Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Master Shan-Tao (613-681 CE) used the 5 Elements Contemplation (earth, water, fire, air, space) in his practice, and recommended it as a way to prepare one’s mind for the practice of visualizing Amitabha’s Pure Land.
These and other practices that are part of the Pure Land path, make it one of the most adaptable forms of all Buddhist practice, and therefore suitable for any person no matter what their abilities or circumstances in life.
Venerable Shih Ying-Fa, Abbot of CloudWater Zendo, the Zen Centre of Cleveland, Ohio, USA, has successfully brought ancient Pure Land and Ch’an (Zen) practices into the modern world, making these profound teachings accessible to all. What follows below is an outline of these teachings.
The 5 Elements Practices are versatile, so that you may choose one element as the main focus of your practice, or perhaps combine various Elements into a wide variety of forms that are deeply meaningful to you. The 5 Elements Practices are ultimately supported by the Tripod of Practice, Aspiration, and Faith, so whatever forms of practice are selected will prove beneficial.
The Earth element refers to the mindful study of the 3 Pure Land Sutras, which is a necessary part of grounding oneself in Pure Land teachings. The principal Pure Land Sutras are: (1) The Visualization Sutra, a manual of visualization meditation which gives a detailed description of the features of the literal Pure Land, allowing practitioners to develop high levels of meditative concentration through holding these images in the mind. The Sutra includes descriptions of the characteristics of Amitabha Buddha and the two attendant Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteshvara, representing engaged compassion, and Mahasthamaprapta, representing wisdom; (2) The Smaller Sukhavati Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha speaks to his disciple Shariputra about the Realm of Bliss, giving a concise description of Amitabha’s Buddha-realm; (3) The Larger Sukhavati Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha gives his disciple Ananda a detailed description of the Realm of Bliss. He also recounts the history of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who eventually became Amitabha Buddha, and describes the 48 Primal Vows in detail. The reading of the Pure Land Sutras assists us in keeping the name of Amitabha Buddha firmly in mind and strengthens our resolve for rebirth.
The Water element represents the practice of Buddha-Name Recitation. This vocalized meditative practice is the concentrated and heartfelt repetitive recitation of the Buddha Amitabha’s name, which may be done in a normal voice, sub-vocally or silently. It may take the form of “Namo Amitabha Buddha” (Homage to the Buddha of Boundless Compassion and Wisdom), “Namo Amitabha” or simply “Amitabha!” Many people use a mala (Buddhist beads) to assist them with their Buddha-Name Recitation practice.
Water is used to describe Buddha-Name Recitation because like water, recitation practice flows from our mind and heart like waves continually washing ashore. In this fashion, Buddha-Name Recitation ultimately “wears down” our illusions and defilements, and enables us to become one with Boundless Compassion and Wisdom.
The Air element represents the purifying aspect of the practices of Atonement and Veneration. Atonement helps us to “clear the air” through the self-acknowledgement of our harmful actions, and through the vows we make, in order to refine our behaviour. Veneration (showing deep respect for the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Enlightened Beings) reminds us of the wide-open and spacious nature of the Boundless Compassion and Boundless Wisdom which is our True Self.
The Fire element represents the practice of Visualization Meditation. By using the power of the mind, one can see clearly and in great detail such images as Amitabha Buddha, the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (She who Hears the Cries of the World) and Mahasthamaprapta (The One who has Attained Great Strength), and the Pure Land of Bliss itself. Visualization Meditation is a most powerful practice that produces the deep, one-pointed concentration known as Samadhi. The method of Pure Land Visualization is outlined in great detail in the Visualization Sutra.
The Space element refers to the boundless nature of Mind itself, which is synonymous with Boundless Compassion and Wisdom. Through the Ch’an-style Pure Land meditative practices we become one with Mind. Techniques include the Hua-T’ou (“thought-head”) question: “Who is reciting the Buddha’s Name?” When this question is deeply asked in Ch’an fashion, the practitioner begins to see that the nature of Mind and the Pure Land of Bliss are one and the same, and that Amitabha Buddha is our True Nature.
Parts of the text reprinted with permission of the Zen Society of Cleveland. Copyright © 2013-2023 – Venerable Shih Jingang