The main tenets of the Pure Land method are Faith, Vows and Practice. Like a three-legged incense burner, if it lacks one leg, it cannot stand. You have diligently practiced Buddha Recitation and have no more doubts about the first criterion of Faith. However, you seem to be attached to the idea that there is a dichotomy between Vows and Practice. You therefore cannot have complete understanding and synthesis.
Thus, within the unimpeded, perfect and wonderful Dharma, there suddenly arise numerous impediments and obstacles, causing the bright moon, adorned with ten thousand halos, of Elder Masters Ch’e Wu, Chiene Mi and Ou I to pull apart and divide. All this is due simply to a fine silk thread before your eyes. How regrettable!
The true Pure Land practitioner always fully combines the three criteria of Faith, Vows and Practice during recitation. He is like an infant longing for his mother. When, lonely and crying, he searches for her, he certainly never lacks Faith or the desire (Vow) to see her. Therefore, why do you ask whether “Vows and Practice come separately or together”? Why do you say such things as “with Vows, it is difficult to focus the mind completely,” or “in Buddha Recitation, one can neither have Vows and Practice concurrently nor non-concurrently”? This is creating problems where there are none!
From your letter, and from the line of reasoning of the monk [from Hangchou], it would appear that neither of you really knows how to practice Buddha Recitation properly. You are just like someone who has not begun his journey but is already thinking of what it will be like when he returns home.
Therefore you take the very Dharma pronouncements of ancient masters—which were designed to counteract differentiation and discrimination—to create yet more differentiation! Let me ask you this question: Can you really reach the stage of “no Buddha outside Mind, no Mind outside Buddha” without utmost earnestness? Can you really reach that stage without Faith and Vows? While Elder Masters Ch’e Wu and Chien Mi may differ in words, their ideas actually reinforce and complement one another. To reduce them to a question of “whether Vows and Practice are separate or together” is to lack the eye of discernment in the Dharma!
As for the words of Elder Master Ou I, they represent a Dharma medicine intended for these cultivators who, following Zen practice, meditate on the Self-Nature Amitabha and the Mind-Only Pure Land. They are not cultivating in accordance with Pure Land tenets, but merely seek an undisturbed mind as the ultimate goal. This aim is something external to the Pure Land method; why do you bring it up here and compare it to the criteria of complete Faith and Vows of genuine cultivation—thus creating opportunities for confusion?
So far, I have spoken in general, basing myself on principle and noumenon. On the level of practice and phenomena, the Vow for rebirth in the Pure Land should be made early in the morning and again at night after recitation is completed [using one of the available Vow compositions]. You should realize that reading the text of the Vow is to rely on that text to make your own Vow—do not think that reading through the text once is equivalent to making the Vow!
Except for morning and evening, when you make your Vow for rebirth in the Pure Land, it is enough merely to recite the Buddha’s name with utmost sincerity.