The Celestial Buddhas

In addition to celestial bodhisattvas, there are celestial Buddhas as well. I said earlier that not everyone is limited to the bodhisattva path, there are beings who reach the end of the path and achieve Buddhahood.

Amitābha and the Pure Land

One of the most important of these is the Buddha Amitābha, a name that means infinite light. The story of Amitābha is that when he was a bodhisattva he made the promise that when he became a Buddha he will establish a Pure Land. In that land, anyone could be reborn if they chanted his name with faith.

From the descriptions of the land, it is depicted as a place that is full of lotuses. Amitābha himself sits in a lotus throne. If the devotees chant the name of Amitābha with faith, they will be reborn in that land and he will see the light of Amitābha’s face.

Chanting of the Name

One of the classic practices in this tradition is to chant the name of Amitābha at the moment of death. If you can chant with faith at that crucial moment, Amitābha will come to you bedside surrounded by crowds of bodhisattvas and will take you soul to the Pure Land.

Like the invocation of Avalokiteśvara’s name, this practice is a deliberate attempt to open the possibility of salvation to anybody who approaches the deity with faith. It is a genuine attempt to open the possibility of salvation to anyone who can approach this celestial being with a sense of sincere aspiration.

Devotion to Amitābha Buddha, known as Pure Land Buddhism, has been influential throughout China and Japan. It is also an important variety of Buddhism in America.

A Radical Change in the Tradition

I think that it is important for us to know in what ways is really related to the kind of Buddhism that we already know. It seems to me that the devotion to Amitābha Buddha takes us above and far away from the tradition of self-reliance that we saw in the early tradition and we thought of as one of the fundamental characteristics of Buddhism.

The Buddha taught that you should rely in your own efforts and you could achieve Nirvana by yourself. Now, you don’t rely in yourself, you rely in the influence of a celestial Buddha. How did that happen? Is this even Buddhism anymore? We entered a world where Buddhism is so deeply transformed that it has become somewhat unrecognizable.

The Emphasis Changes: The Most Important is to Start

I argue that what we see here is simply an example of the adaptability of the tradition. You can see how the logic of the Buddhist tradition has given rise to this new way of thinking about Buddhist life. First of all, in the Mahayana tradition we aren’t talking anymore about one single lifetime, or two or three lifetimes in the pursuit of Nirvana. Now, the passage has been stretched out over many more lifetimes, as the bodhisattva comes back into this world to help others.

There is much more emphasis now not in perfect wisdom but in simply having the faith that gives you access to the beginning of the path. This emphasis on salvation by faith has to do with the importance of simply entering the path of the bodhisattva. Getting started is more important than anything that may come later.

This article is part of the series about Mahayana Devotion.

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