The Contemplation Sutra of Amitayus (Chinese pinyin: fó shuō guān wú liàng shòu fó jīng, Traditional Chinese: 佛說觀無量壽佛經, Simplified Chinese: 佛说观无量寿佛经, Japanese: 観無量寿経, Kanmuryōju-kyō)[clarification needed], is one of the three major Buddhist sutras found within the Pure Land branch of Mahayana Buddhism.
It begins with a story where a prince named Ajatasatru was enticed by the villain Devadatta to murder his father in order to ascend the throne. Ajatasatru killed his father, and nearly killed his mother, Queen Vaidehi, but after advice from his other ministers relented and threw his mother in prison.
Lamenting her fate, Queen Vaidehi prayed to the Buddha for help, and had a vision of him. In this vision, the Buddha told her that even though she was in prison, she could still obtain salvation through devotion to another Buddha named Amitabha. The Buddha goes on to describe Amitabha and how one could obtain rebirth in his "Pure Land" (浄土, Chinese: jìng tǔ, Japanese: Jōdo), Western Paradise (Sukhavati in Sanskrit).
Basic Outline of the Sutra
After a brief preface, the sutra relates the story of the overthrow of King Bimbisara by his son Ajatashatru, followed by Queen Vaidehi's imprisonment. Shakyamuni Buddha's visit to Vaidehi is described, and Vaidehi says that she wishes to be born in Amitabha Buddha's Pure Land. Shakyamuni smiles, emitting light from his mouth, and goes on to tell Vaidehi how to be reborn in the Pure Land.
Attaining birth in the Pure Land
Shakyamuni explains the importance of performing certain meritorious acts in order to be reborn in the Pure Land. He then goes on to teach Vaidehi how to visualize the Pure Land, to further her efforts in attaining rebirth there. Shakyamuni describes thirteen "contemplations," or mental visualization exercises, that are to be followed in order. By deeply contemplating various aspects of the Pure Land and attempting to visualize them in detail, the aspirant draws closer to the Pure Land.
The thirteen contemplations are described in order as follows:
1) Contemplation of the setting sun
2) Contemplation of an expanse of water
3) Contemplation of the ground in the Pure Land
4) Contemplation of trees in the Pure Land
5) Contemplation of ponds in the Pure Land
6) Contemplation of various objects in the Pure Land
7) Contemplation of the lotus-throne of the Buddha
8) Contemplation of the image of Amitabha Buddha
9) Contemplation of Amitabha Buddha himself
10) Contemplation of Avalokiteshvara
11) Contemplation of Mahasthamaprapta
12) Contemplation of the aspirants to the Pure Land
13) Contemplation of Amitabha and two Bodhisattvas
Nine levels of birth
In the final part of the sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha discusses the nine levels into which those born into the Pure Land are categorized. The levels are ranked from highest to lowest as follows:
1) The highest level of the highest grade
2) The middle level of the highest grade
3) The lowest level of the highest grade
4) The highest level of the middle grade
5) The middle level of the middle grade
6) The lowest level of the middle grade
7) The highest level of the lowest grade
8) The middle level of the lowest grade
9) The lowest level of the lowest grade
According to Shakyamuni Buddha, all nine grades of human beings can achieve rebirth into the Pure Land if they contemplate Amitabha Buddha, or at least call on his name. This is similar to the 48 Vows made by Amitabha Buddha, according to the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, which includes the Primal Vow.
The sutra ends with a short section describing the benefits gained by those who listened to these words of the Buddha. Vaidehi experienced "great awakening with clarity of mind and reached the insight into the non-arising of all dharmas," while her five hundred female attendants and "innumerable devas" also awakened aspiration for the highest enlightenment. Shakyamuni names the sutra, mentions benefits connected with the name of Amidabha Buddha, and exhorts all to hold the words of the sutra in their minds. Shakyamuni then returns through the air to the Vulture Peak.
The Other Two Main Sutras of the Pure Land Canon
- English translation of the Contemplation Sutra
- The Taima Mandala Image of the Pure Land from a medieval Japanese scroll, based on the descriptions found in the Contemplation Sutra. This site offers explanations in English of the various motifs of the scroll.