Amitabha Buddha is a prominent figure in Buddhist tradition, renowned for his boundless compassion and the promise of salvation he offers to all who invoke his name. Also known as Amitayus, Amitabha is one of the most beloved and revered Buddhas in Mahayana tradition, venerated for his ability to lead devotees towards the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Who is Amitabha Buddha?
Amitabha Buddha, also known as Amituofo in Chinese and Amida Butsu in Japanese, is one of the most prominent and revered figures in East Asian Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the Pure Land tradition. He is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, known for his boundless compassion and his vow to save all sentient beings.
Amitabha Buddha is said to dwell in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, a realm of enlightenment and peace, beyond the cycle of birth and death, that he established with his merits and virtues. This realm is often described in metaphorical terms, embellished with gold, precious stones, and lotus flowers, representing a spiritual state of perfect tranquillity, wisdom and compassion.
The most prominent characteristic of Amitabha is his Forty-Eight Great Vows, as described in the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, one of the primary sutras of the Pure Land school. Of these vows, the eighteenth is particularly notable, as it guarantees rebirth in his Pure Land for all beings who sincerely recite his name with faith and aspiration towards rebirth there. This practice, known as nembutsu in Japanese, constitutes the central practice in Pure Land Buddhism.
According to Mahayana scriptures, Amitabha was once a monk named Dharmakara, who, inspired by the teachings of a Buddha named Lokesvararaja, made these vows to create an ideal realm where beings can attain enlightenment unhindered. After countless kalpas (aeons) of rigorous practice and accumulation of merit, Dharmakara attained Buddhahood, becoming Amitabha Buddha, and his Pure Land was established.
Interpretations of Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land vary greatly. Some understand the concept literally, envisioning a physical paradise that one can aspire to be reborn into. Others see it metaphorically, viewing the Pure Land as a representation of an enlightened mind or a symbol of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Despite the differences in interpretation, the figure of Amitabha Buddha has been widely influential throughout the Buddhist world, offering hope and assurance of a better future in his Pure Land for millions of devoteers across centuries.
Legend of Amitabha Buddha
The legend of Amitabha Buddha is a central part of Mahayana Buddhist tradition and is widely regarded as one of the most important stories in Buddhist devotion.
According to this legend, Amitabha was once a king named Dharmakara who renounced his throne to become a monk and pursue enlightenment. After making 48 vows to help all beings achieve liberation, he finally made a 49th vow to establish a Western Pure Land, known as Sukhavati, where beings could be reborn and practice Buddhism without hindrance.
It is said that upon realizing Buddhahood, Amitabha’s Western Pure Land was created, and it is considered a place of ultimate peace, prosperity and happiness. In this Pure Land, beings are able to easily attain enlightenment and are surrounded by bodhisattvas and other celestial beings who assist them in their spiritual progress.
Amitabha is also said to have made a vow that any being who calls upon his name with sincere faith and devotion will be reborn in the Western Pure Land after death, where they can continue their spiritual journey. This idea of rebirth in the Western Pure Land is central to the Pure Land Buddhist tradition and is regarded as a way for all beings, regardless of their past actions, to attain enlightenment.
Amitabha Buddha is real or just mind-only
In Mahayana Buddhism, including Pure Land Buddhism, the concept of reality is often understood in terms of the two truths: ultimate truth and conventional truth.
From the ultimate truth perspective, everything is empty of inherent existence and all phenomena are said to be mere appearances that arise due to causes and conditions. From this perspective, the question of whether Amitabha Buddha is “real” or not is difficult to answer, as it depends on one’s understanding of what constitutes ultimate reality.
From the conventional truth perspective, Amitabha Buddha is considered a real, existing entity who embodies the qualities of enlightenment and compassion. In this sense, Amitabha Buddha is no different from other Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are revered in Mahayana Buddhism.
Furthermore, in Pure Land Buddhism, Amitabha’s Pure Land is considered a real and tangible place where beings can be reborn and attain enlightenment. Although the nature of this Pure Land may be difficult to understand from an ultimate truth perspective, it is considered a legitimate goal of practice from a conventional truth perspective.
Ultimately, whether Amitabha Buddha is considered “real” or “just mind-only” depends on one’s philosophical perspective and level of understanding. However, from the perspective of Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of devotion and aspiration towards Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land is considered a valid and effective path towards enlightenment.
