The Three Provisions And Three Minds In Amitābha Buddha’s Three Vows For Gathering Sentient Beings: How Are His 18th, 19th And 20th Vows Related?
Question: As Vow (愿) #18, Vow #19 and Vow #20 of Amitābha Buddha (Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛) seem somewhat similar yet different, can they be compared and contrasted for better appreciation of their intricacies?
Answer: The significance of these great vows is immeasurably great, as they express the very means to reach Āmítuófó’s Pure Land (净土), which leads to immeasurable benefits for expediting progress towards Buddhahood for the sake of one and all. Thus, they should be studied in detail.
The vows featured below are from the Immeasurable Life Sūtra《无量寿经》, as translated by Dharma Master Saṅghavarman (康僧铠) into Chinese. This version is the one historically used and endorsed by the Pure Land Patriarchs, including the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng (净土宗十三祖印光大师), who firmly admonished the use of ‘compiled’ versions. If such edited versions are used, the important original structure and contents of the Buddha’s words, including Āmítuófó’s mindfully deliberated vows will be mixed up, altered and/or lost in meaning.
Legend For Vows Below:
[i] Text in blue is the key focus of each vow.
[ii] Text in green are the other practices of each vow.
[iii] Text in purple is common in every vow.
[Eighteenth Vow (Of Those With) Ten Thoughts All Born (In) My Land]:
If I attain Buddhahood, [of the] ten directions’ sentient beings, [with the] sincere mind [of] joyful faith, desiring birth [in] my land, and even [with] ten thoughts, if [there are] those not born [there, I shall] not obtain Right Awakening. Only excluded [are those with the] Five Heinous [Transgressions, who] slandered [the] right Dharma.
[Note 1: As Dharmākara Bodhisattva (法藏菩萨) who made these vows had already obtained the Right Awakening of Buddhahood as Āmítuófó ten kalpas (十劫) ago, as attested by Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) and other Buddhas, these vows are now fully functioning for the ten directions’ beings.
The last line are words of caution to remind all to avoid doing (especially great) evil, also as a reminder to repent (忏悔) if they were done. It is indeed true that those with such serious transgressions (of patricide, matricide, murder of an Arhat, causing a Buddha to bleed and/or causing schism in the Saṃgha: 杀父，杀母，杀阿罗汉，出佛身血，破和合僧) cannot reach Pure Land, as such extremely evil beings are severely karmically misaligned, far away from Pure Land, while being directly aligned to Avīci Hell (阿鼻地狱) by default, including those who have slandered especially the Pure Land Dharma teachings (净土法), who naturally neither believe in nor desire birth in Pure Land, thus not having Faith and Aspiration needed to inspire Practice in the vow.
However, all who have sincerely repented for such transgressions in time can still ride upon this vow by giving rise to the Three Provisions (三资粮) of Faith, Aspiration and Practice (信愿行) to reach Pure Land. With true repentance, they are no longer spiritually rebellious ones or Dharma slanderers excluded by the vow.
A key repentance Practice is via sincere mindfulness of Āmítuófó’s name, which expresses such Faith and Aspiration, while Āmítuófó is capable of sharing his great meritorious virtues (功德) with the repentant to lighten their evil karma (恶业) and guide them to his Pure Land. This is evident in the Contemplation Sūtra《观经》, in its section on the three lowest grades of birth (下品三生) in the Pure Land.
While Vow #18 states the lowest criteria to meet for reaching Pure Land, unless sick, dying and out of time, all should in their capacity strive to practise further, whenever possible, so as to not only not miss meeting this criteria, but also go beyond it, to possibly comply with the criteria in Vow #19 or Vow #20, thus attaining a higher grade of birth in the Pure Land. If there is only ‘lazy aiming’ to meet this lowest criteria, if it is missed, Pure Land will not be reached at all. It is paradoxically then, safer and ‘easier’ to ‘overreach’, than to ‘just reach’.
There is the following teaching similar to Vow #18, also in the Immeasurable Life Sūtra, as its accomplishment text (成就文), with the key difference of ‘even with one thought’ (乃至一念), instead of ‘even with ten thoughts’ (乃至十念). This is so as it is the quality of the thought(s), with profound Faith (深信) and sincere Aspiration (切愿) matters more than the quantity, although Practice with higher quantity usually does lead to higher quality.
If hearing [the] profound Dharma, [with] joyful faith, not giving rise [to] doubts [and] confusions, and even [with] one thought, mindful of that Buddha, with [the] utmost sincere mind, aspire [to be] born [in] his land. These persons, [when] approaching [life’s] end, [will] dream [of] seeing that Buddha, also attaining rebirth. [Their] meritorious virtues [and] wisdom, [are] second thus, [to] those [of the] Middle Grade (i.e. of the Low Grade: 下辈).]
