One of the most prominent figures in Mahayana Buddhism, especially East Asian Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. This Buddha is often called by names like Amida Nyorai (阿弥陀如来) in Japan or Amita Bul (아미타불) in Korean.
This Buddha presides over something called the Pure Land which is a world-system and refuge that people can be reborn to and progress along the Buddhist path more readily. The Pure Land also goes by many names: Sukhavati in Sanskrit, jōdo (浄土) in Japan or jeongto (정토) in Korean.
In the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist canon, Amitabha Buddha appears or is mentioned in over 290 sutras, or 13% of the texts, and practices devoted to Amitabha Buddha exist in some form or another from Tibet to Japan (and now globally of course). The Buddha Amitabha appears in almost every sect of Buddhism in East Asia, from Pure Land and esoteric sects even to a lesser degree in Chan/Seon/Zen Buddhism and Yogacara teachings.
The most prevalent, authoritative sources for Amitabha Buddha are in three sutras:
Of these three, the Immeasurable Life Sutra is longest and most detailed, while the Amitabha Sutra, is pretty short but is very detailed about the Buddha’s Pure Land.
According to the Immeasurable Life Sutra, the Buddha lived as a king many, many eons ago but then encountered another Buddha named Lokesvararaja (World-Sovereign). The king was so impressed that he vowed to master the Buddha’s teachings, become a Buddha himself, and provide a refuge for all beings. Through countless lifetimes, he is said to have accomplished this and through his overwhelming merit and conduct, the Pure Land was born, and that king became enlightened as Amitabha Buddha.
The main symbolism for Amitabha Buddha is light and gold skin. You often see Amitabha Buddha with many brilliant rays around his head, which as the Immeasurable Life Sutra explains:
“The light of Amitayus shines brilliantly, illuminating all the Buddha-lands of the ten quarters. There is no place where it is not perceived.
But it is no ordinary light:
“If, sentient beings encounter his light, their three defilements are removed; they feel tenderness, joy and pleasure; and good thoughts arise. If sentient beings in the three realms of suffering see his light, they will all be relieved and freed from affliction. At the end of their lives, they all reach emancipation.
Likewise, the Pure Land which Amitabha Buddha created is also highly exalted because beings who are reborn there do not have to suffer, and instead can progress much more rapidly to Buddhahood and Enlightenment.
Thus, devotion to Amitabha Buddha has often taken place among people who are disadvantaged: women, the poor and illiterate. But Amitabha Buddha is also popular among clergy who sincerely want to avoid retrogressing on the Buddhist path. Thus Amitabha Buddha has historically enjoyed broad popularity.
Devotions to Amitabha Buddha vary widely. The most fundamental and well-known is to recite Amitabha Buddha’s name. But also many people integrate this with meditation or esoteric visualizations. The public mantra associated with Amitabha Buddha in Shingon Buddhism is:
on amirita teizei kara un
All of these practices are seen as positive, one need not be forced to pick one and not the other. But it does help to seek advice from an accredited Buddhist priest.
In the case of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, the focus was on making devotion to Amitabha Buddha as straightforward and accessible as possible, and for this reason the primary practice is the nembutsu. The nembutsu is a small phrase which basically means to recite Amitabha’s name, and is based on the 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha listed in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
The recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha is actually among the most popular practices related to Amitabha Buddha across all of East Asia and is often done alone as is the case of the Pure Land schools (Jodo Shu, Jodo Shinshu, etc), or done as part of a larger practice (e.g. Chinese Chan Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism). Either way, it’s the most recognizable practice and often the one people often adopt first.
So that’s a brief look at Amitabha Buddha. This page cannot cover the huge cultural impact Amitabha Buddha has had on East Asian culture, but needless to say his promise of hope and guidance to everyone is an inspiration for many on the Buddha path.
Namu Amida Butsu
P.S. I haven’t done one of these in a long time and I am surprised I overlooked Amitabha Buddha for so long.
P.P.S. They have delicious pancakes in the Pure Land, according to my 4 year old.