In 17th century China there lived a Buddhist monk named Ouyi Zhixu1 (蕅益智旭, 1599–1655) who wrote a famous commentary on the Amitabha Sutra called the Mind Seal of the Buddhas (阿彌陀經要解, Ā mí tuó jīng dài jiě, lit. “Commentaries on the Amitabha Sutra”). I have linked a PDF of it here. Ouyi lived during a time of chaos in Chinese history as the native Ming Dynasty was collapsing, and eventually overrun by the foreign Manchus who established the Qing Dynasty. It was also a time of great revival in Buddhist thought, including Ouyi, which demonstrated an increasing synthesis between Zen and Pure Land traditions in Buddhism.2 The Mind Seal of The Buddhas, through its commentaries on the Sutra, is a good exposition of this synthesis.
The concept of a “seal” of the mind is something that gets used a lot in traditional Buddhist literature, especially in Zen. Using the analogy of a traditional wax seal, or red-ink seal as used in East Asia, it’s the impression created by the seal onto the paper. Ouyi talks about this imprinting, or impression, in the context of the Pure Land (emphasis added):
By invoking the Buddha-name [e.g. reciting the nembutsu], you will bring on a response — the impression is made and the seal if lifted — Amitabha [Buddha] and his holy retinue come to you without coming, and extend a hand to lead you off [to the Pure Land]. You, the person practicing Buddha-name recitation, recognize Amitabha in your mind, and you go to the Pure Land without going, placing yourself in a jewel lotus there….translation by Dr. J.C. Cleary
Later he elaborates:
There are two levels of practice in reciting the Buddha-
name: reciting the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level and reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth
1. Reciting the Buddha-name at the phenomenal level
means believing that Amitabha exists in his Pure Land in the West, but not yet comprehending that he is a Buddha created by the Mind, and that this Mind is Buddha. It means you resolve to make vows and to seek birth in the Pure Land, like a child longing for its mother, and never forgetting her for a moment.
2. Reciting the Buddha-name at the level of inner truth (noumenon) means believing that Amitabha and his Pure Land in the West are inherent features of our own [pure] Minds, the creation of our own [pure] Minds. It means using the great name of Amitabha, which is inherent in our Minds and the creation of our Minds, as a focal point to concentrate our minds on, so that we never forget it for a moment.translation by Dr. J.C. Cleary
This is a good example of why Chinese Pure Land Buddhism is such a fascinating thing religious tradition. Here, Ouyi doesn’t imply which attitude toward recitation is better than the other, instead it’s a very inclusive approach. As long as you’re keeping up the practice, regardless of how you understand it, that’s what matters. Once you’ve taken that step, the impression on your mind never goes away, and you are in the light of the Buddha.
P.S. Photo by Bình Giang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
1 His name in English is pronounced “Oh-ee jih-shoo”.
2 This differs considerably from Japanese Buddhism at the same time (Edo Period) where sects were forcibly molded into “doctrinal swimlanes” in order to better track them by the government. This wasn’t necessarily negative, as the Edo Period also saw a period of revival, but it did tend to discourage blending of sects and ideas by encouraging each sect to define themselves as distinctly as possible, centered around a select founder, set of texts, etc.