Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the lifeline of the Pure Land school
In my earlier article from July 2021: “What Motivated Bodhisattva Dharmakara to Make the 48 Great Vows?”, we saw how Amitabha Buddha’s sole purpose in attaining enlightenment and creating the Pure Land was to deliver all sentient beings of the ten directions.
Each of Amitabha Buddha’s 48 vows is aimed at enticing sentient beings to seek Pure Land rebirth so that they will become buddhas. But how does Amitabha facilitate their rebirth? There is one vow in particular, the 18th Vow, that guarantees rebirth to all who rely on it for deliverance. Known as the Vow of Rebirth through Amitabha-recitation, it covers both the aim of the Pure Land teaching: rebirth in the Pure Land, and the method of attaining rebirth: Amitabha-recitation.
Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the fountainhead from which the entire Pure Land teaching springs. It is the root source and lifeline of the Pure Land school. It is the unique vow made by Amitabha Buddha to deliver sentient beings of the ten directions equally and unconditionally, regardless of their aptitude, wisdom, and virtues.
That means that only the 18th Vow can meet the purpose of universally delivering all sentient beings, which perfectly and completely satisfies Amitabha’s original intent. So the 18th Vow is indeed the fundamental vow among Amitabha’s 48 great vows; it contains all the merits, virtues, and perfect enlightenment of Amitabha Buddha.
The 18th Vow is the Fundamental Vow, and all others are Vows of Admiration
If Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the Fundamental Vow, then how would we classify his other 47 vows? Master Shandao tells us that they are “Vows of Admiration,” because they cause sentient beings to esteem the features of that magnificent and peaceful land, and to aspire to be reborn there.
Moreover, each of the Vows of Admiration points us back to the 18th. For example, in the Land of Bliss, the Three Wretched Realms do not exist, and all sentient beings attain the six paranormal powers, and so on. Of course, the implication is that we should practice Amitabha-recitation to secure our rebirth and then we can eventually experience these wonders firsthand.
But if there were no 18th Vow, sentient beings would be unable to attain rebirth by Amitabha-recitation, and subsequently, all the other vows would be rendered meaningless.
The Vows of Admiration are meant to guide those of all capacities. For those with virtuous roots in the Bodhisattva teaching who set forth the great Bodhi Mind to deliver sentient beings of the ten directions, they can be inspired by the 11th Vow—dwelling in the stage of non-retrogression—and aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow is the King of all Fundamental Vows
Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow is the King of all Fundamental Vows because all the benefits and merits of admiring the 47 vows eventually return us to the 18th, the Vow of Amitabha-Recitation for Rebirth. The 18th Vow states:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
Among the 48 vows, the words “should they not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment” are found only in the 18th Vow, not in the other two vows of rebirth, the 19th and 20th Vows. It is only the 18th Vow upon which the pristine Pure Land School is founded. If there were no 18th Vow, there would be no Pure Land School.
All buddhas have their own individual causal vows, but Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the foremost among them, so Amitabha Buddha is known as the Buddha of the Great Vow. It could be said that Amitabha was the example for Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who is also known as the Bodhisattva of the Great Vow, as Ksitigarbha’s vow is the greatest among all bodhisattvas.
The 18th Vow is the original intent of Amitabha, Shakyamuni, and all buddhas
As stated in my previous article, “The Significance of Amitabha’s 17th Vow in Pure Land Teaching”, Amitabha’s Name enables all sentient beings to attain assured rebirth and dwell in the state of non-retrogression. Once they are reborn, they will have buddha-like qualities to liberate sentient beings.
Since liberating sentient beings, particularly those in the defiled lands, is the ultimate goal for all buddhas of the ten directions in the three periods of time, they do not hesitate to extol and praise Amitabha’s Name, specified in Amitabha’s 18th Vow of deliverance. Therefore, Amitabha’s 18th Vow is not just his own original intent but is also that of Shakyamuni Buddha and all other buddhas. Although we learn and practice Buddhism, if there was no 18th Vow, we would have no way to escape from reincarnation within the Six Realms.
Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the uninvited Dharma spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha to all us inhabitants of the Land of Saha. We should take this Vow as our life for it is only Amitabha’s 18th Vow that delivers us and revitalizes our buddha-nature! It alone has the power to end our sufferings and cause us to transcend the pain and delusion of unenlightened life.
The conclusion of Amitabha’s 18th Vow
Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the Causal Vow, the Fundamental Vow, the Primal Vow, and the King of Vows.
The 18th Vow is the original source, the fundamental body, and the lifeline of the Pure Land School.
The 18th Vow is Amitabha’s original intent, Shakyamuni’s original intent, and all Buddhas’ original intent. It saves us and transcends our lives.
The 18th Vow is the vow of worldly transcendence, made by Amitabha Buddha, the king of all Buddhas. It is the noblest Dharma, the vow of great kindness and compassion that sets us free from suffering and gives us joy.