The Amitabha Sutra Spoken by the Buddha
Pure Land practitioners regard the Amitabha Sutra as the Dissemination Part of the Contemplation Sutra.
There are three general meanings in the Amitabha Sutra:
The first meaning is: To praise the circumstantial and primary rewards of the Land of Bliss. This is done to nurture our admiration and appreciation of the Land of Bliss, and awaken our aspiration to be reborn there.
The second meaning is: To discuss the method to gain rebirth. For rebirth in the Land of Bliss, if we follow the practice of meditative and non-meditative virtues in the world, which are few in virtuous roots and blessings, we cannot attain rebirth. However, upon hearing of Amitabha Buddha, if we hold fast to his Name, that is the method to gain rebirth.
The third meaning is: sincere validation by the buddhas in the six directions. Shakyamuni Buddha is concerned about doubts among sentient beings in the ten directions, who may not trust what he says. So, he invites the buddhas in the six directions (“six” extending to “ten”) to validate that Shakyamuni Buddha’s words are true, and to urge us to believe and accept them without any doubts.
The Pure Land teaching was initially established on the basis of “directions and forms”. It is totally different from the teachings of the Sacred Path that state, “Self-Nature is Amitabha, and the Pure Land is Mere Consciousness.” This point is clearly unfolded in the beginning of the Amitabha Sutra.
The Amitabha Sutra says, “If you travel westward from here, passing a hundred thousand koṭis of buddha lands, you will come to the land called Bliss.” It seems the land is confined to the west; but, we should understand it is an expedient means of expression. It says in another scripture that this land is “vast and broad, without borders or boundaries, and infinite like empty space.”
Actually, the Land of Bliss is the same as Amitabha’s light, which extends infinitely through every Dharma Realm. The vastness of the Land of Bliss exceeds the ability of language to describe.
Amitabha-reciters usually put emphasis on the Amitabha Sutra in Chinese Pure Land Teaching. They recite the Amitabha Sutra in the morning and evening as a daily practice.
However, many of them are tripped up by three paragraphs in the Amitabha Sutra. Even worse, because of their misunderstanding and misinterpretation of these three paragraphs, they suffer a setback and lose the confidence that studying this teaching properly would give them. This is a matter of deep regret.
These three paragraphs in the Sutra are very important, and, because of their importance, if they are not correctly understood, wrongly interpreted, or deliberately misinterpreted, they can form a great barrier to the teaching of Amitabha-recitation, So, Amitabha-reciters who recite the Amitabha Sutra must have the correct understanding of these three paragraphs.
The main points of these three paragraphs are:
1. One cannot attain rebirth in that land with few roots of virtues or merits in causal conditions,
2. With a “concentrated” and undistracted mind,
3. Minds do not fall into confusion
What does the Amitabha Sutra say? It talks about ‘holding fast to the Name”. Holding fast to the Name is “abundant” in virtuous roots and meritorious blessings. As far as rebirth in the Land of Bliss is concerned, if we are lax in holding fast to the Name, we will have “few” virtuous roots and meritorious blessings, and it will not be possible to attain rebirth.
Only reciting Amitabha’s Name is mentioned in the Amitabha Sutra. It does not mention: the Three Learnings, the Six Paramitas, Mahayana, Theravada, exoteric, or esoteric teachings. It only recommends name-recitation in accordance with the Fundamental Vow.
Within the 1858 words (in Chinese) in the Amitabha Sutra, it does not mention any other teachings, but only introduces the splendid adornments of the Land of Bliss, where there are various kinds of happiness and no suffering. It also asks all of us who hear this sutra to aspire to be reborn that Land. When we hear about such a world, how can we not admire it and wish to go there?
In the Sutra, it also briefly explains about the passive way that prevents us from rebirth, and the active way that facilitates rebirth. That is to say, one who has few roots of virtues and blessings cannot be reborn; but, what are abundant roots of virtues and blessings? The Sutra states very clearly that holding fast to the Name gives us Amitabha’s abundant roots of virtues and blessings.
