Signless Buddha Mindfulness
Venerable Xiao Pingshi
The practice of Buddha-mindfulness introduced in this book is deliberately coined “signless Buddha-mindfulness” for reasons worthy of discussion and clarification so that readers can better appreciate this convenient yet incredibly efficacious method. In Buddhist literature, the word sign is a common translation of the Sanskrit word nimitta, which denotes the distinguishing characteristics of everything within the three realms of existence in Buddhist cosmology. For instance, in the Pure Land practice of Buddha-mindfulness, the Buddha’s name or image visualized are both a kind of sign or attribute that help keeps one’s attention on a particular Buddha.
First and foremost, this practice of Buddha-mindfulness is characterized as “signless” to highlight the fact that it is an expedient that could bring about the direct realization of the signless True Mind, the origin of all phenomenal existence that Buddhist practitioners seek enlightenment to. Technically speaking, the wordless and formless awareness and recollection of Buddha in “signless Buddha-mindfulness” is still a representation and, therefore, a sign, albeit a much subtler one compared to the readily perceivable and comprehensible signs like Buddha’s sacred name, physical appearance, or virtuous deeds. Nevertheless, by virtue of being a very subtle representation of Buddha, this wordless and formless bare thought can effectively facilitate the direct perception of the True Mind, the mind entity free of any signs associated with the three realms and known as the self-nature, the intrinsic Buddha, the True Suchness, the Dharma-body of Buddha, the eighth consciousness, the ālayavijñāna, the tathāgatagarbha in Buddhist scriptures. When a practitioner has attained direct and personal realization of the True Mind the Buddha-mindfulness he or she practices is essentially the “signless mindfulness” in its purest sense.
Secondly, this practice of Buddha-mindfulness is named “signless” to set it apart from the common methods of Buddha-mindfulness such as name recitation and visualization, which sustain mental focus through “signs” like words, sounds, images associated with the Buddha, or even the concepts of Buddha’s sublime attributes and virtues. As the author points out and explains in this book, the cultivation of Buddha-mindfulness should begin with the use of coarser forms and signs to help restrain a scattered mind from restlessness and mental disturbances. However, when a practitioner’s mind becomes more unified and focused, he or she must switch to a subtler sign at appropriate junctures to train the mind to reach an even higher degree of mental absorption.
By following the methods and cultivation sequence detailed in this book, a practitioner will not only improve his or her level of mental concentration and achieve a mind of one-pointedness but also be able to hold a bare thought of Buddha in mind regardless whether he or she is in stillness or in physical motion. For a Pure Land practitioners, this level of proficiency in meditative absorption reduces their reliance on signs and forms during practice and propels them closer to the goal of gaining rebirth in Buddha’s pure land at the end of this current lifetime. For Chan practitioners, the ability to maintain one-pointed absorption in physical motion enables them to competently contemplate huatou or gong’an, so that eventually they could break through the “sense of doubt” and attain sudden awakening to the True Mind. This skillful application of Buddha-mindfulness as an effective means to enhance meditative concentration and facilitate Chan awakening aptly illustrates the dual cultivation of the Chan and Pure Land traditions as well as their complementary nature.
For most Buddhist learners, the term “Buddha-mindfulness” (念佛) simply means the recitation of the sacred name of a particular Buddha or bodhisattva. With utmost faith as well as pious and continuous recitation, practitioners take refuge in Buddhas and bodhisattvas and hope to obtain connection with them either through subtle responses or visual manifestations. The most common reason for practicing Buddha-mindfulness is to be guided by Buddha (Amitābha) and bodhisattvas to take rebirth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss at the end of the current life. However, Buddha Amitābha’s Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss is far from being the only pure land. There are actually countless pure lands manifested by Buddhas in the worlds of ten directions, including that of our Fundamental Teacher—Buddha Śākyamuni. A distinction should also be made between the Mind-Only Pure Land (唯心淨土) and pure lands manifested by various Buddhas.
