Is relying on the 19th Vow for rebirth in the Land of Bliss easy?
Some people say the Pure Land teaching is easy to practice, but others say it is very demanding to achieve rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. Why do Pure Land aspirants have different opinions about the Pure Land path?
Contrary to all other Buddhist teachings, Pure Land is said to be an Easy Path of Practice by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna in his writing The Chapter on Easy Practice. It is said to be “easy” because, in his explication of the teaching, Nagarjuna specifically refers to Amitabha’s 18th Vow. This is Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, and is first revealed in the Infinite Life Sutra spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha.
The 18th Vow was made by Dharmakara Bodhisattva (the former body of Amitabha Buddha) for those who “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves” to Amitabha’s vow-power, and “desire to be reborn in that land” through the practice of Amitabha-recitation – “even ten times.” So, the effect of this Vow hangs on Dharmakara’s attainment of Perfect Enlightenment: if he realizes Buddhahood, he will unfailingly receive and deliver those sentient beings who entrust themselves to him, wish for rebirth and recite his Name.
Clearly, “Namo Amitabha Buddha” is the Name of a fully enlightened Buddha, so Amitabha’s vows have been unequivocally fulfilled. Thus, the Pure Land path is “easy” because aspirants attain assured rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land through recourse to Amitabha’s 18th Vow. However, among Amiatabha’s 48 vows, the practice for rebirth is not confined to the easy practice of Amitabha-recitation specified in the 18th Vow. Pure Land aspirants can also rely on Amitabha’s 19th Vow for rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
As stated in the 19th Vow, the practice for rebirth is to “set forth the Bodhi Mind” and “cultivate various merit and virtues,” which are attained through meditative and non-meditative practices. If practitioners sincerely dedicate merit and aspire to be reborn in that land, Amitabha Buddha promises to welcome and receive them with a multitude of sages when they are close to death.
It should be noted that, for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, aspirants who practice according to the 19th Vow rely on their own determination in setting forth the Bodhi Mind and their own effort in cultivating various virtuous practices. They do not exclusively rely on Amitabha’s power of deliverance. Inevitably, they encounter their own shortcomings and karmic obstacles in the course of their practice—from the time they first arouse the wish to be reborn, to the moment Amitabha Buddha comes to receive them at the end of life.
Why is practice according to the 19th Vow more difficult and unreliable?
First of all, “various merit and virtues” refers to many different kinds of meditative and non-meditative practices, like practicing the Six Paramitas, the Five Precepts, or the Ten Wholesome Deeds, or meditating on the Four Noble Truths or Twelvefold Dependent Origination.
These are regarded to be basic practices for all Buddhists in their daily life. However, from the point of view of the pristine Pure Land teaching, Master Shandao says that, for the purpose of rebirth in the Pure Land, the “dedication of various merits and virtues” is considered to be “miscellaneous practice.” Such dedication is assorted, not single; mixed, not exclusive; and indirect, not the direct way to rebirth in the Pure Land.
Moreover, those who rely on their own power for rebirth (practice according to the 19th Vow) may retrogress in their Bodhi Mind, not properly hold the precepts, and not perform virtuous activities like charity with due diligence. Or, they may dedicate their merits and virtues (attained through various practices) for other purposes than rebirth in the Pure Land, and so on.
Even worse, these aspirants might consider their merit-dedication, rebirth-aspiration, and the quantity and quality of their merits and virtues attained through self-power practices to be “conditions” for rebirth. Thus, due to their karmic obstacles and natural imperfections, they may have lingering doubts about their ability to actually attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss, even up to the moment of death!
However, if those same practitioners can discern Amitabha’s great compassion, realize that they cannot truly set forth the Bodhi Mind, and understand that their “unreal” merits and virtues cannot be dedicated for rebirth in the “real” reward land of Amitabha Buddha, then they will come to believe and accept Amitabha’s 18th Vow and instantly attain assured rebirth through recourse to Amitabha’s vow-power.
Actually, the 18th Vow is made for delivering all sentient beings, regardless of their aptitude and capacity, and regardless of whether they are wise or slow-witted, rich or poor, monastic or householder. From the point of view of Amitabha Buddha, they are all the same. None have the capacity to exit the endless cycle of birth and death in the Saha world.
Whoever sincerely and joyfully entrusts to Amitabha’s deliverance through the exclusive practice of Name recitation “Namo Amitabha Buddha,” then Amitabha, in accord with his Fundamental Vow, will immediately embrace the aspirant and, when her life ends, receive her to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean that those aspirants who rely on the 18th Vow do not practice the basic Buddhist precepts in their daily life. They just do not dedicate such practices toward rebirth in the Land of Bliss. They clearly understand that, for rebirth in the Pure Land, they simply rely on Amitabha’s true merits and virtues which are contained in his six-syllable Name: “Na-Mo-A-Mi-Tuo-Fo.” Thus, the Name is perfect and all-sufficient. Nothing else is required.