[ESSENCE OF THE SUTRA]

The enlightened ones took pity on the multitudes of deluded sentient beings, and put forth transformative teachings according to the various potentials of these deluded sentient beings.  Although these teachings all derive from the same source, many different expedient methods are employed.

Among all these expedients, if we seek the most direct and the most complete, none is as good as seeking birth in the Pure Land through Buddha-remembrance (Buddha recitation). If we seek the simplest and most reliable among all the methods of Buddha-remembrance, the best is to develop faith and vows and to concentrate on reciting the Buddha-name.[6]

This is the reason that the ancients took the Amitabha Sutra as their daily study guide, though three Pure Land scriptures have circulated side by side in the world over the generations.  The Amitabha Sutra shows that the method of reciting the Buddha-name, applies to people of high, medium, and limited capacities.  It encompasses both the level of phenomena, and the level of inner truth (noumenon), omitting nothing. It embraces both Zen Buddhism and Scriptural Buddhism, and leaves nothing out. This method is indeed inconceivably great![7]

Over the generations since ancient times there has been no lack of people to comment upon and explain the Amitabha Sutra. Over time, many of these commentaries have fallen into oblivion, and nowadays not many survive. [A generation ago], Master Chu-hung of Yun-ch'i wrote his extensive and subtle commentary, and my own teacher's Dharma-brother Master Yu-hsi wrote his Complete Middle Path Commentary, which is profound and highly learned. [These two commentaries], are like the sun and the moon in the sky: all those with eyes see them. But [in these two commentaries] the literary style is elaborate and the levels of meaning are complex. Their ultimate reaches are unfathomable, and beginners whose knowledge of Buddhism is still shallow may find it hard to reach their level.

Therefore I have put aside my qualms about my own mediocrity and ignorance, and composed another commentary, explaining the essential points of the Amitabha Sutra. I would not dare try to diverge from my elders Chu-hung and Yu-hsi, nor would I presume that I could equal them. When I look upon their example, it is as if lofty peaks surround me.  Even though my commentary in no way fully describes the true realm of the Pure Land tradition, I must not fail to give every one of you a personal vision of it.

When one explicates the text of the Amitabha Sutra, there are five layers of mystic meaning:

First, there is the title of the sutra to explain.
[This scripture is called The Amitabha Sutra Spoken by Buddha] This sutra takes its title from the one who expounds it and from the one of whom he speaks.

Buddha is the master teacher, the one who expounds the scripture in this world, that is, Sakyamuni. By the power of his vows of great compassion, he was born here in the world of the Five Evils. As the one who was first to awaken, his mission was to bring enlightenment to those who were to awaken later. Buddha is the one who knows all and sees all.

Buddha speaks the sutra with joy in his heart. Buddha's intention is to liberate sentient beings. Since the potential of sentient beings to achieve enlightenment Is ripe, Buddha expounds for them these Pure Land teachings which are difficult to believe, and enables them to reach ultimate liberation. That's why he is filled with joy.
 

Amitabha Buddha is the one of whom Sakyamuni speaks in the sutra. Amitabha is the guide of the Pure Land. By the power of his forty-eight vows, he receives the sentient beings who have vowed to practice Buddha-remembrance by invoking the Buddha-name and enables them to be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, and never fall back from there.  The Sanskrit name "Amitabha" means "Infinite Life" and also "Infinite Light".  The essential point is that everything about him is infinite: his merits and his wisdom, his supernatural powers and his power in the Path, his embodiment and his environment, his work in expounding the teachings and liberating sentient beings.

A sutra is any teaching from the golden mouth of a Buddha.

These terms taken together make up the title of the scripture:  The Amitabha Sutra Spoken by Buddha." The three categories -- teachings, practices, and inner truth (noumenon), which each sutra should have -- can each be explained in both general and particular senses, as set out in the T'ien-t'ai system.

