The Collected Lectures of 
Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua on

The Buddha Speaks 
of Amitabha Sutra

from issue 45

Commentary translated by Disciple Bhiksuni Heng Yin
Text Translated by Disciple Upasaka I Kuo Jung
Edited by Disciple Upasika Tun Kuo Hsun


The Venerable Mahakasyapa was the foremost of the Buddha's disciples, both in ascetic practices and in age. None of the Buddha's disciples were older and none of them endured more suffering.

The term "ascetic practice"1 means, "making an effort, raising up one's spirits with courage and vigor." The cultivation of the twelve kinds of ascetic practices is a sign that the Buddhadharma is being maintained, for as long as they are practiced, the Buddhadharma will remain in the world. If they are not practiced, the Buddhadharma wi1l disappear.

Of the twelve ascetic practices, the first two deal with clothing:

1. Wearing rag robes. One gathers unwanted pieces of cloth from garbage heaps, washes them, and sews them into a robe. There are many advantages in wearing rag robes. First of all, they decrease greed. When you wear them, your heart is peaceful and calm. They also prevent others from being greedy. If you wear fine, expensive clothes, others may become envious and even try to steal them. But no one wants to steal rag robes. So the first ascetic practice benefits you and others. Those who have left home are called "tattered sons" because they wear rag robes. 

2. Wearing only three robes. One's only possessions are three robes, a bowl, and a sitting cloth. The first robe is the great robe, or samghati, made up of 25 strips of cloth in 108 patches which is worn when lecturing Sutras or visiting the king. The second is the outer robe, or uttarasanga, made of seven pieces which is worn when bowing repentance ceremonies and worshipping the Buddha. The third is the inner robe in five pieces, or antaravsaka, which is worn at all times, to work in, to travel in, and to entertain guests. With only three robes, a bowl, and a sitting cloth, one teaches others to be content and not be greedy for a lot of possessions.
1Duskara-carya, -k'u heng.

The next five ascetic practices deal with food:

3. Always begging for food. One always takes one's bowl to beg, and does not cook for oneself.

4. Begging in succession. One begs from house to house in regular order without discriminating between the rich and the poor. If, by the seventh house, no food is obtained, one doesn't eat on that day. One does not think, "I want to beg from the poor, not the rich," or "I want to beg from the rich and not the poor."

Mahakasyapa once said, "Poor people are to be pitied. If they don't plant blessings now, in the future they will be even poorer,” and so he begged exclusively from the poor.

Subhuti, on the other hand, begged only from the rich. "If they are rich," he reasoned, "we should help them continue to plant blessings and meritorious virtue. If they don't make offerings and seek blessings from the Triple Jewel, next life they'll have no money," and so he begged only from the rich.

But the Buddha scolded both of them. "You two have the hearts of Arhats!" he said, "because you discriminate in your begging." To beg properly, one should go from house to house, without discrimination.

5. Eating only one in the middle of the day. This means that you do not eat in the morning or in the evening, but only between the hours of eleven and twelve o'clock in the morning. Some who don't understand the Buddhadharma think that "eating once in the middle of the day," means simply eating only one lunch. It actually means that one doesn't eat in the morning or in the evening, but only once in the middle of the day. In China, when one receives the precepts, they ask, "Neng Ch’ih?" which means, "Can you keep them?" and you answer "Neng Ch’ih!" "I can keep them!" If one eats morning, noon, and night, however, one can answer "Neng Ch’ih," which sounds the same but means, "I can eat!"

Eating once a day at noon is one of the Buddha's rules, because the Buddha only responded to offerings of food at noon. Gods eat in the morning, animals eat in the afternoon, and ghosts eat at night. Those who have left home do not eat at night because when ghosts hear the sound of chopsticks they come to steal the food. The food people eat turns to fire in the ghosts' mouths and they get angry and take revenge by making one sick.

6. Reducing the measure of food. If you can eat three bowls, then eat only two and a half. If you can eat two bowls, then eat only one and a half. Always eat a little less. If you eat too much your stomach can't hold it and you'll have to do a lot more work on the toilet. Eat less.

