Origins of Amitabha

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Origins of Amitabha

Postby Indrajala » Sun May 23, 2010 2:36 pm

In secular religious studies there has been discussion about the potential origins for Amitabha. Charles Eliot, though his writing now dated, saw a potential similarity between Amitabha and the Zoroastrian Ahura Mazda.


From Nagarjuna in Context (p.20~21):
(Sorry for the poor formatting.)

Another fruitful line of inquiry has revolved around the question of the geographic spread of Maháyána. Three authors in particular have written in this vein. In 1921, Charles Eliot was perhaps the first to suggest a northwest Asian influence on (and possible origin for) Maháyána. Although he notes that many features of Maháyána are also present in Hinduism—thus ruling out a foreign origin for Maháyána—he does indicate that some peculiar features of Maháyána have more in common with Persian religion than Indian. Following the line of inquiry begun by Sylvain Lévi, who argued for a Tokharian origin of the bodhisattva Mañjusrô,18 Eliot points to the similarities between the Maháyána Buddha, Amitábha, and the Zoroastrian
god Ahura Mazda. He writes that both Ahura Mazda and Amitábha are deities residing in a paradise of light. In both cults, the practitioner is led to this paradise of light after reciting the name of the deity.
Finally, Eliot remarks on the homophony between the names of Amitábha’s paradise (Sukhávatô) and the name of Ahura Mazda’s abode (Saukavastan).
He summarizes his findings as follows:

Thus all the chief features of Amitábha’s paradise are Persian: only his method of instituting it by making a vow is Buddhist. It is true thatvIndian imagination had conceived numerous paradises, and that the early Buddhist legend tells of the Tushita heaven. But Sukhávatô is not like these abodes of bliss. It appeared suddenly in the history of Buddhism as something exotic, grafted adroitly on the parent trunk but
sometimes overgrowing it.

Almost a century later, the hypothesis of a Persian origin for Buddhas such as Amitábha and Kíitigarbha has yet to be either confirmed or refuted as there remains so little evidence for a cult of either of these Buddhas in India.


Any thoughts on this?

Would the validity of Pure Land Buddhism be destroyed if it could be proven that the early Pure Land ideas arouse more from Zoroastrianism rather than a strictly Buddhist environment?
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Sun May 23, 2010 2:45 pm

I often find the idea that any sort of religious idea must precede from an earlier and similar religious idea to be often very superficial. As though religious thought could only come from earlier books and so on, rather than the basics of religious experience itself.

Ask, what experiences do Buddhists have in particular types of deep meditation? I find a much more convincing argument here. Unfortunately, it appears that the above authors haven't spent much time either practicing, or living with practitioners. They think that "infinite light" is two words in a book or something.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Indrajala » Sun May 23, 2010 2:52 pm

Huifeng wrote:I often find the idea that any sort of religious idea must precede from an earlier and similar religious idea to be often very superficial. As though religious thought could only come from earlier books and so on, rather than the basics of religious experience itself.

Ask, what experiences do Buddhists have in particular types of deep meditation? I find a much more convincing argument here. Unfortunately, it appears that the above authors haven't spent much time either practicing, or living with practitioners. They think that "infinite light" is two words in a book or something.


Venerable. :smile:

That's indeed a sharp point. I agree with you too. I think trying to trace every line of religious thought back to something else (or in some extreme cases being quite Darwinistic about it and looking for the "darwin value" of religion) only works to a certain extent.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby plwk » Sun May 23, 2010 3:14 pm

Don't ya just love scholars and their endless speculations and nitpickings.... :stirthepot:

I would love to hear the same people dispute the realizations and accomplishments of all the Pure Land Patriarchs right down to the simple man who takes up the rosary with Amitabha in mind...

When one's sraddha is correctly and firmly established in the Dharma, what Brahma, Mara or human can seek to remove that?

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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Indrajala » Sun May 23, 2010 3:25 pm

plwk wrote:Don't ya just love scholars and their endless speculations and nitpickings.... :stirthepot:

I would love to hear the same people dispute the realizations and accomplishments of all the Pure Land Patriarchs right down to the simple man who takes up the rosary with Amitabha in mind...

When one's sraddha is correctly and firmly established in the Dharma, what Brahma, Mara or human can seek to remove that?

:namaste:


However, we can't dismiss the findings of scholars just because they are unappealing or inconvenient to us.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Yogicfire » Sun May 23, 2010 5:27 pm

I wouldn't see the speculation concerning the apparent link between Amitabha and a Persian deity as being totally baseless, and without foundation. I also wouldn't see it necessarily as being just a -dry- academic view that doesn't have any true practical value either.

I would probably look at the links between different religious traditions and spiritual deities as part of a overall growth, movement and development of the human mind. What the psyche has 'tuned into' can be developed in slightly different ways depending on circumstance and personal view. I am sure that the mystics of the ages all had a slightly different take on aspects of the sacred, and this has let to a infinite variation of form - whether it be the Persian God of Light or the Buddhist one. This would all probably be in line with some kind of Jungian idea of archetypes that arise from the collective unconscious...

Historically speaking as well, the deities within the Mahayana tradition have all evolved greatly over time, and have picked up various cultural trappings and distinctive hues, especially with a deity such as Kannon for example. It doesn't detract from the power and efficacy of Kannon to see this transition as part of the overall evolution of mind and tradition.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Lazy_eye » Sun May 23, 2010 6:09 pm

Is it possible that a religious experience could be genuine -- but people "borrow" a narrative in order to explain the experience, or to place it within a recognizable framework?
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 24, 2010 1:35 am

Lazy_eye wrote:Is it possible that a religious experience could be genuine -- but people "borrow" a narrative in order to explain the experience, or to place it within a recognizable framework?


Very sharp question, LE!

Still, after a certain period of western scholarship trying to make connections with Buddhism and other religions further west, it has been clearly pointed out that the general narrative of these developments in Buddhist thought have very clear and strong roots in Indian Buddhism itself. Doesn't it make more sense to begin looking for the roots of a Buddhist development in Buddhism, before looking elsewhere?

May wish to keep in mind that many of the earlier western (= euro) scholars of Buddhism were "orientalists" who began from the middle east, into persia, and then into india. They had certain deeply ingrained ideas, and most were looking to posit christianity as the superior religion. Those cited above are slightly later, but would have been influenced strongly by the earlier group.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Indrajala » Mon May 24, 2010 2:28 am

Huifeng wrote:Still, after a certain period of western scholarship trying to make connections with Buddhism and other religions further west, it has been clearly pointed out that the general narrative of these developments in Buddhist thought have very clear and strong roots in Indian Buddhism itself. Doesn't it make more sense to begin looking for the roots of a Buddhist development in Buddhism, before looking elsewhere?


I don't think this rules out the possibility of Zoroastrian influences here and there. Buddhism was in Persian territories and along border regions.

I'm neither affirming or denying the theory, but I do think it is interesting and I think we should be considerate of such theories, though it might not jive well with some faithful.


May wish to keep in mind that many of the earlier western (= euro) scholars of Buddhism were "orientalists" who began from the middle east, into persia, and then into india. They had certain deeply ingrained ideas, and most were looking to posit christianity as the superior religion. Those cited above are slightly later, but would have been influenced strongly by the earlier group.


I understand your concern, but an argumentum ad hominem is fallacious and does not refute the said theories.

On the reverse some Buddhist scholars as well will be prone to having distorted views and agendas (I'm not in any way implying this means you however!).
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Indrajala » Mon May 24, 2010 2:33 am

Lazy_eye wrote:Is it possible that a religious experience could be genuine -- but people "borrow" a narrative in order to explain the experience, or to place it within a recognizable framework?


I think that's a very valid point.

How do you explain to people profound spiritual experiences? You have to utilize some kind of description which they can visualize, though it is only provisional.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Nighthawk » Mon May 24, 2010 7:32 am

Huseng wrote:
Huifeng wrote:I often find the idea that any sort of religious idea must precede from an earlier and similar religious idea to be often very superficial. As though religious thought could only come from earlier books and so on, rather than the basics of religious experience itself.

Ask, what experiences do Buddhists have in particular types of deep meditation? I find a much more convincing argument here. Unfortunately, it appears that the above authors haven't spent much time either practicing, or living with practitioners. They think that "infinite light" is two words in a book or something.


Venerable. :smile:

That's indeed a sharp point. I agree with you too. I think trying to trace every line of religious thought back to something else (or in some extreme cases being quite Darwinistic about it and looking for the "darwin value" of religion) only works to a certain extent.


Also there are apparently tons of Pure Land NDE stories in chinese and japanese literature.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 24, 2010 8:17 am

Huseng wrote:
Huifeng wrote:Still, after a certain period of western scholarship trying to make connections with Buddhism and other religions further west, it has been clearly pointed out that the general narrative of these developments in Buddhist thought have very clear and strong roots in Indian Buddhism itself. Doesn't it make more sense to begin looking for the roots of a Buddhist development in Buddhism, before looking elsewhere?


I don't think this rules out the possibility of Zoroastrian influences here and there. Buddhism was in Persian territories and along border regions.

I'm neither affirming or denying the theory, but I do think it is interesting and I think we should be considerate of such theories, though it might not jive well with some faithful.


May wish to keep in mind that many of the earlier western (= euro) scholars of Buddhism were "orientalists" who began from the middle east, into persia, and then into india. They had certain deeply ingrained ideas, and most were looking to posit christianity as the superior religion. Those cited above are slightly later, but would have been influenced strongly by the earlier group.


I understand your concern, but an argumentum ad hominem is fallacious and does not refute the said theories.

On the reverse some Buddhist scholars as well will be prone to having distorted views and agendas (I'm not in any way implying this means you however!).


I don't see the latter as argumentum ad hominem, but as pointing out faults in their methodology.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Astus » Mon May 24, 2010 9:41 am

I've heard this idea a couple of times before. I think it is/was a trend in cultural anthropology to find sources of cultural phenomena in other places, ultimately arriving at the original source (or something like that) - called Diffusionism.

But maybe we can actually find internal sources. I think of those gods who are "made of light", or shining (appamanabha deva - Devas of Unbounded Radiance). So it is not at all inconceivable how a Buddha of Infinite Light could be found in Buddhism. We just have to establish that the concepts of infinite and light were present as religious ideas.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 24, 2010 10:33 am

Astus wrote:I've heard this idea a couple of times before. I think it is/was a trend in cultural anthropology to find sources of cultural phenomena in other places, ultimately arriving at the original source (or something like that) - called Diffusionism.

But maybe we can actually find internal sources. I think of those gods who are "made of light", or shining (appamanabha deva - Devas of Unbounded Radiance). So it is not at all inconceivable how a Buddha of Infinite Light could be found in Buddhism. We just have to establish that the concepts of infinite and light were present as religious ideas.


Exactly. The various types of meditation of "purity", corresponding to deva realms, and on light; as well as the notion of a place where one is liberated similar to the suddhavasa in earlier teachings; and in the background of the profusion of bodhisattva cult and literature prevailing in almost all forms of Indian buddhism at that time; along with the notion of the various stages along the bodhisattva path, such as aspiration and confirmation from another (living) buddha. Buddhist "creation" of a world is a result of karma, a fairly standard idea in Indian Buddhism (if not universal). No buddha "creates" the beings in their world, or even angels or the like. The notion of "nirmana" buddhas is easily traced to the mano-maya-kaya, another classic and standard feature of early Indian buddhism.

Unlike the Zoroastrianist idea, which is a positing of light / good vs dark / evil, we seldom see the usage of much dark / evil image or theme in Pureland Buddhism in this way. We still have Mara, but that is not from Persia, either. In this way, it has greater parallels perhaps with middle eastern forms, along with good vs bad, and creation from the demiurge.

The commonalities are there, but they are superficial in many ways, no more so than a large number of other religious beliefs. Yet the lines of development from Indian Buddhism are much stronger and clearer. Often the earlier scholars didn't access these lines of thought to form their conclusions.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 24, 2010 10:36 am

maestro wrote:
Huseng wrote:
Huifeng wrote:I often find the idea that any sort of religious idea must precede from an earlier and similar religious idea to be often very superficial. As though religious thought could only come from earlier books and so on, rather than the basics of religious experience itself.

Ask, what experiences do Buddhists have in particular types of deep meditation? I find a much more convincing argument here. Unfortunately, it appears that the above authors haven't spent much time either practicing, or living with practitioners. They think that "infinite light" is two words in a book or something.


Venerable. :smile:

That's indeed a sharp point. I agree with you too. I think trying to trace every line of religious thought back to something else (or in some extreme cases being quite Darwinistic about it and looking for the "darwin value" of religion) only works to a certain extent.


Also there are apparently tons of Pure Land NDE stories in chinese and japanese literature.


And perhaps even more interesting is that non-Mahayana and non-Pureland Buddhists may also have experiences that are similar - Buddhas or other such figures, radiant in light, expounding the Dharma. Such experiences are more a matter of religious psychology, influenced by various meditative practices and interpreted through a broader religious outlook. How could these have been influenced by Persian thought? Buddhism, giving much import to such religious psychology, indicates several types of experience that a quite common, although the specifics will be in terms of the given systems of thought at that place and time.
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Astus » Mon May 24, 2010 10:47 am

I think as for religious psychology - and mythology, gods, types of beliefs - the different levels of existence from hell to the formless realms are a wonderful source and description. It's the whole spectrum from top to bottom. Making it more Buddhist with bodhisattvas and buddhas seems then an internalisation (into Buddhism) of an ancient Indian cosmology.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 24, 2010 11:49 am

I also should have added some comments about findings of thanatology. Studying a very wide range of NDEs, it has been found that almost all people of all cultures go through a near identical death process. The only difference being the particular "spiritual figure" that they may experience at the light at the end of the tunnel. Whatever the case, this is usually a figure of light and life and love. Borrowing a metaphor from Ramana Maharsi, the mind itself is like the projector light, the mental images and thoughts are like the film, giving a specific form to the undifferentiated light. But the light of mind is itself a commonality for almost all religious faiths, and the non-religious too.

Now, what does "Amitabha" mean again?
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Astus » Mon May 24, 2010 2:28 pm

Nice, Master Huifeng, putting together NDE, psychology and philosophy of religion to show that it is all natural that Amitabha Buddha is associated with both infinite light and transference/birth in a buddha-land. At this point we could as well turn to the Vajrayana teachings on the intermediate state which is full of different lights.

On the other hand, this makes the whole "Amitabha Cult" seem less salvational.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Namu Butsu » Thu Jun 03, 2010 7:03 pm

Is there any site that speaks about NDE of common people witnessing the pure land etc?

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Re: Origins of Amitabha

Postby Huifeng » Fri Jun 04, 2010 3:07 am

Astus wrote:Nice, Master Huifeng, putting together NDE, psychology and philosophy of religion to show that it is all natural that Amitabha Buddha is associated with both infinite light and transference/birth in a buddha-land. At this point we could as well turn to the Vajrayana teachings on the intermediate state which is full of different lights.

On the other hand, this makes the whole "Amitabha Cult" seem less salvational.


The teaching of the intermediate state comes from well before the Vajrayana makes an appearance, just the details change, that is about all.

How does it make things any the less salvational?
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