The Amitabha Sutra - Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment
All of those who have vowed, or are vowing, or will vow to be born in the land of Amitabha Buddha reach the level where they do not retrogress from Supreme, Perfect Enlightenment. They are already born, are now being born, or will be born in that land. Therefore, all good men and women, if they have faith, must make a vow to be born in that land.
The phrase “those who have vowed” refers to those beings who are already born in the Pure Land. “Are vowing” refers to those who are presently making the vow and mindfully chanting the Buddha’s name. They are the ones who are now being born in the Western Pure Land. Finally, those who “will vow” refers to future practitioners. In time, they will also have an opportunity to hear this sutra and will have the ample good roots, good fortune, and favorable conditions necessary for practice. When, in the future, they make the vow, they too will be born in that land.
Once in the Pure Land, these beings will not retrogress on the path to supreme, perfect enlightenment. This means that beings already there, those who are presently going there, and those who are born there in the future will all never fall back into the six paths.
“If they have faith, must make a vow.” This is the third time in the sutra that Sakyamuni urged us to make the vow to be born in the Western Pure Land. He urged us so many times because belief and vow are crucial. Indeed, Great Master Ouyi said in his commentary on the sutra that being born in the Western Pure Land depends entirely on whether or not one has belief and vow. Having both belief and vow, one will practice and thus definitely be born in the Pure Land. Which of the lands there that one is born in depends on the depth of meditative concentration of one’s buddha- name chanting.
Let’s say that some practitioners do very well in their buddha-name chanting and achieve one-mind undisturbed at the higher level, the level of noumenon. They will be born as bodhisattvas of non-retrogression in the Land of Real Reward.
Others, as described in Amitabha’s eighteenth vow, are able to chant the buddha-name ten times at the end of their lives. Or maybe only twice. Or just once. When these beings are born in the Western Pure Land, they will be born in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together. The good fortune and wisdom of those born here will be almost the same as that of the bodhisattvas in the Land of Real Reward. Whereas the bodhisattvas enjoy those benefits thanks to their own practice, the benefits that we will enjoy in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together are due to Amitabha Buddha’s help. Essentially, we will enjoy the benefits provided by his good fortune.
It is like that impoverished young man we learned of previously who was invited by his aunt to live with her. He had little good fortune of his own but was able to enjoy the extensive good fortune of his aunt. When we are able to enjoy Amitabha’s good fortune in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, not only will we continue to chant, we will chant more diligently. One might now wonder what is the need to chant so much? Remember, we do not chant for ourselves alone! The more sincere our chanting, the stronger our meditative concentration will be.
The stronger our meditative concentration, the higher the land in which we will be born. The higher the land, the sooner our lotus will open. And the sooner our lotus opens, the more quickly we will begin to perfectly fulfill the four great vows of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. These four vows provide the aspiration and the step-by-step progression for those who have the bodhi mind to help all beings end suffering and attain liberation.
The first of the four great vows is “sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.”
This is the most important of the four great vows. It is the fundamental, underlying vow that inspires us to practice without ceasing. The remaining three vows assist in the fulfillment of this first vow.
“Help them all” encompasses keeping all beings in mind, caring about them, and aiding them. Although we may have made this fundamental vow, we do not yet have the ability to fulfill it. Why not? The vow to help them all covers not only other people and some animals. It also includes all beings throughout the entire nine Dharma realms: the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, the heavens, sound-hearers, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. These realms represent different dimensions in space. But with our limited current abilities, we cannot see or hear the beings in these various dimensions in order to help them. We cannot communicate with them.
How can we resolve this problem? By freeing the inherent abilities that are now obstructed by our afflictions. As soon as we end our afflictions, our innate abilities will come forth. With our innate abilities functioning, we will be able to communicate with the beings in the various dimensions. And be able to help them.
Thus, we have the second great vow: “afflictions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.”
The third great vow is “ways to practice are boundless; I vow to master them all.”
To begin to accomplish this vow, we need two kinds of wisdom. One is acquired wisdom, which comes from outside us. Acquired wisdom allows us to understand the capacities of other beings. With this wisdom, upon meeting other beings, we will immediately understand them and know what they need to progress toward awakening. The other is fundamental wisdom, our prajna wisdom that enables us to know the specific teachings to fill that need. With these two wisdoms, we will be like a good doctor, who is qualified to both diagnose the problem and prescribe the right treatment. We will then begin to fulfill the first of the four great vows, “sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.”
The fourth great vow is “enlightenment is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.”
By attaining supreme, perfect enlightenment—buddhahood— we will finally be able to help all beings, even equal-enlightenment bodhisattvas. As a bodhisattva, one can help only those beings who are at a level lower than one’s own. A bodhisattva is unable to help other bodhisattvas who are at the same level or higher. When one is a Buddha, however, one can universally help all beings.
We now aspire to be born in the Western Pure Land. Our vow to be born there should be based on the four great vows. The first two of these vows, “sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all” and “afflictions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all,” accord with our aversion to our world of Endurance. The latter two of the four vows, “ways to practice are boundless; I vow to master them all” and “enlightenment is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it,” accord with joyously seeking to be born in the Pure Land. Therefore, due to aversion to our present situation, we joyously seek birth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Such is the incredible inspiration of the four great vows.
— Chapter 44, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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