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 The Primal Characteristics of the Power of Amitabha Buddha’s Vows – Surpassing and Transcending All Buddhas and Their Purelands; Attaining Buddhahood Forthwith After Rebirth

 

       The core of Mahayana Buddhism is compassion and empathy; its purpose is to deliver all sentient beings to buddhahood. These ideals are fundamentally reflected in Amitabha Buddha’s vows. It can be said that the essence and vitality of Mahayana Buddhism reside within Amitabha Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha encompasses all of Mahayana Buddhism.

       The power of Amitabha Buddha’s vows is to make his Buddhahood surpass that of all other buddhas of the ten directions, and make his Pure Land superior to their pure lands, all of these for the purpose of delivering all sentient beings swiftly to Buddhahood. Hence, Amitabha Buddha and His Pure Land possess the foremost characteristics among all Buddhas and their lands.

       Amitabha Buddha, while still the Dharmakara Bodhisattva, selected the best of the most magnificent two hundred and ten billions of buddha lands, established his forty-eight vows,[1] became the first of all buddhas, and founded the most solemn and resplendent buddha-land as the dharma-site for sentient beings to reside and advance to buddhahood.  He first presented this to Lokesvararaja Buddha[2] prior to the proclamation of His vows.

       As stated in an earlier translation of The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life,[3] Dharmakara Bodhisattva knelt before the Buddha and vowed:

When I become Buddha, I shall be the most sublime with unexcelled wisdom among thebuddhas of the ten directions.The lights from the crown of my head will illuminate all the universes.My land will be made of nature’s seven jewels, the most superb and delicate.When I become Buddha, my name will be known to the innumerable buddha lands of the ten directions; not a single land will exist where my name is not heard.Let innumerous and uncountable heavenly beings, humans, and animals Be born in my land so they all will be bodhisattvas and arhats, Far superior to those of other buddha lands.

      There are five aspects of these vows and they are known as buddha body, buddha lights, buddha name, buddha land, and myriads of bodhisattvas. These mean that Dharmakara Bodhisattva vowed to be the most prominent of buddhas; His light would be the foremost of buddha lights; His name would be known throughout all buddha lands; and His land would be made of nature’s most superb jewels. Finally, the vow of myriad bodhisattvas means that countless beings born into His land will be bodhisattvas far superior to those of other buddha lands. These are the promises of Amitabha Buddha’s original vows.

       Three components of the vow, buddha body, buddha light, and buddha name, are about Amitabha Buddha Himself, while buddha land is about His Pure Land, and myriads of bodhisattvas refers to that Land’s inhabitants. After being reborn to this Pure Land, the beings will immediately ascend to arhats and bodhisattvas. These sage titles are adopted only for easy understanding for people in our world, but in His Pure Land there is no difference between arhats and bodhisattvas. As stated in His twenty-fourth vow, they all possess the “thirty-two physical and eighty subtle features like those of buddha’s,” and the abilities to "expound Dharma and deliver sentient beings like buddhas," which means that sentient beings born in His Pure Land will attain buddhahood forthwith.[4]

       It is therefore the awakened aspiration of Dharmakara Bodhisattva to deliver all sentient beings to His Land to become buddhas, and the primal promise of Amitabha Buddha. Another early translated version of The Infinite Life Sutra[5] reads:

To liberate all sentient beings from the cycle of birth and death, and

To bring great peace to all fear-ridden beings.

 

When I become Buddha, my kingdom shall be foremost and unsurpassed,

Its beings wondrous and superb, the Dharma-sites supreme and unexcelled, and

My land is non-contrived nirvana, beyond comparison.

 

I take pity on sentient beings and resolve to deliver them all;

Those who come from the ten directions will find joy and serenity in my land, and

Dwell in peace and bliss.

       It also reads:

I shall quickly attain perfect enlightenment, and remove from sentient beings

The roots of afflictions of birth and death. 

        In another version known as The Sutra of Immeasurable Pure and Equal Enlightenment,[6] it adds that Dharmakara Bodhisattva will also “make them buddhas.” 