7. Not drinking juices after noon. After twelve noon you don't drink apple juice, orange juice, milk, or any kind of juice at all, how much the less bean curd broth. True ascetics don't drink juice after noon.

Some people cultivate one or two of these practices and some cultivate more; some cultivate only one and some cultivate all twelve. It's not fixed; it depends upon how strong you are.

Since cultivators can't avoid the questions of clothing, food, and dwelling, these twelve ascetic practices have been established to deal with them.  The five concerning dwelling are:

8. Dwelling in an aranya. Aranya is a Sanskrit word which means "a still and quiet place"1 I where there are few people and no distracting noises. It is said,

What the eyes don't see
Won't cause the mouth to water.
What the ears don't hear,
Won't cause the mind to transgress.

When people see food, they give rise to desire for it and their mouths water. If your ears don't hear confusing noises, there is no affliction In your mind. In a still, quiet place, it is easy to cultivate diligently and enter samadhi.

9. Dwelling at the foot of a tree. You live beneath a tree, but not under any one tree for more than three nights. After two nights, you move for fear that someone may come and make offerings. Cultivating ascetics don't like to have such Dharma conditions, or a lot of food and drink, and so they live under a tree.

10. Dwelling under the open sky. You don't live in a house or even under a tree, but right out in the open, meditating.

11. Dwelling in a graveyard. Living here, one is always on the alert.  "Look at them! They're dead. In the future I'll be just like them. If I don't cultivate the Way, what will I do when it's time to die? I'll die all muddled." Dwelling in a graveyard is a good cure for laziness.

12. Ribs not touching the mat. This means always sitting and never lying down, cultivating vigorously and not fearing suffering. These are the five ascetic practices, which deal with dwelling.

The Venerable Mahakasyapa cultivated not only one ascetic practice, but all twelve of them very thoroughly. Once, the Buddha moved over and asked the Venerable Mahakasyapa to sit beside him. The Buddha couldn't bear to see him cultivating ascetic practices at his age. Kasyapa," he said, "you are over one hundred years old, too old for ascetic practices. Take it easy. You can't endure them."

The Venerable Kasyapa smiled. He didn't say whether or not he would obey the Buddha's instructions, but he returned and continued his practices and did not change in the least. The Buddha knew this and was extremely pleased. "Because Mahakasyapa cultivates ascetic practices," he said, "the Buddhadharma will remain long in the world. He's a great asset, foremost in asceticism."
1 -chi ching ch'u

The twelve ascetic practices are cultivated by those who have left the home life.

"I haven't left home," someone says. Why are you explaining them to me?"

This seems like a good question, but if you look into it, it's really a stupid question. Why? Perhaps you have not left home in this life, but how do you know that you did not leave home in a past life and cultivate these practices? Perhaps you have Just forgotten, and so I am reminding you.

Even if in past lives you did not leave home, perhaps next life your opportunity will come, and the Bodhi seeds planted in this life will mature.  Then your merit and virtue will be perfected, enabling you to feel very comfortable practicing asceticism. Because you heard about them in this life, next life you will enjoy cultivating them. Perhaps in the past you planted good causes, and now you reap good fruit. No one can say that someone will always leave home, or that someone will always be a common person. Common people all have the opportunity to realize Buddhahood. In the future these twelve ascetic practices will be of great use.


Maha still means great, many, and victorious. Katyayana means "literary elegance,"1 because this Venerable One was foremost in debate of all the Buddha's disciples. No one could defeat him. Non-Buddhists who believed in annihilationism or eternalism said, "Buddhists speak of the revolving wheel of the six paths of rebirth and maintain that after death one may be reborn again as a person, but this idea is incorrect. Why? If people can come back as people, why hasn't anyone ever died and then returned home or sent a letter to his family? There's no basis for such a view. When people die, they go out like a lamp and they can't be born again. Buddhists just imagine there's rebirth, but actually there is not."

Mahakatyayana said, "You ask why those who die do not return, but before I answer you, first, let me ask: If someone were put in jail for a crime, could he return home at his convenience?"

