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The Pure Land sect believed in attaining bliss in Sukhāvatĩ – the Paradise of Amitābha to the faithful believers after death, following the philosophy of Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra (Ch. Kuan wu-liang-shou ching). For centuries, the Chinese and the Japanese philosophers/artists used it as the basis for a graphic representation of Sukhāvatĩ in the form of mandalas called Taima-mandara in Japan. It deals with the story of Ajātaśatru imprisoning his parents, the King Bimbisāra and the Queen Vaidehĩ; mental suffering of the Queen and Lord Buddha’s preaching to recover her from the mental suffering, duḥkha. She listens to the teachings of Lord Buddha and begins to concentrate. She practices five dhāraṇās that make her fit to practice samādhi. Finally, she goes into trance and realizes the bliss in Sukhāvatĩ. The version taken for research for the present paper is from Taima-dera monastery.

Yoga is the basis of the Sukhavativyuha-mandala. In order to save the people from mental suffering, to raise them mentally to the level of samādhi, it was painted several times over the past centuries to be used by the followers of the Jodo sect as a projection for meditation. Therein the story of sufferings leads to concentration followed by dhāraṇā and samādhi. The story of imprisonment of the King and the Queen by their son fills the outer left court, sixteen meditations are in the outer right and bottom courts and vision of Sukhāvatĩ by the Queen is in the Central Sanctum. The Central Sanctum is filled with five dhāraṇās, all the architectonic elements of Sukhāvatĩ, realization of the bliss and the paradise with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, envisioned by the Queen at various levels of dhyāna. It was practiced in Japan from the year AD 760 onwards, though its traces are found as early as 6th- 7th century.


Sukhavativyuha-mandala as a projection for samādhi:

Dhyāna sūtras are of a very special category in China and Japan. Dhyāna is an act of attention directed to some particular object. When it is prolonged or intensified, it gives rise to samādhi, its result is the cessation of all mental processes, and that is the aim of Vaidehī. Patanjali defines dhyāna in III.2 as: tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam, dhyāna is the concentrated attention to a single content of consciousness on that place (Fernando 1987:145). Dhyāna is the seventh of the Yogāngas, it is the state of continuance, i.e. the unchanging flow of mental efforts to understand the object of meditation. All the dhyānas are bestowers of samādhi (Mantra-yoga-samhita 77, Rai 1975:121).


Samādhi is the final stage in Yoga

Dhyāna yoga is the knowledge devoid of duality, pleasant and pure in its stillness, stable and without obstructions. Samādhi yoga is the knowledge without ulterior in motives, without concepts, without desires, without any aim to accomplish things, pure beyond existence, without disturbance. The conscious is without content. It stops being aware of the body.

Six types of yoga are like weapons of a yogīśvara to attain the divine absolute (San Hyang Kamahayanikan fl. 43ab, Lokesh Chandra, CHI V.78). On realizing the mental suffering of the Queen, Śākyamuni preached her the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation. It is fundamental to the yogic process of introversion. It represents gathering of one’s psychic energy, which is accompanied by a high degree of sensory inhibition, pratyāhāra and a slowing down of thought. Yogic concentration can have a variety of mental objects, artha, ranging from internalized image of the deity to internalized sound, nāda, to a locus, deśa within the body. Deepening of concentration leads to meditation (Feurstein 1997: 85). When she enters samādhi then she visualizes Sukhāvatĩ and realizes that after death she would be taken to a blissful place.

Followed by sixteen levels of meditation she practices dhāraṇā on the five elements: earth and sky, water and tejas, and vāyu. In the mandala, mental objects are architectonic elements of Sukhāvatĩ, Amitābha is the deity to be internalized, sound is produced by various musical objects and the locus is visualization of Sukhāvatĩ. Queen Vaidehī practices antardhāraṇā through concentration of mind upon subtle-most objects of the inner-most world (Rai 1975:120). Dhāraṇā is one of the eight parts of yoga. It means concentration, sometimes called collectedness, samādhāna. The Yoga-sūtra (3.1) defines it as the binding of consciousness (citta) to a single locus (deśa). It is thus the practice of continuous attention which is the essence of one pointedness eka-agratā.