       The awakened aspiration of Dharmakara Bodhisattva culminated in selecting the quintessence of the most magnificent two hundred and ten billions of buddha lands, adding his own inspirations and ideals. While every bodhisattva aspires “a pure land for the benefits of sentient beings”[7] and a land that surpasses all impure and defiled lands, Amitabha Buddha aspires to a land that is the foremost, unsurpassed and purist of all buddha lands. As he vowed in The Infinite Life Sutra:

My kingdom shall be the foremost and unexcelled.

My land is like non-contrived nirvana, beyond comparison.

       Likewise, The Sutra of the Assemblage of the Tathagata[8] reads:

The Dharmakaya’s architectural blueprint of his pure land,

Surpasses the twenty-one juzhi[9] buddha-lands.

      The two hundred and ten billion buddha lands represent all the buddha lands of the ten directions. These verses show that Amitabha Buddha’s Pureland is the first of all buddha lands.

       The primary aspiration of Amitabha Buddha is to be the most revered of all buddhas, and to build the most magnificent Pureland that surpasses all buddha-lands of the ten directions. These are the heart of Amitabha’s vows. Their purpose is to liberate beings, as given in The Solemnity Sutra:[10]

Let all the sentient beings in samsara of the boundless worlds,

Be quickly reborn in my land, enjoy happiness, and soon be buddhas. 

 

 With great compassion I shall deliver all afflicted sentient beings from the Avici hell.[11]

 

Let all sentient beings including those in the three wretched realms[12]

Be reborn in my land with a golden physical appearance and,

Under my Dharma guidance, soon attain buddhahood.

 

If I attain buddhahood, my name shall be Infinite Life;

All sentient beings who hear my name will seek rebirth in my land;

They will have buddha’s golden physique and subtle qualities like buddhas,

Will deliver sentient beings with great and unconditioned compassion. 

       The Infinite Life Sutra reads: “(I have) resolved upon supreme and unsurpassed vows”; and “I have established the world-surpassing vows”. In The Sutra of Amitabha Gathas it reads: “(He) proclaims vows surpassing those of all other buddhas”.

       From the scriptures of the above sutras, it is apparent that Amitabha Buddha’s most cherished wishes are to be the Buddha surpassing all buddhas, to build a Pureland surpassing all other buddha lands, and to deliver all sentient beings to His Pureland to become buddhas. These, indeed, are His primal promises. The total twenty-four (sometimes forty-eight) vows make up His compassionate aspirations. 

       Listed below are examples of relevant vows from The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life.

       The seventeenth vow:

When I become Buddha, “my divine eye of seeing, divine ear of hearing, and divine power of traveling will be ten times greater than those of other buddhas’.”

       The eighteenth vow:

When I become Buddha,my supreme wisdom, and my supreme ability of expounding Dharma and delivering sentient beings will be ten times greater than those of other buddhas’.”

       The twenty-fourth vow:

When I become Buddha, “the radiant lights from the crown of my head will absolutely

surpass those of other buddhas’.”

       The above three vows indicate that his majestic Buddha body and his divine Buddha lights will absolutely surpass those of other buddhas.

       The Sutra of Immeasurable Pure and Equal Enlightenment also reads:

His radiant lights surpass those of other Buddhas’ by billions of times

       The fourth vow:

When I become Buddha, my name will be known in the innumerable buddha lands of the ten directions. All buddhas will praise my merits and my land to the assemblages of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. All heavenly beings, humans, and animals who hear my name will be moved with compassion and seek rebirth in my land.”

       The twenty-fourth vow:

When I become Buddha, “the lights from the crown of my head will be absolutely

brilliant and resplendent, exceeding the lights of the sun and moon trillions of times over,

surpass absolutely the lights of all other Buddhas’,

shine in all the worlds, and brighten up the darkest of Netherlands.

All heavenly beings, humans, and animals who hear my name

will be moved with compassion and seek rebirth in my land.”

       The above two vows speak of “hear my name” or “see my lights”, and “seek rebirth in my land”.

       The ninth vow:

All beings in my land "will have the likes of impeccable countenance and decorum,

pure and auspicious of the same kind."

       The fifteenth vow:

All beings in my land "will have the same appearance of golden-bodies, and possess the thirty-two physical and eighty subtle features like those of buddhas’."

       The sixteenth vow:

All beings in my land "will have the same abilities to expound Dharma, and deliver sentient beings as buddhas." 

       The above three vows express that all beings who are born in His land will be of “the same kind”, and all “will be like buddhas”.  

