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Amitabha’s Name is the Essence of the Pure Land Teachings
Deliverance of sentient beings through the Name
According to Buddhism, Buddhas have four different ways of delivering sentient beings in the Ten Directions:
1. Bodily karma – with their 84,000 physical characteristics, each having 84,000 secondary marks of excellence, usually in the form of light emitted from different parts of the body
2. Verbal karma – with their teachings, which have been uttered and recorded in the sutras, as exemplified by those of Shakyamuni Buddha
3. Mental karma – with the supranormal powers of their mind, so that different forms of their body and their Pure Land can manifest for the deliverance of sentient beings
4. Name – with their vow power, like the vows of Amitabha Buddha
“Name is Substance” and “Name is Light”
While every Buddha has his own name, the substance of all Buddhas—that is, their dharma body (Skt. dharmakaya)—is basically the same. This teaching is known as “Name is Substance,” or “Name and Substance are one entity” in Buddhism. The principle here is that the Buddhas can respond at any time in any place under any circumstance when their own Name is invoked or recited by sentient beings in the Ten Directions.
For Amitabha Buddha, “Name is Light” or “Light and Name are non-dual” because his dharma body is in the form of light. Amitabha Buddha delivers sentient beings through his Name, which consists of unimpeded light shining over all the worlds in the Ten Directions. His name is therefore also called “the Name of Light.”
As stated in the Infinite Life Sutra, Amitabha’s light is foremost among all the Buddhas. That is why the Contemplation Sutra says: “Amitabha’s dharma body is in the form of light shining over all the worlds [and beings] in the Ten Directions, embracing all those who recite his Name and never forsaking them.”
When we exclusively recite his Name by chanting “Namo Amituofo,” Amitabha’s light will embrace and receive us, and will never forsake us. Embracing and receiving us means protecting and delivering us. Never forsaking us means he will never abandon us, and that towards the end of our lives, he will receive us to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
If we recite the names of the Buddhas of the Ten Directions, their help and deliverance may lack the unconditional principle of “never forsaking.” Moreover, the various Buddhas in the Ten Directions are not “monarchs” among Buddhas, whereas Amitabha Buddha is the king of all the Buddhas, as stated in the Infinite Life Sutra.
However, Amitabha’s light will not embrace and protect those who recite the names of other Buddhas or bodhisattvas, or those who recite dharani (long mantras) and sutras or who practice other meditative and non-meditative virtues. As Master Shandao says in the Praise of the Rites of Rebirth, this is because “Only those who recite the Name of Amitabha Buddha are embraced by his Light.”
“Name is Teaching”
Since a Buddha can deliver sentient beings through his Name, there is also a principle in Buddhism known as “Name is Teaching.” Amitabha Buddha delivers sentient beings through his Name, which is charged with immeasurable, boundless, inconceivable, splendid, and real merits and virtues. Thus it is also known as the “Great Name with a Myriad Virtues.”
This means that, if sentient beings believe in and accept the teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name and sincerely practice Name-recitation, he will instantly arise in their minds. Thus the minds of sentient beings can be converted from ordinary minds to awakened minds through their practice of Name-recitation, as stated in the Eighth Contemplation of the Contemplation Sutra.
Pure Land Buddhism is based on Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance in accordance with his Fundamental Vow (the 18th Vow) through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation. Once we are delivered to the Land of Bliss through reliance on Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow, we will realize the ultimate truth, or perfect Enlightenment, just like Shakyamuni Buddha, who suddenly became enlightened upon seeing the morning star.
Upon rebirth in the Land of Bliss, we are naturally endowed with the Six Supernormal Powers without making any effort to acquire them. Moreover, the myriad bodhisattva practices of the Six Paramitas (Perfections) and the hundreds and thousands of dharani will naturally be manifested and completely revealed in our minds at once.
In sum, Pure Land Buddhism is not the teaching of cultivation through self-powered practices, but of deliverance through the vows of “other-power.” Therefore, as Master Tanluan says in his Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth, “The substance of all Pure Land sutras is [Amitabha’s] Name.” This is different from the substance of other bodhisattva teachings—Real Form (in the Tiantai school), Dharma Realm (in the Huayan school), or Self-Nature (in the Chan or Zen school) and so on, though the meaning and nature of all these terms are the same.
Pure Faith in Pure Land Buddhism
In regard to the definition of “pure faith” as defined in the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness— “With respect to reality, virtue, and capacity, there is a kind of deep faith that one has delight in pursuing. The nature of this faith is purification of the mind”—how does this relate to the definition of faith in Pure Land Buddhism?
Faith is acceptance of Amitabha’s deliverance through his Name, in accordance with his Fundamental, or 18th, Vow. It is because Amitabha himself is real, virtuous, and endowed with a myriad of practices and virtues that he has the capacity to enable us to leave the Saha World and be reborn in the Pure Land, where we can achieve Buddhahood.
“Faith” is a special kind of “belief” in which we believe in things objectively, without any doubt. If we do not understand the principle, it will be impossible for us to believe in things without any doubt. Conversely, if we know the active principle of Amitabha’s deliverance, as discussed in my last article,* faith will be naturally established in our mind and there will be no need for us to develop faith either intentionally or reluctantly.