In a broad sense, all cultivation methods of Mahāyāna Buddhism fall within the scope of the Pure Land school’s Dharma-door of Buddha-mindfulness, including well-known practices such as recitation of Buddha’s name, mantra chanting, prostration, offering making, tranquility and insight meditation (śamathavipaśyanā), observance of precepts, as well as the chanting, copying, studying, expounding, reflecting on, contemplating of sūtras, and so forth. They are all geared toward learning the practices of Buddha, understanding the Dharma, attaining liberation, acquiring the meritorious qualities of Buddha, and ultimately, realizing the four types of pure land upon the attainment of Buddhahood.
The Pure Land tradition is inseparably intertwined with the Chan school. To attain Buddhahood, a Buddhist practitioner cannot simply recite Buddha’s name but has to draw upon the power of meditative concentration (samādhi) to directly and personally realize the True Mind. Having realized the True Mind, a practitioner gains vision of the bodhisattva path and can swiftly advance to the stage of cultivation, which means bringing within sight the eventual attainment of Buddhahood. In order to “see the path,” however, he must utilize either Chan contemplation or the method of “contemplation of the principle (理觀)” in the cultivation of tranquility and insight meditation to realize the True Mind. Both of these methods call for a sufficient degree of meditative concentration, especially the ability to maintain meditative concentration while one is in physical motion.
In fact, the power of meditative concentration is essential to Pure Land practitioners if they are to achieve one-pointed absorption through the recitation of Buddha’s name. If recitation of Buddha’s name and prostration to Buddha are used together as expedient techniques to build up the power of meditative concentration, it is actually not difficult for Pure Land practitioners to enter Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s Dharma-door for perfect mastery through Buddha-mindfulness, an accomplishment that will help secure rebirth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. Alternatively, once they have acquired a decent level of meditative concentration, a Pure Land practitioner may also choose to proceed to the practice of contemplative Buddha-mindfulness, through which they could “spontaneously awaken to the True Mind without employing skillful means.” If, instead, they apply the power of meditative concentration gained from the entry practice of Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s Dharma-door of Buddha-mindfulness toward Chan contemplation, they could also awaken to the True Mind as the “gateless gate” will reveal itself spontaneously. One can see that the cultivation methods of Chan and Pure Land are clearly inseparable from one another.
If a Buddhist disciple cultivates the Dharma-door of the Pure Land following the essentials of samādhi cultivation and use the Pure Land methods to enhance his power of in-motion meditative concentration, he can make quick and equal progress in both Chan and Pure Land practices. I humbly put forth the above views for the sole purpose of benefiting all readers and set aside concerns for my own reputation as I put thought to paper.
I would like to give a brief account of the events that led up to this book. At the beginning of 1987, my hectic work schedule allowed me no time for meditation at all. Every evening I was extremely weary during my recitation of the Diamond Sūtra and I usually concluded this daily routine with prostrations to the Buddha immediately right after.
One summer evening that year, as I was prostrating to the Buddha, it suddenly dawned on me that I should drop the name and image of Buddha and instead only keep a pure thought of Buddha during prostration. I tried out my intuition right away. From the next day on, I started to make prostrations while bearing only a thought of Buddha in mind, a method I have since termed “signless Buddha-mindfulness.” As time went by, I became proficient in signless mindfulness through consistent practice. I was filled with Dharma-joy and was impermeable to stress and fatigue of worldly living. Deriving so much joy from this practice, I even ceased my old evening routine and concentrated on the practice of prostration with signless mindfulness of Buddha. During the rest of the day, I held a signless pure thought of Buddha in mind amidst my daily activities.
By the end of 1988, the thought of sharing my Dharma-joy with fellow practitioners crossed my mind. I started to sift through my memory and jotted down each and every step I took to accomplish my practice. At the same time, I scoured and reviewed sūtras and treatises to locate scriptural verification of my method. Right before completing the draft to this book, I came upon the section “Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s Dharma-door for Perfect Mastery through Buddha-Mindfulness (大勢至菩薩念佛圓通章)” in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. I was elated when my eyes set upon the words “recollect and be mindful of Buddha.” As I read on and saw, “rein in all six sense faculties and abide in one continuous pure thought to enter samādhi,” I realized that my method was precisely the Dharma-door of perfect mastery through Buddha-mindfulness illustrated by Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta.
