The Infinite Life Sutra Spoken by the Buddha
The Infinite Life Sutra is the most important and fundamental sutra in the Pure Land School. The main theme of this Sutra and its main points are listed in the Five Texts of the Great Sutra (The Infinite Life Sutra is also known as the Great Sutra. It refers to the five texts in the Great Sutra). If we can manage and understand them thoroughly, it can be said that we have managed to understand the entire Sutra – the Infinite Life Sutra.
The first text is about the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth in the world:
As the Tathagata, I regard beings of the three worlds with boundless great compassion. The reason for my appearance in the world is to reveal teachings of the Way and save multitudes of beings by endowing them with true benefits.
The infinite Life Sutra mainly talks about Amitabha Buddha’s 48 great vows. Referring to this passage, we know that, before Shakyamuni Buddha expounds the 48 great vows, he expresses his purpose of being born in the world is to talk about the 48 great vows stated in the Sutra.
The second text is the 18th Vow – a vow of rebirth through Amitabha-recitation, as follows:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who earnestly believe and rejoice, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.
The third text is about the fulfilment of the 18th Vow, as follows:
All sentient beings who, having heard his Name, rejoice in faith, remember him even once and sincerely transfer the merit of virtuous practices to that land, aspiring to be born there, will attain birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. But excluded are those who have committed the five gravest offenses and abused the right Dharma."
It explains the 18th Vow.
The fourth text is the text about instruction and dissemination, as follows:
If there are people who hear the Name of that Buddha, rejoice so greatly as to dance, and remember him even once, then you should know that they have gained great benefit by receiving the unsurpassed virtue.
Shakyamuni Buddha asks Maitreya Bodhisattva reminding him to disseminate the teaching of rebirth through Amitabha-recitation for thousands of years, passing this passage on and on forever.
The fifth text is about preserving this Sutra in the world, as follows:
In the future, the Buddhist scriptures and teachings will perish. But, out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this Sutra and maintain it in the world for hundreds of years. Those beings who encounter it can be delivered at their own discretion and wish.
These five texts in the Infinite Life Sutra serve as the five columns supporting the entire teaching of the Infinite Life Sutra. Among them, the most fundamental and the most important core teaching is the 18th Vow. If there is no 18th Vow, there will be no Land of Bliss, no Amitabha Buddha and no deliverance and no rebirth. In a nutshell, the expansion of the five texts is originated from the 18th Vow.
For the rationale of these five passages, though we may not understand thoroughly, we know the main theme of the Sutra if we manage the 18th Vow. It is because there is only one purpose for the Buddha – rebirth through Amitabha-recitation as stated in the 18th Vow.
As stated in the Infinite Life Sutra, it says in the 17th Vow –
If, when I attain Buddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the land of the ten quarters should not all praise and glorify my Name, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Why does Amitabha Buddha allow the buddhas of the ten directions to praise and glorify him? Amitabha’s compassionate vow is unfathomable and boundless, so he vows to deliver all sentient beings of the ten directions. Because of this, Amitabha Buddha must motivate all buddhas of the ten direction in the great cosmos to praise, glorify and disseminate Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through the 18th Vow, and allow this great message of enlightenment voiced out in the ten directions, and the six-character name, sound of the Pure Land , can be heard throughout the entire cosmos.
The main theme of the Infinite Life Sutra is:
Based on Amitabha’s 17th Vow, Shakyamuni Buddha appears in the world with his compassionate vows so as to preach Amitabha’s 18th Vow that can deliver sentient beings of the ten directions, and to let us know this one Amitabha Buddha. This appearance of this Buddha [Amitabha] is because of delivering sentient beings of the ten directions.
Before countless eons ago, because of delivering sentient beings of the ten directions, Amitabha Buddha (previously called Bodhisattva Dharmakara), without being asked and invited, has proactively taken five eons to meditate so as make the 48 great vows for us.
Why is it necessary for Amitabha Buddha to take so long time to meditate so as to make the 48 great vows? It is because Amitabha’s vows are very vast and great, so it needs more time to perceive and think, not just to facilitate the monastic, and also the householders to attain rebirth equally, not just to facilitate the good people to attain rebirth, but also the evil people to attain rebirth equally, and not just to facilitate the human beings, but also the beings in Avici hells to attain rebirth equally. So, he needs long time to consider and think in full details.
Amitabha Buddha allows the monastic to attain the fruition of immeasurable light and infinite life there [in the Land of Bliss], and also allows the householders to attain the same as the monastic.
He allows the good people to attain the fruition of immeasurable light and infinite life there [in the Land of Bliss], and also allows those who commit many offenses under evil karmic circumstances to attain the same as the good people, even for those beings in the realm of animals, hungry ghosts and hell. Once they are reborn in the Land of Bliss, they will attain the same fruition of immeasurable light and the infinite life as those pure practitioners equally.
It is called “Buddha’s mind is equality.” It means [Amitabha Buddha] must take extraordinarily long time to consider and perceive, in his best endeavor, so that he is capable of delivering sentient beings equally, and rendering sentient beings to realize the fruition of Buddhahood equally.
Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow is the 18th of his forty-eight great vows. In addition, there are two other passages related to the 18th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra. As a unit, they are referred to as ‘the Three Important Passages of the Great Sutra.’ Those who learn this teaching should memorize these three passages by heart, then they can recite them at will.
The first important passage is the 18th Vow in 36 Chinese characters:
“If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who earnestly believe and rejoice, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.”
The second important passage is the fulfillment section of 18th Vow (in 40 Chinese characters):
“All sentient beings who, having heard his Name, rejoice in faith, remember him even once, and sincerely transfer the merit of virtuous practices to that land, aspiring to be born there, will attain immediate birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. Excluded are those who have committed the five gravest offenses and abused the right Dharma.” The words and connotations of the 18th Vow and its fulfillment text are closely interrelated. The 18th Vow says – “should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment”, while the fulfillment text of the 18th Vow says – “will attain immediate birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression”.
“Will attain immediate birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression” reveals two characteristics of our school— assured rebirth and non-retrogression in this lifetime. It also indicates that our teachings are the most ‘round’ and ‘sudden’ among all round and sudden teachings in Buddhism. As said by Master Ouyi, “it is the foremost in expediency, unsurpassed in ultimate meaning, the most ‘round’ and ‘sudden’ among all round and sudden teachings.”
With respect to the merits and virtues of Amitabha-recitation, by comparing and contrasting the “ten times” mentioned in the 18th Vow, also the “one time’ in the fulfillment text of the 18th Vow, and the “awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds” in the 19th Vow, what do we think? The conclusion lies on the third paragraph – instruction given to Bodhisattva Maitreya:
If there are people who hear the Name of that Buddha, rejoice greatly as to dance, and remember him even once, then you should know that they have gained great benefit by receiving the unsurpassed virtue.
The Buddha instructs Bodhisattva Maitreya to maintain and propagate Amitabha’s 18th Vow and the teaching of rebirth through Amitabha-recitation forever.
Referring to the three paragraphs in the Infinite Life Sutra, in terms of words, as well as the meaning, it is very strict and consistent. By comparing and contrasting, we know the close and tight relationship between the three paragraphs. They are so consistent all the way through, that it leads us to understand the main theme of the Infinite Life Sutra is the 18th Vow - the vow about rebirth through Amitabha-recitation.
The Infinite Life Sutra mainly reveals the cause and effect of Amitabha’s deliverance of sentient beings, and emphasizes the merits and virtues of exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name.
The merit and virtues of exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name are vast. Whether you are a monastic or householder, a practitioner or not, you can exclusively recite this Name (Namo Amitabha Buddha). In so doing, you will be liberated from reincarnation within the Three Domains and the Six Realms, attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and expedite the achievement of Buddhahood. However, it is very difficult for sentient beings to believe. As it is difficult to believe, Shakyamuni Buddha gave special instructions to Maitreya Bodhisattva. Why did he choose Maitreya? It is because he is a Bodhisattva of Equal Enlightenment, who will succeed Shakyamuni Buddha as the Buddha of the Saha World. (to preach and deliver sentient beings there)
In the Chapter on Dissemination, there are four main points in the transmission given by Shakyamuni Buddha to Maitreya Bodhisattva:
- One will attain great benefit with sufficient unsurpassed merits and virtues by merely reciting Namo Amitabha Buddha.
- No matter how much in pain we are, we must strive to hear this teaching. The merit and virtues received are so great, it would be worth it even if we had to jump over a sea on fire. Many Bodhisattvas have no opportunity to hear it. If someone can hear this teaching, he will not retrogress, and will be assured of becoming a Buddha.
- When one Buddha enters Nirvana and the next Buddha has not yet descend for birth; in order to keep this teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance alive in the universe, we have to propagate this teaching forever.
- It is extremely difficult matter for a person who can hear this teaching, and can further believe it.
With respect to the whole era of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, there are two sutras mention about his original intent. As we all know, one is the Lotus Sutra. It says, “Because of a great causal condition, the Buddha gives birth in this world.” Following this statement, Shakyamuni Buddha’s original intent as stated in the Lotus Sutra is: “to open, to show, to inspire, and to enter”, so that those in the Three Vehicles - Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas can return to One Buddha Vehicle. It is known as “guiding three to return one” – to guide those in the Three Vehicles to return to One Vehicle. It is the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth in the world.
The other sutra spoken about the original intent is the Infinite Life Sutra.
However, comparing the two sutras, which is the original intent out of all original intents? It is the Infinite Life Sutra.
It is because those guided in the Lotus Sutra are Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Three Vehicles. These are the sages, already realized in fruition, but they are minority. For the Infinite Life Sutra, sentient beings to be delivered are not confined to the Three Vehicles, but all in the Five Vehicles – apart from Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas, it includes the human vehicle and the heaven vehicle. It means sentient beings in the realm of human and heaven, so it is known as “equal entry for the Five Vehicles”.
