Many masters have attempted to explain the meaning of Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the most profound of his 48 vows and the soteriological bedrock of Pure Land Buddhism. Whose interpretation should we follow? Most masters discuss the 18th Vow based on the teaching of their own schools, so it is inevitable that their interpretations deviate to some degree from the guiding principles and characteristics of the pristine Pure Land School.
Based solely on the three Pure Land sutras and the teachings of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva in the “Chapter of the Easy Path,” Master Shandao, the de-facto founder of the Pure Land school, interprets the 18th Vow in accordance with the original intent of Amitabha, Shakyamuni, and all other buddhas.
Master Shandao was a remarkable and eminent Buddhist practitioner. He was the only patriarch in history who realized both the Samadhi of Buddha-Contemplation and the Samadhi of Buddha-Recitation. The emperor honored him with the posthumous name Monk of Light, since it is said that a beam of light shone from Master Shandao’s mouth with each name-recitation.
Master Shandao wrote the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. In the epilogue, he declared that his interpretation of the meaning of the Pure Land teachings was attested by all buddhas, and therefore definitive for all time. He is also generally accepted by Pure Land Buddhists to be the incarnation body (nirmanakaya) of Amitabha Buddha.
Master Shandao explained Amitabha’s 18th Vow in detail throughout his prolific writings. Following Nagarjuna Bodhisattva’s explanation, he identified the 18th Vow is Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, the lifeline of the Pure Land teaching.
In the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, he wrote:
Bhikhsu Dharmakara practiced along the Bodhisattva path at the time of Buddha Lokeshvararaja. He made 48 vows, and said in every single vow that,
“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who aspire to be born in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should they not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
Master Shandao was also the first who explicitly pointed out that the 18th Vow is the body of the 48 vows, the root source of the Pure Land teaching. All other 47 vows are known as Vows of Admiration.
What does the 18th Vow contain?
Basically, the Fundamental Vow contains three things: faith, Amitabha-recitation, and rebirth. “Sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me and desire to be born in my land” are faith; “call my Name, even 10 times” is Amitabha-recitation; and “should they not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” is rebirth.
Amitabha Buddha has already attained enlightenment and is a buddha at present. So, as long as we believe in Amitabha’s deliverance, aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and recite Amitabha’s Name, we are assured of attaining rebirth. It is utterly pure and simple.
“If, when I attain Buddhahood” includes the Buddha and sentient beings, who are presumed to be a single entity. Amitabha’s attainment of buddhahood is dependent on his ability to deliver all sentient beings who accept his compassionate offer of rebirth in his Land of Bliss.
“Sentient beings in the lands of the 10 directions” is interpreted as “all kinds of sentient beings” who genuinely arouse thoughts of dedication and aspiration can be reborn. Whether they are wise or slow-witted, good or evil, Buddhists or non-Buddhists, all can be reborn if they wish.
Sentient beings of the 10 directions include sacred beings and ordinary beings, all kinds of heavenly and human beings, flying and wiggling creatures, and all beings of the Six Realms, as stated in other translations of the Infinite Life Sutra.
The meaning of “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me”
“Sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me” is to “genuinely believe.” What should one believe? The text of the Fundamental Vow says: “If those who wish to be reborn in my land, and call my Name even 10 times should not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.”
The sincere mind is easy to understand in our teaching. It is the true mind. We truly believe the Land of Bliss exists without any doubt, truly aspire to be reborn there from the bottom of our heart. We exclusively recite “Namo Amituofo” with singleness of mind. This is known as the sincere mind.
We do not have the sincere mind if we say we aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land but follow other Buddhist teachings and practices. If we neglect Amitabha-recitation as specified in the 18th Vow, our aspiration to be reborn in the Land of Bliss is not yet genuine.
“Entrust” means to believe that rebirth is assured through the recitation of Amitabha’s Name. Master Shandao replaces “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me” with “recite my Name” in his explanation of the 18th Vow. This means that the exclusive recitation of the Name includes “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me” and “aspire to be reborn.” Master Shandao thereby explains that rebirth is assured by reciting as few as 10 times.
“Joyfully entrust” means to believe that both Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Bliss really exist and that it was built for us by Amitabha Buddha to be our home, our source, so that we can naturally return there. We are full of joy and confidence in our ability to return to our homeland. This is what “joyfully entrust” means. For a sincere Amitabha reciter, this sense of confidence eventually becomes innate. This is what faith means.
The meaning of “even ten times”
Master Shandao sees “even 10 times” as the recitation of Amitabha’s Name for one’s whole life. It could also be understood as for merely one or 10 recitations in order to attain assured rebirth.
For a person who does not come across this teaching in their present life, and only comes across it toward the end of their life, it is enough for them to recite once or 10 times before their last breath. Then they will be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Those of us who come across this teaching at the present time should exclusively recite “Namo Amituofo” throughout our entire life. As Amitabha has attained perfect enlightenment, “All those who wish to be reborn in my land, and call my Name even 10 times,” are assured of rebirth.
This principle is very clear. Pure Land Buddhists accept it as the natural truth revealed by Amitabha’s statement.
Related features from BDG
Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the King of Buddhas’ Fundamental Vows, Is Our Life
The Significance of Amitabha’s 17th Vow in the Pure Land Teaching
Why Are There Two Names Given to the Buddha in the Land of Bliss?