Western Pure Land
According to the Pure Land teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, also known as Sukhavati or the Land of Ultimate Bliss, is described as a pure and perfect realm of enlightenment, located in the western direction of this world.
It is described as a paradise-like realm that transcends the limitations of our ordinary world, and is accessible to those who aspire to be reborn there through devotion to Amitabha Buddha and the practice of Pure Land Buddhism.
In the Pure Land, everything is said to be perfect and free from suffering. The environment is described as an idyllic landscape of lotus flowers, jewel trees, and crystal-clear streams, with fragrant breezes and beautiful birdsong filling the air. The beings who reside in the Pure Land are said to be free from afflictions and have attained high levels of spiritual realization, often described as being adorned with radiant halos and possessing supernatural abilities.
The teachings of Amitabha Buddha are said to be easily accessible in the Pure Land, with beings able to quickly attain enlightenment through hearing and practicing the Dharma. Amitabha Buddha is said to be constantly present in the Pure Land, radiating his compassion and wisdom to all who seek refuge there.
In order to be reborn in the Pure Land, practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism aspire to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, also known as the Nianfo or Nembutsu, with single-minded devotion and faith. By reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, practitioners aim to purify their karma and develop the aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land, where they can continue their journey towards enlightenment.
While the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is often described in vivid detail in Buddhist literature, it is also understood as a realm that transcends ordinary language and concepts. While the location of the Pure Land may be difficult to understand from a literal perspective, the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism emphasize the importance of cultivating a mind of faith, devotion, and aspiration towards Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land as a means of attaining enlightenment.
Teachings of Amitabha Buddha
The teachings around Amitabha Buddha are fundamental to understanding the scope of this faith and the enduring spiritual philosophies encapsulated therein.
The doctrine of Amitabha Buddha originates from various sutras, chiefly the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Amitayurdhyana Sutra, which are esteemed as the primary textual sources. These sutras outline the virtues of Amitabha Buddha, narrate his vow to create a pure land known as Sukhavati (Pure Land), and explain the process of rebirth in the Pure Land.
Central to the teachings of Amitabha Buddha is the doctrine of faith and recitation. This doctrine holds that sincere faith in Amitabha Buddha, combined with the recitation of his name, particularly at the time of death, ensures rebirth in the Pure Land. This teaching simplifies the path to enlightenment, shifting from the rigorous meditative practices and monastic disciplines often associated with Buddhism, to an approach emphasizing faith, recitation and aspiration.
This faith is not just belief but also entails a deep entrusting of oneself to the compassionate vow of Amitabha Buddha. Recitation, often in the form of the phrase “Namo Amitabha Buddha” or “Namo Amituofo” (in Chinese), is seen as a practice that combines mindfulness of the Buddha, praise of his virtues, and a manifestation of our aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Moreover, the teachings of Amitabha Buddha underscore the universality of Buddha-nature. They posit that all sentient beings, irrespective of their karmic limitations, have the potential to realize enlightenment. The Pure Land is described as a realm devoid of negative karmic conditions, where beings can practice the Dharma without distractions or hindrances, thus hastening their journey towards Buddhahood.
However, you have to note that while the teachings of Amitabha Buddha offer an accessible path to liberation, they do not negate the importance of ethical conduct and compassionate actions. The intent behind faith and recitation is not to escape from the responsibilities of the world but rather to cultivate a mind of great compassion and wisdom, capable of responding to the world’s suffering effectively.
18 Vows of Amitabha Buddha
The Eighteen Vows of Amitabha Buddha, also known as the Eighteen Original Vows, constitute the core teachings of the Amitabha Buddha, providing the doctrinal foundation for Pure Land Buddhism. These vows were set forth in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, one of the three primary sutras of Pure Land Buddhism, which narrates the spiritual journey of the bodhisattva Dharmakara, who later became Amitabha Buddha.
