Sunday, December 11, 2011

Amitabha Buddha

Amitabha Buddha
(Image: Source unknown)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the 17th day of the 11th Chinese lunar month is observed as the Holy Day of Amitabha Buddha (阿彌陀佛聖誕 Amituofo Shengdan).

Amitabha (阿彌陀佛 Amituofo) is one of the great transcendent buddhas of Mahayana Buddhism. His name, Amitabha, is a Sanskrit name that means Buddha of Infinite Light (無量光佛 Wuliangguang Fo). This buddha is also known as Amitayus (無量壽佛 Wuliangshou Fo) which means Buddha of Infinite Life. He is also known as The Tathagata King of Ambrosia (甘露王如來 Ganluwang Rulai) where ambrosia is a metaphor for bringing relief and salvation and the assuaging of pain and suffering, and Tathagata is another title for a buddha which has many layers of meaning.

The historical buddha (Shakyamuni) taught about Amitabha/Amitayus in three principal texts:
1) The Longer Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also known as the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on Amitayus (佛說無量壽經 Foshuo Wuliangshou Jing), known colloquially as the Amitayus Sutra (無量壽經 Wuliangshou Jing) (Taisho Tripitaka T12 No. 360)
2) The Shorter Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also known as the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on Amitabha (阿彌陀經 Foshuo Amituo Jing), known colloquially as the Amitabha Sutra (阿彌陀經 Amituo Jing) (Taisho Tripitaka T12 No. 366)   
3) The Amitayur-dhyana Sutra, also known as the Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on the Visualization of Amitayus (說觀無量壽佛經 Foshuo Guan Wuliangshoufo Jing), known colloquially as the Visualization of Amitayus Sutra (觀無量壽經 Guan Wuliangshou Jing) (Taisho Tripitaka T12 No. 365)

According to these texts, Amitabha had attained supreme enlightenment ten aeons ago in a remote period of antiquity. He is a trans-historical buddha (the concept of trans-historical buddhas was discussed in the previous post which can be found here). He was a king who renounced his land to become a monk so that he could pursue spiritual cultivation. His religious name was Dharmakara (法藏 Fazang) which means Treasury of the Buddhist Teachings. He was taught by Lokesvaraja Buddha who lived during that time, and he subsequently made forty-eight great vows to rescue and deliver living beings.

The majestic countenance and form of Amitabha Buddha
(Image: Source unknown)

Of the forty-eight great vows, the eighteenth vow states:

When I attain Buddhahood, if there should be any sentient beings in the ten directions who desire to be reborn in my land with confidence and joy, and if they bring forth to mind this resolve even just ten times but fail to achieve rebirth there, then may I not obtain perfect enlightenment. This excludes those that have committed the five serious crimes or those that have slandered the True Dharma.

設我得佛,十方眾生至心信樂欲生我國,乃至十念,若不生者,不取正覺,唯除五逆、誹謗正法.

This vow is the most noteworthy because it forms the foundational basis and principal objective of the Pure Land School (淨土宗 Jingtu Zong) of Mahayana Buddhism which is to achieve rebirth in Sukhavati (極樂世界 Jile Shijie; the Realm of Ultimate Joy), the name of the pure land of Amitabha Buddha.


Sukhavati: the Realm of Ultimate Joy
(Image: Source unknown)

A pure land or pure realm (淨土 jingtu), also called a buddha land or buddha realm (佛土 fotu; buddha-ksetra), is a spiritual world created by an enlightened being for the purpose of saving and delivering sentient beings. The genesis of a pure realm starts with a wish when a bodhisattva (i.e. future buddha) brings forth a great resolve from his mind and makes a vow to establish a pure realm; and then upon achieving enlightenment, the force and power of that resolve causes the vow to become a reality. Pure realms are always beautiful and magnificently adorned, but it must be emphasized that they are not the same as heavens (as sometimes misunderstood or erroneously assumed to be). Although the descriptions of pure realms may at first seem to share similar superficial characteristics with the heaven realms, there are big differences between the two.

According to Buddhist cosmology, the heavens are still within samsara - the endless cycle of transmigration that ordinary unenlightened beings are trapped in. Ordinary beings are bound by the results of the karma that they themselves continuously create, so they are repeatedly reincarnated in one of the six paths of samsaric existence, until they can free themselves by winning enlightenment through spiritual practice. The heavens are considered one of the six paths of samsaric existence, along with the other paths of ashuras (demons or power-seeking deities), humans, animals, hungry spirits (pretas), and hell. And as it is true for all the other samsaric states, existence in heaven is transitory and not eternal. And even though the lifespan of a heavenly being is extremely long, it is still finite because heavenly life ends when one’s accumulation of karmic merit is exhausted. Rebirth in the heaven realms is a karmic reward for past virtuous actions, but it is certainly not a goal of Buddhist practice because of two reasons. First, because heaven is still a part of samsaric existence, it has nothing to do with the goal of Buddhist practice which is to escape from samsara. Second, life in heaven does not necessarily further one’s own spiritual progress, because the bliss and pleasures of heaven are too enchanting and disruptive for spiritual cultivation.

In contrast, pure realms are spiritual worlds that exist outside of samsara because they are created by the power of fully enlightened buddhas. They serve as expedient places to continue spiritual practice under the guidance of the buddha that presides over that pure realm. The environments of pure realms are devoid of worldly distractions and are perfectly supportive and conducive to spiritual cultivation and progress. Pure realms are created out of skillful expedient means by the buddhas to help sentient beings achieve liberation more quickly by escaping samsara sooner so that they can be brought closer to attaining final enlightenment. In the Mahayana Pure Land tradition, it is believed that progressing towards enlightenment through rebirth in a buddha’s pure realm is preferable to striving towards enlightenment by solely depending on one’s own self-efforts because self-effort alone is very difficult and takes many aeons and lifetimes. A metaphor for the pure land method is called Horizontal Escape from the Three Realms [of Samsara] (橫出三界 Hengchu Sanjie). Here, the Three Realms [of Samsara] refer to the Realm of Desire (欲界 Yujie), the Realm of Form (色界 Shijie), and the Realm of Formlessness (無色界 Wushijie). The metaphor paints the picture of a worm that is trapped inside the middle of a stalk. To escape from the stalk, the worm has to crawl the length of the stalk to get out at either end. But a quicker way out would be to bore a hole in the stalk and just exit sideways. In the analogy, the worm represents the spiritual cultivator, the stalk represents samsara, and traversing the length of the stalk represents the long way of escaping samsara through self-effort alone, while boring a hole in the stalk and exiting sideways represents the short way of escaping samsara by taking advantage of the Pure Land method. In Pure Land Buddhist parlance, spiritual practice relying on self-effort alone is called self-power (自力 zi li), while spiritual practice using the Pure Land method is a combination of both self-power and other-power (他力 ta li) because in addition to exerting one’s own efforts, one also takes advantage of Amitabha’s vows to help living beings achieve spiritual liberation.

The enlightened master Venerable Hsu Yun (虛雲 Xuyun) (1840-1959)
practicing recitation of the holy name of Amitabha Buddha
(Image: Source unknown)

The main practice of the Pure Land school is buddha remembrance (念佛 nianfo) which is to constantly focus one’s attention and mindfulness on Amitabha either through oral recitation of his holy name (or his mantra in the esoteric schools), reading and chanting his scriptures, or visualization on the characteristics of his physical form and his pure realm. These practices, when combined with sincerity of faith and a strong aspiration to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure realm, will result in Amitabha Buddha and his two bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (觀世音 Guanshiyin) and Mahasthamaprapta (大勢至 Dashizhi) coming to welcome and lead (接引 jieyin) the pure land practitioner to the realm of Sukhavati at the end of his natural life. There, he will be able to listen to the Buddhist teachings as spoken directly by Amitabha, and spiritual progress in the pure realm will be swift, because even all the sights and sounds in the pure realm magically proclaim the Buddhist teachings.

The Three Holy Ones of Sukhavati
Amitabha Buddha (center), Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (right), Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (left)
(Image: Venerable Master Yilin 依林法師)

A depiction of Amitabha and his holy entourage coming to
welcome and lead the pure land practitioner to Sukhavati
(Image: Source unknown)

Even though there are many buddhas and pure realms in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the vast majority of its practitioners aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s pure realm because Amitabha occupies a unique place in the hearts and minds of Mahayana Buddhist followers.

Chinese calligraphy: Namo Amituofo
The meaning is I take refuge in Amitabha Buddha.
(Image: Source unknown)

Homage to Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.


Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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