Different streams and different views
It is clear that there are different streams, traditions, sects, and schools in the Pure Land teaching, and all of them share a common goal—to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. But in terms of the main causes for rebirth, their views diverge. Here is a brief inventory of the various positions held among the various Pure Land streams:
1. Main cause is the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation, in accordance with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
2. Main causes are Amitabha-recitation and setting forth the Bodhi mind.
3. Main causes are Amitabha-recitation and the Three Meritorious Deeds.
4. Main causes are pure mind and aspiration, and Amitabha’s vow-power through Amitabha-recitation.
5. Main causes are Amitabha-recitation and holding precepts.
6. Main causes are the teaching of Earth Store Bodhisattva and Amitabha-recitation.
7. Main cause is faith, aspiration, and practice.
8. Main cause is diamond-like faith.
9. Main cause is earnest aspiration.
10. Main cause is genuine practice.
11. Main causes are Amitabha-recitation and meditation/contemplation.
12. Main cause is Amitabha-recitation according to the T’ien-tai school teaching.
13. Main causes are Amitabha-recitation, plus anything that the practitioner thinks to be appropriate.
Some practitioners consider Pure Land Buddhism to be a general teaching of the Mahayana that allows ordinary beings of inferior virtuous roots to make an initial connection with Buddhism. According to this line of thinking, Pure Land Buddhism is “entry-level” Buddhism and serves only to lead people to the “real” practice of Buddhism.
Other Buddhists believe that there is no Pure Land rebirth at all, because the Pure Land is actually one’s own “pure mind.” This interpretation, while consistent with the teaching of the Chan or esoteric schools of Buddhism, tends to confuse ordinary people and causes them to entertain doubts, or worse, leads them to believe they have a profound understanding of the Dharma.
The original intention of Dharmakara Bodhisattva to become a buddha
It should be noted that the Pure Land teaching was initiated by Dharmakara Bodhisattva (the former incarnation of Amitabha Buddha), who made compassionate vows to deliver all ordinary beings in the Ten Directions who wish to be reborn in his Buddha-land. In the 18th Vow, he declared that those who wish to be reborn can do so by reciting his Name, otherwise he will not attain Perfect Enlightenment and become a buddha. This is the main cause of rebirth, listed first in the above catalog of causes.
Dharmakara Bodhisattva is already a buddha called Amitabha, which means that his compassionate vows have already been fulfilled. He has the full capacity to bring to pass what he promises in his vows, including the 18th Vow. It says 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.
Practitioners who sincerely entrust themselves to Amitabha’s deliverance through the recitation of his Name are assured of attaining rebirth through the power of his 18th Vow, the Fundamental Vow. As long as we keep reciting Amitabha’s Name exclusively for the rest of our lives, Amitabha Buddha acknowledges and sustains our aspiration to be reborn with recourse to his vow power. Thus, there is no doubt that Amitabha Buddha truly delivers us through his Name of a myriad of virtues.
Likewise, the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation also signifies that our faith is true, sincere, and genuine. This is because we trust the Buddha’s wisdom enough to set aside all other practices in favor of exclusive recitation. Exclusive practice according to the 18th Vow means Amitabha’s promise to the practitioner is still in effect and the agreement between the practitioner and Amitabha Buddha is still valid. It is simple and easy.
An alternative way to attain rebirth rather than through Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name
Dharmakara Bodhisattva knew that the Pure Land teaching is difficult to believe and that many people would have doubts about Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name. Thus, he made his 19th Vow to accommodate those who would need to add something to the pristine teaching in order to aspire and practice for rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. This explains the list of additional causes (entries 2–13) noted above.
As stated in Amitabha’s 19th Vow, the compassionate Amitabha Buddha promises to receive them near the end of their life. However, he cannot assure them of attaining rebirth because it is conditional; it depends upon whether or not the practitioner sustained their mind of aspiration for enlightenment until the end when Amitabha Buddha comes to receive them. The 19th Vow states:
If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao teaches that the way of seeking rebirth through the 19th Vow is the “Path of Importance,” while the way of attaining rebirth through the 18th Vow is the “Path of Great Vow.” These categories clarify the larger picture of the Pure Land teaching.
It should be noted that either way is open to us. Amitabha Buddha is so compassionate that he welcomes all sentient beings in the Ten Directions to his Buddha-land. He will not reject anyone as long as they truly want rebirth.
The emphasis here is on the word “truly” (genuinely or sincerely). Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether practitioners of the 19th Vow can sustain their aspiration and practice without change until the end of life. As they rely mainly upon their own efforts in mixed practice (practices other than, or in addition to, the recitation of Amitabha’s Name), their rebirth is notassured.
To conclude, Master Shandao says at the end of the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra:
Though preceding passages spoke of the merits of the meditative and non-meditative virtues, the Buddha’s underlying wish is that sentient beings recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly [for rebirth].
Master Tanluan also remarks in his Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth:
There is no obstruction in Amitabha’s light [of deliverance]; the obstruction is on the side of sentient beings.