Who’s Who in Buddhism, part 7: Amitabha Buddha

Honganji Altar, tea room 2

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. :)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Hosso, Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Religion, Shingon, Tendai. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Who’s Who in Buddhism, part 7: Amitabha Buddha

  1. Domingo Reyes del Campo says:

    Desde REPÚBLICA ARGENTINA . . . MUCHAS GRACIAS.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Gracias y bienvenidos. :)

  3. peter says:

    Nice article doug. What made you choose Jodo Shu over Jodo Shinshu?

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Peter, and welcome to the JLR. It’s a good question you ask, and it’s kind of hard to sum it all up, but here goes.

    I admit I encountered Jodo Shu first by chance in 2005 with a trip to Chion-in and just subsequent research later, but Jodo Shu has almost 0 resources outside of Japan and Hawaii, so I started visiting a local Jodo Shinshu temple in Seattle instead. It was a good community by and large, but somethings really started to irk me after a while. Number one was the intense devotion to Shinran I felt in Jodo Shinshu. Japanese Buddhism in general tends to be founder-centric (a recent historiographical phenomenon that’s too long to get into), but with Jodo Shu, I felt that Honen and Bencho (2nd Patriarch) really did have something to contribute to Japanese Buddhist history, whereas Shinran I just never really liked. I found his writings obtuse, and his lifestyle as “neither priest nor laymen” to be frankly not very admirable. I just never could see what all the hype was about. Rennyo I was never too keen on either. The fact that most of the major Shinshu liturgy is hymns written by Shinran only annoyed me further.

    Second, Jodo Shinshu’s emphasis on faith felt lop-sided to me, and I could always feel this palpable sense of modern Shinshu Buddhists always trying to either a) justify it or b) explain it away in the larger Buddhist context. So, I feel that even most modern Shinshu Buddhists either get uncomfortable about it, or somehow tune out the rest of Buddhism to avoid uncomfortable misgivings. The fact the priests take no vows whatsoever, nor is there any encouragement to follow the Buddhist precepts whatsoever also strikes me as just too one-sided. Sure, many Buddhists many only take the precepts or priests vows as a matter of form, but it does help enforce a minimum standard of conduct among disciples of the Buddha.

    Again, I haven’t had these experiences in Jodo Shu. To be fair, they’re closely related sects, but I felt that Shinshu has evolved in a way that just seems incompatible with modern Buddhist dialogue, while Jodo Shu has also evolved somewhat away from Honen’s teachings, but in a way that feels more mainstream to me. They’ve diverged in different ways from their own founders, I guess you could say.

    That is solely my opinion of course, but I feel it is also born out of my limited experiences too.

  5. peter says:

    Doug, thank you for the warm welcome and the long detailed reply. Jodo Shu has also resonated with for some of the same reasons you describe. Why do you think Shinshu has become a lot more popular? Even in Japan with over 12 million followers from the Nishi and Higashi sects combined compared to 6 million for Jodo Shu? Not saying that’s a small number but still half that of Shinshu. This strikes as odd to me since Honen was the first man in Japan to introduce the exclusive Nembutsu path to the masses.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Peter,

    I couldn’t say. It’s no doubt a result of history and complicated reasons therein. Dobbins has a good book on medieval Jodo Shinshu history, and I’ve read through it once, though it’s been a while. :p

  7. peter says:

    Thanks I will check it out :)

  8. domingo says:

    Sumamente esclarecedor, a la mentalidad occidental tan arraigada por éstas pampas.

  9. timetales says:

    Doug,
    I enjoy your blog and this post comes home , I was studieng Buddism for some years before i got to know anything about Amita Buddha but through the years my health continued to deteriate and i felt i was a burden in the Zendo,so i began to chant the Nembutsu almost dailey at home i also found my cat enjoys it also and even makes me aware when it,s time. One thing i was glad you brought out is about the precepts, it’s said if you ask a blind man directions to the nearest town he will just say” well just walk” but one who can see will say “walk down that path”
    hence the need for the precepts.

  10. Robert "erg" says:

    “I found his writings obtuse, and his lifestyle as “neither priest nor laymen” to be frankly not very admirable.” I have to admit I’d love to read your thoughts on this further because whatever you think about his teachings (I myself am not really sold) I have always thought Shinran himself was a extraordinarily admirable individual, and that his waffly position on priest vs. layman is far and away his most influential idea in both Japanese and Western Buddhism. Hell, without that you could easily imagine and Japan and America with no Buddhism at all!

  11. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi guys, sorry for the late reply:

    timetales: Welcome to the JLR! Yeah, what kills me is that the Larger Sutra itself actually encourages people to follow the precepts as part of the Pure Land path. People tend to shy away from things that are difficult, and not realize the inherent benefit of a little hard work, or self-discipline. Their loss I guess. :-/

    Erg: Shinran, like Nichiren, is a pretty polarizing figure. I used to be a big fan, but over the years as I get to know other Buddhist figures of his time (esp. Jokei, Honen and Bencho), I think Shinran was just wrong. To be fair, I wasn’t in his shoes, but none of the other disciples of Honen took the “neither priest nor laymen” route. They either kept their tonsure as best they could, or if laymen, just lived pious lives. Honen supposedly was pretty strict about his priestly disciples following the precepts, by the way. I can understand if Shinran disrobed and tried to just be a good laymen, but his claim of not being a laymen just seems not right.

    I think you raise a good point that Shinshu through Shinran’s example helps empower lay people to do more than just make offerings to the monks, and follow the five precepts, but I just think there’s other ways to have accomplished this. True, I owe it to Shinshu to get the exposure to Buddhism, I did, so you’re quite right. Shinshu is a very well developed, lay-oriented Buddhist group, but on the flip-side, I sometimes felt a little bit of a “mob-mentality” that also disappointed me at times. I think the professional priest/bhikkhu is needed as well to balance this out, but that’s just me. :)

  12. Peter says:

    Doug, how do you think Shinshu has evolved away from Shinran? I have seen many shin scholars and priests these days explain Amida Buddha to be more of a metaphor for ultimate reality rather than an actual Buddha residing in the Pure Land. With your extensive knowledge of Jodo Shinshu, what is your take on this?

  13. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Peter,

    I don’t claim to be an expert of Jodo Shinshu, though I was pretty devoted to it for a while. I can’t really say how Shinshu has evolved away from Shinran. I just disagree with Shinran’s assumptions that led to Jodo Shinshu as separate from other Pure Land traditions.

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