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I felt the urgent need to write this short article to explore solely within the context of the Larger Pureland Sutra ( a.k.a. The Larger Sutra of Amitayus) the reasons for Amida Buddha's 18th Vow to be his Primal Vow as taught by Shinran Shonin and Jodo Shinshu.
Taken from The Larger Sutra on Amitayus or Larger Pureland Sutra:
PASSAGE 27 , Verses on Bodhisattvas' visit
'By the power of that Buddha's Original Vows,
All who hear his Name and desire birth,
Will, without exception, be born in his land
And effortlessly enter the Stage of Non-retrogression.'
“The Buddha said to Maitreya, "If there are people who hear the Name of that Buddha, rejoice so greatly as to dance, and remember him even once, then you should know that they have gained great benefit by receiving the unsurpassed virtue.”
PASSAGE 7, Dharmakara's 48 Vows
( Vow 18 ) 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. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
( Vow 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.
( Vow 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.
When comparing the quoted verses from Passages 27 and 48 against the 18th, 19th and 20th vows of Passage 7, it is the 18th Vow that conforms to the verses and thus the 18th Vow is the Primal Vow or the true dharma door of Amida Buddha involving total faith in Amida Buddha alone , leaving the 19th and 20th Vows as provisional methods of Self-Power or Mixed practices, because they do not accord with Amida’s Primal Vow ( involving total faith in Amida Buddha ).
Also, there seems to be two things about the 18th Vow which may be problematic when compared against the verses quoted from Passage 27 :
(1) The verses quoted from Passage 27 do not mention : “…and call my Name even ten times...” and which appears in the 18th Vow .
This is solved if one calls his Name out of gratitude and not as a means to attain birth in the Western Pureland.
(2) The verses quoted from Passage 27 mention “without exception” and yet the 18th Vow states an exception : “Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma”.
This is solved if one regards the exclusionary clause as a warning of Amida Buddha against committing such great evils, even though those who commit are saved by him nevertheless according to his Primal Vow.
When the quoted verses from Passages 27 and 48 are compared, the following differences are noted and the possible interpretations can be made :
(1) rejoice so greatly as to dance
This may be simply an expression of the intensity of one’s faith and may not be taken literally, since it is omitted in Passage 27.
(2) gained great benefit by receiving the unsurpassed virtue
Since Passage 27 mentions only the stage of non-retrogression, this quotation from Passage 48 may indicate going from the stage of non-retrogression (unsurpassed virtue) to Buddhahood (great benefit).
Having thus sorted the matter so far, the rest of the Larger Pureland Sutra should be interpreted according to the true teachings and the provisional teachings.
The true teachings are Amida Buddha’s 18th Vow as his Primal Vow and requires our absolute faith in him without any effort on our part to attain Buddhahood immediately after death in his Western Pureland, with Namu Amida Butsu (Namo Amitofo) recited in gratitude. The rest of the Larger Pureland sutra and the other two Pureland sutras must be interpreted and re-interpreted accordingly.
Those parts of the Larger Pureland sutra and the other two Pureland sutras that do not agree with the true teachings regarding the 18th Vow are to be regarded as provisional teachings in agreement with the 19th and/or 20th Vows.
This also means that those who follow the 19th and/or the 20th Vows do not enter the true Western Pureland but instead enter a provisional Western Pureland of their creation . The 19th and 20th Vows and the provisional teachings are for those who cannot accept the true teachings concerning the 18th Vow.
(written by Stephen Ho on 5January, 2014 in the Republic of Singapore. It is a revised version of another article he wrote on October 22, 2012. )