Subsequently in April 1989, I compiled my notes into a short essay entitled “A Discussion of Signless Buddha-Prostration and Buddha-Mindfulness.” After I finished the draft of this article, I came upon the writings of Venerable Xuyun (虛雲和尚) and finally acquired a clear understanding of the principle and method regarding the guarding of a huatou (話頭). Only then did I realize that, while I thought I was contemplating huatou and boldly claimed I was doing so, all along I was merely uttering words and observing its trail.
Why was I not able to contemplate huatou in my earlier attempts? It was simple: at the beginning I didn’t have the ability to maintain a focused mind in motion. Only after I mastered the signless mindfulness of Buddha was I able to maintain a focused mind in motion and hence contemplate huatou.
In the afternoon of August 6, 1989, I twice entered into a state of “seeing the mountain as not being mountain” during a group practice and experienced for the first time the state of a “dark barrel.” After that, I wavered in and out of a mass of doubt. In early November of 1989, after I came back from a pilgrimage to India and Nepal, I decided to close my business to focus on Chan contemplation at home. On the second day of the eleventh lunar month in 1990, my Chan contemplation lasted until around four o’ clock in the afternoon when the “dark barrel” was eventually smashed.
In retrospect, I realized that the root cause for most practitioners’ lack of progress in their Dharma practice is the inability to maintain meditative concentration in motion. This book was written to help practitioners swiftly attain an undisturbed mind during their practice of Buddha-mindfulness, a skill with which they can quickly move on to the contemplation of huatou and gong’an (公案).
At the request of fellow practitioners, I gave a weekly lecture on signless Buddha-mindfulness (i.e. the expedient way of entering Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s Dharma-door for perfect mastery through Buddha-mindfulness) for three consecutive weeks starting from September 3, 1991. These three lectures were held at the Chan center of a Buddhist society of a financial institution and at Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s residence in Shipai, all in Taipei.
There were altogether thirty people at the time in these two practice groups. Most of them used recitation of Buddha’s name as their practice method. By putting what they learned from my lectures into actual practice, two of them were able to accomplish signless Buddha-mindfulness within merely six weeks. After three months, six people had mastered this practice. As of today (February 28, 1992), thirteen people have mastered it in a time span of less than six months. Still more people are joining in and making speedy progress. The rate of mastery and the speed of progress are very encouraging. Excluding those who did not practice prostration due to individual conditions, the main reason for the others’ lack of progress was their aversion to this method and its preparatory expedients, that is, the recitation of Buddha’s name. When they finally changed their minds after seeing that those who had mastered this method were starting to guard huatou and contemplate Chan, they were already three to four months behind.
These results and observations excited me greatly. They showed that signless mindfulness of Buddha could definitely be mastered when it is facilitated by expedient methods and practiced with continuous diligence. Out of my deep dismay at the decline of the Buddha Dharma and the desire to free sentient beings from their sufferings, I committed myself to another compassionate vow and put together this book with great haste during the winter break. My writing is far from elegant but I try to articulate myself clearly and coherently. For easy comprehension, I wrote in a colloquial style as much as possible and narrated in a plain, direct, and somewhat repetitive manner to get my points across. May all Buddhist practitioners master signless Buddha-mindfulness, be filled with Dharma-joy, spread this method to benefit countless beings, and enter the Ocean of the Vairocana Nature.
Take refuge in our Fundamental Teacher Buddha Śākyamuni
Take refuge in Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara of Great Compassion
Take refuge in Bodhisattva Mahāsthāmaprāpta
A disciple of the Three Jewels
Feb 28, 1992
 Huatou 話頭: literally “word head,” huatou refers to what comes before words. It should be noted that while hua means spoken words in Chinese, in the Chan context it should be understood as a thought or idea associated with linguistic contents or images. Huatou, therefore, refers to the wordless and imageless awareness prior to such a thought is formed in mind. In the Chan school, the guarding and contemplation of huatou is a pedagogical device used to help practitioners uncover the True Mind.
 Gong’an 公案: this term, known as “koan” in Japanese, carries the literal meaning of “public case” or “precedent.” A gong’an in the Chan tradition typically consists of dialogues between a Chan master and his disciple(s). Like huatou, a Chan practitioner is supposed to contemplate the meaning of gong’an without using any language or image in order to achieve sudden awakening to the True Mind.
CHAN AND PURE LAND
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