Amitabha’s promise in the 19th Vow is different from that in the 18th Vow
Both the 18th Vow and the 19th Vow are vows of Amitabha’s deliverance of rebirth in the Land of Bliss. However, Amitabha Buddha promises different benefits to the two kinds of Pure Land aspirant.
The first group, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, are those who entrust themselves to Amitabha’s deliverance through the single practice of Amitabha-recitation. Amitabha promises that, “should [they] not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” It is direct, simple, and straightforward. The promise is straightforward because all Pure Land aspirants have the common goal of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and it is exactly the same reason why the bodhisattva Dharmakara vowed to attain perfect Enlightenment, to become Amitabha Buddha and accomplish his Pure Land (the Land of Bliss), as stated in the 18th Vow.
Thus, Amitabha Buddha’s original intent of deliverance and sentient beings’ aspiration of rebirth match perfectly. The method selected by Amitabha and specified in his vow of deliverance, the 18th Vow is merely exclusive recollection or recitation of Amitabha’s name—“even 10 times”—which is easy to practice.
The second group of aspirants are Buddhists who set forth the Bodhi Mind and practice various merits and virtues through their own power, in accordance with Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. Instead of promising and assuring them of rebirth in his Land of Bliss, Amitabha Buddha says: should they not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. This benefit seems less direct, as it needs one more step to complete rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Generally, when Amitabha Buddha appears before an aspirant at the time of death, it is because he is receiving her to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, is there any implication regarding Amitabha’s promise in the 19th Vow? Why is the benefit endowed by Amitabha Buddha different, at least in wording, from the 18th Vow?
Unreal merit and virtues attained through self-powered practices are “few” or “barren”
Reading the 19th Vow in conjunction with the 18th Vow, we find that the method of attaining rebirth for the two kinds of aspirants is different. One is practicing various merits and virtues in aspiration for rebirth, while the other is merely practicing Amitabha recitation, subsequent to entrusting themselves to Amitabha’s deliverance.
Literally, “various” means assorted or many. In a Buddhist context, practicing “various merits and virtues” includes the practice of the Four Noble Truths, the Six Paramitas, the Bodhisattva Vows, and so on—including a myriad of practices performed according to circumstances or conditions in the “causal” ground. But any merits and virtues attained by an ordinary being through practice in the causal ground are regarded as “unreal,” “impure,” and “conditioned.”
How can ordinary beings dedicate these “few” or “barren” roots of virtues and blessing for rebirth in Amitabha’s Buddha-land, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra? Master Shandao explains the above in the Praise of Dharma Practices as follows:
The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana;
It’s hard to be reborn there by practicing assorted virtues according to circumstances.
The Tathagata selects the key method—
He teaches us to recite Amitabha’s name with two-fold exclusivity.
In other words, for full and complete rebirth (likened to the “full blossoming of the lotus flower”) in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, a realm of unconditioned nirvana, one must possess the equal root of virtues, or equivalent “seed-nature,” like a Buddha.
How can ordinary beings like us obtain Amitabha’s “real,” “pure,” and “unconditioned” merits and virtues essential for rebirth in his “real,” “pure,” and “unconditioned” Land of Bliss? The direct and simple method is to exclusively recite Amitabha’s name until the end of one’s life.
Pure Land aspirants will know that the six-character Name of Amitabha Buddha embodies “boundless and immeasurable, inconceivable merit and virtues” that enables us to have the kind of root of virtues (or “seed-nature”) needed for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land. Name-recitation is the primary practice, known as the “karma of assurance,” so it is the most direct, efficient, and effective way to attain rebirth.
Moreover, the rebirth of an aspirant of the 18th Vow is assured by Amitabha Buddha in his fulfilled 18th Vow, so his rebirth is “immediate.” This means that as soon as he resolves to sincerely entrust himself to Amitabha Buddha and exclusively recites Amitabha’s Name for the rest of his life, his rebirth is absolutely assured through the power of Amitabha’s Vow. So long as his wish for rebirth does not change, he is already considered a citizen of the Land of Bliss even while dwelling in this Saha world.
Rebirth in “embryo state” for aspirants of the 19th Vow
For an aspirant of the 19th Vow, his rebirth is not assured by Amitabha Buddha because he chooses to utilize different methods and attain assorted merits and virtues for rebirth, rather than relying on the exclusive name-recitation practice, as selected by Amitabha Buddha in the 18th Vow. However, Amitabha Buddha compassionately rejoices and respects his choice, promising the aspirant of the 19th Vow to receive him at his death if he sincerely sets forth the Bodhi Mind until the end of his life.
Moreover, Amitabha Buddha will appear before the aspirant of the 19th Vow with a multitude of Bodhisattvas who rejoice because of the aspirant’s Bodhi Mind, welcome him and encourage him to continue his Bodhisattva practices in the Land of Bliss, if he wishes to be reborn there.
It is interesting to note that even though he is received into the Land of Bliss he has to dwell for a time within the “lotus bud” (also known as “living inside the embryo palace”) because he chose to rely on the “unreal,” “impure,” and “conditioned” practices of self-power, rather than on the perfect other-power of Amitabha Buddha. This is to doubt the Buddha’s wisdom. Thus, he is not yet regarded as fully and completely reborn in the Land of Bliss.
The Infinite Life Sutra says, “If there are sentient beings who practice various merit and virtues aspiring for birth in that land while still entertaining doubt, such beings are unable to comprehend the Buddha-wisdom . . . Such beings are born in a palace, where they dwell for 500 years without being able to behold the Buddha, hear his exposition of the Dharma, or see the hosts of bodhisattvas and shravakas. For this reason, that type of birth in the Pure Land is called the “embryonic state.”
As soon as the obstruction of doubt is cleared, the lotus flower will blossom, signifying the aspirant’s full rebirth by manifestation in the Land of Bliss.
Amitabha Buddha wishes that all beings should speedily attain rebirth in the Pure Land, so he supplies us with the direct and easy path of other-power: exclusive recitation of his Name in accord with his Fundamental Vow. But knowing that there are a multitude of sentient beings with differing karmic inclinations, Amitabha compassionately vows to rescue these beings as well, regardless of their doubts and attachments. For this reason, Amitabha Buddha promises aspirants of the 19th Vow to appear before them at their death, rather than to assure them of full rebirth in the Land of Bliss.