A Buddhology of the Name: Traditional Pure Land Buddhology Revisited By Raymond Lam Let me dwell in the blessed assembly

of the Buddha of Infinite Splendour, born in a beautiful and holy lotus And receive a prophecy of enlightenment (Vyakarana) in the Presence of Amitābha. – Samantabhadra’s Vows Introduction Buddhology has existed ever since Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment and grew as a field of religious study after his death. In Buddhist philosophical circles, the question of what makes an individual a Buddha has been discussed with expanding scope and deepening complexity especially after the advent of the Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle. The idea of the bodhisattvas, the trikaya, and Buddha-lands forever altered the structure and meaning of the Buddhist vocation. Buddhology reached a new milestone with the advent of the Pure Land school, in which three essential concepts: Light, Life, and the Name – became the central aspects of devotion through which sentient beings could come to a personal relationship with the Buddha and to attain Nirvana. These three crucial aspects form the crux of Pure Land doctrine: in the holy scriptures, the Larger Sutra states that Amitābha’s nature is of infinite light (Vow Twelve), infinite life (Vow Thirteen), and of the supreme Name (Vow Seventeen). Amitābha’s Eighteenth Vow, which all Pure Land traditions revere as the most important of the forty-eight, communicate his intention to have all sentient beings know his Name and to attain liberation in his Pure Land. This essay is a holistic revisiting of Pure Land Buddhology for modern students. I am convinced – and many writers have asserted this before me – that culture, language, or societal forms cannot limit the Pure Land School. Its Buddhology must also be cosmic enough to include, where possible and legitimate, the notions and concepts of all traditions claiming loyalty to Amitābha. It is not helpful to overlook Chinese influence on Japanese Pure Land teachings, nor is it beneficial to ignore the significance of Japanese thinkers within the totality of the Mahayana movement. A good case in point would be Shinran. Many Chinese and Japanese thinkers do not consider 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 to disregard his experience of the Pure Land simply because I declare loyalty to the Chinese tradition. Therefore, this relatively short work came about as my personal and no doubt imperfect attempt to coherently articulate the holy qualities of Amitābha for a younger readership interested in Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land perspective on its central Buddha, Amitābha. The paper aims to help Buddhists understand the import 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 an important aspect of Mahayana philosophy as succinctly but as systematically as my skills 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 Amitābha, and the nominative singular is Amitābhah. This is a compound of the Sanskrit words amita (“without bound, infinite”) and ābhā (“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 form Amitāyuh) is also used. This is a compound of amita and āyus (“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 all Mahayana traditions and particularly in exoteric East Asian Buddhism (Tsung-pen, 1994, p. 173). Amitābha is the primordial Buddha that embodies the essence of all Buddhas and is praised by them eternally. Amitābha contains all Buddhas within the infinite light and life of his Dharma Realm Treasury Body (Smith, 1993, p. 46), which contains the cosmos whilst transcending it entirely. Amitābha is therefore infinity and as 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 utterly inconceivable perfection and compassion, unimpeded in its power and strength. As inadequate as our languages are to even articulate such untraceability (Sebastian, 2005, p. 100), this essay aims to revisit the systematic Buddhology that define Amitābha’s uniqueness as a Buddha and express, at its highest level, the complex nature of Buddhahood that is rooted in suchness 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 saṃsāra and in our world of Endurance, suffering and ignorant beings mistake the impure as pure, the self-less as self, suffering as happiness, impermanence as permanence (2005, p. 112), and the insignificant as significant. But when we remember Amitābha’s omnipresence by invoking the Name, all conventional conceptualization is transcended and we experience the enlightened mind as we vow to serve Amitābha and all sentient beings. Light, Life, and the Name The Pure Land tradition (and the Mahayana in general) is the historical form and expression of a non-historical, transcendent reality (Ingram, 1977, p. 77). At the highest level of practice, which runs close parallels with other mystical traditions, Amitābha represents the formless True Mind or Self-Nature common to Buddhas and sentient 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 and separate (Ingram, 1977, p. 80). Amitābha’s dharmakaya or Body of Truth is the absolute suchness 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 Pure Land or by those who devote their lives to Amitābha, personified by Amitābha’s sambhogakaya, or manifestation of the dharmakaya through skilful means (as described in the Contemplation Sutra). Amitābha in the nirmanakaya is the historical manifestation 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 (apart from the presupposition that Amitābha is a Truth-Body Buddha that approaches sentient beings to liberate them). These are directly referred to in the scriptures. Amitābha’s unceasing light is demonstrated in Vow Twelve: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, my light should be limited, illuminating even a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha lands, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” (268a). The Buddha’s eternity is highlighted in Vow Thirteen: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, my lifespan should be limited, even to the extent of a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas, may I not attain perfect enlightenment” (268a). Vow Seventeen indicates Amitābha’s unique supremacy among all other Buddhas: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, 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 Name to awaken sentient beings and bring them to his Pure Land. Light and life are the qualities depicted in the Name and reveal Amitābha’s universality and transtemporality. The Name itself is the manifestation of the Buddha’s presence, the embodiment of perfection, enlightenment, and how it communicates itself to the universe of unenlightened beings. Of course, Amitaba possesses countless other characteristics, but these are the central Buddhological teachings that articulate and systemize Amitābha’s relation to sentient beings (note that it is impossible to systemize the traits of the actual Buddha because the Buddha is fundamentally inconceivable). And of course, Amitābha’s infinite compassion is revealed in the aforementioned Primal (purva) Vow – the supreme Eighteenth Vow which states that any being that invokes, thinks of, or is mindful of the Name will experience the Pure Land. The Primal Vow is called thus because it is prior to the beginningless beginning of 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 the Buddhist 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 Mahayana soteriological disciplines. One must know the Buddha’s unimpeded light, and by partaking in the light, one will be saved:

