Amitabha Buddha Day: Mindfulness and Gratitude Day

Speaker: Ven. Miao Hsi

Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, Los Angeles

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings Dharma friends, this is Ven. Miao Hsi from Buddha’s Light Publications, USA in Los Angeles, California.

December is the time of the year when many people are busy with holiday plans, getting together with family and friends for parties, sumptuous dinners, or vacations in some special destination away from home. December is also the month when many Buddhists participate in the annual Amitabha Dharma Service, chanting the Amitabha Sutra and reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha all day.

Where temples have the resources, the Dharma service is held over seven days, which is a retreat with some participants choosing to stay at the temple for the period so that they are able to cultivate full-time. It is quite different from shopping, parties, or holiday feasts. People may wonder why Buddhists practice reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name, and why during the holiday season when there is so much celebration and festivities going on.

II. Amitabha Buddha Day

According to the Lunar calendar, on the seventeenth day of the eleventh month, which often falls within the third and fourth week of December, it is Amitabha Buddha Day. This year, this special day falls on December 20, a Monday. In commemorating this special day, Buddhist temples hold Dharma service for devotees to recite the Buddha’s name, which is also known as the Pure Land practice. It is a practice many Buddhists dedicate their life doing, based on their aspiration to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. They are often called pure land practitioners.

III. Amitabha Sutra

Teachings of this practice can be found in several sutras, the best known and most recited sutra being the Amitabha Sutra, it is one of the teachings Sakyamuni Buddha gave without being requested by anyone. In the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha introduced Amitabha Buddha and the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss to the assembly in attendance, including his arhat disciples, immeasurable heavenly beings, and many great bodhisattvas. The Buddha indicated that this world called Ultimate Bliss is beyond hundreds of thousands of millions of Buddhas’ lands, and that there is a Buddha named Amitabha teaching the Dharma. The land is called Ultimate Bliss because the sentient beings there are without any kind of suffering, and only various kinds of happiness.

IV. What Does the Landscape and Life in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss look like?

He then described the landscape of the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, which is completely circled with seven tiers of railings, seven layers of netting, and seven rows of trees, all are made of the four treasures. There are ponds of seven treasures filled with the water of eight virtues, and the ground on the bottom of the pond is covered solely by gold sand. On the four sides are stairways composed of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. Above are towered pavilions that are adorned with seven treasures. In the ponds there are lotus flowers as large as cartwheels that are blue, yellow, red, and white, each with sheen of the same color, all of which are fine, wondrous, fragrant, and pure.

The Buddha further gave us a description of what life is like in the Buddha land where heavenly music constantly plays and the ground is made of gold. Throughout the six periods of day and night, heavenly mandarava flowers rain down. Early in the morning, the residents will fill the hems of their robes with many wondrous flowers and make offerings to the hundreds of thousands of millions of Buddhas in the other directions, and return by mealtime to eat and walk in meditation.

Moreover, there are always various kinds of rare multicolored birds, such as snow cranes, peacocks, parrots, saris, kalavinkas, and birds that are conjoined. Throughout the six periods of day and night, all of these birds sing in harmony with elegant sound. These sounds proclaim the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors of awakening, the Noble Eightfold Path, and other teachings. On hearing these sounds, all sentient beings in that land are fully mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha further explained that these birds are transformed through Amitabha Buddha’s intention for the sounds of the Dharma to be widely circulated. The Western Pure Land is without the three lower realms, not even the names of such exist in that land. In addition, when gentle breezes blow there, all the rows of jeweled trees and nets let out a subtle, wondrous sound similar to hundreds of thousands of types of music playing simultaneously. Those who hear the sounds will spontaneously give rise to a mind that is mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Let us pause here to visualize how wondrous the pure land is and how everyday life is filled with sounds of the Dharma in various forms. There is no need for any electronics or wifi service installation to be available, and there are certainly no interruptions or outages, it is always there for everyone to appreciate and be inspired. Amitabha Buddha made the compassionate vows kalpas ago to adorn his pure land as such for all sentient beings who wish to be reborn there.