"No," said the non-Buddhist, "of course not."

Katyayana continued, "When people die and descend into the hells, it's Just the same; they can't return, in fact they're even less free to leave."

The non-Buddhist said, "Granted that those born in the hells cannot return, still those born in the heavens are very free. Why has none of them ever sent a letter home informing his family, 'Yesterday I was born in the heavens,'?"

Katyayana said, "What you say has principle, but, by way of analogy, suppose someone slipped and fell into a toilet, not a flush toilet, obviously no one could fall into a flush toilet, but into a pit toilet about as big as a bedroom. Once he got out, would he decide he liked the atmosphere and jump back in again?
-wen shih.

"Impossible!" exclaimed the non-Buddhist.

"This world of men," said Katyayana, "is just like a stinking toilet, and birth in the heavens is like getting out. That's why no one comes back. Even if they did, there's a time difference to consider. For example, one day and night in the Heaven of the Thirty-three is equal to one hundred years in the world of men. Born there, it would take a couple of days to find a place to stay and get settled, and by the time one returned the third day, one's friends would have been long dead."

Thus, Mahakatyayana's eloquence defeated the non-Buddhists who were attached to the idea of annihilation or permanence; they lost every time.

The Venerable Katyayana's name also means "fan cord" because soon after he was born his father died and his mother wanted to remarry, but the child was a tie (like a fan cord) which prevented her from doing so. He is also called "good shoulders" because his shoulders were beautiful, and "victorious thinker" because his eloquence was unobstructed.

There are Four Unobstructed Eloquences:

1. Unobstructed eloquence in Dharma: one explains the Dharma without obstacle.

2. Unobstructed eloquence in meaning: one explains its meanings without end.

3. Unobstructed eloquence in phrasing.

4. Unobstructed delight in speech: one takes delight in explaining the Dharma.

Because he had these Four Unobstructed Eloquences, Mahakatyayana was the foremost of the Buddha's disciples in debate.


Mahakausthila was Sariputra's maternal uncle. Mahakausthila means "big knee clan,"1 because big knees ran in his family. He, too, was a gifted debater. In order to defeat his nephew, he went to Southern India to study non-Buddhist debating theories, rushing through meals and gulping down water, studying so hard that he did not even take time to wash his face or cut his nails. His nails grew so long, in fact, that he was nicknamed "The long–nailed Brahmin."


Revata means "constellation" as he was named after the fourth of the twenty-eight constellations, the "house of the sun and the rabbit"2 because his parents prayed to this constellation in order to have their son.

Revata also means "False unity."3 One day he went out walking and when it got dark he was tired and far from home, so he decided to spend the night in a shack beside the road. Just as he was about to fall asleep two ghosts walked in, a big ghost and a small ghost. The big ghost was really big. He had a green face, red hair, and a huge mouth with six teeth hanging from it like elephants' tusks. One look at him could scare you to death. The little ghost was even uglier. His eyes, ears, nose, and mouth had all moved to the middle of his face.

-ta hsi.

-fang jih t'u.

3 -
chia ho ho.

The two came in, dragging a corpse and asked Revata, "What do you think? Should we eat this corpse or not? What they meant was, "If you tell us to eat the corpse, we'll eat you, and if you tell us not to eat the corpse, we'll also go ahead and eat you." The two ghosts were going to eat him no matter what he said.

Revata didn't say anything, and so the big ghost bit off the corpse's legs and the little ghost ripped off Revata's legs and stuck them on the corpse. The big ghost ate the entire corpse and the little ghost replaced its parts one by one with those from Revata's body.

Revata then thought, "My body has been used to repair the corpse and now I don't have a body!" The next day he ran out screaming and asked everyone he met, "Hey! Take a look! Do I have a body?"

"What?" they said. They had no idea what he was talking about---he clearly had a body yet wanted them to see if he had a body---until, finally, no one would come near him.

"He's nuts!" they said.

Finally Revata met two High Masters. "Sramanas," he asked, "do I have a body?"