As it is “equal entry for the Five Vehicles”, it is true to be “sentient beings of the ten directions” as stated in the 18th Vow.
For the Lotus Sutra, it only guides the beings in the Three Vehicles to the Buddhahood, but for the Infinite Life Sutras, beings of the Five Vehicles are delivered, and all of them can equally realize and achieve Buddhahood together, which is the same as Amitabha’s infinite light and infinite life as stated in Amitabha’s 48 vows. With respect to the true original intent, the Infinite Life Sutra reveals the original intent out of all original intents of the Buddha.
What is the core teaching of the Great (Infinite Life) Sutra? It is the 18th Vow. The 18th Vow is called the Primal Vow, or the Fundamental Vow. Shakyamuni Buddha explained the 18th Vow in the text on “fulfillment of the 18th Vow”.
What is the 18th Vow about? It’s about “faith, aspiration and practice”; but, its essence is “to practice even ten times”.
“Even ten times” refers to Amitabha-recitation, which is the conclusive statement made by Master Shandao – “always exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name. For assured rebirth, those practitioners in the present life should recite for their entire life and those near the end-of-life should recite even ten times, or as few as once.” So, “ten times” refers to Amitabha-recitation. It is, of course, a symbolic phrase with an inclusive meaning, not confined to ten times.
What does the Fundamental Vow talk about? It talks about “Name-recitation”, which is unique. Actually, the entire Infinite Life Sutra talks about Name-recitation. There are two fascicles in the Infinite Life Sutra. The first fascicle talks about how Dharmakara makes vows and pursues his practices to become Amitabha Buddha. Among Dharmakara’s 48 Vows, the 18th is considered the Fundamental Vow. The 18th Vow talks about Name-recitation. So, doesn’t it mean that the core teaching of the first fascicle is Name- recitation? The second fascicle explains the retributive rewards of Dharmakara after he becomes Amitabha Buddha. It also explains how sentient beings can be reborn, and how they can become Buddhas.
The first fascicle talks about the cause and effects of Dharmakara becoming Amitabha Buddha. The second fascicle talks about the cause and effect of sentient beings being reborn. It means “the cause of rebirth permeates the sea of rewards, and the effect of those rewards penetrates to the origins of our Suffering.” Thus, Master Shandao says, “The 48 vows in the Infinite Life Sutra, simply explain rebirth through exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name.”
In learning about Amitabha’s particular vows, we usually refer to the 48 vows according to the Infinite Life Sutra. However, there are five different versions in translating the same sutra, as well as the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions. The number of vows may also vary, possibly 24, 36, 48 or 49 in different versions. Nevertheless, referring to different versions in translation, the number of particular vows is not the same, due to “expansion” and “consolidation.” It means it can be expanded to 48 vows or consolidated to 24 vows. Usually, the 48 vows stated in the Infinite Life Sutra is the most appropriate and proper one.
Among the seven different versions of the Infinite Life Sutra, except the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions, the most popular version in China, Korea, and Japan is the one translated by Samghavarman. Master Shandao specifies this version to be the one for the fundamental and principal sutras of the Pure Land School. So, nowadays, when we speak of Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, it refers to the 18th Vow of Amitabha’s 48 vows, as stated in the Infinite Life Sutra.
Amitabha’s 48 vows are generally divided into three groups - “the three accomplishments in 48 vows”:
- Accomplishment of Pure Land – to accomplish the pure and splendid Land of Bliss, to accommodate sentient beings of the ten directions, and facilitate their achieving Buddhahood.
- Accomplishment of rebirth – to accomplish the essentials of merits and virtues for assured rebirth of sentient beings of the ten directions.
- Accomplishment of the Buddha body – as the merits and virtues for rebirth of sentient beings are accomplished, Namo Amituofo, the king of all Buddhas and the noblest light, is naturally accomplished. Namo Amituofo has substantial power to deliver sentient beings of the ten directions to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and expedite the achievement of Buddhahood.
The 48 vows can be divided into three categories:
- Vows related to the Dharma body – also called vows to pursue the Buddha body. These are the vows made by Dharmakara Bodhisattva in selecting the splendors of his Buddha body at the time of becoming a Buddha. According to the Pure Land teaching, this Dharma body is not an ordinary Threefold Buddha body –Dharmakāya, Saṃbhogakāya, Nirmāṇakāya; but is a Buddha body which contains “the accomplishment of all of his merits and virtues.” Among the 48 vows, the 12th Vow (Vow of Infinite Light), the 13th Vow (Vow of Infinite Life) and the 17th Vow (Vow of the Praise by all Buddhas) are the teachings of his merits and virtues.
- Vows related to the Pure Land – also called vows to pursue the Pure Land. These are the vows made by Dharmakara Bodhisattva, who selected all of the splendors of his Pure Land and to make his Pure Land better than all other Buddhalands (when he becomes a Buddha). These are the 31st Vow (Vow to create the Pure Land) and the 32nd Vow (Vow regarding the Adornments of the Pure Land).
