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 Wake Up Call: Your Name Spoken Thirty-six Times

By Master Zhisui


       The three principal sutras in the Pure Land school are The Infinite Life Sutra, The Contemplation of Infinite Life Sutra and The Amitabha Sutra. Of these, the Amitabha Sutra holds immense significance despite its concise length of just over a thousand words. It occupies a crucial position in the Pure Land teachings and, indeed, among all Dharma teachings. It represents the essence of the three Pure Land sutras.

       The Amitabha Sutra acts as a summary because the preceding two sutras have already covered extensive ground. The Infinite Life Sutra delves into Amitabha Buddha's forty-eight vows, his meritorious deeds in the causal ground, and the majestic qualities that adorn the Land of Ultimate Bliss, while the Contemplation Sutra describes the various cultivations and the transference of merits of those practices towards rebirth in the Pure Land. In contrast, the Amitabha Sutra serves as a conclusion, much like providing the right direction to someone after explaining to him the different routes. It captures the essence of the teachings of the Pure Land school and clarifies its doctrine.

       The key message of the Amitabha Sutra lies in two significant phrases: "One cannot attain birth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss with few wholesome roots or a small store of merit” and "One hears of Amitabha Buddha and holds fast to his name." These seemingly simple lines have profound meaning. The first phrase: "One cannot attain birth in that land with few wholesome roots or a small store of merit” can be cross-referenced with the teachings in the Contemplation Sutra. In the latter sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha speaks of the various virtuous deeds embedded in the meditative and non-meditative practices which only generate a tiny number of wholesome roots and little merit, compared to the practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. To understand a scripture fully, one has to consult and validate the teachings by referring to various sutras, or texts, within the specific Buddhist tradition being studied.

       For example, those studying Zen, in addition to reading the Heart Sutra, also cross-reference the Diamond Sutra and even the "Shurangama Sutra," comparing them side by side because some concepts are universal across these texts. If one only reads the “Heart Sutra”, its highly concise text may make its meaning difficult to grasp, but examining other scriptures such as the Diamond Sutra can enhance the understanding of the teachings of the Zen school.

       Similarly, to grasp the complete meaning of the Amitabha Sutra, a solid foundation of the doctrine from the Infinite Life Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra is necessary. Despite its brevity, the Amitabha Sutra is the key to the trio of Pure Land sutras, even acting as the crux of “the whole generation of teachings” by Shakyamuni Buddha over forty-nine years, from his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree to his attainment of Nirvana.

       What direction does the whole generation of teachings delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha point to? It’s like a signpost giving directions at a crossroad where guidance is needed. The signpost must point clearly to the right direction, just like a two-hour presentation must be explained in a two-minute core summary.

       After teaching for forty nine years, where did Shakyamuni Buddha point us to?

       The Amitabha Sutra begins with these lines:

From here you travel westward, passing ten trillion of Buddha lands,
You will come to the land called Ultimate Bliss,
There is a Buddha called Amitabha.
He is teaching Dharma there now.

       This is precisely the destination at which Shakyamuni Buddha pointed.

       Shakyamuni Buddha’s ultimate wish is for all sentient beings to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Here’s what he says in the Amitabha Sutra:

“Sentient beings who hear of that land should aspire to be born there.”

       Since the Amitabha Sutra is regarded as the signpost for the whole generation of teachings, it naturally becomes a timeless classic for all sentient beings to study and a cornerstone of faith.

       The purpose of studying Buddhist Dharma is liberation from samsara. Dharma is the medicine that liberates us. Sentient beings cannot be liberated from the cycle of birth and death by themselves due to defilements such as greed, anger and ignorance. Sakyamuni Buddha taught 84,000 Dharma paths to enable us to gain liberation.

       It’s not about the quantity of teachings. As long as it leads to liberation, even one teaching is enough. Some people believe that the more Dharma teachings they learn, the better. They recite all kinds of sutras: Diamond Sutra, Ksitigarbha Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, etc. When a patient sees a doctor, will he say, “Doctor, please prescribe every medicine there is, I want to take them all”? Obviously not. However, there seem to be many people who approach the study of Dharma in this way. The guiding principle of medication is that one uses only those medications that are appropriate for one’s specific health condition. Some medicines treat colds, some heart disease, and some treat other illnesses. You need to first diagnose the illness and then take the right medicine for it.

       The same principle applies to the study of Dharma teachings. First, one must know one's afflictions and then seek the appropriate teaching to address them. Among all Dharma teachings, the only one that can cure all afflictions of sentient beings is the practice of Amitabha-recitation.

       Just as a patient doesn’t need a multitude of medications, a Dharma practitioner doesn’t need to immerse himself in countless teachings. Merely reciting Amitabha’s name can heal all our afflictions. This practice suits everyone  - Bodhisattvas, those burdened with any level of karma, and even those who have committed the five gravest transgressions and the ten evil deeds. All those who practice Amitabha-recitation are guaranteed rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. It is the universal remedy, a sanctuary for all sentient beings.