Second, there is the essence of the sutra to discern.
The true essence of all the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) scriptures is absolute reality [Real Mark] itself. What is absolute reality? It is the Mind of sentient beings.[8] This mind is not inside, not outside, and not in-between. It is not past, not present, and not future. It is not green or yellow or red or white, long or short or square or round. It is not a scent, not a flavor, not a texture, not a mental object. When we search for it we cannot find it, but we cannot say it does not exist. It creates all worlds and all realms, but we cannot say it exists. It is detached from all conditioned thoughts and discriminations, from all words and characteristics, but all conditioned thoughts and discriminations and all worlds and characteristics do not have any separate independent identity apart from it.

Essentially absolute reality is detached from all characteristics, but merged with all phenomena. Being detached from characteristics, it is formless, and being merged with all phenomena, it gives them all their forms.

For lack of an alternative, we impose on it the name "absolute reality" [i.e., Mind, Real Mark, Buddha Nature].

The essence of absolute reality is neither quiescent nor aware, but it is both quiescent and yet ever shining with awareness, both shining with awareness and yet ever quiescent. In that it is shining with awareness but quiescent, it is called the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light. In that it is quiescent but shining with awareness, it is called the pure Dharmakaya (Dharma Body). Aware quiescence is called the Dharmakaya, the Dharma Body of all the Buddhas. Quiescent awareness is called the Sambhogakaya, the Reward Body of all the Buddhas...

[For the Buddhas] quiescence and awareness are not two, bodies and lands are not two, what is inherent and what is cultivated are not two, true essence and responsive function are not two -- everything is absolute reality. Reality and appearances are neither two nor not two.

Therefore, the essence of reality as a whole acts as both the environment that surrounds sentient beings and as their very bodies. It acts as both the Dharma Body and the Reward Body of the Buddhas. It acts as both self and others.

Thus the one who speaks the sutra and the one who is spoken of, the Buddhas that can deliver sentient beings and the sentient beings who are delivered, the ability to believe and that which is believed in, the ability to take vows and that which is vowed, the ability to concentrate on the Buddha-name and the Buddha-name which is concentrated upon, the ability to be born in the Pure Land and birth in the Pure Land itself, the ability to praise the Buddhas and the Buddhas who are praised --all of these are the imprint of the "true seal" of absolute reality. [Thus the mind of sentient beings (absolute reality)is the true essence of all Mahayana Sutras.]

Third, there is the guiding principle to explain.
The guiding principle is the essential route for cultivating practice, the key link for understanding the essence [of our mind], the guiding framework for the myriad practices. When you hold up a net,  the mesh opens up. When you lift the collar of a shirt, the breast and sleeves come too. Thus, after the essence, we must discern the guiding principle.

The essential principle for cultivation in this sutra is to develop faith and vows and to recite the Buddha-name. Without faith, we are not sufficiently equipped to take vows. Without vows, we are not sufficiently equipped to guide our practice. Without the wondrous practice of reciting the Buddha-name, we are not sufficiently equipped to fulfill our vows and to bring our faith to fruition.

The sutra first sets forth the pure environment of the Land and the exalted embodiment of its inhabitants in order to engender faith in us. Next it urges us to take vows to give guidance to our practice. Then it teaches the practice of reciting the Buddha-name as the route of direct ascent with no falling back.

Faith means having faith in oneself and faith in others. It means being sure about cause and effect, about phenomena and inner truth (noumenon).

Vows mean feeling aversion to the mundane world and detaching from it. Vows mean gladly seeking the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.

Practice means persisting in the practice of reciting the Buddha-name singlemindedly and without confusion (with one-pointedness of mind).

[Faith]. Believing in ourselves means believing that the [True Mind] ... is not a physical manifestation, and not the reflection of entangling objects:  that it extends through time without any before or after and through space without any boundaries. Though it follows causal conditions all day long, it never changes.

All of space in the ten directions and all the worlds countless as atoms are originally things created by this Mind of ours. Although we are deluded and confused, if for a single moment we return to this Mind, we are sure to be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss originally inherent in our own mind, and be troubled no more by worry and doubt. This is called "believing in ourselves".

Believing in others means having faith that the Tathagata Sakyamuni certainly did not lie, and that the World Honored One Amitabha certainly did not take his vows in vain. It means being certain that all the Buddhas of all the directions never equivocated, and following the true teachings of all the enlightened ones.  It means establishing our will to seek birth in the Pure Land, and being prey no more to doubt and confusion.  This is called "believing in others".

Believing in the causal basis means having faith that even Buddha-name invocation carried out in a scattered confused state of mind is still a seed of enlightenment, and
that this is even more true of invoking the Buddha-name singlemindedly and without confusion. [If we sincerely and singlemindedly invoke the name of Amitabha  Buddha], how can we fail to be born in the Pure Land? This is called "believing in the causal basis" [i.e., that recitation is the cause of enlightenment].

Believing in the result means having deep faith that the Pure Land and all the forms of goodness (spiritually superior beings) that are assembled there are born from the Buddha Remembrance Samadhi, the meditative concentration that comes from reciting the Buddha-name. When you plant melon seeds you get melons, and when you plant beans you get beans. [Effect follows causes] like a shadow follows a physical shape, like an echo responds to a sound. Nothing is sown in vain.  This is called "believing in the result".

Believing factual phenomena means having deep faith that although this mind of ours is ephemeral, the worlds of the ten directions that appear based on it are inexhaustible.  The Land of Ultimate Bliss really does exist ten billion Buddha-lands away, adorned with ultimate pure adornments. This is not some fable from Chuang-tzu. This is called "believing factual phenomena".

Believing in inner truth (noumenon) means having deep faith that the ten billions Buddha-lands (worlds) are in reality not outside our Mind. Since there is really nothing outside of this Mind, we have deep certainty that the whole array of beings and surroundings in the Western Paradise is a set of reflections appearing in our mind. All phenomena are merged with inner truth, all falsity is merged with truth. All practices are merged with True Nature. All others are merged with oneself. Our own inherent mind is all-pervasive, and the Buddha-mind is also all-pervasive, and the true nature of the minds of sentient beings is also. all-pervasive. It is like a thousand lamps in one room, each of whose lights shines on all the others and merges with the other lights without any obstruction. This is called "believing in inner truth" (Noumenon).

[Vows]. Once we have these forms of faith, then we must understand that the mundane world is the defilement brought about by our own minds, and we must detach from it; the Pure Land is the purity brought about by our own minds, and we must joyously seek it.[9] We must renounce defilement utterly, until there is nothing that can be renounced, and we must grasp purity utterly, until there is nothing that can be grasped.

Therefore the commentary Miao-tsung said:

If you take grasping and rejecting to the limit, they are not in a different groove than not grasping and not rejecting.  If you do not engage in grasping and rejecting, and only value not grasping and not rejecting, this is a form of clinging to inner truth and abandoning phenomena. If you neglect the phenomenal level, then you are not complete at the inner truth level. If you arrive at the point where all phenomena are merged with inner truth, then both grasping and rejecting are also merged with inner truth. Sometimes grasping, sometimes rejecting, nothing is not the realm of reality.
[Practice].  When we speak of concentrating on invoking the Buddha-name singlemindedly, with a mind that is unified and not chaotic, we are using the Buddha-name to summon up the qualities of Buddhahood.[10] Since the qualities of Buddhahood are inconceivable, the Buddha-name itself is also inconceivable. Since the merits of the Buddha-name are also inconceivable, even if we recite the Buddha-name in a scattered state of mind, it is still a seed of enlightenment, a way of persevering and ascending toward enlightenment without falling back.

Many sutras teach Pure Land practices of various kinds: contemplating the image of Buddha, contemplating the concept of Buddha, doing prostrations, making offerings, practicing the five forms of repentance and the six forms of mindfulness, and so on. If you consummate any of these practices, [and dedicate the merits toward rebirth in the Pure Land], you will be born there.