The vows articulate the bodhisattva’s promise to create a realm (Sukhavati, the Pure Land) in which sentient beings can cultivate their Buddha-nature, free from the hindrances and distractions of the mundane world.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that Buddha-country of mine there should be either hell, or the animal state of existence, or the realm of hungry ghost, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that country of mine the beings who are born there should fall away (die) into the three evil realms, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that country of mine the beings who are born there should not all be of the colour of genuine gold, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that Buddha-country of mine the beings who are born there should not all be of one appearance without the difference of noble looking or ugly lineaments, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that Buddha-country of mine the beings who are born there should not be possessed of the supernormal knowledge of recollecting the previous lives of themselves (Purvanivasana i.e. knowledge of all reincarnations), and knowing the events of evolution of hundred thousand nayuta years of kalpas, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if in that country of mine the beings who are born there should not be possessed of the Divine-eye (Divyatchakchus) which can see a hundred thousand nayuta of Buddha-countries, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of that country of mine should not be possessed of the Divine-ear (Divyassrotra) which to be able to hear the preachings of a hundred thousand kotis of nayuta of Buddhas, and to a faithful observance, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of that country of mine should not all possessed the Intuitive-mind (Paratchittadjna) knowing the thoughts of all beings of a hundred thousand kotis of nayuta of Buddha-countries, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of that country of mine should not all possessed of the Heavenly-step (Riddisakchatkriya) which can in the shortest moment of one thought travelling over a hundred thousand kotis of nayuta of Buddha-countries, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of that country of mine should have arise in their minds the idea of selfishness and covetous thoughts, even with regard to their own bodies, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of that country of mine should not all be firmly abiding in a concentrated state of meditation and equanimity (Samadhi) till they have reached Nirvana, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if my light should be limited in measurement so that it could not illuminate a hundred thousand nayuta of kotis of Buddha-countries, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the measure of my life should be limited, even by counting a hundred thousand nayuta of kotis of Kalpas, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if any being should be able to count innumerable pupils belonging to me in that country of mine, even if all the beings of those three million worlds and the whole triple chiliocosm, who after having become Pratyeka-Buddhas, count and continue to do so for a period of a hundred thousand nayuta of kotis of Kalpas, could know the balance, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, the life of the beings in that country of mine should be eternal, excepting by their own free will whenever they choose to pass away from life, otherwise may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, there should be no evil or sinful existence in that country of mine, even its very name is unknown. Otherwise may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the innumerable Buddhas of the worlds of ten quarters do not glorify my name, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
- Provided I become a Buddha, if the beings of the ten quarters who after having heard my name, and thus awakened their highest faith and aspiration of re-birth in that country of mine, even they have recollected such a thought for ten times only, they are destinated to be born there, with the exception of those who have committed the five deadly sins (Anantarya), and who have blasphemed the orthodox Law (Dharma), otherwise may I not attain the enlightenment.
The most renowned among these vows is the Eighteenth, often called the “Primal Vow”. It is the heart of the teachings of Amitabha Buddha, in which he promises that any sentient being in any universe who sincerely aspires to be reborn in his Pure Land and calls upon his name even as few as ten times, will achieve rebirth there, thus securing their eventual enlightenment.
The Eighteenth Vow demystifies the path to enlightenment, emphasizing faith, devotion, and the recitation of the Buddha’s name, rendering the path to enlightenment more accessible to all. It underscores Amitabha Buddha’s compassion and his commitment to aid all sentient beings in their quest for liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death.
Why is Amitabha a fake Buddha as seen in Theravada?
It’s important to clarify that the statement in question can potentially present a misleading or oversimplified perspective on the intricacies of Buddhist tradition and interpretation. To approach this matter with the required nuance and respect, it’s crucial to understand that the perceived authenticity of Amitabha Buddha varies across different schools of Buddhism.
Firstly, the figure of Amitabha Buddha is central to Mahayana Buddhism, particularly within its Pure Land tradition. The Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra and the larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, expound upon Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land, emphasizing the path of devotion or faith in Amitabha as a means to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land and ultimately attain Nirvana.
Conversely, in Theravada Buddhism, the Pali Canon, which is their primary scriptural authority, does not mention Amitabha Buddha. Theravada primarily focuses on the teachings of Gautama Buddha as recorded in the Pali Canon, highlighting individual effort and meditation practice for liberation from suffering (Dukkha).
