The forms of Amitabha Buddha are the shapes of his reward and manifestation bodies.*
The light of Amitabha Buddha is the shapelessness of his perfect enlightenment.
The light of Amitabha Buddha is his universal body.**
The light of Amitabha Buddha is his pervading of space and time.
The light of Amitabha Buddha is his boundless sea of compassion.
The light of Amitabha Buddha is his immeasurable essence of blessings.
* Sambhogakaya & Nirmanakaya | ** Dharmakaya
Question: Do we have to see Amitabha Buddha to be reborn in Pure Land?
Answer: The appearance or manifestation of other enlightened beings (Buddhas or Bodhisattvas) that one is mindful of are valid too – if the motivation is still to go to Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land. The enlightened beings will redirect one accordingly.
Q: From what I learnt, the form and clarity that one sees Amitabha Buddha depends on one’s amount of mindfulness, and there is a need to see Amitabha Buddha to be sure one is going to Pure Land – as demons can take on many forms and lights, while none would manifest in the form of Amitabha Buddha?
A: The ideal case is to see Amitabha Buddha clearly in person (rather than in a dream state) before passing away, and to receive assurance of birth in Pure Land from him. But we have to remember not to be attached to wanting to see his form. When the Buddha’s light is experienced via mindfulness of him, further mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha’s name will naturally lead to a vision of him. The spiritually uplifting light of Amitabha Buddha is usually experienced first, due to its pervasive outreach. The craving for something more than the light of his blessings when it is experienced can be a distraction that makes one lose single-mindedness, while continual and/or increased mindfulness can lead to meeting the Buddha. The efficacy of the light of Amitabha Buddha is mentioned in his vow #33 .
‘If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha-lands of the ten quarters, who have been touched by my light, should not feel peace and happiness in their bodies and minds surpassing those of humans and devas, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.’
Practitioners who have experienced the blessings of his light (possible even way before death) can attest that it gives rise to great confidence in Amitabha Buddha and the ability to be born in his Pure Land. It is so unmistakably wonderful that one will know it is not the work of any demons. It is not just golden light that is seen; but the light of heartfelt blessings, that transforms the mind to a state of blissful equanimity, that removes all pain and afflictions in the moment. As such, the light can be trusted, as it results from mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha.
By the law of cause and effect, the effects of the light has to be from him as their cause is mindfulness of him. The experience of this light is a sign that one is practising well (though there is room for improvement as long as not yet a Buddha)! Without attachment to any form of the Buddha, his form is more likely to appear thereafter. (Demons cannot manifest in the form of Amitabha Buddha when one is mindful of him in the moment; while the “Amitabha Buddha” who appears when one is mindful of someone else might be a demon – as this does not correspond to cause and effect.) Also from the Infinite Life Sutra, the following further asserts the great power of Amitabha Buddha’s light.
“If, sentient beings encounter his light, their three defilements are removed; they feel tenderness, joy and pleasure; and good thoughts arise. If sentient beings in the three realms of suffering see his light, they will all be relieved and freed from affliction. At the end of their lives, they all reach emancipation. If sentient beings, having heard of the majestic virtue of his light, glorify it continually, day and night, with sincerity of heart, they will be able to attain birth in his land, as they wish.”
Q: According to vow #19 of Amitabha Buddha, it seems that he will appear before the dying for birth in Pure Land to be possible?
‘If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters, who awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, do meritorious deeds and sincerely desire to be born in my land, should not, at their death, see me appear before them surrounded by multitude of sages, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. ‘
A: This vow has to be seen with vow #18
“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.”
In vow #19, where the “multitude of sages” appear, this is so only for very good practitioners. (Note that in the vow, the criteria is strong Bodhicitta; different from vow #18, which is relevant for most people). In many cases, average practitioners experience only the appearance of one enlightened being. What happens in vow #33 above can be readily experienced though – before any of the enlightened whom one is mindful of appears.
Q: From the below passages in the Infinite Life Sutra, it seems that the Buddha must be seen for birth in Pure Land to be possible?
The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘Devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely aspire to be born in that land can be classified into three grades. The higher grade of aspirants are those who leave their homes and abandon worldly desires to become monks. Having awakened aspiration for Enlightenment, they single-mindedly remember Amitayus and perform meritorious practices, aspiring to be born in his land. When they are about to die, Amitayus, together with a host of sages, will appear [Sambhogakaya] before them. Then they will follow him and attain birth in his land. At once they will be born by transformation spontaneously from within seven-jewelled lotus-flowers. They will dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression, attain steadfast wisdom and be capable of freely exercising supernatural powers. For this reason, Ananda, sentient beings who wish to see Amitayus while in this world should awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment, do meritorious deeds, and aspire to be born in his land.’
The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘The middle grade of aspirants are the devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely desire to be born in that land. Although unable to become monks and cultivate much merit, they awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment, single-mindedly think on Amitayus, perform some good deeds, observe the precepts of abstinence, build stupas, donate Buddhist statues, give alms to mendicants, hang banners, light candles, scatter flowers, burn incense, and so forth. They transfer the merit of those practices to his land, aspiring to be born there. When they are about to die, Amitayus will manifest his transformed body [Nirmanakaya], which is fully possessed of the same radiance and physical characteristics and marks as those of the real Buddha, and make it appear before them, together with a host of sages. Then they will follow this transformed Buddha and be born in the Pure Land, where they will dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. Their virtue and wisdom will be next to those of the higher grade of aspirants.’
The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘The lower grade of aspirants are the devas and humans in the worlds of the ten quarters who sincerely desire to be born in that land. Although unable to do many meritorious deeds, they awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment and single-mindedly concentrate on Amitayus even ten times, desiring birth in his land. When they hear the profound Dharma, they joyfully accept it and do not entertain any doubt; and so, remembering the Buddha even once, they sincerely aspire to be born in that land. When they are about to die, they will see the Buddha in a dream [dream form]. Those aspirants, too, will be born in the Pure Land. Their merit and wisdom will be next to those of the middle grade of aspirants.’
A: The Buddha in the dream is not totally ‘real’, as it is the natural result of having a lower grade of practice (which pertains to the scope of vow #18 above); different from the two higher and middle grades. If the Buddha in the dream state (which is in a sense “illusory”) is seen here as representing the actual, then it is true that all beings going to Pure Land will see “the Buddha” before their passing.
To sum it up, seeing the actual Amitabha Buddha before or on the deathbed is the highest goal for Pure Land practitioners, while seeing his light at any time can lead to seeing him later (even if only in a dream state). In any case, there is no need to crave to see either Amitabha Buddha or his light, as what matters most is to be mindful of his name well (which is the simplest key practice, along with the provisions of faith in Amitabha Buddha and aspiration to reach Pure Land), without which, none of the above can be experienced. Being process-oriented is more important than being goal-oriented here, in terms of mindfulness from moment to moment.