It is very clearly, simply, and precisely said in the Amitabha Sutra: “One cannot be reborn in that Land (of Bliss) with few blessings and roots of virtues, accumulated among causal conditions.” This means: for ordinary beings in the Land of Saha, among the eight schools and 84,000 teachings, no matter which school or which teaching we practice, as long as it relies on our own power to cultivate, it is regarded as having insufficient blessings or roots of virtues to enable one to be reborn.
The purpose of the Amitabha Sutra is to talk about the method of attaining rebirth in the Land of Bliss, which is holding fast to the Name.
The six-syllable Name (Namo Amituofo) is known as “the Great Name of Myriad Virtues”. It indicates that, as long as we hold fast to Amitabha’s Name, we have sufficient roots of virtues and blessings to achieve rebirth in the Land of Bliss.
If we practice various virtues here in the Saha World, such as the Three Studies, the Six Paramitas, etc., we will have only accumulated few roots of virtues and blessings, as compared with the boundless merit and virtues gained through Amitabha-recitation.
“Namo Amituofo” is abundant in roots of virtues and blessings, great in roots of virtues and blessings, splendid in roots of virtues and blessings, absolute in roots of virtues and blessings, perfect and complete in roots of virtues and blessings.
In contrast, the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts, the Ten Wholesome Deeds, the Four Ways to Embrace, the Six Paramitas and the Eightfold Noble Path are all splendid; but, are insufficient to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Only holding fast to Amitabha’s Name is abundant enough in roots of virtues and blessings to carry us to the Land of Bliss.
The Amitabha Sutra says, “If a good man or woman hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name for one day, for two days, for three days, for four days, for five days, for six days, for seven days, single-mindedly and without deviation.”
This paragraph indicates the main cause of rebirth, which is abundant in virtuous roots, abundant in meritorious blessings.
Apart from that, all other 84,000 teachings is not the main cause, as far as the main cause is concerned, because they are not abundant in virtuous roots, abundant in meritorious blessings, but just few in virtuous roots, few in meritorious blessings.
When we read this paragraph in the Amitabha Sutra, if we misinterpret “cannot [be reborn with] few in virtuous roots, few in meritorious blessings, and think that abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings refer to dedicate merit and virtues of various kinds of teachings, we are really poor as we must lose our confidence on rebirth, thus get afflicted. It is because anyone dares not say he has already accumulated enough abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings in any teaching.
So, if we do not have correct understanding, we will be afflicted and unrest. Conversely, if we do, we will be delighted and at ease as we know, apart from Amitabha-recitation, dedication of all other merit and virtues for rebirth in the Land of Bliss is few in virtuous roots, few in meritorious blessings, not abundant in virtuous roots, abundant in meritorious blessings.
The main cause of rebirth is abundant in virtuous roots, abundant in meritorious blessings, which is “holding fast the Name”. So, it is personally spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Amitabha Sutra that “holding fast the Name” is abundant in virtuous roots, abundant in meritorious blessings, and all others are NOT.
“The abundant virtuous roots and abundant meritorious blessings” refers to “holding fast to the Name upon hearing Amitabha Buddha”. In this respect, abundant virtuous roots and abundant meritorious blessings are not accumulated by us, but by Amitabha Buddha. However, we can receive them when we recite his Name and aspire to be reborn in his Pure Land.
As Master Linchi said, “Reciting Amitabha’s Name is the greatest virtue among all virtues, the greatest blessing among all blessings.”
Master Ouyi also explained, “As long as we believe and accept Amitabha, and aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss by holding fast to the Name, each recitation is already abundant in virtuous roots and abundant in meritorious blessings.”
To best understand “holding fast the Name”, we should follow the interpretation of Master Shandao, because it is correct, clear and straightforward. He interpreted “holding fast the Name” to be “Amitabha-recitation with twofold exclusivity”, which means to always exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name.
Moreover, to interpret the meaning of “holding fast the Name”, we can refer to the “Passage on Advice” in the Contemplation Sutra - “bear these words well in mind.”
To bear these words in mind means to hold fast to the Name of the Buddha Amitayus. "Holding fast to the Name” here is the same as “to hold fast to the Name of the Buddha Amitayus". It also means reciting Namo Amituofo!
