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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese