The Source of Dharmakara Bodhisattva’s Aspiration
The first part of the main section of The Sutra of the Infinite Life, in terms of the structure of the sutra, is judged as “the causal yuan of the Tathagata’s Pure Land.” “Tathagata” refers to Amituofo who, in the causal land, is Dharmakara Bodhisattva. This part explains why Dharmakara Bodhisattva wants to establish a pure land of ultimate bliss, the external yuan. It also talks about the great solemn pledge Dharmakara Bodhisattva has made, which consists of his forty-eight great vows, and the extremely long period of cultivation, which belongs to the casual events of Dharmakara before he became Amituofo.
Now, Dharmakara is the Buddha who manifests in the Western Pure Land and delivers all beings in the lands of the ten directions to the Land of Ultimate Bliss. His way of delivering sentient beings requires a systematic understanding; thus, the teaching of the way of rebirth to his land forms the Pure Land Buddhist sect. In regards to how it should be understood, accepted, and put into practice, Shakyamuni Buddha has found the purest source of origin for us, which is the “cause of the Buddha’s Pure Land.”
Usually, the success of an event, whether the scope is big or small, can be seen from its origin and yuan. The reason why Amituofo is the foremost revered Buddha and why the Land of Ultimate Bliss is the quintessence of the lands of the ten directions is given in the unusual opening of the sutra.
In The Sutra of the Infinite Life, Shakyamuni Buddha tells Ananda:
“In the distant past—innumerable, incalculable, and inconceivable kalpas ago—a tathagata named Dipanikara appeared in the world. After edifying and delivering immeasurable sentient beings who attained the way of enlightenment, he passed into nirvana.”
Things that happened in the distant past are hidden in the dark, of which we know nothing. This passage is like Shakyamuni Buddha’s light of wisdom, illuminating all the details and subtleties, and reflecting a vast space and time. It says, long ago, in the inconceivable distant past, Dipanikara Buddha appeared in the world, and having taught and liberated multitudes of beings, who all attained enlightenment, he transcended this world. This was the first Buddha in the text. After that, the sutra lists a long list of buddhas; a total of fifty-three buddhas are named (“Next, there was a tathagata named Far-Reaching Light, then Moonlight, then Sandalwood Fragrance…”). When reading this long list, one may feel a little impatient—what’s the need to list so many names of Buddhas, why not simply say, “There are fifty-three tathagatas, the first being Dipanikara Buddha”? Scriptures are not to be tampered with, and the reason Shakyamuni Buddha so tediously listed the fifty-three Buddhas is to conclude the narrative, “All these Buddhas have come and passed '': they came and went, one by one, leaving no remnants, as if they had never been here. These eight words give us a deep sense of sentiment and regret.
Firstly, the text of the fifty-three Buddhas shows that sentient beings are too turbid and wicked to receive the Dharma.
The Sutra of the Infinite Life reads: “It took a long, long time for a Buddha to appear in the world.” Buddhas do not appear in the world casually. It often takes a long time, and only when all the yin-and-yuan, the circumstances and conditions, have been fulfilled does a Buddha appear in the world. According to the scriptures, there was not only one Buddha in the past but fifty-three Buddhas. Why didn’t we hear the Dharma and practice for liberation under these Buddhas? If we have heard the Dharma and practiced it, why are we still in the six-realm cycle of birth and death? In this regard, are we wise and progressive? Or, are we foolish, having inferior roots and capabilities? We need to think about this and reflect.
Returning to the narrative of the scripture, starting with “a tathagata named Dipanikara appeared in the world,” followed by Buddhas named Far-Reaching Light, Moonlight, Sandalwood Fragrance Buddha, down to World-Abiding, one after another and superimposed on each other, it makes us feel the already pressing atmosphere even more; when the scripture reaches the phrase “All these Buddhas have come and passed,” it forces us to reflect on ourselves and truthfully express ourselves that we are indeed nefarious beings of inferior roots opportune, life after life.
Secondly, it shows that the appearance of Dharmakara Bodhisattva is very rare and precious.
Mahayana Buddhism is based on having compassion for sentient beings, relieving their afflictions and granting them happiness. Fifty-three Buddhas have passed down from generation to generation; why have they not taught and enlightened disciples to initiate the vow of delivering all sentient beings? Even if the disciples knew they could not fulfill such a vow, it would still be inspiring if they were willing to shoulder the abominable transgressions of sentient beings, giving them their merits of cultivation and opening up the way of Other-Power. But, unfortunately, it seems to all end in vain.
On the other hand, we can look at it from an opposite view: it set off the preciousness of Dharmakara Bodhisattva’s exceptional aspirations. We are people who are particularly troubled and wicked, and the Buddhas were at their wits’ end, helplessly waving their hands, and they left. While the fifty-three Buddhas have not come to fruition, the yin and yuan, karmic cause and conditions, have since ripened and fallen on Dharmakara Bodhisattva alone. For example, a family started from scratch: the first generation farmed, the second generation accumulated a little wealth, the third generation became educated; only in the fifth or sixth or later generations did the whole family become prosperous. After ages and ages of teaching sentient beings, the Buddhas’ effort finally led to fruition in Dharmakara Bodhisattva. He took up the collective power of all the Buddhas and proclaimed a great vow, “To all fear-ridden beings, shall I grant them great peace,” and lit up the eternal darkness with the only lamp of hope. That is why ancient masters said, “although myriads of people have cultivated under the teachings of numerous Buddhas, only Dharmakara surpassed them all and attained buddhahood.” There is a saying, “A thousand soldiers are easy to obtain, but one general is hard to find.” Dharmakara Bodhisattva is that brave and powerful general and the supreme dharma instrument in the entire dharma universe.
Furthermore, the forty-eight vows are not the personal vows of Dhamakara but are regarded as the shared aspirations of all the Buddhas that carry out their great compassion. Knowing this, one will pay special attention to this Bodhisattva—who has vowed to be the liberator of all sentient beings and become Amituofo—and rely on his deliverance.
Therefore, the text of the fifty-three Buddhas can be said to bode the “two kinds of deep faith” that Master Shandao tells us: the conviction that I am an ordinary mortal who has been incapable of liberating himself despite all his cultivation from the time immemorial, and the conviction that Dharmakara Bodhisattva, who bears the expectations of all Buddhas, will most assuredly accomplish the virtue and merit to enable me to be reborn in the Pure Land. Thus, the eight-character phrase “All these Buddhas have come and passed beyond” is a turn of events. At the same time we sigh with immense heaviness and give rise to immense gratitude. The appearances of the Buddhas are a thing of the past, and the world is in deep darkness, but immediately we are given hope, for from here on out, the appearance of Dharmakara Bodhisattva reveals another yin-yuan of light.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Kevin Orro (Fozhu))
 Yin (因) and Yuan (緣) in Chinese pinyin: Yin is the principal cause, and Yuan the subsidiary cause, the predestined condition, affinity, or relationship. For instance, Yin being a seed, Yuan the soil, rain, sunshine, etc., with the proper Yuan, it leads the seed to fruition, which is the consequence Guo (果), and the reward/retribution is Bao (報). In Buddhism, yin-yuan-guo-bao (cause-condition-consequence-reward/retribution) is a fundamental concept and the law of nature. The casual yuan is internal to the individual. The external yuan, in this case, is the circumstance in which the fifty-three Buddhas cannot liberate the wicked beings. Thus, it creates the conditions for the coming of Dharmakara Bodhisattva and his forty-eight vows. After he attained buddhahood, Amituofo may deliver all beings even with the worst kind of inferior roots opportune through the power of his vows.
- 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
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.
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