The three topics of Amitābha (in Japanese, Amida; in Chinese, Amituo), Pure Land Buddhism, and nembutsu are always linked together. The Buddha Amitābha was the Mahayana deity at the center of the mythos, was the icon of nembutsu practice, and was the occupier of the relevant Pure Land. Linguistically, the name means “infinite light” and an associated name Amitāyus meant “infinite life.” Amitābha traditions are thought to have grown out of an understanding that the actual presence of the founding teacher Śākyamuni was an essential element of Buddhism in its origins, and consequently there was a continuing desire among followers to somehow reexperience such a presence. The Sanskrit term for this orientation was buddhānusmṛti (literally, “recollection of the Buddha, thinking on the Buddha, keeping the Buddha in mind”; later pronounced nembutsu in Japanese), and the concept became particularly associated with Pure Land teachings since it was by means of “recollection of the Buddha” that karmic birth in the Pure Land realm—however interpreted—could be achieved. However, despite its common core body of mythic materials, Amitābha Buddhism has been a flexible, polysemic network of texts, terms, ideas, and images, in which nembutsu practice meant a variety of engagements—contemplation, visualization or recitation—involving symbolic information (especially visual or auditory) that came from the Pure Land sutras. A broad historical shift took place in East Asia toward popularization and especially the simplification of practice into a vocal recitation of the Buddha Amitābha’s name. Amitābha traditions eventually formed one of the most important parts of Mahayana Buddhism, especially in East Asia.
As emphasized in Blum 1994, Amitābha Buddhism was a form of path (mārga) that thoroughly overlapped with other kinds of Buddhist practice and was rarely sharply distinguishable. Many scholars see Amitābha traditions as to some extent unified by existential themes of piety and trust (Corless 1993), light (Ingram 1974) or taking refuge (Carter 1993). Gómez 2000 focused on the general theme of hope. Lai 1981 found a narrative logic in the emergence of the Amitābha mythos from early Buddhism. Zwalf 1985 shows the prevalence of Amitābha in the sweep of the corpus of Buddhist art.
Blum, Mark L. “Pure Land Buddhism as an Alternative Mārga.” Eastern Buddhist 27.1 (1994): 30–77.
In detail relates Pure Land traditions to the Chinese debates about practice in terms of subitist (sudden) versus gradual enlightenment theories and to Japanese polemics about self-power and other-power. The argument illustrates how extensively Amitābha was interwoven with East Asian Buddhism in general, although it was to some extent distinguishable.
Carter, John Ross. “‘Relying Upon’ or ‘Taking Refuge’ as a Genuinely Human Activity.” Annual Memoirs of the Ōtani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute (Shinshū Sōgō Kenkyūjo Kiyo) 11 (1993): 17–42.
Comparative discussion of the spiritual issue of trust in the transcendent from the standpoint of a scholar of South Asian religions.
Corless, Roger. “Pure Land Piety.” In Buddhist Spirituality. Vol. 1. Edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, 242–271. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Describes how at imaginative, existential, and aesthetic levels the various Amitābha traditions were linked by their themes of light and trust, motifs that provide bridges to other world religions.
Gómez, Luis O. “Buddhism as a Religion of Hope: Observations on the ‘Logic’ of a Doctrine and Its Foundational Myth.” Eastern Buddhist 32.1 (2000): 1–21.
Any analysis of the Amitābha narrative inevitably brings in issues such as grace, assurance of salvation, and “outside” powers, but the handling of these depends on underlying “theological,” doctrinal, and mythic assumptions. Author finds that Amitābha orientation is tied together by ideas of transferable merit (bodhisattva vows), which lead to practices of faith and hope, all thoroughly Buddhist.
Ingram, Paul O. “The Symbolism of Light and Pure Land Buddhist Soteriology.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1.4 (December 1974): 331–345.
Explores the theme of light as a common form of religious imagery.
Lai, Whalen. “From Sakyamuni to Amitabha: The Logic Behind the Pure Land Devotion.”Ching Feng 24.3 (1981): 156–174.
Using Kenneth Burke’s concept of logology, the author argues that the original Buddhist narrative contained within itself a karmic theodicy impelling Buddhist teaching in the Amitābha direction.
Zwalf, Wladimir, ed. Buddhism: Art and Faith. London: British Museum Publications, 1985.
Images of Amitābha are scattered throughout this comprehensive survey of Buddhist art.
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