The Origin of Amitabha Buddha Statues
Amitabha Buddha emerges from the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures in the first century ACE. Specifically, the “Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life” describes Amitabha and his pure land called Sukhavati. Additionally, archeological evidence of the first Amitabha Buddha statue dates from the second century ACE.
It was believed by Mahayana Buddhists that the introduction of Amitabha was necessary in order to make Buddhism more accessible. As a result, devotees can obtain the assistance of Amitabha Buddha and also bodhisattvas to relieve their suffering. Additionally, with Amitabha’s assistance they can eventually become enlightened beings.
The Mahayana texts say that Amitabha was previously a bodhisattva named Dharmakara. Dharmakara had many, many lives as a bodhisattva that crossed over many eons and worlds.
Amitabha Buddha’s origins are in fact similar to Shakyamuni Buddha. This is because Dharmakara was once a prince who renounced his kingdom and rejected the material world for a life of virtue and austerity. As a result, Dharmakara accumulated infinite amounts of merit.
What is the Meaning of Amitabha?
Due to the infinite amounts of merit accumulated by Dharmakara, Amitabha is known as the Buddha of “Immeasurable Life and Light”. Indeed, the name Amitabha is a Sanskrit word that means “infinite light”.
In Chinese Amitabha is known as “Amituofo“. Also pronounced as “Emituofo”. “Amituo” is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word for “boundless”. Additionally, “fo” means Buddha in Chinese.
However, in Tibetan Buddhism Amitabha is strongly associated with longevity. As a result, Amitabha Buddha Statues depict him sitting in full lotus holding a vase in his lap that contains the nectar of immortality.
Additionally, in Tibet he is known as Amitayus or also Aparmita. Tibetan Buddhist believe that Amitabha takes this embodiment as a form of Sambhogakaya.
Amitabha’s Pure Land “Sukhavati”
As the bodhisattva Dharmakara, Amitabha was very compassionate about assisting sentient life. As a result, he spent 5 eons studying the pure lands. Therefore, he was able to intricately design his own pure land.
Next, he made 48 vows and upon their fulfillment his pure land of Sukhavati would be completed. Additionally, he did not accept Buddhahood until his vows were fulfilled and his pure land emerged.
Amitabha’s pure land “Sukhavati” now exists as a Western Pure Land where devotees are able to obtain his assistance to progress on the Buddhist path. Additionally, once admitted to his pure land devotees will never fall back into samsara under his protection and guidance.
Sukhavati is a land of sonorous and visual bliss and all are welcome there who say his name or recite the Amitabha chant. Also, due to the completion of his 48 vows Amitabha has now become a Buddha and he resides in Sukhavati.
What is the Amitabha Buddha Mantra?
The Sanskrit version of the Amitabha Buddha mantra is “om amitabha hrih”. However, in Vajrayana Buddhism they use the Tibetan pronunciation which is “om ami dewa hri”. In China, their version of the Amitabha mantra is simply his name in Chinese – “Amituofo”.
The objective of using the Amitabha chant 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 to 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 objective is to induce concentration which will gain admittance to the Amitabha pure land.
Amitabha Buddha Statue For Your Altar
Mahayana Buddhist literature recommends setting up a altar in a secluded area of your home. As a result, you will have a quiet place to practice the Amitabha chant and gain inspiration. The altar itself can be a small table or a shelf if space is limited. However, it is not acceptable to ever place your altar directly on the floor.
The centerpiece of the altar will be the Amitabha Buddha statue accompanied by 2 bodhisattvas. To the right of Amitabha would be a statue of Avalokitesvara (Buddha’s compassion attribute) and on his left side would be the Mahasthamaprapta bodhisattva (wisdom attribute).
The bodhisattvas are of high symbolic importance because they represent compassion and wisdom. These two virtues are inseparable and your intricate knowledge of them can result in enlightenment.
However, if it is not possible to procure the statues then pictures of Amitabha and the bodhisattvas are sufficient. Or if this is not possible, then simply write their names on a white piece of paper and use that in their place.
Additional practice aids to include on the altar would be a clear glass full of clean water (in front of the Amitabha Buddha statue). Also, it is recommended to include candles, flowers and incense on the altar if possible. However, the Amitabha Buddha statue should be elevated above the other practice items. Additionally, the altar should only contain Dharma materials and no other objects.
In One Lifetime: Pure Land Buddhism by Shi Wiling