Pure Land and the Amitabha Sutra

The Pure Land Teaching: Buddha-Remembrance

Pure Land Buddhism centers on faith in Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light Infinite Life. Amitabha has promised rebirth in his Pure Land to all those who singlemindedly invoke his name. Amitabha's Pure Land, called "The Land of Ultimate Bliss," is a pure realm where the ills of our world do not exist. Once reborn in the Pure Land, we are freed from the defilements and fixations that block the path to enlightenment here in our mundane world, and we can continue our spiritual progress under the direct tutelage of Amitabha and the assembly of saints and sages.

Pure Land believers show their faith in Amitabha's promise by taking a vow to be reborn in Amitabha's Pure Land. They practice their faith by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, by contemplating his qualities, by visualizing his image.

Pure Land practice focuses the mind on Amitabha. The tribulations of our world become a temporary inconvenience that cannot sidetrack us, as we make our way surely and steadily toward rebirth in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss. We no longer identify with the inevitable ups and downs of social roles and personal struggles -- we have faith that our true identity is as inhabitants of the Pure Land, and companions to Amitabha Buddha.  We carry on with our work, and fulfill our social duties, but our real work is reciting Amitabha Buddha's name, and our real duty is clarifying our minds in "remembering" Amitabha Buddha.

Faith, vows, and practice go together and support each other in Pure Land Buddhism.  In the words of Master Ou-i, whose commentary on the Amitabha Sutra is translated below:   "Without faith, we are not sufficiently equipped to take vows. Without vows, we are not sufficiently equipped to guide our practice. Without the wondrous practice of reciting the Buddha-name, we are not sufficiently equipped to fulfill our vows and to bring our faith to fruition.

The hallmark of Pure Land Buddhism is what is called "reciting the Buddha-name," that is, invoking Amitabha Buddha by chanting his name. Through reciting the Buddha-name, we focus our attention on Amitabha Buddha. This enables us to achieve Buddha-remembrance, that is, mindfulness of Buddha.

To understand Buddha-remembrance, we must recall just what the word "Buddha" means. With a clear idea of the various levels of meaning of the word "Buddha", we can also see how Pure Land Buddhism fits into the whole spectrum of Buddhist teachings.

At the most general level, "Buddha" is a name for the absolute reality that permeates all particular forms of being; the special term for this is "Dharmakaya Buddha". "Buddha" is the ocean;  everything in the universe, including ourselves, other life-forms, natural phenomena, the planets and the stars and the galaxies, are all waves on the Buddha-ocean. "Buddha" is our very substance and essence, but how many of us are aware of this minute to minute, not just as an abstract notion, but as a palpable experience?

"Buddha" is also the name for those who do actively experience this absolute reality in their daily lives, and tap into its inherent qualities of compassion, wisdom, power, and purity -- these are the enlightened ones, "the Buddhas". The Great Vehicle sutras constantly speak of "all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, in all the worlds of the ten directions." By this the sutras mean to let us know that countless beings in the past, present, and future, not only on our earth, but on all the worlds where sentient beings exist, have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience the one absolute reality, and become endowed with its power to communicate enlightenment.

Master Ou-i expresses it this way: "Fundamentally all the Buddhas manifest their teaching activities from within the Dharmakaya. They solidify sentient beings' affinity with the truth and strengthen their seeds of enlightenment ...  They energize teaching vehicles and expound them to vast audiences. They plunge into the ocean of suffering where sentient beings dwell, and use their compassion to enable them to harmonize with the still light.

In this sense, Buddha has had and will have many different embodiments.  The Buddhist scriptures name countless Buddhas, their worlds and their eras. Among the most well-known are such figures as Sakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha born in India, the propounder of the teaching of enlightenment for one era here on earth), or Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha, who will bring a new dispensation of wisdom and justice to the earth in a time to come), and Vairocana Buddha (the cosmic illuminator Buddha whose light reaches all worlds). Amitabha Buddha is one Buddha among many, but one with a special affinity for the people of our world.