- Vows related to sentient beings – also called vows for benefitting sentient beings. These are the vows about benefitting and delivering sentient beings of the ten directions. These are the remaining 43 vows.
There are 48 vows made by Amitabha Buddha. If the 48 vows are categorized, there are three kinds: those related to the Land of Bliss, those related to Amitabha Buddha himself, and those related to the merits and virtues for our rebirth.
Amitabha’s three vows of deliverance of sentient beings are the 18th, 19th and 20th. The 18th and 19th vows are called the “vows for the present life”. “For the present life” means those people can be emancipated in the present life.
The 18th Vow is the “vow of rebirth through Amitabha-recitation”, which totally relies upon Amitabha’s power. So, rebirth in the Land of Bliss is like a natural law. The 19th Vow is called the “vow of welcoming and receiving”, or “the vow for those who set forth the Bodhi Mind and practice various merits and virtues”. This vow covers those who rely on their own power to practice various merits and virtues, which are then dedicated in aspiration for rebirth. As a result, Amitabha will come to receive them to be reborn. People can be reborn in this present life through these two vows.
The 20th Vow is called the “vow of attaining fruition in three periods of time”, or the “vow of assured rebirth through fixing the thought”, or the “vow of cultivating various roots of virtues”. Those who hear of the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s Name, the splendor of the Land of Bliss , and wish to be reborn through Amitabha-recitation can be. However, if their minds are not sincere, earnest, and thorough, they cannot be reborn in this present life.
Though they cannot be reborn, they have made karmic connections. Thus, after several lifetimes, they can again have the chance to be reborn. As they have made the karmic connections, they will not stay long and reincarnate within the Six Realms in the Saha Land. After several lifetimes, they will let Amitabha Buddha’s Vow Power carry them to the Land of Bliss. So, learning to be a Buddha, especially making a karmic connection with Amitabha Buddha is very important.
“Sentient beings of the ten directions” mentioned in the 18th Vow refers to sentient beings who believe in and accept Amitabha’s deliverance, exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name, and aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. Sentient beings of this kind and Amitabha Buddha are as one. Amitabha Buddha’s life exists for them, and they are bound together.
Moreover, Amitabha would not exist if he were unable to carry “sentient beings of the ten directions” to rebirth in his Land of Bliss. (as mentioned in the 18th Vow ) So, “sentient beings of the ten directions” and Amitabha Buddha must unite to form one inseparable entity and one inseparable existence.
“Sentient beings of the ten directions” mentioned in the 19th Vow are different. They do not exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name; but, set forth the Bodhi Mind, and practice various merits and virtues through their own power. Then they sincerely dedicate their accumulated merits and virtues to rebirth in the Land of Bliss. They don’t exclusively rely on Amitabha; but, rely on themselves. In this respect, Amitabha Buddha does not unite with them, and Amitabha’s life force does not exist for them.
Amitabha only guarantees that he will welcome and receive them at the near end of their lives. Though they do not rely on Amitabha Buddha, he also delivers them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
So, sentient beings who accept and practice according to the 18th Vow and sentient beings who accept and practice according to the 19th Vow are very different. The difference is not made by Amitabha Buddha; but, lies in the aptitude of sentient beings. They have different understanding, belief and acceptance, so the practices are not the same.
Sentient beings of the 18th Vow rejoice within Amitabha’s Name, while those of the 19th Vow don’t. They do not understand the 18th Vow or Amitabha’s compassionate mind. Though they wish to be reborn, they have a temperament that believes they cannot be reborn if they haven’t created the conditions for rebirth, or haven’t reached a certain standard in cultivation. Thus, they take the Bodhi Mind and cultivation of various merits and virtues as conditions for rebirth.
If sentient beings of the 19th Vow realize Amitabha’s compassionate mind, merits and virtues, they will know the merits and virtues produced by their Bodhi Mind are not real (detached from the Threefold Form) The main cause and primary karma for rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land is his Name, as stated in his 18th Vow.
If a person understands this point, he will return to the 18th Vow. It does not matter whether he is in the high, middle, or low tier. It makes no difference if he is a monastic or householder, has wisdom or not, is kind or evil, pure or impure. This is because all of them are of one kind of aptitude, the aptitude stated in the 18th Vow - “sentient beings of the ten directions.”
The 19th Vow is a vow that Amitabha Buddha includes to induce practitioners on the Sagely Path to the Pure Land Path. The 20th Vow is a vow that Amitabha Buddha includes to induce those practitioners who rely on “self-power” to accept his “Other-power”, as stated in the 18th Vow.
Those who rely on the 19th Vow, deeply feel the difficulty of practicing the Sagely Path in this land; so, they dedicate all of their virtues and a myriad of practices toward rebirth in the Pure Land. They do this because miscellaneous practices have their own individual causes and effects. If they are not dedicated, they cannot become the causes of rebirth in the Pure Land. If they are dedicated, the practitioners need not change these virtues because they naturally comply, in accordance with the 19th Vow, and become the cause for rebirth.
