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Master Shandao’s Interpretation of Amitabha’s 19th Vow of Deliverance


Amitabha’s 19th Vow: for aspirants who practice the bodhisattva teachings (mixed practices)

Amitabha’s 19th Vow states as follows:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions, 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 sacred beings, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

Besides the 18th Vow of deliverance for all sentient beings, Amitabha Buddha makes the 19th Vow, particularly for those “who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and desire to be born in his land.” These practitioners have difficulty believing and accepting Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance of rebirth through the 18th Vow.

Why is this so? Such practitioners follow Shakyamuni’s 84,000 teachings of the bodhisattva path. With their “self-power,” they cultivate meditative and non-meditative virtues in the pursuit of buddhahood. Because of this, it is not easy for them to believe and accept Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through the “other-power” practice of Amitabha-recitation for Pure Land rebirth.

The 19th Vow is not directly related to Amitabha Buddha’s fundamental intent of becoming a Buddha in his causal ground.  This is because practicing “various merits and virtues” refers to cultivations such as the Six Paramitas, the Five Precepts, the Ten Wholesome Deeds, the Four Noble Truths, and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, and so on.

For those trying to walk the bodhisattva path, practicing these and other merits and virtues in precepts, meditation, and wisdom, and cultivating the bodhi-mind according to their own circumstances is supposed to be the basic pattern of Buddhist cultivation. But this does not accord with Amitabha’s fundamental intent. Thus, Amitabha Buddha merely promises to appear and receive such practitioners near the end of life if they wish to be reborn, provided that they dedicate their own merit and virtues.

From the point of view of Amitabha’s Pure Land teaching of deliverance, rebirth through dedication of one’s own miscellaneous merit and virtues is considered “mixed practice,” as defined by Master Shandao. This is because such merits and virtues are scattered and assorted, not pristine and exclusive.         

Amitabha’s 19th Vow: attaining rebirth through merit-dedication and rebirth-aspiration

Not everyone can deeply believe and sincerely accept Amitabha’s 18th Vow, so Amitabha Buddha makes the 19th Vow and tells them: “As long as you can dedicate all your merits and virtues for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, I promise to appear before you, welcome and receive you when your life comes to an end.”

Amitabha does this because the cultivation of the bodhi-mind and various merits and virtues cannot serve as the cause for rebirth in the splendid Land of Bliss, the Reward Land of Amitabha Buddha, by itself. However, Amitabha Buddha wishes to receive these practitioners through his 19th Vow. In this way, they can dedicate their merit and virtues and be received by Amitabha Buddha for rebirth.

When Master Shandao introduces the Five Kinds of Primary Practices, he says: “though they can be reborn” for those aspirants who dedicate their own merit through miscellaneous practices in meditative and non-meditative virtues. It means those aspirants can be reborn, but their rebirth is not assured. It depends on their spiritual disposition at the end of their lives.

Five kinds of shortcomings in attaining rebirth through Amitabha’s 19th Vow

Master Shandao identifies the five exclusive practices as:

1) Reading and reciting the three Pure Land sutras
2) Mentally observing Amitabha and his Land of Bliss
3) Prostrating to Amitabha
4) Reciting Amitabha’s name
5) Making offerings and praising Amitabha and his Land of Bliss

These are the Five Primary Practices for assured rebirth.

All other practices in aspiration for rebirth in the Land of Bliss are regarded as “mixed practices.” Master Shandao further says: “If one performs the mixed practices, one’s mind is constantly partitioned and interrupted. Even though one may transfer or dedicate the merit of such practices for attaining birth, these are known as distant, mixed practices.”

This means that one encounters five shortcomings in relying on mixed practices for rebirth. These are:

1) Partitioned practice (versus inseparable)
2) Interrupted practice (versus intimate)
3) Dedication (versus no dedication)
4) Distant (versus close)
5) Mixed (versus exclusive)

Thus, such practitioners cannot develop an intimate, close, and augmentative relationship with Amitabha Buddha.

Amitabha’s 19th Vow: to attract and guide them to the path of Amitabha’s 18th Vow

When we compare the 18th Vow and the 19th Vow, it becomes evident that the 18th Vow is made at the discretion of Amitabha Buddha himself, while the 19th Vow is made for the sake of people who practice and aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land at their own discretion.

Amitabha’s 19th Vow is different from the 18th. First, the 19th Vow does not mention exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s name. Secondly, it does not mention “should they not be born, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”

The 18th Vow focuses on exclusivity: exclusively recite Namo Amituofo, exclusively rely on one Buddha, Amitabha. At the same time, Amitabha ties himself to Amitabha-reciters as he vows: “If they should not be born there, may I not attain Perfect Enlightenment.” Rebirth of an Amitabha-reciter implies the attainment of the perfect Enlightenment of Amitabha Buddha, and vice versa.

Amitabha’s underlying wish is to guide practitioners of the 19th vow to the path of Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the Fundamental Vow of Deliverance—to attain assured rebirth in the present lifetime through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. This is made clear in the Contemplation Sutra when Shakyamuni Buddha advises his followers to set forth the Three States of Mind (total reliance on the Buddha-power for rebirth).

Three States of Mind is the turning point from the 19th Vow to the 18th Vow

The Three States of Mind are: the Sincere Mind, the Deep Mind, and the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth-Aspiration. If practitioners fail to turn toward the 18th vow at this critical point, they will continue to dedicate various merits and virtues for rebirth. Then Amitabha Buddha will appear to receive them as promised in the 19th Vow.

The main reason why Amitabha becomes a buddha is to accomplish the 18th Vow, so that all sentient beings who genuinely wish to be reborn in his Buddha-land can exclusively recite his name. However, Amitabha Buddha made the 19th Vow to give those followers of Shakyamuni’s bodhisattva teachings a chance to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.

Without Amitabha’s merit and virtues that we attain through exclusive name-recitation, or without Amitabha receiving aspirants upon their genuine acceptance of his offer of deliverance, none can be reborn. Amitabha Buddha and an Amitabha-reciter are interdependent and inseparable from one another. They form a single body that cannot be sundered by any force in the vastness of the Dharma realm.

Related features from BDG

Comparing Amitabha’s Three Vows of Deliverance: The 18th, the 19th, and 20th Vows
Can a Pure Land Practitioner Attain Assured Rebirth with Doubts in Amitabha’s 18th Vow?
Sincerity in Faith and Earnest Aspiration in the Pure Land Teaching

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