The light of Amitāyus shines brilliantly, illuminating all the Buddha lands of the ten directions. There is no place where it is not perceived. I am not the only one who now praises his light. All the Buddhas, sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas praise and glorify it in the same way. If sentient beings, having heard of the majestic virtue of his light, glorify it continually, day and night, with sincerity of heart, they will be able to attain birth in his land as they wish (Larger Sutra, 270b, 11). The Buddha Amitāyus possesses eighty-four thousand physical characteristics, each having eighty-four thousand secondary marks of excellence. Each secondary mark emits eighty-four thousand rays of light; each ray of light shines universally upon the lands of the ten directions, embracing and not forsaking those who are mindful of the Buddha (Contemplation Sutra, 343b, 17).

As “infinite” indicates, Amitābha’s light should not be understood as a reality standing in dualistic opposition to samsaric existence. Instead, it illuminates and embraces blind passions and takes them into itself. It is able to shine on all beings, including those who are do not know the religious path (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, pp. 115 – 6). Yet how does Amitābha’s light provide salvation? This Pure Land soteriology has its roots in India, where the Mahayana movement first began. It is recorded that Shakyamuni Buddha attained Nirvana after looking upon the morning star at dawn, after the evening’s final struggle with Mara. This experience has been universalized as the final step towards enlightenment. Because Amitābha is the Buddha of Unceasing Light, salvation is naturally guaranteed thanks to Dharmakara’s vows and the truth of light as the illumination of reality. Amitābha’s ineffable light therefore allows a sentient being to understand the true nature of reality through devotion, meditation and prayer. The nature of light in the Mahayana tradition is therefore the wisdom that a Buddha or bodhisattva possesses. To know is to become. Knowing the light, one becomes the light; encountering reality, one becomes truly real. But Amitābha’s light is not “light” in the conventional sense because there are many locations where light cannot shine. This light is merely physical light: it can only be known through the senses and conceived of in the brain. We cannot conceive of it fully, because its concrete qualities are essentially different from what we know as light. The all-pervasive activity of the Buddha’s wisdom and his transcendent activity of bringing sentient beings to awareness is expressed in terms of the concept of light, but this light still transcends the conception of any being. Amitābha’s wisdom-light is unhindered and inconceivable; therefore it has no form and cannot be truly understood as anything less than a pervasive, invisible, truth (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, p. 116). Infinite Life (Amitāyus, Thirteenth Vow) In the primeval past, countless trillions of aeons in prehistory, Amitābha’s Body of Truth manifested form and announced a Holy Name, appearing as Dharmakara Bodhisattva in order to awaken beings to itself and to themselves. This bodhisattva, according to the Pure Land canon, established the Forty-Eight Vows to bring all beings to enlightenment and became Amitābha Buddha (Yoshifumi, 1978, p. 65). This is a narrative expressed in historical terms and is set in a primordial age before the creation of our world-system, Saha (Endurance). Infinite life also does not mean enduring indefinitely within time (for within time, all things have the marks of