If they realize various virtues in a myriad of practices are difficult and assorted, then they change to Amitabha-recitation, the root of virtues, that is to say, they change from the 19th Vow to the 20th Vow. However, though they change the practice of the teaching, they do not change their mind, and they keep taking the attitude of practicing the “self-powered” meditative and non-meditative virtues to practice the “other-powered” Amitabha-recitation. That means, the teaching is “other-powered”, but the aptitude is “self-powered”.
If they realize the “even ten times” Amitabha-recitation as stated in the 18th Vow, and they do not clinch to what aptitude they are, and do not care about what capacity they have, they simply know Amitabha-recitation means assured rebirth with recourse to the Buddha’s vow-power, and they change from the 20th Vow to the 18th Vow. Both practitioners in the 18th Vow and the 20th Vow recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth, but their temperament is different. The former one has no attachment to “self-power” mind.
Simply speaking, the 18th Vow is a real great vow, the 19th Vow is an expedient unreal vow and the 20th Vow is an expedient real vow. They are known as the Three Vows of Deliverance to Rebirth. Transferring from the 19th Vow to the 20th Vow, and from 20th Vow to the 18th Vow is called the “Transference of the Three Vows”.
The purpose of every single vow made by Amitabha Buddha is to allow sentient beings of the ten directions to come to the Land of Bliss and to accomplish the fruition of Buddhahood. How can he do that?
Among the 48 vows, there are three vows of deliverance, the 18th Vow, the 19th Vow and the 20th vow. The 18th Vow and the 19th Vow are known as vow for rebirth in this lifetime, which means rebirth is certain in this lifetime.
For those who just wants to make connection, and not ready to be reborn, Amitabha Buddha tends to embrace them, follow them and till the conditions ripen, then he will save them to the Land of Bliss. Above all, once a person who has made a connection with Amitabha Buddha, Amitabha Buddha will not forsake him forever, but will strengthen
him and embrace him. It is the 20th Vow, known as Vow of Making Connection. Making connection with Amitabha Buddha, he must meet him in a later day.
It is similar to a fish is caught on hook. Though it has not yet been pulled to the shore, it cannot escape, and must be pulled up a later day. So, whoever makes connection with Amitabha Buddha, Amitabha Buddha says, “I will expedite, in two, three or a few lifetimes, to save you to the Land of Bliss.”
Both the 18th Vow and the 19th Vow are the vows for rebirth in this lifetime; however, which one is the fundamental vow, the main vow, or Amitabha’s original intent? It is the 18th Vow. Why? There are 36 Chinese words in the 18th Vow, and at the end, it says, “should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.” It is specified only in the 18th Vow and no others. Thus, we know that Amitabha’s attainment of perfect Enlightenment and sentient beings’ rebirth are bound together, and are accomplished at the same time.
That is to say, if Amitabha attains perfect Enlightenment, sentient beings can be reborn. If sentient beings can be reborn, Amitabha Buddha can attain perfect Enlightenment. The 19th Vow is not the same. The 19th Vow is targeted at those who “awaken aspiration for Enlightenment and do various meritorious deeds”. The vow is made to follow the practitioner’s capacity for awakening aspiration for Enlightenment and performing various meritorious deeds. In so doing, they can dedicate their merits for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Thus, Amitabha Buddha guarantees he will appear and welcome them when they are close to death. By guaranteeing to welcome them at the near end-of-life, Amitabha Buddha guides sentient beings of various roots of virtues to enter and finally settle in the 18th Vow.
In comparing the 18th Vow and the 19th Vow, the 18th Vow is made at the discretion of Amitabha Buddha himself, while the 19th Vow is made for the sake of people who practice at their own discretion.
The 19th Vow is one that involves the Bodhi Mind and cultivation of various merits and virtues; so, it facilitates those people who practice the Six Paramitas, and guides them to return to practicing Amitabha-recitation for rebirth. If they can return to practicing Amitabha-recitation, they are aspirants under the 18th Vow; if not, they continue to dedicate the Bodhi Mind and cultivate various merits and virtues for rebirth. Then Amitabha Buddha will appear to receive them, and comfort them.
It is because the cultivation of the Bodhi Mind and cultivation of merit and virtues cannot produce the effect of rebirth in the Pure Land by itself. However, Amitabha Buddha wishes to receive them through his 19th Vow, so that they can dedicate and thus attain rebirth. “Though they can be reborn” – is what Master Shandao refers to in the Five Kinds of Primary Practices, because miscellaneous practices must be dedicated if they wish to be reborn.
“Various merits and virtues” – “various” refers to the myriad practices: the Six Paramitas, the Five Precepts, the Ten Wholesome Deeds, the Four Noble Truths, and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. As far as Amitabha’s Pure Land teaching is concerned, rebirth through dedication of various merits and virtues is considered a “mixed practice” (as defined by Master Shandao). This is because they are plentiful, assorted, not pristine, and not exclusive.
Practicing various merits and virtues is the basic routine in cultivation. However, they are called “mixed practices” if they are dedicated for rebirth from the point of view of Amitabha’s Pure Land teaching. If we can exclusively recite Amitabha’s name and exclusively rely on Amitabha’s deliverance, our practice of various merits and virtues is not regarded as “mixed practice.” This is because we don’t rely on these for rebirth; but, totally rely on the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s Name.
