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Some Aspects of the Cult of Aksobhya in Mahayana Scriptures

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Naomi SATO


1 Introduction : As the terms Aksobhya or Abhirati are mentioned in many Maha-yana scriptures1),w e can assume that the Buddha Aksobhya and his eastern buddha-field Abhirati were quite popular when they were composed. Although most of the texts use these two words without any explanations, only a few of them provide any details : the *Aksobhyavyuha-sutra( AV)2 ), the main and oldest text which is fully devoted to explaining the Buddha Aksobhya's career and the merits of Abhirati, the early Prajnaparamita-

sutra group (e. g. AstasahasrikPa rajnaparamita-sutra( AstP)), the Vimalakirtinirdesa-sutra( Vn), the Saddharmapundarika-sutra (Sp), the Karuna-pundarika-sutra (Kp) and the Mahaparinirvana-sutra (Mp). In this paper, I would like to examine the latter five texts to see how Mahayana scriptures besides Av de-scribe the cult of Aksobhyaa nd the universe (lokadhatu)A bhirati. I used the Sanskrit edition primarily, or the oldest Tibetan and Chinese translations when a Sanskrit text has not survived to the present. 2

Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita-sutra : AstP is one of the earliest Mahayana scrip-tures, and is known as the first to use the term mahayana. The Larger Sukhavativyuha is also a famous early Mahayana scripture written about the Buddha Amitabha (or Amitayus)a nd his buddha-field (buddhaksetra).A stP never refers to the Buddha Amitabha (or Amitayus),w hereas the Larger Sukhavativyuhad oes not mention the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita).T hus they are assumed to be in a different group at the very beginning of the

Mahayana Buddhism. The term Aksobhya is quoted in Chap. 19,27, and 28. 2.1 Chap. 19 Gangadevibhaginiparivarta Vaidya [1960a]1 80,21-181,28: Chap. 19 describes Gangadevi's vows (pranidhanas)a nd her prediction (vyakarana).H ere, the universe Abhirati is referred to as the locus of Gangadevi's rebirth. After hearing Sakyamuni'st eachings, such as "the bodhisattva who searches for the prajnaparamta

-937-( 19 ) SomeA spectso f the Cult of Aksobhyai n MahayanaS criptures (N. SATO)

should not be afraid in any occasion," Gangadevi made a vow as follows : "I will never be afraid of a wilderness with savage beasts, robbers, without water, which has plague, without food, nor being in any other unpleasant situation. Without any fear, I will preach the Dharma for all sentient beings (sattvas)" 3). Then the Buddha Sakyamuni told Ananda that after transforming into a man, she would be reborn in Abhirati where she will practice ascetic training (brahmacarya), wander from one buddha-field to another, and always meet many Buddhas, and finally become the

Buddha Suvarnapuspa in the future.4)

2.2 Chap. 27 Sdraparivarta Vaidya [1960a] 222,7-224,8: Chap. 27 is about the qualities of a bodhisattva who searches for the prajnaparamita. Such an admirable bodhisattva is called an avaivartaniya (•s‘Þ“], incapable of retrogression) bodhisattva who imitates Aksobhya's bodhisattva-practices in the past or the brahmacarya of the Bodhisattva Gandhahasti or Sikhin living in the universe Abhirati. 2.3 Chap. 28 Avakarnakusumaparivarta Vaidya [1960a] 229-230,234: In chap. 28, the Buddha Sakyamuni entrusted the prajnaparamita to Ananda after explaining the significance of preaching it to others. The bodhisattva who seeks the prajnaparamita is the as same as the bodhisattva who pursues the doctrines that "every existence is invisible in nature, so that people does not perceive anything"5) etc. To make the audience consent to those doctrines, the Buddha Sakyamuni displayed the buddha-field of Aksobhya in his right hand and returned it to its place by his miraculous power. At the end of this chapter, he introduced the Bodhisattva Gandhahasti, prac-ticing the brahmacarya under the Buddha Aksobhya, as an admirable bodhisattva

who is cultivating the prajnaparamiti everyday. 2.4 The cult of Aksobhya in AstP : From the above information, we may conclude that AstP pays more attention to the practices, such as the brahmacarya, of the bodhisattva in the universe Abhirati than to the merits of the universe Abhirati. Fur-thermore, we can also say that AstP uses these cults of Aksobhya to manifest the wonderfulness of the prajnaparamita.

3 Vimalakirtinirdesa : Several similarities between Vn and AstP are pointed out. 6) It is well known for the questions and answers between the Buddha Sakyamuni's disciples. and Vimalakirti. In Chap. 11, the universe Abhirati is introduced as a place from where Vimalakirti came.

-936-(20) SomeA spectso f the Cult of Aksobhyai n MahayanaS criptures (N. SATO) 3.1 Chap. 11 Abhiratilokadhatvanayanaksobhyatathagatadarsanaparivarta') Oshika [1970] 230-232: Vimalakirti, reincarnated voluntarily in the impure buddha-field in order to purify the sentient beings, makes the light of wisdom shine and clear away the darkness as if the sun rises to illuminate the world and eliminate the darkness.