The method of reciting the Buddha-name is the one that is the most all-conclusive, embracing people of all mentalities and the one that is easiest to practice. This is why the  compassionate  one,  Sakyamuni  Buddha, explained it to Shariputra without being asked. Reciting the Buddha-name can be called the number one expedient among all the expedient methods, the supreme complete truth among all the complete truths, the most perfect of all the pefect teachings.

There is a saying:  "If a purifying pearl is put into dirty water, the dirty water cannot but be purified. If the Buddha-name is put into a chaotic mind, even that chaotic mind cannot fail to become enlightened.  Reciting the Buddha-name with faith and vows is a true causal basis for the Supreme Vehicle. The four kinds of Pure Land [the Land Where Saints and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, the Land of Expedient Liberation, the Land of Real Reward, and the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light] are the wondrous fruits of the One Vehicle. If you have the causal basis, then the result is sure to follow.

Therefore, faith, vows and reciting the Buddha-name are the true guiding principles of the Amitabha Sutra.

The characteristics of the four kinds of Pure Land are described in detail in the Miao-tsung commentary on the sutra and in the book An explanation of the Brahma Net Sutra, and I will not explain them in full here. Later on I will give a brief account of them as I explicate the text.

Fourth, there is the sutra's powerful function.
The powerful function of this sutra is to enable us to he reborn in the Pure Land and never fall back. Rebirth in the Pure Land can be categorized in terms of the Four Pure Lands, and also into nine grades in each land. Here I will give a brief explanation of the characteristics of the Four Lands.

If you recite the Buddha-name without cutting off your delusions of views and thoughts, depending on how scattered or how concentrated you are, you are reborn in the level of the Land Where Saints and Ordinary Beings Live Together.

If you recite the Buddha-name to the point of singlemindedness (phenomenal level), your delusions of views and thoughts are cut off and you are born in the land that is the fruit of practicing expedient means: the Land of Expedient Liberation [where Arhats live].

If you recite the Buddha-name to the point of singlemindedness (noumenon or inner truth level), and you smash from one to forty-one levels of delusion and ignorance, then you are born in the Pure Land of Real Reward [where Bodhisattvas live].

If you recite the Buddha-name to the point that ignorance and delusion are totally cut off, this is the highest reward and you will be reborn in the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light [where the Buddhas dwell].

The Amitabha Sutra has this kind of powerful function, which no text can describe.  The powerful function of the Amitabha Sutra should not be mentioned on the same day as the [far more pessimistic teaching] that a correct causal basis is only a stepping stone out of the sensory world, which must be cultivated lifetime after lifetime before you can expect enlightenment. How can Zen Buddhists and Scriptural Buddhists fail to consider this? [see glossary, "Four Pure Lands"].

Fifth, there are the forms of the Buddhist teaching in this sutra to explain.
The sutra is contained in the Mahayana canon, Bodhisattva vehicle, and is "self-spoken" [delivered by the Buddha without being asked].

This sutra has enabled sentient beings with many karmic obstructions who live in the Dharma Ending Age to make a direct ascent toward enlightenment without falling back.

Thus, in the future when all the other sutras have perished, this Amitabha Sutra will survive for another century, to bring deliverance on a wide scale to sentient beings.

The Amitabha Sutra is a remedy for all sicknesses. It is beyond relativities, a perfect fusion, with inconceivable power. The mystic treasury of the Flower Ornament (Avatamsaka) Sutra, the secret gist of the Lotus Sutra, the essential teachings on mind of all the Buddhas, the compass of all the Bodhisattvas' myriad practices -- none of them is outside of this sutra. If I wanted to praise it at length, at the end of time I still would not be finished. Those with wisdom must know this sutra for themselves.
 

[EXPLANATION OF THE TEXT]

The text of the sutra is divided into three sections. The first portion is the introduction. The second portion is the main body of the text that gives the correct guiding principles.  The third portion is the history of the transmission of the text. These three parts are called the excellent opening, the excellent middle, and the excellent ending.

The introduction is like the head, complete with eyes, ears, and nose. The main body of the text is like the body, complete with all the internal organs. The transmission history is like the hands and feet, which move unimpeded.

In sum, the introduction covers the overall structure of the sutra, while the transmission history shows that the bestowal of the teaching has been unimpeded. The connection of these two portions with the main body of the sutra is not a minor matter. Lately people have not understood this. When they read the sutras, they delve a bit into its principles, then plunge into the main body of the text, treating the introduction and the transmission history as if they were empty formulas. If this were true, why are we told that both the opening words and the closing words of a sutra are also excellent?
 

[Introductory portion of sutra]

The introductory portion of the Amitabha Sutra first reveals the time and place of the Dharma assembly at which it was expounded, and then describes the assembly of those who were present.

Thus have I heard: Once Buddha was in  the land of Shravasti, in the garden of Jeta and Anathapindika.
This section opens the assembly where the Pure Land doctrine was taught. They are the words of Ananda [the Buddha's personal assistant], who recorded the sutra.

"Thus have I heard" expresses Ananda's faithful obedience to what he was receiving from our teacher. "Once" describes the moment the teaching was given. "Buddha" is the teacher.  "The Garden of Jeta and Anathapindika in the land of Shravasti" is the place where Buddha preached this sutra.

The essence of the mind has not changed names from ancient times to modern. If we recite the Buddha--name to seek birth in the Pure Land basing ourselves upon the inner truth of absolute reality, we will definitely not go wrong.  When the sutra begins "Thus have I heard" it attests that this is a correct teaching.

Absolute reality is not self and it is not no-self. Ananda [in saying "Thus have I heard" as he recited the sutra] had not done away with the false self, and so he still says  "I".   Ananda's ears produced auditory consciousness, so he could personally hear the perfect voice [of Sakyamuni Buddha preaching this sutra] -- this was like emptiness sealing emptiness. It is in this sense that Ananda "heard" the sutra.

"Once Buddha was in Shravasti" the sutra continues. 'Once" means at the time when the paths of teacher and students, of Sakyamuni Buddha and his audience, have joined, and a full sharing of preaching and listening is taking place.

"Buddha" is the name for one who has been enlightened and who brings enlightenment to others, whose enlightened practice is complete and functions as the great teacher of humans and devas.

The place name "Shravasti" in Sanskrit means "hearing  things". It was the name of a great kingdom in India, and also of its main city, the capital of King Prasenajit [during the time of Sakyamuni Buddha]. The King's Crown Prince was called Jeta, which means "Victorious in Battle".  A senior minister of the king, Sudatta, was also called Anathapindika which means "Benefactor of Widows and Orphans".  Anathapindika paid for Prince Jeta's garden in gold, and donated it to Buddha and his monks. Prince Jeta was very moved, and donated the trees and another parcel of land. Thus the double name [for the site where Buddha preached the sutra]: "the Garden of Jeta and Anathapindika".[11]
 

Next the sutra describes the assembly [who came to hear Buddha preach]. There were three groups: first, the group of monastic disciples (Arhats),  second, the group of Bodhisattvas, and third, the congregation of humans and gods.

Why are the monastic disciples put first? Because they had left behind worldly forms, because they always accompanied the Buddha, and because the Buddha Dharma depends on monks and nuns to spread it.

Why are the Bodhisattvas placed in the middle? Because their forms are not fixed, because they do not always accompany the Buddha, and also in order to suggest the idea of the Middle Path.

Why are the humans and gods placed last? Because they have worldly form, because they were a mixed lot, including both ordinary people and sages, and because their role is to protect the Buddha from the outside.

There are three aspects to the description of the group of monastic disciples:  first, an account of their quality and number;  second, praise for their high standing and their virtues; and third, a list of the names of the foremost among them. [The sutra reads:]

He was accompanied by twelve hundred and fifty great bhikshus...
"Bhikshu" is a Sanskrit term with a triple meaning.

First, "bhikshu" means a mendicant, someone who has just a single bowl to his name, and accumulates nothing, and relies exclusively on asking for alms to supply the necessities of life.

Second, "bhikshu" means someone who has broken through evil, someone who observes everything with correct wisdom, someone who has smashed the evil of sensory afflictions, and does not fall into perceptions molded by desire.

Third, "bhikshu" means someone who is fearful of delusion, who has accepted the full set of 250 disciplinary precepts. His karma has reached the level of development that he immediately fears delusion.

The word for the monastic community as a whole, "Sangha", means a harmonious association. This harmony at the level of inner truth means sharing the realization of the truth of uncontrived liberation. At the phenomenal level,  harmony  means  dwelling together without rancorous speech, with the same joyful intent, and the same understanding, sharing the same precepts and sharing material goods equally.

The sutra speaks of twelve hundred and fifty bhikshus. The three brothers Kashyapa had together a thousand disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana had two hundred and Yasha had fifty. These were all people who had become Buddha's disciples shortly after his enlightenment, people who felt deep gratitude for Buddha's  benevolence,  and  always followed him everywhere.

[The sutra continues:]

...all of them great Arhats, well known to the assembly
The word 'Arhat" also has three meanings. First, it means one who is worthy of offerings, as the result of being a mendicant [when he was a bhikshu]. Second it means a slayer of evil, as the result of having broken through evil.  Third, it means one who gives birth to nothing, as the result of destroying delusion and afflictions. It also means one who is wise and liberated, one who is possessed of liberation, one who is liberated from doubt.

Fundamentally, all these great Arhats are great beings belonging to the Dharmakaya  (i.e.  great Bodhisattvas), who appear as monastic disciples of the Buddha. They have realized the inconceivable reality of this Pure Land teaching, and so they are called "great" They accompanied the Buddha as he turned the Wheel of the Dharma, bringing benefits to humans and gods on a vast scale, and so they were "well known to the assembly".

Now the sutra lists the names of the leaders of the Arhats:

Among them were his leading disciples, such figures as the Elders Shariputra, Maudgalyayana,   Mahakashyapa, Mahakatyayana, and Mahakausthila, Revata,  Suddhipanthaka,  Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola-bharadvaja, Kalodayin, Mahakapphina, Vakula, and Aniruddha, etc., all great disciples.
"Elder" is the term given to those who are honored both for their virtue and their long years as monks.

Among the Buddha's monastic disciples, the Venerable Shariputra was the foremost in wisdom and the Venerable Maudgalyayana was foremost in supernatural powers.

The Venerable Mahakashyapa's body shined with a golden light: he transmitted the Buddha's Mind Seal and became the first patriarch [of the Zen tradition]. He was foremost among the Buddha's monastic disciples in ascetic practices.

The  Venerable  Mahakatyayana  was  of  a Brahmanical lineage, and was foremost in debate.

The Venerable Mahakausthila was foremost in question-and-answer dialogue.

The Venerable Revata was the foremost in remaining free of error and confusion.

The Venerable Suddhipanthaka had been dull by nature but through memorizing two words of the sutras [sweep clean, i.e., sweep the mind clean], his eloquence became limitless and he was the foremost in upholding the truth of Real Mark.

The Venerable Nanda was Buddha's own younger brother, and was foremost in formal comportment.

The Venerable Ananda was Buddha's cousin, and served as his personal attendant: he was the most learned [and always committed the Buddha's spoken teachings to memory].

The Venerable Rahula was Buddha's son and heir [from the time when he was a royal prince], and he was the foremost in never advertizing his cultivation.

The Venerable Gavampati had spoken evil in past lives, and was affected by the karmic retribution for this [by having a voice like a snorting ox]: he was foremost in receiving the offerings of the gods.