       Since Amitabha Buddha has already attained buddhahood, The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life reads:

The lights of Amitabha Buddha are the most spectacular and unrivaled,

beyond comparison with the lights of other buddhas.

       It also reads:

Amitabha Buddha is the king of all buddhas, the supreme of all buddha-lights.”

       The Sutra of Immeasurable Pure and Equal Enlightenment pronounces:

 His radiant lights surpass those of other buddhas by trillions of times.

       The Infinite Life Sutra reads:

The majestic lights of Amitabha Buddha are the foremost and unrivaled;

No other buddha’s lights can match.

       In The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life, Sakyamuni Buddha uses over a thousand words to describe how Amitabha Buddha’s radiant lights exceed those of other buddhas of the ten directions, and to proclaim Amitabha Buddha to be "the king of all buddhas, the supreme of all lights."  

       It is stated that “all buddhas follow the same path to buddhahood,” and “all buddhas are equal.” How is it then that the lights of Amitabha Buddha are unrivaled among those of all other buddhas, and He becomes “ the king of all buddhas, the supreme of all lights”?

       According to The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life, “it depends on the meritorious measures of the vows each buddha aspires in his previous lives when practicing the bodhisattva way of six paramitas.”[13] While buddhas’ lights may differ, they are not predetermined by design, and all buddhas’ powers are the same. So, the powers of the buddhas are equal, and from their vows their merits are accomplished naturally and inherently. The brightness and range of their lights depend on their aspirations and cultivations. It follows that the vows of Dharmakara Bodhisattva are the foremost of all buddhas.

       The Infinite Life Sutra quotes Dharmakara Bodhisattva as saying “I have made vows unrivaled in all the world.” It also states “He resolved upon the world-surpassing vows for five kalpas. He contemplated His unsurpassed vows, and took the virtuous practices to establish the most solemn and most splendid pure land over inconceivable and unfathomable kalpas. He cultivated and accumulated immeasurable merits through bodhisattva ways.”

         It takes Dharmakara Bodhisattva five kalpas to resolve on his world-surpassing vows and contemplate the practice to fulfill His aspirations. Then it takes Him unimaginable and unfathomable eons to cultivate meritorious bodhisattva ways to achieve His goals. He thus becomes the foremost buddha with unrivaled lights and the most virtuous name among all buddhas. These sutras explicitly state the causes of His unrivaled achievements are His world-surpassing vows and world-surpassing practice in causal lands.[14] 

       Amitabha Buddha is extolled by all buddhas, and His Name is recited by sentient beings who entrust their lives to the Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is incomparable because of His name, His lights, and the fact that beings born into His land become buddhas.

       The majestic lights of Amitabha Buddha are the foremost and unrivaled; they illuminate all the universes without hindrance; they end the afflictions of all the Buddha-reciters, and they deliver them to His Land of Ultimate Bliss to attain perfect enlightenment and final nirvana. As the eleventh vow in The Infinite Life Sutra reads: 

If, when I attain buddhahood, the celestial and human beings in my land do not dwell in the assured stage of non-retrogression leading to final nirvana without fail,

May I not attain perfect enlightenment."

       Amitabha Buddha is extolled by all buddhas in the ten directions for the inconceivable power of His vows, and with his unrivaled lights and name, He benefits all sentient beings and delivers them to buddhahood. As the seventeenth vow of The Infinite Life Sutra reads:

If, when I attain buddhahood,

Should the innumerous buddhas in the lands of ten directions

Not all praise and proclaim my name,

May I not attain perfect enlightenment.

       The purpose of Amitabha Buddha’s aspiration to be praised by all buddhas is not for fame or almsgiving. It is for the sake of all sentient beings, that they may be reborn in His land where His boundless empathy and unconditional compassion reside. Thus, continues the eighteen vow:

If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions

Sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me,

Desire to be born in my land, and recite my Name down to ten times,

Should fail to be reborn in my land,

May I not attain perfect enlightenment.

       Since Amitabha has attained Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions, if they recite His Name tenaciously, will surely be reborn in His Land of Bliss. Therefore, the “Accomplishment of the Eighteen Vow” in The Infinite Life Sutra reads:

All those sentient beings who hear His Name,

Rejoice with faith, and recite His Name even once,

Dedicating their merits of virtuous practices, and wishing rebirth in His land,

Will be reborn in His land, and dwell in the assured stage of non-retrogression.

