Amitabha-recitation is the karma of assured rebirth
Having discussed Amitabha’s 18th Vow in the previous few articles, we should recall that this particular vow is Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. It is the lifeline and root source of the Pure Land teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance of rebirth, through his Great Name of Myriad of Virtues.
This vow highlights Amitabha’s endowment of assured rebirth in his Buddha-land. It is for aspirants who entrust themselves to his deliverance. This is true for all who recite his Name: whether their practice extends over an entire lifetime, or for only 10 recitations, or even one.
Nagarjuna Bodhisattva explains the 18th Vow as such:
Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow is such: If a person thinks of me, recites my name, and takes refuge in me, he will instantly enter the state of assurance, and attain the perfect Enlightenment. For that reason, we should always remember him.
Based on the 18th Vow, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva classifies the Pure Land path as the easy path, and says: “One can take faith as an expedient means, thus easily and speedily dwell in the state of non-retrogression (Avinivartaniya).” All other bodhisattva teachings are regarded as the difficult path.
Based on the teaching classification of Nagarjuna, Master Tanluan classifies the easy-to-practice Pure Land gate as the “other-power” teaching, and all other difficult-to-practice Buddhist gates as “self-power” teachings, as stated in his Commentary on the Shastra of Rebirth.
Master Tanluan also says: “With the mere causal condition of believing the Buddha, any aspirant can be assured of rebirth in that Buddha’s Pure Land with recourse to the Buddha’s vow power.” In other words, exclusive Amitabha-recitation is a necessary and sufficient “causal condition” to attain assured rebirth.
Master Shandao says in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra,
To recite Amitabha’s Name single-mindedly and without variation, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, whether for long or short periods, is the “karma of assurance.” It is so because it accords with Amitabha’s 18th Vow.
Aspirants who take the 19th Vow for rebirth
Apart from the 18th Vow, Amitabha Buddha makes two other vows—the 19th and 20th Vows. These are for aspirants who do not entrust themselves to Amitabha’s vow power, but insist on seeking rebirth by dedication of their own merit and virtues through self-powered practices. This is comparatively difficult.
For the followers of these different vows who desire to be reborn in Amitabha’s land, their aptitude, practice, and Amitabha’s promised reward are not the same.
In the 18th Vow, the aptitude of those who desire to be born in Amitabha’s land is that they are “sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me.” That means they are all sentient beings, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, who practice Amitabha-recitation exclusively for rebirth, as stated above.
Amitabha Buddha promises them: “Should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” Since Amitabha has already attained perfect Enlightenment 10 kalpas ago, the rebirth of the aspirant is undoubtedly assured once they make up their mind to attain rebirth through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation.
In the 19th Vow, the aptitude of those who desire to be born in Amitabha’s land is that they are “sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely aspire to be born.” Obviously, they are Buddhists who follow Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings and practice meditative and non-meditative virtues for rebirth.
Amitabha Buddha promises aspirants of the 19th Vow: “Should they not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sacred beings, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” In other words, the aspirants’ rebirth is assured near the end of life only.
Why doesn’t Amitabha promise to bestow them with assured rebirth in the present life as he promises in the 18th Vow? This is because the aspirants of the 19th Vow rely on transferring and dedicating their own merit and virtues for rebirth, rather than relying on Amitabha’s merit and virtues dedicated to them through Amitabha-recitation.
It will be up to the aspirants’ final decision whether they really wish to go to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and to call upon Amitabha Buddha to receive and welcome them near the end of life. If they don’t, Amitabha will not come and “force” them to be reborn.
Aspirants who take the 20th Vow for rebirth
In the 20th Vow, the aptitude of those who desire to be reborn in Amitabha’s land is that “Having heard my Name, [they] concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant roots of virtue, and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land.” These aspirants establish a karmic connection with Amitabha Buddha by planting roots of virtue before they seek rebirth.
Amitabha Buddha promises: “Should [they] not eventually fulfill their aspiration, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” In other words, their rebirth is not assured in this present life, but in a future life, when their karmic conditions ripen.
Focusing on cultivating the roots of virtue in the mundane world and transferring their meager merit and virtues toward Amitabha’s land, these aspirants sadly remain ignorant and doubtful of Amitabha Buddha. Their method is illogical and insufficient. Amitabha’s Pure Land is a Buddha-land, a realm of unconditioned nirvana. How can the roots of virtue cultivated in the defiled land (a realm of conditioned birth and death), enable them to attain rebirth there?
However, as an aspirant of the 20th Vow has made an inseparable connection with Amitabha Buddha upon hearing his Name. They will surely be embraced by Amitabha’s light so they will eventually believe and accept his deliverance through the 18th Vow in a future lifetime when they hear the Pure Land teaching again. This is what Amitabha Buddha promises in his 20th Vow.
Amitabha’s Vows of Deliverance
(18) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters 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.
(19) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sacred beings, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
(20) 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 roots of virtue, and sincerely transfer their merit toward my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their aspiration, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Related features from BDG
Can a Pure Land Practitioner Attain Assured Rebirth with Doubts in Amitabha’s 18th Vow?
Sincerity in Faith and Earnest Aspiration in the Pure Land Teaching
Follow What Shakyamuni Buddha Says in the Pure Land Sutras for Rebirth