[Nineteenth Vow (Of Those With) Diligent Cultivation All Received (And) Guided (By) Me]:
If I attain Buddhahood, [of the] ten directions’ sentient beings, [who] give rise [to the] Bodhi Mind, cultivate all meritorious virtues, [with the] sincere mind give rise [to the] aspiration, desiring birth [in] my land, when approaching life’s end, if [I do] not, with [a] great assembly surround [and] appear before these persons, [I shall] not obtain Right Awakening.
[Note 2: Although seemingly exclusive to Vow #19 here, Āmítuófó and/or his assembly will also come to bless, receive and guide (接引) those who meet the requisites of Vow #18 and Vow #19, when they are about to depart. This can be known by studying the Amitābha Sūtra《阿弥陀经》and the Contemplation Sūtra《观经》.
The Three Grades (三辈) of rebirth, also in the Immeasurable Life Sūtra, that mention the Bodhi Mind (菩提心) is as the accomplishment text of Vow #19. (See first Related Article below for their details.)]
[Twentieth Vow (Of Those With) Continual Mindfulness Definitely Attaining Rebirth]:
If I attain Buddhahood, [should the] ten directions’ sentient beings, [who] hear my name, [be] continually mindful [of] my land, planting all virtuous roots, [with the] sincere mind dedicating, desiring birth [in] my land, [have] those not [with this] fruit fulfilled, [I shall] not obtain Right Awakening.
[Note 3: There is the following teaching similar to Vow #20, also in the Immeasurable Life Sūtra, as its accomplishment text, with the key difference that it focuses on ‘hear his name’ (闻其名号), which is easier in Practice, not stating ‘continually mindful of my land, planting all virtuous roots’ (系念我国，植众德本).
All sentient beings, [who] hear his name, [with the] faithful mind joyful, and even [with] one thought, [with the] sincere mind dedicate, aspire [to be] born [in] that land, [will] immediately attain rebirth [there, and] abide in non-retrogression. Only excluded [are those with the] Five Heinous [Transgressions, who] slandered [the] right Dharma.]
Let us insert the key requisites of these vows for reaching the Pure Land into charts for easier comparison and contrast. (Text [and lines] with the same colours show similar qualities [and their connections].)
Notes On Vows #18, 19 And 20:
 Please see the above for the vows’ complete wording, as these charts only illustrate the similarities and differences of requisites for reaching Pure Land. The numbers show the sequence of the wording in the vows, and the common colours show the common requisites.
 Every vow includes the Three Provisions of Faith, Aspiration and Practice. Faith is ‘added’ as a default requisite for Vow #19 and Vow #20, although it understood to be necessary, as it is impossible to have Aspiration and Practice without Faith.
 Comparing the number of requisites of Faith, Aspiration and Practice respectively:
[i] Vow #18: 1,1,1
[ii] Vow #19: 1,3,1
[iii] Vow #20: 1,1,4
There is more weightage on Faith, Aspiration and Practice respectively. Vow #18’s requisites are easier to meet than those of Vow #20, which are easier to meet than those of Vow #19. Each following vow has more requisites than the previous too.
 All vows pivot upon the ‘sincere mind’ (至心) and require the basic Aspiration (愿) to ‘desire birth in my land’ (欲生我国).
 Vows’ Emphases And Practices:
[i] Vow #18 emphasizes having the ‘sincere mind of joyful Faith‘ (至心信乐). The other practice needed is ‘even with ten thoughts’ (乃至十念).
[ii] Vow #19 emphasizes having the ‘sincere mind give rise to the Aspiration‘ (至心发愿). The other practices needed are to ‘give rise to the Bodhi Mind, cultivate all meritorious virtues’ (发菩提心，修诸功德).
[iii] Vow #20 emphasizes having Practice (行) of the ‘sincere mind dedicating’ (all other practices) (至心回向). The other practices needed are to ‘hear my name, be continually mindful of my land, planting all virtuous roots’ (闻我名号，系念我国，植众德本).
 In Vow #18, ‘even with ten thoughts’ (乃至十念) is equivalent to ‘hear my name’ (闻我名号) and be ‘continually mindful of my land’ (系念我国) in Vow #20, with the easiest way to give rise to the ‘ten thoughts’ (十念) in terms of ‘hear my name’ which is ‘with Faith and Aspiration upholding the name to be mindful of Buddha’ (信愿持名念佛).
 In Vow #19, ‘cultivate all meritorious virtues’ (修诸功德) is equivalent to ‘plant all virtuous roots’ (植众德本) in Vow #20, except that Vow #19’s Practice is definitely based on the Bodhi Mind (to guide one and all to Buddhahood, which will attain a higher grade of birth for expediting self-liberation and liberation of others) – which is why it is with the ‘sincere mind [to] give rise to Aspiration’ (至心发愿), with the Bodhi Mind making the Aspiration most sincere, noble and powerful; while Vow #20’s Practice need not be based on this Bodhi Mind.
To ‘cultivate all meritorious virtues’ (修诸功德) should include ‘even with ten thoughts’ (乃至十念) to ‘hear my name, [to] be continually mindful of my land’ (闻我名号，系念我国), with the first being mindfulness of Buddha(‘s name) (念佛) as the Main Practice (正行).
As the Pure Land Tradition’s 9th Patriarch Great Master Ǒuyì (净土宗九祖蕅益大师) taught in the Spirit Peak Tradition’s Treatise《灵峰宗论》, ‘With Faith and Aspiration already complete, mindfulness of Buddha is then called the Main Practice, while correction of evil and cultivation of good [i.e. all other practices] are all called Supportive Practices.’ (信愿既具，念佛方为正行，改恶修善皆为助行。)
As the Pure Land Tradition’s 9th Patriarch Great Master Ǒuyì (净土宗九祖蕅益大师) taught in the Essential Explanation Of Amitābha Sūtra《弥陀要解》, ‘With profound Faith giving rise to the Aspiration [for birth in Pure Land], this then is the unsurpassable Bodhi [Mind]. (深信发愿，即无上菩提【心】。)
 In Vow #20, ‘sincere mind dedicating’ (至心回向) is equivalent to the conclusive Practice directing and focusing all meritorious virtues from the good practised earlier, as mentioned in the vow, for reaching Pure Land. Even if not based on the Bodhi Mind, because of this sincere dedication, there will be connection to Āmítuófó’s Other-power (他力) based on his perfect Bodhi Mind, with which he is able to receive and guide to his Pure Land.
 Vows For Each Root:
[i] Vow #18 is most skilful for receiving those of Lower Roots (下根), being weightier on joyful Faith (重信).
[ii] Vow #19 is most skilful for receiving those of Higher Roots (上根), being weightier on greater Aspiration (重愿).
[iii] Vow #20 is most skilful for receiving those of Middle Roots (中根), being weightier on much Practice (重行).
Thus, the vows shape the Dharma Door of Mindfulness of Āmítuófó to universally cover the three roots, receiving all of sharp and dull roots (念佛法门，三根普被，利顿全收).
 As taught in the Contemplation Sūtra《观经》, ‘First [is the] utmost sincere mind, second [is the] profound [faithful] mind, [and] third [is the] mind [of] dedication [with] giving rise [of] aspiration [to be born]. Those complete [with these] three minds, [will] definitely [be] born [in] that land.’ (一者至诚心，二者深心，三者回向发愿心。具三心者，必生彼国。)
[i] The ‘utmost sincere mind’ (至诚心) is aligned with the ‘sincere mind’ (至心).
[ii] The ‘profound [faithful] mind’ (深心) is aligned with the ‘joyful mind’ (信乐).
[iii] The ‘mind of dedication’ (回向) is aligned with ‘dedicate’ (回向).
[iv] ‘Giving rise of aspiration to be born’ (发愿心) is aligned with ‘give rise to aspiration’ (发愿).
 We can use these vows to gauge our present situation, to ensure we can reach Āmítuófó’s Pure Land, and to aspire for higher grades of birth by meeting their more challenging requisites accordingly.
 The practice criteria in the ‘Three Vows For Gathering Sentient Beings’ (摄生三愿) can be gathered (with various degrees of focus).
[i] For example, combining all Three Vows’ (三愿) criteria fully, with the below arising from the sincere mind (至心) of joyful faith (信乐), giving rise to the aspiration (发愿) for dedicating (回向), desiring birth in the Buddha’s Pure Land (欲生我国),
[ii] one can have mindfulness of the Buddha (念佛), which is to hear his name (闻我名号), and mindfulness of his land (念国), which is to be continually mindful of his land (系念我国), even with ten thoughts (乃至十念) (or more in everyday life and/or when departing),
[iii] also with the Bodhi Mind (菩提心) cultivating all meritorious virtues (修诸功德), which also plants all virtuous roots (植众德本).
[iv] Thus, when approaching life’s end (临寿终时), the Buddha will surely come with a great assembly surrounding and appearing (与大众围绕现其人前), to receive and guide (接引) one to his Pure Land.
The more practice criteria there is met, the higher will the grade of birth in Pure Land be.
The Three Grades Of Rebirths’ Causes, Conditions And Effects
Faith And Aspiration In The Three Pure Land Sūtras
The Contemplation Sūtra’s Nine Grades (In Tabulated Lists)
Rebirth In Pure Land’s Causes, Conditions And Effects In The Amitābha Sūtra And The Sūtra On Praises Of The Pure Land With Buddhas’ Protection And Reception
Summary Verses Of ‘Section On Perfect Penetration With Mindfulness Of Buddha’