Furthermore, let’s read a passage from the Chapter on Easy Practice written by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva. He writes, “If a person wishes to quickly reach the State of Non-retrogression, he should hold fast to the Name with a reverent mind.” “Holding fast to the Name” is explained in the Passage on Advice in the Contemplation Sutra, and the core passage of the Amitabha Sutra (the passage about the direct cause of rebirth).
The following phrases can be used interchangeably with “holding fast to the Name”: “reciting without forsaking”, “uninterrupted recitation for the rest of this life”, “Amitabha-recitation in this entire life”, and “just ten times or even once” (for those near the end-of-life).
There are different interpretations about the sentence, “One cannot attain birth in that land with few roots of virtues, meritorious blessings, and causal conditions” as said in the Amitabha Sutra. Moreover, none of them can explain this as simply as Master Shandao.
Some people split the phrase into three – what is meant by roots of virtues, what is meant by meritorious blessings and what is meant by causal conditions, in order to explain. However, Master Shandao did not split the phrase; but simply explained miscellaneous virtues according to circumstances. Practicing the virtues according to circumstances is miscellaneous virtues, and miscellaneous virtues must be performed according to our circumstances, because they are not according to the Buddha’s circumstances.
“Single-minded without confusion” is the mind of exclusive belief in Amitabha Buddha, and the exclusive practice of reciting Amitabha’s Name. This means: no other mind, unchanged, and not mixed or confused.
If someone says, “Hello, there is a truly splendid teaching. Come on and learn it!” We should not bother to listen to it, because we know that no other teaching is better than reciting Amitabha’s Name. By merely holding Amitabha’s Name, we are given a myriad of virtues and we are assured of rebirth at once, without any further teachings. Therefore, we don’t need to be curious and to change our mind of believing and accepting Amitabha Buddha. This is known as being “Single-minded without confusion”.
So long as we exclusively recite Amitabha’s Name and do not mix other practices, it is called singleness of mind without confusion. It is not the concentrated mind without distractions that is referred to in the meditative realm, whose objective is subduing and eliminating the two delusions of views and afflictions. If it were the latter, none of us could be reborn.
If it were the latter, the only sentient beings in the ten directions that could be delivered by Amitabha Buddha, would be sacred beings. This is because, the proficiency needed to attain an undistracted concentrated mind, can only be achieved by sacred beings who have already cut off those delusions and eliminated their ignorance.
Shakyamuni Buddha says, “If a good man or woman hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days, or seven days, single-mindedly and without deviation.” This is the method to attain rebirth.
Simultaneously, people may have different feelings upon “hearing”. Some understand it as a concept; but, don’t really receive and accept it mentally. This is the first level. The second level of feelings is called “listening”, in which Amitabha’s compassion deeply penetrates their hearts and eliminates all of the doubts they’ve carried for numerous lifetimes. This kind of listening is truly hearing.
The first level of “hearing” is superficial - reading the Sutra and hearing the lecture, the six sense organs against the six “dusts” giving rise to the six kinds of consciousness.
The second level of “hearing” penetrates deeply into the 8th (Alaya) Consciousness, which becomes an eternal seed that eliminates all of the doubtful feelings and discriminative views (collectively the same in meaning, though the names are different, as “self-power”) stored in the Alaya Consciousness. This kind of “hearing” establishes True Faith.
We receive and accept this Name in our hearts by holding fast to the Name. This mental state will be with us for our entire lives. When the near-end of life arrives, we can peacefully await Amitabha’s arrival.
So, “for one day, for two days, for three days, for four days, for five days, for six days, for seven days” (as said in the Amitabha Sutra) also implies “for one year...for seven years, or seventy years, or even an entire life. This mind is undisturbed and unchanging; so, it is called “single-minded and without deviation.”
When Shakyamuni Buddha realized Perfect Enlightenment, it was the Name (Namo Amituofo) that he realized. So, one recitation of Amitabha Buddha is the Bodhi that Shakyamuni Buddha attained, when he achieved Perfect Enlightenment in this world of five kinds of turbidity.
As long as we ordinary beings exclusively recite this Name – Namo Amituofo, despite being ordinary beings, we are regarded as being “abundant in roots of virtues and abundant in meritorious blessings”. This is known as practicing “single-mindedly and without deviation”.
“Single-mindedly and without deviation” as stated in the Amitabha Sutra is very simple. Single means not two; not two means exclusive. Without deviation means straight with no confusion, which is also exclusive. So, “single-mindedly and without deviation” is to hold fast to the Name with twofold exclusivity.
The Amitabha Sutra says, “When that person approaches the point of death, Amitabha Buddha and the sacred assembly will appear before him.”
There is also a reason why Amitabha Buddha appear, which is the exclusive recitation of Namo Amituofo in his present life. Because of this cause, there is an effect of appearance of Amitabha Buddha near the end-of-life. It is the first tier of cause and effect.
The Sutra also says, “When death comes, his mind will not be severely confused. He will at once gain rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss.” That is to say, Amitabha Buddha appears near the end-of-life, thus naturally that person’s mind will not be severely confused, and he will attain the right mindfulness to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. With this cause, there comes this effect. This is the second tier of cause and effect.
The relationship of cause and effect is the appearance of the Buddha first, and that our mind is not confused follows, NOT our mind is not confused first, and that the Buddha appears follows.
Many people misunderstand that we should not have false thoughts during Amitabha-recitation, thus make tremendous effort in preventing our mind to be confused near the end-of-life, otherwise the Buddha will not appear. It is WRONG! If it relies on our effort to keep our mind unconfused near the end-of-life, in order that the Buddha appears to receive us to be reborn, there is no need to have Amitabha Buddha’s appearance at that time.
The aim of the Amitabha Sutra is to convince us to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. With his arms open, Amitabha Buddha, the Savior of the Land of Bliss, has been calling out to us for ten eons and asking us to allow him to deliver us to his Land of Bliss. In addition, Shakyamuni Buddha guides us and advises us to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss in several other sutras.
Within the 1858 words (in Chinese) in the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha earnestly advises us three times to definitely be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
The first time he advises rebirth - those sentient beings who hear of that land should aspire to be born there.
The second time he advises rebirth - All sentient beings who hear this teaching should aspire to birth in that land.
The third time he advises rebirth - good men and women of faith should aspire to birth there.
We should notice how serious Shakyamuni Buddha is in advising, urging, and persuading us to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.
Regarding the phrase “mind is not upside down or inverted”, many people greatly misunderstand it. They believe that a person must maintain right mindfulness or his mind will be upside down near his end-of-life, and Amitabha Buddha will not come to welcome and receive them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. This understanding is wrong, and the cause and effect are reversed.
They don’t know that “because of the appearance of the Buddha, that person can maintain right mindfulness, NOT because of keeping right mindfulness, the Buddha appears”. The sutra says, it is Amitabha Buddha’s compassion that strengthens and protects that person so that his mind is not confused. Amitabha Buddha Must appear before the person, because he exclusively recites Amitabha’s Name in the present life. Because of the appearance of the Buddha, his mind naturally dwells in right mindfulness without being inverted.
The Amitabha Sutra explains in great detail about the function of rebirth through holding the Name. It explains this through the following:
1. Accumulating abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings – holding fast to the Name provides abundant virtuous roots and meritorious blessings.
2. Main cause of rebirth - holding fast to the Name
3. Appearance of the Buddha near the end-of-life – By holding fast to the Name, one is welcomed by the Buddha
4. Sincerely witnessed by all buddhas – By holding fast to the Name, all buddhas in the six directions will sincerely witness, confirm and approve.
5. Realized by Shakyamuni Buddha – This Name is Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi realized by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Saha World.
6. Original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha - holding fast to the Name is the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The so-called “good man and good woman” includes monastics and householders, kind and evil people, and all sentient beings born in the Four Modes within the Six Realms. As long as they hear Amitabha Buddha’s Name and exclusively recite it, they are known as “a good man and good woman”.