The two High Masters happened to be Arhats. Seeing that Revata's potential for enlightenment was nearly mature and that he would soon certify to the Dharma-body, they instructed him saying, "The body is basically created by a combination of causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions separate, the body is destroyed. There is nothing that is you, and nothing that is not you." Just as they said this, "Ah!" Revata was enlightened. He left home and certified to the fruit. Thus Revata's name means "false unity."


      Suddhipanthaka and Mahapanthaka were brothers. Suddhipanthaka’s name means "little roadside,"1 and his big brother, Mahapanthaka, was "big roadside." In India it is the custom for women who are about to give birth to return to their parents’ home. But Mahapanthaka’s mother didn’t want to go home and so she waited until the last minute and consequently, her son was born on the side of the road.

      When it was time to give birth to the second child, she should have known better, but again she waited. It happened again, and the child was called "little roadside."
  -hsiao chi lu. "Suddhi" apparently represents "ksudra," smal1.

Although born in the same circumstances, the two brothers were very different in nature. The older brother was remarkably intelligent, but the younger one was remarkably,...stupid. He was so stupid he couldn't even remember half a line of verse. 

The Buddha had instructed five hundred Arhats to teach him a verse, and they took turns night and day trying to teach him:

"Guard your mouth, unite your mind,
With your body, don't offend;
Do not annoy a single living being.
Stay far away from non-beneficial bitter practices;
Conduct like this can surely save the world."

      The three karmas of body, mouth, and mind should be pure. Don't cause others to have affliction and don't cultivate ascetic practices which are not in accord with Dharma, such as maintaining the morality of dogs and cows, worshipping fire as your Patriarch, or sleeping in ashes or on beds of nails.  Some people sit on boards of nails and, of course, it hurts a lot. One who cultivates virtue and at the same time avoids these meaningless practices can truly save the world.

For many days, the five hundred Arhats combined their great spiritual powers, trying to teach Little Roadside the gatha. They taught him over and over, and, over and over; he forgot it. "Recite the verse," they would say.

"But I can't remember it," Little Roadside said.

"You good for nothing," his brother scolded. "You can't leave home. You're useless!" and he chased him away.

Little Roadside may not have had much of a memory, but he certainly had a temper. "If you won't let me leave home," he shouted, "I'll show you!   I'll kill myself". He grabbed a rope, ran to the back yard, and climbed a tree, ready to hang himself.

At that moment Sakyamuni Buddha transformed into a tree spirit and explained the Dharma to him. "Your brother is your brother," he said, "and you are you. If he says you can't leave home, you don't have to listen. You can cultivate right here. Why should you kill yourself?"

"That makes sense," sniffed Little Roadside. "He's him and I'm me. He has no right to tell me I can't leave home."

"Right," said Sakyamuni Buddha. "Since you can't remember half a line, I'll just give you two words, 'sweep clean.' Remember these two words, and sweep your heart clean. Sweep the floor, and sweep your heart, free from dust."

Little Roadside said, "Yes, I'll sweep my heart. Sweep...what?"

"Clean," said the Buddha, "sweep clean."

"Oh yes," said Little Roadside. "Clean...What was the first word again?"

"Sweep," smiled the Buddha.

"Sweep clean," said Little Roadside, and he recited and swept, remembering the Buddha's instructions to sweep his heart clean. In less than a week, all of a sudden, he was enlightened, understood everything very clearly, penetrated the Real Mark of all Dharmas, and was even more intelligent than his brother.

Little Roadside wasn't like us. We recite "Namo Amitabha Buddha" everyday, but the more we recite the more false thinking we have.

If stupid people work hard and cultivate, they also can become enlightened. Don't say, "I'm too stupid, to understand the Sutras." If you don't understand them, you don't have to read them; it will suffice Just to contemplate your own heart and, when you've seen it clearly, you will be enlightened. How does one contemplate his own heart? Watch for false thinking and sweep it out of your heart. Then you can be enlightened.

Little Roadside, stupid as he was, became enlightened. We are all much more intelligent than he, and could no doubt remember "sweep clean" if we heard it only once. So don't cheat yourself or take yourself lightly. Go forward bravely and study the Buddhadharma.

