Shandao | Life and Main Teachings


1. Shandao's life

Shandao (Shan-tao, 613-681) was born at Suzhou in the present Anhui Province (according to another tradition, Zhucheng in the Shandong Province).

When young, he entered the priesthood and devoted himself to the study of the Larger Sūtra of Amitābha and the Vimalakīrti Sūtra.

One day he saw a painting of the Pure Land, which led him to aspire for it. He visited Mt. Lu and other places to study and practice the Pure Land teaching.

For several years he lived at Wu-chen Temple on Mt. Chung-nan and devoted himself to contemplation of Amida and the Pure Land in accordance with the method of the Pratyutpanna Samādhi, until he successfully visualized them.

When he was about 20 years of age, he went to see Daochuo (562–645) and became his disciple.

While attending his lectures on the Contemplation Sūtra (Amitāyurdhyāna), he diligently practiced contemplation as prescribed in this Sūtra and finally attained the Nembutsu (Nianfo) Samādhi and visualized Amida and his land of bliss.

Later he went to Chang-an to spread the Pure Land teaching. He continued to practice contemplation and recitation, and also strictly observed the precepts.

In those days, the Contemplation Sūtra was popular among Buddhist scholars but their interpretations were often unacceptable to Shandao:

He then wrote a 4-fascicle commentary on this Sūtra and clarified the standpoint held by his predecessors, Tan-luan and Daochuo.

He is said to have copied the Amida Sūtra more than a 100 thousand times and made more than 300 paintings of the Pure Land.

When Emperor Gaozong (628-683) issued an order to build a niche for a statue of Mahāvairocana at Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province, Shandao was appointed as supervisor.

His influence was so great that thousands of people took refuge in Amida and practiced Nembutsu.

While following Tan-luan and Daochuo, he developed his own system of practice which centres on Nembutsu. His line of Pure Land teaching, known as the "Shandao School," was widely practiced in China and was later transmitted to Japan.

Shandao's Pure Land thought

2. Nianfo is the sufficient cause of birth

One of the greatest contributions which Shandao made to the development of Pure Land Buddhism was his clarification of the soteriological meaning of Nembutsu.

In those days, there were some masters of the Path of Sages who rejected the view that 10 recitations of Amida's Name could become only a remote cause of birth in the Pure Land:

Their assertion was based on the theory presented in Asaṅga’s discourse on Mahāyāna to the effect that when Śākyamuni encouraged recitation of Amida's Name as the cause of birth in the Pure Land, he actually meant that such a practice alone would only lead one to birth at some time in the future.

Those masters misinterpreted Nembutsu as a mere act of aspiration lacking in practice.

Shandao refuted them, saying:

"The 10 times' Nembutsu taught in the Contemplation Sūtra contains 10 aspirations and 10 practices. How?

'Namo' means 'taking refuge in'; it also means 'aspiration (for birth in the Pure Land) and transferring (the merit of practice towards it).'

Āmituofo’ ' is the 'practice' (to be transferred for birth). For this reason, one can surely attain Birth."

As compared with ordinary Buddhist practices, such as the Six Pāramitās, recitation of the Name must have appeared to masters of other schools to be merely an expression of one's aspiration for birth; they thought that there was no element of practice in the recitation.

Shandao's explanation of the Name is no doubt based on his Samādhi experience in which he perceived Amida as the embodiment of the pure merits accumulated during his career as a Bodhisattva.

All that is required of the aspirant for birth is simply to receive and make use of Amida's merits; this he can do by repeating the Name with singleness of mind.

3. Amida is a Saṁbhogakāya Buddha

Great masters of other schools, such as Huiyuan of Donglin Temple, Zhiyi of Tiantai School and Jizang of San-lun School, shared the view that Amida was a Nirmāṇakāya Buddha:

One of the reasons for advancing this theory is that Amida can be perceived even by ordinary beings and Hīnayāna sages.

Reasoning in accordance with scriptural evidence, Shandao refuted them and determined that Amida is a Saṁbhogakāya Buddha manifested as the reward for his Vows.

He pointed out that the Contemplation Sūtra mentions the welcoming of 'the Tathāgata Amida...together with innumerable transformed Buddhas';

- this also is clear evidence that Amida is a Saṁbhogakāya Buddha.

It follows then that Amida's Pure Land is the land of a Saṁbhogakāya Buddha.

Even if this were accepted, the masters of other schools would not allow that ordinary beings could be born in such a superior Buddha-land.

But Shandao made it clear that they could attain birth because of the Power of Amida's Primal Vow. In the Essential Meanings he says:

"Question: If that Buddha and his land are those of a Recompensed Body, the nature of a Recompensed Land is too high and too subtle for lesser sages; how could ordinary beings with impurities and hindrances enter there?

Answer: Speaking of the impurities and hindrances of sentient beings, it is indeed difficult for them to aspire and attain birth there. But by the powerful working of the Buddha's Vow the beings of the 5 different paths can all equally enter there."

4. The 5 Right Acts

Shandao divided the whole Buddhist practice into 2:

1) Right acts
2) Miscellaneous acts

The Right Acts accord with the teachings of Pure Land Sūtras, and the Miscellaneous ones do not. The Right Acts are as follows:

1. Chanting Sūtras: single-mindedly chanting such Sūtras as the Contemplation Sūtra, the Smaller Sūtra and the Larger Sūtra;

2. Contemplation: concentrating on Amida and his land of bliss;
3. Worshiping: single-mindedly worshiping Amida;
4. Recitation: single-mindedly reciting his Name;
5. Praising and making offerings: single-mindedly praising Amida and making offerings to him.

Of the 5 Right Acts, the 4th is the most important and is called the 'act of right assurance'; the rest are called the 'auxiliary acts.'

Concerning the Act of Right Assurance, Shandao explains that it is to call the Name of Amida with singleness of mind, whether one is walking, standing, sitting or lying, without interruption and irrespective of the duration of this practice:

Such an act is called the 'Act of Right Assurance,' because it accords with the Buddha's Vow.

5. Two aspects of Deep Faith

In the section of the Contemplation Sūtra, concerning those who attain birth on the highest level of the highest grade, the following 3 kinds of faith are mentioned as the essential requisites:

1. Sincere faith
2. Deep faith
3. Faith that resolves to be born by transferring to that land by the merit acquired.

In explaining the Deep Faith, Shandao distinguishes 2 aspects:

(1) to accept in deep faith the fact that we are ordinary beings of karmic evils, who have been transmigrating since the eternal past without a chance to escape;

(2) to accept in deep faith the teaching that Amida's 48 Vows embrace us and that we shall definitely attain birth through the Power of his Vow.

These 2 aspects serve as the two poles that create the tension and dynamics of faith.

6. Method of visualization

In the 3rd section of his commentary on the Contemplation Sūtra, entitled "On the Meaning of Meditative Good," Shandao begins his exposition of the 13 contemplations by raising a question and then presenting a practical method of visualization, as follows:

"Question: Queen Vaidehī made a request to the Buddha wishing to see the Land of Utmost Bliss.

He agreed to explain and first taught the method of concentration on visualizing the Sun. What does this mean?

Answer: There are 3 meanings:

First, in order to make sentient beings know about the location of the object of contemplation and the direction in which one should concentrate one's thought.

Avoid winter and summer, and choose only spring and autumn, when the Sun rises in due East and sets in due West. Amida's land is in the direction in which the Sun Sets, namely due West passing over a 100 thousand koṭi of lands.

Second, in order to make sentient beings realize whether their own karmic hindrances are light or heavy. How do they know? Because they are taught to fix their minds on and contemplate on the Sunset.

Before they concentrate their minds, they are taught to sit upright in the lotus-posture:

The right leg is placed on the left thigh while keeping the balance with the contour of the body; next the left leg is placed on the right thigh while keeping the balance with the contour of the body; the left palm is rested on the right one, and the body should be upright.

The mouth is closed, but the two rows of teeth should not be joined; the tongue touches the palate to enable the passage of air through the throat and the nostrils.

Let them contemplate the 4 elements of the body until they realize that it is empty, inside and out, and that nothing exists.

Imagine that the earth-element of the body, that is, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, and so forth, are disintegrated and disappear in the West; when they reach the farthest end of the West, even a single dust-particle of them does not remain to be seen.

Next, imagine that the water-element, that is, blood, sweat, secreting fluid, tears, and so forth, is dispersed towards the North; when it reaches the farthest end of the North, not even a single drop of it is perceived.

Next, imagine that the wind-element of the body is dispersed towards the East; when it reaches the farthest end of the East, not even the smallest portion of it remains to be seen.

Next, imagine that the fire-element of the body is dispersed towards the South; when it reaches the farthest end of the South, not even the smallest part of it remains to be perceived.

Also imagine that the body is of the space-element, being in complete unity with the empty space that pervades the 10 directions; there is not a speck of it to be perceived as non-empty.

Also imagine that the 5 elements of the body are totally empty but Consciousness exists as the sole pervasive entity; it is like a round mirror, lucid inside and out, brilliant and pure.

When one accomplishes this exercise all delusory thoughts are removed, and so one's mind attains a state of deep contemplation.

After that, one can gradually proceed to the visualization of the Sun.

Those of superior capacity can visualize a clear image in one sitting. When it appears, it looks like a coin or a mirror in size. On its bright surface, one sees one's light or heavy karmic hindrances:

(1) a black hindrance like a dark cloud obstructing the sun,

(2) a yellow hindrance like a yellow cloud obscuring the sunlight, and

(3) a white hindrance like a white cloud veiling the sun.

Just as the Sun covered by clouds does not shine brightly, karmic hindrances of sentient beings cover their pure mind and keep it from shining.

If the practitioner sees such a hindrance, he should adorn the room, set up a Buddha statue, bathe and cleanse himself, put on a clean robe, burn fine incense and make a confession (of his evil karma) to all Buddhas and sages.

Before the Buddha statue he should repent of the transgressions committed with his body, mouth and mind, from the beginningless past, such as the 10 evil acts, the 5 gravest offences, the 4 major prohibitions, slandering of the Dharma and destruction of all roots of goodness.

If he does so, shedding tears of sorrow like rain, as deep repentance arises in his mind, it penetrates to the core and torments him as if his bones were cut to pieces.

After such an act of repentance, he should resume the sitting meditation as before, and visualize with a peaceful mind.

If the clear image appears but there is none of the above-mentioned 3 kinds of hindrance, the pure object of visualization manifests itself brilliantly. This is called 'abrupt expiation of karmic hindrances.'

Those who destroy all hindrances by a single act of repentance are called 'men of superior capacity.'

If only the black hindrance is removed by an act of repentance, or only the yellow and white hindrances are removed, or only the white hindrance is destroyed, we call such acts 'gradual removal,' not 'abrupt elimination.'

Keeping in mind those symptoms of karmic hindrances, one should diligently repent.

Those who can repent by just remembering them 3-6 times a day and a night are men of superior capacity and higher practice.

It is just as one is burnt by hot water or fire (in a dream); when one awakes, (the pain) is completely removed.

Why do you vainly wait for an appropriate time, place, circumstance or person to come in order to remove the karmic hindrances?

Third, Mediation on the Sun is recommended in order to make sentient beings know that Amida and the Pure Land, with all the glorious adornments and light, are brilliant inside and out, shining more brightly than the Sun by hundreds of thousands of times.

If the practitioner has not yet visualized the light of that land, he should gaze at the brilliant image of the Sun.

If he worships and remembers Amida and the Pure Land while constantly keeping in mind the image of the Sun, he will attain concentration, in which he will visualize various pleasant adornments of the Pure Land.

For these reasons, the Buddha first taught the method of visualizing the Sun."

Shandao's explanation of the practical method of contemplation, such as that just quoted, is found here and there throughout his writings.

7. Repentance and Faith

Repentance is an important part of Shandao's Pure Land theory and practice: He took every opportunity to urge an act of repentance.

In the Liturgy for Birth he distinguishes 3 kinds of repentance:

(1) The higher degree of repentance is to shed blood from pores of the body and from the eyes;

(2) The middle degree of repentance is to exude hot perspiration from all the pores of the body and shed blood from the eyes;

(3) The lower degree of repentance is to become feverish all over the body and shed tears from the eyes.

Repentance is an effective way of expiating evil karma, but there are prescribed methods to follow:

One can confess one's evil acts done to other Buddhists, all Buddhas of the 10 directions, sages, or to images of them, or to oneself. By the act of repentance one is rid of karmic hindrances and one's birth in the Pure Land is assured.