A Buddha’s Wisdom, Compassion and Power of Vow
1. Buddhas of the Ten Directions
The core doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is based on the principle that all beings are equal, and all possess the same Buddha-nature.
(1) Wisdom, Compassion and the Power of Vow – All for sentient beings
Buddha has the perfect personality of pure cognition, sentiment, and ability. This personality, that is Buddha-nature, exists in each and every human being. Pure cognition is the utmost wisdom, sentiment, unlimited love, ability, and the greatest power of vow.
To Buddha, all humans and sentient beings have the same Buddha-nature, unequivocally, and equally. Buddha is not satisfied when he himself has attained Buddhahood; rather, his compassionate vows and goals are to enable all to become Buddhas like himself, the most excellent and supreme.
(2) Within the Nature of Emptiness Arises the Great Compassion
Buddha’s love is essentially the vow of great compassion that is unconditional, unlimited, and absolute. Buddha’s compassion transcends all phenomena and is fused with the nature of emptiness, which in turn means all dharmas are unobtainable. Thus, when enlightenment is realized, the compassion without predestined conditions arises naturally. This is the so-called non-duality of emptiness and compassion, or compassion and wisdom. The state of non-duality of compassion and wisdom is the deepest and abstrusest in the tenets of Buddhism.
The non-arising emptiness of consciousness and dharmas are of self-existence and self-nature. The great unconditional compassion with utmost affection is also endowed naturally. When the non-arising nature of emptiness is attained, the great unconditional compassion spontaneously follows without contrivance. It is subtle and inconceivable.
(3) In Emptiness, Self and Other are One and the Same
To realize Buddha-nature (or emptiness) is to attain the realization of one-is-all and all-is-one, the state of selfness and otherness being oneness.
After one has realized the unity of self and others, and becomes aware that the deluded sentient beings are mired in the endless transmigration of the cycle of birth and death creating karmas and suffering from retributions, one will spontaneously develop the great compassion and the incessant aspiration of delivering and benefiting others. Thus, literal altruistic actions—compassion, forgiveness, charity, and self-sacrifice—will manifest.
Logically speaking, this is an inevitable trend. Since all actions of selfishness, cruelty, and evil-conducts arise from the “separation of self and others.” It forms, on the one hand, intense egotism, and on the other hand, various exclusive thoughts and behaviors.
In the enlightened unification of self and others, the differentiation of “I, you and he” is eliminated, and the three become one. Hence, there are no selfish or cruel actions. As selfness and otherness are a single entity, one will feel others’ joy and agony as their own, and will accordingly perform altruistic actions with the utmost efforts.
Why do Buddhas have to deliver sentient beings? It is because of their undiscriminating great compassion. Sentient beings are blinded by their ignorant habits, thus, unable to perceive their originally endowed Buddha-nature. For such sentient beings, Buddhas naturally will arise with incomparable great compassion. In Buddha’s wisdom-perception, the innate nature of sentient beings is Buddha-nature, and all of them are Buddhas. Yet, we are not aware of it and suffer endlessly from the cycle of birth and death. Thus, Buddhas instinctively feel it is because they have not reached the state of complete perfection. Like a father who is poised and elegant but his son is fatuous, vulgar, and poverty-stricken, the father would never feel that his life is prosperous or satisfactory. Consequently, the father would have the driving force to help his son, since he and his son are of one unity. Therefore, the Buddha will instinctively and incessantly deliver sentient beings, enabling them to attain Buddhahood.
This driving force of benefiting others emerges from the unconditional great compassion of the unity of selfness and otherness. The non-duality state of compassion and wisdom is indeed the essence and ultimate goal of Mahayana Buddhism.
(4) Great and Equal Compassion without Predestined Conditions
What is Great Compassion? It is the supreme, incomparable, and fulfilling tender love. The most revered compassion should connote the following:
- Treat all sentient beings as oneself, without discrimination and weariness, that is, the “Equal and Great Compassion.”
- From the fusion of emptiness and existence, and the non-arising mind-nature spontaneously outflows the Great Compassion without predestined conditions.Only this great compassion of equality without conditions is selfless, equal, thorough, complete, and surpassing all differentiation and limited love.
Only this great compassion of equality without conditions is selfless, equal, thorough, complete, and surpassing all differentiation and limited love.
(5) A Fusion of Compassion and Wisdom
Buddha’s great compassion is not merely overwhelming affection; rather, it is the indivisible unity of “wisdom” that integrates both utmost empathy and pure rationality. Buddha’s reasoning and emotions are different from those of mere mortals.
Intellectual faculties and emotional capacities in ordinary human beings are of mutual negation and not complementary. They frequently ebb and flow.
Buddha’s empathy and intellect (compassion and wisdom), on the other hand, are complementary and not mutually negated. They rise together and forever stay on the apex and never recede.
Reason and emotion, like fire and water, are mutually exclusive in sentient beings, but complementary in Buddhas. Thinking and feeling are two separate bodies to sentient beings, but an inseparable unity to Buddhas. This unified reason and emotion is known as the “Great Unconditional Compassion.” In Buddhism, unconditionality is the result of supreme reasoning, while Great Compassion is the supreme feeling of empathy.
The union of ultimate cognition and empathic affection—the Great Compassion of Non-discrimination—presents the Tender Love that is all equal, differentiates no hatred nor affection, distinguishes no good nor evil, makes no demarcation between any sentient beings. It covers and shines on all, like the sunlight, and is thus called “Great Compassion of Equality.”
Among the Buddhist practitioners, some might realize that “Buddhas and I are of one.” Yet, Buddhas of the ten directions are constantly in a state of “sentient beings and I are one and the same.
2. Amitabha Buddha, The One and Only
(1) Compassion and Wisdom: The Foremost Exalted
All Buddhas’ compassion and wisdom are superb, not to mention that of Amitabha Buddha, King of all Buddhas. In the Infinite Life Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha, the World-Honored One, venerably praises:
The majestic light of Amitabha Buddha is the most exalted,
No other Buddha's light can match His.
Amitabha Buddha’s light is the most exalted, foremost, and incomparable;
No other Buddha's light can match his.
Amitabha Buddha is the king of all Buddhas,
His light is the most revered of all Buddha-lights.
Light is wisdom, and wisdom is compassion. Wisdom and compassion are one and the same. That is to say, Buddha’s light is his wisdom,and it is the external appearance of wisdom—they are one and the same. Furthermore, wisdom encompasses compassion; likewise, compassion encompasses wisdom.
What does Buddha’s wisdom epitomize? It is the function of delivering sentient beings. Since Amitabha Buddha’s wisdom-light is (among all Buddhas) the most exalted, the foremost and incomparable. As he is king of and the most revered of all Buddhas, it manifests that Amitabha Buddha possesses the absolute transcending and delivering power.
(2) The Inconceivable Name of Merits and Virtues
The Achievement Text of the Seventeenth Vow in The Longer Sutra reads:
All Buddhas from the ten directions, as innumerous as grains of sand in the Ganges River, praise the majestic, inconceivable merits and virtues of the Buddha of infinite life.
The Buddha’s majestic merits are revealed in two aspects. The first is in his name which possesses inconceivable and supreme merits and virtues. The second is the supreme merits and virtues that the Buddha bestows on Buddha-reciters which are also inconceivable such that they lead reciters to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, and they attain Buddhahood in the next life. Accordingly, The Amitabha Sutra reads that this Name has “countless, limitless and inconceivable merits.”
(3) Only Amitabha Buddha can Deliver Sentient Beings of the Ten Directions
Even though all Buddhas of the ten directions have the same great and unconditional compassion, they may not be able to deliver all sentient beings, particularly those in the Saha world. As evidenced in The Mahayana Compassionate Flower Sutra,
Sentient beings in the Saha world are evil-doers who are profoundly defiled by immense afflictions, and thus, extremely difficult to deliver; they are thus abandoned by one thousand and four Buddhas of other worlds.
This seems contradictory: on the one hand, all Buddhas should have the same compassion, and yet, sentient beings of the Saha world are forsaken by one thousand and four Buddhas. Why? Their immense afflictions make them impossible to deliver. Only Amitabha Buddha can deliver these kinds of sentient beings; thus, the Great Treasury of Mahayana Sutras declares,
In the Dharma-Ending Age, trillions of people practice Buddhism, hardly any can liberate themself from samsara. Only those who recite Buddha’s name can transcend the cycle of birth and death.
Obviously, the sentient beings in the Dharma-Ending Age who suffer from the hefty afflictions can be delivered simply by reciting Amitabha’s name, not to mention those in the Formal Dharma Age and the Dharma-Semblance Age. Furthermore, sentient beings living outside the Saha world will surely be saved by reciting the Buddha’s name.
As a result, Pure Land Doctrine expounds and reveals the “deliverance via Buddha recitation.” It is the operative result of the immeasurable, boundless and inconceivable merits of Amitabha Buddha’s Name.
(4) Deliverances Confirmed by Sutra: The Three Reiterated Oaths
As stated in the Infinite Life Sutra, Dharmakara Bodhisattva made the “Solemn Oaths” after he proclaimed the forty-eight great vows. The first three are named the “Three Reiterated Oaths.” The forty-eight vows cover a broad scope. Succinctly, it is the aspiration and practice in the causal stage and the Buddha Name of the accomplished stage. Hence, these three oaths not only sum up the forty-eight vows as the synopsis but also absolve the perplexity and incertitude of sentient beings.
Additionally, there are three reasons to establish the Three Reiterated Oaths:
(1) To manifest the “Great World-Transcending Vows”
This first verse of the oaths:
I have made vows, unrivaled in all the worlds and
Will surely reach the supreme way.
Should any of these vows not be fulfilled,
May I not attain unexcelled equal and perfect enlightenment.
This first oath expressively demonstrates that Amitabha Buddha’s forty-eight vows surpass those of all other Buddhas of the ten directions. No other Buddhas have ever made such vows.
Although the forty-eight vows come out of Amitabha Buddha’s compassionate and solemn pledge, it does not clearly express that these world-transcending vows are made by Amitabha Buddha alone, and not shared by other Buddhas.
The reason is that when individually examined, most of the forty-eight vows can be found in other Buddha’s words and do not show their unique and extraordinary properties. Accordingly, the first of the Three Reiterated Oaths declares that “I have made vows unrivaled in all the worlds,” which unravels the appearance of the similarity of the forty-eight vows of Amitabha and the vows of other Buddhas. Actually, His vows of world-transcendence are totally different in their connotations and are different from those made by other Buddhas.
(2) To Reveal the “Deliverance on His-Power”
The second oath:
If I should not become a great benefactor,
In lives to come for innumerous kalpas,
To universally deliver the impoverished and the afflicted everywhere,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.
The second (reiterated) oath states that the Buddha’s Reward-body (sambhogakaya) accomplished by his forty-eight vows surpasses those of all other Buddhas. And, the meritorious function and purpose of it is to deliver all deluded and afflicted sentient beings of the ten directions, that is, the ignorant beings who are perpetually entrapped in the six-realm cycle of birth and death. That is us.
If we read the forty-eight vows literally, the connotations of deliverance by His-Power and merit transference with His-Power are not apparent. Therefore, Amitabha Buddha reiterates that the purpose of his vows is to be “a great benefactor” in order “to universally deliver the impoverished and the afflicted everywhere,” thus, disseminating the truth that the cause of rebirth in his land is entirely by dedication with His-Power of deliverance.
Accordingly, Amitabha Buddha is the Great Bestower from both the immeasurable kalpas past and future. He will forever grant and deliver sentient beings with the virtues and merits of his world-transcending vows.