"Buddha" as the one absolute reality is termed "the Dharmakaya", which means "the truth-body (Dharma Body) of Buddha" or "the body of reality".  The Dharmakaya is "the true pure reality of all the enlightened ones,  beyond characteristics,  quiescent, beyond all theorizing, possessed of true pure virtues without limit, the everywhere-equal true nature of all things."

"Buddha" in the form of specific enlightened beings is termed "the Nirmanakaya", which means the "form-bodies of Buddha" or "the Emanation Bodies". The idea is that to communicate the teaching, Buddha must take on specific forms within the range of awareness of ordinary sentient beings, by emanating specific embodiments, the Nirmanakaya.  "All Nirmanakaya arise from skill in means," according to the Flower Ornament [Avatamsaka] Sutra. The perceived forms may vary, but the underlying reality of Buddha is one.

The word "Buddha" is also used to refer to the inherent potential for enlightened perception that all people share. According to Great Vehicle Buddhism, we all have "Buddha-nature", and the one great mission of all forms of Buddhism is to bring this to light, to make us aware of our Buddha-nature, and enable us to function by means of it in our daily lives.   In this context, remembering  Buddha, Buddha-remembrance,  means remembering our own true nature, the capacity for lucid wisdom and selfless compassion that is our birthright. By becoming mindful of Buddha (i.e. reciting the Buddha-name), we are just regaining our real identity.

All forms of Great Vehicle Buddhism aim for Buddha-remembrance in this sense. What is distinctive about Pure Land Buddhism is that it teaches that reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha is the most effective and most widely applicable method of remembering Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism it was designed as a simple, universally accessible method through which ordinary people could come into contact with the enlightening essence.[4]

Master Ou-i reflects this perspective on Buddha-remembrance consistently throughout his commentary on the Amitabha Sutra:  "The name of Amitabha is the inherently enlightened true nature of sentient beings, and reciting the name of Amitabha reveals this enlightenment... 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."

The Vision of the Amitabha Sutra

This brief but colorful text,The Amitabha Sutra, gives the basic charter for Pure Land belief and practice. Following the usual model for sutras, it presents its message in the form of a talk delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha to an assembly including both humans and supernatural beings.

Buddha begins his lesson by proclaiming the existence of Amitabha and his Pure Land:

"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.

"Why is this land called 'Ultimate Bliss'? It is called 'Ultimate Bliss' because the sentient beings in this land are free from the myriad sufferings, and experience nothing but happiness."

Buddha goes on to explain the significance of Amitabha and his Pure Land environment for the salvation of sentient beings:

"What do you think: why is this Buddha called Amitabha?

"The light of this Buddha is infinite, and shines on all lands throughout the universe without obstruction. Thus this Buddha is called Amitabha.

"Also, the life span of this Buddha and his people is an infinite number of immeasurable eons, and so he is called Amitabha.

"Amitabha Buddha attained enlightenment ten eons ago. What's more, this Buddha has innumerable disciples, all of whom are Arhats, and whose numbers are incalculable.   Amitabha also has a following of innumerable enlightening beings, Bodhisattvas who follow the Greater Vehicle Teachings.

"None of the sentient beings who are born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss ever fall back into a lower realm. Many among them have only one more lifetime before enlightenment.  These beings are very numerous, and their number is incalculable: they can be spoken of as innumerable.

"When sentient beings hear [of the Land of Ultimate Bliss], they must take a vow to be born in this land. Why so? So that they can be together with all these beings of superior goodness."

The sutra also describes the wonders of the Pure Land: trees made of jewels, jewel ponds, buildings made of precious stones, wondrous lotuses emitting colored lights, celestial music constantly playing, gorgeous flowers falling from the sky, the earth covered with tawny gold, birds communicating the Buddhist teachings in their songs. Everything in the Pure Land works together to remind the inhabitants of the truths of Buddhism. An ideal land indeed!

Above all, people in the Pure Land suffer none of the evils to which flesh is heir in our world. They are free from pain, from hunger, from sickness, from old age and death.

People in the Pure Land also benefit from being in the direct presence of Amitabha and his vast retinue of enlightening sages. Their own life spans become infinite, and they are guaranteed an endless sojourn in the Pure Land, until they too enter the ranks of the enlightened ones.