However, it is not accurate to state that Theravada Buddhism views Amitabha Buddha as a “fake” Buddha. The Theravada tradition simply does not include Amitabha in its canonical texts or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Amitabha is seen as false or counterfeit, but rather that Amitabha isn’t part of the Theravadin doctrinal or devotional framework.
In the broader scope of Buddhism, there is a multitude of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, recognized to varying degrees by different schools. The use of the term “fake” to describe Amitabha from a Theravada perspective is likely a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of these differences.
Buddhism, like many other global religions, encompasses diverse traditions, teachings, and interpretations. In this context, we must to maintain an open and respectful perspective towards these differences, as they represent the richness and depth of the Buddhist tradition. In the end, whether a figure such as Amitabha is considered an authentic Buddha largely depends on one’s particular Buddhist tradition and personal beliefs.
How to worship Amitabha Buddha at home
Here are some steps for worshiping Amitabha Buddha at home:
- Create a dedicated space: Choose a quiet, clean, and well-lit space in your home to serve as your altar. You can decorate the area with images of Amitabha Buddha, flowers, incense, candles, or any other objects that hold spiritual significance for you.
- Invoke the name of Amitabha Buddha: Recite the name of Amitabha Buddha with a sincere aspiration to be reborn in his Western Pure Land. This can be done silently or out loud and can be repeated as often as desired.
- Offer incense and candles: Light incense and candles as an offering to Amitabha Buddha. This is seen as a way to purify your mind and environment and to symbolize your devotion to the Buddha.
- Practice mindfulness meditation: Sit in a comfortable position and focus your mind on Amitabha Buddha and the qualities of compassion and wisdom that he embodies. This can help to deepen your connection with the Buddha and cultivate these qualities in yourself.
- Dedicate the merit: After your worship, dedicate the merit of your practice to all beings, with the aspiration that they may also be reborn in the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
It’s important to remember that these steps are guidelines and can be adapted to fit your personal beliefs and practices. The most important aspect of worshiping Amitabha Buddha is to approach the practice with a sincere heart and a deep sense of devotion.
The difference between Gautama Buddha and Amitabha Buddha
Gautama Buddha and Amitabha Buddha are two significant figures in Buddhism, each representing different aspects and teachings within this complex tradition. To provide a thorough answer, I will divide the response into two sections: Iconography and Doctrinal Teachings.
Iconography: In Buddhist iconography, depictions can vary widely due to regional differences in artistic conventions and interpretations. Nevertheless, there are some common features typically associated with each figure.
- Gautama Buddha: Often depicted in a monk’s robe, reflecting his renunciation of princely life. He is frequently shown touching the earth with his right hand in a pose known as the “Earth Witness Mudra.” This gesture symbolizes the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Another common depiction is the “Meditation Mudra,” where he sits in a lotus position with hands folded in his lap.
- Amitabha Buddha: Iconographically, Amitabha Buddha is often shown seated in meditation, similar to Gautama Buddha, but there are notable differences. In many depictions, Amitabha holds his hands in the Dhyana Mudra, symbolizing meditation, with a begging bowl in his hands, representing emptiness or fulfillment. He’s also often shown seated on a lotus, symbolizing purity and enlightenment, in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Pure Land.
Doctrinal Teachings: The teachings associated with Gautama Buddha and Amitabha Buddha are rooted in two different Buddhist traditions: Theravada and Mahayana, respectively.
- Gautama Buddha: Gautama Buddha, also known as the historical Buddha, is the founder of Buddhism and his teachings form the core of Theravada Buddhism. The key teachings include the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, dependent origination, and the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena. The path to enlightenment in this tradition relies on individual effort, focusing on ethical conduct (Sila), meditation (Samadhi), and wisdom (Prajna).
- Amitabha Buddha: Central to Pure Land Buddhism, a tradition within Mahayana Buddhism, Amitabha Buddha’s primary teaching is the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Land through recitation of his name in faith and devotion. This Pure Land is described as a place free from the suffering of Samsara, enabling one to achieve Buddhahood more easily. It’s a significant shift from self-reliance to other-power, emphasizing Amitabha’s vow to save all sentient beings.
Despite these differences, both Gautama Buddha and Amitabha Buddha play integral roles in the diverse world of Buddhism, contributing to its rich tapestry of teachings and practices.