V. Who Is Amitabha Buddha?

So who is Amitabha Buddha? The Buddha explained, “The Buddha is named Amitabha because his brilliant radiance is immeasurable and illuminates the lands of the ten directions without any obstruction. Furthermore, the lifespan of that Buddha and his people lasts for immeasurable, infinite asamkhya kalpas. It has been ten kalpas since Amitabha Buddha attained Buddhahood.”

Amitabha Buddha has immeasurable, infinite sravaka disciples who are all arhats, the numbers of which cannot be known by calculation; all the bodhisattvas are also like this. The sentient beings who are born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are all avaivartikas, bodhisattvas who will not regress on the path to Buddhahood, and among them there are many who will become Buddhas in one more rebirth. Their numbers are extremely vast, and cannot be known by calculation.

After describing the Western Pure Land’s environment, daily life, and residents, Sakyamuni Buddha urged the assembly to make a vow to be reborn in that land. Why? Because they will be able to meet with all of the utmost virtuous people in a single place. However, it is not possible to obtain rebirth in that land with few wholesome roots and meritorious causes and conditions.

VI. How to Be Reborn in the Western Pure Land?

In his great compassion, Sakyamuni Buddha then provided the key to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. “If good men and women hear Amitabha Buddha mentioned and hold firmly to his name for one day, two days, three, four, five, six, or seven days, wholeheartedly without distraction, then when these people are near the end of life, Amitabha Buddha will appear in front of them with a host of sages. In their final moments, if the minds of these people are not distorted, then they will be reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Ultimate Bliss.”

Let us review this critical teaching, Sakyamuni Buddha offered us this key to the Western Pure Land, so how can we use this key to enter the World of Ultimate Bliss? There are a few essential conditions we need to fulfill in order to be born there, they are “faith, vow, and practice.” First, we must have firm faith in this teaching, that Amitabha Buddha will receive us into his Western Pure Land when we are near the end of life in this world. Second, we must give rise to a resolute vow to be born there. Third, we must prepare for it in our practice, which is to cultivate wholesome roots and meritorious causes and conditions. Sometimes, these are called the “three resources” for a rebirth in the pure land.

In the Amitabha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha further reaffirmed this critical teaching by telling the assembly the response from Buddhas of other worlds in the six directions of east, south, west, and north as well as the lower and upper regions. Buddhas as numerous as grains of sand in the Ganges River, extending their characteristic and speak the sincere and true words: “Sentient beings, you should believe in the Praising the Inconceivable Virtues Which All Buddhas Have Protected Sutra.” Sakyamuni Buddha then explained that if there are good men and good women who hear this sutra and receive and retain it, and hear the names of all the Buddhas, then all of these good men and good women are protected and kept in mind by all Buddhas. All of them will attain non-regression from anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. For this reason, we should all believe and receive his words, and those of all Buddhas.

What we need to pay attention to is this exhortation Sakyamuni Buddha gave next, “If there are those who have already put forth a vow, or who are presently setting forth a vow, or who will set forth a vow wanting to be reborn in the Land of Amitabha, then all of these people will attain non-regression anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, whether they are already born, presently being born, or will be born in that land. For this reason, if there are those good men and good women who believe, they should set forth a vow to be reborn in that land.”

Many of us reciting the Amitabha Sutra may be captivated by the auspicious surroundings and how the residents live every day and wonder so how do we get there, what do we need to do in the present life, and how hard or easy is it to be reborn there? Sakyamuni Buddha’s “reminder” above is the crucial step for us to take to be reborn there, setting forth a vow to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land to attain non-regression anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, which in English means supreme enlightenment.

As Buddhists we learn the Dharma and practice what we learn by applying it in our daily lives, most of us may consider this as the way to live life with more ease and peace, more joy and harmony. I believe many of us will also think about what we have achieved by the end of this life, and more importantly, what about our next life? We are truly fortunate that Sakyamuni Buddha taught us about Amitabha Buddha and the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss without being requested by any individual present at the assembly. Obviously, no one had ever heard of or conceived the existence of such a wondrous and auspicious land, which is open for all beings in the three thousandfold world systems by setting forth a vow to be born there.