Were I to speak the most wonderful Dharma, unless you believed it, it would be of no use to you. But were I to speak utter nonsense, should you actually practice, it would be wonderful Dharma. If you don't practice the wonderful Dharma, then it's not wonderful for you. You must always make vigorous progress. Don't fall behind or get lazy, and, this is most important: If you can always make progress, the day will come when you will recognize your original face.

NANDA / Sundarananda

There were three disciples1 with the name "Nanda"; Ananda, Sundarananda, and Nanda. Nanda, whose name means "wholesome bliss"2 was a cow-herd before he heard the Buddha speak the Dharma and resolved to leave the home-life. He is to be distinguished from Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, and the third, Sundarananda, the Buddha's little brother, Ananda will be discussed next, and this is the story of Sundarananda; He was born exactly a year and a day after the Buddha on the ninth day of the fourth lunar month. The Buddha had thirty-two marks while Sundarananda had thirty, and he was four inches shorter than the Buddha. His Sanskrit name means "wholesome bliss," same as Nanda above. Sundara,3 the name of his wife, means "good to love."

Sundarananda loved his wife more than anything. The two of them were glued together; walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, they were never apart.

One day as the Buddha returned from the palace where he had gone begging for food, he passed Sundara and Nanda who were having lunch.  When Nanda saw the Buddha he went out to fill his bowl. As he left Sundara spat on the floor and said, "You may give the Buddha food, but if you don't return before that dries, you're in trouble."
-shan hsi

1The three disciples are Nanda, Ananda, and Sundara-ananda.3Sundarananda's wife is often called Sundari.

"O.K!" said 'Nanda, and off he went. What do you think the Buddha did?  Everytime Nanda took a step forward to hand him the bowl, the Buddha moved away with his spiritual powers so that in what seemed like just a few steps, Nanda-suddenly found himself in the Jeta Grove, five miles from home. As soon as they arrived, the Buddha shaved Nanda's head. "Nanda had no desire to leave the home-life because he did not want to give up his wife. But the Buddha was his older brother, and so he complied. "You can cut my hair," he thought, "but the first chance I get, I'm going to run away."

As day after day went by, Nanda grew more and more nervous. The Buddha and the Arhats were staying in the Jeta Grove, and Nanda had no chance to escape. One day the Buddha and his Arhats went out for lunch and left Nanda to watch the door. "Today is the day!" thought Nanda. "I'm definitely going home."

Before the Buddha left, however, he instructed Sundarananda to sweep the floor. Eager to be on his way, he went right to work, but every time he got the dust together, a gust of wind blew it all over the room. He tried closing the window, but when he closed one, another blew open. Strange. This went on for two or three hours. "The Buddha will be back any minute." he thought, "dust or no dust, I'm leaving!" He threw the broom down and ran.

"The Buddha uses the main road," he thought, "so I'll take to the side roads." He ran for a couple of miles when suddenly he saw the Buddha walking toward him. Sundarananda hid behind a tree and waited for him to pass, moving slowly around in back of the tree so as not to be seen. Who would have guessed that the Buddha would follow him around the tree, step by step.  Nanda walked in one direction and the Buddha followed him. Sundarananda reversed his steps and so did the Buddha. Collision was inevitable; there was no place to hide.

"What are you doing?" asked the Buddha. "I thought you were watching the door."

"I waited and waited, "said the embarrassed Nanda, "but you didn't return so I came to welcome you. I thought that your bowl might be too heavy...I...I came to help you carry your bowl!"

"Wonderful," said the Buddha. "What a good little brother. Let's go back to the Jeta Grove."

The Buddha knew that Nanda wasn't happy, and one day he said, "Nanda, come with me for a hike in the mountains."

"All right," said 'Nanda, thinking, "If I get the chance, I'll run away."

The mountains were full of monkeys. "Sundarananda," the Buddha said, "compare these monkeys with your wife. Are they more beautiful than she?"

