Upon hearing Amitabha’s 18th Vow and his Name, some people feel joyful, but others do not
Among his 48 causal vows, Amitabha’s 18th Vow is known as the Fundamental Vow. It is stated in the Infinite Life Sutra as follows:
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.
Upon reading the Vow, many Buddhists tend to emphasize faith, aspiration, practice, and the word “sincerely.” However, they often don’t pay much attention to the word “joyfully,” which also bears a significant meaning too. It is actually an indicator of whether or not a person has sincere faith in Amitabha’s 18th Vow.
Those Buddhists who believe that faith, aspiration, and practice must be self-generated by the aspirant are probably not joyful. In addition to clearing their own karmic offenses from past lives in order to leave the Land of Saha, they must make tremendous effort to attain the “credentials” necessary for rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss.
Some Pure Land practitioners who are used to following Amitabha’s 19th Vow for rebirth consider Amitabha-recitation to be one of many “self-powered” bodhisattva practices that can be cultivated according to the inclinations of practitioners. Such cultivation is for the accumulation and dedication of the required merit and virtues for rebirth in the Pure Land. But given the weight and import of the task, how can these persons be joyful upon hearing the 18th Vow?
Others consider Amitabha-recitation to be the preferred method for clearing their karmic offenses before developing an aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land. But given the impossibility of the task for an ordinary being, how can such persons be joyful upon hearing the 18th Vow?
In short, only those Buddhists (and non-Buddhists as well) who, upon hearing Amitabha’s 18th Vow and his Name, entrust themselves to Amitabha’s deliverance and who attain the assurance of rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss through exclusive Amitabha-recitation are joyful, because they know that Amitabha Buddha has assumed total responsibility for their rebirth in his Pure Land. This includes paying off their heavy karmic debts in every recitation of Amitabha’s Name.
It is joyful to travel by ship, as stated by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva
Nagarjuna Bodhisattva correctly interpreted Amitabha’s Vow, grasping its very essence. He said that Pure Land practitioners should have faith in Amitabha’s deliverance as an expedient means. This is similar to traveling by ship, so it is easy and joyful. Conversely, the conventional bodhisattva teachings can be compared to traveling on foot, which is difficult and painful!
In his “Chapter on the Easy Path,” Nagarjuna divides Shakyamuni Buddha’s bodhisattva teachings into two categories. One is known as the Easy Path (which is like traveling by ship), and the other is the Difficult Path (which is like traveling on foot). Not only is the latter painstaking, it takes many lifetimes of practice and is thus difficult to sustain.
The Easy Path, on the other hand, is characterized by joyfulness. This is because only the single practice of Amitabha-recitation is required for a practitioner to attain immediate results and true benefit—assured rebirth in Amitabha’s Buddha-land through recourse to Amitabha’s Vow Power.
“Joyfully” signifies the “other-power” teaching of deliverance
“Joyfully” is the keyword in the Fundamental Vow because it signifies the crucial turning point, particularly for Buddhist practitioners, through which they attain Amitabha’s merit and virtues necessary for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land. How are these merits and virtues attained?
Simply put, the practitioner who follows the Path of Great Vow accepts the merit and virtues for rebirth inherent in the “other-power” practice of reciting Amitabha’s Name, as stated in Amitabha’s 18th Vow. This is instead of attempting to accumulate them through “self-power” practices, such as precepts, meditation, and wisdom, as stated in Amitabha’s 19th Vow. The latter follows the Path of Importance, as said by Master Shandao, the de facto founder of the Pure Land School.
In the Contemplation Sutra, with the aid of the awesome power of Shakyamuni Buddha, Queen Vaidehi could see the Land of Bliss as clearly as if she were looking at her own reflection in a mirror. Upon seeing the utmost splendor of that land, she rejoiced and immediately attained the “insight into the non-arising of all Dharmas.”
One of the implications of “insight into the non-arising of all Dharmas” is “firmness.” Master Shandao explained it as “the firmness of enlightenment,” also “the firmness of joy,” and “the firmness of faith.” Vaidehi finally understood that she could rely on “other-power” rather than on “self-power” for rebirth in the Pure Land. Through joyfully trusting the Buddha’s power, one attains firm in faith in Amitabha’s deliverance.
All Buddhist practitioners must make a 180-degree turn from self-power (the 19th Vow or the Path of Importance) to other-power (the 18th Vow or the Path of the Great Vow) in order to sincerely and joyfully aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss through the sole practice of Amitabha-recitation.
An Amitabha-reciter is the most fortunate and joyful person in the world
A Buddhist aspirant is not “joyful” if he has doubts and worries about Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow Power, such as that Amitabha’s merit and virtues cannot pay off his karmic debts, or that Amitabha-recitation alone is not sufficient for him to attain rebirth. In such cases, the practitioner tends to take up miscellaneous practices to attain rebirth, rather than the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation.
If a person almost falls into hell amid the rough sea of suffering (birth-and-birth) near the end of life, and is suddenly rescued by Captain Amitabha of the ship called the Great Vow, isn’t he joyful? Definitely!
We should contemplate this scenario as this reflects our actual situation. When we understand how difficult it is for us to escape unfortunate rebirths through our own efforts, we will be much more grateful to hear Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through his Great Vow.
An Amitabha-reciter is the most joyful person in the world, because he is always embraced and accompanied by Amitabha Buddha.