Devotion to Amitābha
Amitābha (“immeasurable light”), or Amitāyus (“immeasurable lifespan”), are the Sanskrit names of a Buddha who in Mahāyāna Buddhism is represented as the supernatural ruler of “the Land of Bliss” (Sukhāvatī), a paradise-like world in the Western part of the universe.
According to the doctrine associated with his name and commonly called Amidism (from the Japanese form, Amida), he is a superhuman saviour
who, by the force of his “original vow,” has created an ideal world into which all those who surrender to his saving power are reborn, to stay there until they reach Nirvāṇa:
In India and Central Asia, the complex of beliefs centred on Amitābha never appears to have given rise to a distinct sect within Mahāyāna Buddhism.
In East Asia, however, the cult of Amitābha (Chin., Amituo; Kor., Amit’a; Jpn., Amida) eventually led to a characteristic form of popular Buddhism,
especially as manifested in the various sects and movements known collectively as Pure Land (Chin., jingtu; Kor., chongt’o; Jpn., jodo).
The figure of Amitābha belongs wholly to the Mahāyāna tradition, for he is nowhere mentioned in the Theravada Canon.
The religious lore connected with Amitābha and Sukhāvatī contains a number of elements common to Mahāyāna Buddhism as a whole:
- the idea that in the universe there are many regions in which “extra-terrestrial” Buddhas are active;
- the belief that some of these Buddha worlds are regions of great beauty and spiritual bliss, as a result of the karmic merit accumulated by the Buddha in the course of past lives; and
- the conviction that pious believers can be reborn there to listen to his teachings.
In this general context, Amitābha and his Buddha world in the West are mentioned a number of times in early Mahāyāna scriptures, where, however, he is not singled out for special worship.
At the same time, the figure of Amitābha and the cult specifically rendered to him show a number of features that are so far removed from Indian Mahāyāna
that several scholars have sought their origin outside India, in the north-western borderlands where Buddhism was exposed to strong Iranian influence.
There its rise was probably also stimulated by the popularity of eschatological ideas around the beginning of the Common Era.
There was a belief that the world had degenerated,
to a point where humanity could no longer be delivered by its own effort and must rely on faith and on devotion to a powerful saviour in order to be released from sin and suffering.
A similar idea, that of the “last phase of the Doctrine,” was to play an important role in the development of Amidism in China and Japan.
Amitābha devotion is based on a few rather short scriptures of 2 types:
1) one concerning Amitābha’s spiritual career, the glories of the Western Buddha world, and the promise of rebirth in that region,
2) the other devoted to the technique of “visualization” of Amitābha by a process of mental concentration performed before an icon that represents the Buddha in his paradise.
The first Chinese translation of an Amitābha scripture dates from the first part of the 3rd century CE. This scripture already contains the story of the Buddha Amitābha’s original resolution to save all beings.
A famous episode that has remained the basic theme of Amidist soteriology, this tale recounts how, many aeons ago,
the monk Dharmakāra, the being destined to become the Buddha Amitābha, had pronounced a series of 48 vows
and declared that he would not realize Buddhahood unless he could fulfil all these vows by the force of his own karmic merit, to be accumulated in future lives.
He vowed to create a Buddha world of unparalleled splendour and to open it to all beings who sincerely believe in his saving power and express their faith by the invocation of his holy name.
With the exception of the gravest sinners, all beings may enter that realm of ethereal beauty and spiritual bliss, where even the birds sing hymns in praise of the Doctrine.
Sincere faith is especially important at the moment of death:
To the one who at his death surrenders to Amitābha’s grace, the Buddha himself will appear, and his soul (a basically non-Buddhist notion) will be transported to Sukhāvatī, there to be born from the bud of a supernatural lotus flower.
In some of these scriptures, Amitābha is already represented as forming a triad with the 2 powerful Bodhisattvas who in later iconography are his constant acolytes –
- Avalokiteśvara (Chin., Guan Yin, since the 10th century mostly represented as a female Bodhisattva) and - Mahāsthāmaprāpta;
- these 2 represent the 2 main aspects of his being, mercy and wisdom.
From the late 4th century onward, the cult of Amitābha, with its characteristic features (devotion; “visualization”; beatific visions at the moment of death; invocation of the Buddha’s name), is attested in Chinese sources, but it is generally combined with other Buddhist beliefs and practices.
It was only in the 6th century that Pure Land Buddhism became established as a distinct religious movement.
Pure Land Buddhism as founded by Tan-luan (c. 488-c. 554) and elaborated by Daochuo (562-645) and Shandao (613-681) must be viewed against the background of eschatological beliefs concerning “the final phase of the Doctrine” (Chin., mofa; Jpn., mappo):
These were widespread in 6th century China, particularly after the severe persecution of Buddhism in the years 574-578:
Mofa thought implied an extremely pessimistic view of society as made up of a world of sinners, a degenerate clergy, and a tyrannical government - in other words, a situation in which it was impossible to practice the doctrine to its full extent and complexity.
Instead of individual effort to reach the ideal of Saintliness and Enlightenment and the arduous task of studying the complicated teachings of the Buddhist scriptures,
humankind needed a simple way to salvation, and if humans were unable to tread it alone, the power of the Buddha’s compassion would be there to help them.
