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A Comparison of the Two Ways of Seeing Amitabha Buddha and Attaining Rebirth in His Pure Land
Two teachings by two Buddhas—the dual objective of the Contemplation Sutra
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao says: “Here, the objective of the Contemplation Sutra is the samadhi of Buddha-contemplation [of Amitabha Buddha], but it also has another objective—the samadhi of Buddha-invocation [Amitabha-recitation]. Its substance is rebirth in the Pure Land through single-minded dedication and aspiration.”
Why are there two objectives in the sutra, which is very unusual? Master Shandao gives us a brief answer in a verse written in the preface to his book: “I refer to the teachings of the two Buddhas and open widely the doors to the Pure Land.” All schools of Buddhism are founded on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. However, the Pure Land school of Buddhism—which teaches the way to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land—is founded upon the teachings of two Buddhas. Who are these two Buddhas? One is Shakyamuni Buddha and the other, of course, is Amitabha Buddha.
The difficult way on the easy path—based on Shakyamuni’s teachings
In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha tells Queen Vaidehi how she can attain rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land through his teachings on self-powered meditative practices, namely by contemplating and perceiving Amitabha Buddha and thereby achieving samadhi. In the Infinite Life Sutra, we find that this is precisely the practice that Bhikshu Dharmakara (Amitabha Buddha as a bodhisattva) undertakes when he contemplates the 21 billion Pure Lands. For a full five kalpas (or eons), he works to perceive these Pure Lands clearly, achieve samadhi, and visit all the Buddhas dwelling there. Thus he accomplishes his 48 vows.
Achieving rebirth through self-powered meditative practices accommodates the followers of Shakyamuni Buddha who choose to adopt Pure Land teachings. Upon seeing Amitabha Buddha, these practitioners must dedicate all the merit and virtue they’ve attained through self-powered meditative and non-meditative practices and aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Rebirth there is thus assured, as described in Amitabha’s 19th Vow.
This approach typifies the bodhisattva teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha and the practice of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who adopts the Ten Great Vows and finally aspires to attain enlightenment by dedicating all his merit and virtue toward rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. This is written in the Avatamsaka Sutra.
The Ten Great Vows:
1. To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas
2. To praise the Thus Come Ones
3. To practice profoundly the giving of offerings
4. To repent all misdeeds and karmic hindrances
5. To rejoice and follow in merit and virtue
6. To request that the Dharma Wheel be turned
7. To request that the Buddhas remain in the world
8. To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times
9. To be in constant harmony with all living beings
10. To dedicate all merit and virtue to the benefit of all beings
Clearly, this is a more difficult path because it places tremendous demands on the practitioner; it takes an incredibly long time to attain the virtues of a bodhisattva, such as the divine eye and various samadhis. It is even harder for ordinary beings like Queen Vaidehi (and most of us) to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss by this means. In addition, such extreme effort on our part would seem to contradict the assertion that Pure Land Buddhism is an easy path, as described in the writings of the bodhisattva Nagarjuna.
However, this is only the first objective of the sutra. For further details of the samadhi of Buddha-contemplation, please read my previous article “Two Ways to See Amitabha Buddha.” *
The easy way on the easy path—based on Amitabha’s teachings
The Contemplation Sutra reveals an alternative way of seeing Amitabha Buddha (equivalent to samadhi)—by invoking or reciting his name. This is called the samadhi of Buddha-invocation (Amitabha-recitation), as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Ninth Contemplation. In this method, invoking or reciting the Buddha’s name is equivalent to seeing him. This way is based on the power of Amitabha Buddha’s Dharma Body.
Amitabha will “appear” before whoever invokes or recites his name. Although they may be unable to see the Buddha with their physical eyes, Amitabha is still present. (Some practitioners may be granted a vision of the Buddha, but this is Amitabha’s doing and not a result of the practitioner’s virtue, merit, or practice.)
Seeing Amitabha Buddha through Buddha-powered invocation is essentially no different from seeing Amitabha through Buddha-contemplation. Manifesting before sentient beings in the form of light is one of Amitabha’s 48 fulfilled causative vows—it is therefore not limited to those followers of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings who rely on self-power alone, but is applicable to all sentient beings in the ten directions, regardless of their aptitude or capacity.
This is the second objective of the sutra. For details about the samadhi of Buddha-invocation, please read my previous article “How to See Amitabha Buddha and Attain Rebirth in the Pure Land Through Name-recitation.” **
It should be noted that seeing Amitabha Buddha through either Buddha-contemplation (self-powered) or Buddha-invocation (Buddha-powered) does not in itself assure rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Whatever the circumstances in which we see Amitabha Buddha, if we wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss we must aspire single-mindedly to be reborn there. This is why Master Shandao says that the substance of the Contemplation Sutra is rebirth in the Pure Land through single-minded dedication and aspiration.
It should be further noted that the practitioner who, in accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow (the 18th Vow), exclusively recites Amitabha’s name, is assured of rebirth in his Pure Land. They will certainly see Amitabha Buddha welcoming them at the key moment as their lives come to an end. This way of seeing Amitabha Buddha and attaining rebirth relies exclusively on Buddha-powered recitation practice—without recourse to Amitabha’s power, no one is able to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
The Buddha’s underlying intention
The two ways both reflect the spirit of bodhisattva practice, the first being as a giver or a benefactor, and the second, as a receiver or beneficiary. The former is to cultivate merit and virtue for the deliverance of sentient beings, like Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha, and thus act as a donor of merit. The latter is to accept the Buddha’s deliverance and receive his merit by invoking his name. This, in turn, “endorses” the fulfillment of Amitabha’s vow and “supports” his achievement of Buddhahood. These two ways complement each other.
Considering Amitabha’s 18th Vow, Shakyamuni Buddha does not wish us to become another Amitabha Buddha and create another Land of Bliss through our self-powered efforts. Rather, he wants us to take the second way—to find liberation from the cycle of reincarnation as soon as possible by attaining rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land exclusively through Amitabha-recitation, which is Buddha-powered practice.
Shakyamuni Buddha makes a concluding statement at the end of the Contemplation Sutra: “Bear these words well in mind. To bear these words in mind means to hold fast to the Name of the Buddha Amitayus [Amitabha].” As Amitabha-recitation accords with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, this is one of the main principles on which the school of pristine Pure Land Buddhism is based.
Master Shandao explains Shakyamuni’s concluding statement as follows: “Though [Shakyamuni Buddha] has spoken of the benefits [of attaining rebirth in the Pure Land] through practicing the meditative and non-meditative virtues, in light of [Amitabha] Buddha’s Fundamental Vow, Shakyamuni’s underlying intention is to encourage sentient beings to exclusively recite the name of Amitabha Buddha in a consistent and persistent manner.” All Pure land aspirants should therefore heed Shakyamuni Buddha’s advice and exclusively recite the name of Amitabha Buddha both consistently and persistently.
*Two Ways to See Amitabha Buddha (Buddhistdoor Global)
** How to See Amitabha Buddha and Attain Rebirth in the Pure Land Through Name-recitation (Buddhistdoor Global)
Shakyamuni Buddha’s Responses to the Three Requests of Queen Vaidehi (Buddhistdoor Global)