impermanence, change, and suffering). Infinite life stands beyond our conceptual framework of time, but possesses the power to become present in every moment of time. This is, like infinite light, tied to the union of saṃsāra with the true and real. Unhindered, boundless life is obviously eternal, but enters into the time and history of all world-systems and fuses with the existences of all beings. The Name (All Buddhas throughout the cosmos praise Amitābha’s Name, the central gateway to salvation – Seventeenth Vow) We can say with confidence that the Name is the central object of worship in Pure Land Buddhism, particularly because of the holy reality it embodies (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, pp. 118 – 9). It is what distinguishes Amitābha from other Buddhas (for light and life, while domains of Amitābha, are also universal to other Buddhas and bodhisattvas). Unno notes brilliantly: “Philosophically speaking, the nembutsu is the self-articulation of fundamental reality… The Name is vibrant with mythic significance.” He understands the Name as the “source of creative life, the power that affirms reality-as-is” (Unno, 1998, p. 27 – 8). The revelation of the Name enters in to the realm of conditioned and impermanent life at its essential and fundamental level, irrupting into the universe and acting meaningfully to intelligent beings in the mode of language. The Name is given to us so that the transtemporal Amitābha’s light and life becomes conceivable as the overriding presence in time and in saṃsāra. In hearing of it and in pronouncing it, the Buddha’s presence becomes truly embodied in samsaric existence, like his light and life (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, p. 118). The Name is therefore the Presence of Amitābha Buddha suffusing the multiverse. According to Yoshifumi and Hirota, the Seventeenth Vow holds a double significance. Firstly, it assures that the Name will be heard by all beings in the cosmos. Secondly, the Buddhas’ praise of the Name testifies to Amitābha’s power and efficacy in delivering beings by revealing the Name as the fundamental presence of Buddhahood in saṃsāra. This is why a quarter of Amitābha’s Vows define the virtues of hearing the Name, as seen in Vow 32, 42, 45, 43, 44, and 47 (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, p. 119). We have determined that Amitābha coalesces himself in infinite light, infinite life, and the Name. We have also determined that the Name is the manifestation of the Presence. I will now briefly address the bond between the Presence (the Buddha) and sentient beings. Amitābha’s Desire Who is the Name? What does the Name want sentient beings to be? How can human beings respond to the Name? Amitābha desires nothing less than liberating every individual – god, titan, human, animal, hell-being – from their alienation from each other and from their estrangement from reality. Because Buddha Nature is immanent within every atom of the cosmos, Amitābha works tirelessly to bring sentient beings to realization of their intrinsic purity and blessedness – their innate potential to become Buddhas and bodhisattvas themselves. Chief among Dharmakara’s Forty-Eight Vows was the creation of a Buddha Universe called the Land of Ultimate Bliss and Peace, outside of space and time and only as distant as our heart pushes it away. Any who invoke

Amitābha sincerely (canonically, it is interpreted as ten times) can enter into this inconceivable paradise, through verbal and mental contemplation. According to the Dasabhumikavibhasa Sastra, with Amitābha’s guidance, those who dwell in the Pure Land then attain bodhisattvahood or Buddhahood and can return to saṃsāra to help yet more sentient beings (Williams, 1989, p. 258). The Pure Land is situated differently to our conceptions of spatial distance – hence it is set in the primordial west beyond our universe, yet remains close to us (Contemplation Sutra, 341c). Amitābha is inconceivable, but Amitābha is infinitely compassionate and hence employs innumerable skilful means (upaya) to teach sentient beings. The ancient Mahayana masters understood this to an almost surprising degree of simplicity – the Buddha of Infinite Light, beyond all metaphysical, ontological and mathematical conception, is best approached through the recitation of Amitābha’s Holy Name. There is no better and more effective way to approach Amitābha than through simply contemplating Amitābha. The Pure Land Patriarch, T’an-luan, noted that reciting and praising the name of Amitābha assumes highest priority. To invoke the Name is also the articulation of Reality (Williams, 1989, p. 259). Each time it is intoned, true life is experienced and a glimpse of infinite light is revealed in the mind. What is essential, however, is the “quality of the heart inherent in each saying, the purity of response to the call of the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life” (Unno, 1998, p. 29 – 30). T’an-luan interprets the reference in the Larger Sutra of Amitābha to reciting the Name ten times (the divine number) means to invoke it with a perfectly unified mind. The number of invocations is not so important. To repeat the Name constantly and with devoted, worshipful concentration is to purify the mind of its sins and ensure rebirth in the Pure Land, which is ultimately enlightenment itself (Williams, 1989, p. 259). Infinite light, infinite life, the Pure Land, enlightenment, Buddhahood, and the bodhisattva vocation are all interrelated and cannot be understood except as a totality within the Name. In the East Asian tradition, the Name is understood to refer not only to Amitābha Buddha, but also to the invocation of “Namo Amitābha Buddha.” “Namo” is a transliteration of the Sanskrit namas, meaning to take refuge in. Through the Name, Amitābha has included the means by which beings can know and take refuge in him. The awakening and salvation of beings is, according to the Larger Sutra, an integral aspect of Amitābha’s Buddhahood (Yoshifumi, Hirota, 1989, p. 119). Why West? It is obviously possible to invoke Amitābha anywhere, and East Asian Buddhists have done so for many generations. But soteriologically, it is in the west that Amitābha has revealed the Pure Land to sentient beings, giving us the very possibility of invoking the Name anywhere. West is the cosmic direction of the Pure Land because it is the direction of the sunset and hence of death. During sunset the sun is gentle, and humans can directly look into its fierce power without coming to any harm. As it disappears into the west, the sun resembles a proud and mighty king, who at the end of a day of stern protocol turns gentle and jovial, and allows anyone to approach him for petitions or friendship. Amitabha is therefore the supreme power and energy of the universe, cast on an earthly plain and accessible to all. In fact, the Pure Land is not merely transcendent; it is immanent in the pure consciousness of all beings that exercise spiritual effort to encounter infinite light. All beings will meet Amitābha, and Amitābha is ever-present amongst them.

Aside from invoking Amitābha’s name, there are many prayers, gathas, meditations and dedications one can undertake to crack the shutters of the alienated mind and let Amitābha’s compassionate light purify our universe. But most importantly of all, if we wish to repay Amitābha’s all-embracing kindness we must dedicate our lives – and all our lives to come – to the compassionate service of all sentient beings (Ingram, 1977, p. 110). The Pure Land Buddhist believes that this is the purpose of human life – to embody the unhindered love and compassion every sentient being is secretly and shyly awaiting. Every individual is a beloved of the Name. Only through concrete involvement with the suffering of the universe will human beings understand what is meant by the Name. And in that Name, they will glimpse the radiant truth of infinite light and life.

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