Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Three vows of salvation (commentary on the 18th, 19th and 20th Vows)
Generally speaking, Buddhist practices taught by Shakyamuni can be classified into two groups:
1. meditative practices
2. non-meditative practices
Meditative practices include various types of meditation and visualizations that we can find in all schools of Buddhism from Theravada to Mahayana and Esoteric Vajrayana.
Non-meditative practices include chanting sutras, observing the precepts, abstaining from wrong doing or doing various good acts, etc. These non-meditative practices are said to generate merits or positive karmic energy that help the practitioner attain higher rebirths or spiritual states. They can also be transferred or directed by the practitioner toward various goals, including his future Enlightenment.
But Shinran disagreed with this, saying that as long as we are not enlightened and our minds are darkened by ignorance, we cannot have genuine merits. This is especially true in the period of the last Dharma age in which we live now. Only the Buddhas and of course, Amida Buddha can have true merits, so he considered the merit transference from the practitioner toward Enlightenment as being futile and he said that the true merit transference actually takes place from Amida Buddha to the devotee who has faith in him.
Thus we should give up to any thought of merits and instead rely exclusively on Amida Buddha’s Power of salvation. This exclusive reliance is described in the 18th Vow, called the Primal Vow. In it, Amida promises:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
All sentient beings who entrust to Amida, desire to be born in his Land and call his Name, will be born there. Nothing else is needed. No mentioning of merits or things that the practitioner should add to the power of Amida. Just wish to be born in the Pure Land, have faith and recite the Name. These three aspects: 1. wish to be born, 2. faith and 3. calling of the Name, are in fact three manifestations of the same thing, which is faith or entrusting heart (shinjin). This is because there cannot be any desire to be born in the Pure Land or a saying of the Name if one doesn’t believe in the existence of Amida Buddha and his capacity to make us be born there. We wish to be born in the Pure Land and say the Name of Amida because we entrust in Amida’s power to bring us there.
Namo Amida Butsu means “I take refuge in Amida Buddha” and to take refuge is to have faith. Saying of the Name (nembutsu) is the natural expression of faith and is the same with faith. There cannot be any true nembutsu without faith. This is the case with the 18th Vow.
However, the situation is that not all practitioners are able to give up entirely the attachment to their personal power in reaching birth in the Pure Land. They simply cannot rely exclusively on Amida but think there is still something they need to add to his Power so that they deserve to be born in the Pure Land. Thus, they are remain attached to the idea of merits even if they also rely on Amida. This kind of faith mixed with reliance on their own merits and personal power is not in accord with the 18th Vow, but still such people are not abandoned by Amida.
Especially for those who are not capable to rely exclusively on him, but still wish to be born in his Pure Land, Amida created the 19th and 20th Vows.
Let us read and understand these Vows:
(19) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
(20) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who, having heard my Name, concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant roots of virtue, and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their aspiration, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
What does Amida say in the 19th Vow? That those who do various meritorious deeds in order to be born in the Pure Land will see Amida Buddha at their death surrounded by many sages, welcoming them in the Pure Land. The various meritorious deeds mean they continue to practice many kinds of meditative and non-meditative practices. For example, whenever they do a visualization or contemplation of Amida in accord with the Contemplation Sutra or even when they do other meditation techniques, when they observe precepts, do a good deed like saving life, abstaining from meat, etc, they think this will help them to be born in Amida’s Pure Land and actually transfer the merits of these practices (meditative or non-meditative) toward their future birth there.
Usually followers of various schools do meditation practices or observe precepts, etc, in order to become a Buddha in this life, like Shakyamuni, but practitioners of the 19th Vow change the goal of these meditative and non-meditative practices to become a Buddha in the Pure Land of Amida. They change the direction of their Buddhist practice toward Amida Buddha. This is the difference between them and other Buddhists and this difference makes them to enter Amida’s influence and guidance.
The followers of the 20th Vow make another important step further into the Light of Amida Buddha. They do not stop at meditative and non-meditative practices, but among all practices they chose only one which is to say the Name of Amida Buddha.
The expression “hearing my Name” from this Vow means to become aware of the Name of Amida and saying it both in mind and with one’s mouth. The concentration of thoughts on the land of Amida and the desire to be born there is done this time through recitation of the Name. In the Smaller Amida Sutra (Amida-kyo) the recitation of the Name of Amida is called the root of all virtues, because among all Buddhist practices recommended by Shakyamuni, the recitation of the Name is supreme. So, to “plant roots of virtue” mentioned in the 20th Vow means to recite exclusively the Name of Amida, to choose among all practices only this practice.