The question many of us may think of is how did this wondrous pure land come into existence and who is the “architect” in charge of the design and construction of this mega project. For those who have read other Amitabha Pure Land Sutras such as The Sutra on the Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life may have better knowledge of Amitabha Buddha when he was Dharmakara Bodhisattva in the causal stage, who made forty-eight great vows for creating the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. While I will not be discussing these forty-eight great vows in this short talk, I strongly encourage all of you to read them and contemplate how Amitabha Buddha had thought of the many aspects of the environment of his pure land, the sentient beings born there, and what life is like for them. You are welcome to go to the website of Fo Guang Shan International Translation Center to download the Amitabha Sutra and the Forty-EightVows of Amitabha Buddha as recorded in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life. Save the files on your devices for further reading and contemplation of this teaching.

Another question which may come into our mind is since Amitabha Buddha had attained Buddhahood ten kalpas ago, how did we figure out when is his “birthday” according to the Lunar calendar? There is a unique gong-an about this, and the key figure is Chan Master Yongming Yanshou from the Five Dynasties in China, who is also recognized as the Sixth Patriarch of the Pure Land school; he is known for advocating the dual practice of Chan and Pure Land. The Chan Master’s birthday on the seventeenth day of the eleventh month according to the Lunar calendar is recognized as Amitabha Buddha’s birthday. If you are interested in this unique gong-an, the story is within The Guiding Orchids – Masters of Reform and Innovation in the History of Buddhism, a book by Venerable Tzu Jung and published by Buddha’s Light Publications USA.

VII. Making Resolutions

As mentioned before, this year’s Amitabha Buddha Day falls on December 20, Monday and about ten days from the end of the year 2021. Many people have the habit of making resolutions for the new year and often make the effort to practice or realize their resolutions in the coming year. I strongly recommend that on this special day, we should all be mindful of the great compassion of Amitabha Buddha in providing us in the saha world this unsurpassed world of his pure land to be born into after this life. As taught by Sakyamuni Buddha, we must set forth the vow to be born in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss! This should be the resolution we all make for the coming year and the years to come in life. Moreover, as Buddhists we should be forever grateful to Amitabha Buddha, for his unsurpassed compassion and wisdom in receiving all of us wishing to go to his pure land, every sentient being with faith, vow, and practice will be reborn there and attain non-regression supreme enlightenment.

More importantly, after making the resolution, we should make the effort to realize it by setting a daily schedule to practice reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. As this practice gradually becomes a part of our daily routine, we may not even need a schedule because we can easily recite the Buddha’s name at all times of the day and in any condition. For this reason, the Pure Land practice is considered the most convenient for people to cultivate, being unrestricted by either time or space. Many Buddhists are very familiar with the name of Amitabha Buddha in Chinese, “Omitofo” and so are English speakers who have affinity with Buddhist practice. Regardless of the language, we can easily resonate with the sound of Amitabha Buddha’s name, all we need to do is to persist in the practice of reciting his name.

As for cultivating the wholesome roots and meritorious causes and conditions for a rebirth in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, Venerable Master Hsing Yun has provided us with very clear instructions – the Three Acts of Goodness. If we can actualize “do good deeds, speak good words, and think good thoughts” in our daily life, we can be assured that our wholesome roots will grow day by day, and the meritorious causes and conditions will be nurtured over time.

At the same time, we should always have gratitude in our mind for Amitabha Buddha for making his pure land available for us and for Sakyamuni Buddha speaking the teaching without being requested. Otherwise, we’d never know the existence of this wondrous pure land. I sincerely wish for all people hearing the name of Amitabha Buddha or his Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss will take up the invitation to be born there and start on the path of practice here and now.

As the year is about to end and the pandemic is still with us, let us be mindful of the suffering many people are enduring due the pandemic. As we practice the Dharma, may we dedicate any and all merits we have cultivated in the year to all beings for good health, peace, and harmony for the coming year and the years to come.

VIII. Dedication of Merits

Let us dedicate merit to all beings for a rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss with the following gatha:

May I be reborn in the Western Pure Land,
With lotus flowers of the nine ranks as parents;
When the flowers blossom, I shall see the Buddha and awaken to the truth of non-arising,
With non-regression bodhisattvas as companions.

Thank you all for listening, may you be well, healthy, and happy! Omitofo!