The substance of all the Pure Land sutras is Amitabha’s Name
Master Tanluan, an eminent Pure Land patriarch in 6th century China, says in his Commentary on the Treatise of Rebirth: “The substance of all Pure Land sutras is [Amitabha’s] Name.” There are three Pure Land sutras that introduce Amitabha Buddha and his Land of Bliss—the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra. How are they related to Amitabha’s Name?
Amitabha accomplishes his Name in the 17th of the 48 vows he made before achieving Buddhahood: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the lands of the Ten Directions do not all praise and glorify my Name, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni explains why this Buddha is called (in the Chinese version of the sutra) “Amita” (also known as “Amida” in Japanese). There are two reasons: (1) This Buddha’s light shines boundlessly and without hindrance over all the worlds in the Ten Directions. It is for this reason that he is called “Amita” [Skt. Amitabha]; (2) The lives of the Buddha and the people in his land endure for immeasurable, unlimited, and incalculable kalpas. It is for this reason that this Buddha is called “Amita” [Skt. Amitayus].
According to the Infinite Life Sutra, there are twelve other names for Amitabha Buddha, all related to light. Translated from the Chinese, they are: the Buddha of Immeasurable Light, the Buddha of Boundless Light, the Buddha of Unimpeded Light, the Buddha of Incomparable Light, the Buddha of King of the Flame-Light, the Buddha of Pure Light, the Buddha of Wisdom Light, the Buddha of Uninterrupted Light, the Buddha of Difficult-to-Conceive Light, the Buddha of Ineffable Light, and the Buddha of Surpassing Sun-Moon Light. Each of these names relates to a particular function of this Buddha in the deliverance of sentient beings.
The meaning of “Namo Amitabha”?
By accomplishment of his Name, Amitabha—or “Namo Amitabha” as he was called in full by Shakyamuni Buddha—ensured that the direct rewards (all beings or inhabitants in the Land of Bliss, including Amitabha himself) and the circumstantial rewards (all the landscapes and features of the Land of Bliss) were all manifestations of his Name. In Pure Land Buddhism, this is also known as “direct and circumstantial in a single entity.”
The Name “Namo Amitabha” is the body of Amitabha Buddha, filled with boundless kindness and compassion, perfect and complete wisdom, and splendid merits and virtues. It is also filled with Amitabha’s light, his vow-mind, his supernormal powers and energy, and all the exquisite perfections of Buddhahood.
The Sutra of Amitabha’s Fundamental Esoteric Powerful Dharani explains the meaning of Amitabha’s name—“A-Mi-Ta”—in a verse:
The syllable “A” means all Buddhas in the Ten Directions and Three Times;
The syllable “Mi” means all bodhisattvas;
The syllable “Ta” means all 80,000 sacred teachings.
All [merits and virtues] are sufficiently contained within the three-syllable name.
That is to say, Amitabha’s Name consists of merits and virtues that are immeasurable and boundless, inconceivable, profound, esoteric, splendid, wonderful, and unsurpassed. Within the three-syllable word “Amita” there exists all Buddhas in the Ten Directions and Three Times; there exists all bodhisattvas, shravakas (those who heard Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings directly), and arhats; there exists all sutras, dharani (long mantras), and sagely practices. This Buddha’s name is the unsurpassed, real, and ultimate Mahayana teaching; it is also the unsurpassed, splendid, pure, and ultimate practice; it is also the unsurpassed, foremost, and wonderful dharani.
The independent action of the Name
The Name “Namo Amitabha” is tangible in that it can be recited; however, it is not just a sound or a symbol that we can visualize, but is alive and active everywhere around us. Its action is independent, spontaneous, and natural. It is the energy and manifestation of Amitabha Buddha. During every recitation an Amitabha-reciter absorbs Amitabha’s energy, like a baby nursing on its mother’s milk.
The Name “Namo Amitabha” enables an Amitabha-reciter to clear his karmic obscurations and to nurture the root of his wisdom through Amitabha’s blessings. It enables him to expedite the fruits of his virtuous karma and to delay the retributions of negative karma. It can extend his life and avert disaster.
According to the Amitabha Sutra, the Name “Namo Amitabha” ensures that Amitabha Buddha and a multitude of sagely beings will come and welcome the reciter to the Land of Bliss at the end of his life.
Whether he knows it and believes it or not, his recitations of “Namo Amitabha” mean he is immediately embraced and protected by Amitabha’s light and enjoys blessings and protection. This is the effect of reciting the Name: benefits and positive outcomes will naturally begin to accrue (even if it is difficult for us to see them directly), and at the end of our lives, we will naturally attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
Master Shandao made a statement about the working principle of Amitabha’s deliverance in the Praise of the Rites of Rebirth. It states: “The honorable Amitabha set forth a solemn vow. He teaches and delivers sentient beings in the Ten Directions with his Name in the form of light. It enables them to develop faith, aspiration, and the practice of Amitabha-recitation. Whoever recites it until the end of his life—even as few as ten times or only just once—can easily be reborn [in the Land of Bliss] by the power of his Fundamental Vow.”
For further details, please refer to my previous article, “The Active Principle of Amitabha’s Deliverance in Pure Land Buddhism.”*
* The Active Principle of Amitabha’s Deliverance in Pure Land Buddhism