The Faith Devotee, the Pure Land, and the Visuddhimagga

Part 3 of the Visuddhimagga is called “Understanding (Paññá).” Nestled amongst the very boring and hard to understand sentences is §74 — §82. It comes across as a sort of Abhidhammic verification of the Pure Land School of Buddhism. It deals almost exclusively with the “faith devotee” described as one of the seven kinds of noble person.

The list ranks them this way…

  • The faith devotee,
  • One liberated by faith,
  • The body witness,
  • The both-ways liberated,
  • The Dhamma devotee,
  • One attained to vision, and
  • One liberated by understanding.

Buddhaghosa cryptically ends the list by saying; “This knowledge of equanimity about formations is a condition for their being placed as these seven classes.” We can be grateful that he didn’t just leave it at that. He actual explains himself in a very clear and detailed way, in spite of the cumbersome translation.

When a resolute practitioner of the Dhamma realizes that all mental formations are impermanent he acquires the “faith faculty.” By faith we do not “blind religious faith,” that would be a hindrance. By “faith” Canon means something more like “confidence.” The one with a faculty of faith is not automatically destined for enlightenment or even a Pure Land rebirth. What the faculty of faith does is to provide the element of stimulus and ambition directing the mind away from the entanglement of doubt and establishes in the mind serene trust in the Triple Gem as the paramount foundation of liberation.

There are five faculties, virtues, which are needed to reach enlightenment. Faith is just one. The faculty of energy helps to drive us forward in a sustained effort burning up obstructions and brings the other factors to maturity. The faculty of mindfulness contributes clear awareness that acts as the antidote to heedlessness and the prerequisite of penetration through delusion and into reality. The faculty of concentration holds attention focused with unwavering, calm and composure, on the rise and fall of bodily and mental events, calm and composed. The faculty of wisdom, which the Buddha calls the crowning virtue among all the requisites of enlightenment, drives away the blindness of ignorance and lights up the real characteristics of experiential reality — phenomena — that is, bring the impermanence of mental formations (fabrications) to mind.

These are five faculties, taken in the same context, as we would say, “Virtue” here in the West. They are helpful in our pursuit of the direct experience of the emptiness of phenomena. As much as the five faculties, considered individually, each perform their own unique tasks in their appropriate arena, but taken as a group they cause the collective object of building inner balance and harmony.

Balance and harmony are conducive to practice but do not take us to liberation. They are characteristics we need to form along the Way. That is the next step.

One becomes a faith devotee the moment one enters the stream. How does one enter the stream?

Association with people of integrity is a factor for stream-entry.

Listening to the true Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry.

Appropriate attention is a factor for stream-entry.

Practice in accordance with the Dhamma is a factor for stream-entry.

— Samyutta Nikaya 55.5

Right away we can see how the five faculties, especially faith can help us to maintain an appropriate and successful Dhamma practice. Concentration and wisdom are needed to help us maintain appropriate attention. Faith helps us in all four categories of action mentioned by the Buddha in the Sutta. Association with people of integrity are people who are comfortable in their own skin and able to practice without doubts, without laziness, and without conflict. We can readily see how association with such people would enhance our own confidence or faith. Listening to real Dhamma will also do the same thing, increase faith. Counterfeit teaching will lead to doubts because they will eventually conflict and cause dissonance. Confidence will help us maintain appropriate attention.

The stream enterer is the first stage of the fourfold path to enlightenment. The Buddha describes each in the Suttas. It is a very straightforward definition and worth the read.

“In this community of monks there are monks who are arahants, whose effluents are ended, who have reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who are released through right gnosis…

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of the five lower fetters, are due to be reappear [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world…

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, and with the attenuation of passion, aversion, & delusion, are once-returners, who — on returning only one more time to this world — will make an ending to stress…

“In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, are stream-winners, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening.”

— Majjhima Nikaya 118

The Stream enterer has the “total” ending of the first three fetters: identity view, doubt, and grasping at habits & practices. These are called the “effluents that are to be abandoned by seeing.” (Majjhima Nikaya 2) It is when these three fetters are abandoned that the person with the faith faculty becomes a “faith devotee.” The identity view concerns “the various views that arise in the world, householder…when self-identity view is present, these views come into being; when self-identity view is absent, they don’t come into being.” —Isidatta Sutta, SN 41.3

The self-view is a mind that takes things personally — this is me, this is mine — and that is a cause for suffering. We only think with concepts. “I” is a concept that we have created. Because we take things personally we feel tension and tightness within our mind and our body. Contraction of body and mind is an unpleasant experience. The mind that takes things personally is the very definition of delusion.

There are ten fetters that bind the mind to the round of death & rebirth are (1) identity views, (2) uncertainty, (3) grasping at habits and practices, (4) sensual passion, (5) irritation, (6) passion for form, (7) passion for formlessness, (8) conceit, (9) restlessness, and (10) ignorance. The stream enterer, in our case the faith devotee, has relinquished the first three. The devotee has not yet conquered remainder. That is why they are said to be doomed to rebirth — but no more than seven. So powerful is the removal of identity view, doubt, and grasping at habits and practices.

Please notice that the Canon is specific of what is to be let go. It does not say relinquish anything except the grasping at habits and practices. There will still be habits and practices but not a dependence on them. The habit of brushing one’s teeth in the morning is a good one, but it is not earth shattering if it postponed to another time. It is the paralysis we feel by not following through on our rituals that is to be let go. We have routines we follow everyday. The problem arises when they drive us.

