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Why are Two Buddhas Needed to Deliver All Sentient Beings?

From phys.org

Two buddhas collaborate and play different roles in delivering sentient beings

According to the Sutra of Common Nature from the Mahayana canon, Shakyamuni Buddha, who attained buddhahood in the manifested land (our world called the Land of Saha) about 2,500 years ago, is a manifested buddha. That is, he appeared in our realm with a physical body to put the Dharma wheel in motion and to save sentient beings.

According to Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha Buddha (who attained buddhahood in the Reward Land, called the Land of Bliss, about 10 kalpas ago) is regarded as a reward buddha whose body appears in the form of light permeating all the worlds. Amitabha Buddha thus embraces and delivers all those who recite his Name, although they cannot perceive and know him directly.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that any person who always thinks of Amitabha Buddha on hearing or reciting his Name can be embraced by his light without ever being forsaken. In other words, all exclusive Amitabha-reciters are always accompanied by Amitabha Buddha. For them, nothing can obstruct the Buddha’s presence or the activity of his deliverance.

As stated in previous articles, the existence of all buddhas, including Shakyamuni Buddha and Amitabha Buddha, is for the sole purpose of delivering all sentient beings, including us. In the Pure Land school, we focus on two buddhas out of innumerable buddhas throughout the Dharma realm. But why is it necessary to have two buddhas with different forms to deliver us?

The answer is obvious: they must collaborate and play different roles in the process of guiding ordinary beings to attain rebirth. In our “return” to the Pure Land, we shall become buddhas, which means the end of suffering and our total emancipation. This is the ultimate purpose of human life.

Amitabha reveals and advocates an alternative to deliver sentient beings

Master Shandao says in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra:

Shakyamuni, the manifested master (Buddha) in the Land of Saha, who was questioned by Queen Vaidehi [in the Contemplation Sutra], opened widely the Path of Importance in the Pure Land teachings; while Amitabha, the capable being in the Land of Peace and Joy, with his own intent, reveals and advocates an alternative: the Path of Great Vow.

The Path of Importance is the two teachings of meditative virtue and non-meditative virtue, as expounded in the Contemplation Sutra. Meditative virtue means to calm one’s anxiety by ceasing any thought, and non-meditative virtue means to eliminate evil and nurture goodness. This is the path if one dedicates these two virtues and aspires to be reborn [in the Pure Land].

The Path of Great Vow is described in the Larger Sutra [The Infinite Life Sutra]: “All good and evil ordinary beings will not attain rebirth [in the Pure Land] without recourse to the karmic power of Amitabha’s Great Vow as an augmentative cause.

At the end, Master Shandao advises us:

The underlying intention of the Buddha is too great and deep for the practitioners to understand. . . . Let us 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 tells us to go. How, then, can we not go forth?

Master Shandao urges us: “We must simply follow the teaching diligently for the rest of our lives. As soon as we discard this impure body, we will immediately realize the eternal happiness of Dharma Nature in the Pure Land.” This is known as the ultimate emancipation of sentient beings which is the unending life of Dharma nature, beyond all birth and death.

One calls us to come, and the other tells us to go. They work in perfect harmony.

Upon achieving buddhahood, Shakyamuni Buddha says:

All sentient beings have the wisdom and virtues of the Tathagata, but they do not realize it because of their false thoughts and attachments.

So Shakyamuni Buddha taught us to practice the meditative and non-meditative virtues in order to become a buddha like Him.

However, for those of us who are unable to practice the meditative and non-meditative virtues, is there any alternative? Is there any way to “return” to a buddha-land (the Pure Land) to become a buddha and thus end the sufferings of reincarnation within the Six Realms forever?

Actually, this is the same question asked by Queen Vaidehi in the Contemplation Sutra. In the Seventh Contemplation, as Shakyamuni Buddha began expounding the method of removing suffering, Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Mahasthamaprapta appeared in the sky.

By seeing the Three Sacred Beings in the West, Vaidehi instantly attained assured rebirth (the realization of the perseverance of no-birth). It was a rare and splendid thing that the two buddhas appeared at the same time. Master Shandao explained this situation with a poetic couplet, as follows:

The Manifested Buddha of the Saha World, being compassionate to sentient beings, fixes his thoughts in the West.

The kind Buddha of the Land of Joy and Peace, to acknowledge the request, arrives, appearing in the East.

Master Shandao further said:

It is because the two Buddhas have a common purpose, though one is explicit and the other is implicit. As the aptitudes of sentient beings are like rough logs, the two Buddhas collaborate like the skillful woodworkers of Ying and Jiang in delivering them.

When Shakyamuni Buddha preaches the Dharma in the Land of Saha, Amitabha Buddha withdraws. When Amitabha Buddha appears in the sky and delivers sentient beings with his light, Shakyamuni Buddha keeps silent. The former sets the goal for sentient beings to become buddhas, while the latter enables them to be reborn in Pure Land.

As ordinary beings have different capacities, the buddhas must play different roles to guide them in order to deliver them. As disciples of the Buddha, we should put aside the Sacred Path and return to the Pure Land Path, thereby attaining assured rebirth through recourse to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.

Related features from BDG

How Did the Body of Amitabha Differ from That of Shakyamuni When They Became Buddhas?
Buddhism is a Path that Leads Us to Become a Buddha
The Deep and Broad Meaning of Rebirth in the Pure Land

More from Teachings of Amitabha by Alan Kwan

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