The Meditation Sutra

(Skt. Amitayur-dhyana sutra)

(Ch. Kuan wu-liang-shou ching)

(Jp. Kammuryoju-kyo)

Translations & Commentaries:

This sutra is said to have been translated into Chinese by Kalayashas in the first half of the fifth century (424). However, since no Sanskrit or Tibetan versions have been found and many sutras describing practices for visualizing the Buddha were composed in China and Central Asia around the fifth century, many scholars believe that it was originally written in one of these places. At the beginning of this century, forty-seven manuscripts of the Kuan wu-liang-shou ching were found at Tun-huang in China, as well as multiple copies of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) and the Amida Sutra (A-mi-t'o ching)[Fukui and Makita]. A comparison of these manuscripts reveals that this sutra circulated under three different titles: Kuan wu-liang-shou ching, Wu-liang-shou kuan ching and Kuan wu-liang shou-fo ching.

The Meditation Sutra's central teaching describes sixteen practices concerning various visualizations of Amida Buddha, his Pure Land and bodhisattvas who accompany him. In China and Japan, this sutra has been highly revered, as is revealed by the existence of over more than thirty commentaries. Shan-tao's Commentary on the the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) was particularly important in the development of Pure Land thought in China. Honen also relied primarily on this commentary in developing his own thought and wrote a commentary of his own called the Kanmuryojukyo shaku.

The Text:

The sutra opens with an account of events in Rajagrha during the lifetime of Shakyamuni. Rajagrha, the capital of Magadha, used to be the capital of the Shishunaga dynasty in India. The new part of town built during the reign of King Bimbisara corresponds to today's city of Rajgir. This region was very powerful around the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. at the time of Bimbisara, who is famous for having propagated the teachings of Buddhism during his reign. The sutra relates that Prince Ajatashatru plotted with the Buddha's cousin and renegade disciple Devadatta to kill his father, King Bimbisara. They besieged the king's house, hoping to starve him to death. Queen Vaidehi foiled their plan by covering her body with a mixture of milk, honey and wheat and concealing containers of grape juice in her ornaments when she visited the king. Shakyamuni, who at this time was staying on Mt. Grdhrakuta on the outskirts of Rajagrha, miraculously sent his disciples Maudgalyayana and Purna into the king's presence. When he heard from them the Buddha's teachings, Bimbisara was restored to health and strength. When Ajatashatru heard of his mother's trick, he resolved to kill her but was prevented by the royal attendant Candraprabha and the physician Jataka. Nevertheless, he imprisoned her far away from the palace and the king.

In her grief, she beseeched Shakyamuni: "Oh, Buddha, what did I do that I should give birth to a son who now wants to kill me? And through what fate do you have a man like Devadatta as your relative? Oh, Buddha, I have a request," she continued, "Tell me, if you can, some land where there is no suffering, for I want to be born in such a world."(T.365, 12:341b) By way of answer, Shakyamuni emanated from his forehead a ray of light which illuminated the wonders of many buddha lands far away. Vaidehi thus understood that the ideal world of which she had dreamed actually existed as Amida Buddha's Pure Land. Vaidehi immediately resolved to be born there and asked Shakyamuni how she could do so. Shakyamuni then taught her the contemplative visualization of the Pure Land through thirteen successive stages of meditation.

1. Visualization of the Pure Land

The Meditation Sutra describes an extremely long and difficult practice of contemplation and visualization that begins with contemplation of the setting sun in the West and progresses gradually until the practitioner is able to envision the whole expanse and contents of Amida's Pure Land. According to the sutra, this process begins by sitting erect in the posture of meditation and contemplating the setting sun. Then the practitioner continues meditating until (s)he can envision the sun with the eyes either open or closed. In the stage of the second contemplation, the practitioner first contemplates an expanse of still water and then continues until the water can be envisioned with eyes either open or closed. Then the still waters of the Pure Land are envisioned in the same manner. This process continues throughout the sixteen stages until the whole of the Pure Land can be visualized.

1) To visualize the sun (nissokan)
2) To visualize water (suisokan)
3) To visualize the ground of the Pure Land (chisokan)
This meditative visualization is aimed to accomplish clear vision of the seven jewelled ground of the Pure Land irrespective of opening or closing one's eyes.
4) To visualize the Pure Land's jeweled trees (hojukan)
The practitioner begins by visualizing the trunk of such a trees and then successively the branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and finally a whole grove of such trees.
5) To visualize the Pure Land's jeweled ponds (hochikan)
According to Amida Sutra, these ponds are filled with waters containing the eight Buddhist virtues. According to Sutra of Immeasurable Life, in the sounds of its waves one can hear the preaching of the Dharma.
6) To visualize the Pure Land's jeweled towers (horokakukan)
If one visualizes these towers properly, one can hear the heavenly music which is wafted from the towers of the Pure Land.
7) To visualize the Pure Land's lotus blossom thrones (kezakan)
This meditation has the aim of visualizing the lotus leaves, flowers, rays of light from the lotus blossom thrones and various rewards of the Pure Land.
8) To visualize the image of Amida Buddha (zosokan)
This is the visualization of the images of Amida Buddha accompanied by his two companions Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara (Kannon), and Mahasthamaprapta (Seishi) sitting on the lotus blossom thrones.
9) To visualize [the full body of] Amida Buddha (Amidabutsukan)
Seeing the full detail of Amida Buddha with his 84,000 special features and with rays of light emanating from his body. This meditation is regarded as the samadhi of seeing the Buddha, mentioned several times in the Senchakushu.
10) To visualize Avalokiteshvara (Kannonkan)
Seeing the full body of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kannon).
11) To visualize Mahasthamaprapta (Seishikan)
Visualization of the full body of the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta (Seishi).
12) To visualize one
s own ascension to the Pure Land (fuojokan)
to visualize the entirety of the Pure Land as though one were already born there
13) To visualize the manifold aspects of Amida's universal salvation (zosokan)
In her meditation, the practitioner is to visualize all of the details of the universal salvation of Amida Buddha, not only in his Pure Land but in every buddha land situated in the ten directions.
(T.365, 12:341c-346a)

2.Three Levels of Meditation

The sutra then explains three levels of meditation for those who wish to achieve birth in the Pure Land: superior, intermediate and inferior, in accordance with their capacities. These are then further subdivided into high, middle and low classes within each of the three categories. According to one's capacity and level of practice, there are nine grades of birth (kuhon) in the Pure Land. Persons of the highest level of superior capacity are those who keep the precepts and practice the Mahayana teachings; such persons will be welcomed by Amida at the moment of death and escorted by him to the Pure Land. Those of the lowest level of inferior capacity are evil persons who commit the five grievous sins (gogyakuzai) invariably falling into the hells of incessant suffering. However, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that Amida will embrace and save even these beings. The practice here shifts from contemplative practice to calling on the name of Amida Buddha with faith, even as few as ten times. It is this practice which gradually developed into the verbal recitation of Amida's name or nembutsu (Ch. nien-fo, Jp. nembutsu). Together with the thirteen stages of contemplation outlined above, these three meditations for persons of superior, intermediate and inferior capacity constitute the sixteen contemplations of the Meditation Sutra. The sutra refers to all sixteen as contemplative practices (jozen). However, Shan-tao categorized them as non-contemplative good practices (sanzen) and emphasizes the practice of the recited nembutsu.

Honen understood that many practices other than the nembutsu are expounded in this sutra, but he felt that it ultimately said that Amida only saves sentient beings who practice the nembutsu by embracing his light. This he called senchaku sesshu or selection of the nembutsu through Amida's divine light embracing those who practice it. (Senchakushu Chapt. 7) Furthermore, he understood that under the section on the nine levels of people in the sentence on the upper third of the lower class of people, Amida Buddha in his transformation body (keshin) did not praise the practice of hearing the names of the sutras but rather the practice of the nembutsu. This he called senchaku kessan or selection of the nembutsu made when Amida Buddha in his transformation body praised the beings of the highest level of the lowest class who utter his name. (Senchakushu, Chapter 10&12) Finally, although various practices other than the nembutsu are expounded at first, in the final part of the sutra (T.366, 12:346b), the narrative of Shakyamuni's entrusting of the nembutsu to Ananda in order for it to be taught to later generations proves to Honen the primacy of the nembutsu. This he called senchaku fuzoku or selection of the nembutsu made by Shakyamuni when he entrusted it to Ananda for transmission to future generations (Senchakushu, Chapter 12&16).

Honen's Eight Types of Selection (senchaku)

For more on the Senchakushu


Fukui Bunga and Makita Tairyo Tonko to Chugoku Bukkyo, Koza Tonko vol. 7 (Tokyo: Daito Shuppansha, 1984).


from Hell and the Pure Land (Jigoku Gokuraku-zu) from Konkai Komyo-ji, Kyoto.

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