The simple and easy teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance
Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned Nirvana. However, how can wise and ignorant, good and evil beings—even hell beings!—attain rebirth in such a pure and splendid Buddha-land simply through the practice of Amitabha-recitation?
According to the three Pure Land sutras spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha, any person who aspires to be reborn in the Land of Bliss and exclusively recites Amitabha’s Name is assured of rebirth. This is the promise made by Amitabha Buddha in his 18th Vow.
Amitabha Buddha says in his 18th Vow:
Sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be born in my land, and call on my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
The patriarch Shandao explains:
Today Amitabha is before us, having achieved Buddhahood. We should know that his Fundamental Vow has been unequivocally fulfilled. If sentient beings recite his name, they will certainly be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
“Sentient beings of the ten directions” refers to all sentient beings, including sages and mortals, good and evil people, celestial and human beings, those coming across the teaching during their lifetime, at the end of their lives—and even those in the transitional body (or bardo), the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, or the animal realm. Beings in these various states and conditions are all the targets of Amitabha’s compassionate deliverance.
Such a teaching is conceptually simple, easy to practice, but difficult to believe. It means that, upon hearing of Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through his Name, many people may experience uncertainty or doubt.
Doubts about Amitabha’s wisdom and compassion
Many Buddhists dispute or challenge Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through his Name and make excuses for refusing to believe and accept it. In the Infinite Life Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha summarizes their doubts in two main categories:
First, are doubts about Amitabha’s wisdom and the power of his Name (which is actually Amitabha Buddha himself). People doubt whether the Name, Namo Amitabha Buddha, truly enables all Amitabha-reciters to be instantly embraced, without being forsaken, by Amitabha Buddha in the form of light, as taught in the Contemplation Sutra.
They also doubt whether they can be assured of rebirth in Amitabha’s reward land, the unconditioned realm of nirvana, by exclusive practice of name-recitation with singleness of mind, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra.
Second, there is doubt of Amitabha’s Compassionate Mind. People doubt whether the merits and virtues contained in Amitabha’s Name will indeed pay off the heavy karmic debts owed by the Amitabha-reciters, accumulated over billions of eons, as outlined in the Contemplation Sutra.
They also doubt whether Amitabha’s inconceivable merit and virtues are equally given to all Pure Land aspirants who exclusively recite his Name, regardless of their aptitude and capacities.
Expedient vows of rebirth to accommodate those with doubts
The compassionate Amitabha Buddha knows well these circumstances. So Amitabha Buddha makes two other vows, namely the 19th Vow (for those with the first doubt) and the 20th Vow (for those with the second doubt). In this way, he seeks to accommodate these sentient beings so that they can proceed with practice in their own ways (rather than exclusive Amitabha-recitation), without giving up their aspiration to rebirth. For details on these vows, please refer to the Infinite Life Sutra.
Amitabha Buddha says in his 19th Vow:
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.
Amitabha Buddha says in his 20th Vow:
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.
“Birth in lotus bud” or “embryonic birth” for those with doubts
Shakyamuni Buddha also addresses those sentient beings who have doubts in Amitabha’s Name and follow the 19th Vow or 20th Vow for rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. In the passage about “rebirth in a lotus bud” in the Infinite Life Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha says:
Maitreya, if there are sentient beings who cultivate various meritorious virtues, aspiring for rebirth in that land while still entertaining doubt, such beings are unable to comprehend the Buddha-wisdom, inconceivable wisdom, ineffable wisdom, boundless Bodhisattva wisdom, and incomparable, unequaled, and unsurpassed supreme wisdom. Although they doubt these wisdoms, they still believe in retribution for evil offenses and blessed reward and keep cultivating and practicing the root of virtues and aspiring for rebirth in that land.
Such beings are born in a palace, where they dwell for five hundred years without being able to behold the Buddha, hear his exposition of the Dharma, or see the hosts of bodhisattvas and shravakas. For this reason, that type of birth in the Pure Land is called “embryonic state.”
The above concept is elaborated in the Contemplation Sutra later in the text of “rebirth for those ordinary beings of the nine levels in aptitude.” Having said that, we know that both Amitabha Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha have the same underlying wish: for rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, sentient beings should always exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name, as stated by Master Shandao in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.
Master Shandao also defines the “proper or main practice of name-recitation” as the “principal karma of assurance” for rebirth:
To recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly and without variation, whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, whether for long or short periods—that is the principal karma of assurance. It is so because it accords with Amitabha Buddha’s vow.