A “discrepancy” between the two Pure Land sutras
It is interesting to note that Master Shandao always omitted the phrase “excluded, however, are those who commit the Five Gravest Transgressions and slander the right Dharma” at the end of his explanation of Amitabha’s 18th Vow. “Excluded” refers to those who will not be reborn in Amitabha’s Buddha-land.
What was the reason for this omission? In the Contemplation Sutra, those at the lowest level of the low tier are wicked people who have committed the Five Gravest Offences. However, even they are eventually delivered to the Pure Land after their sincere recitation of “Namo Amituofo” on their deathbed.
It seems that there is a discrepancy between Amitabha’s 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra—saying that such people are excluded—and the passage of rebirth for those in the lowest level of the low tier in the Contemplation Sutra—saying they also can be reborn.
Why do these two texts appear to contradict each other? A full and clear explanation in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra
Master Shandao gives us a full and clear explanation in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, which states:
As the 48 vows say, those who commit the Five Gravest Transgressions and slander the right Dharma are excluded in rebirth.
Since these two karmic offenses are extremely heavy in obstructing the Buddhist Way, sentient beings who perform these karmic acts will fall into Avici Hell where they will remain for countless eons, enduring profound and unspeakable sufferings.
The Tathagata, afraid that sentient beings will commit these acts, expediently warns them with the phrase “unable to attain rebirth.” However, it does not mean that the Tathagata gives up delivering and embracing them.
Likewise, in the passage of rebirth for those in the lowest level of the low tier, the Buddha included those who commit the Five Gravest Transgressions but excluded those who slander the right Dharma. This means that, for those who have committed the Five Gravest Transgressions, the Buddha cannot let them continue to suffer in the cycle of birth and death. Thus, the Buddha, with great compassion, comes back to deliver and embrace them.
However, for those who have not committed the offense of slandering the right Dharma, the Buddha seeks to prevent their slander and warns again: “If you slander the right Dharma, you cannot attain rebirth.” The above is interpreted as if the karmic offenses are not yet committed. If they are already committed, the Buddha still embraces that sentient being and delivers them to the Pure Land.
Although they can be reborn in that land, they will dwell in the lotus flower in embryonic state for many eons. Those who dwell inside the lotus bud have three kinds of obstructions:
1. They cannot see the Buddha and the sacred beings there.
2. They cannot hear the exposition of right Dharma.
3. They cannot behold and make offerings to the Buddhas
Apart from these obstructions, they have no further sufferings. As the Sutra says: “They are like bhikshus in the heavenly state of the Third Dhyana.” This one ought to know.
The teaching of inhibition and the teaching of deliverance
Referring to Master Shandao’s explanation, we note that Amitabha Buddha is so compassionate he does not wish for even a single sentient being to suffer in the cycle of birth and death. Thus, all sentient beings in the ten directions are Amitabha’s targets for deliverance. This is known as the “teaching of deliverance.”
However, Amitabha Buddha does not want sentient beings to shamelessly take advantage of his compassion and believe they have license to commit evil because of the 18th Vow’s guarantee of deliverance. Therefore, he expediently warns us against committing the gravest transgressions.
It is just like the relationship between a mother and son. She gives her son a strict warning: do not make serious mistakes otherwise you will not be allowed to come home. But when he ultimately makes mistakes, does a mother let her son suffer from homelessness?
The exclusion clause in the 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra states: “Excluded, however, are those who commit the Five Gravest Transgressions and slander the right Dharma.” This is known as “the teaching of inhibition.”
Interpretation of the “discrepancy” by Master Tanluan
Master Tanluan also interprets the “discrepancy” between the two Pure Land sutras through eight sets of questions and answers in the Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth. First, he indicates that both offenses of the Five Gravest Transgressions and slandering the right Dharma are mentioned in the 18th Vow.
However, in the passage of rebirth for those at the lowest level of the low tier, only the offense of the Five Gravest Transgressions is mentioned. Master Tanluan indicates the offense of slandering the right Dharma is more serious, because it prevents many people from being delivered by the buddhas.
He also compares the merit and virtues contained in Amitabha Buddha’s Name with the heavy karmic offenses committed by sentient beings. He indicates that the former are real, while the latter are unreal. He draws a few analogies to illustrate how the Buddha’s “real” merit and virtues override our “unreal” karma.
Master Tanluan also points out that when a person approaches death, he is helpless and desperate. Since he has no other alternative for escaping hellfire, he is bound to seek deliverance truly at this critical moment.
“Other-powered” teaching and “self-powered” teaching
Since the merits and virtues contained in Amitabha’s Name are real, immeasurable, boundless, inconceivable, and unsurpassed, they are more than sufficient to enable an Amitabha-reciter to attain rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss—even if he recites only 10 times or entertains but a single thought of taking refuge.
Upon rebirth in the Pure Land of Bliss, an Amitabha-reciter will dwell in the state of non-retrogression and eventually attain buddhahood. However, this kind of “other-power” teaching is difficult to believe. This is particularly true for those who pursue the Bodhi Way by cultivating merit and virtue through “self-powered” practices, such precepts, meditation, and wisdom. They may doubt Amitabha’s 18th vow and prefer to seek rebirth through Amitabha’s 19th Vow.
We will discuss this situation in a future article.
Related features from BDG
The Meaning of “Even 10 Times” in Amitabha’s 18th Vow
Master Shandao’s Explanation of Amitabha’s 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra
Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the King of Buddhas’ Fundamental Vows, Is Our Life