The statement was made that the faith devotee is liberated. So how is this stream enterer liberated when Arahantship or Buddhahood is the essence of liberation? The faith devotee has let go of only three of the ten fetters. In §76 Buddhaghosa tells us, “This is said: ‘when he brings [formations] to mind as impermanent, the faith faculty is in excess in him. With the faith faculty in excess he acquires the stream-entry path. Hence he is called a ‘faith devotee’” Likewise, “When he brings [formations] to mind as impermanent, the faith faculty is realized. Hence he is called ‘one liberated by faith’” Here is the liberation the faith devotee has attained — liberation from precisely the three fetters by gaining the insight that all his or her fabrications of mind are impermanent and therefore delusionary.

When we try to attribute permanence to that which is impermanent we have also misappropriated the object of the attribution. For example, when we hear some proud father say, “I will always love my son. You can’t change that.” He has attributed permanence to 1) his love for his son, and 2) his son as he exists in the father’s eye. In making this claim, the father has taken possession of 1) his love for his son, as if he owned it and it had some inherent self-existence, and 2) the son himself, as if he were the sole possession of the father. If the father were to have another thought in his mind the son would not exist in his experiential reality and neither would the love he just misattributed eternal existence.

The mind is fickle. It will latch onto any notion set forth before it.

Here though we see also that the same attributes given the faith devotee also apply to the Dhamma devotee. Again, §74: “When a man brings [them] to mind as not-self and, having great wisdom, acquires the faculty of understanding, he becomes a Dhamma devotee at the moment of the stream-entry path.” The two paths are somewhat different in that the emphasis of motivation was not identical. The faith devotee is moved by confidence while “understanding” moves the Dhamma devotee. This does not mean that one is superior to the other. The object of devotion, whether faith or understanding, is a unique choice made by the devotee dependent upon his conditioning and kamma. One is in the case of the highest fruition one liberated by faith and the other liberated by understanding. In either case they are liberated from the same three fetters and the illusion of permanence, just as the Canon says.

The interesting thing that is brought out in the Commentary, the Visuddhimagga, is that the two types of devotees merge into one. It should be understood that the faith devotee as stream enterer follows (anusarati; literally, “to follow,” or “conform oneself”) faith, thus he is a faith devotee (saddhānusāri); of he follows, he goes, by means of faith, thus he is a faith devotee. At the same time, he follows the Dhamma called understanding, or he follows by means of the Dhamma, thus he is a Dhamma devotee. He becomes liberated in both ways, by immaterial jhana (understanding) and the noble path (faith), thus he is both-ways liberated. Understanding, he is liberated, thus he is liberated by understanding. Putting aside the jhana for a moment, The Buddha explained this liberation as the total ending of [the first] three Fetters, are Stream-winners, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening. (Majjhima Nikaya 118)

The Pure Land would necessarily exist in the Fine Material world (rupa loka). This is experienced in the fourth jhana. The Anguttara Nikaya 4.123 says it comes “with the abandoning of pleasure & stress — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He savors that, longs for that, and finds satisfaction through that. Staying there — fixed on that, dwelling there often, not falling away from that — then when he dies he reappears in conjunction with the Vehapphala (literally “sky fruit”) devas. The Vehapphala devas, monks, have a life span of 500 eons. A run-of-the-mill person having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, goes to hell, to the animal womb, to the state of the hungry shades. But a disciple of the Blessed One, having stayed there, having used up all the life-span of those devas, is unbound right in that state of being.”

By this description we can see that the description of Sukhavati, Amitabha’s Western Pure Land, harmonizes with the Buddha’s own description of the Pure Abodes found in the Nikayas. This is the realm of the anāgāmī, the non-returner. A person who has abandoned the five lower fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth, and who after death will appear in one of the Brahma worlds called the Pure Abodes, there to attain nibbana, never again to return to this world. If we look at the verse quoted above, we find the Buddha said of such a one, “…having used up all the life-span of those devas, is unbound right in that state of being.” (See Majjhima Nikaya 118)

Doesn’t this look like the Pure Land? The devotee at this stage has released himself from the fetters of self-identification views (sakkaya ditthi), uncertainty (vicikiccha), grasping at precepts and practices (sīlabbata-parāmāsa), sensual passion (kāma-rāga), and resistance (vyāpāda often used to mean malevolence). Non-returners are those who have fully developed virtue and concentration. (Anguttara Nikaya 3.88) Developing virtue and concentration is precisely the point of the Pure Land Buddhist practice. Virtue is developed through the practice of the Brahma Viharas and the Bodhisattva aspirations found in the Ten Perfections. Concentration is developed through the single pointed focus on Amitabha Buddha, the symbolic essence of Metta (the desire all beings be happy), Karuna (compassion as the activity relieving the suffering of others), and wisdom (as critical discernment). Such concentration can readily take the devotee into the jhanas with ease.

In the Pali Canon and Commentaries we do not have to go far to find the impetus and core of the Pure Land Buddhist doctrine. One just has to know where to look. That the Pure Land Buddhist begins with deep abiding faith, whether in a supposed being called Amitabha Buddha who is emblematic of the qualities of Metta, Karuna and Pañña, or if that faith is placed in the historical Buddha is not terribly relevant to them or their development. The important matter is the development of the individual, their happiness, their peace, and their freedom.

It is true that Pure Land Buddhism can easily degenerate into superstition, but this is true of any trend in Buddhism. Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana can all at one time or another be prone to superstition and meaningless rituals. The point is, like any trend of Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism can lead the devotee to the highest realms of awakening and experience — and is that not why we practice?

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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