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date: 03 December 2022

Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan Contextslocked

Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan Contextslocked

  • Georgios HalkiasGeorgios HalkiasBuddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong

Summary

Buddhist literature in India and Tibet abounds with literal and allegorical references to terrestrial, celestial, and transcendent realms. Of all celestial dwellings cast along Buddhist lines, the pure land Sukhāvatī holds a prominent place in the religious, cultural, and national imagination of the Tibetans. Many centuries before the first imperially sponsored Sanskrit to Tibetan translations of the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras, Buddha Amitābha and his western abode Sukhāvatī made headway in the cosmopolitan region of greater Gandhāra. Active in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent he emerged as an influential solar deity with his own paradise in Buddhist monastic circles and enjoyed unprecedented success in his subsequent transmigration to East and Central Asia and across the Tibetan plateau.

Notwithstanding a Mahāyāna theological reading of Amitābha and his Pure Land, heliocentric metaphors and symbols informed Mahāyāna Buddhism in its encounters with Eurasian solar cults celebrating the vital force of the sun and its metaphorical transition into a spiritual life triumphing over darkness and death. Ritual invocations and creative visualizations of Amitābha-Amitāyus are noticeable in Indian Vajrayāna scriptures imported to Tibet during the postimperial transmission of Buddhism. This second wave of religious assimilation coincides with Amitābha rising to a position of retroactive primacy and exclusivity in narratives concerning Tibet’s conversion to Buddhism and in ancestral myths of the Tibetan race rescued, through his divine emissary Avalokiteśvara, from indigenous forces of malignancy. His overstated presence in Tibetan mythopoiesis bears witness to various soteriological instantiations and expressions of worship in religious art and esoteric registers. In his dual function as the lord of infinite light (Amitābha) and infinite life (Amitāyus), this Mahāyāna deity absorbed functions that had previously been attributed to a range of divinities. Over time, Amitābha and his celestial field inspired a distinct genre of Tibetan pure land literature, the demön, comprising for the most part aspirational prayers for rebirth in Sukhāvatī and tributes to his extraordinary salvific powers. Under the guise of attaining rebirth in the pure land, these popular supplications of devotional nature were supplemented by substantive commentaries elaborating on Mahāyāna practices and doctrines. Hence, the demön came to encompass a wide range of exoteric and esoteric scriptures including funereal rites, tantric rituals for extending life, and meditation manuals derived from visionary kratophanies of the deity. Sukhāvatī inspired a number of ontological possibilities, corporeal, incorporeal, and subtle interpretations derived from the pure land sutras, the tantras, and the revealed scriptures of the Nyingma school. The fusion of devotional praises, faith-based aspirations, and esoteric subtle-body practices had a profound effect in the soteriological formulation of the pure land in Tibet conceptualized simultaneously as an external after-death destination, an interiorized place of the subtle-body infrastructure culminating in the Vajrayāna practice of mind transference to the pure land, and as a sublimated state representing the immutable nature of the awakened mind.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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