Amitabha’s 19th Vow is mainly to attract and guide those people who practice various merits and virtues. This is because not all people can directly enter the 18th Vow. So, Amitabha Buddha makes this vow, and tells them: As long as you dedicate all your merits and virtues for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, I guarantee I will lead a multitude of sages and appear before you, welcome and receive you, when your life comes to the end.
First, the 19th Vow does not mention exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s name. Secondly, it does not mention “should not be born, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
The 19th Vow is different from the 18th Vow. The 18th Vow focuses on exclusivity – exclusively recite Namo Amituofo, exclusively rely on one Buddha – Amitabha. At the same time, Amitabha ties himself to Amitabha-reciters as he vows; if they should not be born there, may I not attain Perfect Enlightenment. They are fully united as one. Rebirth of an Amitabha-reciter is the attainment of the Perfect Enlightenment of Amitabha Buddha. Attainment of Perfect Enlightenment of Amitabha Buddha is the rebirth of an Amitabha-reciter. Rebirth and Perfect Enlightenment are forever one.
The 19th Vow talks about self-reliance to set forth the Bodhi Mind, and practice various merits and virtues, according to one’s aptitude. Whether the aptitude is that of a sagely or ordinary being, superior or inferior roots of virtues, they practice and dedicate the merit and virtues for rebirth. Then Amitabha Buddha promises to welcome and receive them. So, the 19th Vow is basically not related to Amitabha Buddha. It is only because they dedicate and aspire to be reborn that Amitabha Buddha comes to receive them.
Thus we can say, Amitabha’s attainment of Perfect Enlightenment is mainly because of the accomplishment of the 18th Vow. After attainment, Amitabha also receives those who are not exclusively reciting his Name and not fully relying on Him. In that way, they also have a chance to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Without Amitabha’s intervention, they cannot be reborn through the practices of other teachings.
So, there is huge difference between the 18th Vow and the 19th Vow. The former is inseparable from Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha Buddha attains perfect Enlightenment for them, while the latter is separated from Amitabha Buddha. The latter are originally not related to Amitabha Buddha; but, they aspire so that Amitabha Buddha can come to receive them when they are near the end of their lives.
The 18th Vow is called the Vow of Rebirth through Amitabha-recitation. The 19th Vow is called the Vow of Practicing Various Merits and Virtues, or the Vow of Welcoming near the End of Life. The 20th Vow is called the Vow of Wish-fulfillment in Three Lives. We can understand the difference between these three vows through the literal meaning of the name of the vow. They capture different kinds of sentient beings who aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land. Only the 18th Vow can include all sentient beings in the ten directions – good and evil, wise and unwise, aged and young, man and woman. All can be reborn, and rebirth is equal. No one is excluded from Amitabha’s deliverance.
Being drawn to learn this teaching in this life is generally the result of our reliance of the 20th Vow in past lives. Master Shandao referred to the Infinite Life and Equal Enlightenment Sutra, and said,” He might have practiced this teaching in past lives, and as he listened to this teaching again in this life, he was delighted immediately.” Many people wonder whether they can be reborn through Amitabha-recitation. There must be a cause if a person practices Amitabha-recitation diligently since his youth in this lifetime. However, if he recited Amitabha’s Name in past lives, why is he still living in the Land of Saha? It is the content of the 20th Vow.
Upon hearing Amitabha’s Name, he knows: the Land of Bliss exists, he should always recite Amitabha’s Name, and he also wishes to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. However, his aspiration for rebirth is not earnest enough, so he cannot be reborn in this life. Amitabha Buddha does not give up on such a person; but, waits until the ideal conditions arrive, guides him to arouse the true mind, earnest aspiration, and recite Amitabha’s Name for rebirth. If he cannot be reborn in this life, he will be reborn in the next life, or soon thereafter. This explains the 20th Vow, which is called the Vow of Making Karmic Connection. He has already made the karmic connection with Amitabha and Amitabha will never forsake him.
The ancient monks of the Japanese Pure Land School described those following the 20th Vow as like “a fish on the hook that will not stay in the water for long”. It means, a fish swallows a hook; though it is still in the water, it will be pulled to the shore in one day. In this lifetime, though you may not genuinely believe and earnestly aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, you will be hooked and pulled by Amitabha to the shore of the Land of Bliss in one day, because you have made a karmic connection with Amitabha.
There are four periods in the dissemination of the Buddhist teachings in the world: the first period is the Proper Dharma Period, the second is the Dharma-Semblance Period, the third is the Dharma-Ending Period, and the fourth is the Dharma-Extinction Period. We are now in the Ending Dharma Period, which lasts for ten thousand years. Once it lapses, all sutras will naturally vanish except this Infinite Life Sutra.
So, only the Pure Land teaching is the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha. This is because the Infinite Life Sutra, spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha, will not vanish. It will continue to deliver sentient beings in the world, when all other teachings have been extinguished.
