In the next section of the sutra Buddha urges all sentient beings to seek rebirth in the Pure Land and to make vows.
This section is in two pans. The first part reveals the supreme causal basis [for rebirth in the Pure Land], and the second part extols the special excellence of the Pure Land.
[What is the special excellence of the Pure Land?] Sentient beings can be reborn there carrying their karmic load with them, and thereby transcend the triple world "horizontally." [Amitabha's Pure Land] is a pure land where saints and ordinary beings dwell together, but it includes all Four Lands [the Land where Saints and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, the Land of Expedient Liberation, the Land of Real Reward, and the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light], and reveals the four teachings [elementary, common, special, and complete].
Sentient beings who are born in Amitabha's Pure Land purify the Four Lands completely, see the three Buddha-bodies perfectly, and fully arrive at the point where they cannot fall back from their position, from their practice, or their mindfulness. All the people in Amitahha's Pure Land will attain enlightenment in one lifetime.
All these special features of the Pure Land are pointed out in the next two sections of the sutra. You should study them carefully.
Now the first passage:
None of the sentient beings who are born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss ever fall back into a lower realm [i.e., they are avaivartika]. Many among them have only one more lifetime [to go before enlightenment]. These beings are very numerous, and their number is incalculable: they can be spoken of as innumerable.
The sutra uses a Sanskrit word, "avaivartika", which means "not falling back". [There are three senses of this "not falling back" that apply to sentient beings in the Pure Land.] First, they do not fall hack from their position: having entered the holy stream [four levels of sagehood culminating in Arhatship], they do not fall back to the level of gods and men. Second, they do not fall back from their practice: as followers of the Bodhisattva path they continue to work for the salvation of all beings, and do not fall back to the level of the Lesser Vehicles [with their concern limited to individual salvation]. Third, they do not fall back from their mindfulness: from mind-moment to mind-moment, they flow into the ocean of all-knowledge...
In Amitabha's Pure Land, the ten forms of mindfulness are fully developed, and even those who dwell in its lowest level, and have been born in there bringing along their karmic burdens, do not fall back from their position, from their practice, or from their mindfulness...
According to the doctrines of the non-Pure Land Buddhist scriptures, it is a major error and a deviation from the established terminology to speak of skipping stages.
It is only in Amitabha's Pure Land, where saints and ordinary beings dwell together, that people are not in any of these stages, and yet in all of them. Such transcendence of names and forms does not exist in any other Buddha-land: this definition of stages and levels, this teaching, does not exist in any other Buddha-land. But how could any of this exist if not for the ultimate reality of the true nature of mind, if not for the special effect of reciting the Buddha-name, if not for the great vows of Amitabha?
[In the non-Pure Land Buddhist scriptures] the stage of having only one lifetime to go before enlightenment is generally attributed only to Bodhisattvas. But everyone in the Land of Ultimate Bliss will achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. Everyone in the Pure Land is sure to experience the stage of having only one lifetime to go before enlightenment, and among them are countless numbers of such superlative [Bodhisattvas].
Among the teachings given by Sakyamuni Buddha for a certain era, only the Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra explains perfect realization in a single lifetime. The basis for perfect realization is explained in the Chapter on the "Vows of Samantabhadra", in the Ten Great Vows showing the way back to the land called "Peaceful Nurturing" [another name for Amitabha's Pure Land]. The Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra is thus urging the whole assembly in the Flower Treasury World (cosmos) on toward the Pure Land.
How amazing! Ordinary people [in the Pure Land] reach the stage of having only one lifetime to go before enlightenment, just like the great Bodhisattvas. What a sublime teaching -- it is truly unfathomable! What was given to us in the Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra is here in the Amitabha Sutra. Yet from ancient times until now, few have believed in it, and many have doubted it. Complex writings have been produced, but the truth has been sacrificed. All I can do to set things right is give my heart's blood.
At this point in the sutra, Buddha gives a specific admonition:
When sentient beings hear [of the Land of Ultimate Bliss], they must take a vow to be born in this land. Why so? So that they can be together with all these beings of superior goodness.
The Arhats and the Bodhisattvas the sutra talks about at the beginning [as part of the assembly listening to Buddha expound the sutra] can be called "good people". But only those with only one lifetime to go before enlightenment, those who are at the top level of the causal ground for enlightenment, are called "beings of superior goodness" (beings of the highest virtue). The sutra says "all these beings of superior goodness" because their number is large.
"Being together" expresses the idea that in the Pure Land the ordinary and the holy live together. There are sages of real attainment, who still carry some past impure karma, and sages adept in provisional expedients, with their vows of great compassion, so ordinary people in the Pure Land get to live together with holy sages. There are real saints whose desires have been extinguished, and teachers with skill in means whose entanglements have been ended. They differ widely in levels of attainment, and of bliss, but for the time being they are together in the Pure Land.
In our mundane world, on the other hand, those who see and hear [such holy sages] are few, and among those who do have the good fortune to see or hear them, few can approach them.
When a Buddha is in the world, there may be relatively many holy ones [helping to spread the teaching], but after all they are still rare jewels, and they cannot cover the whole world like the stars of the firmament.
But even though Amitabha's Pure Land is a place where saints and ordinary beings dwell together, what they do and what they accomplish there are far from the same.
Those who have been born in the Pure Land are together due to their stainless karma and inconceivable deeds. These beings act as one another's teachers, and work in harmony, so that they may end ignorance together, and together achieve wondrous enlightenment.
The ordinary lowly ones born in the Pure Land, by virtue of not falling back from mindfulness, have transcended [many levels of Bodhisattvahood]. If we say they are ordinary people, [this is wrong, because they are beyond the cycle of rebirth]; they are on the verge of becoming enlightened, and are no different from the great Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta. Although they are going to attain enlightenment in one lifetime, still, they must be called ordinary people, and they cannot be called Bodhisattvas with enlightenment equal to the Buddhas. This state of affairs cannot be encompassed by the systems of the non-Pure Land sutras, and has no precedent in Buddha-lands other than Amitabha's Pure Land.
We must realize that in our great mission to open up enlightened perception, this barrier to the Land Where Saints and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together is the hardest to cross over. The Land of Ultimate Bliss, Amitabha's Pure Land Where Saints and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, is unique -- it goes beyond all the other pure lands where saints and ordinary beings live together.
Only when we comprehend this can we have deep faith in the power of the vows of Amitabha. Only when we believe in the power of Amitabha Buddha can we have deep faith in the merits of his name. Only when we invoke the name of Amitabha can we have deep faith that the True Nature of our own minds is actually inconceivable. Only when we have this deep faith can we make great vows.
The text of the sutra says sentient beings must take a vow to be born in the Pure Land. This word "must" points to deep faith. Making vows with deep faith is precisely the Mind of Supreme Enlightenment. In sum, faith and vows are truly the guiding compass to the Pure Land. Relying on faith and vows and consistently invoking the Buddha-name is correct practice.
If your faith and vows are solid and strong, then even you recite the Buddha-name only ten times, or only once, as you are on the brink of death, you are sure to attain birth in the Pure Land. Without faith and vows, even if you recite the Buddha-name until [you achieve a level of concentration the Zen literature describes as] "wind cannot enter you and rain cannot wet you" and "you stand like a silver wall or and iron wall", you will still not have a way to be born in the Pure Land.
Those who cultivate Pure Land practices must realize this truth. The Longer Amitabha Sutra also takes vows as essential and is identical in meaning to this section.