The Aspiration of Amitabha-reciters: Notes by Master Jingben on Amitabha-recitation
Recently, some Lotus fellow reciters asked: How do I make a vow? What does a vow consist of? I have read so many different articles on making vows that I don’t know where to start.
When we encounter doubts on the path of enlightenment, we should return to our original source. As Shakyamuni Buddha was asked before entering Nirvana: “We can always rely on the Buddha when you are with us in this world, but if the Buddha should enter Nirvana, on whom should we rely?” The Buddha answered: “Rely on the Dharma, not the person.” Although Shakyamuni Buddha is no longer with us, his teachings still exist and so, when we have doubts, the simplest way is to find the answer in the Dharma.
When it comes to the content of vows, there are many kinds, such as the “Four Great Vows,” the “Ten Grand Vows,” and so on. But the fundamental “vow” of Amitabha-reciters should be based on the three Pure Land sutras.
The Sutra of the Infinite Life reads:
If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions,
Who earnestly and joyfully entrust themselves to me,
Desire to be born in my land, and
Recite my name even just ten times,
Should fail to be born there,
May I not attain perfect enlightenment.
Sincerely aspire “to be born in my land.”
Devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters, sincerely aspire “to be born in that land.”
By the power of that Buddha’s fundamental vow, those who hear his name and “desire rebirth will”, without exception, be born in his land and effortlessly attain a state of non-retrogression.
Anyone who sincerely “desires rebirth in the Land of Peace and Joy” will obtain transcendent wisdom and outstanding merits.
The Sutra of Contemplation reads:
They aspire to be born in that Buddha-land by transferring their practice merits.
The Sutra of Amitabha reads:
Sentient beings who hear of the land should “aspire to be born there.”
Those who hear this teaching “should aspire to birth in that land.”
Those who have already aspired, now aspire, or in the future will aspire to be reborn in the land of Amitabha Buddha….
[Good men and women] of faith should aspire “to be born in that land.”
Therefore, for Amitabha reciters, none of the vows are as splendid and complete as the “vow to be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.”
“Wish to be born in my land” is Amitabha Buddha’s original intent;
“Aspire to be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss” is sentient being’s aim;
“Vow to be born in that Land” is the guidance of all the Buddhas.
If sentient beings in the nine dharma realms do not wish to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, they cannot invoke Amitabha Buddha. If the Buddhas of the ten directions do not exhort sentient beings to aspire to rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, they cannot universally deliver them.
If one abandons and neglects the aspiration of “rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss”, and then makes “thousands upon thousands of lofty vows,” it is like giving up the greatness of the sun and lighting a small fire to warm oneself, or throwing away the pearl of the supreme Mani and collecting the small pebbles on the ground. What a pity!
Question: How do we carry out and fulfill the aspiration for rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss?
Answer: Recite Namo Amituofo exclusively.
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra in Four Fascicles, Master Shandao tells us:
Ten recitations of the Buddha’s name comprise ten vows and ten practices. Why? Because “Namo” means to entrust our lives as well as to dedicate merit to rebirth [in the Pure Land]. [Reciting]“Amitabha Buddha” is the practice. That is why rebirth is certain.
Master Shandao’s Pure Land thought is based on the principle of Amitabha-recitation, which means that the name “Namo Amitabha Buddha'' contains the Buddha’s every aspiration and practice, encompassing everything from the cause [of Bhikkhu Dharmakara’s cultivations] to the consequence [of Bhikkhu Dharmakara becoming a Buddha]. That is why Master Shandao says that “Namo'' means “faith and aspiration” and “Amitabha Buddha'' is the “practice.” “Faith, aspiration and cultivation” are all embedded in the name, “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” Therefore, the promulgation of “how to have faith” and “how to make a vow” introduces the exclusive recitation of “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” For those who have been reciting the name single-mindedly, there is no need to emphasize “faith, aspiration, and practice” because the name Namo Amitabha Buddha has them all. Those who have not done so but talk excessively about the meaning of “faith, aspiration, and action” are missing the fundamental point.
As the Shurangama Sutra says, “though you have heard much, if you do not practice what was heard, you might as well have heard nothing. (Just as simply talking about food does not satiate one’s hunger）
Ancient Master Honen once said:
To attain rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, nothing is required but the implicit faith that the mere recitation of Namo Amitabha Buddha causes the certain attainment of birth in the Pure Land. The teachings of the three minds ( the utmost sincere mind, the deep mind/the deep faith and the mind that desires transfer of merit towards rebirth) and the four modes of practice (the practice of veneration, the exclusive practice, the uninterrupted practice, and the long term practice) are encompassed in the firm belief that birth in the Pure Land is assured by the recitation of Namo Amitabha Buddha. Besides, it would not be the compassionate intent of Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha nor in the latter’s fundamental vow to mean something very profound and mysterious. A person who believes in Amitabha-recitation, though he may have learned the entire teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, should consider himself an ignorant person who knows not a single letter. Therefore, he should refrain from flaunting knowledge but devote himself to reciting Namo Amitabha Buddha single-mindedly.
There’s no right cause of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There’s no right practice of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There’s no right deed of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There’s no right contemplation of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There’s no transcendent wisdom of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There are no three minds of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There are no four cultivations of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
There are no five mindfulness of rebirth beyond Namo Amituofo Recitation.
Reciting Amitabha Buddha is the core of his fundamental vow. Loathing the defiled Saha world and longing for the Pure Land are inherent in Namo Amituofo recitation. Since Dharmakara Bodhisattva initiated his primal vow, we should believe in the unobstructed divine power of Amitabha Tathagata. If we seek something more profound and abstruse on top of that, we will be punished by all the deities protecting the Dharma in this life, and we will not encounter Amitabha Buddha’s primal vow next life but fall into Avici Hell!
The Three Minds and the Four Cultivations are to facilitate the exclusive Namo Amituofo recitation;
If one has been reciting Namo Amituofo exclusively, there’s no need to talk about the Three Minds and Four Cultivations.
Once one becomes an exclusive Amitabha-reciter, one needs only to continue this recitation until the end of one's life.
When the aspiration for rebirth wanes, we recite Namo Amituofo
When the mind is in distress, we recite Namo Amituofo
When a delusive thought arises, we recite Namo Amituofo
When a virtuous thought emerges, we recite Namo Amituofo
When an impure thought arises, we recite Namo Amituofo
When the mind is pure, we too recite Namo Amituofo
When the Three Minds are lacking, we recite Namo Amituofo
When the Three Minds are present, we too recite Namo Amituofo
When the Three Minds are fully achieved, we recite Namo Amituofo
This is the expeditious way to rebirth (other than nianfo); never forget it.
I, Honen, am grateful for Master Shandao’s explanation. In my view, the three minds, the five types of mindfulness, and the four practices all lead to Namo Amitabha Buddha.
I, a useless, wicked, and ignorant Honen, only recite the Buddha’s name and desire to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
I, an unworthy fool, like a child who can’t tell the difference between black and white, and a fool who can’t tell right from wrong, now firmly believe that the only way to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss is to recite the Buddha’s name.
Amitabha Buddha tells us that he would come to receive us when we recite his name; Shakyamuni Buddha tells us that reciting Namo Amituofo ensures our rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. That is all I need to know, nothing else.。
Therefore, an Amitabha-reciter’s faith and aspiration reside in the exclusive recitation of Namo Amituofo.
Of course, there will always be some obstacles and difficulties in life, but as Amitabha-reciters, we just need to be happy and content, take whatever comes and seek to eliminate past karmic burdens by reciting Amitabha’s name. In this way, we will be keeping the pristine nature of the Pure Land tradition of reciting the Buddha’s name and ensuring our rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Master Yinguang once said: “Pure Land School practitioners should not try to be clever. If they are curious and deviate from the [simple recitation] tradition, it will backfire. Therefore, compared with those uneducated, seemingly foolish men and women who faithfully recite the Buddha’s name, practitioners who excel in practicing Dharma schools other than the Pure Land and who are knowledgeable in different types of Buddhist scriptures do not gain real benefits. If you are willing to abide by the plain and simple Pure Land School tradition, your rebirth in the Land of Ultimate is guaranteed. Otherwise, your failure in reaching the Pure Land is predicted.”
The Sutra of the Enlightenment of Eight Great Sages as Expounded by the Buddha reads:
The world is impermanent, and the country fragile.
Death and birth are wearisome ordeals, originated from greed and lust. While too much desire brings pain, lessening it eases the body and mind.
Ordinary beings are insatiable and never have enough. Thus, we commit evil deeds. Bodhisattvas make no such mistakes. Instead, they are content and have a deep realization of the Way. They live a frugal and spiritual life, cultivating wisdom.
The five desires are a source of evil deeds. Even though we live in this Saha world, we should not indulge in the five desires.
The Sutra on the Buddha’s Bequeathed Teaching reads:
You should know that people with many desires suffer much because they constantly seek fame and wealth. People who have fewer desires are free of these troubles.
Those with fewer desires have peace of mind, no worry, no fear, and are ever satisfied, and never feel deprived.
If you wish to be free from all sufferings and agonies, you should practice contemplation of contentment. Contemplation of contentment is the key to feeling happy, fulfilled and rich. People who are content are joyful even though they might be sleeping on muddy ground. Those who are not, feel dissatisfied even though they might be already in heaven. Those who are discontented are poor even though they have a lot of money. Those who feel content are rich even though they live in poverty. Discontented people are always hooked by the five desires. They are pitied by the content. This is what true contentment infers.
Master Genshin (942-1017 AD) writes in his “Yokawa Hogo”:
It is a cause of great happiness that, among all living beings, we have escaped from the three evil realms and have been born human.
Though one’s station in life may be low, it is not worse than animal existence.
Though one is poverty stricken, it is not like the land of the hungry ghosts.
Though we experience pain in our hearts, this is not comparable to the suffering of the hell realms.
Even though we live in a world where hardship and affliction abound, this is our motivation to aspire for enlightenment.
Although I am lowly, not noble, my lowly station guides me to Bodhi (enlightenment);
Therefore, I should rejoice in being a human.
Although my faith is shallow, my rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss is ensured by the power of Amitabha Buddha’s primal vow.
Although reciting Namo Amituofo may be tiring, its merit is great, and the Buddha will come to receive us.
Therefore, we must celebrate when we encounter the primal vow.
May all sentient beings recite Namo Amituofo exclusively,
And obtain peace and rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
(Translated and edited by the Pure Land School Translation Team; edited by Householder Fojin)
- 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