Hearing this fact, the whole audience desired to behold the universe Abhirati, so Vimalakirti picked it up in his right hand by his miraculous power. It contains its watery base, its Cakravada Mountains, its Mount Sumeru, and its abodes of Bra-hma up to its Akanista heaven. The Tathagata Aksobhya seated in the middle of the assembly vast as an ocean, teaching the Dharma. The gods and the living beings are coming and going by ladders with three jewels raised from its earth to its Tra-yatrimsa heaven. The Buddha Sakyamuni suggested his audience train themselves in all the bodhisattva-practices of Aksobhya if one wishes to gain such a buddha-field. Finally, Vimalakirti returned the

universe Abhirati exactly to its former place. 3.2 The cult of Aksobhya in Vn : Comparing with AstP, Vn has further information about the circumstances of the universe Abhirati than its bodhisattva-practices. Thus Vn places a high value on the universe Abhirati itself which is very pure, but not on its bodhisattva-practices. Since the universe Abhirati is Vimalakirti's birthplace, we can conclude that Vn used the. cult of Aksobhya for praising Vimalakirti who dared to reborn in this impure universe Saha. 4 Saddharmapundarika : Sp, one of the early Mahayana scriptures supposed to be formed in the early second century, styles itself "the king of all the sutras".


The Buddha Aksobhya is mentioned in the story of the Buddha Sakyamuni's former life in Chap. 7. 4.1 Chap. 7 Purvayogaparivarta Vaidya [1960b] 106,8-9,219,10-26: Incalculable ages ago, the Tathagata Mahabhijnajnanabhibhu who in his bodhisattva stage had sixteen sons before retirement, preached the great scripture (mahavaipulyasutranta) called the Saddharmapundarika. After listening to his sermon, his first son became the Tathagata Aksobhya presiding over the eastern universe, Abhirati. His ninth son became the Tathagata Amitayus in the western universe and the sixteenth became the Tathagata Sakyamuni in the center. They are still preaching the Saddharmpunda-rika in each universe. 4.2 The cult of Aksobhya in Sp : Compared with AstP and Vn, Sp has far less -935-( 21 )


Some Aspects of the Cult of Aksobhya in Mahayana Scriptures (N. SATO)


information about the Buddha Aksobhya and the universe Abhirati . Instead of re-ferring to the purity of the universe Abhirati or the brahmacarya of the bodhisattva , it treats the Buddha Aksobhya as equivalent to the Buddha Amitayus and situates him in the east. Thus, the adherents or the authors of Sp seem to have recognized the Buddha Aksobhya as one of the contemporary Buddhas (Œ»•Ý‘¼•û•§).Sp probably intended to use the Buddha Aksobhya to prove the excellence of the Sp by saying that even such a famous Buddha could be enlightened by hearing it. 5 Karunapundarika : Kp came into existence presumably in the fourth century and is classified as a middle period Mahayana scripture. It explains the reason why the Buddha Sakyamuni chose this impure buddha-field instead of another pure uni-verse. The Buddha Aksobhya is described as the Buddha who chose the pure buddha-field (parisuddha-buddhaksetra) in Chap. 4.

5.1 Chap. 4 Bodhisattvavyakaranaparivarta Yamada [19681 161-178: Chap. 4 is written about the pranidhanas and the vykarana of the Buddhas who have chosen a pure buddha-field. At the time of the past Buddha called Ratnagarbha, the Brahman Samudrarenu, King Aranemin and his thousand princes had been listening to his sermon. Then the Buddha Ratnagarbha gave them the vyakaranas according to their pranidhanas. The Brahman Samudrarenu is the very man who is to become the Buddha Sakyamuni, though this story is written in the next chapter. In this chapter, King Aranemin vowed first, longing for the pure buddha-field, and was given the vykarana to become the Buddha Amitayus (or Amitabha) in the western buddha-field, Sukhavati. Secondly, the pranidhanas of the thousand princes and their vykaranas were described. The ninth prince Amigha/Amisa vowed as follows : after achieving the highest enlightenment may my buddha-field be absolutely flat, shine like gold, readily provide food and clothing, be pure, and not be attacked by the demons (mara), etc. He was given the vyakarana that "you will become the Buddha Aksobhya in the eastern universe Abhirati, a thousand buddha-fields from here".


5.2 The cult of Aksobhya in Kp : While AstP refers to the brahmacary of the bodhisattva, Kp mentions only to the pranidhanas of Aksobhya and the merits of his buddha-field, especially its pureness. From this information, we can see that the cult of Aksobhya is used for praising the Buddha Sakyamuni who dared to -934-( 22 ) Some Aspects of the Cult of Aksobhya in Mahayana Scriptures (N. SATO) reborn in this impure Universe Saha.