       We should use medicine correctly. If we do not, in our desperation for a cure we may overlook the appropriate treatment and end up turning to medications that are ill-suited for our conditions. This is the predicament of sentient beings in the Dharma Ending Age: despite having read numerous scriptures and texts, they still cannot resolve the most important issue of life and death. This is because they have not found the best medicine. The best medicine is not necessarily the most expensive one, nor is it beyond our means. It should be exactly suited to our mental and physical condition and cure our ills.

       Amitabha Buddha is revered as the ultimate healer and his name, “Namo Amitabha Buddha” or “Namo Amituofo” in Chinese, is a universal remedy, a potent cure-all for suffering. This remedy is accessible to every being, offering a spiritual refuge.

       What was the original intent, the very aspiration of all Buddhas coming into the world?  Telling us about Amitabha Buddha’s remedy represents the original intent behind the appearance of all Buddhas in our world.

       Sakyamuni Buddha entered the world to liberate sentient beings. Despite teaching various Dharma paths, he held the Pure Land practice of Amitabha-recitation in the highest regard and deemed it of utmost importance. What is the basis for this assertion?

       The basis is found in the Amitabha Sutra where we learn that Buddhas from every direction extend their long, broad tongues (voices) across the expanse of innumerable universes, proclaiming these veracious words:

“All you sentient beings should accept this sutra that extols the inconceivable virtues of Amitabha Buddha, which is esteemed and safeguarded by all Buddhas.”

       All Buddhas cherish and uphold this sutra, with each Buddha extending his voice in testimony to its truth.

       And so while this sutra may seem simple, it is, in fact, profound. It is a scripture that all Buddhas must teach to save sentient beings, highlighting its significance.

       Among the many sutras we have read, can we find any other that is universally attested by all Buddhas? The Diamond Sutra, The Heart Sutra, The Ksitigarbha Sutra, The Lotus Sutra, and The Avatamsaka Sutra do not have this universal endorsement. Yet, the Amitabha Sutra, despite its brevity, is attested and protected by all Buddhas, who also safeguard those who recite the name of Amitabha. Sakyamuni Buddha expounded this sutra without being asked, and all Buddhas authentically endorse and protect it. This fact alone underlines the exceptional importance of this sutra.

       Sakyamuni Buddha taught many Dharma paths, most of which were given upon request. However, this particular sutra was spoken spontaneously. Without being prompted the Buddha addressed Shariputra, saying, “ Listen, I am going to tell you something important…” At that moment, Buddhas from all directions simultaneously supported Shakyamuni and praised this sutra in their own lands.

       In a sutra containing only 1,858 words, Shariputra’s name is mentioned a total of thirty-six times, with Shakyamuni Buddha addressing him every few sentences. Shariputra’s name accounts for roughly one-tenth of the text. Have we ever considered why Shakyamuni Buddha repeatedly calls out to Shariputra? When we read scriptures, it’s not enough to simply go through the text superficially. We must seek to understand its deeper significance.

       Parents, as they age, tend to constantly remind their children about what they should or should not do. Elderly people, particularly those who feel their time in this world is limited, are especially inclined to do this. We, on the other hand, often perceive their reminders as nagging. But why do they nag? Is it out of a fear of forgetting? Actually, that’s unlikely. Because if that were the case, they wouldn’t be able to recall the message they so often repeat. Parents, even when they are not necessarily old - perhaps only in their thirties or forties - also tend to instruct their children repeatedly.

       The fact that Shakyamuni called Shariputra's name thirty-six times indicates that the Buddha had great compassion and an important message to impart: Shariputra should cherish and attach great importance to the Amitabha Sutra.

       Sakyamuni Buddha was concerned that we might not retain this crucial teaching, which is why he emphasized it repeatedly. Elderly people, with decades of life experience behind them, often have a perspective that differs from that of the young. When they believe something is of great importance, they may repeat it all day long.

       Sakyamuni Buddha did not just repeat his message to Shariputra three times; he did so thirty-six times. While some might find such repetition annoying, as it seems nagging, it actually underscores the Buddha’s good intentions.

        He was most earnest in his appeal, saying, “Sariputra, Shariputra, you must listen carefully and not fall asleep.”

       When the Buddha taught the Infinite Life Sutra, there was a dialogue between Ananda and the Buddha. Ananda would ask questions after the Buddha covered a verse. But what about the Amitabha Sutra? Did anyone pose questions there? After being addressed by the Buddha, Shariputra did not respond. Shariputra remained silent throughout, sitting there like a well-behaved student, attentively listening to the Buddha, who reminded him persistently. Through this, Shakyamuni Buddha was conveying his deep concern for the plight of sentient beings and was earnestly urging us to heed his words. This further illustrates the significance of this teaching.

       The more we understand the true meaning of this sutra, the more we will value it and the Dharma path of Amitabha-recitation.


(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Householder Fojin)





  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime

Amitabha Buddhas

The 18th Vow of Amitabha Buddha

If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.

Guiding Principles

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