Master Ou-i further clarifies our view of the wonders of the Pure Land: "All the adornments of the dwellings in the Pure Land and the settings in which sentient beings are reborn in the Pure Land are created by the inherently real merits of the great vows and great deeds of Amitabha Buddha. That's why he can adorn all dimensions of the Pure Land, and embrace all the ordinary people and saints of all the worlds of the past, present, and future, and enable them to be reborn in the Pure Land."

Master Ou-i also reflects upon Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss from the perspective of Hua-yen Buddhism, where the interpenetration of infinite arrays of worlds is the basic medium of the enlightening being's perception. Master Ou-i stresses this in his comments on the passage in the sutra describing the inhabitants of Amitabha's Pure Land returning from their regular journeys to other worlds.

First, the sutra passage:

"Every morning the sentient beings of this land decorate their garments with multitudes of wondrous flowers and make offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas in other worlds. When it is meal time, they return to their own land, eating as they [circumambulate the teaching assembly]."

Master Ou-i comments: "This passage shows that in the Pure Land every sound, every sense-object, every moment, and even every step and every snap of the fingers, interpenetrates without obstruction the Three Jewels of all the worlds of the ten directions.  It also shows that in our mundane world the defilements and obstructions are so serious that our world is separated off from the Land of Ultimate Bliss, even though it is not really separated from it. When we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, our merit will be so great that we will be separated from this mundane world called 'Endurance', without really being separated from it."

Significantly, the Amitabha Sutra does not only dwell upon Amitabha and his Pure Land in the West, but goes on to describe in turn the Buddhas and their lands in all directions. Master Ou-i explains this as if it is a matter of course: "Space in [any given direction] is infinite, and there are an infinite number of worlds there. Since there is an infinite number of worlds, there is also an infinite number of Buddhas who dwell in those worlds... That's why the sutra refers to 'countless other Buddhas'."

Again, the key is to comprehend that every particular Buddha is essentially an emanation of the one absolute reality, the Dharmakaya. Buddha is both one and many, as Master Ou-i reminds us:  "Buddha has countless virtues, and so he must have countless names, names established according to the teaching situation. Sometimes these names are based on causal conditions, sometimes on results achieved, sometimes on inherent nature, sometimes on apparent characteristics, sometimes on practices or vows or other things...Each name illustrates a particular quality of Buddhahood. If we were to try to express all the qualities of the enlightened ones, we could talk till the end of time and never be able to finish."

By naming some of these Buddhas, the sutra intends that we focus on the qualities associated with the meanings of the names, and let them add power to our work on the path. The litany of names heightens the effect of an array of the purified lands that the sutra is showing, to the benefit of sentient beings.

With so many Buddhas in the cosmos, why focus on Amitabha?   Master Ou-i answers this question explicitly:

"Why not make the whole universe the focal point [instead of Amitabha's Pure Land]? -- There are three reasons. We focus on Amitabha's Pure Land because this makes it easy for beginners to orient their minds, because Amitabha's fundamental vows are more powerful, and because Amitabha has a special affinity with the sentient beings in our world."

Near the end of the sutra, after having prescribed the method of invoking the name of Amitabha, Buddha offers praise to all the other Buddhas, and acknowledges their praise of him for being able to teach the method of invoking Amitabha in the difficult conditions of a corrupt world:

"Just as I am now extolling the inconceivable merits of all the Buddhas, all those Buddhas are likewise extolling my inconceivable merits, with these words:

Sakyamuni Buddha is able to carry out a most difficult and rare task. In the world 'Endurance', in an evil world of the Five Corruptions - the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of affliction, the corruption of sentient beings, and the corruption of life - he is able to achieve complete, unexcelled enlightenment, and to expound the Truth which beings in all worlds find hard to believe."

Reciting the Buddha-Name

In the Amitabha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha sets forth the parameters for the fundamental Pure Land practice of becoming mindful of Buddha by reciting the Buddha-name of Amitabha. Buddha says:

"If there are good men or good women who hear of Amitabha Buddha, and recite his name wholeheartedly without confusion for one day or two days or three days or four days or five days or six days or seven days, then when these people are about to die, Amitabha Buddha and all the sages who are with him will appear before them. When these people die, their minds will not fall into delusion, and they will attain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha's Land of Ultimate Bliss. I have seen this benefit, and so I speak these words. If sentient beings hear what I say, they must make a vow to be born in that land."

