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Buddhology of the Name

Buddhology of the Name

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Published by Raymond Lam
A short essay detailing the author's interpretation of the Pure Land Sutras and the teachings centering around Amitabha Buddha. The paper is built around three themes that are seen as central to core PL doctrine: Light (of which is Infinite), Life (of which is Infinite), and the Name (which is the normative means of communication by Amitabha to sentient beings).
A short essay detailing the author's interpretation of the Pure Land Sutras and the teachings centering around Amitabha Buddha. The paper is built around three themes that are seen as central to core PL doctrine: Light (of which is Infinite), Life (of which is Infinite), and the Name (which is the normative means of communication by Amitabha to sentient beings).

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Published by: Raymond Lam on Jan 03, 2010
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A Buddhology of the Name: Traditional Pure Land Buddhology RevisitedBy Raymond Lam
Let me dwell in the blessed assembly of the Buddha of Infinite Splendour, born in a beautiful and holy lotusAnd receive a prophecy of enlightenment (Vyakarana) in the Presence of Amitābha.
 – Samantabhadra’s Vows
Buddhology has existed ever since Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment andgrew as a field of religious study after his death. In Buddhist philosophical circles, thequestion of what makes an individual a Buddha has been discussed with expandingscope and deepening complexity especially after the advent of the Mahayana, or theGreat Vehicle. The idea of the bodhisattvas, the
, and Buddha-lands forever altered the structure and meaning of the Buddhist vocation. Buddhology reached anew milestone with the advent of the Pure Land school, in which three essentialconcepts: Light, Life, and the Name – became the central aspects of devotion throughwhich sentient beings could come to a personal relationship with the Buddha and toattain Nirvana. These three crucial aspects form the crux of Pure Land doctrine: in theholy scriptures, the Larger Sutra states that Amitābha’s nature is of infinite light (VowTwelve), infinite life (Vow Thirteen), and of the supreme Name (Vow Seventeen).Amitābha’s Eighteenth Vow, which all Pure Land traditions revere as the mostimportant of the forty-eight, communicate his intention to have all sentient beingsknow his Name and to attain liberation in his Pure Land.This essay is a holistic revisiting of Pure Land Buddhology for modern students. I amconvinced – and many writers have asserted this before me – that culture, language,or societal forms cannot limit the Pure Land School. Its Buddhology must also becosmic enough to include, where possible and legitimate, the notions and concepts of all traditions claiming loyalty to Amitābha. It is not helpful to overlook Chineseinfluence on Japanese Pure Land teachings, nor is it beneficial to ignore thesignificance of Japanese thinkers within the totality of the Mahayana movement. Agood case in point would be Shinran. Many Chinese and Japanese thinkers do notconsider many of his ideas legitimate, yet I am convinced that much of his teaching is pertinent to modern discipleship in Buddhism. It would be an ad hoc assumption todisregard his experience of the Pure Land simply because I declare loyalty to theChinese tradition.Therefore, this relatively short work came about as my personal and no doubtimperfect attempt to coherently articulate the holy qualities of Amitābha for ayounger readership interested in Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land perspectiveon its central Buddha, Amitābha. The paper aims to help Buddhists understand theimport of the Name in the universe and to help non-Buddhists to understand why the Name is believed to embody such importance. Therefore, it is a treatise addressing animportant aspect of Mahayana philosophy as succinctly but as systematically as myskills permit. It is academic in its approach, but in the end, it remains
my own search for the face of the Name
Preliminary Observations
The proper form (word-stem) of Amitābha's name in Sanskrit is the masculine
, and the nominative singular is
. This is a compound of theSanskrit words
(“without bound, infinite”) and
(“light, splendour”).Consequently, the Holy Name is to be interpreted as “He who possesses light without bound, he whose splendour is infinite.” The name Amitāyus (nominative formAmitāyuh) is also used. This is a compound of 
(“life”), and so means“He whose life is boundless” (Harvey, 1990, pp. 129 – 30).Amitābha is the supreme (Larger Sutra, 270b, 11), wonderful, and unequaled(
 Discourse on the Pure Land 
, verse 18) Lord of cosmic compassion, venerated by allMahayana traditions and particularly in exoteric East Asian Buddhism (Tsung-pen,1994, p. 173). Amitābha is the primordial Buddha that embodies the essence of allBuddhas and is praised by them eternally. Amitābha contains all Buddhas within theinfinite light and life of his Dharma Realm Treasury Body (Smith, 1993, p. 46), whichcontains the cosmos whilst transcending it entirely. Amitābha is therefore