What is meant by “hearing Amitabha Buddha”? “Hearing Amitabha Buddha”, of course, means hearing of Amitabha’s great kindness and compassion. He cannot bear for sentient beings to suffer. Amitabha Buddha only needs our consent to deliver us to his Pure Land. When he made his 48 great vows in the distant past, he promised to deliver us pro-actively with his great kindness and compassion. Included in his vows and practices are all the virtues necessary to form his Land of Bliss. He has also completed his vows and practices to form the Land of Bliss, and all merit and virtues necessary for our rebirth from the Land of Saha to the Land of Bliss.
Because we hear Amitabha Buddha’s story of achieving Buddhahood from the beginning to the end, faith arises in us and we accept Amitabha’s deliverance. Without this, how could we believe in and accept Amitabha Buddha’s deliverance?
Amitabha Buddha is infinite in life, and those who are reborn there, or will be reborn there are also infinite in life. The Amitabha Sutra says, “The lifespans of that Buddha and the citizens of his Pure Land are boundless and immeasurable.” This only seems to refer to those living in the Land of Bliss; however, it also includes those who will be reborn there.
This is because those reborn there will not receive a physical body for another life in the Six Realms. As they are assured of rebirth in the Land of Bliss at present, they have already attained the status of infinite life.
When we hear about Amitabha Buddha, if we do not believe and accept Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow and uphold his Name, it is equivalent to not hearing at all. If we are able to know and accept that rebirth in the Land of Bliss through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation is real, faith is already within us.
The Amitabha Sutra was spoken by the Buddha without it being requested. This means the Sutra was spoken at the Buddha’s own discretion. In this Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha downgrades the merit and virtues of the meditative and non-meditative practices as “few in roots of virtues and meritorious blessings”, and do not enable rebirth. Only Amitabha-recitation is the most virtuous among all kinds of virtues, and the most blessed out of all kinds of blessings. This means, Amitabha-recitation is abundant in roots of virtues and great in meritorious blessings, the most splendid and inconceivable roots of virtues, so that rebirth is assured.
In the Amitabha Sutra, it does not mention rebirth for those in three tiers, nor at the nine levels, because it says those reborn are all bodhisattvas in the state of non-retrogression, Buddhas-to-be in one more lifetime. All of them are superior virtuous beings. They are all of the same status and dwell in the same realm.
The Amitabha Sutra explains Amitabha’s Name as infinite light and infinite life. It says, “Why do you think that Buddha is called Amitabha? It is because that Buddha's light shines boundlessly and without hindrance over all the worlds of the ten quarters.”
It also says, “The lives of the Buddha and the people of his land last for immeasurable, unlimited, and incalculable eons. It is for this reason that the Buddha is called Amitayus.”
In the Commentary on the Treatise on Rebirth, why did Master Tanluan mention the Buddha’s infinite light, but not his infinite life? It is because his life is Amitabha’s body and the light is Amitabha’s function. Combining the two to express Amitabha’s body and function, he teaches about the functions of light, which naturally cover the life of the body.
When Shakyamuni Buddha expounded the Amitabha Sutra, all buddhas of the ten directions came to extol it pro-actively, and unanimously certify what Shakyamuni Buddha said is true. What he says is the same as what all buddhas of the ten directions say, which is also verified through the accomplishment of Amitabha’s 17th Vow in the Infinite Life Sutra.
In the Amitabha Sutra, it also says all buddhas of the ten directions will come together to protect Amitabha-reciters. In this case, when we recite Amitabha’s Name, we are embraced and protected by all buddhas. Isn’t that amazing?! It should also make us fully confident in our deliverance, no matter how inferior our aptitudes are.
Ever since, regardless whether they are monastics or householders, all practitioners worship the Amitabha Sutra is the most important Sutra that should be recited daily.
Moreover, many remarkable Dharma masters made commentaries on the Amitabha Sutra.
Master Shandao in Tang dynasty, our de facto founder, was one of early commentators, who wrote the Praise of Dharma Practice to explain the Amitabha Sutra. He was also the eminent great master in Tang-Sui dynasty who inherited the lifeline transmitted from Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Tanluan, Daochao, so his interpretations and connotations on the scriptures of the Pure Land School is the most pristine one.
All other masters explain the Sutra with the point of view of their own school, so it is not pristine enough. Thus, if we wish to understand the correct meaning of the Amitabha Sutra, we should read the writings of Master Shandao.
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings