Ajanta To Amitabha (Amida, Amitayus, "Infinite Light") (Buddhism)


Ajanta is a cave complex in western India, northeast of present-day Mumbai (Bombay), whose walls are richly decorated with Buddhist paintings and sculptures. Some of the caves date from the earliest phase of Buddhist history. The site has 36 separate building foundations, including viharas and stupas. The caves are carved into a 250-foot-high wall of rock. Many of the caves’ walls still show events from the Buddha’s lives.

The monasteries at Ajanta were built in two stages. The first stage was from 100 b.c.e. to 100 c.e. Ajanta was at that time the intersection of trade routes linking the south and the north. But most of the ruins at Ajanta date from the second stage, around 460-480 c.e. Most of the benefactors who sponsored the buildings were from the court of the Vakataka king Harisena. Ajanta probably served the king as a military point, as well as a trade center. Once Harisena fell from power the complex was abandoned. By the time the Chinese traveler Xuan Zang (596-664) visited India the caves had already become tourist attractions.

The Ajanta caves are a World Heritage Site. The advisory board, which recommended that Ajanta be included in World Heritage Sites in 1983, cited the caves’ outstanding value as artistic creations. The decorations inside the caves, including painted or sculpted figures, reflect values of suppleness and balance. The caves have exerted a major influence on later artistic development.


The Yogacara school of Mahayana developed a theory of a central consciousness of the universe that acts as the ground of reality. This central consciousness is the alaya-vijnana, or "storehouse consciousness." According to the Yogacara school, consciousness is real, but the objects of consciousness—the things we think we see and touch—are not real; they are illusion. This illusion is created through eight layers of consciousness. The eighth layer is the alaya-vijnana, called the "storehouse consciousness" because it acts as a storage place for karmic energy and serves as the basis for producing the other seven layers of consciousness. All actions create karmic energy. This energy—metaphorically called bija, or karmic seeds—is stored in the alaya-vijnana. As each individual’s karmic seeds ripen, they produce other consciousnesses, such as thought, sight, and touch—in other words, action. The action combines with ignorance to create the effect of an individual person acting in a real world. The rising of this sense of individual essence creates a karmic impression that results in further indi-viduation and action. The cycle is cut when the cultivator, through meditation and hard practice, realizes there is no world of objects separate from the mind.

Alchemical suicide

Alchemy is the term most scholars use to refer to Daoist practices aimed at attaining "immortality." Some of the most intriguing and counterintuitive of these practices involved a practitioner’s intentionally killing the body (usually by ingesting a poisonous compound) to attain "immortal" life. Daoists often speak of such alchemical deaths as shijie (liberation from the corpse). Most scholars agree that the idea developed in Daoist tradition as a way of explaining the physical death required as part of the transformation into an "immortal."

The theoretical basis for the practice of "alchemical suicide" is rooted in ancient Chinese beliefs concerning qi ("matter-energy," the basic "stuff" of existence), the "soul(s)," and the afterlife. In traditional Chinese thought, all of reality is made up of different sorts of qi. In terms of human existence, this qi forms not only the body (more or less "impure" qi) but also a person’s two "souls"—the hun (spirit soul) and the po (earth soul). These two are formed from purer, primordial qi (especially in the case of the hun) and seem to join in the womb; they provide the life and consciousness we enjoy on Earth. At some point after physical death, the two "souls" separate, with the hun returning to its heavenly place of origin and the po remaining on Earth in the vicinity of the corpse. Both "souls" continue to exist for several generations before merging back into their source elements. Before such final dissolution, both are honored through ancestral rites.

In traditional Daoism, these theories suggested that a person was still "present" immediately after death and that some qi might still be active. Such conditions might be the ideal state for those who were properly trained to cultivate and refine their qi and so go on to attain immortality. This would not be an immortal existence in the earthly body (after all, the body is composed of qi in its most impure form) but rather in a body composed of pure and rarified qi, which would be immune to decay and dissolution. As such, the earthly body (corpse) would no longer be required for continued existence.

The actual practices involved in shijie were highly ritualized. They would typically include prior preparation through alchemy and other practices. Moreover, over the years the general understanding became that shijie was an acceptable response to an official summons from the celestial realms. one so summoned would quickly ingest the elixir that had been prepared beforehand. The more potent (i.e., poisonous) it was, the more quickly the adept could effect the transformation and so ascend to the immortal state. It is also important to stress that from a Daoist perspective, this procedure is not "unnatural" since it involves purifying one’s primordial qi and hence returning to the natural state; it is ordinary life with its decay and bodily death ("proof" of a failure to maintain one’s original harmonious endowment) that is "unnatural."

A typical feature of attaining immortality through shijie is the practice of leaving behind some sort of token of one’s physical existence that would be discovered when the adept’s coffin was opened. The most obvious token, of course, would be the corpse itself, but it might also include some symbolic object such as a sword, staff, sandals, or another piece of clothing belonging to the immortal. If the corpse is left, however, accounts typically state that it does not decay as an ordinary body would. Rather, it remains fresh—even "sweet"—and may be surrounded by clouds of pink vapors and strains of heavenly music. In some cases as well, it seems that the adept announced his intention to ascend and then entered into a deep meditative trance, "dying" while the body remained in meditative posture. This latter course seems to betray Buddhist influence, recalling as it does tales of the historical Buddha as well as similar stories of the deaths of legendary Buddhist masters.

The Shangqing (Highest Purity) school of Daoism, which arose on Mount Mao (Maoshan, another name by which the school is known) in the early Middle Ages and drew upon the teachings of the famed alchemist Ge Hong, had some intriguing views of shijie. In part, these teachings seem to be based on Buddhist notions of rebirth. According to Shangqing teachings, shijie is a result of the "purification by the Supreme Yin." It is said that the gods watch over the body for 100 years. At the end of this period (during which the body may have even rotted away), the body rises up into the "Supreme Yin." According to the Xiang’er commentary to the Daodejing, the "Supreme Yin" is a sort of "palace" or womb in which the body is prepared for a new birth. In essence, this means that even if the purification process is incomplete, one undergoes a more or less "partial death" and will be reborn in an intermediary place in which complete purification takes place. This would seem to be roughly equivalent to the idea of purgatory that gained so much credence in medieval Christianity. Other Shangqing traditions maintain that an adept can be reborn in one of the paradises located in the extreme southern regions (known variously as "Palace of Red Fire" or "Court of Liquid Fire"). There the adept undergoes an intense process of purification by fire and is reborn as a full-fledged immortal.

Chinese literature, both popular and elite, is filled with numerous accounts of Daoist adepts undergoing shijie. Among the most famous was none other than Ge Hong himself, the "Master Who Embraces Simplicity." One of the more whimsical tales of shijie concerns Wei Boyang, a figure often regarded as the "father of alchemy," who is alleged to have lived during the latter Han (25-220 c.e.). Wei was a hermit who lived with a few disciples in his laboratory deep in the mountains. There he experimented with concocting various elixirs. One day he refined a particularly potent batch and, for a test, fed one of the pills to his dog. immediately the dog fell over dead and Wei’s students were crestfallen. Apparently grieved but still confident, Wei said that the effect might be different on humans. When none of the students volunteered, Wei swallowed a pill and also fell down dead. Two of his students left, convinced their master had been a fool and they had wasted their time. Wei’s last student, however, trusted his master and so also took a pill. He, too, fell over dead. Presently, however, Wei got up and began to feel light and weightless. His dog also recovered and ran to his master, as did the faithful disciple. Laughing, Wei clapped the latter on the back. Then all three ascended into the sky, much to the consternation of the other disciples, who saw them flying through the heavens. According to tradition, nothing was left of Wei’s potion. He did, however, leave behind a treatise entitled the Cantongqi (Token of the triplex unity), which is often regarded as the ancestor of all Daoist alchemical texts.

All Ceylon Buddhist Congress

The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) was founded December 1919 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and registered as a charitable organization. it was originally intended to act as a coordinating body for the various Young Men’s Buddhist Associations. But the ACBC soon attracted such intellectuals such as Professor Gunapala Malasekere (1899-1973), who developed the organization into a position of community leadership. Malasekere was president of the ACBC between 1940 and 1958 and between 1970 and 1973. Today it is the largest lay Buddhist organization in Sri Lanka and works as a counterpart to the Buddhist sangha. Women were until 1924 denied membership.

The congress has 10 separate councils to handle such functional areas as religion and culture and education. Each council is presided over by officeholders and other volunteers. There is also an advisory board of 60 monks appointed from three monastic traditions.

The ACBC was involved in the formation of the World Buddhist Fellowship in 1950. It also sponsors a major Tripitaka translation project. The congress has since the 1940s become active in providing schools, vocational training, and hostels. one current project is the rehabilitation of ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka, a project highly relevant today given recent drought conditions on the island.

