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Amitābha (Sanskrit, limitless light) is one of the socalled celestial or mythic buddhas who inhabit their own buddha-field and intervene as a saving force in our world. According to the Larger SukhĀvatĪvyŪha-sŪtra, in a previous life Amitābha was the monk Dharmākara, who vowed that as part of his mission as a bodhisattva he would purify and adorn a world, transforming it into the most pure and beautiful buddha-field. Once he attained full awakening and accomplished the goals of his vows, Dharmākara became the Buddha Amitābha. He now resides in the world he purified, known as Sukhavatī (blissful). From this world he will come to ours, surrounded by many bodhisattvas, to welcome the dead and to lead them to rebirth in his pure buddha-field.

The figure of Amitābha is not known in the earliest strata of Indian Buddhist literature, but around the beginning of the common era he appears as the Buddha of the West in descriptions of the buddhas of the five directions. The cult of Amitābha most likely developed as part of the early MahĀyĀna practice of invoking and worshiping "all the buddhas" and imagining some of these as inhabiting distant, "purified" worlds, usually associated with one of the cardinal directions. The myth of his vows and pure land may have developed in close proximity to, or in competition with, similar beliefs associated with other buddhas like Akṣobhya (another one of the early buddhas of the five directions, whose eastern pure land is known as Abhirati).

Although Amitābha shares many of the qualities associated with other buddhas of the Mahāyāna, he is generally linked to the soft radiance of the setting sun, which suffuses, without burning or blinding, all corners of the universe (in East Asia he is also linked to moonlight). The emphasis on his luminous qualities (or those of his halo), which occupies an important role in East Asian iconography, does not displace or contradict the association of Amitābha with a religion of voice and sound; his grace is secured or confirmed by calling out his name, or, rather, invoking his name with the ritual expression of surrender: "I pay homage to Amitābha Buddha." Even in texts that emphasize imagery of light, such as the Dazhidu lun (Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom), he is still the epitome of the power of the vow and the holy name.

Amitābha is represented in dhyānamudrā, perhaps suggesting the five hundred kalpas of meditation that led Dharmākara to his own enlightenment. An equally characteristic posture is abhayamudrā (mudrĀ of protection from fear and danger), which normally shows the buddha standing.

In its more generalized forms, however, faith in Amitābha continues to this day to include a variety of practices and objects of devotion. A common belief, for instance, is the belief that his pure land, Sukhāvatī, is blessed by the presence of the two bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmapraptā. Faith in the saving power of these bodhisattvas, especially Avalokiteśvara, was often linked with the invocation of the sacred name of Amitābha, the recitation of which could bring the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara to the believer's rescue. The overlapping of various beliefs and practices, like the crisscrossing of saviors and sacred images, is perhaps the most common context for the appearance of Amitābha—it is the case in China, Korea, and Vietnam, and in Japanese Buddhism outside the exclusive Buddhism of the Kamakura reformers.

The perception of Amitābha as one among many saviors, or the association between faith in him and the wonder-working powers of Avalokiteśvara, are common themes throughout Buddhist Asia. It is no accident that the Panchen Lama of Tibet is seen as an incarnation of Amitābha, whereas his more powerful counterpart in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama, is regarded as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

See also:Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏm-bul); Pure Lands


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Luis O. GÓmez