Next the sutra takes up the wonders of Amitabha Buddha himself. First Buddha poses a question, and then proceeds to explain Amitabha's name:
What do you think: why is this Buddha called Amitabha?
This sutra teaches the wondrous practice of reciting the name of Amitabha, so it makes a special point of explaining the name. The intent of the sutra is that people should develop deep faith in the inconceivable powers of this great name and its myriad virtues, and singl emindedly recite the Buddha-name without any further doubts or diversions.
The next passage gives two explanations of the name "Amitabha" -- as "infinite light" and as "infinite life". The literal translation of "Amitabha" is "infinite", and infinity is actually unexplainable. Here in the sutra our teacher Sakyamuni Buddha uses the meanings "infinite light" and "infinite life" to encompass all sorts of infinity.
Infinite light extends through space in all directions; infinite life extends through time and reaches through past, present, and future. The dimensions of space and time interpenetrating are the body of the universe. This body as a whole is the body and land of Amitabha, and this body as a whole is the name of Amitabha.
Thus, the name of Amitabha is the inherently enlightened true nature of sentient beings, and reciting the name of Amitabha reveals this enlightenment. Inherent enlightenment and the enlightenment as it is revealed [through cultivation and realization] are fundamentally not two different things, just as sentient beings and Buddhas are not two different things. Thus if we are in accord [with our inherently enlightened true nature] for a moment, we are Buddhas for a moment, and if we are in accord [with our inherently enlightened true nature] moment after moment, we are Buddhas moment after moment.
First, the sutra gives the definition of the name of Amitabha as "Infinite Light":
The light of this Buddha is infinite, and shines on all lands throughout the universe without obstruction. Thus this Buddha is called Amitabha.
The true nature of mind is still but always shining with awareness; hence it is a light. The idea here is that Amitabha Buddha penetrates to the infinite essence of the true nature of mind, so his light is infinite. All the Buddhas penetrate to the true nature of mind, and they all shine through all the worlds in the ten directions, so they all could be called "Infinite Light".
But the Buddhas in the causal stages [i.e., as Bodhisattvas] differ in the power of their vows, and they are named differently according to their circumstances. When Amitabha [in his previous incarnation in the distant past] was the monk Dharmakara, he made forty-eight vows, among them the vow that his light would forever shine through all the worlds in the ten directions. Now that he has achieved Buddhahood, what he vowed has been accomplished.
The light of the Dharmakaya is boundless, and the light of the Sambhogakaya is in accord with true nature--in this the paths of all the Buddhas are the same. The light of the Nirmanakayas [Emanation Body such as Sakyamuni] differs in scope: in some Buddhas it shines for a hundred miles, in other Buddhas it shines a million times further; in some Buddhas it illuminates one world, in other Buddhas it illuminates a million worlds. Only Amitabha's light shines universally. Thus Amitabha in particular is named "Infinite Light".
Still, the three Buddha-bodies are neither one nor different. These distinctions are made only to benefit sentient beings. We must understand that there are no obstructions among the three Buddha-bodies. From the point of view of ordinary people, if their affinity with the Buddhas is deep, then the light of the Buddhas will reach them everywhere, and always appear to them in its complete fullness in all worlds.
Next the sutra gives the definition of the name Amitabha as "Infinite Life":
Also, the life span of this Buddha and his people is an infinite number of immeasurable eons, and so he is called Amitabha.
The true nature of Mind is shining with awareness yet ever still: hence it is life. The idea here is that Amitabha Buddha penetrates to the infinite essence of the true nature of Mind, so his life span is infinite.
When Amitabha was Dharmakara, the king of vows, he made a vow that the life spans of both Buddhas and humans [in his realm] would be infinite. Now what he vowed has been accomplished [in the Pure Land], and he is given the special name "Infinite Life"...
We must understand that the names "Infinite Light" and "Infinite Life" are both based on [the equivalent potential inherent in] sentient beings. Because sentient beings and Buddhas are inherently equal, those who invoke the name of Amitabha will be no different from him either in their light or in their life span.
Moreover, given the truth of infinite light, when sentient beings are born in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss, they are also born in all the lands of the ten directions, and when they see Amitabha Buddha, they are also seeing all the Buddhas of the ten directions. Thus they are saved themselves, and they can bring benefits to all.
Given the truth of infinite life, the people in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are in the position that they are certain of attaining complete enlightenment in a single lifetime, and will not be reborn in different forms.
We must realize that there is no name of Amitabha apart from the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment, and there is no way for us to penetrate the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment apart from the name of Amitabha. I hope you will ponder this deeply!
Now comes the section of the sutra that describes Amitabha and his retinue:
Amitabha Buddha attained enlightenment ten eons ago.
The life span of Amitabha Buddha is infinite, and here when the sutra just speaks of ten eons, this is just a provisional way of teaching. In fact Amitabha's time has been endless, and he has urged, is urging, and will urge all the sentient beings of the past, present, and future to quickly seek birth in the Pure Land, share in the infinite life of the Buddhas, and accomplish this all in one lifetime.
The sutra goes on to speak of Amitabha's innumerable disciples who are Arhats, Bodhisattvas, and one-life Bodhisattvas. All of them achieved their status during the past ten eons. Here the sutra is really illustrating the fact that throughout all the worlds of the ten directions in the past, present, and future, many sentient beings achieve birth in the Pure Land with no falling back, and do so easily.
Moreover, this Buddha has innumerable disciples, all of whom are Arhats, and whose numbers are incalculable. Amitabha also has a following of innumerable Bodhisattvas.
Sentient beings in other worlds who are set in their ways as followers of the Lesser Vehicles do not get to be born in Amitabha's Pure Land. But if those who have studied the practices of the Lesser Vehicles in their early lives turn toward enlightenment when they are facing death, and make great vows, they will be reborn in the Pure Land...
Again, the sutra sums things up:
The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these merits and adornments.
Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples, and the Bodhisattvas who follow him, are all within the causal ground of Amitabha, created by his vows and his actions. At the level of results, when one is formed, all are formed. Thus Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples, and the Bodhisattvas who follow him, are neither identical to nor different from each other: self and others are not two. Thus [after describing Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples, and the Bodhisattvas who follow him] the sutra says, "The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these merits and adornments." Amitabha can enable those who have faith and vows and recite his name to become complete with all these merits too, from moment to moment.
This is the end of the first part of the sutra, which gives a broad account of the wondrous fruits of the Pure Land environment and Amitabha and his retinue, in order to arouse our faith.