Question: The 18th Vow of Amituofo (阿弥陀佛; Amitabha Buddha) says that ‘if… sentient beings, with utmost sincere hearts (minds) of joyful faith, desire birth in… [his Pure] Land, even with ten mindful thoughts’ (‘十方众生，至心信乐，欲生我国，乃至十念’), they will attain birth there. Do these ten thoughts refer to those during everyday life, or when approaching the end of life?
Answer: In the context of the vow, the ten thoughts are those when approaching the end of life. Yet, they can refer to those during everyday life too – just before approaching the end of life. Details on this will be explained below.
It must not be mistaken that any mere ten chants of Amituofo’s name in everyday life will do to reach his Pure Land. If we look at the vow, we should realise that mindfulness of his name must be with ‘utmost sincere hearts (minds) of joyful faith’ (至心信乐) and ‘desire [for] birth in [his Pure Land]’ (欲生我国). In short, the mindfulness has to be sincerely powered by Faith (信) and Aspiration (愿). With the Practice (行) of mindfulness of Amituofo’s name, Faith, Aspiration and Practice are the Three Provisions (三资粮) for reaching Pure Land.
The fact that we are not in Pure Land yet, despite having chanted way more than ten times of Amituofo’s name already, means that our mindfulness is not powered by enough sincere Faith and Aspiration yet. This is not to say we have absolutely no sincere Faith or Aspiration at all. In fact, we should already have some sincere Faith and Aspiration – if we do continue with Practice. However, such sincerity is not utmost yet.
We do have Faith in Amituofo’s 18th Vow, and have Aspiration to reach his Pure Land, which is why we do the Practice needed. However, the Aspiration is not in terms of sincerely wanting to reach it NOW. It is in terms of ‘later’, usually when much older, seriously sick and even dying. That is when we tend to more naturally have utmost sincerity – since there are no better options then, with no more time to procrastinate.
However, karmically, some might not even have the opportunity to grow very old, due to sudden sickness and death. This is why we should have Practice that is as sincere as possible in everyday life. Incidentally, sincere Practice can eradicate negative karma, thus healing sickness, lengthening life, and reducing possibility of sudden death. Yet, total and lasting healing with attainment of immeasurable life is in Pure Land.
As above, Aspiration is central within the Three Provisions. When there is sincere Aspiration, it must already have the foundation of sincere Faith, and will lead to sincere Practice. This is how Aspiration plays an important pivotal role in reaching of Pure Land. Once all Three Provisions are adequate with utmost sincerity, the 18th Vow of Amituofo is able to function fully – and Pure Land will be reached.
Although everyday life Practice does not lead to Pure Land straightaway, since the Three Provisions are not fully ‘pumped up’, regular everyday life Practice still matters. This is so as ongoing Practice (personally or in group retreats) proves to ourselves in an ongoing way, that we do have, and wish to increase the Three Provisions. With whatever Faith and Aspiration we have, we should have Practice, that further nurtures Faith and Aspiration. It would be foolish to assume we only need to casually utter Amituofo’s name ten times at any time, and do away with further Practice, especially when in need of Practice with support-chanting later!
Back to the question, of whether, the ‘ten thoughts refer to those during everyday life, or when approaching the end of life?’… Again, ‘the ten thoughts are those when approaching the end of life. Yet, they can refer to those during everyday life too – just before approaching the end of life.’ In other words, even if one is not old, sick and dying yet, when the Three Provisions are adequate, though not ‘approaching the end of life’ the conventional way, the ten thoughts (or even as few as one) then will function just like those when approaching the end of life.
Even if there was only occasional Practice in everyday life, but no Practice when approaching the end of life, Pure Land cannot be reached. This is so as according to the law of karma when it comes to ‘death’-proximate karma, the quality of the last thought will be linked to the destination of rebirth. For instance, it would be ridiculous if one who is mindful of an enemy angrily is able to reach Pure Land… or if one who is sincerely mindful of Amituofo reaches hell. These examples will not occur because they do not accord with cause and effect.
This naturally gives rise to the concern of whether one can do the final Practice well when approaching death. However, much of the fear is based on the fixation of there being one single crucial moment to have successful Practice by, just before physical death. For the average practitioner, this is a misplaced concern, as speedy rebirth in Pure Land only occurs for those with very good Practice.
There is instead a window period of possibly up to 49 days in the intermediate (bardo) state, to have enough Practice to reach Pure Land. However, the 49 days’ period should not be taken for granted, as the law of karma can force one to be reborn within, and not only at the end of this period. The actual last thought, that creates ‘death’-proximate karma, or rather, ‘rebirth’–proximate karma, is the thought just before rebirth; not the thought right before death. As long as not yet reborn, there is hope of reaching Pure Land with the right Practice. One should just continue with Practice until there is connection to Amituofo for guidance to his Pure Land.
Guidance with support-chanting is thus important, to remind the dying and deceased to be utmost sincere in Practice before time runs out. To ensure there is personal support-chanting, the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang (净土宗十三祖印光大师) taught, ‘[I]f you are willing to support others to have pure mindfulness for rebirth in Pure Land, you will also attain the reward of others’ support-chanting [for you].‘ (肯助人净念往生，亦得人助念之报。) In the meantime, the more sincere everyday life learning and Practice there is, which nurtures and expresses all Three Provisions, the more likely will one be able to practise well when approaching the end of life.
There are also cases of some who hear Amituofo’s name, from no apparent person present, which urges them to be mindful of his name. This can also be regarded as support-chanting – by the unseen, probably a protective god, Bodhisattva or even Buddha. For this to happen, again, there must be sincere everyday life learning and Practice, which nurtures and expresses the Three Provisions. Even for those who did not seem to have done much, they must have strong enough karmic affinity from past lives, for such invisible support-chanting to happen. Thus, to conclude, both Practice in everyday life and when approaching the end of life are important – with the first done as well as possible ensuring the latter will be done as well as possible too.
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