Amitabha Statues of “Infinite Light and Life”

Amitabha Buddha statues depict one of the most highly venerated Buddhist deities. This is especially true in East Asia where he is the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism and also in Tibet where he is worshiped for his longevity attribute. Additionally, he has a very close affiliation with Avalokitesvara who is the renown “Bodhisattva of Compassion”.

The Amitabha Buddha mantra, Sukhavati (his pure land) and his longevity attribute are the main components of the Amitabha Buddha story. However, Amitabha is also known to devotees as the Buddha of “infinite light”. Amitabha Buddha has certainly earned his place in the Buddhist pantheon. Join me as we examine the fascinating history of Amitabha Buddha that has spanned thousands of lifetimes.

The Origins of Amitabha Buddha Statues

The appearance of Amitabha Buddha in the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures initially occurred in the 1st century ACE.  Specifically, the “Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life” describes Amitabha and the Amitabha pure land. However, evidence of the first Amitabha Buddha statues did not emerge until the 2nd century ACE.

The belated appearance of the first Amitabha Buddha statues is not so surprising. This is because Buddhist sculpture initially did not include depictions of the physical body. Indeed, evidence of the first Buddha statues did not appear until over 500 years after Buddhism was founded.

Nonetheless, Buddhist sculpture has been remarkably improved since it first originated in the 1st century. The best handmade Amitabha statues were created in Nepal beginning in the 10th century.

Amitabha Buddha Statue

Gleaming Amitabha Buddha statue
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Popular Appeal of Amitabha Buddha

Mahayana Buddhism emerged several hundred years after the original Buddha entered paranirvana. Some believed that the teachings of the original Buddha were not inclusive enough. As a result, a division emerged with some influential monks advocating a new approach called Mahayana.

Mahayana translates from Sanskrit as “great vehicle”. It was believed by those advocating for the Mahayana Buddhist school that the invocation of Amitabha would be necessary to make Mahayana Buddhism successful.

Indeed, the Amitabha meaning is very reassuring and the Amitabha pure land of “Sukhavati” is very inclusive. As a result of this great vehicle, devotees can obtain the assistance of Amitabha Buddha and other Bodhisattvas to relieve their suffering.

In the Amitabha pure land, devotees receive direct teaching and protection from Amitabha in the hopes that they can eventually become enlightened beings. All they need to do is recite his name or the Amitabha Buddha mantra. Indeed, the emergence of Amitabha Buddha is similar to the emergence of Jesus Christ in Christianity.

The Long Path to Buddhahood

According to the Mahayana Buddhist texts, Amitabha was previously a Bodhisattva named Dharmakara. The name Dharmakara is Sanskrit, which translates as “Treasury of Dharma” in English. Dharmakara served many, many lifetimes as a Bodhisattva that crossed over many eons and worlds. As a result, Amitabha accumulated an infinite amount of merit.

The origin of Amitabha Buddha is in fact quite similar to the original Buddha – Shakyamuni. This is because Dharmakara was once a prince who renounced his kingdom and rejected the material world for a life of virtue and austerity.

Indeed, Shakyamuni Buddha was once a prince named Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya Kingdom in Northern India. He would renounce his kingdom and go on to become the founder of Buddhism in our time. Additionally, Shakyamuni Buddha spent thousands of lifetimes as a Bodhisattva named “Sumedha”. Therefore, the background of Amitabha Buddha is very similar to that of Shakyamuni Buddha.

What is the Meaning of Amitabha Buddha Statues

Due to the infinite amounts of merit accumulated by Dharmakara, the Amitabha meaning became established as “Immeasurable Light and Life”. It should be noted that Amitabha is also highly venerated for his longevity attribute. Indeed, his name, Amitabha is a Sanskrit word that means “infinite light” and Amitayus means “infinite life”.

