“Even 10 times” is not the minimum requirement to acquire rebirth
Amitabha’s 18th Vow is the most important among his 48 vows as a buddha. The Infinite Life Sutra expresses it as such:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who aspire to be born in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should they not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
This vow is generally called the “Vow of Rebirth by Ten Recitations.” However, Master Shandao of the Tang dynasty, the de facto founder of the Pure Land school, called it the “Vow of Rebirth through Amitabha-Recitation.” What is the difference between the two?
In the former case, aspirants who take the Pure Land teaching and Amitabha-recitation as a self-powered practice for cultivating merit and virtues, may say, “I have recited Namo Amituofo 10 times; may I be reborn in the Land of Bliss after I die?”
Those aspirants pay attention to the number 10 and regard “10 times” as the requirement for rebirth into Amitabha’s Pure Land. But if they knew that Amitabha-recitation is, in fact, the other-powered practice of deliverance through the merits and virtues bestowed by Amitbaha, they would not interpret “10 times” in this way.
One who recites “Namo Amituofo” is replete with “10 times” for rebirth
Shakyamuni Buddha explains the meaning of “10 times” in the passage on rebirth for those in the lowest level of the lowest tier in the Contemplation Sutra. He tells us that, upon hearing “Namo Amituofo,” the dying person sincerely and continuously recites “Namo Amituofo” and is thus replete with “10 times.”
Master Shandao further explains this passage in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra:
By reciting the Buddha’s Name ten times, he is replete with ten aspirations, and ten practices. Why is it? “Namo” means taking refuge. It has the meaning of aspiration and dedication as well. “Amitabha Buddha” means his practice. Due to these meanings, [the practitioner] will certainly be reborn.
What is meant by “Amitabha Buddha means his practice?” It means the merits and virtues required for rebirth are bestowed on the reciter through Amitabha’s Name, as Amitabha Buddha practices for sentient beings and dedicates his merit to those who recite his Name.
So “10” is not a number, but means “replete,” “sufficient,” and “perfect.” By sincerely and continuously reciting “Namo Amituofo,” a reciter is given the Buddha’s perfect merits and virtues, which are more than sufficient for him to attain rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land. From this, it should be clear that the Pure Land Path is the teaching of Amitabha’s equal and unconditional deliverance. It is different from all other teachings in the Sacred Path of Buddhism, which emphasize conditional self-powered practices in staged cultivation.
Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance is proactive, equal, and unconditional
Amitabha’s 18th Vow begins with: “If, when I attain Buddhahood” and ends with: “Should they not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” It signifies that Amitabha ties his accomplishment of perfect enlightenment with his capacity to enable all Amitabha-reciters to attain rebirth.
Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance is proactive, and the Pure Land teaching is an “uninvited” Dharma, meaning Shakyamuni Buddha spoke the sutras on Amitabha’s unconditional deliverance without first being asked a question. This is an irruption by the transcendent presence of the buddhas into the human cosmos. The proactive approach demonstrates that bestowing true benefits on sentient beings through the Pure Land Dharma was the reason for Shakyamuni’s appearance in the world.
The word “even” in the 18th Vow highlights Amitabha’s awesome power and unconditional compassion. As interpreted by Master Shandao, “even 10 times” means reciting Amitabha’s Name for as long as a lifetime, or as short as 10 times, even once, down to one thought at the end of one’s life.
One thought means the dying person has a thought of reciting Amitabha’s Name but is unable to speak because of their physical condition. Even under such circumstances, he can be reborn as indicated in the 18th Vow.
The word “even” reflects Amitabha’s awesome vow power and compassion
In the Contemplation Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha skilfully illustrates Amitabha’s 18th Vow and explains the meaning of “even 10 times” in the passage of rebirth for those in the lowest level of the lowest tier.
The Buddha says:
“When he is about to die, he may meet a good teacher, who consoles him in various ways, teaching him the wonderful Dharma and urging him to think of the Buddha in mind; but he is too tormented by pain to do so. The good teacher then advises him, ‘If you cannot concentrate on the Buddha, then you should recite instead, Namo Amituofo.’”
The Buddha understands that suffering beings are unable to think of the Buddha with a concentrated mind, so the Buddha recommends that they recite “Namo Amituofo,” which will naturally grant them the benefits of clearing away karmic offenses and attaining rebirth.
Actually, according to Amitabha’s 18th Vow, “even 10 times” is supposed to be thoughts in mind, not recitation by mouth. The Buddha deliberately urges the dying person to first concentrate on the Buddha mentally, then advises him to verbally recite the Buddha’s Name: “Namo Amituofo.”
Implications of the word “even” from the point of view of Amitabha’s deliverance
Even those who unknowingly recite Amitabha’s Name by mouth can be reborn, not to mention those who can think of Amitabha Buddha with a concentrated mind. Additionally, a dying person near the end of life can be reborn by reciting “Namo Amituofo” just a few times, not to mention those who can recite as many as they wish.
Similarly, even non-Buddhists without Bodhi Mind at the lowest level of the lowest tier can be reborn by reciting Namo Amituofo, not to mention Buddhists with the Bodhi Mind at the higher level of a higher tier. Lastly, even those who are heavy in karmic offenses can be reborn by reciting “Namo Amituofo,” not to mention those who have blessings, merits, and virtues from meditative and non-meditative practices.
To conclude, “even 10 times” is the correct mindset for practicing Amitabha-recitation to obtain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. It highlights that all sentient beings, without exception, can be reborn through recourse to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.
Related features from BDG
Master Shandao’s Explanation of Amitabha’s 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra
Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the King of Buddhas’ Fundamental Vows, Is Our Life
The Significance of Amitabha’s 17th Vow in the Pure Land Teaching