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 The Guiding Principle of the Forty-Eight Vows

 

       Let’s talk about the purpose and the guiding principle of the forty-eight vows.[1] These great vows are not scattered without focus; rather, each is like a point on a circle, pointing to the circle’s center. They have one purpose. As Master Shandao states in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: “The forty-eight vows of The Infinite Life Sutra say only one thing: “Rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss by the exclusive recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name.” It couldn’t be more obvious. While the forty-eight vows layout many things, they serve one purpose: to let us understand, “rebirth by nianfo[2] solely.”

       In addition, in the section on the Essence of the Sutra, Master Shandao says, “When Bhikkhu Dharmakāra was practicing the Bodhisattva path under the guidance of Buddha Lokêśvararāja, he proclaimed the forty-eight vows; each proclaims:

       If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and recite my name even ten times, should they not be reborn in my land, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.

       That is the same message as stated earlier. The forty-eight vows, whether explaining how wonderful and beautiful the Land of Bliss is, or detailing that beings having thirty-two physical characteristics and golden bodies, etc., they all address the contents of the Eighteenth Vow.

       On this point, many people have had doubts throughout history. Even in modern times, Master Yinguang edited the statement of Master Shandao by replacing one critical word: “each.” He changed it from “each of the vows proclaims (the Eighteenth Vow)” to “one of the vows proclaims,” altering the statement to have an entirely different meaning. Master Yinguang felt that there might have been errors in scribing the Commentary by the Japanese and edited in many other places.

       The controversy started not in modern times but as early as the twelfth century. When the disciples of Master Honen were discussing this statement, some had doubts and asked: Did Master Shandao make a mistake in writing down this statement? Did he really mean, “one of the vows proclaims,” and not “each of the vows proclaims”? Others disagreed; they believed Master Shandao was correct. Each clung to their own opinion, and they quarreled. The disciples then went to ask Master Honen for advice. Master Honen’s response was like “settling the tune with one beat of the gong.” He told them firmly that Master Shandao’s statement was correct because the essence of The Infinite Life Sutra is “rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss by the exclusive recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name,” and Master Shandao’s statement would correspond with that of the sutra only if he means “each of the vows proclaims” the Eighteenth  Vow.

       That is why Dharmakara Bhikkhu built the Land of Bliss so beautifully. He took the most magnificent features from the twenty-one billion buddha-lands of all directions to build his Land of Ultimate Bliss: where grounds are made of gold, and pavilions of jewels, there are wonderful incense, and trees of gems. What is the goal of creating these? Is it not to entice us and awaken our aspiration to desire rebirth to the Pure Land? On the surface, some of the vows are about the land’s solemnity and adornment, which seem to have little to do with rebirth. In fact, they have a lot to do with it. 

       The essence of The Infinite Life Sutra is the forty-eight vows, and the core of the forty-eight vows is the Eighteenth Vow. Thus, the Eighteenth Vow is the heart  of the sutra. All other forty-seven vows serve the purpose of the Eighteenth Vow. From this perspective, there’s no controversy at all about the statement, “each and every one of the forty-eight vows proclaim the Eighteenth vow”.

 

(Translated and edited by the Pure Land School Translation Team)

 

[1] The guiding principle is faith, aspiration and nianfo, with the purpose of rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

[2] Nian-Fo in Chinese pinyin: nian means to recite or to think of, and Fo is the Buddha; hence, nianfo means Buddha-recitation and/or Buddha-remembrance. Nembutsu in Japanese.

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Characteristics

  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime

Amitabha Buddhas

The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha

If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, 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.

Guiding Principles

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