My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha

by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna

I never thought that our Abbess Rev. Karuna would ask me to give another Dharma talk on Amitabha Buddha so soon after the last one. I thought I would be back to such subjects as the Four Brahma Viharas or the Twelve Links of Causation. Nevertheless, I am delighted to have another opportunity to talk about Amitabha Buddha and the teachings associated with Him.

It is safe to state categorically that no religion in world history has managed to survive for hundreds of years, let alone over two millennia, if it has appealed only to scholars and intellectuals. Therefore, since Buddhism has flourished for over 2500 years, there must be important elements in it that have nourished and sustained millions of people through the centuries who, even if they were born with less than brilliant minds or lacked the educational opportunities to develop their mental abilities, were nevertheless endowed with rich emotional resources and the capacity for deep faith.

The poor, humble, hard working people gained their primary satisfaction not from scholastic pursuits, but from the expression and involvement of their emotions in various relationships. They wanted to give love, of course, but most of all they wanted to feel loved, nurtured and protected, not just by a human support group like family, friends and lovers, but also by some infinitely caring and compassionate divine powers.

The great masters who shaped and developed the Mahayana or Great Vehicle during the latter decades BCE and the early centuries CE, were keenly aware of the deep need that existed among the majority of lay persons who followed the Dharma teachings for a primarily devotional form of Buddhism that could bring meaning and inspiration into their drab lives.

With the appearance of the three sutras which tell the story of Amitabha Buddha and the development of the trikaya doctrine which I discussed in my last talk, a purely devotional sect of Buddhism not only became a possibility, but eventually a reality. In India, a preference for the intellectual approach and the supreme importance of wisdom as the ultimate goal prevented any form of Buddhism that emphasized faith and devotion from becoming an independent school there. However, it is interesting to note that the great Nagarjuna--who lived in the second century CE, founded the extremely influential Madhyamika sect, and according to tradition, revealed the Prajnaparamita literature to the world--expressed the view "that for those who seriously undertake to lead the Buddhist life, two paths are open, the difficult path of self reliance and the easy path of dependence upon the compassion of the Buddha." Nagarjuna has been called by some authorities the second most important figure in the history of Buddhism, and because of his recognition of the legitimacy of the path of faith and devotion, he is considered to be the first Patriarch of the Pure Land devotional schools of the Far East.

Nagarjuna stated that the principal activity of those who follow the devotional path should be simply the worship of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, and Amitabha Buddha.

Maitreya, waiting in the Tusita heaven until it is his time to come into the world, is obviously not--now or for thousands of years to come--involved in the unfolding destiny of the world. Thus it would seem that the deities most deserving of veneration in Nagarjuna's day, as well as our time, are Amitabha Buddha and his son/daughter Kwan Yin, since it is they who are actively in charge during this world-period.

Even though for many centuries devotional Buddhism of one sect or another was practiced by all schools of Mahayana as an integral part of their programs of study, practice and worship, it was not until the fourth century of the common era in China that a monk named Hui Yuan (333-416 CE) developed an intensely devotional sect whose adherents concentrated upon the worship of Amitabha Buddha. Eventually, this sect became acknowledged as a separate school, the Pure Land school, which in time was accepted universally as one of the four main schools of Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhism in general passed through many vicissitudes in China, reaching its zenith of power, influence and popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), declining and periodically reasserting itself during later centuries. In time, as a result of all the strains to which Buddhism was subjected, the scholastic sects fell by the wayside, while only the two strongest and most popular sects managed to survive. These two were the Ch'an sect, known as Zen in Japan, and the Pure Land sect.

In Japan, where Buddhism was originally introduced in 552 CE, it was not until the Kamakura period (1185-1397 CE) that Pure Land Buddhism, which emphasized the idea of salvation through the grace of Amitabha Buddha, was propagated. Before long it gained a wide following among the farmers, fishermen, laborers, and shopkeepers, who were grievously oppressed by the higher classes of society.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, two great masters appeared on the scene, and it is to their credit that Pure Land Buddhism has flourished and grown until it has become the most popular and widely accepted form of Buddhism in Japan. The first of these masters, Honen Shonen (or Saint Honen) founded the Jodo shu, Pure Land sect, and later Shinran Shonin (Saint Shinran) founded the Jodo Shin shu, the True Pure Land sect. Both masters emphasized that those persons who, while longing to be reborn in the Pure Land, thought of Amitabha Buddha with sincerity and faith and repeated the nembutsu or the mantra Namo Amida Butstu, would after their death, be welcomed into the Sukhavati, Pure Land. Honen and Shinran both believed that calling upon the sacred name of Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu, Jap.) was sufficient , since the name itself contains the essence of Amida Buddha and is inseparable from Him.

Honen, while not disparaging other Buddhist practices such as study, meditation, asceticism, etc., clearly considered that the repetition of the nembutsu was superior to all other practices. However, he repeatedly states that unquestioning faith in Amida Buddha and his power to lead one to rebirth in the Pure Land is absolutely essential for the attainment of this goal. Shinran, on the other hand, taught that the desire to be reborn in the Pure Land was sufficient to ensure rebirth there, because Amida Buddha himself, will supply this unquestioning faith once a devotee sincerely wishes for salvation and begins to believe in Him.

Honen taught that Amida Buddha has the power to come forth and welcome to his Pure Land those persons who possess the very worst karma, because humankind has so seriously degenerated since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. Shinran went even further and stated that Amida Butsu's vow of salvation was intended primarily for the sinner, since a virtuous person can attain enlightenment through self effort. Devotional Buddhism, then, after twelve centuries of development, reached its climax in the teachings of Shinran Shonin. He went so far as to state categorically that rebirth in the Pure Land is identical with the attainment of Nirvana. In a beautiful quotation Shinran said, "In the Pure Land is unsurpassed Enlightenment."

Shinran recommended that we should seek rebirth in the Pure Land or Enlightenment not so much during the course of our everyday lives, with all their stress and distractions, but especially when we are dying. Then the faith that Amida himself has supplied, if we have fervently and sincerely desired to be reborn in the Pure Land, will lead us to an instant of pure egolessness, during which we will realize that any attempt to gain Enlightenment by our own efforts will only strengthen our sense of separateness.

As we drift closer to death, we will surrender unconditionally to the Compassion of Amida Buddha, relying on Him to carry us, regardless of our unworthiness, to the blessed shores of Sukhavati. Just imagine that after a life fraught with suffering, frustration and anguish, the heart in your bosom begins to falter, and each new breath requires a supreme effort. A minister of the Jodo Shin shu has been called to console you in your moment of extreme distress. He has brought with him to your bedside a beautiful painting or image of Amida Buddha, and he will place in your hand one end of a golden thread. The other end of the thread will be attached to the radiant figure of Amida Buddha, and symbolically you are united with him. As your consciousness leaves your worn out body, your eyes will linger for a moment on the painting or image of Amida, and then as your spirit rises from your discarded physical remains, the depiction of Amida will fade and be replaced by the real Amida Buddha, accompanied by Kwan Yin and Seishi, and surrounded by His heavenly host. Amid the rejoicing and celestial music of innumerable angels, you will be carried off to the Happy Land of Bliss, Sukhavati, the Western Paradise. Once there you will never again be subject to the law of karma and have to be reborn in one of the six realms of the wheel of transmigration. However, even at this point you will not retreat into the cool refuge of final Nirvana, detached from the world and all of its suffering creatures. Nothing will force you to return to the earth except your own overflowing compassion and intense desire to liberate other beings from suffering if and when the opportunity arises. Eventually, according to the inexorable will of Amida Buddha, all beings in one way or another will be led to Enlightenment.

Now let us look at the figures which I have brought for you to see. The main figure, naturally, represents Amitabha Buddha, looking in all respects exactly like Sakyamuni Buddha, because they are in essence the same. The hands are in the mudra which symbolizes Amida's vow to save all beings. To the left of Amitabha you see the representation of his son/daughter Avalokitesvara, called Kwan Yin in China and Kannon in Japan, a personification of the compassion of Amitabha. She holds in her hands a lotus blossom with a reliquary, in which she will carry the spirit of the deceased human back to the Western Paradise, where it will be reborn. On the other side of Amitabha, you see a representation of Mahastamprapta, which literally means One Who Has Gained Great Power, called Seishi Bosatsu in Japan, he can be thought of as a personification of great wisdom.

The other two figures I have placed on the altar, one on each side of the triad of deities, may at first glance, appear incongruous and inappropriate. Instead, they are touching depiction of the most humble devotees one could hope to find anywhere. To me they represent those millions of oppressed persons who possibly must wear rags and hardly have a crust of bread to eat or a place in which to sleep. These humble ones are worthy to stand beside Amitabha because they are not separated from him by a false sense of a permanent self or ego, which is the worst barrier that can prevent a person from receiving the transforming grace and abundant life energy that Amitabha eagerly sends to all his children. They see only beauty around them, reflected from the purity and benevolence of their own inner beings, and all outward unpleasantness fades into nothingness compared to the bliss and security they feel coming from Amitabha's limitless love for them.

I am sure that everyone here today, like the imaginary couple we have just discussed, would prefer to cast his/her cares aside and experience the peace and bliss of the Pure Land here and now in their own daily lives. It is as though each of us is a lightbulb, until the electricity which is Amitabha is turned on. As far as rebirth in the Pure Land is concerned, once we allow Amitabha Buddha to shine through us, we become like homing pigeons that instinctively will find our way home to Sukhavati, no matter what the distance, difficulty or danger of the flight.

So, what does Amitabha mean to my own life? I can state categorically that without the influence and inspiration of Amitabha I would not be here today. I accept the doctrine of Anatta or no permanent soul and realize that lacking any essence of my own, I only function as a channel through which Amitabha may send his healing, enhancing, nourishing energy to all other living beings. If there is any merit in my work, it is because Amitabha Buddha is expressing himself through me.

However, practically all of my training in Buddhism has been here at I.B.M.C., which considers itself to be a Zen temple. Therefore, in addition to my faith in Amitabha, I believe that every sincere Buddhist devotee should have a meditation practice if he is mentally equipped to do so. My channel through which Amitabha flows is partially obstructed and the flow of Amitabha's grace is impeded by the accumulated sludge of defilements which I have allowed through ignorance, anger and delusion to creep into my consciousness. I know of no better way to scour, cleanse and unblock my channel than by the daily practice of meditation. Is it possible to be both a Zen Buddhist and a Pure Land Buddhist at the same time? For the answer to this question I refer to the inspiring book Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, by our esteemed founder Dr. Thich Thien-An. He states that certain eminent scholars who advocate the exclusive development of Zen style "self power" do not consider reliance on the "other power", meaning that they rely only on the Zen master who teaches them how to sit, discipline the mind , work with a koan and practice shikentaza. Dr. Thien-An asks the question, "Without the constant prodding of the master how many people would reach satori?"

This question leads to the inescapable conclusion that if a Zen master who has realized only a limited amount of wisdom and compassion can be of such enormous assistance to his students during their quest for enlightenment, then Amitabha Buddha who has reached a state of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion, undoubtedly can help them infinitely more.

Dr. Thien-An states categorically that belief in the "other power" of Amitabha Buddha helps us develop our "self-power". In fact, he strongly recommends a practice which combines the development of Zen-style "self power" with reliance on the "other power" of Amitabha Buddha. In other words, the student should combine formal meditation with the chanting of the mantra "Namo Amitabha Buddha." The meditator and the Buddha become fused together in a mystical union. No longer is there any distinction between Zen and Pure Land, self-power or other power, wisdom or compassion, for everything has become transformed into the brightness of Infinite Light. Samsara becomes Nirvana. All the bliss and purity of the Western Paradise are realized in the here and now of every day life. Here the Zen and Pure Land schools meet in that common center from which they both emanate, the One Mind of Buddha, which is our true and permanent Essence of Mind.

Related Sites: Amitabha Sutra | Introduction to Pure Land Tradition | Descent of Amida Nyorai