Why is Buddha Amitabha So Prevalent in China?
By Pastor David Lai
A month ago, I was with Rinpoche and a bunch of other people in a car. In a conversation about China, Rinpoche suddenly asked us, “Why is Buddha Amitabha so prevalent in China?” Silence ensued for a few moments as everyone struggled to recall what they knew on this unexpected subject matter. Finally, someone said, “In China, there are many schools of Buddhism and the school of Buddhism that grew very big actually prayed to Buddha Amitabha…”
“But that didn’t answer my question,” Rinpoche interjected.
Then, a whole slew of perspectives on the matter was raised but all of them were off the mark or near misses that didn’t even come close to answering the question. So, Rinpoche asked us to research and said that it would be interesting to know the reasons for Buddha Amitabha’s popularity in the Middle Kingdom.
This whole discussion piqued my interest in the subject as I recalled how common it was to see car stickers bearing the mantra ‘Namo Amitabha’ along with a yellow Dharma wheel. It is quite easy to see how popular the worship of Buddha Amitabha is but nobody knew why.
The Origins of Pure Land Buddhism
I did a bit of research on the matter and I found that the worship of Buddha Amitabha arose from a school of Buddhism called ‘Pure Land Buddhism’. Although this tradition is very much associated with China, the earlier teachings arose in India and quickly became very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia.
The Pure Land teachings were brought to China in 147 CE by a Kushan monk by the name of Lokaksema, who translated the very first Buddhist Sutras into Chinese. The principle Pure Land sutras consist of the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, and the Amitayurdhyana Sutra. When it arrived in China, it slowly became massively popular before spreading to Japan, where it also eventually became very popular.
In order to understand how Pure Land Buddhism became so entrenched in China and Japan, we have to understand its teachings. The Pure Land tradition revolves around the worship of Buddha Amitabha. The practice involves recitation of the name mantra of Buddha Amitabha as a means to develop mindfulness and to generate the merit to take rebirth in his Pure Land of Sukhavati, which is also known as the Western Paradise.
The Pure Land is a distant place that is emanated from the mind of Buddha Amitabha. It is a place in which a practitioner can take rebirth through devotion and Amitabha Buddha’s practice and thereby continue in their spiritual practice in order to become a fully enlightened being.
It is said that the necessities are easy to come by in a Pure Land and so one is able to practice uninterruptedly until one gains full Enlightenment. One would have the pleasure of being taught directly by Buddha Amitabha in this Pure Land. Therefore, just taking rebirth in Sukhavati is seen as synonymous to achieving full Enlightenment.
The basis for Sukhavati is explained in the Sukhavativyuha Sutras which relates the story of an ancient king by the name of Dharmakara who lived during the time of Lokeshvararaja, a Buddha of a distant age. Dharmakara was one of the previous lives of Amitabha Buddha before he became fully enlightened. One day, the Bodhisattva Dharmakara heard a teaching of Lokeshvararaja and he was so inspired that he immediately renounced his kingdom and became ordained as a monk.
Dharmakara aspired to create a place referred to as the ‘Land of Bliss’ where people could go after their death and from there, gain spiritual awakening. Therefore, Dharmakara took on 48 vows and these vows encapsulate his aspirations. When he eventually become enlightened, he was able to actualise his vows.
The 18th vow called the Vow of the Ten Recitations is at the heart of Pure Land Buddhism. In this vow, Dharmakara promises that he will be known as Amitabha Buddha in his enlightened state and if he is called upon by anyone 10 times in this state, that person will be reborn in his Pure Land.
The Popularity of the Pure Land Teachings
In ancient times, the general populace of China and Japan struggled to survive. They were constantly plagued by war, disease, calamities, poverty and so forth.
In addition, education was scarce and it was basically a luxury afforded only by the upper class and the wealthy. Most people at that time were illiterate and unexposed. Therefore, complicated foreign Buddhist philosophies and practices were beyond the scope and comprehension of most of the population.
So, when the Pure Land belief system and practice arrived in China, Buddhism was simplified by the Indian and Chinese monks and taught to the ordinary man. The thought of taking rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhavati offered hope, salvation and Enlightenment for the ordinary man on the street. All that was required was the non-harming of others by adopting a vegetarian diet, the recitation of Buddha Amitabha’s mantra and the leading of a virtuous life. This paved the way for Buddhism to seep into the everyday life of the ordinary man in ancient China and Japan.
Pure Land teachings simplified complicated philosophies, rituals and meditational techniques of Buddhism so that there was hope even for the illiterate. Prior to this, Buddhism was very much associated with the intellectuals and scholars who discussed, debated and expounded on the subtleties of Buddhist philosophy. However, the arrival of Pure Land Buddhism heralded a whole new era where Buddhism became massively popular among the general population. This is when Buddhism really took root in China and Japan.
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