Three Ways, Two Paths, and One Practice for Rebirth
Three ways to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss
In my earlier article, “Karmic Circumstance—Who is Entitled to be Reborn in the Pure Land,”* I pointed out that there are three ways for sentient beings in the Saha World like us to attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss, as stated in the Contemplation Sutra:
1. Through self-powered meditative practices, as described in the first 13 of the 16 Contemplations and mentioned in the request made by Queen Vaidehi to Shakyamuni Buddha. Aspirants take meditative virtues as the main path to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, and the first 13 contemplations as the main practices. Practitioners of any of the first 13 contemplations must dedicate their merit and aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
2. Through self-powered non-meditative practices (the Three Meritorious Deeds**), as described in the last three of the 16 Contemplations. It should be noted that Shakyamuni Buddha expounded this method without prompting in the Contemplation Sutra. Aspirants take the Three Meritorious Deeds as the main path to rebirth in the Land of Bliss and the karmic acts, revealed in the last three contemplations (the Nine Levels of Aptitude), as the main practices for rebirth. Again, practitioners of any of the nine levels must dedicate their merit and aspire accordingly if they wish to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
3. Through Amitabha-invocation, specifically Amitabha-recitation. This method is based on Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow, known as the Fundamental Vow. It is revealed in different portions of the Contemplation Sutra, particularly in the 7th, 8th, and 9th Contemplations, and the 14th, 15th, and 16th Contemplations. The 16th Contemplation especially illustrates Amitabha-recitation according to the Fundamental Vow. Shakyamuni Buddha likewise expounded this teaching without prompting in the Contemplation Sutra. Aspirants take the Three States of Mind*** as the main cause of rebirth, and Amitabha-invocation as the main practice for rebirth.
Two paths to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss
When Master Shandao wrote his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra to establish the Pure Land school of Buddhism, he grouped the first two methods for attaining rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss into one path, known as the Path of Importance. He then established the third way as an independent path, the Path of the Great Vow. He writes: “Shakyamuni Buddha, the manifested sage in the Saha World, who was questioned [by Queen Vaidehi], opened widely the gates to the Path of Importance in the Pure Land teachings. Amitabha Buddha, the accomplished one residing in the Land of Peace and Joy, at his own initiative, reveals and advocates an alternative: the Path of the Great Vow.
The Path of Importance constitutes the two teachings of meditative virtue and non-meditative virtue, as expounded in the Contemplation Sutra. Meditative virtue means to still one’s anxiety by ceasing all thought, and non-meditative virtue means to eliminate evil and nurture goodness. This is the necessary path if one would dedicate these virtues and aspire to be reborn [in the Pure Land].”
The Path of Importance is characterized by Shakyamuni Buddha’s Pure Land teachings. They are called “wide” because his teachings are aimed at different kinds of sentient beings of varying levels of aptitude and capacity. Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha has opened different “doors” in order to lead all beings to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.
Master Shandao combines the first two ways into one path called the Path of Importance because both methods involve: 1. Self-powered practice, and 2. Dedication and aspiration for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. This path is called “important” because it is important for the aspirants to dedicate the virtue attained through self-powered meditative or non-meditative practices and to aspire to be reborn if they wish to enter Amitabha’s Pure Land. Diligent practice is thus imperative.
Master Shandao continues: “The Path of the Great Vow, as described in the Larger Sutra (The Infinite Life Sutra) is this: All good and evil ordinary beings will not attain rebirth [in the Pure Land] without recourse to the pure karmic power of Amitabha Buddha’s Great Vow as an augmentative cause.”
The Path of the Great Vow is characterized by Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land teachings, based on his 48 Causal Vows—particularly the 18th Vow, known as the Fundamental Vow. It is different from the Path of Importance in the following ways:
1. The entire matter of rebirth in the Land of Bliss is resolved and accomplished by the power of Amitabha’s vow.
2. According to the Fundamental Vow, the only practice required on this path is simple and easy—Amitabha-recitation.
3. This practice is suitable for all ordinary sentient beings, regardless of their aptitude, capacity, or virtue, and can be practiced under any circumstances.
4. Rebirth is assured because the practice accords with Amitabha’s fulfilled Fundamental Vow.
Shakyamuni Buddha makes a concluding statement in the Contemplation Sutra: “Bear these words well in mind. To bear these words in mind means to hold fast to the name of the Buddha Amitayus [Amitabha Buddha].” Amitabha-recitation, in accordance with the Fundamental Vow, is thus one of the fundamental characteristics of pristine Pure Land Buddhism.
Master Shandao explains this concluding statement as follows: “Although [Shakyamuni Buddha] has spoken of the benefits [of attaining rebirth] through practicing the meditative and non-meditative virtues, in light of [Amitabha] Buddha’s Fundamental Vow, Shakyamuni’s underlying intention is to encourage sentient beings to exclusively recite the name of Amitabha Buddha in a consistent and persistent manner.”
In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha highlights this exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation above all other ways or paths that may lead to rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. Just one practice is sufficient for all aspirants to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, regardless of their degree of aptitude, capacity, blessing, or wisdom. Is it not inconceivable and wonderful? Namo Amitabha!
**The Three Meritorious Deeds:
1. Caring for one's parents, attending to one’s teachers and elders, compassionately refraining from killing, and performing the Ten Good Deeds.
2. Taking the Three Refuges, keeping the various precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct.
3. Awakening the aspiration for enlightenment, believing deeply in the law of causality, and chanting the Mahayana sutras and encouraging people to follow their teachings.
These are usually called the virtues of worldly morality (moral conduct for non-Buddhists), the virtues of precepts (Theravada Buddhist practices), and the virtues of cultivation (Mahayana Buddhist practices), respectively.
*** The Three States of Mind: the Sincere Mind, the Deep Mind (Faith), and the Mind of Merit-dedication and Rebirth-aspiration Mind