The Venerable Pindola-bharadvaja had broken the rule against displaying spiritual powers and was told to remain in this world for a long time. He was foremost as a field of blessings for sentient beings.

The Venerable Kalodayin was Buddha's emissary, and he was foremost in spreading the teaching.

The Venerable Mahakapphina was the foremost in his knowledge of the stars.

The Venerable Vakula was the most long-lived of Buddha's monastic disciples.

The Venerable Aniruddha was another of Buddha's cousins, and he was foremost in the magical ability of his celestial eye.

Fundamentally, all these constant companions of the Buddha were great  beings belonging to the Dharmakaya  (Dharmakaya Bodhisattvas),  who just manifested themselves as monastic disciples of the Buddha to benefit the Buddha's teaching.

Now they are to hear of the all-encompassing merits of the Pure Land, and gain the benefits of the supreme truth.  Giving their lives to benefit the Path, they purified the Buddha-land. Thus they are called an appropriate audience for the occasion.

Now the sutra describes the group of Bodhisattvas in the assembly:

Also present were the Bodhisattvas Mahasattva: Manjushri, Prince of the Dharma, the Bodhisattva Ajita the Invincible, and the Bodhisattva of Constant  Progress,  Gandhahastin, Nityodyukta,  and other such great enlightening beings.
"Bodhisattva-mahasattva" in Sanskrit means a great enlightening being, a sentient being whose Bodhi Mind is fully developed, in whom compassion and wisdom are operating in tandem to benefit both self and others.[12]

Buddha is the King of the Dharma, Manjushri continued the vocation of teaching wisdom, so he is called the Prince of the Dharma. Among the assembly of Bodhisattvas, he is foremost in wisdom. Without fearless genuine wisdom, you cannot truly understand the Pure Land teaching, and so Manjushri is put first [in the assembly of Bodhisattvas hearing the Amitabha Sutra].

The Bodhisattva Ajita is Maitreya. In the future he will become a Buddha, but now he is at the stage of the Equal Enlightenment.

Next the sutra lists the Bodhisattvas Gandhahastin and Nityodyukta, because they are the ones who cultivate practice for eons without ever stopping, making constant progress, tirelessly benefitting self and others.

These Bodhisattvas of high rank must all seek birth in the Pure Land, so that they will not be separated from seeing the Buddha and hearing the Dharma and giving offerings in person to the Sangha, in order that they may quickly achieve Supreme Enhghtenment [This is the exhortation of Samantabhadra in chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra.]

Also present was Shakra, the king of the gods, along with countless numbers of heavenly beings, making up a great assembly.
The name "shakra" means "the one who can be lord" [also known as Indra];  he is the king of the Trayastrimsha Heaven, the Heaven of Thirty-Three. Below his heaven are the heavens of the four deva-kings. Above are the Heaven of Yama, the Tushita Heaven, the Nirmanarati Heaven, the Paranirmita Heaven, the heavens of form, the formless heavens, and innumerable other heavens.

"Making up a great assembly" means that there were also other gods, asuras, and other supernatural beings from all the worlds of the ten directions in attendance [to hear Buddha give forth the Amitabha Sutra], and that all had the potential to benefit from the Pure Land teaching.

Thus ends the general introduction to the sutra. Next comes the particular introduction.

The wondrous gate of the Pure Land is inconceivable, and no one was able to ask about it, so Buddha took it upon himself to begin by extolling its name. Moreover, given that the Buddha's wisdom is able to evaluate the potentials of sentient beings unerringly, he saw that this great assembly ought to hear about the wondrous gate of the Pure Land so they could gain benefits. Therefore, he did not wait for questions, but began by himself.