       Rebirth in the Amitabha Buddha’s pure land is assured to those who recite His Name.[15] Even before rebirth, reciters will have been bestowed with great merits and virtues. Hence, the chapter of “Exhortation and Circulation” in The Infinite Life Sutra reads:

Sentient beings who hear the Buddha’s Name,

Leap with joy and recite His Name even once – you should know –

Such persons are seeking great benefits, and

Will be bestowed supreme merits and virtues.

       All sentient beings of the ten directions who arrive at Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land will become buddhas. The process of attaining buddhahood is described in The Larger Sutra of the Immeasurable Life

From innumerous buddha lands of the ten directions,

Celestial, human and animal beings will be born in

Amitabha Buddha land through transformed birth and

Spontaneous growth in the Lotus Lake.

There are no nurturers, only natural foods.

Their physiques are sublime, neither celestial nor humans of mundane worlds;

They are all endowed with immeasurable merits and virtues, and

Bodies of naturalness, emptiness, and boundlessness.

       The Infinite Life Sutra also reads:

The Buddha land is pristinely pure and peaceful, resplendent and subtly pleasant;

It is the realm of non-contrived nirvana.

The sravakas, bodhisattvas, celestial and human beings in that land,

Have lofty and superb wisdom, and are masters of supernatural powers;

They all are of the same kind without any difference in visage or physique,

But are called with such titles as a remnant of the customs of our worlds.

Their appearance is superb, neither celestial nor human,

Surpassing the mundane worlds in its marvels;

They are all endowed with bodies of naturalness, emptiness, and boundlessness.

       The Sutra of the Assemblage of the Tathagata also reads:

All the beings in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are of the same kind without any difference in visage or physique but are called with such titles as a remnant of the customs of other worlds.

      In the scriptures, the words “naturalness, emptiness, boundlessness” have the same meaning as nirvana since the dharma-nature is non-contrived. The Sutra of Nirvana reads:[16]

Liberation is emptiness, emptiness is liberation, liberation is Tathagata.

       It can be said that “rebirth is to attain buddhahood”; this is the very aim of Amitabha Buddha’s vows.

       The greatness of a person always depends on his or her aspiration and resolve. Great aspiration with resolve is followed by great cultivation, and great cultivation leads to great achievements. The Buddha’s ideal aspiration of “surpassing all, being the foremost” is His greatest asset, not for His own sake, but for the sake of all sentient beings that may be reborn and attain Buddhahood in His Pure Land.

       All the buddha lands at the time of Dharmakara Bodhisattva fell short of His ideals, and so He vowed to create one “pristinely pure and splendidly adorned, (it) surpasses all the lands of the ten directions.” To do this He selected the very best of the most magnificent of the two hundred and ten billion buddha lands, making them the blueprint of a superior land, His own pristine Pure Land, and making Himself surpass all buddhas. As Sakyamuni Buddha says in The Infinite Life Sutra, “The Buddha land that he seeks to establish is vast in extent, unrivaled and supremely wondrous, ever-present and ever-lasting and subject to no impermanence.” It is in this ideal place that bodhisattvas, arhats, and even mortals that see Buddha’s lights or hear Buddha's name could be reborn to attain buddhahood, without having to work through countless eons, or advance through each of the fifty-one bodhisattva stages, bypassing numerous rebirths in other buddha lands.

       The compassion of Amitabha Buddha is so immense and superb that all buddhas of the ten directions adopt His aspirations as their own. The Infinite Life Sutra reads:

The Tathagata with inexhaustible great compassion feels pity for the beings in the three domains.[17] For this reason, He appears in this world to expound the teachings of the Way to liberation to rescue multitudes of deluded buds,[18] and to endow them with real and true benefits.

       Amitabha vows to deliver all sentient beings out of samsara, the sea of suffering. He endows His gifts unconditionally. As long as beings believe in and accept His deliverance, and recite His name, they will receive the benefit of rebirth in His Pure Land.