The rise of Pure Land Buddhism was no doubt also stimulated by indigenous Daoist thought:
Since early times, Sukhāvatī appears to have been associated with one of the Daoist terrestrial paradises, also located in the far West:
This was the fabulous Kunlun Mountain where Xi Wang Mu, the divine Queen Mother of the West, ruled over a population of immortals.
Furthermore, both the repeated invocation of the esoteric name of a deity and the visualization of supernatural beings were well-known Daoist practices.
It was no coincidence that the founder of the Pure Land movement, Tan-luan, had been deeply interested in Daoism before he became a Buddhist.
By the middle of the Tang dynasty (8th century), Amidism had become a powerful movement, as is attested by the popularity of Amidist literature and the innumerable icons and votive inscriptions devoted to the Buddha of the Western Paradise.
In spite of the simplicity of its message, it attracted followers from all classes, including the cultured elite of courtiers and scholar-officials.
The basic expression of faith and devotion in Pure Land Buddhism consisted of mental concentration on Amitābha’s saving power and on the mercy of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, who in due course became as prominent as the Buddha himself.
This was accompanied by the unceasing repetition of the formula
“Homage to the Buddha Amitābha”
(Skt., “Namo Amitābha-Buddhāya”;
Chin., “Namu Amitofo”;
Jpn., “Namu Amida Butsu”),
- sometimes up to a 100 000 times a day.
However, in spite of its doctrinal simplicity, Amidism in China developed an elaborate and characteristic liturgy, with hymn singing, the chanting of spells, collective prayer, and penitential ceremonies that in many variations have continued until the present.
In iconography, Amidism gave rise to a special type of religious art that takes as its basic theme an extremely elaborate representation of Amitābha and his acolytes in the splendour of the Western Paradise.
As may be expected, Pure Land devotion appealed to the lay public,
and the collective activities of lay believers, both male and female, often in the form of pious societies or congregations organized for common prayer and the performance of good works, always have played an important role.
Over time a tendency developed to supplement the simple message of Pure Land Buddhism with a philosophical superstructure borrowed from other, more sophisticated systems of Buddhist thought
such as the “One Vehicle” doctrine of the Lotus Sūtra, the esoteric symbolism of Tantric Buddhism, and Chan (Jpn., Zen) intuitionism.
In late imperial times, Chan-Pure Land syncretism could be found in most Chinese monasteries.
The Chan ideal of inner Enlightenment, attained through the realization of one’s own “Buddha nature,” was combined with the cult of Amitābha,
resulting in the beliefs that the true Pure Land is to be found within oneself and that the formula of the Holy Name can be used as a theme (Chin., Gong’an; Jpn., Kōan) in Chan meditation.
Following the official adoption of Buddhism as the state religion by the Korean kingdom of Silla (528 CE), the various schools of Chinese Buddhism, including the Pure Land sect, were introduced into Korea, where they reached their highest development in the 7-8th centuries.
From Korea, Amidism soon reached Japan; it is known to have been expounded at the Japanese court before the middle of the 7th century.
However, as in China, Japanese Amidism only slowly became a distinct sect:
As a sectarian movement, it clearly showed the characteristics of a popular, almost protestant, reaction to the more sophisticated and aristocratic doctrines and institutions of the established sects, and, once more, this reaction was largely inspired by eschatological beliefs concerning the “final stage of the Doctrine.”
In the 11-12th centuries, the popularity of Amidism rose with the activities of popular preachers such as Genshin (942-1017) and Kūya (903-972), the “saint of the marketplace,”
both of whom preached the principles of “relying on the strength of the Other One” (tariki) and the invocation of the Sacred Name (nembutsu).
In the late 12th century the Jodo sect was formally established by Genshin’s disciple Honen (1133-1212), who attracted a huge following from all classes in spite of growing resistance on the part of the Buddhist establishment.
In Honen’s Pure Land devotion, centred on the idea that salvation can be reached by nembutsu while everything else may be left to Amitābha’s saving grace,
there is found already the tendency toward extreme reductionism that would culminate in the True Jodo sect (Jodo Shinshū) founded by the great reformer Shinran (1173-1263):
According to Shinran, Amitābha’s “original vow” implied that salvation was open to all sincere believers. Thus not nembutsu but faith must be the basis of religious life.
Humanity can only be redeemed by a single and total act of surrender to Amitābha’s grace;
the invocation of his name is not a means by which to achieve salvation, but rather a constant expression of gratitude for the gift of faith from Amitābha.
Amitābha’s all-embracing grace erases all distinctions, including even the distinction between “own effort” and “relying upon the Other One” (tariki).
Shinran also stressed the fact that Amitābha is the only Buddha who should be worshiped:
All other Buddhist teachings and practices are secondary, or even irrelevant. Because there must be no separation between religion and ordinary life, even the principle of celibacy is rejected.
Like their founder who described his own status as being “neither priest nor layman,” Shinshū priests may marry. It is in this extremely reduced and “congregational” form that Amidism has become the most widespread variety of Buddhism in Japan.
At present, the Jodo and Jodo Shinshū sects (the latter in 2 main branches) together have a following of about 20 million.