In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visualization/Contemplation Sutras

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Text Collections
  • Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara Contemplation Sutras
  • Chinese Meditation Manuals
  • Native (or Apocryphal) Chinese Buddhist Scriptures
  • Traditional Chinese Buddhist Catalogues
  • Visualization/Contemplation
  • Meditation and Calling the Buddha to Mind

Buddhism Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
David Quinter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0137


Visualization/contemplation sutras refer to a group of six sutras in the Chinese Buddhist canon. The twofold rendering of Visualization/Contemplation is based on the Chinese character guan 觀 (kuan; Jpn. kan; Kor. gwan) in the sutra titles. In the standard modern edition of the Sino-Japanese Buddhist canon (Takakusu and Watanabe 1962, cited under Text Collections), the sutras are (a) Sutra on the Sea of Samādhi Attained through Contemplation of the Buddha (Guan Fo Sanmei Hai Jing), commonly known as Samādhi Sea Sutra; (b) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Guan Wuliangshoufo Jing), commonly known as Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra; (c) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Two Bodhisattvas Bhaiṣajyarāja and Bhaiṣajyasamudgata (Guan Yaowang Yaoshang Erpusa Jing), commonly known as Bhaiṣajyarāja Contemplation Sutra; (d) Sutra on the Contemplation of Maitreya Bodhisattva’s Ascent to Rebirth in Tuṣita Heaven (Guan Mile Pusa Shangsheng Doushuaitian Jing), commonly known as Maitreya Contemplation Sutra; (e) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Cultivation Methods of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Guan Puxian Pusa Xingfa Jing), commonly known as Samantabhadra Contemplation Sutra; and (f) Sutra on the Contemplation of the Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Guan Xukongzang Pusa Jing), commonly known as Ākāśagarbha Contemplation Sutra. Complications surrounding these sutras as a group begin with the term guan. All feature fantastic visual imagery, but only some include a series of contemplations that could be characterized as visualizations, and no consensus exists on a Sanskrit basis for the term. Closely related are issues of the sutras’ provenance. Although the sutras are consistently treated as “translations” in the Traditional Chinese Buddhist Catalogues, no known Indic-language or Tibetan versions exist that are not based on the Chinese. All are believed to have been compiled around the first half of the 5th century CE, a period of increased production of Native (or Apocryphal) Chinese Buddhist Scriptures. Certain terminology shared among the sutras and with such texts as the Chinese Meditation Manuals compiled near the same time suggest a similar nexus for their composition and include frequent reference to other Chinese Buddhist texts. However, the traditional translator attributions and other aspects also suggest connections with Central Asia. Thus scholars variously posit Indian, Central Asian, or Chinese origins for the sutras. These very ambiguities help make the visualization or contemplation sutras a rich field for continued research.

General Overviews

Soper 1959 is seminal among Western-language publications related to the visualization/contemplation sutras. The study incorporates summaries and other reflections on five of the Six Visualization/Contemplation Sutras (excluding only the briefest, the Ākāśagarbha Contemplation Sutra). Tsukinowa 1971, a posthumously published Japanese-language study, is frequently cited for its arguments on the Chinese origins of the sutras. Fujita 1990, an English-language translation adapted from a section of Fujita 1970 (cited under Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra), centers on the Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra but provides a good, article-length introduction to the sutras as a group and the debates on their provenance. The essay also features a helpful table of terminological parallels among five of the six sutras (again excluding only the Ākāśagarbha Contemplation Sutra). Yamabe 1999 shifts the focus to the Samādhi Sea Sutra and includes a substantial overview of the six sutras and the related Chinese Meditation Manuals. Mai 2009 features an in-depth investigation of three of the six sutras and revisionist reflections on the use of the Chinese term guan (visualization/contemplation) in the sutras. Williams 2009 is a more general analysis of the cults of varied buddhas and bodhisattvas in Mahayana traditions, such as in the visualization/contemplation sutras. Because the book overall is skilled at rendering complex ideas accessible, it is recommended for both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Fujita Kōtatsu (藤田 宏達). “The Textual Origins of the Kuan Wu-Liang-Shou Ching: A Canonical Scripture of Pure Land Buddhism.” In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 149–173. Translated by Kenneth K. Tanaka. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1990.

    Summary article of Fujita’s findings on the origins of the Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra and connections to the other visualization/contemplation sutras. Translated from a section of Fujita 1970 (cited under Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra), with emendations by the author and the translator.

  • Mai, Cuong T. “Visualization Apocrypha and the Making of Buddhist Deity Cults in Early Medieval China: With Special Reference to the Cults of Amitābha, Maitreya, and Samantabhadra.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 2009.

    The dissertation is framed as a reexamination of early Amitābha (or Amitāyus) cults in China but devotes substantial chapters to the Maitreya Contemplation Sutra, the Samantabhadra Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra. Argues for the need to focus on the Chinese reception of the sutras rather than just their provenance and for a deliberately ambiguous use of the term guan (Visualization/Contemplation) in the sutras. Also see Maitreya Contemplation Sutra and Samantabhadra Contemplation Sutra.

  • Soper, Alexander Coburn. Literary Evidence for Early Buddhist Art in China. Artibus Asiae Supplementum 19. Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1959.

    Classic study of early Buddhist art in China, including Indian and Central Asian influences. Chapter 3, “Iconography,” includes analysis of five of the six contemplation sutras: the Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra, Samādhi Sea Sutra, Bhaiṣajyarāja Contemplation Sutra, Maitreya Contemplation Sutra, and Samantabhadra Contemplation Sutra (in that order).

  • Tsukinowa Kenryū (月輪 賢隆). Butten no Hihanteki Kenkyū (仏典の批判的硏究). Kyoto: Hyakkaen, 1971.

    Includes one of the most influential Japanese-language studies on the shared characteristics of the visualization/contemplation sutras and related scriptures (pp. 43–173). Tsukinowa argues for the Chinese origins of the sutras. Contrasts with the also-influential studies Fujita 1990, Fujita 1970, and Fujita 2007 (the latter two cited under Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra), which argue for mixed Central Asian and Chinese elements, particularly concerning the Amitāyus Contemplation Sutra. Also see Native (or Apocryphal) Chinese Buddhist Scriptures.

  • Williams, Paul. “Trust, Self-Abandonment and Devotion: The Cults of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” In Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. By Paul Williams, 209–266. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Includes a variety of sections relevant to the study of Buddhist contemplative practices as well as the cults of various buddhas and bodhisattvas featured in the visualization/contemplation sutras and related texts.

  • Yamabe, Nobuyoshi. “The Sūtra on the Ocean-Like Samādhi of the Visualization of the Buddha: The Interfusion of the Chinese and Indian Cultures in Central Asia as Reflected in a Fifth Century Apocryphal Sūtra.” PhD diss., Yale University, 1999.

    Although focused on the Samādhi Sea Sutra, the dissertation includes substantial comparison with the other visualization/contemplation sutras and related meditation manuals. Thus this study can also serve as an overview of the sutras. See also Chinese Meditation Manuals and Samādhi Sea Sutra.

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