Comparison of Amitabha's Three Rebirth Vows in the Land of Bliss
Among Amitabha's three deliverance vows for rebirth, the seekers mentioned in the 18th vow include all sentient beings of different aptitudes and abilities, races and nationalities, religions and cultures. The only method to achieve assured rebirth is the exclusive recitation of Amitabha as stated in the vow, and this method is clearly the easiest of the three.
Seekers of the other two vows rely on the dedication of their own merit and virtues for rebirth, attained through "self-powered" meditative and non-meditative practices. In contrast, seekers who rely on the 18th vow receive the merit and virtues of Amitabha obtained through the practice of "other powers" of Amitabha recitation.
Amitabha Buddha assures seekers of rebirth in his only 18th vow. In other words, aspirants to the 19th and 20th vows are to certain to be reborn in their present life, but will be so towards the end of their life, provided they are able to be aware of the Buddha.
If Amitabha's 18th vow is the easiest and most direct path to be reborn in the land of bliss, why did Amitabha make two other vows and provide two other methods - as shown in the 19th and 20th wishes – for sentient beings to attain rebirth in the land of happiness?
It is rare and difficult to hear the Buddha's Pure Land teaching
The assured rebirth obtained by the exclusive recitation of Amitabha in the present life, in accordance with the 18th vow of Amitabha, is the easiest practice to remain in the definitively assured state and infallibly attain Nirvana (in accordance with the 11th vow of Amitabha). amitabha). Since the reward is so splendid and the practice so easy, the Pure Land tradition is the hardest to believe among Buddhist teachings.
In the Infinite Life SutraBuddha Shakyamuni says at the end:
It is difficult to meet and see Tathagata when he is in this world. Difficult to access, difficult to hear are the teachings and scriptures of the Buddhas. It is also difficult to hear the excellent teachings of the bodhisattvas, the paramitas.
Shakyamuni Buddha continues:
It is also difficult to meet a good teacher, to hear the Dharma and to perform the practices. But the most difficult of all difficulties is to hear this sutra, to believe in it with joy, and to hold fast to it. Nothing is more difficult than that.
The opportunity to hear the Infinite Life Sutra, which tells of the land of bliss, the name of Amitabha and his liberating wishes, is truly rare. It is profoundly difficult for ordinary beings in the Six Realms, or even for bodhisattvas, to encounter a Buddha or a good teacher who utters this sutra.
Welcoming those who have difficulty believing in the 18th vow
The original intention of Bodhisattva Dharmakara, the ancient incarnation of Amitabha Buddha, was to deliver all sentient beings in the ten directions to be reborn in his Buddha land. He resolved that no one would be excluded from his equal, unconditional, and compassionate deliverance.
Bodhisattva Dharmakara understood the circumstances in this Saha world very well. Thus, he made the 19th vow and the 20th vow to welcome all who find it difficult to believe and cling to Amitabha's teaching of deliverance through his name. These vows would also serve to guide these practitioners to the 18th vow.
Bodhisattva Dharmakara has identified two groups of sentient beings who have different concerns and doubts about the 18th vow. As Shakyamuni Buddha says in the passage on "rebirth through the womb" in the Infinite Life SutraFirstly, they perform various meritorious deeds aspiring to be reborn in this land while doubting the wisdom of the Buddha (like aspirants to the 19th vow). These practitioners believe in the other power, but still think that they should contribute to their own deliverance by performing various meritorious deeds. Amitabha Buddha cannot ensure their rebirth because the decision to completely renounce self-power and the cultivation of merit and virtue is the prerogative of the practitioner. Amitabha Buddha can only promise to appear before them towards the end of their lives and let them make the final decision at this critical time.
Second, they doubt the wisdom of the Buddha but believe in retribution for evil and reward for virtue, so they devote themselves and yearn to be reborn in this land by cultivating a stock of merit (like seekers of the 20th vow). These practitioners cling to self-power even more tightly than 19th vow seekers, and they anxiously try to amass a stock of merit sufficient to qualify for rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land. Because he respects our free will, Amitabha Buddha cannot fully help those who refuse to give up belief in their own abilities. He can only promise them to wait until they finally turn to his 18th wish in this life or in a future life.
Disadvantages of Rebirth by the 19th and 20th Vows
Nevertheless, these aspirants can be reborn under special circumstances, such as meeting a good teacher and witnessing the recitation at the end of life. However, their chances of rebirth are less than three or four in a thousand, as stated by Master Shandao.
Moreover, although they are reborn in the Land of Bliss, they are reborn in a closed lotus bud which will not open and blossom until their doubts about Amitabha's deliverance through his Name are dispelled.
In a nutshell, to properly understand Amitabha's 19th and 20th vows, we must not consider their meanings in isolation, but understand them in conjunction with Amitabha's 18th vow, the foundational vow of Amitabha's deliverance.