Causes of rebirth in different realms
With regard to my previous article* discussing the cause of assured rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, many readers were surprised to learn that the answer is so simple—recitation of Amitabha’s name! To be fair, it was almost inevitable that some readers would be shocked. From the perspective of conventional Buddhist teachings, it is unbelievable and inconceivable. It seems to violate the law of cause and effect that one could attain such a transcendent, awe-inspiring result by merely reciting a Buddha’s name.
In Buddhism, according to the law of cause and effect, one wishing to be reborn as a human being must scrupulously observe the Five Precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants. If one wishes to be reborn as a celestial being, then one must practice the Ten Wholesome Deeds. For the sages who wish to attain the stages of Arhat or Prateyabuddha, they must practice the virtues of the Four Noble Truths and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, respectively.
In the Contemplation Sutra, Queen Vaidehi inquires how to be reborn in “a land of no sorrow and no affliction [effect].” In connection with this wish, she asks Shakyamuni Buddha to teach her “how to visualize a land of pure karmic perfection [cause].”
Later, Vaidehi chooses Amitabha’s Pure Land as her next destination of rebirth, and asks Shakyamuni Buddha to teach her “how to contemplate that land and attain samadhi.” Samadhi is the highest meditative state that a practitioner can achieve in her practice, and is supposed to represent the pinnacle of merit and virtue. Yet, if you ask Amitabha Buddha the cause of rebirth in his Land of Bliss—a truly meritorious and virtuous outcome—his answer is simply “recitation of my name!” How can this be?
Cause of Rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land—Recitation of Amitabha’s Name
In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha states in his explanation of rebirth of those at the highest level of the lower tier: “Reciting the name of [Amitabha] Buddha extinguishes the evil karma that the dying person has committed during 50 kotis of kalpas of samsara.”
In order to verify this statement, Shakyamuni Buddha further says, “[Amitabha] Buddha then sends his transformed body, and those of Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, to the aspirant. They praise him, saying, ‘Well done, man of good deeds! By reciting the Name of [Amitabha] Buddha, your evil karma has been extinguished, and so we have come to welcome you.’” In other words, this is a personal statement made by Amitabha Buddha!
In the paragraph explaining the rebirth of those at the lowest level of the lower tier, Shakyamuni Buddha repeats the same, urging us to understand and practice the cause of both the elimination of karmic offenses and assured rebirth: “Because he calls [Amitabha] Buddha’s Name, with each repetition, the evil karma which he has committed during eighty kotis of kalpas of samsara is extinguished. When he comes to die, he sees before him a golden lotus-flower like the disk of the sun, and in an instant he is born within a lotus-bud in the Land of Bliss.”
The conclusion of the Contemplation Sutra is that the cause of assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss is reciting Amitabha’s name—specifically “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” It is the one and only cause. Shakyamuni Buddha reiterates it twice, and Amitabha Buddha himself confirms it. This teaching is simple, clear and straightforward, and completely unambiguous.
It accords with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow of Deliverance
Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance through his Fundamental Vow. All sentient beings can be reborn in his land by reliance on his immense store of karmic merit. Simply put, aspirants should believe, accept, and follow what Amitabha asks them to do in his Vow. As Pure Land practitioners, we should not doubt these words spoken by the Buddhas in the Contemplation Sutra, or attempt to interpret them in ways which complicate their inherent simplicity.
Therefore, we should not add other causes of rebirth or make reference to unrelated sutras that do not address the question of rebirth in the Land of Bliss. We also should not mix in miscellaneous practices for rebirth, like practicing meditation, observing the precepts, abstaining from meat-eating, or taking the triple refuge. These have nothing to do with the Fundamental Vow and rebirth in the Land of Bliss, though we can feel free to practice them as ordinary human beings.
Transferring the self-powered merits of meditative or non-meditative practices (in aspiring to the Pure Land) will create “impurities” which pollute the merits and virtues contained in Amitabha’s name, thus causing our rebirth to become uncertain.
When Master Shandao concludes that the main practice of name-recitation is the principal karma of assured rebirth, he says, “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’s vow.”
The primary reason why recitation of “Namo Amitabha Buddha” is the cause of rebirth in the Pure Land is that it accords with Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow of Deliverance. It is the only karmic practice selected and specified by Amitabha Buddha in his 18th Vow. To clarify, let’s conclude by revisiting this important vow:
“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the Ten Quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call (or recite) my Name, even 10 times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
* The Cause of Assured Rebirth in the Land of Bliss, Part 1 (Buddhistdoor Global)