AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AMIDA SUTRA
Originally prepared for a Portuguese translation of the Amida Sutra
By Zuio Hisao Inagaki
Buddhism aims at removing the root of suffering for all living beings, thereby giving them true peace and happiness.
The root cause of suffering is evil karma which one produces through the pursuit of selfish desires. Selfish desires, in turn, arise from spiritual ignorance which lies deep in one's being. The Buddha Shakyamuni discovered the true cause of human suffering and provided various means of removing it just as a physician prescribes different medicines according to the varying conditions of his patients.
The Pure Land Way of delivering beings from the bondage of their evil karma centers around the Nembutsu ? i.e. recitation of the sacred phrase, "Namo Amida Butsu." This way was first conceived in the mind of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara ("Dharma-store") many kalpas (aeons) ago after hearing the Dharma from the Buddha Lokeshvararaja ("World-sovereign King") and contemplating many Buddha-lands under his guidance. It took Dharmakara five kalpas to absorb what he had contemplated and to give his idea of salvation a definitive form.
Thus he made Forty-eight Vows. He proclaimed them before the Buddha Lokeshvararaja and to all beings, human and divine. The Vows are divided into three groups:
・ Those which concern the essential nature of the Buddhahood he would attain.
・ Those pertaining to the Buddha-land he would establish.
・ Those explaining how one can attain birth in his land of bliss.
His grand scheme of becoming a Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, establishing
a Buddha-land of perfect bliss, and saving all beings through the Nembutsu-Faith
became a reality after he accumulated a vast mass of pure merit and virtue
through the performance of the Six Paramitas - charity, observing the precepts,
patience, efforts, meditation, and wisdom. Again, it took Dharmakara innumerable
kalpas to realize this, and some ten kalpas ago he became a Buddha called
Amida - the Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitabha) and Infinite Life (Amitayus). He now dwells in the Buddha-land called 'Sukhavati,' the land of perfect bliss, where people enjoy the highest spiritual bliss of Nirvana and partake of the everlasting bodhisattva activity of saving other beings.
The above story of Dharmakara becoming Amida should not be taken to be merely a mythological tale. It is a transcendent realities explained in terms of cause and effect in the world of experience. From the outset of his bodhisattva's career, Dharmakara dwelled in the deep insight into the ultimate reality and envisioned the transcendent realm of exquisite beauty and happiness which could be shared even by ordinary beings of inferior spiritual capacities. In other words, he was not satisfied with his attainment of Bodhi - the highest wisdom of enlightenment. With irresistible compassion and loving kindness, he sought to embrace all beings in his compassionate light and bring them to attain freedom from the defilements of evil passions.
The transcendent reality of Amida Buddha, the Pure Land and his saving activity was first revealed to human beings through the Buddha Shakyamuni. He perceived all of this in the form of "samadhi" - an intuitive, transcendent means of perception. He transmitted what may be called the "Amida Samadhi" to his disciples of superior capacity with Mahayana propensities. A few centuries later, this Samadhi led to the codification of Pure Land scriptures. These scriptures developed, each in its own way under different cultural milieu, until a set of three became the standard texts of Pure Land Buddhism in China in around the sixth century.
The three Pure Land sutras are as follows: (1) the Larger Sutra, (2) the Contemplation Sutra, and (3) the Amida Sutra. The Larger Sutra fully explains how Dharmakara, formerly a king, determined to become a Buddha, made Forty-eight Vows, fulfilled duties as a bodhisattva, and became a Buddha. It also describes in detail the glorious manifestations of the Pure Land and the distinguished virtue of its inhabitants. What is more important is clarification of the methods of attaining birth in the Pure Land. It emphasizes meritorious acts centering on mindfulness of Amida.
The Contemplation Sutra was delivered by way of removing the suffering of Queen Vaidehi of Magadha, an ancient country in India, and showing her the way of birth in the Pure Land. Two kinds of meritorious acts for attaining birth are presented: meditative good and non-meditative good. The sutra concludes by recommending recitation of the Nembutsu.
The Amida Sutra is the shortest of all the three sutras. Here the Buddha Shakyamuni addresses his chief disciple Shariputra without awaiting a question. He describes briefly the glorious features of Amida and his land of bliss, mentions that Buddhas in the six quarters praise Amida's virtue and urge all beings to accept this sutra in faith, and explains the method of attaining birth in his land. According to this sutra, if one is mindful of Amida and holds fast to Amida's Name for one to seven days, at the end of one’s life, Amida and a host of sages will appear before this person to escort him or her to the Pure Land.
Although the three Pure Land scriptures are the basis for Pure Land Buddhism, their central message is to recommend the single practice of nembutsu. The term 'nembutsu' as it is used today is oral recitation of the sacred phrase, "Namo Amida Butsu," but it also implies meditative or contemplative practice of visualizing Amida and the Pure Land. In India and China, the latter was extensively practiced. As a result, many actually succeeded in attaining this transcendent experience. From the beginning, the oral and contemplative nembutsu were practiced side by side, but in the course of development of Pure Land Buddhism, the sophisticated contemplative practice gradually gave way to recitative nembutsu, which is easier to follow.
