The Sacred Text (Buddhist Sutra) called the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life contains the story of Amitabha Buddha. In this Sutra the historical Buddha whom we know as Gautam Buddha or Shakyamuni tells his chief disciple and personal assistant Ananda that there is a long lineage of Buddhas who preceded him. These Buddhas are said to be still alive and aware of him. One of these Buddhas was the Amitabha Buddha.
Amitabha Buddha in his initial life was a King named Dharmakara who lived during the lifetime of the then Buddha, Lokeshvararaja Buddha. One day, he heard the sermon of Lokeshvararaja Buddha and he was so inspired that he immediately gave up his Kingdom and became a monk. Dharmakara felt that he should reach such spiritual heights that he would earn enough merit to create a unique land referred to as the Land Of Bliss where people would be able to go after their death and there they could then attain enlightenment.
Pure Land Buddhism
Dharmakara then took forty eight vows to ensure his success which are listed in this Sutra. This Buddhism was referred to as Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan. The eighteenth vow called the Vow of the Ten Recitations is at the heart of Pure Land Buddhism. In this vow Dharmakara promises that he will be known as Amitabha Buddha in his enlightened state or the Buddha of Infinite Light and if he is called upon by anyone ten times in this state, that person will be reborn in the Pure Land or Land of Bliss and will eventually himself attain enlightenment.
The Pure Land is the same land as we are in now, only without the delusion of a separate Self which our illusion and ego makes us believe. According to the Nineteenth vow, he along with other blessed Buddhists and Bodhisattvas would appear before all those who prayed to him at the time of death.
Pure Land Buddhism is popular due to its acceptance of all kinds of people irrespective of any bias.
The Sutra then explains that Dharmakara after merits accumulated in countless lifetimes finally achieved Buddhahood and came to be known as Amitabha Buddha. He is said to be still residing in Sukhavati , the land full of virtues and joys which is situated beyond the bounds of our own world in the utmost West. His vows make it possible for all those who pray to him to be reborn in this land, follow the doctrines instructed by him in the Dharma and ultimate become Bodhisattvas and Buddhas who return to our world to help more and more people.
Nine Grades to be born in Pure Land
There are nine grades ie upper superior, middle superior, lower superior, upper medium, middle medium, lower medium, upper inferior, middle inferior and lower inferior which are rewards of the Pure Land and they correspond to the nine grades of development in the previous life upon which depends one’s distance from Amitabha Buddha in the next life and the time required to approach him in consequent aeons.
In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism Amitabha is one of the five Dhyani Buddhas associated with the Western Direction who are arranged in a Mandala. The other four are Vairochana(centre), Ratnasambhava(South) Amoghasiddhi(North), Akshobhya(East). His realm is Dewachen(Tibetan) or Sukhavati(Sanskrit). His two main disciples are the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshwara and Vajrapani. There are a number of Tibetan prayers for taking rebirth in Dewachen(Sukhavati), one of these was written by Je Tsongkhapa requested by Manjushri. The Samarpas and Panchen Lamas are said to be emanations of Amitabha. In Tibet he is also referred to Amitayus and is specially prayed to prevent an untimely death or to increase longevity.
He is referred to as Amida Nyorai or Amida Butsu in Japan. Before he attained Buddhahood he was known as Hozo Bodhisattva(Dharmakara) The Central practice of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan is reciting the Nembutsu or ‘Mindfulness of the Buddha’. The Japanese of Pure Land Buddhism recite ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ meaning ‘Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light’ or ‘I trust in the Buddha of Infinite light’. It is said that even one recitation of the nembutsu in a state of surrender awakens a person to the pure land.
In Other Traditions
He is referred to as Amituofo in China. In Vietnam Amitabha Buddha is referred to as A-di-da Phat, in Korea as Amita Bul.
The images of Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni and Amitabha Buddha are generally the same and can be distinguished only from their Mudras. Amitabha Buddha is generally depicted seated in the Dhyana or meditation mudra(thumbs touching and fingers together on the lap) while Shakyamuni Buddha’s mudra is earth touching(right hand pointed downward over the right leg, palm inward).
Amitabha and Amitayus is sometimes depicted as reflective images of each other with Amitabha in simple monk’s clothing and Amitayus in fine clothes and jewels and a 5 pointed crown. When depicted, Amitabha is generally portrayed with Avalokiteshwara on the right and Vajrapani on the left.
When depicted among the Dhyani Buddhas, his vehicle is the peacock and he is of red colour.
Amitabha Buddha and his vows form the basic doctrines in three Mahayana texts-
1. Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra gives the life history of Amitabha Buddha
2. Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra or Amitabha Sutra gives full description of the Pure Land.
3. Amitayurdhyana Sutra (The teaching of the meditation on Amitabha) explains 16 meditations that visualize the Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land Sukhavati or the realm of bliss.
In Sanskrit the mantra for Amitabha Buddha is Om Amitabha Hrih or Om Amideva Hrih. In Tibet it is Om ami dewa hri and in China it is Namo Amituofo.
People recite Amitabh Buddha’s name especially before death so that they can be born in the Pure Land after their lives on earth. Deep contemplation on him throughout one’s life assures a person of his grace and benevolence and removes obstacles in the path to enlightenment.