Like followers of the 19th Vow, those of the 20th Vow are also not free of doubts and do not rely exclusively on Amida’s Power to be born in the Pure Land but consider this Name recitation to be their own virtue and a practice that depends on their own capacities to be done correctly. So they transfer the merits they think they accumulated through a good recitation toward birth in Amida’s Pure Land. They are still dependent on their own power and their faith in Amida is not absolute.
What we see from reading these two vows, the 19th and the 20th, is that people following them are also born in the Pure Land of Amida and escape once and for all from samsara or birth and death. Amida especially finishes these two vows with the promise that the practitioners fulfilling the requirements contained in them will definitely be born in his
and if this will not happen then it means he does not deserve to be call a Buddha or he is not a Buddha – “may I not attain perfect Enlightenment”. Pure Land
But if we read the Contemplation Sutra on Amida Buddha we see that among those born in the Pure Land through directing their merits in a way or another there are various grades and differences. Not all are equal.
The more the virtues, the better the place one occupies in the Pure Land, for example, the higher level of the highest grade, the middle level of the highest grade, the lower level of the highest grade, then the higher level of the middle grade, the middle level of the middle grade, and so on, until the lowest level of the lowest grade.
But no mention is there about those who enter Amida’s Pure Land through faith alone as in the 18th Vow. The various levels are established only according to the personal virtues of the practitioners in their previous life when they transferred the merits acquired through various meditative or non-meditative practices and through nembutsu recited in self power.
What does this mean? Why those born through faith alone are not mentioned in any of these categories?
Shinran said this is because they immediately become Buddhas when they are born in the Pure Land, and for Buddhas there are no categories in which they can be classified.
Those who are born in the Pure Land through the gate of the 19th and 20th vows do not immediately become Buddhas but due to their clinging to personal power they continue to stay there in an unenlightened state of mind until they overcome their doubts and attachments to the so called merits and virtues and entrust entirely to the Power of Amida Buddha.
The 18th is the Vow of direct entering into the true Pure Land, while the other two are Vows of indirect entering. It is like a house with three doors. One door is the main one which leads directly to the owner and in his presence you become like him (a Buddha sharing the activity of Amida), while the second and third door are leading to an anteroom or waiting room where you have to stay for a while until having access to him.
This anteroom or waiting room to perfect Enlightenment in Amida’s Pure Land is called the borderland of the Pure Land or the realm of indolence and pride, the city of doubt, the womb like palace, etc. Birth here is not a punishment, but practitioners actually keep themselves there by their doubts and clinging to their own power.
For a better understanding of this birth in the borderland of the Pure Land caused by mixed faith, please read my article “Commentary on the seventeenth chapter of Tannisho – birth in the borderland”.
The 18th, the 19th and the 20th Vows are the three Vows of salvation which give deliverance from birth and death to all beings that rely exclusively or partially on Amida Buddha, who have absolute faith or still cling to their so called power and merits but wish to be born in the Pure Land. Because these three Vows and especially the 18th are mentioned in the Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha, Shinran considered its deliverance to be the main reason for Shakyamuni’s appearance on earth, while the Contemplation Sutra where visualization of Amida, transference of merits and the nine grade of aspirants are mentioned and the Smaller Amida Sutra (Amida-kyo) where the recitation of the Name alone is encouraged as the root of all virtues, are provisional means for those who still can’t rely exclusively on Amida Buddha.
Many people go through these three vows of salvation consciously or unconsciously in their Buddhist practice. Many of us had a time when we practiced other Buddhist methods to become a Buddha in this life after we abandoned various religious paths or didn’t have any religion at all. Then, we heard about Amida’s Pure Land and we stopped aspiring to attain Enlightenment in this life but wanted to be born there. Still, doubting that birth in the Pure Land is so easy we felt we need to do something in order to deserve it. So we continued to follow various practices to feel we are better people than others.
Then, we heard that nembutsu is the greatest practice among all Buddhist practices, the root of all virtues, and we start reciting it, but still we felt this is too easy, so again attachment to our own power kept us prisoners of doubts.
And finally, after listening again and again to the teaching, contemplating our true capacities and the Compassion of Amida, we realized he is like a mother to us and every mother wishes to save her children from fire and danger of death as they are without waiting until they become perfect. So, for the first time we heard the 18th Vow in which no special virtue or capacity was mentioned in order to be born in the Pure Land and we received faith. Then, the nembutsu we continued to recite was no longer the nembutsu based on self power, but the nembutsu of faith and gratitude.
With this nembutsu we enter directly into the presence of Amida, the Master of the Pure Land, where we too become Buddhas and forever join his salvation work.