The name “Amitabha” also has a similar meaning in the Chinese language. In Chinese, Amitabha is known as “Amituofo” or “Emituofo“. “Amituo” is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word Amida, which means “boundless” and “fo” means Buddha in Chinese. When combined the Amitabha meaning would be “boundless Buddha” which is quite similar to “Buddha of infinite light and life”.

However, in Tibetan Buddhism the Amitabha meaning is strongly associated with longevity. As such, he appears as Amitayus (also known as Aparmita) which is the sambhogakaya embodiment of his longevity attribute. In Tibet, he is also one of the three deities of long life along with White Tara and Namgyalma.

Longevity Attribute of Amitabha Buddha

In Tibetan Buddhism, Amitabha Buddha statues are crafted with the attributes of Amitayus. Therefore, in Tibet, Amitabha statues (as Amitayus) are depicted sitting in full lotus holding an “immortality vessel”. The vessel is filled with immortality nectar also known as “amrita”. In contrast, a traditional Amitabha Buddha statue would usually be depicted holding the alms bowl of a Buddhist monk.

Devotees take part in Amitayus practice that is believed to prolong life. During the longevity rituals, a replica of his “immortality vase” is filled with consecrated wine. Additionally, each of the devotees consume a small amount of the wine and also small pills made of dough.

In order for the Amitayus ritual to be effective, devotees insist that all of the ritual participants have unfaltering belief in the Amitabha meaning and his longevity attribute.

The Longevity Attribute of Amitabha Buddha

Amitabha Buddha's longevity attribute - Aparmita
In Tibet, an Aparmita statue is the centerpiece of longevity rituals.

Establishing Amitabha’s Pure Land of “Sukhavati”

As the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, Amitabha was very compassionate about assisting sentient life. As a result, he spent 5 eons studying the pure lands of the Buddhas. Therefore, based on what he had learned, he was able to intricately design his own pure land.

Next, he made 48 vows that must be fulfilled in order for his pure land called “Sukhavati” to exist. However, the eighteenth vow set the basis for the entrance of devotees. It required Amitabha to forgo becoming a Buddha until he could enable every devotee who recited his name or mantra (a minimum of 10 times) to gain entrance to Sukhavati.

The pure land of “Sukhavati” now exists as a Western paradise. Therefore, devotees who gain entrance can obtain his divine assistance to progress on the Buddhist path. Additionally, once admitted to Sukhavati, Amitabha devotees will never fall back into samsara on account of his protection and guidance. 

Sukhavati is a land of sonorous and visual bliss and indeed all are welcome there who say Amitabha’s name or recite the Amitabha Buddha mantra at least 10 times. Also, upon fulfillment of his 48 vows, Amitabha became a Buddha and he is the ruler of his Western Pure Land.

Amitabha Sukhavati Pure Land Tibetan Thangka Painting
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The Amitabha Buddha Mantra

There are several acceptable versions of the Amitabha Buddha mantra. In Sanskrit, there are two variations “Om Amitabha Hrih” and also “Namo Amitabha Buddha”. The Amitabha mantra meaning is “Homage to the Amitabha Buddha”.

However, in Vajrayana Buddhism they use the Tibetan pronunciation which is “Om Ami Dewa Hri”. Furthermore, in China, their version of the Amitabha Buddha mantra is simply his name in Chinese – “Amituofo”.

The objective of using the Amitabha Buddha mantra is to induce sufficient concentration in order for devotees to gain access to Sukhavati. Amitabha inspires devotees by teaching them that anyone who “recites his name or his mantra” will be admitted his pure land of Sukhavati.

Therefore, it is not important which version of the Amitabha Buddha mantra they choose to use. In fact, it does not even need to be pronounced correctly to be effective. The only requirement is that devotees must have unwavering sincerity, faith and aspiration to be reborn in Sukhavati. If so, repeat the following words a minimum of 10 times:

“Om Amitabha Hrih”

Additional Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amit%C4%81bha
https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/amithaba-txt.htm

In One Lifetime: Pure Land Buddhism by Shi Wiling