Thus, Amitabha Buddha is the grantor, and we are the grantee. He bestows sentient beings with all merits in attaining his Buddhahood.
This second oath manifests that “deliverance” is by the Buddha-Power, His-Power.
(3) To Reveal “Deliverance by His Name”
The third oath states:
When I attain Buddhahood,
My Name shall be heard throughout the ten directions;
Should there be any land where it is not heard,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.
There exists, in the forty-eight vows, the “Three Receiving Vows,” which have been interpreted with opposite viewpoints. In order to uphold the rightness and eschew the expedient, the Third Oath states, “My Name shall be heard throughout the ten directions,”, which reveals Amitabha Buddha’s original vow of merit transference via his name. Accordingly, this will enable sentient beings of the ten directions to realize that reciting Buddha’s name is the only right and direct cause to be reborn, as stated in the 18th Vow.
The Third oath also points out the merits and functions of the First and Second oaths, and, when combining the three, these merits and functions are within the Name, that is, Namo Amitabha Buddha. Furthermore, this Name is to be spread throughout the ten directions to enable all sentient beings to hear and to recite Buddha’s Name, thus they will be reborn in the Pure Land to attain Buddhahood, and in turn, to deliver other sentient beings.
The first oath expounds the forty-eight vows. The second oath transfers merits to sentient beings—the immeasurable virtuous behaviors. And this third oath condenses all vows and practices into his name. Vows and practices are crystallized in this name. Amitabha Buddha’s name completely includes his vows and practices. The name is manifested with vows and practices, and vows and practices are made known with the name. All three reiterated oaths are epitomized in this one name; thus, Amitabha’s name is termed the Grand Name of all merits.
Even though the Buddha Name can deliver sentient beings from ten directions, it still has to be heard. Otherwise, He could not deliver all the sentient beings. Thus, Amitabha Buddha makes the seventeenth vow, and here he repeats his promise:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the lands of the ten directions should not all extol my name, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.
Two Meanings of Transcendence
(1) Transcending Afar: Buddha’s Name is heard throughout the ten directions. When the virtue is petty, it is heard in a narrow scope; when the virtue is grand, it can be heard in all ten directions.
(2) Surpassing: The primal purpose of Amitabha Buddha’s majestic and meritorious Name surpassing those of Buddhas of ten directions is “to universally deliver the impoverished and the afflicted everywhere” to “reach the supreme way.” None of the other Buddhas have made such vows. Furthermore, many sutras shower praises, mostly on Amitabha. The world recites Amitabha’s name, far exceeding other Buddhas’ names.
The general themes of the three reiterated oaths: The first oath reveals that the forty-eight vows are “unrivaled in all the worlds” and are complete. The second oath reveals that by means of the world-transcendent vows all impoverished and afflicted will be universally delivered. The third oath reveals that the Name coalesces vows and cultivation, that the meritorious Name is known to all lands and surpasses those of all Buddhas, and that this Name will deliver sentient beings. As reads The Solemnity Sutra translated in Song Dynasty:
Should I attain Buddhahood, my name shall be Infinite Life;
Sentient beings who hear my name will all come to my realm.
The Longer Sutra reads,
By the power of that Buddha's fundamental Vow,
Those who hear his Name and desire to be reborn,
Will all reach his land,
And effortlessly attain the stage of non-retrogression.
It also reads,
Those who hear the Name of that Buddha [Amitabha] and rejoice so greatly as to dance, and recite his name even once, shall receive the utmost benefit, which is to possess unsurpassed merits and virtues.
Hence, the doctrine of Pure Land is the teaching of the deliverance of sentient beings by Amitabha Buddha’s Name. Only the supreme wisdom, unlimited compassion, and vowing power of Amitabha Buddha can completely deliver all sentient beings from ten directions, and thus, fulfill all Buddhas’ primal intention, and manifest their wisdom, compassion, and vowing power.
(Translated by Dr. Sam Suen,
Edited by Pure Land Buddhism Translation Team)
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