Amitabha Buddha first appeared in the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures in the 1st century ACE. Specifically, the “Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life” describes Amitabha and the Amitabha pure land. However, evidence of the first Amitabha statues did not emerge until the 2nd century ACE.
The belated appearance of the first Amitabha statues is not so surprising. Indeed, this is because Buddhist sculpture initially did not include depictions of the physical body. However, Buddhist art evolved rapidly with the popularity of Mahayana Buddhism. As a result, Amitabha statues became central to the practice of Buddhism in East Asia and worldwide. Additionally, Nepali artisans began creating Amitabha statues in the 10th century and they have become world renown for their sculptures.
Nepali Amitabha Statue
Amitabha statues depict Amitabha sitting in full lotus pose in Dhyana mudra. Furthermore, Amitabha Buddha holds an alms bowl in the palm of the right hand and he is seated on a lotus pedestal.
Popular Appeal of Amitabha Statues
Mahayana Buddhism emerged several hundred years after the original Buddha entered Nirvana. Apparently, some of the Buddha’s disciples believed that the teachings of the original Buddha were not inclusive enough. As a result, a division emerged with some influential monks advocating a new approach called Mahayana.
Mahayana translates from Sanskrit as “great vehicle”. Indeed, the success of Mahayana would require the invocation of a strong central figure such as Amitabha Buddha. Indeed, the success of Mahayana rapidly gained in popularity with the help of Amitabha statues.
The Amitabha meaning is very reassuring and the Amitabha pure land of “Sukhavati” is very inclusive. As a result of this great vehicle, devotees can obtain the assistance of Amitabha Buddha and other bodhisattvas to relieve their suffering. All they need to do is recite his name or the Amitabha mantra. Indeed, the effect Amitabha Buddha had on Buddhism is similar to the emergence of Jesus Christ in Christianity.
The Long Path to Buddhahood
The Mahayana Buddhist texts describe the past lives of Amitabha as a bodhisattva named Dharmakara. Dharmakara is a Sanskrit word which translates as “Treasury of Dharma” in English. Indeed, Dharmakara served many, many lifetimes as a bodhisattva that crossed over many eons and worlds. As a result, Amitabha accumulated an infinite amount of merit.
The origin of Amitabha Buddha is in fact quite similar to the original Buddha – Shakyamuni. This is because Dharmakara was once a prince who renounced his kingdom and rejected the material world for a life of virtue and austerity.
Red Amitabha Statue
The Meaning of Amitabha Statues
Due to the infinite amounts of merit accumulated by Dharmakara, the Amitabha meaning became established as “Immeasurable Light and Life”. His name, Amitabha is a Sanskrit word that means “infinite light”. Additionally, the longevity attribute of Amitabha is Amitayus which means “infinite life”.
The Amitabha meaning has a similar meaning in the Chinese language. In Chinese, Amitabha is “Amituofo” or “Emituofo“. “Amituo” is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word Amida, which means “boundless” and “fo” means Buddha in Chinese. When combined the Amitabha meaning would be “boundless Buddha” which is quite similar to “Buddha of infinite light and life”.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Amitabha meaning is strongly associated with longevity. As a result, Amitabha appears as Amitayus (also known as Aparmita) which is the sambhogakaya embodiment of his longevity attribute. Additionally, in Tibet, he is also one of the three long life deities along with White Tara and Namgyalma.
Tibetan Buddhists associate the Amitabha meaning with the color red. As a result, meditation on the color red enables devotees to transform the poison of attachment into the wisdom of discernment. Additionally, Amitabha Buddha is one of the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Longevity Attribute of Amitabha Statues
In Tibetan Buddhism, the longevity attribute of Amitabha is very important. As a result, Amitabha statues (as Amitayus) are holding an “immortality vessel” filled with immortality nectar also known as “amrita”.
Devotees participate in the longevity rituals in hopes of receiving long life from Amitabha. Long life is important and benefits devotees by allowing them to accrue large amounts of merit, similar to Amitabha. In order for the Amitayus ritual to be effective, devotees insist that all of the ritual participants have unfaltering belief in the Amitabha meaning and his longevity attribute.
In preparation for the ritual, a replica of his “immortality vase” is filled with consecrated wine. Additionally, during the rituals devotees consume a small amount of the wine and also small pills made of dough. Devotees also recite the Amitabha mantra hoping to obtain longevity.
Amitabha 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 of the Buddhas. Therefore, based on what he had learned, he was able to intricately design his own pure land.
To create the Amitabha pure land, Amitabha fulfilled 48 vows. However, the eighteenth vow set the basis for the entrance of devotees. It required Amitabha to forgo becoming a Buddha until he could enable every devotee who recited his name or mantra (a minimum of 10 times) to gain entrance to the Amitabha pure land – “Sukhavati”.
The pure land of “Sukhavati” now exists as a Western paradise. Therefore, devotees who gain entrance can obtain his divine assistance to progress on the Dharma path. Additionally, once admitted to Sukhavati, Amitabha devotees will never fall back into samsara on account of his protection and guidance.
Indeed, Sukhavati is a land of sonorous and visual bliss and all are welcome there who say Amitabha’s name or recite the Amitabha mantra at least 10 times. Additionally, upon fulfillment of his 48 vows, Amitabha became a Buddha and he is the ruler of his Western Pure Land.
The Amitabha Mantra
There are several acceptable versions of the Amitabha mantra. In Sanskrit, there are two variations “Om Amitabha Hrih” and also “Namo Amitabha Buddha”. Additionally, the Amitabha mantra meaning is “Homage to the Amitabha Buddha”.
However, in Vajrayana Buddhism they use the Tibetan pronunciation which is “Om Ami Dewa Hri”. Furthermore, in China, their version of the Amitabha mantra is simply his name in Chinese – “Amituofo”.
The objective of using the Amitabha mantra is to induce sufficient concentration in order for devotees to gain access to Sukhavati. However, the requirement is simply to “recite his name or his mantra” a minimum of 10 times.
It is not important which version of the Amitabha mantra devotees choose to use. Indeed, the only requirement is that devotees must have unwavering sincerity, faith and aspiration to be reborn in Sukhavati. If so, chant the Amitabha mantra a minimum of 10 times:
“Om Amitabha Hrih”