In this three-part series, Pure Land columnist Alan Kwan examines the three most important vows of Amitabha Buddha’s forty-eight vows, which constitute Amitabha’s plan for delivering sentient beings. These are known as the Three Vows of Deliverance.
The 20th Vow: Faith in Dedication
The 20th vow states:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who, having heard my Name, concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant the root of various virtues, and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their expected reward, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
In the 20th vow, sentient beings in the ten directions are always aware of, or feel concerned, or concentrate their thoughts, about the Land of Bliss upon hearing the name of Amitabha Buddha. They attempt to ‘plant the root of various virtues’ [practice], and then ‘sincerely transfer their merits towards my land’ [faith]. Lastly, they have ‘a desire to be born there’ [aspiration].
The sequence of the ‘Three Sambhara’ is ‘practice, faith and aspiration’, which is basically the same as that in the 19th vow. However, the practitioners’ faith is based on the dedication (transference) of merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation, as stipulated in the 19th vow. The root of various virtues is actually referred to as Amitabha-recitation, because this name is called ‘the Great Name of a Myriad Virtues.’
It is a bit ironic because Amitabha Buddha accomplishes the substantial merits and virtues of his name, and dedicates them to all beings who recite his name. However, some practitioners misunderstand that the merits and virtues are attained through their own effort, and take the practice as the causal ground under the principle of cause and effect. They believe they will receive the eventual reward of rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Let’s draw an analogy. Amitabha Buddha provides a rescue boat in the rough ocean (the Saha World), and urges people who are drowning to come on board, and bring them to shore (the Land of Bliss). However, instead of getting on the rescue boat, those people ask Amitabha Buddha to give them some rescue tools such as buoys, knives and weapons (merits and virtues) to fight against the sea monsters (ignorance, greed, hatred, delusion, etc), so that they can be well equipped, and continue to swim towards the shore.
Amitabha Buddha is very compassionate. He understands that sentient beings are used to believing the principle of cause and effect. The sentient beings may think that more practices can increase the chance of rebirth in the Land of Bliss. That is why Amitabha Buddha promises that: should [sentient beings] not eventually fulfill their expected reward, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Rebirth in Sukhavati is NOT Assured under the 20th Vow
The practitioners under the 20th vow are diligent in accumulating (planting) more merits and virtues through the practice of Amitabha-recitation, and they think they have a greater chance to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. When they slack off in recitation in this life, they doubt and worry whether they can be reborn there.
They do not know, or do not believe and refuse to come on board the rescue boat of Amitabha Buddha that sails towards the Land of Bliss. They choose to believe that, if they do not diligently practice in Amitabha-recitation, and do not accumulate (or plant) adequate merits and virtues, they will not be able to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. That is why they think that the less they practice, merits and virtues towards the rebirth dedicated or transferred will be less, and the chance to be reborn there will be less too. The rebirth in this case is not assured at all.
Due to this misunderstanding, they misunderstand the Buddha’s wisdom and are doubtful of the Buddha’s power. They dedicate merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation, hoping that they can be taken as the credentials to qualify them for entry to the Land of Bliss. In fact, the merits and virtues of Amitabha-recitation are dedicated by Amitabha to the practitioners. Why do the practitioners give them back to Amitabha Buddha? It is not logical and does not make sense.
Since the practitioners ‘sincerely transfer their merits towards my land’ as stated in the 20th vow, they are regarded as taking the ‘practice’ approach, and their faith is based on ‘dedication’ or ‘transference of the merits and virtues’ through their practice. But their rebirth in the Land of Bliss is not assured and guaranteed by Amitabha Buddha in this case because here, salvation depends not on Amitabha Buddha’s side, but on the practitioner’s.
Firstly, they do not understand the concept of ‘other-power’, which is the essence of Pure Land Buddhism. If they still stick to the principle of cause and effort, and haggle over the gain and loss in karmic reward and wish to be reborn in the Land of Bliss by accumulating the merits and virtues through Amitabha-recitation, they are attempting to achieve rebirth through their own efforts. By so doing, their chances to be reborn in the Land of Bliss will lessen. The concept of ‘self-power’ is contrary to the concept of ‘other-power’ in Pure Land Buddhism; in fact, it is detrimental to rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
The practitioners under this vow admire idea of going to the Land of Bliss upon hearing Amitabha’s name, but they choose to put more emphasis on their practices rather than faith in entrustment of the Buddha’s power. They tend to believe in dedicating the merits and virtues to adorn the Land of Bliss, so as to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, they always have a question in their mind: how much merits and virtues are adequate to qualify them for rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Similar to the 19th vow, the practitioner’s confidence to get rebirth fluctuates under this scenario. If he practices Amitabha-recitation more diligently, he is more confident. If he is slackened in his practice and dedicated less merits and virtues, his confidence in the rebirth in the Land of Bliss will lessen.
Due to ignorance in Buddha’s wisdom and doubt in Amitabha’s power, the practitioners under this scenario (the 20th vow) are not likely to be reborn in the Land Bliss in this life.
Compare and Contrast the Three Vows of Rebirth
The 18th, 19th and 20th vows cater for those who rely on Buddha’s power (‘other-power’), those who rely on ‘self-power’ and those who rely on both powers respectively.
Faith is the core teaching in Pure Land Buddhism. In other words, if the practitioner has no faith in Amitabha Buddha at all, he has no way to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, the practitioners may have different approaches in faith. Some of them build up their faith based on entrustment on Buddha’s power as stipulated in the 18th vow, thus their rebirth is assured by Amitabha Buddha in this life, with no retrogression in present life. Their practice is merely exclusive Amitabha-recitation.
However, if the practitioners’ faith is established on their own aspiration for expeditions in Enlightenment, Amitabha Buddha will offer assistance and welcome them at the near end of their life, as stipulated in the 19th vow. They have to dedicate the merits and virtues attained through the assorted practices, and aspire wholeheartedly to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Similarly, for the 20th vow, the practitioner’s faith is established on the dedication of merits and virtues attained through Amitabha-recitation. However, believing in the principle of cause and effect, the practitioners take these merits and virtues as their own causal cultivation. Therefore, they expect reward in the rebirth in the Land of Bliss as a result. This scenario is regarded as the combination of both ‘other-power’ and ‘self-power.’
If the practitioners follow the 18th vow, they must recite the Buddha’s name exclusively in a consistent and persistent manner. If the practitioners follow the 19th vow, they must continue to cultivate various merits and virtues through assorted practices. They may take Amitabha-recitation as one of the practices, but it has nothing to do with the entrustment on Amitabha’s salvation, i.e. ‘other-power.’ The 20th vow is in a similar situation.
In short, the 18th vow is the fundamental vow of Amitabha Buddha, which is the basic principle of Amitabha’s teaching. It is also the essence of Pure Land Buddhism. It is called ‘the Path of Great Vow’, as indicated in the Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra by Master Shandao. It is ‘difficult to accept, but easy to practice’, while Shakyamuni’s ‘Path of Importance’ (or the dedication of merits and virtues attained through their assorted meditative and non-meditative practices, as described in the 19th vow and 20th vow) is ‘easy to accept, but difficult to practice’.