Alms bowl (Sanskrit patta, Japanese jihatsu)

The round bowl is one of the basic accessories of an ordained monk, along with the staff, an umbrella (glot), and three robes. The bowl is used to collect food donated by the laity each day. In Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Myanmar monks go forth each day, usually at dawn, to ask for food. The food is put into the bowl by the lay Buddhist, who prepares and offers it. The monk must accept all food offered, without asking or choosing. The monks then return to the monastery and eat the food in silence around 11 a.m. In general no more food is taken that day after noon.

The alms bowl is a powerful symbol of Buddhist monastic life and principles. It represents the monk’s lifestyle and adherence to the Vinaya, the code of conduct. on an economic level it represents the Sangha’s dependence on society at large for its continuance.

In Southeast Asia today most alms bowls are made of lacquer, a traditional light material easily cleaned, although metals have also been used. Alms bowls are generally round, around 15 cm in diameter, with walls that curve inward to the mouth. The bowl is often carried over the monk’s shoulder in a fabric sling. It is also often carried under the monk’s robes.

Altan Khan (Altyn Khan)

(1507-1582) Mongol ruler

Altan Khan reunited the Mongolian empire and spread Vajrayana Buddhism in Mongolia and Tibet.

He was the grandson of Dayan Khan, who had begun the effort to reunify the Mongolian peoples. Altan Khan reestablished ties between Mongolia and Tibet. At this time Tibet was largely ruled by the leaders of the Sakya Buddhist sect. Altan Khan invited Sonam Gyatso (1543-88), the abbot of Tashilhumpo Monastery and leader of the Gelug sect, to Mongolia to spread Buddhism. This encounter would both establish Gelug Tibetan

Buddhism as the religion of Mongolia and lead to the rise of the Gelug sect as the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet.

Gyatso made two trips to Mongolia, one in 1569 and then again in 1578. During his second visit Altan Khan formally converted to Buddhism. Sonam Gyatso then suggested that Altan Khan was both a reincarnation of Kubla Khan and the embodiment of the bodhisattva of wisdom, Man-jusri. By this action he proclaimed the union of secular and religious power in the person of the khan.

The khan responded to Gyatso’s action by naming the abbot Dalai Lama, that is, "teacher of the ocean of wisdom." Gyatso, the third abbot of Tashilhumpo, also applied the title to his two predecessors. Thus Sonam Gyatso became known as the third Dalai Lama.

Amaterasu Omi-Kami

Amaterasu Omi-Kami, one of the major Shinto deities, is revered throughout Japan as the sun goddess. Amaterasu is the focus of a variety of Japanese myths, especially stories that concern the seasons and the rising of the sun each day. Equally important are the stories connecting her with the Japanese emperor. She is believed to be the mother of the imperial family; the first emperor was her son, whom she established on his throne. The status of Amaterasu reached its zenith in the early 20th century as the successive emperors made heightened claims to political power and directed the building of an expansive Japanese empire.

According to the ancient Shinto scriptures, Amaterasu appeared in the midst of the creation process after the death of Izanami, the female figure in the couple who initiated the creative process. In his grief, her mate, Izanagi, engaged in a mourning and purification process. in the process of cleaning his left eye, he produced Ama-terasu. Continuing with the process he additionally produced Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, Susano-o no Mikoto, and a host of lesser deities (kami).

As the sun goddess, Amaterasu was assigned the sky as the realm over which she exercised her hegemony. With the death of izanagi and the retirement of Izanami, Amaterasu emerged as the chief active deity in the Japanese traditional religion, and the ruler of the other deities. Shrines great and small emerged around the country. She is represented with a mirror and symbolized in the rising sun that appears on the Japanese flag.

Typical of the shrines devoted to Amaterasu is the Kumano Hongu Shrine at Hongu, a popular pilgrimage site in central Japan. The shrine itself is simple and even somewhat austere, but placed in a beautiful setting. The most well known shrine, of course, is the Ise Shrine, located at the foot of Mount Kamiji in central Honshu (Japan’s main island). The inner ise Shrine is closely related to the imperial family, and the emperor is the only one allowed to pass through its gates. The mirror at the inner Shrine is considered one of Japan’s great imperial treasures.

Ambedkar, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji

(1891-1956) Indian independence invocate who led a mass conversion of Dalits, or Untouchables, to Buddhism

A complex political figure, B. R. Ambedkar played a key role in the political struggle for equal rights for India’s lowest class, the Dalits.

Under Ambedkar’s guidance more than 5 million Dalits converted to Buddhism in the early 1950s. He was himself born a Dalit, but unusual for his position in society, was able to receive a good education that led to doctorates from both Columbia university and the London School of Economics. He also qualified for the bar in the united Kingdom.

Beginning with his return to India in 1927, he began a campaign for the uplift of his people, which he came to see as being coincidental with the rejection of Hinduism and the caste system. He went on to found several political parties and was instrumental in drafting India’s constitution in 1947. After independence he became India’s first law minister.

Meanwhile, his understanding of the Dalits evolved. Traditionally considered outside the caste system, they were consigned to work in the lowest of jobs and typically lived in slum areas. To escape from the rigid mindset associated with the caste system, he concluded it was best for Dalits not just to reject Hinduism but to convert en masse to a faith perceived as outside the rigid system, but at the same time perceived by all as innately Indian. That faith was Buddhism. In his 1948 book, The Untouchables, he advanced the theory that the Dalits were descended from the few Buddhists who remained in India when the Buddhist community was otherwise destroyed by the advance of Islam and revival of Hinduism in the Middle Ages.

Under Ambedkar’s guidance more than 5 million Dalits converted to Buddhism. In 1955 he founded the Buddhist Society of India and himself formally converted, just months before his death. His role in the society was subsequently assumed by his son, Yeshwant Ambedkar (1913-77). It quickly grew into a national organization spearheading the post-World War II revival of Buddhism in India.

American Buddhist Congress

The American Buddhist Congress is an ecumenical organization of the major Buddhist groups in the united States. The congress seeks to provide the Buddhist community with a united voice on matters of common interest, to foster fellowship among different Buddhist groups and traditions, and to facilitate cooperative action on matters related to the common good. It has also developed efforts to educate the largely Christian American public about Buddhism.

It was founded in 1987 at a gathering of representatives from different Buddhist organization held at Kwan um Sa Korean Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, California. The congress is a product of the radical expansion of the Buddhist community in America that followed the change in immigration laws in 1965 favoring Asian lands, and the additional immigration of refugees from Vietnam as the war came to a close. It includes all segments of the Buddhist community, though the older and more established Japanese community was reluctant to participate.

Among the leaders who made the congress a reality was the Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratana-sara (1920-2000), a Sri Lankan; Dr. Karl Springer, an American leader in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition; and the Venerable Karuna Dharma, an American teacher in the Vietnamese tradition.

The congress operates through a representative general council with administrative duties assigned to an executive council. The congress is headquartered in suburban Los Angeles.

Amitabha (Amida, Amitayus, "Infinite Light")

Amitabha is one of the most popular deity figures of Mahayana Buddhism. As Buddhism developed, various figures such as Amitabha were added to worship and became focal points for artistic expression and popular belief. Some of those figures were seen as Buddhas in addition to the historical Buddha, since the title Buddha indicated an enlightened individual in general, not solely the historical Buddha. Amitabha is the Buddha who rules over the Western Paradise of Sukhavati. Like a bodhisattva, Amitabha is said to have originally been a human. He is most often associated with the figure Dharmakara, an Indian king who gave up his throne and became a monk. Dharma-kara decided to become a Buddha and establish a realm where all souls may reside until they are ready to enter nirvana. This realm, Sukhavati, is best understood as a state of consciousness, although in many people’s minds it is a kind of heavenly paradise. A practitioner need only recite Amitabha’s name at the moment of death and Amitabha will appear and escort that person to his Western Paradise. Amitabha is in some traditions referred to as head of one of the five Buddha families, the Lotus Family.

Seated Amitabha figure in wood and lacquer, from the Tokyo National Museum

Seated Amitabha figure in wood and lacquer, from the Tokyo National Museum

Belief in Amitabha and Sukhavati was a relatively late development in Buddhism; the first mention was in the Sutra of the Buddha Amitabha, a text that entered China in the fifth century c.e. This text exists now only in the Chinese version— the Sanskrit original has been lost.

Amitabha’s Western Paradise was a powerful force of popular belief and in large measure accounts for the spread of the Pure Land and Jodo schools in China and Japan. Entry into the Western Paradise allows the practitioner a shortcut on the road to nirvana. Instead of the path of constant discipline and rebirths into samsara, a person need only have faith in Amitabha in order to achieve a sort of salvation. Entry into Sukhavati, although distinct from the final extinction of nirvana, would assure a person of ultimate entry into nirvana.

Amitabha’s status as a Buddha is reflected in his depiction in art. Amitabha is often painted as one of a trio of figures. in the first trio Amitabha is seated in the center on a lotus blossom, with Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin) on his left and the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (he who has obtained great power) on his right. in another common triad Amitabha is drawn with Bhaisajya-guru, the Medicine Buddha. In addition, Avalokistesvara is often said to have been born from an emanation from Amitabha’s brow. Because of this Avalokitesvara is often painted or carved into Amitabha’s brow.

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