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The Lifeline of Pure Land Buddhism


The lifeline of Pure Land Buddhism is Amitabha’s 18th Vow

Pure Land Buddhism teaches us about deliverance through Amitabha. As stated by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Infinite Life Sutra, Amitabha Buddha made 48 vows to achieve Buddhahood and create the Land of Bliss, allowing all sentient beings in the Ten Directions to be reborn in his Pure Land. Here are the famous three-vow verses:

I have made vows, unrivaled in all the world;
I will certainly reach the unsurpassed Way.
If these vows should not be fulfilled,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.

If I should not become a great benefactor
In lives to come for immeasurable kalpas
To save the poor and the afflicted everywhere,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.

When I attain Buddhahood,
My Name shall be heard throughout the Ten Directions;
Should there be any place where it is not heard,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.

After five kalpas (or eons), Amitabha Buddha accomplished and fulfilled his 48 vows. This means that Amitabha Buddha has the full capacity to deliver all sentient beings living under any circumstance to be reborn in the Land of Bliss through the recitation of his name.

Rebirth in the Land of Bliss is the sole objective of Pure Land practitioners. But among the 48 vows, there is only one vow—the 18th—that is related to direct rebirth in the Land of Bliss. In this vow, Amitabha Buddha makes his achievement of Buddhahood contingent upon his ability to bring about the rebirth of sentient beings in his Pure Land, so Amitabha’s 18th Vow is regarded as the Fundamental Vow. This vow is also the lifeline of Pure Land Buddhism because all the other vows are empty if sentient beings cannot be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Had this vow not been fulfilled, there would be no Pure Land Buddhism.

Nagarjuna’s explication of the 18th Vow inaugurates the Pure Land school of Buddhism

The bodhisattva Nagarjuna emphasizes this core teaching of Pure Land Buddhism, saying in Chapter on the Easy Path, “Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow is as follows: If anyone invokes me, recites my name, and takes Refuge in me, he will instantly enter the state of assurance [non-retrogression], and subsequently attain the highest perfect enlightenment. For that reason, you should always be mindful of him.”

Patriarchs propagate the lifeline of Pure Land Buddhism

Master Tanluan (476–542), one of Pure Land Buddhism’s most remarkable pioneers and patriarchs, emphasizes the lifeline of Pure Land teachings by explaining how practitioners can expedite their attainment of Buddhahood in the Land of Bliss through his explication of the following three vows:

As per the 18th Vow, the practitioner will be reborn in the Land of Bliss through recitation of Amitabha’s name and will no longer suffer rebirth within the Six Realms. Overcoming this difficult hurdle is what enables ordinary beings to enter the stream of sagely beings. It also represents Shakyamuni Buddha’s original intent in teaching us and urging us to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss because it is the first milestone towards Buddhahood.

As per the 11th Vow, all inhabitants of the Land of Bliss must dwell in a state of non-retrogression, a hurdle all bodhisattvas must clear to ensure they attain Buddhahood and do not fall back into lower states of existence. This is the second milestone towards Buddhahood.

As per the 22nd Vow, to attain Buddhahood in the Land of Bliss all the inhabitants must follow the instructions of Amitabha Buddha in making offerings to the countless Buddhas of the Ten Directions so that they may accumulate sufficient merit and virtue to enable all sentient beings in the multitude of other worlds in the future to become Buddhas-to-be, one lifetime removed from Buddhahood, in the Land of Bliss. This is the third milestone towards Buddhahood.

Master Tanluan concludes that all of this results from the power of Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.

The lineage of pristine Pure Land Buddhism

What should ordinary beings do to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss? In order to have a better understanding of the answer to this question, it should be rephrased: How can Amitabha Buddha deliver ordinary beings to enable them to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss? As Pure Land Buddhism is a teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance, it was Amitabha’s own initiative to make vows to deliver us. He simply advises us to recite his name exclusively in order to attain rebirth in his land, in accordance with his Fundamental Vow. How many people believe this is possible? Very few! In the Infinite Life Sutra, it says, “Ascending to the unsurpassed Way [in the Pure Land]; though it is easy to reach, very few actually go there.”

With this sutra-based and commentary-based evidence and the words spoken by the Buddha and the sages (i.e., “testimony worthy of confidence”), why do so few people believe that one is assured of rebirth in the Land of Bliss and can even attain perfect enlightenment and Buddhahood by the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation? People may offer more than a thousand reasons for not believing it. In general, however, they simply lack sufficient knowledge of the inconceivable Buddha-power and the compassionate Buddha-mind, as indicated by Master Tanluan in his Commentary on the Shastra of Rebirth.

It is also generally taught that people have unequal stores of virtue, also known as roots of virtue, inherited from past lives, which manifest as different karmic circumstances in their present lives. This is the reason why some believe deeply and others do not. Some may wish to believe but still harbor doubts. Indeed, some beings with meager stores of virtue may even think that they are wiser than the sages and declare that Pure Land Buddhism expects practitioners to blame themselves for the failure of the teachings. However, it is a matter of fact that if we cannot transform mere “belief” into “faith” in Amitabha by realizing the Three States of Mind,* it will be very difficult for us to follow the lifeline of Pure Land Buddhism and to practice this most difficult-to-believe of all Buddhist teachings.

* The Three States of Mind:

1. The Sincere Mind
2. The Deep Mind
3. The Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration (Mind of Dedication-aspiration)

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