At that time Buddha said to the Elder Shariputra: "West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called "Ultimate Bliss". In this land there exists a Buddha called Amitabha, who is expounding the Dharma right now.
The Pure Land method takes in all people, whether they are of low, medium, or high capacity. It is beyond all relativities, in perfect  fusion. It is inconceivable: it is perfectly all-encompassing, and goes completely beyond all other Buddhist methods. It is very profound and hard to believe in. Therefore it is specially announced to those of great wisdom: without the highest level of wisdom, you cannot arrive directly at the stage where you have no doubts about the Pure Land teaching.

"West" signifies the place where the Pure Land appears, which is west of here.  A "Buddha-land" is a whole great galaxy of worlds that are all taught by one Buddha. In terms of our world, there is a central polar mountain, and four continents to the east, west, south, and north of it, illuminated by the same sun and moon, surrounded by a circular range of iron mountains: this is one world. A thousand of these makes a small world system, a thousand small world-systems makes a medium world system, and a thousand medium world-systems makes a great galaxy of worlds. West of a hundred billion of such Buddha-lands is the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

Question: Why is the Land of Ultimate Bliss in the west?

Answer: This is not a good question. If the Land of Ultimate Bliss were in the east, you would be asking why it is in the east. Isn't this just playing with words? What's more, if you look at the Land of Ultimate Bliss from the point of view of the hundred billion Buddha-lands, it is in the east. What is worth creating doubts about?

"There exists a world called Ultimate Bliss." This introduces us to the name of Amitabha's environment, to his domain.  In the temporal dimension, its time is reckoned in terms of past, present, and future. In the spatial dimension, its boundaries are reckoned in terms of the ten directions [the four cardinal directions, the four intermediate directions, the nadir and the zenith].

The Sanskrit name for the Land of Ultimate Bliss is "Sukhavati".  It is also called the Land of Peaceful Nurturing, the Land of Peace and Bliss, the Land of Pure Equanimity, and so on. The basic meaning is that it is utterly peaceful and secure, and forever removed from all forms of pain and suffering. This is explained at length below.

There are four kinds of Pure Land, and each category is in turn subdivided in terms of purity or defilement [see glossary, "Four Pure Lands"].

Buddhas have three bodies, which are discussed in terms of singularity and multiplicity [see glossary: "Three Bodies of the Buddhas"].

When the sutra says "there exists a world called Ultimate Bliss" and "there exists a Buddha called Amitabha," it is saying that both that world and that Buddha do actually exist. There are four meanings here.

  1. It indicates that there is a real Pure Land, and makes us happy to seek it.
  2. It gives us truthful instructions, to make us concentrate on the Pure Land.
  3. It states that the Pure Land is not a figment of the imagination or a mirage, that it is not a provisional manifestation or a roundabout teaching not to be taken literally, that it is not an empty falsity, that it is not a land reached via the Theravada vehicle.[13]
  4. It demonstrates perfectly that the Pure Land is part of our true nature, to enable us to have a profound realization of it and penetrate into the truth of Real Mark (the Mind).


"Buddha expounding the Dharma" on this occasion shows that both the Pure Land and Amitabha exist -- this is not a case of "the past is already gone, and the future has not yet taken shape." We must make a vow to be born in the Pure Land, and to personally hear Amitabha's teaching, so  that  we  may  quickly  achieve  true enlightenment.

The fact that the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha are here in the present encourages us to have faith. The fact that Amitabha's world is called the Land of Ultimate Bliss encourages us to vow to be born there.  The fact that the Buddha in the Pure Land is called Amitabha encourages us to engage in the wondrous practice of invoking his name.

The words of the sutra are concise, but the meaning is very profound.

This  concludes  my  commentary  on  the introductory portion of the sutra.
 

[ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: According to the contemporary Vietnamese Master To Lien: "If we are discussing the different manifestations of the universe, the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is indeed ten billion Buddha lands away. However, if we are speaking of the Pure Land of the Mind, then the ten billion Buddha lands are not outside the narrow confines of our own minds. If we recite the Buddha's name singlemindedly, the Pure Land can be found in every recitation -- the Pure Land is here and now."]