Sundarananda said, "Why Buddha, of course Sundara is more beautiful.  Monkeys are ugly: how can you compare them with Sundara?"

"You're quite intelligent," said the Buddha. "You know that your wife is prettier than these monkeys."

When they had returned to the Jeta Grove, the Buddha said, "Nanda, you've never been to the heavens. Want to go?"

"First the mountains' now the heavens. I wonder what they're like," thought Sundarananda.

So Nanda and the Buddha sat in meditation and the Buddha used his spiritual powers to take Nanda to the heavens where they visited a palace where five hundred goddesses and many servants were working. The heavens were millions of times more beautiful than the world of men, and Nanda had never seen such beautiful women. Naturally, he fell in love. "Don't you have a leader?" he asked. "Who is your Master?"                                     

"Our Master hasn't arrived yet," they said. "He's Sakyamuni's little brother, Nanda. He's left home to cultivate the Way, and in the future he will be reborn with these five hundred goddesses as his wives."

Sundarananda was delighted. "I don't think I'll run away after all," he thought. "I'll cultivate diligently and get reborn in heaven instead."

"Nanda," said the Buddha, "are the goddesses more beautiful than Sundara, or is she more beautiful then they?"

"Compared to these goddesses, Sundara is as ugly as a monkey," said Nanda.

"Which would you prefer?" said the Buddha.

"The goddesses!" said Nanda. "Sundara is beautiful, but the goddesses are out of this world."

"In the future you'll be born here," said the Buddha. "Now let's go back and cultivate."

Sundarananda meditated day and night, cultivating to be a heavenly lord. The Buddha knew that heavenly blessings have outflows, are non-ultimate, and that those who enjoy them can still fall to lower realms.  Wishing to wake Nanda up, he said, "There's nothing going on today. Would you like to visit the hells?"

"I've heard that they're not very scenic," said Nanda, "but if you want to take me there, I'll go,"

They visited the hells of the mountain of knives, the sword-tree hell, the fire-sea hell, the ice hell, and many others. Finally, they came to a hell where two ghosts were boiling a pot of oil. The lazy ghosts had let the fire go, and the oil wasn't even simmering. "What are you two doing," said Nanda, "fooling around and going to sleep?"

The ghosts rubbed their eyes open and stared. "What do you care?" they asked. "We're in no hurry. We're waiting for someone who isn't due for a long, long time."

"Who?" asked Nanda.

"Sakyamuni Buddha's little brother, Sundarananda, if you must know," said one, "He left home, but seeks only the blessings of the heavens and the five hundred goddesses. He'll be living in heaven for a thousand years, but in his confusion he will forget how' to cultivate the Way and commit many offenses. This will create evil karma and will drag him into the hells to be deep-fat fried in this very pot."

Every hair on Nanda's body stood straight up on end, and every pore ran with cold, damp sweat. "How could this happen to me?" he moaned. From that moment on, he stopped cultivating for rebirth in the heavens and resolved to end birth and death. Soon he certified to the status of Arhatship.

Sundarananda was extremely handsome. The Buddha had the thirty-two marks of the superman, and Nanda had thirty and so some people even mistook him for the Buddha. One day, Sariputra was debating with some non-Buddhists who were even further out than many hippies and who didn't wear any clothes at all. "This is our original face,” they said. "Why disguise yourself by wearing clothes?"

Sariputra, although not very tall, was extraordinarily intelligent; his replies left them speechless, as if they had no mouths as all. Later, when Nanda, who was tall and handsome, happened along, the nudists said, "If that short little Bhiksu beat us, how could we possibly out-talk this big one?"  They bowed to Nanda as their teacher and left the home life. Nanda had a lot of faithful disciples, and their cultivation was very successful.

This is the story of Sundarananda who gave up his wife for the goddesses and then, fearing the hells, cultivated the Way.

Superior rebirth of the lower
grade in the Pure Land.

to be continued

      The Amitabha Sutra with the Master’s explanation is being readied for publication in book form. You may subscribe to it from the Vajra Bodhi Sea Publication Society at a prepublication discount (about one half off.)