Tang Dynasty Amitabha sculpture — Hidden Stream Temple Cave, Longmen Grottoes, China. From Wikimedia. Amitabha Buddha. By Hansheng.
The concept of "two Buddhas, two teachings"
The title’s statement is extracted from the Commentary of Contemplation Sutra written by Master Shandao, the de facto founder of Pure Land Buddhism in China. Based on the teachings of two Buddhas, namely Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha, he opened the Pure Land school for all. It is interesting to note that even though Shakyamuni Buddha expounded all the Buddhist teachings, and all founders set up their own schools based on Shakyamuni’s teachings only. Why are there two kinds of teachings in Pure Land Buddhism? Is it really necessary? What are the differences between these two teachings?
Master Shandao explained, “Shakyamuni Buddha, the manifested master in the Land of Saha, who was asked [by Queen Vaidehi], opened vastly the Path of Importance in the Pure Land teachings; while Amitabha Buddha, the capable being in Land of Peace and Joy (Land of Bliss), reveals and advocates an alternative with his own intent, the Path of Great Vow.”
He further elaborated and defined the two Paths, and stated as follows:
1. Path of Importance - The two teachings of meditative virtue and non-meditative virtue, as expounded in the Contemplation Sutra. Meditative virtue means to still one’s mind by ceasing any thought, and non-meditative virtue means to eliminate evil and nurture good. This is the path if one dedicates these two virtues, and aspires to be reborn [in Pure Land].
2. Path of Great Vow - As written in the Great Sutra (The Infinite Life Sutra), “For all good and evil ordinary beings who are reborn [in Pure Land], they rely on the great vow and pure karmic power of Amitabha Buddha as augmentative cause.
Master Shandao summarized all of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings into two main categories in practice, meditative virtues and non-meditative virtues. Both practices are based on ‘self-power’, while Amitabha Buddha’s teaching entirely involves the deliverance of all beings with his power (the ‘other-power’ or Buddha’s power). The mechanism is obviously different. Moreover, since rebirth in the Pure Land is the one and only one purpose in Pure Land Buddhism, dedication is necessary in the former path, unlike the latter.
The two paths are two different kinds of teachings with different approaches. They are two separate teachings, independent of each other. That is the reason why Master Shandao opened the door to Pure Land with the two teachings of the two Buddhas. The concept of ‘two Buddhas, two teachings’ is very important. Why did Master Shandao select the Contemplation Sutra in writing the commentary to open the Pure Land school? It is because the sutra clearly reflects the two different paths expounded by two Buddhas that lead us to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Shakyamuni’s Pure Land teachings
As the manifested master in the Saha World, Shakyamuni Buddha was born in northern India over 2,500 years ago. He appeared in the form of a human body (Nirmanakaya), so as to be seen by us, and to teach us the truth. He told us the basic principle under which our universe works and we beings come and go – all phenomena are impermanent, interdependent and conditioned. It is known as the universal truth, as far as the Saha World is concerned. The principle governs the endless evolution of our world and sentient beings, and also guides our afterlives and rebirths in accordance with what we do, speak and think in our lives. Birth and death is, by all means, the primary cause of all sufferings in this world.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s role is to show us the way towards Buddhahood, through the practices in precepts, meditation and wisdom by our own effort, in order to clear all our obstructions in view and thought, and in karma and afflictions. Subsequently, we can be liberated from this mundane world (known as three worlds, including heavens) and eliminate all suffering.
Let’s revisit the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha as revealed in the Infinite Life Sutra: “As the Tathagata, I regard beings of the three worlds with boundless great compassion. The reason for my appearance in the world is to reveal teachings of the Way and save multitudes of beings by endowing them with true benefits.” The true benefit obviously refers to the Pure Land teaching – to urge us to be reborn in the Pure Land in order to be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. We are encouraged to dedicate all our merits and virtues of meditative and non-meditative virtuous practices by self-effort, and then to aspire to rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s world, the Land of Bliss.
Shakyamuni Buddha died eighty years old.
