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In This Article Amitābha

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Indian Cosmology
  • Indian Roots
  • India and Amitābha in Archaeology
  • Tibetan Developments
  • Tibet and Amitābha in Arts
  • Amitābha as Topic of Modern Religious Thought

Buddhism Amitābha
by
Galen Amstutz

Introduction

The three topics Amitābha (in Japanese, Amida; in Chinese, Amituo), Pure Land Buddhism, and nenbutsu are always linked together, for Amitābha was the deity at the center of any kind of Pure Land nenbutsu practice. Amitābha was the Buddha of one of the chief Pure Lands: linguistically, the name Amitābha means “infinite light”; an associated deity name was Amitāyus, meaning “infinite life.” The Amitābha traditions grew out of the fact that the actual presence of the founding teacher Śākyamuni was an essential element of Buddhism in its origins, and the desire of followers to somehow reexperience such a presence continued. The Sanskrit term for this orientation was buddhānusmṛti (literally, “recollection of the Buddha, thinking on the Buddha, keeping the Buddha in mind”; later pronounced nenbutsu 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—a future realm of existence alternate to our present world in which the Buddha Amitābha would be present to assist the practitioner toward enlightenment—could be achieved. However, despite its common core body of mythic materials, Amitābha Buddhism, strictly speaking, has not been a single tradition, but rather a flexible, polysemic network of texts, terms, ideas, and images, in which nenbutsu practice meant a variety of engagements—contemplation, visualization or recitation—with symbolic information (especially visual or auditory) that came from the Pure Land sutras. A broad historical shift took place toward popularization and especially the simplification of practice as 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.

General Overviews

As emphasized in Blum 1994, Amitābha Buddhism was a form of path (mārga) that 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.

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    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 completely Amitābha overlapped with East Asian Buddhism in general, although there was to some extent a distinguishable Amitābha path.

  • 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Images of Amitābha are scattered throughout this comprehensive survey of Buddhist art.

LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0004

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