Referring to the text on “leaving this sutra in circulation for an additional hundred years” in the Dissemination Part of the Infinite Life Sutra. Upon first reading this passage, the literal meaning seems to be just a hundred years.
However, if we compare it with another version of the Infinite Life Sutra (the Sutra of Assembly of the Infinite Life Tathagata), we know that it means it lasts forever without extinction. In the Sutra of Assembly of the Infinite Life Tathagata, it says, “Now, I advise you all that I will enable this teaching to stay here forever, and you should diligently cultivate in accordance with its teachings. So, we know “a hundred” means forever/everlasting, which is full number.
Moreover, in the Infinite Life Sutra in the Sanskrit version, it clearly says, “Again, Ajita, I will enable this teaching to never become extinct, and to become a great gift forever.” So, we know this Sutra is a real Sutra that lasts forever and is kept in the world without extinction.
Shakyamuni Buddha says, “In the future, all Buddhist scriptures and teachings will be extinguished; but, out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this Sutra and keep it in the world for a hundred years more. Those beings who encounter it will attain deliverance in accord with their aspirations.” All other sutras will be gradually extinguished; but Shakyamuni Buddha, with his great compassionate mind, continues to circulate the Infinite Life Sutra in the world, for the purpose of delivering sentient beings. Though it is said to be “one hundred years”, it should be understood to be endless time.
It says in the Sutra of the Assembly of the Infinite Life Tathagata, “I now advise the great assembly that I will allow this teaching to be here forever without extinction.” It is specially noted that this Sutra is to deliver all sentient beings in the ten directions, and it is the original intent of all Buddhas. Leaving this Sutra means to leave Amitabha’s Name; so, at the end, sentient beings are still to be delivered by this Name.
In the beginning of the Infinite Life Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha says, “As the Tathagata, I regard beings of the Three Domains with boundless compassion. The reason for my appearance in the world is to preach and propagate teachings of the Way and save multitudes of beings by endowing them with true benefits.”
It indicates that Shakyamuni Buddha has the deepest sympathy, great benevolence, and boundless compassion, for sentient beings in the Three Domains. That is why he appeared in the world. He preached to over 300 assemblies for 49 years. His aim was, and continues to be, to expound and propagate the 18th Vow, that delivers all sentient beings and endows them with true benefits.
What does the Infinite Life Sutra talk about? It talks about the 48 great vows. It is because of the 48 great vows that the Land of Bliss exists, Amitabha Buddha exists, and we are able to be reborn. The causes and effects (rewards) of rebirth in the Pure Land are included in the 48 vows.
There are two fascicles in the Infinite Life Sutra. The first one mainly speaks of the 48 vows, and the second one speaks of the accomplishment of the 48 vows. So, it speaks of the causes and effects (rewards) of 48 vows from the beginning to the end.
The Infinite Life Sutra expounds the teaching of the causes and effects of Amitabha’s Buddhahood. That is to say, it is a sutra about the causes and effects of rebirth in sentient beings becoming Buddhas. The basis of the sutra is the 48 vows. Among them, there is a fundamental vow, which is the 18th Vow. The 18th Vow summarizes the Infinite Life Sutra.
What does the 18th Vow talk about? It talks about assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss through exclusive Amitabha-recitation. What will we become upon rebirth there? To be reborn in the Land of Bliss expedites our becoming Buddhas.
Each of Amitabha’s 48 vows ends with the phrase “may I not attain perfect Enlightenment”. The purpose of this phrase is to clear our doubts and worries. However, our doubts are so deep and heavy that the 48 vows are not sufficient to satisfy us, and clear all of our doubts.
So, after the 48 vows, the Sutra reiterates in the Gatha of the Three Vows and the Gatha of the Heavy Vows. They request celestial beings to manifest auspicious responses of wonder that prove and validate the truth of Amitabha’s vows.
In the beginning of the lower fascicle of the Infinite Life Sutra, it says, “All sentient beings who, having heard his Name, rejoice in faith, remember him even once, and sincerely transfer the merit of virtuous practices to that land (aspiring to be born there), attain rebirth instantly and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression.”
That means, by simply reciting Amitabha’s Name, and sincerely dedicating even one thought, one attains the status of rebirth instantly.
The Infinite Life Sutra says, “Sentient beings who are reborn in the Land of Bliss have the same lifespan as Amitabha, so their life is infinite. Their light is also the same as Amitabha’s; so, the light of their bodies and minds is also infinite. Wisdom is equally superb, and the paranormal powers are equally unobstructed. It is said to be the same, as their bodies are natural, virtual, boundless and infinite.
Though there are the names of Sravakas, bodhisattvas, and heavenly beings, their connotation is the same. Those names are given in accordance with the habits of sentient beings in other worlds. Hence, they are called heavenly beings, bodhisattvas and Sravakas.
There are three kinds of teachings mentioned in the Infinite Life Sutra. What are the three?
(1) Rebirth through various practices,
(2) Rebirth through assisted Amitabha-recitation and
(3) Rebirth solely through Amitabha-recitation.
