The Sutra of Immeasurable Life
(Skt. Larger Sukhavativyuha sutra)
The Larger Sukhavativyuha was translated twelve times from Sanskrit into Chinese. Today, however, only five translations remain. These are:
1) A-mi-t'o san-yeh-san-fo sa-lo fo-t'an kuo-tu jen-tao ching, usually called Ta a-mi-t'o ching (Dai-Amida-kyo), in two volumes is the oldest of the five. It is attributed to Chih-ch'ien (220-57) of the Wu dynasty, although another theory holds that Lokaksema (fl. 167-86) is the original translator (Gomez, 126, fn. 3). [T. 362]
2)Wu-liang ch'ing-ching p'ing-teng-chueh ching, usually referred to as P'ing-teng-chueh ching, in four volumes. It is attributed to Po-yen (ca. 258) of the Wei dynasty (or some sources say Pai-yen). Again, varying theories also attribute this translation to Lokaksema or Dharmaraksa (Kotatsu, 7). [T. 361]
3)Wu-liang-shou ching consists of two volumes and is traditionally thought to have been translated in 252 Samghavarman of the Wei dynasty. However, it is now thought to have been cooperatively translated by Buddhabhadra (359-429) of the Eastern Ching dynasty and Pao-yun (376-449) of the Liu Sung dynasty. This is the most popular and commonly used of the five translations. (T. 360)
4) Wu-liang-shou ju-lai hui, in two volumes, translated by Bodhiruci between 706 and 713 during the T'ang dynasty.
5) Ta-ch'eng wu-liang-shou chuang-yen ching, in three volumes, was translated by Fa-hsien in 991 during the Sung dynasty. (T. 363)
Twenty commentaries have been written on the Wu-liang-shou ching translation in China, Korea and Japan - most notably Vasubandhu's Wang-sheng lun. Honen himself produced four commentaries on the sutra: the Sanbukyotaii, the Muryojukyo shaku, the Gyakushu seppo, and the Senchakushu.
According to Honen's Sanbukyo taii, the content of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life can be divided into two parts. The first deals with Amida Buddha's forty-eight vows, and the second discusses whether or not the original vow was actually fulfilled.
1. Amida Buddha's Forty-eight Vows
The Sutra of Immeasurable Life represents itself as Shakyamuni Buddha's reply to a question posed by his disciple Ananda. The first half is a detailed treatment of the forty-eight parts of Amida Buddha's original vow (hongan), which is the unique vow made by a particular buddha or bodhisattva to lead others to salvation. The story of the manner in which these forty-eight vows were made is as follows.
A very long time ago, fifty two buddhas appeared in succession. The fifty-third to appear in this world was Lokeshvararaja Buddha. A king who received the teaching of this Buddha renounced his throne and, leaving the household life, became the bodhisattva known as Dharmakara (Hozo bosatsu). He practiced with unrelenting zeal for many eons, and finally, after intensive meditation on all the possible vows and pure lands, he made his forty-eight vows. Five of these vows concern his future attainment of buddhahood and the establishment of his Pure Land. The remaining forty-three vows concern his resolve to save all beings. The eighteenth vow in particular illustrates Dharmakara's compassion.
When I attain buddhahood, if all sentient beings in the ten directions, who aspire in all sincerity and faith to be born in my land and think of me even ten times, are not born there, then may I not attain supreme enlightenment.(T. 360, 11: 268a)
Amida Buddha was not the only Buddha who vowed to save sentient beings, Samanthabhadra Bodhisattva (Fugen bosatsu) and Aksobhya Buddha (Ashuku butsu) being two well known examples. Nevertheless, Honen felt that Amida Buddha's vow opens the possibility of salvation through such a simple act as calling him to mind. Moreover, with the eighteenth vow, Amida as the bodhisattva Dharmakara vowed that if those who thus called him in mind were not born in his Pure Land, he would forego supreme enlightenment. Since Dharmakara is considered to have attained supreme enlightenment as Amida Buddha, by implication, the salvation of those who put faith in him is assured. (Senchakushu Chapt. 3)
2. Selection and Fulfillment of the Original Vow
After the enumeration of Dharmakara's vows, Ananda questions Shakyamuni: "Did Dharmakara Bodhisattva, long ago, become a Buddha and enter final nirvana? Or has he perhaps not attained buddhahood? Or is he even now presiding in his Pure Land?"(T. 360., 11: 270a) Shakyamuni replies: "Dharmakara Bodhisattva has already become Amida Buddha and is now in his western land. This land lies a distance of ten trillion buddha lands from here. It is called ‘Peaceful Bliss' (Ch. an-le, Jp. anraku)."2 Thus according to the sutra, the forty-eight vows of Dharmakara Bodhisattva were completely fulfilled when he became Amida Buddha. This original vow of Amida Buddha has been understood as the basis for salvation within Pure Land Buddhism. In Chapter Three of his Senchakushu, Honen refers to these events, citing a passage in this sutra regarding the fulfillment of the vow of birth through the nembutsu.
If sentient beings hear his name and, rejoicing with believing hearts, think of him even once while single-mindedly and wholeheartedly transferring their merit in the desire for birth in his Land, then they will attain birth and abide in the state of non-retrogression.(T. 360, 12:272b; Senchakushu, T. 2608, 83:6b)
The sutra goes on to explain that all persons, whether of superior, intermediate or inferior capacity, can attain birth in the Pure Land.
Honen understood that Dharmakara Bodhisattva selected the nembutsu alone among the various practices which enable one to gain birth in one of the twenty-one billion buddha lands. This he called senchaku hongan or “selection of the nembutsu in Amida's original vow.” (Senchakushu Chapt. 3) Furthermore, Honen thought that Shakyamuni did not praise various other practices but praised only the nembutsu for the three classes of people who can attain birth in the Pure Land. This he called senchaku sandan or “selection of the nembutsu through the special praise of Shakyamuni.” (Senchakushu Chapt. 5) Finally, Honen thought that even though Shakyamuni expounded various practices, ultimately he selected only the nembutsu and selected it as the teaching which would outlast all others by one hundred years. This he called senchaku rukyo or “selection of the teaching of the nembutsu by Shakyamuni when he designated it to stand alone” (Senchakushu, Chapt. 6)