Many forms of reciting the Buddha-name have been sanctioned and recommended by Pure Land experts: reciting the Buddha-name in solitude or in groups, silently (with the sound in the mind's voice and ear) or aloud, quietly or forcefully, when sitting, standing, walking or lying down, amidst the day's duties or before or after them. An allied method, combining Pure Land with Zen, is to recite the Buddha-name, while focusing on the point "Who it is who is reciting the Buddha-name?"

The prime goal is to focus on the Buddha-name "with mind unified and not chaotic, (ie singlemindedly)." Reciting the Buddha-name is one of the many many Buddhist practices designed to achieve this goal:  its beauty is that it is safe and comparatively simple to use, and within reach of ordinary beings as well as saints. But even if we cannot achieve total concentration, reciting the Buddha-name is still beneficial. Master Ou-i explains: "When we speak of concentrating on invoking the Buddha-name with a mind that is unified and not chaotic we are using the Buddha-name to summon up the qualities of Buddhahood. Since the qualities of Buddhahood are inconceivable, the Buddha-name  itself  is  also inconceivable. Since the merits of the Buddha-name are also inconceivable, even if we recite the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, it is still a seed of enlightenment, a way of persevering and ascending toward enlightenment without falling back."

Reciting the Buddha-name is one method among a range of Pure Land methods: visualizing Amitabha, contemplating the attributes of Amitabha, doing prostrations, making offerings, practicing repentance, cultivating a mindfulness of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, being mindful of discipline and of generosity. But Master Ou-i states that "Reciting the Buddha-name can be called the number one expedient among all the expedient methods, the supreme complete truth among all the complete truths, the most perfect of all the perfect teachings." This is because reciting the Buddha-name has special practical advantages: "If you consummate any of these practices [and dedicate the merits to rebirth in the Pure Land], you will be born in the Pure Land. The method of reciting the Buddha-name is the one that is the most all-conclusive in taking in people of all mentalities, and the one that is easiest to put into practice.

In Pure Land practice, invoking the name of Amitabha is a means to get in touch with the power of Amitabha himself.  Our own feeble powers may be insufficient to bring us to the Other Shore, but Amitabha has provided us an access point through which we can reach his power, and be protected by the power of all the Buddhas.

Master Ou-i explains the essential  role of Amitabha's power for Pure Land practitioners: "Amitabha is the guide of the Pure Land. By the power of his forty-eight vows, he receives the sentient beings who have vowed to practice Buddha-remembrance by invoking the Buddha-name and enables them to be born in the Land of Ultimate bliss, and never fall back from there.

"The essential point is that everything about Amitabha is infinite:  his merits and his wisdom, his supernatural powers and his power in the Path, his embodiment  and  his  environment, ; in expounding the teachings and liberating sentient beings...

"With his great vows, Amitabha creates the causal basis for sentient beings to multiply their good roots, and with his great deeds he creates the conditions for sentient beings to increase their merits. Amitabha enables us to develop Faith and Vows and recite his name, and from moment to moment achieve these merits...

"All the adornments of Amitabha act as an augmenting substance that stimulates the development of all the adornments within the minds of sentient beings."

From a far off point in time and space, Amitabha offers the invocation of his name as a doorway to the infinite, inviting us to come through and share in the infinite life of the Buddhas.

The Amitabha Sutra emphasizes this point again and again as it enumerates the Buddhas of the six directions. Sakyamuni Buddha says to his listeners:

"Why do you think this is called 'the sutra that is protected and kept in mind byand kept in mind by all the Buddhas'?

"If there are good men and good women who hear this scripture, accept it, and uphold its teachings, and they hear the names of all these Buddhas, all these good men and good women will be protected and kept in mind by all these Buddhas, and all of them will reach the level where they do not turn back from complete, unexcelled, correct enlightenment.

"Therefore, all of you should faithfully accept what I say and what all the Buddha have said."