Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance based on Amitabha’s 18th Vow. Its adherents aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, and the method is the recitation of Amitabha’s Name. The practice is incredibly simple and easy, but the reward is inconceivably splendid. Therefore, it is a difficult-to-believe teaching, since it sounds almost too good to be true.
Many Pure Land aspirants ask the following question: how do we recite Amitabha’s Name for rebirth? Instead of asking other people, why don’t we find the answer in the Pure Land sutras for rebirth and see what Shakyamuni Buddha tells us to do, which is accurate and reliable. If you wish to have a second opinion, you can seek advice from the authoritative patriarchs, such as Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who was recognized to have the correct understanding and interpretation of the sutras.
Let us go all the way to the source: Shakyamuni Buddha himself, the historical Buddha. When Shakyamuni Buddha first introduces Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance for rebirth, he speaks of the Infinite Life Sutra. In the text of the Three Tiers, he advises his disciples of high, middle, and low aptitude, who have already set forth the Bodhi Mind, to “always/all the way exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name” for rebirth.
Later, Shakyamuni Buddha speaks of the Contemplation Sutra to Queen Vaidehi, an ordinary being who committed serious offenses with no Buddhist virtuous roots. He advises Ananda and all ordinary beings with nine levels of aptitude to “keep holding Amitabha’s Name well” for rebirth.
Last, but not least, in the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha advises Shariputra and all men and women to “hold fast to Amitabha’s Name, for one day to even seven days, single-mindedly without deviation” for rebirth.
Referring to the sutras above, the practice of Amitabha-recitation for rebirth seems to be very flexible, such as “always,” “all the way through.” There is no specific number or duration of time, just reciting as often as possible, depending on an individual’s circumstances. “Exclusively” is probably the only key word that we should bear in mind during the practice of Amitabha-recitation for rebirth.
To “keep” or “hold” means “do not lose” or “do not let go,” which is also important because we ordinary beings have a monkey-mind and are absent-minded. Technically speaking, if we always, exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name for rebirth, we are regarded as keeping and holding Amitabha’s name without losing it.
“Single-mindedly and without deviation” is just an elaboration of the word “exclusively.” To avoid deviation or confusion, we must avoid mixing any other practices with Amitabha-recitation for rebirth, as advised by Shakyamuni Buddha.
Follow what the Pure Land patriarchs say in the commentaries on the Pure Land Sutras
We may misinterpret the meaning of the sutra, so it is better to make a cross-reference with the patriarchs’ explanation of the above. First of all, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva interpreted Amitabha’s 18th Vow as follows:
Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow is as follows: If anyone thinks of me, returns to me by reciting my Name. . . . For that reason, you should always be mindful of him. And, just before this text, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva also advises us to “hold fast to reciting Amitabha’s Name, with a respectful mind” for rebirth.
So, for recitation of Amitabha’s Name for rebirth, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva also uses the words “always” and “hold fast,” but adds the word “respectful.” It makes sense because Shakyamuni Buddha says in the Infinite Life Sutra as follows:
One who has met a World-Honored One in the past
Can accept this teaching.
Such a person humbly and respectfully hears
And upholds it, and rejoices so greatly as to dance.
Arrogant, corrupt, and indolent people
Cannot readily accept this teaching.
Master Shandao, the de facto founder of the Pure Land school in China, identifies Amitabha-recitation is the “karma of assurance” of rebirth. He writes in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra as follows:
To exclusively recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, whether for long or short periods—that is the karma of assurance. It is so because it accords with Amitabha Buddha’s vow.
It is interesting to note that reciting Amitabha’s name can be practiced when walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, the four postures of our body in daily life. In other words, we can recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth under any circumstance in our daily life, whether with a concentrated mind or with a distracted mind.
It’s simple, so don’t make it complicated.
As Master Shandao says, in accordance with Amitabha’s Buddha’s 18th Vow, what we believe is to attain rebirth through Amitabha-recitation; what we wish is to attain rebirth through Amitabha-recitation; what we practice is to attain rebirth through Amitabha-recitation.
It is a response to Amitabha’s calling and an acceptance of Amitabha’s offer. It is on the side of Amitabha Buddha, not ours, to assure our rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land. Referring to the quotes above, we know that Amitabha-recitation for rebirth with recourse to Amitabha’s vow power (the 18th Vow) is simple and easy, plain and flat, no “secret” and no “trick,” so we should not make it complicated.
To conclude, the only “criteria” are: exclusive—do not mix other practices, or even other buddhas, in the practice of Amitabha-recitation for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land; and always—as much as we can, depending on individual aptitude, under any circumstances (but with no pressure). Easiness is the benchmark of the practice of the Pure Land teaching for rebirth.
If a practitioner finds it is not easy to practice Amitabha-recitation for rebirth, there must be some misunderstanding in his concept of the Pure Land teaching. For instance, referring to the 18th Vow, Amitabha Buddha emphasizes “even 10 times” in the practice of Amitabha-recitation.
What is significant meaning of “even?” The word “even” signifies Amitabha’s compassion, and also the ease of practicing for rebirth. The word “even” reveals that Amitabha’s deliverance is pro-active, equal, and unconditional.
Related features from BDG
Can Those Who Commit the Five Gravest Transgressions and Slander the Right Dharma be Reborn in the Pure Land?
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