Introductory Portion

The introductory portion of the Amitabha Sutra first reveals the time and place of the Dharma assembly at which it was expounded, and then describes the assembly of those who were present.

Thus have I heard: Once Buddha was in  the land of Shravasti, in the garden of Jeta and Anathapindika.

This section opens the assembly where the Pure Land doctrine was taught. They are the words of Ananda [the Buddha's personal assistant], who recorded the sutra.

"Thus have I heard" expresses Ananda's faithful obedience to what he was receiving from our teacher. "Once" describes the moment the teaching was given. "Buddha" is the teacher.  "The Garden of Jeta and Anathapindika in the land of Shravasti" is the place where Buddha preached this sutra.

The essence of the mind has not changed names from ancient times to modern. If we recite the Buddha--name to seek birth in the Pure Land basing ourselves upon the inner truth of absolute reality, we will definitely not go wrong.  When the sutra begins "Thus have I heard" it attests that this is a correct teaching.

Absolute reality is not self and it is not no-self. Ananda [in saying "Thus have I heard" as he recited the sutra] had not done away with the false self, and so he still says  "I".   Ananda's ears produced auditory consciousness, so he could personally hear the perfect voice [of Sakyamuni Buddha preaching this sutra] -- this was like emptiness sealing emptiness. It is in this sense that Ananda "heard" the sutra.

"Once Buddha was in Shravasti" the sutra continues. 'Once" means at the time when the paths of teacher and students, of Sakyamuni Buddha and his audience, have joined, and a full sharing of preaching and listening is taking place.

"Buddha" is the name for one who has been enlightened and who brings enlightenment to others, whose enlightened practice is complete and functions as the great teacher of humans and devas.

The place name "Shravasti" in Sanskrit means "hearing  things". It was the name of a great kingdom in India, and also of its main city, the capital of King Prasenajit [during the time of Sakyamuni Buddha]. The King's Crown Prince was called Jeta, which means "Victorious in Battle".  A senior minister of the king, Sudatta, was also called Anathapindika which means "Benefactor of Widows and Orphans".  Anathapindika paid for Prince Jeta's garden in gold, and donated it to Buddha and his monks. Prince Jeta was very moved, and donated the trees and another parcel of land. Thus the double name [for the site where Buddha preached the sutra]: "the Garden of Jeta and Anathapindika".[11] 

Next the sutra describes the assembly [who came to hear Buddha preach]. There were three groups: first, the group of monastic disciples (Arhats),  second, the group of Bodhisattvas, and third, the congregation of humans and gods.

Why are the monastic disciples put first? Because they had left behind worldly forms, because they always accompanied the Buddha, and because the Buddha Dharma depends on monks and nuns to spread it.

Why are the Bodhisattvas placed in the middle? Because their forms are not fixed, because they do not always accompany the Buddha, and also in order to suggest the idea of the Middle Path.

Why are the humans and gods placed last? Because they have worldly form, because they were a mixed lot, including both ordinary people and sages, and because their role is to protect the Buddha from the outside.

There are three aspects to the description of the group of monastic disciples:  first, an account of their quality and number;  second, praise for their high standing and their virtues; and third, a list of the names of the foremost among them. [The sutra reads:]

He was accompanied by twelve hundred and fifty great bhikshus...

"Bhikshu" is a Sanskrit term with a triple meaning.

First, "bhikshu" means a mendicant, someone who has just a single bowl to his name, and accumulates nothing, and relies exclusively on asking for alms to supply the necessities of life.

Second, "bhikshu" means someone who has broken through evil, someone who observes everything with correct wisdom, someone who has smashed the evil of sensory afflictions, and does not fall into perceptions molded by desire.

Third, "bhikshu" means someone who is fearful of delusion, who has accepted the full set of 250 disciplinary precepts. His karma has reached the level of development that he immediately fears delusion.

The word for the monastic community as a whole, "Sangha", means a harmonious association. This harmony at the level of inner truth means sharing the realization of the truth of uncontrived liberation. At the phenomenal level,  harmony  means  dwelling together without rancorous speech, with the same joyful intent, and the same understanding, sharing the same precepts and sharing material goods equally.

The sutra speaks of twelve hundred and fifty bhikshus. The three brothers Kashyapa had together a thousand disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana had two hundred and Yasha had fifty. These were all people who had become Buddha's disciples shortly after his enlightenment, people who felt deep gratitude for Buddha's  benevolence,  and  always followed him everywhere.

[The sutra continues:]

...all of them great Arhats, well known to the assembly

The word 'Arhat" also has three meanings. First, it means one who is worthy of offerings, as the result of being a mendicant [when he was a bhikshu]. Second it means a slayer of evil, as the result of having broken through evil.  Third, it means one who gives birth to nothing, as the result of destroying delusion and afflictions. It also means one who is wise and liberated, one who is possessed of liberation, one who is liberated from doubt.

Fundamentally, all these great Arhats are great beings belonging to the Dharmakaya  (i.e.  great Bodhisattvas), who appear as monastic disciples of the Buddha. They have realized the inconceivable reality of this Pure Land teaching, and so they are called "great" They accompanied the Buddha as he turned the Wheel of the Dharma, bringing benefits to humans and gods on a vast scale, and so they were "well known to the assembly".

Now the sutra lists the names of the leaders of the Arhats:

Among them were his leading disciples, such figures as the Elders Shariputra, Maudgalyayana,   Mahakashyapa, Mahakatyayana, and Mahakausthila, Revata,  Suddhipanthaka,  Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola-bharadvaja, Kalodayin, Mahakapphina, Vakula, and Aniruddha, etc., all great disciples.

"Elder" is the term given to those who are honored both for their virtue and their long years as monks.

Among the Buddha's monastic disciples, the Venerable Shariputra was the foremost in wisdom and the Venerable Maudgalyayana was foremost in supernatural powers.

The Venerable Mahakashyapa's body shined with a golden light: he transmitted the Buddha's Mind Seal and became the first patriarch [of the Zen tradition]. He was foremost among the Buddha's monastic disciples in ascetic practices.

The  Venerable  Mahakatyayana  was  of  a Brahmanical lineage, and was foremost in debate.

The Venerable Mahakausthila was foremost in question-and-answer dialogue.

The Venerable Revata was the foremost in remaining free of error and confusion.

The Venerable Suddhipanthaka had been dull by nature but through memorizing two words of the sutras [sweep clean, i.e., sweep the mind clean], his eloquence became limitless and he was the foremost in upholding the truth of Real Mark.

The Venerable Nanda was Buddha's own younger brother, and was foremost in formal comportment.

The Venerable Ananda was Buddha's cousin, and served as his personal attendant: he was the most learned [and always committed the Buddha's spoken teachings to memory].

The Venerable Rahula was Buddha's son and heir [from the time when he was a royal prince], and he was the foremost in never advertizing his cultivation.

The Venerable Gavampati had spoken evil in past lives, and was affected by the karmic retribution for this [by having a voice like a snorting ox]: he was foremost in receiving the offerings of the gods.

The Venerable Pindola-bharadvaja had broken the rule against displaying spiritual powers and was told to remain in this world for a long time. He was foremost as a field of blessings for sentient beings.

The Venerable Kalodayin was Buddha's emissary, and he was foremost in spreading the teaching.

The Venerable Mahakapphina was the foremost in his knowledge of the stars.

The Venerable Vakula was the most long-lived of Buddha's monastic disciples.

The Venerable Aniruddha was another of Buddha's cousins, and he was foremost in the magical ability of his celestial eye.

Fundamentally, all these constant companions of the Buddha were great  beings belonging to the Dharmakaya  (Dharmakaya Bodhisattvas),  who just manifested themselves as monastic disciples of the Buddha to benefit the Buddha's teaching.

Now they are to hear of the all-encompassing merits of the Pure Land, and gain the benefits of the supreme truth.  Giving their lives to benefit the Path, they purified the Buddha-land. Thus they are called an appropriate audience for the occasion.

Now the sutra describes the group of Bodhisattvas in the assembly:

Also present were the Bodhisattvas Mahasattva: Manjushri, Prince of the Dharma, the Bodhisattva Ajita the Invincible, and the Bodhisattva of Constant  Progress,  Gandhahastin, Nityodyukta,  and other such great enlightening beings.

"Bodhisattva-mahasattva" in Sanskrit means a great enlightening being, a sentient being whose Bodhi Mind is fully developed, in whom compassion and wisdom are operating in tandem to benefit both self and others.[12]

Buddha is the King of the Dharma, Manjushri continued the vocation of teaching wisdom, so he is called the Prince of the Dharma. Among the assembly of Bodhisattvas, he is foremost in wisdom. Without fearless genuine wisdom, you cannot truly understand the Pure Land teaching, and so Manjushri is put first [in the assembly of Bodhisattvas hearing the Amitabha Sutra].

The Bodhisattva Ajita is Maitreya. In the future he will become a Buddha, but now he is at the stage of the Equal Enlightenment.

Next the sutra lists the Bodhisattvas Gandhahastin and Nityodyukta, because they are the ones who cultivate practice for eons without ever stopping, making constant progress, tirelessly benefitting self and others.

These Bodhisattvas of high rank must all seek birth in the Pure Land, so that they will not be separated from seeing the Buddha and hearing the Dharma and giving offerings in person to the Sangha, in order that they may quickly achieve Supreme Enhghtenment [This is the exhortation of Samantabhadra in chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra.]

Also present was Shakra, the king of the gods, along with countless numbers of heavenly beings, making up a great assembly.

The name "shakra" means "the one who can be lord" [also known as Indra];  he is the king of the Trayastrimsha Heaven, the Heaven of Thirty-Three. Below his heaven are the heavens of the four deva-kings. Above are the Heaven of Yama, the Tushita Heaven, the Nirmanarati Heaven, the Paranirmita Heaven, the heavens of form, the formless heavens, and innumerable other heavens.