Upon hearing what the Infinite Life Sutra says, some practitioners may hesitate and doubt. Which one should be practiced? If we read a passage in the Chapter on Dissemination, we know the answer. The text is basically telling us to renounce rebirth through various practices, rebirth through assisted Amitabha-recitation, and simply advocates rebirth through exclusive Amitabha-recitation in accordance with the Fundamental vow. We know this because the text only says – recite Namo Amituofo, and none of the other teachings.
People of the Three Tiers (as taught in the lesser fascicle of the Infinite Life Sutra). Though the aptitude of those in the three tiers is different, all of them rely on the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s Name, in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and attain the stage of becoming a Buddha After-One-More-Life.
If the people of the upper tier rely on their own wisdom and aptitude for rebirth (same as the middle and lower tier), and they do not let go of their attachments, and entirely rely on the merits and virtues of Amitabha’s Name for rebirth, they are of course, to be reborn in the Land of Bliss in different grades and levels.
So, Shakyamuni Buddha’s purpose in speaking of the three tiers and the nine levels is to indicate that, though there are three tiers and nine levels, all of them can rely on Amitabha, and all of them converge to “always exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name”.
In that way they can transcend the three tiers and the nine levels. That is to say, they will avoid “embryonic birth” spoken of in the Infinite Life Sutra that they cannot blossom and see the Buddha for 500 years.
What is the meaning of the text about the three tiers? Some people may think the upper tier is superior to the middle tier, and the middle tier is superior to the lower tier. True, this is not incorrect, because the text about the three tiers talks about the differences in aptitude.
For instance, people of the upper tier are those who are monastic and can practice vigorously. Those of the middle tier cannot leave home; but, can practice generosity or other teachings. Those of the lower tier have no karmic connection to become monastics, cannot practice generosity, or other teachings with vigor. However, if they come across the Pure Land teaching at the near end-of-life and practice exclusive Amitabha Recitation, they will be reborn in the Pure Land.
So, literally, it seems to talk about the differentiation in aptitude and capacity of their practice. However, with respect to the connotation of the text, it leads all people of different tiers to recite Amitabha’s name exclusively. This concept can only be understood and realized through the explanation by Master Shandao.
Master Shandao says in the “Dharma School of Contemplation and Recitation”: “The aptitudes and capacities of all sentient beings are different, classified into high, medium, and low tiers. The Buddha urges them to exclusively recite the Name of the Buddha of Infinite Life according to their aptitude and capacity. The Buddha and a multitude of sagely beings will come to receive them when they are close to death, so that all of them can attain rebirth.
If someone says, “A person like you, on the Easy Path is a coward, feeble, and inferior. I am a great man with resolve, practicing with vigor.” This is an example of a kind of arrogance. Furthermore, it is also a kind of indolence, not vigor, because he has difficulty believing in this splendid teaching of deliverance. So, the Infinite Life Sutra says, “Arrogant, corrupt, and indolent people cannot readily accept this teaching.”
Since the translation of the Infinite Life Sutra in China, several great masters wrote commentaries; but, they are not specialists in the Pure Land teachings. After the era of Master Shandao, there were commentaries on the Infinite Life Sutra in Japan, particularly the explanations on the 18th Vow were plentiful. Overall they were different in meanings and in explanations, and some of them were contradictory.
Among them, we take Master Shandao’s “general meaning of the Fundamental Vow” as our most pristine reference, principle, and benchmark. That means, anything that matches the explanation of Master Shandao is correct, and is taken as our reference. Otherwise, it is not correct, and is not taken as our reference.
In this respect, as we have the explanation of Master Shandao, we don’t need to spend time and effort in reading the explanations of others. Because we have no teacher to guide us, and we have no capacity to differentiate which one is correct, we may produce incorrect interpretations in our minds, which is not very good.
What is the connotation of the text about the Three Tiers? Some people think that the high tier is better than the medium tier, and the medium tier is better than the low tier. This is not incorrect in the literal sense of the text of the Three Tiers.
The high tier includes those who can leave home and practice with vigor; but, those of the medium tier cannot leave home and can only pursue some practices, such as giving. Those in the present life. They only come across the Pure Land teaching near the end-of-life.
So, literally, it seems to discriminate based on the difference in aptitude and in practice; but, with respect to the connotation, it is not the case. Its purpose is to guide people of the three tiers to exclusively recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth. We can only understand this concept through the explanation of Master Shandao.
The three tiers mentioned in the lesser fascicle in the Infinite Life Sutra is the text that explains the accomplishment of the 19th Vow. It does not indicate the functional capacity “to be reborn immediately, and dwell in the state of non-retrogression.”
In the Chapter on Dissemination, apart from Amitabha-recitation as said in the 18th Vow, it does not mention the methods of practice for the people of the three tiers and the nine levels, nor the method of practicing the Three Studies and the Six Paramitas, or any other method of practicing any teaching.
In this respect, what is the substance of the entire Infinite Life Sutra? It is Amitabha-recitation.
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings