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Scriptures and Some Basics


Pure Land Buddhism did not establish itself as a separate school until the time of Honen in the twelfth century AD. However the fundamental ideas are found at the very beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism, and they had a powerful influence long before they became the platform of a separate school.

To express the matter in an admittedly inadequate nutshell, the point of Pure Land Buddhism is this: 
The Buddha Amitabha has created a paradise ("Pure Land") into which any sentient being who relies on his vows can be reborn and thereby attain Nirvana.

Main Scriptures. Needless to say, adherents of the Pure Land doctrine, like all schools of Buddhism, trace their beliefs back to the teachings of Sakyamuni, viz. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. They believe that Sakyamuni's teaching on the Pure Land is contained in three important writings:

  1. The Infinite Life Sutra, also called the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra. Sukhāvatī means "Pure Land."1 A recent translation of all three Pure Land sutras by the Numata Center calls it the The Larger Sutra on Amitāyus2, which raises an important point concerning the identity of the Buddha involved that I shall discuss below.
  2. The Smaller Sukhavativyuha Sutra, frequently referred to as the Amitabha Sutra.3 The Numata Center translation calls it the The Smaller Sutra on Amitāyus.
  3. The Meditation Sutra4 (Numata: The Sutra on Contemplation of Amitāyus).

Sorting out the Buddhas. As we saw in a separate Mahayana section of this site, one of the important developments of Mahayana Buddhism was the recognition of a multitude of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. For that matter, in many Mahayana schools there is a hierarchy, so to speak, of different Buddhas. The most important ones are called transcendental Buddhas. They preside over their own regions of the universe and are associated with specific Manushi Buddhas (those who attained enlightenment in human form on earth; e.g., Sakyamuni) and bodhisattvas. So, in this case, we have Sakyamuni (i.e. Siddhartha Gautama) preaching about the transcendental Buddha Amitabha (Japanese: Amida).

But what should we make of the references to Amitayus, as exemplified by the Numata translations? Is "Amitayus" just another way of saying "Amitabha"? No, they are not just two different spellings or pronunciations of the same word; they are two separate names. So these are the two options. 

1) Are Amitayus and Amitabha one and the same Buddha under two different names?

2) Are Amitayus and Amitabha two different Buddhas, each with his own name?

The answer depends on whom you ask. In different regions and different schools of Buddhism it may go one way or the other. Of course, Buddhists who have spent their entire lives within their specific context may become fairly dogmatic on their view, but at a distance it becomes clear that both interpretations are represented, depending on time and place. 

In a number of Mahayana schools, including Tibetan Buddhism and even in some forms of Pure Land Buddhism, Amitayus is a different Buddha than Amitabha. In those contexts, Amitayus is the Buddha of Infinite Life, known in popular terms as the "Medicine Buddha." In his depictions he usually holds an object symbolizing health or a long life, such as a pagoda. 

Three Buddhas in a temple in Taiwan. Left to right they are Amitabha, Sakyamuni, and Amitayus. In front of Sakyamuni, within the oval nimbus is a representation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the female form of Guanyin. Click on any one of these four figures for a larger view. The close-up photograph of the Amitayus statue was taken at the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center in Cambridge, Mass. You will notice the evident swastika on his chest, and when you get back to the other pictures, you will realize that they have the same mark, just not as prominently displayed. Please be assured that in the Asian context a swastika does not have racist meaning, but represents good fortune. Specifically, in Buddhism its eight lines extending in different directions also stand for the ubiquity of the dharma or for the noble eightfold path.

However, in other Mahayana schools, Amitayus is seen as one aspect of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. Then it is possible to refer to Amitabha as the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light. The trajectory taken by the Pure Land traditions that culminated in the Japanese schools took that approach, and in that context one can refer to their central Buddha as either "Amitabha" or "Amitayus." The translators of the three sutras that I singled out above chose to make plain the identity of Amitabha and Amitayus within their tradition. Outside observers cannot say that one view is more correct than the other. However, in order to forestall confusion, it is important to know that the schools often differ in the identity and names of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, a caution that applies not just to Pure Land Buddhism. 


1The Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha. Translated by Hisao Inagaki. Housed among other places on the website of Richard St. Clair. Unless otherwise stated, our quotations from the three sutras will come from the translations collected on his website. One reason is the ease of navigation provided by Dr. St. Clair's bookmarks. All three sutras are also available in Buddhist Mahayana Texts. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 49. Back to text.

2Three Pure Land Sutras, trans. by Hisao Inagaki and Harold Stewart (2nd ed.; Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2003). Even though Hisao Inagaki is mentioned as translator in both of these references, this work was done later than the one mentioned above, sponsored by a committee of the Numata Center. Back to text.

3The Smaller Sutra on Amida Buddha. Translated by Nishu Usuki. Back to text.

4The Sutra on the Contempation of Buddha Amitayus. Translated by J. Takakusu. Back to text.

Pure Land Home
Page 1A Few Words of Clarification
Page 2Scriptures and Basics
Page 3The Story of Amitabha
Page 4The Seven Shin Patriarchs
Page 5Honen Shonen
Page 6Shinran Shonin
Page 7Other Japanese Schools
Page 8Chinese Schools
Page 9Interaction with Christianity

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