6 Mahaparinirvana-sutra : The scriptures called Mp have both Hinayana and the Mahayana versions. It is only the latter that refers to the Aksobhya and the Abhirati. This Mp, one of the middle period Mahayana scriptures, must have been compiled no later than 400 A. D. The descriptions of Aksobhya in Chap. 2 insist on the concepts of the permanence of the dharmakaya of the Buddha and the importance of the protection of the true Dharma (•³–@ŒìŽ•). Since the Buddha Sakyamuni pro-tected the true Dharma by taking up arms in his past life, he attained a body which is permanent and will never be broken (abhedakaya). The Buddha Aksobhya is men-tioned in the story of the Buddha Sakyamuni's former life. 6.1 Chap. 2 * Vajrabhedyakayam8) T. 12 867a, P [311 47b2-49a3 : A long time ago, in the age of the past Buddha Nandavardana, the world was very fruitful like the universe Sukhavati, and the people never experienced famine. After his parinirvana, depraved monks were common and the true Dharma was gradually destroyed. It was then that the

monk called Buddhadatta appeared who observed the Vinaya stric-tly and preached the true Dharma. In opposition to the monk Buddhadatta, the de-praved monks approached him carrying weapons along with them. After hearing this fact, King Bhavadatta, as well as other people took their weapons to protect the true Dharma and guarded the monk Buddhadatta. Those who protected the true Dharma all attained the highest enlightenment. The monk Buddhadatta and King Bhavadatta were reborn in the universe Abhirati and became the first and second disciples (sravakas) of the Buddha Aksobhya. This monk is the past Buddha Kas-


yapa and the King is the Buddha Sakyamuni. 6.2 The cult of Aksobhya in Mp : Unlike the other texts, Mp mentions the universe Abhirati as a place where the protectors of the true Dharma gather instead of refer-ring to its purity and to the brahmacarya. Thus, Mp used "Aksobhya" to recommend protecting the true Dharma. 7 Conclusion : We have seen five scriptures that enter into details about Aksobhya. The aims of using Aksobhya in each text are as follows : AstP : to manifest the wonderfulness of the prajnaparamita Vn : to praise Vimalakirti who dared to be reborn in this impure universe, Saha


Some Aspects of the Cult of Aksobhya in Mahayana Scriptures (N. SATO)

Kp : to praise Sakyamuni who dared to be reborn in this impure universe, Saha Mp : to recommend protecting the true Dharma None of these aims, however, are mentioned in Av itself. Namely, the terms Aks-obhya and Abhirati were well known though the doctrine written in Av was not familiar to the early and middle period Mahayanists. Examining these investigations, I conclude that the cult of Aksobhya lacks consistency and varies its style according to scriptures. Thus it seems that the cult of Aksobhya was not as familiar as that of Amitabha (or Amitayus).

  • I would like to give my gratitude to Mr. Tom Dreitlein for correcting my English. Any errors that remain are my own. (Abbreviations) AstP = Astdsdhasrikd Prajndpdramita-sutra, Av = Aksobhyavyuha-sutra, Kp = Karundpundarika-sutra, Mp = Mahdparinirvana-sutra, P = Peking Edition, Sp = Saddharma-

pundarika-sutra, T. = Taisho Tripitakas ???????, Vn = Vimalakirtinirdesa-sutra.

(Bibliography) Y. Okamoto [1979] "Ashukubukkokukyo shiyaku - fu, Ashukubutsu ni gen-kyusuru kyoten ichiranhyo -" (in Japanese), Toyodaigaku Daigakuinkiyo 16 : 33-51, J. Oshika [1970] "Chibettobun Yuimakyo tekisuto", Indokotenkenkyu 265: 135-240 (in Japanese), N.

Sato [2002] "The Bodhisattva and the Sravaka in the Aksobhya Buddha-field", Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies 51-1 : 465-469, M. Shizutani [1974] Shokidaijobukkyo no seiritsukatei (in Japanese), Hyakkaen, P. L. Vaidya [1960a] ed. Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Darbhanga (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts 4), P. L. Vaidya [1960b] ed. Saddharmapundarikasutra, Darbhanga (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts 6), H. Yaita [2003] "Yuimakyoshahonkenkyugenkyo" (in Japanese), Paper presented at 54th Conference of Japanese Indian and Buddhist Studies, 6-7 September, at Bukkyo University, Kyoto, I. Yamada [ 1968] ed. Karunapundarika, with introduction and notes, vol. 2, London, G. M. Bongard-Levin [ 1986] New Sanskrit Fragments of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvanasutra, Central Asian Manuscript Collection at Leningrad, Tokyo (Studia Phil-ologica Buddhica, Occasional Paper Series 5). 1) 96 scriptures are found in ‘啳•V•C‘å‘ Œo sutras are listed in Okamoto [1979] and I found 3 more. 2) Av is one of the oldest Mahayana scriptures which does not use the term mahayana. Since no Sanskrit nor Prakrit version has survived, the Sanskrit title can only be as-sumed from the transcription in its Tibetan translations. See Sato [2002] 466 note 1. 3) Vaidya [1960a] 180,23-24. 4) Vaidya [1960a] 181,2-3, Vaidya [1960a] 181,5-10. 5) Vaidya [1960a] 230,15. 6) Shizutani [1974] 340. 7) This title is referred in Yaita [2003]. 8) Reduced by Bongard-Levin [1986] from the Tibetan translation. •q Key Words•r Aksobhya,

(Part-time Lecturer, Shuchiin University)





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