The substance of the three Pure Land sutras is the Name
We know that the three Pure Land sutras—namely the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra—are the principal sutras of the Pure Land school. However, not everyone is aware of the substance or core theme of these texts.
From the perspective of the Tiantai school, Master Ouyi (1599–1655) stated that the substance of the Amitabha Sutra is the Real Mark (that is, buddha-nature, which is free of “marks” or defining characteristics). However, Master Tanluan (476–542) proclaimed the substance of the three Pure Land sutras to be the Name, which specifically refers to the name of Amitabha Buddha.
In fact, both are correct. The former identified the Amitabha Sutra as one of the Mahayana sutras, and since the substance of all Mahayana sutras is the Real Mark, the Amitabha Sutra is no exception. However, not many people can understand the profound meaning and abstract concept of the Real Mark.
With respect to Master Tanluan’s proclamation about the substance of the three Pure Land sutras, the Name of Amitabha is easy to understand and simple to write, to hear, and to recite. However, why is Amitabha’s Name taken as the substance of the sutras, with equal status and significance to the Real Mark?
As the substance of the three Pure Land sutras, Amitabha’s Name is the core teaching and essence of the three sutras. It completely embraces these sacred texts, including their principles, theories, practice, and benefits. Indeed, it encompasses and animates all aspects of the Pure Land school.
Why is Amitabha’s Name so special and significant?
In the Infinite Life Sutra, we learn that Amitabha’s Name is so special that all buddhas in the 10 directions unanimously extol and praise it, as stated in Amitabha’s 17th Vow:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, innumerable Buddhas in the land of the ten directions should not unanimously extol and praise my Name, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Because Amitabha Buddha has attained perfect Enlightenment, all buddhas, including Shakyamuni, extol and praise his Name. Teaching us about the Name of Amitabha Buddha was the original intent behind Shakyamuni’s appearance in the world. This was the culminating event in his 49-year career of teaching the Dharma.
The significance of Amitabha’s Name is reflected in his 18th Vow:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Based on this Vow, any sentient being who truly wishes to be reborn in Amitabha’s land can be assured of it through the mere recitation of Amitabha’s Name for the remainder of their life, even if only 10 times as they approach death. This is a promise guaranteed by Amitabha Buddha, 100 per cent.
Through the Name, an Amitabha-reciter will, upon rebirth in the Land of Bliss, become a buddha-like being, totally emancipated and possessing the same wisdom and the same lifespan as the Buddha.
The Name enables all sentient beings to attain perfect Enlightenment once they are reborn in Amitabha’s Western Pure Land. Since liberating sentient beings is the ultimate goal for all buddhas in the 10 directions in the three periods of time, they do not hesitate to extol and praise Amitabha’s Name.
Amitabha seeks the support from all buddhas to extol and praise his Name
In constructing the 17th Vow, Dharmakara Bodhisattva (Amitabha Buddha’s previous incarnation) did not intend to flaunt himself. In fact, he actively sought collaboration and support from all other buddhas by vowing that they would praise his Name, otherwise he would not become a buddha.
Dharmakara Bodhisattva decided to attain buddhahood by building a Reward Land so that all sentient beings who are reborn there will become like buddhas and dwell in the state of non-retrogression.
Under this circumstance, Amitabha Buddha, by definition, must be a Reward Buddha, whom ordinary beings caught in the Six Realms are unable to see and recognize (due to their karmic obstructions).
This presents a dilemma. How can Amitabha Buddha deliver these iniquitous ordinary beings who cannot see and recognize him? Amitabha Buddha must rely on other buddhas, such as Shakyamuni, who manifest in human form in the Saha world to tell ordinary beings about his Reward Land.
As Shakyamuni Buddha becomes a buddha in the manifested land, like the land of Saha, he is regarded, by definition, as a manifested buddha. His role is to praise and extol Amitabha’s Name with a myriad of virtues that enables ordinary beings in the manifested land to be reborn in Amitabha’s reward land.
Thus, without the collaboration of all other buddhas in the manifested land, Amitabha Buddha is unable to deliver sentient beings in the 10 directions. He relies on all other buddhas to deliver his Name to sentient beings that they may be reborn in his Land of Bliss, and that he can accomplish his 18th Vow of deliverance through Amitabha-recitation.
Namo Amituofo is the Great Name of a Myriad Virtues
Last but not least, the Name is Amitabha Buddha himself. In this way, he appears in the form of light throughout the 10 directions to embrace, without forsaking, all sentient beings who exclusively recite his Name, as stated in the Contemplation Sutra.
The Name is the method selected by Amitabha Buddha. He includes all the merits and virtues attained through his practices in his Name and dedicates them to Amitabha-reciters. Amitabha’s Name—Namo Amituofo—is known as the Great Name of a Myriad Virtues.
Because of this, one should never look down on the simple six-syllable Name, which is actually the great benefit—the real benefit—bestowed on us by Shakyamuni Buddha, supported and endorsed by all buddhas and bodhisattvas.