Category: japan

Amida Buddha & Tibetan Buddhism


Deity yoga is a central practice of Tibetan Buddhism, with the term “deity” referring to enlightened beings. Amida Buddha is one of many such meditation deities utilized for the sake of realizing one’s Buddha-nature:

The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the yidam or meditation deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, that they are non-dual (advaya). According to John Powers. “Deity yoga is a technique for becoming progressively more familiar with the thoughts and deeds of a buddha, until the state of buddhahood is actualized through repeated practice.”[4]

According to Gyatrul Rinpoche, the point of this practice is to “understand your buddha nature, which is the very essence of your being” and is “intrinsically present” in all beings.[5] The fact that the deity is a reflection of qualities already inherent in the practitioner is what makes this practice different than mere deluded or wishful thinking.[6]

Deity yoga, then, is a practice which helps us identify with a particular fully enlightened being or Buddha in order to realize our innate Buddha nature. Using visualisation, chanting, mantra recitation, and meditation, we focus upon a particular deity and in many practices visualize ourselves as that deity, non-dual with them…

The deity mirrors to us our true enlightened nature. As our practice deepens, and we reach an ever closer identification/relationship with the deity, delusion and obscuration are revealed as illusory, and the energies of deluded mind transform into their non-dual, naturally enlightened qualities. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it.”

Like in Zen Buddhism, the purpose of Pure Land practice in deity yoga is to realize Amida Buddha as our True Self:

Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light-Buddha Amitabha.

This is the Dalai Lama blessing a statue of Amida Buddha:


Amitabha Mantra (A Mi De Wa Hrih)

Like in Zen Buddhism, the purpose of Pure Land practice in deity yoga is to realize Amida Buddha as our True Self…

I believe the Nembutsu is true because, if the…

I believe the Nembutsu is true because, if the Dharmakaya is real, then Amida is real. Amida Buddha is the personification of the Dharmakaya. In the words of Shinran, ‘The Nembutsu alone is true and real.’

The Brahman of the Hindus, like the Dharmakaya…

The Brahman of the Hindus, like the Dharmakaya of the Buddhists, and the Tao of the Taoists, can be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate unified field, from which spring not only the phenomena studied in physics, but all other phenomena as well.
In the Eastern view, the reality underlying all phenomena is beyond all forms (e.g. beyond a god) and defies all description and specification. It is, therefore, often said to be formless, empty, or void. But this emptiness is not to be taken for mere nothingness. It is, on the contrary, the essence of all forms and the source of all life.

Pure Land Buddhism & Smarta Hinduism

I see all the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism as symbolic (upaya) of the one Dharmakaya, similar to how Smarta Hindus see the various gods of Hinduism as symbolic of the one Brahman:

Shinran Shonin, like T’an-luan, saw Amida Buddha as a upaya-symbol of the one Dharmakaya:

According to T’an-luan, all Buddhas, including Amida, have two bodies (aspects):

1. Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature and 2. Dharmakaya of Expediency (upaya).

The first is the ultimate, unconditioned reality beyond form, which is equally shared by all Buddhas[2], while the second is the specific and particular manifestation of each Buddha for the sake of saving sentient beings.

The relation between the two is described as follows:

“From the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature originates the Dharmakaya of Expediency; through the Dharmakaya of Expediency, the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature is revealed. These two Dharmakayas are different, but inseparable; they are one but not the same.”…

"Unconditioned Dharmakaya is the body of Dharma-nature. Because Dharma-nature is Nirvanic, Dharmakaya is formless. Because it is formless, there is no form which it cannot manifest.”

The Dharmakaya and Nirvana are aspects of the same Ultimate Truth, and one could say that Nirvana is the ultimate experience of awakening to the Dharmakaya, or that Dharmakaya is the content of Nirvana.

Shinran, like T’an-luan and Shan-tao, understood the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana. This is why Shinran described rebirth into the Pure Land as “the birth of non-birth,” just as the Buddha described Nirvana as “the unborn.”



Amida Buddha & The Historical Buddha

Upaya or skillful means is a teaching which might not be literally true, but which nonetheless helps someone come to a realization of the Ultimate Truth. Skillful means is also referred to as provisional truth:

In the Lotus Sutra, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni says his enlightenment is so far beyond our understanding, that he can only communicate it through similes and parables, various forms of upaya or skillful means. 

It doesn’t matter whether or not Amida Buddha is a historical being, if what he symbolizes (as a upaya) is the Ultimate Truth itself. What matters is that Dharma-body, that which Amida Buddha signifies, is a true reality.

However, the source of skillful means does matter, since only an enlightened being such as the historical Buddha is qualified to know which provisional teachings will lead others to the Ultimate Truth of enlightenment. 

Amida Buddha, as a symbol of the Dharmakaya, would be meaningless if there wasn’t the historical Shakyamuni in the first place, who experienced the Dharmakaya for himself, and then symbolized it as Amida Buddha.*

In the Nembutsu, the name of Amida Buddha, Namu-Amida-Butsu, we are led by Dharma-body to the Pure Land, the realm of Nirvana. The heaven-like language used to describe the Pure Land is also a upaya for Nirvana itself. 


*If the historical Buddha didn’t teach about Amida Buddha, then what matters is that enlightened teachers who came after Shakyamuni taught about Amida.

The concept of upaya in the Lotus Sutra is little different from the Pali concept of Buddhist teaching as a provisional raft to the other shore of Nirvana.

Pure Land teaching is often associated with we…

Pure Land teaching is often associated with weak personality because of the stress on Other-Power, understood as an exterior power. However, confidence in Other-Power as the essence of life can be the basis for firm dedication and devotion, when one believes that reality, Amida Buddha, has embraced one’s life and Amida is understood as one’s true self.

Refuge in Amida Buddha

From the beginning of Buddhism, it’s been understood that one takes refuge in the Dharma-body of a Buddha, rather than in his gross physical form:

Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.

He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma”…

When Pure Land Buddhists, in the Nembutsu, take refuge in Amida Buddha, they are taking refuge in the Dharma-body, rather than in a literal historical person who attained Buddhahood galaxies away, eons before the Big Bang:

Shinran Shonin referred to Amida Buddha as “Dharmakaya-as-upaya,” making the point that Amida, the Pure Land, and the Nembutsu are a skillful device (upaya) for Ultimate Truth to make itself known and complete its work of leading all beings to enlightenment.



The Pure Land = Nirvana

This is one of the Buddha’s most important quotes:

There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unoriginated, this Uncreated, this Unformed, escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed, would not be possible.
But since there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is escape possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed.

Please compare the above to Shinran quoting the Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao on the nature of the Pure Land:

The land of bliss is the realm of nirvana, the uncreated;
I fear it is hard to be born there by doing sundry good acts according to our diverse conditions. Hence, the Tathagata selected the essential dharma,
Instructing beings to say Amida’s Name with singleness, again singleness.

The Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana, the “escape from the born, the originated, the created, the formed.” Shinran described the Pure Land as “the birth of non-birth,” just as the Buddha described Nirvana as “the unborn.”

The Buddha selected the name of Amida, Namu-Amida-Butsu, as a skillful device (upaya) for bringing ordinary beings like ourselves into the realm of Nirvana. Whether Amida is a literal historical being is beside the point.  


One with aberrant views may recite Nembutsu as…

One with aberrant views may recite Nembutsu as a person with aberrant views. Each should recite Nembutsu in his own manner. This is because Amida Buddha awakened his all-encompassing essential vow for all sentient beings in the ten directions.

Amida Buddha in Jodo Shinshu

When it comes to how the Pure Land scriptures should be interpreted, at least from a Jodo Shinshu perspective, I recommend The Essential Shinran by Alfred Bloom:

Shinran Shonin referred to Amida as “Dharmakaya-as-upaya,” making the point that Amida, the Pure Land, and the Nembutsu are a skillful device for Ultimate Truth (Dharma-body) to make itself known and complete its work of leading all beings to enlightenment.

Shinran wrote that “the supreme Buddha is formless,” just as Amida “attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,” rather than Amida as a literal flesh and blood Buddha from galaxies away, eons before the Big Bang. Shinran also saw the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana, not a literal place.

Please also keep in mind that Jodo Shinshu is the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan, as well as one of the oldest and most established forms of Buddhism in the American religious landscape. The Buddha taught 84,000 paths to enlightenment, so your’s will not be the same as mine.