Comparative Studies

Medicine Buddha And Amitābha Buddha’s Connection 药师佛与阿弥陀佛的关系

Despite there being as many countless Pure Lands (净土) as there are Buddhas (佛陀), Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) most famously taught us about Amitābha Buddha’s (Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛) Pure Land in the West and Medicine (Master) Buddha’s (药师佛) Pure Land in the East. If the Buddha taught about more Pure Lands in equal detail, we might become confused as to which to aspire for birth in. Even speak of these two Pure Lands alone might already cause ambivalence in those new to Buddhism.

Also, there was no need for the Buddha to speak at length about too many other Pure Lands in detail – as they are basically of the same nature (in physical magnificence) and purpose (to train beings for Buddhahood). However, with Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land being the easiest to reach, through which all other Pure Lands can be accessed, including Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land, all Buddhas will definitely recommend the first Pure Land to beings of their worlds.

The Eastern direction might have the psychological feel of giving life, as the sun rises in the East, signifying energy and birth of a new day. This is sometimes related to Medicine Buddha’s vows to heal the ailing in this life and in his Pure Land. The Western direction might have the psychological feel of refuge and return, as the sun sets in the West, signifying the time to go home at the end of this day and life. This is sometimes related to Amitābha Buddha’s vows to guide beings to ‘return home’ to their Buddha-nature (佛性), especially through his Pure Land.

However, such rigid perceptions are only psychological and can create a false dichotomy. If this Sahā World (娑婆世界) is not situated between these Buddhas in the East and West, these perceptions would not make sense at all. All Buddhas, having the same perfect compassion and wisdom, will most gladly and skilfully help all beings in whatever ways possible, according to their Aspirations and karmic conditions.

Mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha as the ‘Unsurpassable Great King of Healers’ (无上大医王) can have healing effects too, while mindfulness of Medicine Buddha can indirectly lead to birth in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land too (as the below sūtra text shows). Due to impending death, there are limits to healing here, while complete and lasting healing is by reaching Pure Land. 

In the ‘Sūtra [Of] Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Thus Come [One’s] Fundamental Vows’ Meritorious Virtues’ [《药师琉璃光如来本愿功德经》or simply《药师经》: Medicine Master Sūtra] taught by Śākyamuni Buddha, there is mention of Amitābha Buddha and his Pure Land. The central importance of Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land is thus emphasised with it being ‘cross-marketed (or publicised)’ – even in this medium length sūtra, that focuses mainly on Medicine Buddha. Let us look at such excerpts.

复次、曼殊室利,彼世尊药师琉璃光如来行菩萨道时,所发大愿,及彼佛土功德庄严,我若一劫、若一劫余,说不能尽。

Furthermore, Mañjuśrī, when that World-Honoured Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Thus Come [One] [i.e. Medicine Master Buddha: Bhaiṣajyaguru Buddha] [was] practising [the] Bodhisattva path, [of] those given rise great vows, and that Buddha land’s meritorious virtues’ adornments, I if [for] one kalpa, or [for] more [than] one kalpa, speaking [of them, they will] not [be] able [to be] exhausted.

然彼佛土,一向清净,无有女人,亦无恶趣,及苦音声。琉璃为地,金绳界道,城、阙(quē)、宫、阁,轩、窗、罗网,皆七宝成,亦如西方极乐世界,功德庄严,等无差别。

However, that Buddha’s land [is] always pure, without having women [i.e. no gender differences], likewise without evil realms, and suffering’s sounds. [It is with] lapis lazuli as ground, [and] golden cords lining [its] paths. [Its] cities, watchtowers, palaces, pavilions, balconies, windows [and treasure] nets, [are] all [with] seven treasures composed, likewise like [the] West[ern Pure] Land [Of] Ultimate Bliss, [with] meritorious virtues’ adornments, equal without difference.

[Note 1: These attributes of Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land are similar to that of Amitābha Buddha’s Western Pure Land, although the latter is usually taught to be ‘with gold as ground’ (黄金为地), though both lands’ grounds can be with one or more similar treasures. It is natural that they are similar as Buddhas have equally perfect meritorious virtues, compassion, wisdom and equanimity, existing on the same ‘plane’ of purity. However, Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land is most often taught by Śākyamuni Buddha to help us focus, to overcome the paradox of choice (which is to be unable to choose decisively due to having too many choices).]

于其国中,有二菩萨摩诃萨。一名日光遍照。二名月光遍照。是彼无量无数菩萨众之上首,次补佛处。…

In that land within, [there] are two Bodhisattva Mahāsattvas. [The] first [is] named Sunlight [With] Complete Illumination [i.e. Sūryaprabha]. [The] second [is] named Moonlight [With] Complete Illumination [i.e. Candraprabha]. [They] are of that [land’s] immeasurably innumerable Bodhisattva assemblies’ foremost elders, next [to] replace [the] Buddha…

[Note 2: Together with Medicine Buddha, this noble triad is known as the ‘Three Sages (Saints) Of The Eastern Pure Land’ (东方三圣). Although there are many other Pure Lands in the East, just as in the West and other directions too, they are the most well known ones in the East, to beings of our world.]

复次、曼殊室利,若有四众,苾刍(bìchú)、苾刍尼、邬(wū)波索迦、邬波斯迦,及余净信善男子、善女人等,有能受持八分斋戒,或经一年、或复三月受持学处,以此善根,愿生西方极乐世界无量寿佛所,听闻正法而未定者,

Furthermore, Mañjuśrī, if [there] are those [of the] fourfold assembly, Bhikṣus [i.e. monks], Bhikṣuṇīs [i.e. nuns], Upāsakas [i.e. laymen], Upāsikās [i.e. laywomen], and other good men, good women, [and] others [with] pure Faith, [who] have [the] ability [to] receive [and] uphold [the] Eightfold Purification Precepts, perhaps passing one year, or repeatedly [for] three months, receiving [and] upholding training [in] conduct, with these good roots, aspiring [for] birth [in the] West[ern Pure Land Of] Ultimate Bliss, where Immeasurable Life Buddha [i.e. Amitāyus Buddha: Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛] [is, for] hearing [the] Right Dharma, [but are] yet [to be] decided,

若闻世尊药师琉璃光如来名号,临命终时,有八大菩萨,其名曰,文殊师利菩萨,观世音菩萨,得大势菩萨,无尽意菩萨,宝檀华菩萨,药王菩萨,药上菩萨,弥勒菩萨。是八大菩萨乘空而来,示其道路,即于彼界种种杂色众宝华中,自然化生。

if hearing [the] World-Honoured Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Thus Come [One’s] name, when approaching life’s end, [there will] be eight Great Bodhisattvas. Their names [are] [1] Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, [2] Contemplator [Of The] World’s Sounds Bodhisattva, [3] Attainment [Of] Great Power Bodhisattva, [4] Inexhaustible Intention Bodhisattva, [5] Treasure Sandalwood Flower Bodhisattva, [6] Medicine King Bodhisattva, [7] Medicine Supreme Bodhisattva [and] [8] Maitreya Bodhisattva. These eight Great Bodhisattvas, riding [the] air then coming, [will] show them [the] path, [and they will] immediately [in] that land’s all kinds [of] various colours’ treasure flowers within, naturally manifest birth.

[Note 3: Which is ‘that land’ (彼界) mentioned? It should be the previous ‘land’ most recently mentioned above – ‘the Western Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss’ (西方极乐世界).]

[Note 4: Another interpretation is that with their omniscience, the Great Bodhisattvas will further urge the person to aspire firmly, to reach the Pure Land that the person is already more inclined towards – as this should be ‘easier’. This is an excellent example of how even another Buddha, along with other Bodhisattvas, are willing to most compassionately, skilfully and selflessly cooperate with one another, to guide even hesitant beings to reach the Pure Lands they wish.]

[Note 5: Yet another interpretation is that the Bodhisattvas will further urge the person to aspire firmly, to reach the Western Pure Land Of Ultimate Bliss, as this Pure Land is the easiest to reach.]

[Note 6: As taught in Amitābha Sūtra《阿弥陀经》, it (i.e. with its teachings related to Amitābha Buddha) is by ‘all Buddhas that mindfully protected’ (一切诸佛所护念), who would include Medicine Buddha, also protect those mindful of Amitābha Buddha. With such subtle ways, the Buddhas help us to focus with greater priority to reach Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land. Even sincere mindfulness of the (name of) Medicine Buddha (by sound or thought, which is a mental sound) will aid successful birth there.]

[Note 7: ‘That land’ mentioned is also likely to be Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land due to the following reasons –

[i] Despite some mindfulness of Medicine Buddha’s name in this case, none of the Three Sages Of The Eastern Pure Land were mentioned to come to receive the person here.

[ii] Bodhisattvas [1], [2], [3] and [8] are already in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land, with [2] and [3] being the chief assistant Bodhisattvas of Amitābha Buddha in his Pure Land.

[iii] Bodhisattva [4] received teachings about Bodhisattva [2] in the ‘Contemplator [Of The] World’s Sounds Bodhisattva’s Universal Door Chapter’《观世音菩萨普门品》, which speaks of Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land in an extended version.

[iv] Bodhisattvas [6] and [7] were mentioned in the ‘Sūtra [On] Ten [Methods Of] Rebirth [In] Amitā[bha] Buddha’s Land’《十往生阿弥陀佛国经》to be among 25 Bodhisattvas who guide beings to Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land.

[v] Bodhisattva [8] was mentioned in ‘Universal Virtue Bodhisattva’s Practices’ [And] Vows’ Chapter’《普贤菩萨行愿品》to also be present in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land.]

[vi] However, as Great Bodhisattvas are equanimous with their great compassion, points [i] to [v] might only fit our unenlightened discriminating minds.

[Note 8: Perhaps the most profound and balanced explanation was taught by Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng (净土宗十三祖印光大师) in his ‘Recarved Afterword For [‘The] Sūtra [Of] Medicine Master Thus Come [One’s] Fundamental Vows’《药师如来本愿经重刻跋》-

‘受持【《药师经》及「药师琉璃光如来」佛号】者,或生净琉璃世界,或生极乐世界。待至豁破凡情,圆成圣智,则直契寂光,东西俱泯,而复东西历然,随愿往生,则与弥陀药师,同归秘藏,是名诸佛甚深行处。’

‘Those receiving [and] upholding [the ‘Medicine Master Sūtra’ and ‘Medicine Master Lapis Lazuli Light Thus Come One’s name], [are] perhaps born [in the] Pure Lapis Lazuli Land, or born [in the] Land [Of] Ultimate Bliss. Waiting until [the] sudden breaking [of] ordinary feelings [and] desires, completely accomplishing noble wisdom, then directly agreeing [with] stillness’ light, [with the] East [and] West both ‘eliminated’, yet again [with the] East [and] West clear thus, according [to] Aspiration reborn, then with Āmítuófó [and] Medicine Master [Buddha], together returning [to the] secret treasury, [that] is named [as] all Buddhas’ extremely profound place [of] practice.’

This means mindfulness of Medicine Buddha’s name can lead to birth in either Pure Lands (according to Aspiration), with the reach of which, after realisation of wisdom there, discrimination between both lands will be dissolved, yet also with distinction between both lands, having the ability to reach one another (according to Aspiration). To return to the secret treasury as the place of practice (via either or both Pure Lands) is to become fully realigned with Buddha-nature within.]

或有因此,生于天上。虽生天上,而本善根,亦未穷尽。不复更生诸余恶趣。天上寿尽,还生人间。

Perhaps having this cause, [they are] born in heavens above. Although born [in] heavens above, yet [their] original good roots, likewise [will] still not [be] exhausted completely. [They will] not again [be] born [in] all other evil realms [i.e. of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals]. [When their] heavenly lives above end, [they will] return [to be] born [in the] human world.

或为轮王,统摄四洲,威德自在,安立无量百千有情于十善道。

Perhaps as Wheel[-Turning] Kings, [with] complete command [of the] four continents, [with] majestic virtue [and] ease, peacefully establishing immeasurable hundreds [of] thousands [of] sentient [beings] on Ten Good [Karmas’] [i.e. 十善业: Ten Wholesome Deeds] path.

或生刹帝利、婆罗门、居士、大家,多饶财宝,仓库盈溢,形相端正,眷属具足,聪明智慧,勇健威猛,如大力士。

Perhaps born [as] Kṣatriyas, Brahmins, laypersons, [in] great [influential] families, [with] much abundant wealth [and] treasures, storehouses brimming over, appearances upright, family members complete, intelligence [and] wisdom, bravery [and] strength, boldness [and] power, like those [with] great might.

[Note 9: If there are those who still do not have firm enough Aspiration (and Practice) to reach any Pure Land, they will be guided to good heavenly or human rebirths (thereafter). This is possible as they did cultivate substantial meritorious virtues for so, also via mindfulness of the Buddha’s name. However, in contrast to reaching a Pure Land, these destinations are still within the rounds of rebirth, that do not guarantee liberation, much less Buddhahood. It is thus better to not be ambivalent now, on where to go at the end of this life – by aspiring firmly to reach a Pure Land for Ultimate Bliss, instead of settling for limited worldly joy. Through training in Pure Land to be Great Bodhisattvas bound to be Buddhas (i.e. Dharma Kings), all will be able to reach out to more beings with the complete Dharma than Wheel-Turning Kings.]

若是女人,得闻世尊药师如来名号,至心受持,于后不复更受女身。

If [there] are women, [who] attain hearing [of the] World-Honoured Medicine Master Thus Come [One’s] name, [with the] sincere mind receiving [and] upholding [it], in [the] future, [they will] not again receive [the] female body.

[Note 10: Amitābha Buddha’s 35th great vow is similar in effect.]

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