Question: What are the ‘ten mindful thoughts’ (十念) mentioned in the 18th Vow of Amituofo (阿弥陀佛; Amitabha Buddha) in the ‘Immeasurable Life Sutra’ (无量寿经) below?
Eighteenth Vow Of All Born In My Land With Ten Mindful Thoughts: ‘If I attain Buddhahood, if the ten directions’ sentient beings, with utmost sincere hearts (minds) of joyful faith, desire birth in my land, even with ten mindful thoughts, should not be born there, I shall not attain right awakening. Only excluded are those who with the Five Heinous Transgressions, who slandered the right Dharma.’
Answer: In the same sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha further explained by teaching the following –
‘All beings who hear his name [“Amituofo”], have faith and rejoice, even if for one thought, sincerely dedicating for the vow to be born in that land, will immediately attain rebirth there, abiding in non-retrogression. Only excepted are those with the five heinous misgivings, and who slander the right Dharma.’
In other words, the mindful thoughts refer to the name (名号) of Amituofo. (Even one thought will suffice if complete with at least the criteria in Vow #18.) We also know it is the name as in the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀经), Sakyamuni Buddha taught so –
‘hear of Amita[bha] Buddha, to faithfully [and firmly] uphold [mindfulness of the] name [of Amituofo]’ .
Another reference is Sakyamuni Buddha’s following teaching in the ‘Sutra On Contemplation Of The Buddha Of Immeasurable Life’ (观无量寿佛经) –
‘Thus with a sincere mind, enabling its sound to not be interrupted, completing ten thoughts, of reciting “Námó Āmítuófó”. Reciting the Buddha’s name thus, within every thought, eradicates eighty koṭis of kalpas of births’ and deaths’ transgressions. When life is ending, [they] see a golden lotus flower, just like the sun, abiding before these persons. As if in one thought moment, they immediately attain rebirth in the Land Of Ultimate Bliss.’
Back to the opening context of the 18th Vow, as stated in it, the ten mindful thoughts (十念) are with the utmost sincere heart of joyful Faith (至心信乐 ) and Aspiration for birth in Amituofo’s Pure Land (欲生我国). The easiest way to express the above Faith and Aspiration is by Practice of mindfulness of Amituofo’s name (信愿持名 or 信愿念佛). Note that Faith (信), Aspiration (愿) and Practice (持名念佛) form the Three Provisions (三资粮) for reaching Amituofo’s Pure Land.