The Buddha Amitābha in the Himitsu nenbutsu shō

An excerpt of chapter 7 of Aaron P. Proffitt’s new book, “Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism” — reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma.

Aaron Proffitt
12 June 2023

Chapter 7: The Buddha Amitābha in the Himitsu nenbutsu shō

The Commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra states, “Like the four great rivers of Jamudvīpa, each comprised of five hundred smaller tributaries, all together these various water sources are variously impure, but they enter the great ocean and, therein, they are all purified.” —T. 1796:39.608c11–13

Nianfo zhe shishei 念佛者是誰?

A well-known Chan gong’an 公案 (J. kōan) asks the meditator to inquire about who engages in buddhānusmṛti [aka, nenbutsu]: nianfo zhe shishei 念佛者是誰. “Who contemplates the Buddha?” Is it ‘I?’ Is it ‘Thou?’ Is it both? Is it neither? Or is it something else altogether, thus rendering the premise behind the question problematic? The Chan/Zen, Tiantai/Tendai traditions, and the East Asian Esoteric Buddhist traditions as well, all have patriarchs who have promoted contemplation and devotion to Amitābha Buddha and the Pure Land mythos as a nuanced philosophical-soteriological dimension of the Mahayana.

The fundamental question of what exactly is Amitābha Buddha actually offers an opportunity to apply the philosophical insights of Mahayana Buddhism in a dynamic way. Buddhas are not just abstract symbols, however; in a sense they are also resources from which Buddhists might draw in their pursuit of the path. The Buddhist studies assumption has often been that Pure Land devotion is a kind of “Buddhism for dummies,” a practice for unrefined peasants who lack the intelligence to appreciate the subtle philosophy of Gautama Buddha. Yet throughout the history of Mahayana Buddhism, many of the philosophical systems deemed worthy of Western Buddhologists’ academic attention in fact already had quite a lot to say about Amitābha Buddha and Sukhāvatī.

In this chapter I examine Dōhan’s understanding of Amitābha, an object of devotion and meditation for him throughout his life. As a scholar-monk and interpreter of the works of Kūkai, who is one of the most famous and important monastics in Japanese history (and perhaps one of the most popular objects of modern academic devotion), Dōhan fits well within the realm of what Buddhologists have typically found worthwhile of scholarly inquiry. Therefore, perhaps, an ontological, epistemological, or metaphysical (a term that may or may not be appropriate in the case of Dōhan’s monistic worldview) investigation into Dōhan’s views on Amitābha, may enlighten those skeptical of the importance of the Pure Land path and inspire them to inquire further.

Who/What is Amitābha Buddha?

The Himitsu nenbutsu shō begins with a question: Why have so many chosen to rely on the buddhānusmṛti samādhi? To this rhetorical question, Dōhan replies that whether exploring Amitābha Buddha, buddhānusmṛti, or Sukhāvatī, in all cases they may be understood to have four levels. Dōhan, who derived his fourfold secret explication from Yixing, uses it in many of his texts, such as his commentary on the Mantra of Light. The four levels are (1) shallow or abbreviated 淺略, (2) the deep secret 深秘, (3) the deep secret within the secret 秘中深秘, and (4) the deepest secret within the secret 秘秘中深秘.

Dōhan’s initial inquiry and the text as a whole are largely concerned with buddhānusmṛti, broadly conceived indeed, and the various levels by which this practice might be engaged or understood. The first section of the Himitsu nenbutsu shō, however, begins with an exploration of the fourfold secret explication of Amitābha Buddha, which Dōhan explicitly indicates should serve as a model for further inquiry.

The first level, which Dōhan refers to as the shallow-abbreviated level, is what might be referred to as the surface level: the “exoteric,” literal, or even “literary” level of the narrative of the sutras. This familiar story can be summarized as follows: In the remote past lived a bodhisattva named Dharmākara who met Lokeśvararāja Buddha. Under the tutelage of this buddha, Dharmākara studied the buddha-kṣetra of the ten directions and undertook a series of forty-eight vows and, by doing this, created the very best buddha-kṣetra, Sukhāvatī, the Land of Bliss. Having accomplished these vows, Dharmākara Bodhisattva became what we now refer to as Amitābha/Amitāyus Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. And if anyone calls upon this buddha even as few as ten times with sincere faith, they will be reborn in Sukhāvatī after death and pursue the bodhisattva path to Buddhahood.

This narrative proved to be an attractive soteriological path that has been pursued by lay and monastic Buddhists, commoners and peasants, and cultural and economic elites alike. From this perspective, Amitābha Buddha and Sukhāvatī, his Pure Land of Bliss, are really real—more real than our illusory world of suffering and ignorance. If one could fly in a rocket to the western quarter of the Buddhist “multiverse,” after passing through many parallel universes one would eventually land in Sukhāvatī, meet Amitābha face-to-face, and shake hands (or bow). Regrettably, too many scholars have not only unfairly dismissed this particular Mahayana Buddhist perspective as inauthentically Buddhist but have also mistakenly taken the entirety of the Pure Land dimensions of Mahayana Buddhism to consist only of this interpretation. For Dōhan and many other Mahayana Buddhists before and after him, however, this narrative is simply one component of a broader soteriology and worldview, an essential part of the “setup” for a “punch line” that distills the whole of the Mahayana.