       But, after ten thousand years of this Dharma-ending era, all Dharma scriptures will perish. Out of great compassion, Sakyamuni Buddha promises to keep The Infinite Life Sutra in particular to remain for a hundred years after all other Dharma scriptures have perished from the world. In the last section of The Infinite Life Sutra of, "Entrusting and Circulation," Sakyamuni Buddha says:

When it comes to pass, all the Dharma ways and scriptures will perish. Out of compassion and empathy, I will leave this sutra in particular to remain in this world for a hundred ages. Those sentient beings who encounter this sutra and wish rebirth will be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. 

       Sakyamuni promising to “leave this sutra in particular” is significant in two ways:

  1. It indicates “the primary goal and only purpose of Sakyamuni Buddha expounding the sutra” is teaching “Amitabha's deliverance by reciting His name.” Even at the end of the Dharma-ending period, when all scriptures have perished, The Infinite Life Sutra will remain to continue saving sentient beings.” As long as this sutra has not perished, Buddhism will remain.”
  2. It enforces that “reciting the Buddha Name will ensure rebirth in His land”. Even when the Three Jewels have vanished in the future, sentient beings who recite Amitabha's name will be reborn in His Pure Land. Today, when the Three Jewels are prospering, reciting exclusively the name of Amitabha Buddha will definitely ensure rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

          Never doubt that!

          Namo Amitabha Buddha.

  (Translated and Edited by the Pure Land School of Translation Team)

  

[1] In some early translated version of the sutra, they are presented as twenty-four vows.

[2] Buddha Lokeśvarārāja in Sanskrit; or Buddha Shizizai Wang in Chinese pinyin.

[3] Aparimitâyuh-sûtra in Sanskrit, it is also called The Larger Amitabha Sutra, which was translated in the 3rd century by Zhiqian of ancient Northwestern China.

[4] The 11th vow of “assured stage and nirvana”, and the 22nd vows of “buddhahood one birth away”. 

[5] The Sutra of the Infinite Life, translated in the Cao-Wei Dynasty of the 3rd century by Samghavarman of India.

[6] The Sutra was translated by Lokasema (支婁迦讖), a 2nd century Afghan monk.

[7] E.g., The Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the final chapter translated by P. C. Lee.

[8] Dàbǎojī Jīng in Chinese pinyin (jīng means sutra), Mahā Ratnakūṭa Sutra in Sanskrit, literally means The Sutra of

  the Heap of Jewels: The Assemblage of the Tathagata of the Immeasurable Life, which is an ancient collection of

  Mahayana Buddhist sutras including The Sutra of the Infinite Life.

[9] Juzhi in Chinese pinyin or koti in Sanskrit is a large number about one billion by modern-day estimate.

[10] Another translation of The Infinite Life Sutra: The Mahayana Solemnity Sutra of the Immeasurable Life Expounded by the Buddha.

[11] Avicinaraka in Sanskrit, the deepest and most terrifying hell where punishments never cease.

[12] Three wretched realms: Yama hells, hungry ghosts, and animals. Yama or Yamaraja is the King of hells in Indian legends.

[13] Paramita in Sanskrit means “reaching the other shore,” or “perfection”. The six perfections are: giving, precepts (moral conducts,) tolerance (forbearing,) vigor (perseverance,) meditation (dhyāna,) and transcendent wisdom (prajna).

[14] Causal land is where one practices the bodhisattva way; Reward land is where one attains buddhahood.

[15] Recite or Nian in Chinese pinyin traditionally connotes not a vocal but a mental function. It is Master Shandao who by citing key sutras transformed Nianfo from mental to vocal, thereby, enabling rebirth and buddhahood for everyone who recites either vocally or mentally the Name of Amitabha Buddha (Fo means buddha).

[16] Liberation, or moksha in Sanskrit. It refers to liberation from saṃsāra, the cycle of  birth and death. It is a blissful state of existence, attained after the destruction of all karmic bonds.

[17] In Buddhist cosmology, the three domains of samsara are i) the domain of desire (Kāmaloka in Sanskrit,) populated by beings in hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, and the beings in the six lower heavens of desire; ii) the domain of form (Rūpaloka) predominantly free of baser desires, with eighteen heavens suitable for those sagely beings well-practiced in Dhyāna (Chan/meditation;) and iii) the domain of formlessness (Arūpaloka,) a non-corporeal realm of four heavens for non-Buddhists who practice the formlessness stages.

[18] “Buds” is another name of sentient beings, who are as numerous as grass sprouts.

 

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Guiding Principles

Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings