Master Shandao’s interpretation of Amitabha’s 18th Vow
The entire concept of the Three States of Mind is to establish complete faith in Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name. Once the Three States of Mind are set forth, our rebirth in the Land of Bliss is immediately assured, as explained by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Contemplation Sutra.
Setting forth the Three States of Mind can be regarded as a total mind-shift; sometimes it is as sudden as flipping an on-and-off switch. One goes from being a Buddhist who practices the teaching of cultivation through the miscellaneous “self-powered” meditative and non-meditative practices to one who has complete faith in the teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance through the exclusive practice of “other-power” name-recitation.
This idea is also elaborated in the Infinite Life Sutra. It says our lotus flower will immediately blossom once we have total faith in Amitabha’s wisdom. Otherwise, it is still in the form of a bud, even when we are reborn in the Land of Bliss.
It is also clearly stated in the 18th Vow made by Amitabha Buddha: “If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely believe and rejoice, wish to be reborn in my land and think of me, even ten times; should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.”
With respect to sincere and joyful entrusting through Amitabha’s Name, it seems that we must have sincere faith, full faith, deep faith, and indestructible faith. Without such faith we cannot be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, Master Shandao (613–81 CE), an incarnation of Amitabha Buddha, interprets this Vow in a slightly different way.
In the Chapter of the Profound Meaning in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao writes:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the Ten Directions who wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even only ten times; should fail to be born there relying on the power of my Vow, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
It is most interesting to note that Master Shandao deliberately deletes the words about faith and aspiration, as well as the exception clause in the 18th Vow. This was not done randomly. In the Dharma School of Contemplation and Recitation, Master Shandao interprets the 18th Vow in a similar way:
If, when I gain Buddhahood, sentient beings of the Ten Directions who wish to be reborn in my land, recite my name, even ten times, and rely on the power of my vow should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
Master Shandao further writes in In Praise of the Rite of Rebirth:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the Ten Directions who recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
Today Amitabha is before us, having achieved Buddhahood. We should know that his Fundamental Vow has been unequivocally fulfilled. If sentient beings recite his name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Medicine cures the disease, not the doctor
When comparing and contrasting, we note there is an obvious “discrepancy” between the original text of the Fundamental Vow and Master Shandao’s interpretation. Master Shandao consistently replaces “who sincerely believe and rejoice, wish to be reborn in my land and think of me, even ten times” with “who recite my name ten times.” Does this mean that faith is unimportant in Pure Land Buddhism?
In reality, faith, aspiration, and practice are a single entity. Faith is the firm belief in “assured rebirth through the practice of Amitabha-recitation,” so if a Pure Land aspirant practices exclusive Name-recitation for assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss, he is regarded as having faith by dint of his practice.
To understand this concept better, we can draw an analogy of a doctor, his patient, and the medicine prescribed to cure a disease. Suppose a patient finds that he has a critical and fatal illness and asks a doctor to prescribe a medicine that can save his life. How can we know the patient entrusts himself to the doctor?
Just see whether he follows the instructions of the doctor and takes the prescribed medicine! If yes, he does; if not, he doesn’t. Whether or not the patient finds the doctor trustworthy is not judged on the basis of the patient’s words, but his actions.
If the patient takes the prescribed medicine, we know that he wishes to recover from the disease and entrusts himself to the doctor, even if he doesn’t say so, or knows little about the doctor and the medicine. Moreover, it should be noted that it is the act of taking the medicine that cures his disease, not his entrusting to the doctor.
“Namo Amituofo” is “Agada,” a medicine that can cure all diseases
Entrusting to a doctor is necessary only if the patient does not believe the prescribed medicine can cure his disease and refuses to take it. In the Pure Land school, faith must be emphasized for those who do not believe in Amitabha’s deliverance, and thus refuse to exclusively recite his name for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. But as long as an aspirant recites Amitabha’s name, with singleness of mind, for the duration of this life, their rebirth is assured—even though they lack knowledge and understanding of the teaching, or feel they have “doubts” about Amitabha Buddha.
In particular, those “patients” who follow Shakyamuni Buddha’s self-power teachings must also come to believe that their disease (the great matter of birth and death) is fatal and critical, such that ordinary self-power healing methods such as changing diet, physiotherapy, etc. (precepts, meditation, and wisdom) are not effective at all. They must surrender these methods and entrust themselves to the other-power treatment (Amitabha’s vow power of deliverance through his Name). This is the meaning of the Three States of Mind.
The great Name “Namo Amituofo” is the medicine known as “Agada” in Buddhism, which means ‘a medicine that can cure all diseases.’ Amitabha Buddha is an eminently qualified doctor who diagnoses the patients’ disease, and prescribes the medicine required. We are the patients who suffer heavily and unceasingly from karmic afflictions due to our greed, anger, and ignorance. But through the medicine of Amitabha’s name, we can be cured of our karmic afflictions and vexations and enter the city of Nirvana.