The second level, the deep secret, seems to introduce but not fully explore basic concepts generally associated with Esoteric Buddhism. According to this perspective, Amitābha Buddha is not simply some enlightened being that exists far away; rather, this buddha is an aspect or dimension of ultimate reality itself, abiding in mysterious union with all sentient beings. This particular facet of ultimate reality is depicted in the dual mandala system, the Vajra and Womb Realm mandalas. Aside from Mahāvairocana Buddha, the anthropomorphization of ultimate reality in the center, Amitābha Buddha is the only other buddha that appears on the central dais of both mandalas. In the Vajra Realm, Dōhan notes, Amitābha appears as the wisdom of subtle discernment 妙觀察智, and in the Womb Realm, Amitābha appears as the gate of the awakening to bodhi 證菩提門.

This perspective, contrasted with the shallow-abbreviated interpretation, is thus called the deep-secret level of understanding Amitābha Buddha. Here Dōhan notes that for Buddhists whose perspective is limited to the Exoteric view, Amitābha Buddha is a kind of mechanistic by-product of Dharmākara Bodhisattva’s practice. From that perspective, practice leads to awakening. For Buddhists who grasp the Esoteric truth, however, all of the holy ones contained in the dual mandalas—the manifold buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, wrathful deities, and so on—are revealed to be aspects of one’s own practice. Buddhas and beings are not separate; thus, ultimately, practice is awakening. This is the deep-secret interpretation. However, as this is only the second of four levels of ever-deepening meaning, I suggest we think of this level as neophyte Esoteric Buddhism.

The third level expands on level two, conceiving of Amitābha Buddha as an ever-present, all-pervasive quality of ultimate reality, the very living wisdom of the dharmakāya. This buddha’s other name, Amitāyus (Limitless Life), encompasses this meaning. Limitless beings, when taken together in the holistic, interconnected Mahayana multiverse, constitute a life force that is truly limitless: limitless beings = limitless lives. Given the infinite capacity of ultimate reality’s compassion, this then necessarily means that these infinite lives are connected to the limitless life embodied by Amitāyus.

From this perspective, Amitābha/Amitāyus is merely another name for the boundless, eternally evolving vital force that, when correctly understood, is none other than the compassionate activity of the dharmakāya, within and all around sentient beings, awakening within beings and guiding them along the path. Amitābha Buddha therefore encompasses all buddhas and all paths. Dōhan describes this as the “secret within the deep secret.” Even though level three elaborates on the second level, the deeper meaning of the deep understanding, it is still not the whole picture.

Level four, the “deepest secret within the deep secret,” seems to reverse course. The second and third levels elaborated on the “exo-esoteric” perspective on Amitābha Buddha described in the sutras and tantras, expanding this buddha to encompass ultimate reality itself. Yet at level four Amitābha seems at first to shrink to the size of a fist: the anatomical heart that beats within the chests of sentient beings. Throughout the Himitsu nenbutsu shō, Dōhan plays on the ambiguity between shin 心 as mind or essence, and/or the physical heart organ, all of which are present in the meaning of the Sanskrit term hṛdaya. Dōhan thus identifies Amitābha Buddha as an aspect of the mind/body (heart) of beings. The abstract “cosmic” Amitābha Buddha of levels two and three is in this way expanded further, somewhat paradoxically, by “shrinking” it to the size of a human heart.

Here Amitābha Buddha is revealed not only as an object of soteriological devotion but also as the very life force of all beings, perhaps life itself—a radical philosophical proposition that ultimately transforms what buddhānusmṛti can mean. With level four, moreover, Dōhan also reveals Amitābha Buddha to reside within and function as an aspect of one’s own body, the physical expression of this life force. The Buddha is the body-mind of beings, not far away at all but in fact closer than beings typically imagine the Buddha to be. When ignorance subsides, Amitābha Buddha is revealed to have always-already been present, literally active within one’s own body. Dark clouds may obscure one’s view, but the light of buddha reality is ever luminous.

Is Amitābha Buddha Limited or Limitless?

Dōhan suggests that those who have penetrated to the Esoteric truth are able to fully grasp both the inner realization and the outer application of Amitābha Buddha. According to Yixing’s Commentary on the Mahāvairocana, at the level of outer application Amitābha Buddha is the form that ultimate reality takes as upāya (skill in means) to reach limitless beings in limitless realms. Limitless lives = Limitless Life/Amitāyus. The level of inner realization is identified in Kūkai’s Dainichikyō-kaidai, which describes Amitābha as an all-pervasive dimension of ultimate reality, unifying inner and outer, matter and spirit.

One way in which Dōhan distinguishes between Exoteric and Esoteric levels of engagement is through an assessment of the various interpretations of Amitābha Buddha’s life span. Though the name Amitāyus might imply a buddha whose life span is in fact infinite, another common reading suggests that though this buddha’s life span is immeasurable, it is not necessarily infinite. However, because of Dōhan’s association of Amitābha with ultimate reality itself, the life span of Amitāyus/Amitābha is taken to be literally infinite. According to Dōhan, only those who rely solely on the Exoteric reading of the sutras take them literally when they state that at the end of Amitāyus’s life span Avalokiteśvara will take over as the Lord of Sukhāvatī. For Dōhan, Amitābha/Amitāyus truly is limitless.

Amitābha: Unity and Difference

Dōhan considers the different forms in which Amitābha Buddha is represented, examining the meaning of the names Amitābha (Limitless Light), Amitāyus (Limitless Life), and amṛta (the nectar of immortality), as well as the name Lokeśvararāja Tathāgata, which appears as an alternative name for Amitābha in texts associated with the Vajraśekhara cycle, and the Crimson Crystal Body Amida, which appears in the Wuliangshou yigui. While Dōhan tends to focus on and emphasize the unity of Amitābha, at times he also emphasizes different perspectives, noting their importance in laying out the capacity of ultimate reality to reach beings in diverse ways. Dōhan notes three different views of Amitābha:

1. Amitābha may be conceived as the one gate that reveals all virtues.

2. Amitābha may be understood as an aspect of Mahāvairocana.

3. Amitābha may be encountered as the essence of one’s own body-mind.

Amitābha and the Mystery of the “Middle”

The Mahāvairocana-sūtra identifies the element of wind and breath with life itself. The element of wind is also associated with Amitābha and takes the form of the breath of beings. Breath is the basis for the production of speech, the middle aspect of the three mysteries (body, speech, and mind). Dōhan notes that all beings in the six realms or the ten realms produce speech or sound, and through the speech act of intoning the nenbutsu, Amitābha aids beings in the attainment of awakening. In the section titled “On the Primal Vow of Calling the Name,” Dōhan’s hypothetical interlocutor asks about the connection between the primal vow and calling the name. Why is the name of Amitābha so special? Why did Amitābha select such a seemingly simple practice, the vocal recitation of his name, as the object of the primal vow to save all beings? Dōhan replies by invoking a tripartite hermeneutic structure rooted in the three mysteries of body, speech, and mind.

Dōhan identifies Amitābha Buddha as the buddha of the mystery of speech, and for this reason Amitābha chose the act of speech as the ultimate tool for liberating beings. Speech is the “middle way” because it lies between and unifies body and mind, both of which are necessary for the performance of a speech act. Because of Amitābha’s association with the middle way, Sukhāvatī-oriented speech acts serve as the path that unifies the dharmakāya Mahāvairocana (the mystery of mind) and the nirmāṇakāya Śākyamuni (the mystery of body) through the saṃbhogakāya Amitābha (the mystery of speech). These three buddhas, three dimensions of ultimate reality, and three mysteries overlap through the one buddha: Amitābha.

Amitābha, identified with the mystery of speech, is also associated with the lotus division of the mandala, the Lotus Samādhi, and the sixth consciousness, which unifies body and mind. From this perspective, recitation of the name of the Buddha signifies the opening of the heart-lotus of beings, the pure mind of beings, awakening to Buddhahood in this very body. Amitābha is the mystery of speech as the wind element, and in Chinese wuxing thought the west corresponds with metal and wind. Wind is the breath of all beings, the life force that enlivens beings and makes possible the act of speech known as the nenbutsu. This wind/breath/life/nenbutsu is thus none other than Amitāyus, Limitless Life. The seed syllable of the lotus division of the mandala is hrīḥ, and the essence of hrīḥ is the syllable ha, which signifies “wind.” According to Dōhan, when taken all together, this evidence necessarily leads to the conclusion that buddhānusmṛti is efficacious because of forces both beyond and within sentient beings.

Dōhan also imagines a question about the capacities of beings who cannot speak. If the vocal recitation of the name is all-encompassing, is salvation possible for those who cannot speak? In response, Dōhan notes that body, speech, and mind are neither fundamentally discrete nor mutually exclusive. Rather, each is mutually inclusive of the others. Mind has traces of body and speech, and so on. Furthermore, because Dōhan’s main argument is essentially that true buddhānusmṛti, the himitsu nenbutsu, is the very breath of beings, all living beings are in this way already fundamentally engaged in buddhānusmṛti with every breath. The external vocalization of the name of the Buddha is beside the point. He also asserts that one should not be concerned about the number of times one recites the Buddha’s name.

An excerpt from Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism, by Aaron P. Proffitt, Pure Land Buddhist Studies series, published by University of Hawai‘i Press. Copyright 2023 Institute of Buddhist Studies.

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Aaron Proffitt

Aaron Proffitt

Aaron Proffitt is an Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at The University at Albany-SUNY. He earned his PhD in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan in 2015, and his first book, Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism (University of Hawaii Press, 2023), explores the ways that Buddhists in East Asia employed tantric thought and practice to attain rebirth in the Pure Land, and contains the first translation of Dōhan’s (1179–1252) Himitsu nenbutsu shō into a modern language. His research and publications have explored Esoteric Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and the Lotus Sutra, and his current research explores the way that emptiness has been understood and employed within the Pure Land tradition.His book Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism will be published in September by University of Hawaii Press.