues to allow those wielding it to sever karmic obstacles and be free from the cycle of birth and death in the three domains. Such merits and virtues cannot be found in the thousands and thousands of great warriors, nor practitioners of [the Sage Dharma path]. Any ordinary being who practices nianfo is like the boy who wields this sword of Amitabha’s.
Thus says Master Shandao: “The name of Amitabha Buddha is a sharp sword. One recitation of it eradicates all our karmic barriers.” This verse, inherited from his teacher, Master Daochuo, instills great confidence in us ordinary beings. It is also a profound understanding of the “even just ten recitations” in the Eighteenth Vow of The Sutra of the Infinite Life, closely linked to the text regarding those who attain rebirth at the lowest-level of the lowest grade in The Contemplation Sutra. Recitation of Amitabha’s name can eliminate the gravest karmic obstacles such as those from the “five abominable transgressions”. It can fulfill our aspiration to attain Buddhahood. It does not matter if we have the opportunity to recite all our life, or even just ten times, three times, or just once before we die.
Why so? Because, the name of Amitabha is adorned with various kinds of accomplishments. In his Commentary of Rebirth, Vasubandhu Bodhisattva summarizes them as “Three kinds of accomplishment of the glorious merits,” namely: of the Buddha, the Buddha-land, and the Bodhisattvas, and “twenty nine aspects of adornments” comprising seventeen aspects of the adornments of the Buddha-land, eight of the Buddha and four of the Bodhisattvas. Such amazing merits are all contained in the six-character name, Namo Amituofo.
The Contemplation Sutra describes the height of Amitabha Buddha as six hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of yojanas multiplied by the number of the grains of sand of the Ganges River. That immeasurably large number means the body of Amitabha Buddha is as vast as the infinite space of the dharma world. Even such an immeasurably huge body is contained in the six-character name. This name encompasses the entire splendor of Amitabha Buddha’s principal and accompanying rewards.
While our transgressions are immense, the name “Namo Amituofo” is much mightier. How can anyone who recites the name of the Buddha not have his karmic obstacles eradicated and achieve rebirth? Only if one is so deluded that he does not believe in it. If you have faith, just grab the sword, aim at the thick rope, and slash it in two!
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)
 Nianfo in Chinese pinyin: nian means to recite verbally and/or mentally, Fo the Buddha; hence, nianfo means to recite the name of the Buddha verbally and/or mentally.
 The six realms are the realms of the heavens, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells.
 The three domains are the domain of desire, including the realms of the six lowest heavens, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells; the domain of form, including the eighteen dhyana (Chan) heavens, and domain of formlessness, including the four highest heavens. There are a total of 28 heavens.
 Koji: a large unit of measurement, said to equal ten million. Nayuta: a large unit of measurement, said to equal one hundred billion. Yojanas: an ancient Indian unit of distance. Roughly about seven to nine miles.
- Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
- Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
- Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
- Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime
The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings