The most intense negative karma
of the most evil in the universe
is incomparable in magnitude and quantity
to the boundless meritorious virtues
of the most enlightened in the universe.
[To be continued…]
Introduction: In the ‘Nāgasena Bhikṣu Sūtra’ (那先比丘经), the Chinese equivalent of the Pāli version of the ‘Milindapañha’ (Questions Of Milinda), is this enlightening dialogue (i.e. 62nd question and answer) on the power of mindfulness of Buddha (Niànfó: 念佛), between the Arhat Venerable Nāgasena and King Menander (Milinda).
Sūtra: The King again asked Nāgasena, ‘You śramaṇas [monastics] say, that those in this world who do evil until a hundred years old, when approaching the moment of death, with mindfulness of the Buddha, after death, they will all attain birth in the heavens above. I do not believe these words. Again, you say, that killing one life, with death, one immediately ought to enter hell. I do not believe these words.’
Comments: The King was expressing doubt of how even those who had done much evil are able to use mindfulness of Buddha when dying, to not only avoid worse rebirths, but have better ones too. He also doubted how one who had killed only one person will however take swift rebirth in the worst realm. It is natural to have these doubts as the weightage of much and less evil karma created in these instances do not seem to tally with their results in terms of having better and worse rebirths respectively.
Sūtra: Nāgasena asked the King, ‘If one holds a small pebble and puts in on top of water, will the pebble float or sink?’ The King said, ‘This pebble will sink.’ Nāgasena said, ‘If enabling the holding of a hundred pieces of large boulders, by putting them on top of a ship, will this ship sink or not?’ The King said, ‘Not sink.’ Nāgasena said, ‘Within the ship, the hundred pieces of large boulders, due to the ship, thus do not sink.
Comments: Nāgasena first replied by using the the analogy of how even a small pebble, here representing the already heavy negative karma created by killing just one person, has the result of directly sinking into a lower realm when put into water, here representing the moment of dying. This is while even a hundred large boulders, here representing even much heavier negative karma, when put on a ship can easily stay afloat, with neither boulders nor ship sinking, due to the latter’s support. Using a more modern analogy, the boulders can even be lifted up by a helicopter onboard a ship or itself.
Sūtra: One although originally with evil, for a short while [or one moment] mindful of Buddha, using this [skilful means of practice] thus does not enter hell, then attaining birth in a heaven above. That small pebble sinking, is like one who does evil, and does not know the Buddhist sūtra[s’ teachings], after death then entering hell.’ The King said, ‘Excellent!’
Comments: Nāgasena next elaborated that even those who were evil, yet able to truly repent and be mindful of Buddha sincerely in time, even if not for long before taking rebirth, they can thus avoid lower rebirths and attain higher rebirths. The evil, however, who do not know how to practise accordingly thus fall to the lower realms directly like the pebble. For this answer, the King expressed praise, as Nāgasena had explained with an appropriate analogy, on how it was logical for the karmically very negative to be saved by connecting to a much greater karmically pure power.
Extended Comments: Likewise, it is possible for those who had done little good, who connect to a greater pure power, to have higher rebirths. However, it is also possible for those who had done much good, who create intense negative karma, such as nursing great hatred right before rebirth, to have lower rebirths. (The latent existing positive karma created can still bear fruit when conditions better later.) As death can occur suddenly, to avoid possible fall to a lower realm, it is best to practise mindfulness of Buddha in everyday life, such that it will also be a natural habit to do so when dying.
Pure Land Comments: As the general practice of mindfulness of any Buddha creates immense positive karma personally, while the Buddha’s merits and blessings also flow over to dilute one’s negative karmic effects, this by default can lead to a higher heavenly rebirth. However, if mindful of a Buddha’s name, which is the easiest Niànfó practice, such as the name of ‘Āmítuófó’ (阿弥陀佛: Amitābha Buddha), with profound Faith (深信) and sincere Aspiration (切愿) to reach his Western Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss (西方极乐世界), this will be accomplished. This Pure Land is the most blissful Dharma school that guarantees complete enlightenment, and transcends the limited benefits of all heavens.
While some might see it to be ‘unfair’ that the evil can be helped, the truth is that the truly repentant are already not truly evil, while they did create positive karma in the past, to be able to know of Āmítuófó in time, and to practise accordingly. For greatly evil ones bound for hell, the only spiritual lifesaver to prevent their fall is this precious skilful means of Niànfó. That said, no one should sabotage themselves by assuming that it is alright to do great evil now, as long as they do repent and Niànfó when dying. This is so as the more is evil wilfully done now, the harder it will be to repent and Niànfó later, when more self-created karmic obstacles ripen.
For most, even those who are not extremely evil, escaping Saṃsāra with only limited Self-power (自力) is very difficult or even impossible in this Dharma-Ending Age (末法时期), when the general quality of the Dharma being learnt and practised well declines. Completing Nāgasena’s analogy, we should thus use our Self-power to sincerely connect to Āmítuófó’s Other-power (他力), to ride upon his ship of great compassionate vows (大愿船), to be rescued and ferried across Saṃsāra’s sea of births and deaths (i.e. cyclical suffering), and reach the shore of his Pure Land for refuge. There, we can perfect training to reach the only slightly farther shore of Buddhahood for sure. We will also become fully capable and motivated to rescue all others still rising and falling in the sea of rebirth!
[… as continued]
If the most evil truly repent
and truly connect to a Buddha,
the latter can truly rescue the first,
and truly guide them to Pure Land.
Why Your Last Thought Matters So Much
Mindfulness Of Buddha In The Dhammpada
Analogy Of Salt And River
Analogy Of Cloud And Wind
Understanding Amituofo Via The Amitabha Sutra
48 Great Vows Of Amituofo: Boundless Blessings For This Life And The Next