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Discrepancies and Dilemmas: Rebirth and Recitation in the two Pure Land sutras (Part I)

Amitabha Buddha in his simple majesty. From Flickr.

In the last three articles in my column, we’ve been discussing a lot about Amitabha-recitation “by ten times”. There are actually two “discrepancies” between the two Pure Land sutras about rebirth in the Pure Land.

In the Infinite Life Sutra, Amitabha Buddha made his 18th vow:

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 recite 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 transgressions and slander the right Dharma.

However, in the Contemplation Sutra, it says, “Those who attain rebirth on the lowest level of the lowest grade are the sentient beings who commit such evils as the five gravest transgressions, the ten evil acts and all kinds of immorality.” If they follow a good person’s advice at the near end of their lives, and “sincerely and continuously say ‘Homage to Amitayus Buddha’ [Namo Amituofo] ten times”, they will eventually be reborn inside the lotus-bud in the Land of Bliss. The lotus-bud will blossom after twelve great kalpas.

The first discrepancy

When we look at the paragraphs I’ve laid out, the first apparent discrepancy is as follows:

In the 18th vow, it states that those who commit the five gravest transgressions and slander thedharma are not allowed to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, under the scenario of the lowest level of the lowest grade, those who commit the five gravest transgressions are eventually reborn in the Pure Land. Are they contradictory?

The Pure Land patriarchs had different interpretations of this issue. Master Tanluan said in his Commentary of Treatise of Rebirth, “There are two kinds of offenses in the 18th vow, while there is only one offense for those reborn under the lowest level of the lowest grade.”

In other words, if one commits the five gravest transgressions but does not slander the right dharma, one is allowed to be reborn in the Pure Land. What happens if one who slanders the right dharma, but does not commit the five gravest transgressions? Can that person be reborn in the Land of Bliss? Master Tanluan’s answer is definite: actually, no!

Comparison between the two exceptions

He further elaborated that those who commit the five gravest transgressions will fall into the Avici hell and will suffer for one kalpa, while those who slander the right dharma will suffer in Avici hell for many kalpas. Thus, the offense of the latter is more serious than the former.

Some may argue and challenge this point: “Slandering the right dharma is my own business, and does no harm to others, while committing the five gravest transgressions will hurt other people. Therefore, the latter should be a more serious offense.” Master Tanluan had a different opinion. He explained that if all worldly right dharmas discontinue, but all transcendental right dharmas vanish, the five gravest transgressions will arise. In other words, because the former is the cause of the latter, the offense of slandering the right dharma is more serious.

Two perspectives to interpret the exceptions

As I pointed out in my last article, the persons under the category of “lowest level of the lowest grade” are apparently not Buddhists, and they have no favorable causal conditions to know the Buddhist dharma and read any sutras in their lives. By expounding this scenario of rebirth, Shakyamuni Buddha intended to convey a message to Buddhists, particularly those Pure Land adherents, that Amitabha Buddha is capable of salvaging the worst of beings even at this most critical moment, thus everyone should have full confidence and trust in Amitabha’s deliverance by their rebirth in the Pure Land.

Master Shandao supplemented the explanation in his Commentary of the Contemplation Sutra. He explained it in two perspectives, one as a ‘preventive measure’ and the other as an ‘embracing target.’ Here, Amitabha Buddha stipulates the exceptions of rebirth in the 18th vow because these two offenses are very serious. In order to prevent Pure Land adherents from committing these offenses, the Buddha gives them a warning in advance. It is an expedient means to say that they need to watch out, but does not mean Amitabha Buddha will not embrace and deliver them.

Look at a father and his son. Dad says, “My dear son, you call me Dad, and this is your home. However, if you are naughty, you will not be allowed to stay at home.” This is the usual way the parents teach their children. However, if the son is naughty, will his father leave him out in hunger without shelter? No! As long as his son calls him ‘Daddy’, the compassionate father receives his son with the warmest heart and open arms. This is exactly the same way the most compassionate Amitabha treats us.

A more “aggressive” way to interpret the exceptions

We also need to be truthful and honest about ourselves. Having committed various serious offenses throughout rebirths with no beginning, all of us are ordinary beings stuck in an endless cycle of lives.  We might not commit the five gravest transgressions and slander the right dharma in this lifetime, but who knows if we committed such deeds in our former lives? If Amitabha really takes these people as exceptions, and expels them from the Pure Land, all of us, all beings, are not qualified to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.

If all of us are disqualified to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, what is the point that Amitabha Buddha makes the 18th vow? It must therefore be not the intention of Amitabha Buddha. We have to interpret this vow a better way, from the standpoint of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is fully aware of the situation, and thus alerts all those who committed the five gravest transgressions and slander the right dharma in their former lives to listen carefully to his 18th vow. He discreetly tells us that these apparently unforgivable beings are actually his target of embrace and deliverance. 

When it comes to rebirth on the lowest level of the lowest grade, Amitabha reveals his original intent and demonstrates his power to deliver even the most evil beings as long as they can sincerely recite his Name as a last resort, and be received at the critical moment. Thus, Amitabha Buddha gives all Pure Land adherents who have committed these offenses in their former lives full confidence in his vow power, and a guarantee of rebirth in the Pure Land. Amitabha is so great and compassionate that I have nothing more to say, but just thankfully recite: “Namo Amituofo!”

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