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Master Shandao’s Interpretation of Amitabha’s 20th Vow of Deliverance

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For those who consider Amitabha-recitation to be “planting roots of virtue”

Amitabha Buddha made the 19th Vow for those “who awaken aspiration for enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds, and desire to be born in his land.” However, there is another kind of sentient being who may have difficulty in believing and accepting Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through the 18th Vow. Amitabha Buddha made the 20th Vow for these practitioners.

The 20th Vow states:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who, having heard my Name, concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant roots of virtue, and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their aspiration, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

“Upon hearing Amitabha’s Name” corresponds to belief, and “concentrating their thoughts on Amitabha’s land” corresponds to aspiration. But why can Amitabha Buddha not assure those who rely on the 20th Vow for rebirth in the same way as those aspirants who recite Amitabha’s name according to the 18th Vow?

The problem is that those who practice according to the 20th Vow treat Amitabha-recitation as a “self-power” practice. They consider “planting roots of virtue” as the cause and attaining and accumulating merit as the effect. In this way, they dedicate these “self-generated” and thus “inferior” merits and virtues toward rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

The practice is “other-powered”, but the aptitude is “self-powered”

Those who rely on the 19th Vow feel the profound difficulty of practicing the Sacred Path in this world. Thus, they dedicate their virtue and a myriad of practices toward rebirth in the Pure Land.

They do this because other practices have their own individual causes and effects that have nothing to do with rebirth. If the merit and virtue from these practices are not dedicated, they cannot become causes of rebirth in the Pure Land. If they are dedicated, however, their practice is brought into compliance with the 19th Vow and becomes the cause for rebirth in the Pure Land.

But if an adherent of the 19th Vow wishes to exchange his practice of meditative and non-meditative virtue for Amitabha-recitation for rebirth, but does not change his mindset, then he has gone from the 19th Vow to the 20th Vow, not the 18th Vow.

Here, “mindset” means the Three States of Mind* as stipulated in the Contemplation Sutra. Former practitioners of the 19th Vow often persist in an attitude of “self-power” when engaging in the “other-powered” practice of Amitabha-recitation.

Thus, their form of practice, Amitabha-recitation, is “other-powered.” However, their state of mind is “self-powered.” They still seek rebirth by relying on their own merits and virtues, like practitioners of the 19th Vow, rather than the unsurpassed and “superior” merits and virtues bestowed by Amitabha.

If they understood the meaning of reciting Amitabha’s name “even 10 times” as stated in the 18th Vow, disregarded their own aptitude and capacities, and simply took Amitabha-recitation as the practice of assured rebirth through “other-power,” then they can be said to have transitioned from the 20th Vow to the 18th Vow.

Making karmic connection with Amitabha—a fish on a hook

Practitioners of the 18th Vow and the 20th Vow recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth. But their mindsets, temperaments, and attitudes are different. The former has no attachment to the mind of “self-power.”

Put plainly, the 18th Vow is a real and great vow, the 19th Vow is an expedient and unreal vow, and the 20th Vow is an expedient and real vow. They are known as the Three Vows of Deliverance for Rebirth. Moving one’s practice orientation from the 19th Vow to the 20th Vow, and from the 20th Vow to the 18th Vow is called the “Transference of the Three Vows.”

The 20th Vow is called “The Vow of attaining fruition in the three periods of time,” or “The Vow of assured rebirth through fixing the thought,” or “The Vow of cultivating various roots of virtue.”

Those who hear of the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s name and the splendor of the Land of Bliss, wish to be reborn through Amitabha-recitation. However, if their minds are not sincere, earnest, and thorough, they cannot be reborn at the end of this present life.

Although they are not ready, they have made a karmic connection. Thus, after several lifetimes, they will again have the chance to be reborn. Because of this karmic connection, they will not reincarnate for long within the Six Realms in the Saha world. Eventually, they will let Amitabha Buddha’s Vow Power carry them to the Land of Bliss.

It is similar to a fish caught on a hook. Although the fish is still in the water, it cannot escape and will be pulled ashore in the near future. So, to whoever makes a karmic connection, Amitabha Buddha says: “I will expedite your deliverance in two or three lifetimes and bring you to the Land of Bliss.”

Changing one’s mindset from self-power” to “other-power” for rebirth

Being drawn to learn this teaching in this lifetime is usually the result of our reliance on the 20th Vow in past lives. Master Shandao referred to the Infinite Life and Equal Enlightenment Sutras when he said:

He might have practiced this teaching in past lives, and as he listened to this teaching again in this life, he was delighted immediately.

This saying of Master Shandao helps us to dispel a common doubt. Some people question whether Amitabha-reciters can truly be reborn. After all, if a person has practiced Amitabha-recitation in a past lifetime, why were they not reborn in the Land of Bliss and are instead living as a human being in the Land of Saha?

Amitabha’s 20th Vow gives us the answer. The 19th Vow is used by the Buddha to induce practitioners on the Sacred Path to the Pure Land Path, while the 20th Vow is a vow that Amitabha Buddha uses to induce those practitioners who used to rely on “self-power” to accept his “other-power,” as stated in the 18th Vow. This entire process of “Transference of the Three Vows” may take several lifetimes according to the karma of the individual practitioner.

* The Three States of Mind are the Sincere Mind, the Deep Mind, and the Mind of Merit-Dedication and Rebirth Aspiration.

Related features from BDG

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

More from Teachings of Amitabha by Alan Kwan

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