Chronology of translation and pictorial representations of the sūtra

383-442/424-442 Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra translated by Kalayaśas (K191)

613-681 commentary by Shan-tao (Fu shou kwan-wu-liang-shou-fo ching su)

7th-8th century Chiko-mandala

753-781 mandala made by the Princess Chujo Hime

763 Taima-mandala at the Taima-dera

9th-10th century paintings of Sukahavati-mandala at Tun Huang

1046-1053 Shokai/Seikai-mandala preserved at Chushoji, Gokurakuji

1048-1116 commentary on Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra by Yuan-tao Ta-chi

1167-8 Taima-mandala brought from China by Jugen

13th century painting based on Yuan-tao Ta-chi’s commentary on Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra Amida-dera

13th century same as above, Chokoji

1501-3 replica of Taima-mandala, Taima-dera

(Fukuyama 1976:140, Kidder 1964:189)

The first painting of the Taima-mandala on an almost four meter square tapestry belongs to the Taima-dera monastery in Nara prefecture. Taima-dera was originally known as Zenrinji, a Maitreya temple. The original tapestry is called Konpon (original) Taima and was woven of silk threads (Grotenhuis p. 63, Kidder 1964:189). Actually this is called a henso, an apparitional vision on transformed configuration of the Pure Land. It began to be called a mandala on account of its analogy with the mandalas of the mystic doctrine. The proper name known in China is “Phases of Amida’s Pure Land” or Jodo Henso (Lokesh Chandra DBI 1.233).

The earliest example of representation of the Paradise of Amitābha can be traced back to the seventh century when Tenjukoku mandara was embroidered in AD 622. After the death of Prince Shotoku-taishi his widow Princess Suiko had ordered it. Tenjukoku means “the land of heavenly long life”. The Korean priest Eji was the teacher of Shotoku- taishi and he had predicted his death and going to the paradise of Amitābha.


Purpose of painting the mandala

The legend concerning the origin of Taima-mandala is given in the narrative scroll painting- Taima-mandara-engi at Komyoji in Kanagawa prefecture. The daughter of a nobleman during the reign of Emperor Junnin (758-64) lost interest in the mundane world and began to yearn for the Western Paradise of Amitābha. On the fifteenth day of the sixth month of 763 she cut off her hair to become a nun; she prayed for seven days; on the twentieth day a nun appeared and ordered the former Princess to gather a hundred horse-loads of lotus stems. She dug a well and dyed them. On the twenty third day another nun appeared and finished the weaving of the mandala.

According to another tradition, the painting is attributed to the Princess Chujo Hime (AD 753-781), the daughter of Fujiwara no Toyonari who had made a thousand copies of Shoson-jodo-kyo (Nj.199) and presented them to Zenrinji (temple of the wood of meditation). She became a nun, took up her residence at the Zenrinji, kept on praying for seven days to see a manifestation of Amitābha. He appeared after six days in the form of a lady and ordered her to collect a thousand lotus stems. He made a pure well, washed the stems, changed them into five color threads. Then Avalokiteśvara appeared on the 23rd day and made the Taima-mandala. At present fragments of silk painting are preserved in the treasury of the Taima-dera (a clan temple of the Taima clan) and its replica made in the Bunki era (AD 1501-1503) is placed in the Mandara-do for the worshippers. Evidentially it is made in imitation of the pictures of Shan-tao, as the kwangyo-mandara of Chion-in, Kyoto is said to have been brought from China at Honen Shonin’s request by his pupil, the Japanese Jodo priest Jugen (went to China in AD 1167-8, died in 1195) (Lokesh Chandra DBI pg. 1233).


Basic Sūtra:

Visualisation of the paradise of Amitābha in the Taima-mandala is based on Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra (Kammuryojukyo) preached by Śākyamuni to Queen Vaidehī in Rajagrha translated into Chinese by Kalayaśas into Chinese or rather on the commentary on it by Shan-tao (Waley 1931: xx-xxii). It is a visual transformation of the doctrinal theme of the sūtra (Ch. Kuan-wu-liang-shou-ching). More than thirty commentaries exist but the most important is by Shan-tao. Honen Shonin also relied primarily on it for developing his own thought and himself wrote a commentary, Kammuryojukyo-shaku. No Tibetan or Sanskrit versions are found. According to some scholars it was composed outside India (Senchakushu 1998:21). A twenty deity mandalas of Amitābha was painted by Shinkakau (1170-80, TZ 86.19) in Besson Zakki. Amitābha with eight great Bodhisattvas was also painted by him (TZ 87.22).


Structure of the Mandala:

A number of variations can be seen in the details of Taima-mandala, copied over the centuries, but its basic structure follows the teachings of Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra and visualization of Sukhāvatĩ is based on the details given by other sūtras of the Jodo sect, i.e. Amitābha-sūtra and Sukhāvatĩvyuha-sūtra. Amitābha is the Transcendental sun, Amitā-abha. Red sun at the top dominates the mandala and recalls the radiance and splendor in the two hanging scrolls kept at the Amida-dera and at Chokoji, Kyoto.


Outer Courts:

Court of the prefatory legend, jobungi (left):

Episodes of the life of Ajātaśatru and Vaidehī are painted on the outer left court.

During the lifetime of Śākyamuni Prince Ajātaśatru plotted with the Buddha’s cousin and nemesis Devadatta in the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, to kill his own father King Bimbisāra. The story of his imprisonment, starving him, Queen Vaidehī foiling his plan, and finally Śākyamuni coming miraculously to preach is visualised in the following sequence:

i. Ajātaśatru imprisons his father in the castle and tries to starve him to death

ii. The Queen Vaidehī secretly smuggles food to her husband by anointing her body with honey and ghee mixed with corn flour and by concealing the juice of grapes in her garlands

iii. Śākyamuni observing the drama from the Vulture’s peak sends his disciples Maudgalyāyayana and Pūrna to Bimbisāra to preach the law to the imprisoned king

iv. Ajātaśatru visits the prison and inquires whether or not his father has died

v. On hearing his mother’s intervention, he is about to kill her when his ministers persuaded him not to commit a second crime

vi. Instead he imprisons his mother as well, who listens to Maudgalyāyana and the other disciple, Ānanda sent by Śākyamuni, preaching the law

vii. Vaidehī’s prison is miraculously changed into paradise and the queen worships Śākyamuni, enthroned before her

viii. Vaidehī begs for salvation in a realm of peace and Śākyamuni shows her many pacific, radiant heavens among which she chooses the western paradise and asks how one may be born there. In reply Śākyamuni outlines the ideals of a moral life sustained by a series of sixteen contemplations, and the ray of light emanating from Buddha’s head in which Amitābha’s paradise is visible, extends to King Bimbisāra

ix. Śākyamuni remarks to Ānanda that the Amutāyurdhyāna-sūtra will erase the burdensome accumulation of evil deeds and cause birth in paradise, “even if virtuous men and women only hear the names of Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta, this may take away their sins of innumerable ages or kalpas”

x. The eleventh and final subsection of the court foretells the content of the outer right hand court and the lower horizontal court.


Court of the specific meditation, Jozengi (right):

Thirteen Meditations are painted on the outer right court of the mandala.

i. Nissokan: Queen Vaidehī meditating looking to the west on the setting Sun suspended in space like a drum; even if one’s eyes are closed a full perception of the sun will remain



ii. Suisokan: Clear water with moon reflected in it. Moon is paired with sun and likened to the āmbhasī dhāraṇā , the concentration based on water. Then focus on the perception of ice and think of lapis lazuli without diverting one’s attention

iii. Hojikan: Contemplate on the earth that supports seven jeweled banner, lapis lazuli, this is the magnificent jeweled realm of the Western Paradise

iv. Hojukan: Trees of paradise

v. Hochikan: fifty billion multi storied jeweled towers with heavenly musicians

vi. Horokan: Lakes full of lotus flowers



vii. Kezakan: jeweled lotus throne of Amitābha

viii. Gyozokan: Amitābha trinity

ix. Shinshinkan: Amitābha in sambhoga-kāya, corporeal body of Amitābha

x. Kannonkan: Avalokiteśvara

xi. Seishikan: Mahāsthāmaprāpta

xii. Fukan: Imagine oneself born in paradise

xiii. Jassokan: Intermingling of great and the small body

xiv. Vision of the highest birth

xv. Vision of the middle birth

xvi. Vision of the lower birth


Court of the general meditation, sanzengi:

The lower horizontal court deals with the remaining three contemplations divided into nine stages that correspond to the nine possible degrees of birth in Paradise. The fortunate beings are guided to the Pure Land after death by a welcoming procession, raio. In Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra those who attain birth in the Pure Land are classified into nine levels according to their innate capacities. Eight of them are painted in the lower part of the lake, symbolizing āmbhasĩ dhāraṇā, while the ninth is painted at the centre in front of Amitābha.


Central Sanctum: Court of the central doctrine, gengibun.

Central Sanctum is the vision of Queen Vaidehī, when she in trance. For an analytical and graphic description of the Central Sanctum, a visual representation of Sukhāvatĩ with the Queen and the King in right and left axis can be divided into the following components:

- five types of dhāraṇā

- seven levels of palaces of Amitābha on right and left with both sides as reflexes of the same

- Amitābha with Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta each accompanied by sixteen other Bodhisattvas

- Upper space filled by musical instruments, birds, flying goddesses and Buddhas


Sukhāvatĩ, The Paradise of Amitābha

Sukhāvatĩ (Ch. Chi-le, Jap. Gokuraku) is the Land of Perfect Bliss. Amitābha-sūtra (A-mi-t’o ching) describes it to be in the west, ten trillion Buddha lands away from the earth. There is no suffering. Amitāyurdhyāna-sūtra calls it a land of “peace and rest” (An-yang) and the land of “peace and comfort” (An-le). Its details are given in all the sūtras of Jodo sect. According to Fujita Kotatsu all the versions of Sukhāvatĩvyuha-sūtra agree with the following descriptions:

1. Pure Land is in the west

2. The three paths of evil do not exist there

3. Although there are no sun, moon and stars, there is no darkness there

4. There is no mountain at the centre of the universe and no sea

5. There are numerous water sources such as rivers, lakes and ponds

6. Seven kinds of precious stones and metals hang from trees

7. A gentle wind produces a pleasant sound

8. The wind bears wonderful fragrance of flowers

9. There is no difference between humans and gods of the highest heavens

10. Everything that one wishes is immediately present

11. Precious stones and metals adorn the highest of heavens

12. There are no seasons, no heat and no cold

13. There are many places of retreat and study

14. There are no women there, since all women become men upon entering the Pure Land

15. Human beings in the Pure Land receive nourishment immediately upon feeling a desire of it.

16. There is no word which implies wrong there

17. There are rows of Tāra trees, nets of god and large lotus

18. One central Bodhi tree

19. A river flowing with perfumed waters decorated with many lotus flowers streaming over a series of waterfalls whose sounds carries the teachings of the Buddha

20. There is no need to gather many food

21. There are many kinds of perfumes, hair ornaments, clothing, umbrellas, decorative flags, musical instruments and decorative objects

22. Pure Land is full of wealth, many gods and human beings

23. There are no forests, gardens and ponds, the voices of the birds carry the teachings of the Buddha and people there can move through air

24. A heavenly rain containing flowers and jewels falls, bearing with it the sounds of heavenly instruments (Senchakushu 1998, p.205-6)


Contemplation on the Five Elements in Central Sanctum:

Vaidehī concentrates on the five elements in Central Sanctum. According to Patanjali once the mind has been fixed on some point by means of Dhāraṇā , the yogi must strive until only a single content is held in his mind: deśabandhaścittasya dhāraṇā. This can be either a single representation or idea or a single experience, while he rejects any intruding alien idea or experience or moreover brings to a focus, this single and only content on the point selected in the dhāraṇā (Fernando 1987: 145). The five dhāraṇā s lead to bodily firmness and in addition, each dhāraṇā is said to yield certain paranormal powers, siddhi (Feustein 1997: 210). Five kinds of dhāraṇā s are in ascending order like the five mahābhūtas of which the material world is composed.

