How Shakyamuni reached the stage of becoming a buddha after one more life
At the beginning of the Infinite Life Sutra, after Shakyamuni Buddha introduces the great sacred beings present in the Dharma assembly and praises their practice of virtues, he tells us how he reached the “Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life” and dwelled in the Tusita Heaven before descending to our world, the Land of Saha.
Shakyamuni Buddha describes the powers and purpose of this penultimate stage as follows (extract):
1. To visit various buddha-lands: each of the bodhisattvas in the assembly is able to visit various buddha-lands and expound the teachings of the Way. . . . The bodhisattva, having thoroughly learned all the methods of emancipation and attained serene awareness of reality, can freely teach and transform sentient beings. . . . He has thus obtained complete mastery of such methods of emancipation. . . . All buddhas remember him and give him their protection. . . . He proclaims the Tathagata’s teachings, acts as a great master for other bodhisattvas, and, with profound samadhi and wisdom, guides multitudes of beings. With penetrating insight into the essential nature of dharmas (teachings), he discerns different aspects of living beings and closely watches over all the worlds.
2. To make offerings to the buddhas: In making offerings to the buddhas, he manifests transformed bodies like flashes of lightning. Having well learned the extensive wisdom of fearlessness and having realized the illusory nature of dharmas . . . he skillfully provides expedient means and thus reveals three distinct teachings. . . . After attaining the buddha-garland samadhi, he proclaims and expounds all the sutras. While dwelling deep in meditation, he visualizes all the innumerable buddhas and in an instant visits every one of them.
3. To elucidate the truth and enlighten all sentient beings: By elucidating and teaching the ultimate truth to sentient beings, he delivers them from the states of extreme pain, from the conditions in which suffering is so great as to prevent people from finding time for Buddhist practices, and also from the conditions in which suffering is not so great as to prevent them from doing so. Having attained the Tathagata’s thorough knowledge and eloquence, he has fluent command of languages, with which he enlightens all beings. He is above all worldly affairs, and his mind, always serene, dwells on the path of emancipation; this gives him complete control over all dharmas.
From these three paragraphs above, we know that Shakyamuni Buddha has great resolve and makes a tremendous effort in practicing various virtues to become a buddha in order to deliver all sentient beings, particularly those ordinary beings within the Six Realms in the Land of Saha with different aptitudes, such as us.
Amitabha enables an Amitabha-reciter to become a buddha-to-be, like Shakyamuni
So we can see that it is a rare opportunity and a truly splendid occasion to have a bodhisattva at the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life, like Shakyamuni or Maitreya, descend to our world where all sentient beings suffer and are reborn in the endless cycle of birth and death.
However, if we look at Amitabha’s 22nd Vow,* we note that, by becoming a bodhisattva in the Land of Bliss, practitioners can reach the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life, like Shakyamuni Buddha did before descending from the Tsuita Heaven to Jampudvipa (Earth).
Moreover, if the bodhisattva wishes to leave the Land of Bliss to deliver sentient beings from the cycle of birth and death (which means to end their life in the Land of Bliss), they have the ability to:
1. Visit buddha-lands to perform the bodhisattva practices;
2. Make offerings to buddhas and tathagatas, throughout the ten quarters;
3. Enlighten uncountable sentient beings.
There are the same acts performed by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Land of Saha, as mentioned above.
However, the 22nd Vow indicates that such bodhisattvas transcend the course of practice of ordinary bodhisattvas, manifest the practices of all the bodhisattva stages, and cultivate the virtues of universal benevolence. This means that such a bodhisattva’s ability is innate, unlike those ordinary bodhisattvas, who attain the same ability through cultivating the virtues of universal benevolence.
Why is the practice of these bodhisattvas “transcendental?” It is because Amitabha accomplishes his great vows so as to enable all sentient beings to have Buddha-like wisdom, compassion, power, and life, as stated in the 22nd Vow.
The Pure Land is the “sudden” teaching of Amitabha’s compassionate deliverance through his Vow-power
We should understand that it is also Amitabha’s resolve to enable an ordinary being in the Six Realms to become a Buddha through rebirth in his Land of Bliss—not merely to deliver and liberate them from the cycle of birth and death.
In the spirit of all bodhisattva teachings, Pure Land Buddhism is a path that can benefit oneself by benefitting others, and deliver oneself by delivering others. However, to achieve buddhahood, the practice in the Pure Land teaching is much easier and faster compared with ordinary bodhisattva teachings.
Moreover, by exclusively reciting Amitabha’s Name, we are assured of rebirth in the Land of Bliss by Amitabha Buddha, without any chance of retrogression through the entire course of becoming a buddha.
* Amitabha’s 22nd Vow states as follows:
If, when I attain buddhahood, bodhisattvas in the buddha-lands of other quarters who visit my land should not ultimately and unfailingly reach the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excepted are those who wish to teach and guide sentient beings in accordance with their original vows. For they wear the armor of great vows, accumulate merit, deliver all beings from birth and death, visit Buddha-lands to perform the bodhisattva practices, make offerings to buddhas, tathagatas, throughout the ten quarters, enlighten uncountable sentient beings as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges, and establish them in the highest, perfect Enlightenment. Such bodhisattvas transcend the course of practice of the ordinary bodhisattvas, manifest the practices of all the bodhisattva stages, and cultivate the virtues of universal benevolences.