Friday, February 22, 2019

The Lifespan of Amida Buddha and of the enlightened beings in His Pure Land – commentary on the 12th section of the Larger Sutra



“The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘The lifespan of Amitayus (Amida) is so long that it is impossible for anyone to calculate it. To give an illustration, let us suppose that all the innumerable sentient beings in the worlds of the ten directions were reborn in human form and that every one became a sravaka or pratyekabuddha. Even if they assembled in one place, concentrated their thoughts, and exercised the power of their wisdom to the utmost to reckon the length of the Buddha’s lifespan by the number of kalpas, even after a thousand million kalpas they could still not reach its limit. So it is with the lifespan of sravakas, bodhisattvas, heavenly beings, and human beings in His land. Similarly, it is not to be encompassed by any means of reckoning or by any metaphorical expression. Again, the number of sravakas and bodhisattvas living there is incalculable. They are fully endowed with transcendent wisdom and free in their exercise of majestic power; they could hold the entire world in their hands.’”[1]

This fragment is related with the 13th Vow of Amida, which I already explained in the section dedicated to the 48th Vows.

“The lifespan of Amitayus (Amida)” refers to Amida as a manifestation in His Pure Land for the sake of saving sentient beings. It does not refer to ultimate Dharmakaya beyond form which is the ultimate nature of Amida and all Buddhas.
In fact, Amida is in three places in the same time: 1) in ultimate Dharmakaya beyond form, 2) in Sambhogakaya form in the Pure  Land, and 3) in various, unlimited manifestations or Nirmanakayas which are spread everywhere in the ten directions.

Amida’s Dharmakaya has no beginning and no end, because it is uncreated, and always existing. This is the Buddha nature which does not depend on causes and conditions.
Amida’s Sambhogakaya or transcendental (recompensed) body which He has manifested in the Pure Land has a beginning, when Dharmakara attained Enlightenment and became Amida, and will have no end, as He promised in His 13th Vow and as this fragment confirms.
The various Nirmanakayas (accommodated/transformed) bodies will have a beginning when Amida in Sambhogakaya form decides to emanate them and an end when He also decides to terminate them.

This fragment from the sutra shows again the impossibility to calculate the lifespan of Amida’s Sambhogakaya body in His Pure Land. Why it is impossible? Because it has no end.
The allegory presented by Shakyamuni with all sentient beings who, if reborn in human form and become Sravakas or Pratyeka Buddhas, still cannot measure Amida’s Life suggests that it is in fact, immeasurable or infinite. More than this, it is beyond even the capacities of self-liberated beings like Sravakas or Pratyeka Buddhas to understand. Only great Buddhas can understand Amida’s Light and Life, but this cannot be explained to others who are beyond their level, so we use the terms Infinite or Immeasurable to point to something which is impossible to express in human language or bellow the language of great Buddhas. Having Infinite Life shows that Amida is decided to always be available for sentient beings until we are all liberated and brought to His Pure Land. To have a Sambhogakaya which never dies or a Pure Land which never disappears  is like saying, “Do not worry,  I am always here for you! I’ll never go away into some kind of inaccessible Nirvana. You can always find me and come to me”. 

Not only Amida’s lifespan in the Pure Land is infinite, but also the lifespan or Sambhogakaya bodies of those born there.
As I already explained, the beings born in the Pure Land are sometimes called “humans and devas (gods) in my land“ or “His (Amida’s) Land”, which doesn’t mean that in the Pure Land there are the six unenlightened realms of existence, namely the hells, hungry spirits, animals, humans, fighting spirits (demigods) and gods. Shakyamuni himself explained that when the expression “humans and devas (heavenly beings/gods)” in the Pure Land appears in this sacred discourse it is only in relation with the states of existence prior to their birth in the Pure Land:

“They are all of one form, without any differences, but are called 'heavenly beings'(devas) and 'humans' simply by analogy with the states of existence in other worlds. They are of noble and majestic countenance, unequalled in all the worlds, and their appearance is superb, unmatched by any being, heavenly or human. They are all endowed with bodies of Naturalness, Emptiness, and Infinity."[2]

Also, the term  bodhisattvas in His land are referring to the same type of beings – all those who are born in the Pure Land through the Gate of the Primal Vow (the gate of simple faith in Amida) and who, after attaining Buddhahood there, return to samsara as Enlightened Bodhisattvas to save all beings. If “humans and heavenly beings” were terms related with the states of existence prior to their birth in the Pure Land, the expression “bodhisattvas in His land” show what these beings became after being born in the Pure Land and attaining Buddhahood – Enlightened Bodhisattvas, that is, Buddhas who manifest themselves as Bodhisattvas, like Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara, Mahasthamaprapta, Vajrapani, etc.

Usually “sravaka” is used in the sense of a person who seeks to realize Nirvana for himself, just like a Pratyeka Buddha who actually attained personal freedom from birth and death, but does so without having a teacher and without acting to save all beings. However, sravaka has another meaning too, which is that of “disciple” or “hearer”. Thus, in this fragment “sravaka” means that all beings born in the Pure Land are the personal disciples of Amida Buddha. Also, it may  indicate the previous state of one who is now in the Pure Land, just like in the case of “humans or heavenly beings”. Thus, it may refer to the fact that many who are now in the Pure Land were at the spiritual level of sravakas in their former life but at one point they heard Amida Dharma, and entrusted to Amida, now being not only liberated from birth and death, but fully Enlightened Buddhas capable to help all beings.

The lifespan or the Sambhogakaya bodies of all those born in the Pure Land is infinite and their number too is infinite or “incalculable”. It is called “incalculable” because it even goes beyond  the idea of number which is, in fact, a worldly/samsaric term.
The number of enlightened beings in the Pure Land, no matter how you call them, is infinite because they come to be born there from all corners of the universe and will continue to do so in the infinite future.

“They are fully endowed with transcendent wisdom and free in their exercise of majestic power; they could hold the entire world in their hands” – this shows that they are really Enlightened, and in possession of all the features of perfect Buddhas, capable to manifest everywhere in the worlds of the ten directions to save sentient beings.
To “hold the entire world in their hands” means they are not in the world or caught in samsara, but outside of it. Only if one is beyond the samsaric universe and fully Enlightened can hold the world in his hand. This is such a wonderful expression.

to be continued




[1] The Three Pure Land Sutras - A Study and Translation from Chinese by Hisao Inagaki in collaboration with Harold Stewart, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.26
[2] Shinran himself made refference to that passage in the Larger Sutra, in his work Passages on the Pure Land Way [REALIZATION]:
“Further the sutra states:
The words "human beings" and "devas" are used simply in accordance with the usage elsewhere. Their countenances are dignified and wonderful, surpassing things of this world. Their features, subtle and delicate, are not those of human beings or devas; all receive the body of naturalness or of emptiness, the body of boundlessness.”

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