"Making up a great assembly" means that there were also other gods, asuras, and other supernatural beings from all the worlds of the ten directions in attendance [to hear Buddha give forth the Amitabha Sutra], and that all had the potential to benefit from the Pure Land teaching.

Thus ends the general introduction to the sutra. Next comes the particular introduction.

The wondrous gate of the Pure Land is inconceivable, and no one was able to ask about it, so Buddha took it upon himself to begin by extolling its name. Moreover, given that the Buddha's wisdom is able to evaluate the potentials of sentient beings unerringly, he saw that this great assembly ought to hear about the wondrous gate of the Pure Land so they could gain benefits. Therefore, he did not wait for questions, but began by himself.

At that time Buddha said to the Elder Shariputra: "West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called "Ultimate Bliss". In this land there exists a Buddha called Amitabha, who is expounding the Dharma right now.

The Pure Land method takes in all people, whether they are of low, medium, or high capacity. It is beyond all relativities, in perfect  fusion. It is inconceivable: it is perfectly all-encompassing, and goes completely beyond all other Buddhist methods. It is very profound and hard to believe in. Therefore it is specially announced to those of great wisdom: without the highest level of wisdom, you cannot arrive directly at the stage where you have no doubts about the Pure Land teaching.

"West" signifies the place where the Pure Land appears, which is west of here.  A "Buddha-land" is a whole great galaxy of worlds that are all taught by one Buddha. In terms of our world, there is a central polar mountain, and four continents to the east, west, south, and north of it, illuminated by the same sun and moon, surrounded by a circular range of iron mountains: this is one world. A thousand of these makes a small world system, a thousand small world-systems makes a medium world system, and a thousand medium world-systems makes a great galaxy of worlds. West of a hundred billion of such Buddha-lands is the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

Question: Why is the Land of Ultimate Bliss in the west?

Answer: This is not a good question. If the Land of Ultimate Bliss were in the east, you would be asking why it is in the east. Isn't this just playing with words? What's more, if you look at the Land of Ultimate Bliss from the point of view of the hundred billion Buddha-lands, it is in the east. What is worth creating doubts about?

"There exists a world called Ultimate Bliss." This introduces us to the name of Amitabha's environment, to his domain.  In the temporal dimension, its time is reckoned in terms of past, present, and future. In the spatial dimension, its boundaries are reckoned in terms of the ten directions [the four cardinal directions, the four intermediate directions, the nadir and the zenith].

The Sanskrit name for the Land of Ultimate Bliss is "Sukhavati".  It is also called the Land of Peaceful Nurturing, the Land of Peace and Bliss, the Land of Pure Equanimity, and so on. The basic meaning is that it is utterly peaceful and secure, and forever removed from all forms of pain and suffering. This is explained at length below.

There are four kinds of Pure Land, and each category is in turn subdivided in terms of purity or defilement [see glossary, "Four Pure Lands"].

Buddhas have three bodies, which are discussed in terms of singularity and multiplicity [see glossary: "Three Bodies of the Buddhas"].

When the sutra says "there exists a world called Ultimate Bliss" and "there exists a Buddha called Amitabha," it is saying that both that world and that Buddha do actually exist. There are four meanings here. 

  1. It indicates that there is a real Pure Land, and makes us happy to seek it.
  2. It gives us truthful instructions, to make us concentrate on the Pure Land.
  3. It states that the Pure Land is not a figment of the imagination or a mirage, that it is not a provisional manifestation or a roundabout teaching not to be taken literally, that it is not an empty falsity, that it is not a land reached via the Theravada vehicle.[13]
  4. It demonstrates perfectly that the Pure Land is part of our true nature, to enable us to have a profound realization of it and penetrate into the truth of Real Mark (the Mind).

"Buddha expounding the Dharma" on this occasion shows that both the Pure Land and Amitabha exist -- this is not a case of "the past is already gone, and the future has not yet taken shape." We must make a vow to be born in the Pure Land, and to personally hear Amitabha's teaching, so  that  we  may  quickly  achieve  true enlightenment.

The fact that the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha are here in the present encourages us to have faith. The fact that Amitabha's world is called the Land of Ultimate Bliss encourages us to vow to be born there.  The fact that the Buddha in the Pure Land is called Amitabha encourages us to engage in the wondrous practice of invoking his name.

The words of the sutra are concise, but the meaning is very profound.

This  concludes  my  commentary  on  the introductory portion of the sutra.

[ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: According to the contemporary Vietnamese Master To Lien: "If we are discussing the different manifestations of the universe, the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is indeed ten billion Buddha lands away. However, if we are speaking of the Pure Land of the Mind, then the ten billion Buddha lands are not outside the narrow confines of our own minds. If we recite the Buddha's name singlemindedly, the Pure Land can be found in every recitation -- the Pure Land is here and now."]