The three sutras have distinct functions. The Contemplation Sutra gives a detailed explanation of how to visualize the Pure Land, Amida and the two bodhisattvas and, at the end, encourages recitative nembutsu. The Amida Sutra exclusively recommends mindful nembutsu. On the other hand, the Larger Sutra, in a more general sense, accentuates meritorious acts accompanied by mindfulness of Amida as a means of attaining birth in the Pure Land. For example, even if one cannot accomplish acts of merit, the practice of concentrated and mindful reflection of Amida ensures one’s birth in the Pure Land. When one is mindful of Amida with singleness of heart to the exclusion of various thoughts on other Buddhas, bodhisattvas or deities and without conceiving any thought of doing good deeds through one's own effort, this mindfulness opens the channel of spiritual communication with Amida. In fact, one's effort to concentrate on Amida is, so to speak, "absorbed" in Amida's great Vow-Power and so one is spontaneously led to accept in faith his Wisdom and Compassion. This is how one attains the Other-Power Faith. It is, however, important to note that mindfulness of Amida cannot occur by itself. "Hearing the Name" is a prerequisite for directing one's thought toward Amida, as it is stated in the passage of fulfillment of the Eighteenth Vow:
All sentient beings who, having heard his Name, rejoice in faith, remember him even once and sincerely transfer the merit of virtuous practices to that land, aspiring to be born there, will attain birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. But excluded are those who have committed the five gravest offenses and abused the right Dharma.
According to Shinran's interpretation, "hearing the Name" is hearing the origin and result of the Buddha's Primal Vow and accepting it without any doubt. If one truly hears the Name, it awakens a true entrusting heart - the enduring mindfulness - which is the Other-Power Faith. Enduring mindfulness is accompanied by incessant repetition of "Namo Amida Butsu" (or "Na-mo-o-mi-t'o-fo" in Chinese or "Namo 'mitabhaya buddhaya" in Sanskrit), which induces and maintains concentration of mind on Amida. In addition, mindfulness of Amida is often accompanied by contemplation of Amida or the Pure Land. With such auditory and visual perceptive aids, one's thought comes to be wholly directed towards Amida.
Based on the three sutras, Pure Land Buddhism developed extensively in China, and attained its full maturity in Japan in the 13th-14th centuries. Honen (1133-1212) was the first to declare the independence of the nembutsu teaching and founded the Jodo school. He discarded Bodhi-mind and other requisites for the attainment of enlightenment, including observation of the precepts, and recommended exclusive practice of the nembutsu recitation in accord with Shan-tao's Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. In contrast, his disciple, Shinran (1173-1262), the founder of the Jodoshin school, emphasized the Other-Power Faith - mindful entrusting heart - accompanied by the nembutsu in accord with the Larger Sutra. For Shinran, true mindfulness is endowed by Amida. It is itself Amida's mind of Wisdom and Compassion penetrating the devotee's mind.
Shinran pertinently selected three vows in correspondence with the different channels of salvation presented in the three sutras: the Eighteenth, the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Vows.
(1) The Eighteenth Vow: "If, when I (i.e., Dharmakara) attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.”
(2) The Nineteenth Vow: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by a multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
(3) The Twentieth Vow: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who, having heard my Name, concentrate their thoughts on my land, plant roots of virtue and sincerely transfer their merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, should not eventually fulfill their aspiration, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
According to Shinran's interpretation, these Vows correspond in order to the three sutras. In the Eighteenth Vow, joyful entrusting heart (the Other-Power Faith) accompanied by the nembutsu recitation is presented as the cause of birth in the Pure Land; this is in agreement with the essential teaching of the Larger Sutra. In the Nineteenth Vow, various meritorious deeds are encouraged, which are interpreted as the meditative and non-meditative good mentioned in the Contemplation Sutra. The Twentieth Vow is meant to encourage exclusive recitation of the nembutsu which is the most meritorious act of all Buddhist practices and is the 'roots of virtue.'
These three Vows also show the process of conversion for aspirants. First, they start with performing meritorious deeds, whether meditative or not. Next, they are led into the Twentieth Vow and now concentrate on the nembutsu. As they recite the nembutsu exclusively and wholeheartedly, they become more and more deeply mindful of Amida, until they attain ultimate spiritual communication with Amida and rejoice in accepting his mind and heart, which is the Other-Power Faith of the Eighteenth Vow. In the first two stages of the conversion process, the aspirants' self-power is still dominant; but in the Eighteenth Vow it is completely replaced by Amida's Power.
The Amida Sutra exists in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. There are two Chinese translations extant: one by Kumarajiva produced in about 402 A.D. and the other by Hsuan-tsang in 650 A.D. Historically and traditionally, Kumarajiva's translation has been recognized as the standard text of Pure Land Buddhism.
The Amida Sutra came to be widely accepted by Pure Land followers after Shan-tao, the fifth patriarch, who strongly recommended chanting of this sutra. In the Method of Contemplation on Amida Buddha, he urges people to chant it many times a day:
... if you daily chant the (Amida) Sutra fifteen times, twenty or thirty times or more, or if you are chanting it forty, fifty, a hundred times or more, then you should strive to chant it a hundred thousand times.
It is said that Shan-tao himself chanted the Amida Sutra as many as a hundred thousand times in his lifetime.
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, section on "Non-meditative Good," Shan-tao presents a system of Pure Land practice, called "the five right practices," which are as follows:
・ chanting sutras
・ reciting the nembutsu
・ glorifying Amid’s virtue.
The expression, ‘chanting sutras,’ can be interpreted as chanting only the Contemplation Sutra, the Amida Sutra and the Larger Sutra with singleness of heart. Further, Shan-tao composed an elaborate liturgy, entitled "Hymns on Services for Pure Land Birth," in which he lays down the ritual procedure of walking round in
the Buddha hall while chanting the Amida Sutra. Shinran himself paid a special attention to this work; in his Notes to theAmida Sutra he frequently quotes from it.
The Amida Sutra had been almost exclusively used for services in Jodoshinshu before Rennyo established the custom of chanting the Shoshinge and Wasan for daily services. Now it is widely used among Shin Buddhists side by side with the Shoshinge.
It is clear that the Amida Sutra is meant to be chanted, not to be analyzed theoretically. It is hoped that this publication will contribute in no small way to the spread of this sutra in the west.
Return to Nembutsu-Index; Index.