Amitabha’s Pure Land teachings
Amitabha Buddha is quite different. He is a Buddha in the form of a reward body (sambhogakaya) that we cannot visualize with our limited capacity. He created his Pure Land called the Land of Bliss or the Land of Utmost Bliss (Sukhavati) for the sake of delivering all beings, so that they can enjoy and share in his splendid merits and virtues. Such merits and virtues are the rewards of his pure and flawless Bodhisattva practices. As the Amitabha Sutra said, Shariputra, why is that land called 'Utmost Bliss'? The beings in that land suffer no pain but only enjoy pleasures of various kinds. For this reason, that land is called 'Utmost Bliss.'”
The Land of Bliss is not formed by the karma of ordinary beings, but by the pure and substantial merits and virtues of Amitabha Buddha. As said by Master Shandao, “Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana.” It means that it is the world of the Buddha. In this respect, except Buddhas, no being can be reborn there without the permission of Amitabha Buddha.
However, the Land of Bliss is created by Amitabha Buddha for the deliverance of beings in the ten directions. By the time he created the Land of Bliss, Amitabha Buddha had already fulfilled his Fundamental Vow, the 18th vow. The vow states that: “If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.”
He has achieved the full capacity and awesome power in allowing all beings to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, provided that they entrust sincerely and joyfully his power of salvation, aspire to be reborn in his Land, and recite his name exclusively in their lifetime. Amitabha Buddha is a present Buddha, thus his vow is still in effect, his offer is still valid, and his promise will be honored.
With Amitabha Buddha taking the initiative to deliver all beings, we see another way to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Their rebirth is realized through the great vow and the pure karmic power of Amitabha Buddha as an augmentative cause. Based on one’s faith on Amitabha’s salvation and aspiration to the Land of Bliss, what one has to do is to recite his name exclusively for the rest of one’s life, even if only ten times. Then Amitabha Buddha will take the initiative to deliver you, and make sure you can be reborn in his Pure Land, which is the promise he made in his Fundamental Vow.
Exclusive Amitabha-recitation means no change in one’s faith and the determination to go to Pure Land, in response to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow. As a result, Amitabha Buddha will come, without invitation or request, and appear before the reciter near the end of his or her death. The entire matter of rebirth is completely taken care of and fulfilled by Amitabha Buddha.
With the active role played by Amitabha Buddha in accordance with his Fundamental Vow, we must entrust ourselves to him joyfully with full confidence. We have no doubt about the Buddha’s wisdom and power in the salvation, thus our rebirth is assured and 100% guaranteed. Amitabha Buddha will not reject us if we fully trust him and truly wish to be reborn in his Pure Land. It is the original intent and whole idea of Pure Land Buddhism, initiated by Amitabha Buddha. It is simple and easy.
The collaboration of Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha
Both Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha have the common goal to deliver the sentient beings in the ten directions, but they take different approaches and methods according to their own particular vows made during the Bodhisattva stages on causal grounds. With respect to Pure Land Buddhism, both of them have the same target, which is to urge ordinary beings to go to the Land of Bliss. However, the two Buddhas play different roles in two different forms of body in two different worlds. In the Commentary of Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao said, “Let’s lift up our eyes. Shakyamuni repatriates us on one side, while Amitabha welcomes us on the other. One calls us to come, and the other sends us to go. How can we not go?”
Pure Land Buddhism was revealed by Amitabha Buddha, who took a proactive approach in encouraging and allowing all ordinary beings in the ten directions to get there. Not content with liberating us from sufferings in the cycle of birth and death, he also prepares us to attain the state of non-retrogression in his Pure Land, and to expedite the achievement of Buddhahood.
Amitabha Buddha knows clearly that he needs all other Buddhas, like Shakyamuni Buddha, to support and promote his teaching, particularly his Fundamental Vow, the 18th vow. Thus, he made the 17th vow, just before the Fundamental Vow, to request all Buddhas in the ten directions in three periods of time to praise his name. It states: If, when I achieve Buddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the ten directions should not unanimously extol my name, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. With no exception, Shakayamuni Buddha extolled the name of Amitabha, and asked us to recite his name – “Namo Amituofo”, if we want to be reborn in the Land of Bliss with the full and entire reliance on the compassionate and remarkable vow power of Amitabha Buddha.
“Teachings of Amitabha Buddha” is an inspiring column about the vital spiritual matters of Pure Land Buddhism – from its history, philosophy, and practice to its scriptures and their exegesis and interpretation. The column is penned by Alan Kwan, the founding editor of Buddhistdoor.com.