1. Pārthivĩ- dhāraṇā is meant to be invulnerable. Earth, the lowermost level of the world, is said to be made up of lapis lazuli that is of blue color; blue is the color of meditation. Enjoyments on earth are represented by a scene of music and dance. Eight young boys are playing musical instruments at the center, eight goddesses of music are on both the sides, four on one side and two dancers are performing a dance. A pair of birds is bringing the words of Lord Buddha to the land of amusement. Two peacocks in the foreground are on the both the sides of dance enclosure are represented as ride of Amitābha as mentioned in Niśpannayogāvalī (19.16, p.45): paścimāyām mayūropari viśvasarojasya varatake ‘mitabho vajraparyankī raktaḥ.

According to Sādhanamālā (p.45, n. 28) also he rides a peacock: paścimakosthasya- madhye mayūropari Amitābha ekamukha Vairocanavatara rakta-varna bhujābhyām hrdaye dharma-cakra-mudrām.

2. Āmbhasī- dhāraṇā is for setting a foot on water without sinking. Above the Parthivi dhāraṇā is Āmbhasī dhāraṇā represented by a scene of a lake or a lotus pond. Eight degrees of people reborn in the Western Paradise are sitting on lotus seats; newly born in the paradise look like infants in half blown lotuses. On both the sides are two dragon boats carrying Amitābha triad. Behind them are seven boys on each side swimming and playing in water or on lotuses. A pair of birds is flying bringing the teachings of the Buddha to the sphere of water. In this sphere also the King and the Queen are sitting with folded hands.

3. Āgneyi/Taijasi- dhāraṇā is practiced to be devoid of suffering from the heat of sun and fire. It is represented by sun at the top of the mandala. In the present context it is the final dhāraṇā as sun is the gateway to Sukhāvatĩ. When Vaidehī reaches this level she gets a vision of the Paradise encompassing all its architectonic elements like trees, towers, palaces and lakes etc. or it can be taken as the first dhāraṇā as Amitābha emanates from a solar cult; he is the Transcendental Sun.

4. Vāyavī- dhāraṇā leads to listening to the words of wisdom. According to the description of Sukhāvatĩ given in Amitābha-sūtra and Sukhāvatĩvyūha-sūtras words of wisdom are brought by birds. Two pairs of birds are painted above the palaces of Sukhāvatĩ and the King and Queen are themselves visualized as birds flying towards the topmost palace of Amitābha. Birds are important in the Zen paintings, often coming as pairs; Maudgalyayana and Shariputra are also painted as birds.

5. Ākāśī- dhāraṇā is practiced to acquire power to see what is distant, to hear the distant and to be tele-active (San-hyang Kamahayanikan 12b, 13a,b, 14a, Lokesh Chandra CHI V.29-30). Musical instruments are floating in sky producing anāhata nāda representing ākāśī dhāraṇā. So long as the sounds continue, there is the idea of Ākāśa: tāvadākāśa sankalpo yāvacchabdaḥ pravartate (Hathayoga-pradipika 100). Nāda is the final stage of tattvas, that which is formless:

Yatkincinnādarūpena śrūyate śaktireva sa /

Yattattvanto nirākāraḥ sa eva parameśvarah //101//

Nāda is the inner sound (śabda or dhvani) that becomes audible when network of psycho-energetic currents (

ī) has been duly purified. According to the Yogashikha- upanisad (3.3) it is the second level of manifestation of the absolute as sound, śabda brahman (Feurstein 1997:192). Vaidehī listens to the anāhata nāda produced by the divine musical instruments floating in air in the sky. It also helps her to concentrate her mind. The knowable, Amitābha interpenetrates the anāhata, unbeaten sound which is heard, and the mind interpenetrates the knowable. The mind becomes absorbed there, which is the seat of the all-pervading, Almighty Lord:

Anāhatasya nādasya dhvanirya upalabhyate /

Dhvanerantargatam jneyam jneyayantargatam manaḥ //

Manas tatra layam yāti tadvisoh paramam padam //Hathayoga-pradipika 99//