andas such is (ultimately) indescribable. Amitābha only desires the liberation of all beings so that they will become Buddhas themselves, unlimited in life and wisdom.Amitābha’s position as Tathagata – as the foremost of Tathagatas and as the father of all sentient beings (Tsung-pen, 1994, p. 173) – is therefore one of utterlyinconceivable perfection and compassion, unimpeded in its power and strength.As inadequate as our languages are to even articulate such
(Sebastian,2005, p. 100), this essay aims to revisit the systematic Buddhology that defineAmitābha’s uniqueness as a Buddha and express, at its highest level, the complexnature of Buddhahood that is rooted in
or true reality and the world of sentient beings.We can begin by asserting that Amitābha is actually devoid of nature: Amitābha is beyond form and formlessness, beyond pure and impure, beyond non-self and self, beyond supremacy and lowliness, beyond eternity and ephemerality. In the cosmos of 
and in our world of Endurance, suffering and ignorant beings mistake theimpure as pure, the self-less as self, suffering as happiness, impermanence as permanence (2005, p. 112), and the insignificant as significant. But when weremember Amitābha’s omnipresence by invoking the Name, all conventionalconceptualization is transcended and we experience the enlightened mind as we vowto serve Amitābha and all sentient beings.
Light, Life, and the Name
The Pure Land tradition (and the Mahayana in general) is the historical form andexpression of a non-historical, transcendent reality (Ingram, 1977, p. 77). At thehighest level of practice, which runs close parallels with other mystical traditions,Amitābha represents the formless True Mind or Self-Nature common to Buddhas andsentient beings – all-encompassing and all-inclusive. This deeper understanding provides the rationale for the harmonization of Zen and Pure Land, the two most popular schools of Mahayana Buddhism (Smith, 1993, p. 235). However, the
identities of sentient beings and Amitābha still remain metaphysically distinct andseparate (Ingram, 1977, p. 80).Amitābha’s
or Body of Truth is the absolute
of enlightenment,the absolute reality. Amitābha is the Buddha Nature common to all beings, Buddhas,and bodhisattvas. This Body of Truth is encountered by beings born into the PureLand or by those who devote their lives to Amitābha, personified by Amitābha’s
, or manifestation of the
through skilful means (asdescribed in the Contemplation Sutra). Amitābha in the
is the historicalmanifestation as Dharmakara, fulfilling his forty-eight bodhisattva vows.But this forms only a glimpse of Amitābha’s unique nature.In Pure Land Buddhology, Amitābha’s nature consists of three characteristics (apartfrom the presupposition that Amitābha is a Truth-Body Buddha that approachessentient beings to liberate them). These are directly referred to in the scriptures.Amitābha’s unceasing light is demonstrated in Vow Twelve: “If, when I attainBuddhahood, my light should be limited, illuminating even a hundred thousand
of Buddha lands, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” (268a). TheBuddha’s eternity is highlighted in Vow Thirteen: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, mylifespan should be limited, even to the extent of a hundred thousand
, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” (268a). Vow Seventeen indicatesAmitābha’s unique supremacy among all other Buddhas: “If, when I attainBuddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the lands of the ten directions should not all praise and glorify my Name, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” (268a).Amitābha is therefore the Buddha who has taken on the forms of light, life, and Nameto awaken sentient beings and bring them to his Pure Land. Light and life are thequalities depicted in the Name and reveal Amitābha’s universality andtranstemporality. The Name itself is the manifestation of the Buddha’s presence, theembodiment of perfection, enlightenment, and how it communicates itself to theuniverse of unenlightened beings. Of course, Amitaba possesses countless other characteristics, but these are the central Buddhological teachings that articulate andsystemize Amitābha’s relation to sentient beings (note that it is impossible tosystemize the traits of the actual Buddha because the Buddha is fundamentally
). And of course, Amitābha’s infinite compassion is revealed in theaforementioned Primal (
) Vow – the supreme Eighteenth Vow which states thatany being that invokes, thinks of, or is mindful of the Name will experience the PureLand. The Primal Vow is called thus because it is prior to the beginningless beginningof time, taking in all beings unconditionally (Unno, 1998, p. 20).
Infinite Light (Amitābha, Twelfth Vow)
The name of “Infinite Light” and light symbolism is extremely important in theBuddhist tradition and forms the central object of faith, worship and veneration(Ingram, 1977, p. 85). It has other qualities like purity and joy and often symbolized by the sun. The notion of light is grounded in merit-acquiring practices of Mahayanasoteriological disciplines. One must know the Buddha’s unimpeded light, and by partaking in the light, one will be saved:

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