Iconography of the Lord our God Amitabha

Ancient Amitabha sculpture from Swat Valley showing classic meditation or samadhi mudra

In iconography, the seated Amitābha is most frequently distinguished by His meditation mudrā (thumbs touching and fingers together) or the exposition mudrā. To avoid confusion with Śākyamuni, bear in mind that the earth-touching mudrā (right hand pointed downward over the right leg, palm inward) is reserved for a seated Śākyamuni alone. Amitābha, being the head of the Lotus Family, can also be seen holding a lotus in his hands while displaying the meditation mudrā.

Before Iesous left the Gandhāra region to work in the West, two distinct schools of Amithaba worship had developed in Buddhism. The concept of “king of heaven” was rather unique at the time. Iesous depicted God as a most humble being, whose immense and unsurpassed powers and wisdom is hidden to lesser beings. God was therefore depicted as a monk, unadorned with trappings of status. Nevertheless, one group required their god to be depicted in a more regal manner. The Lord may have explained to them that Amitābha God will appear to them in a regal emanation if that is what is required for them to be saved from the cycle of rebirth (samsara)

Meditation mudra, alternate version

By the end of the first century, a regal emanation of Amitābha, known as Amitayus God of Infinite Life was standardized. Wayists emphasize the doctrinal position that god values humility, simplicity and compassion, and as Tathágata He was once a soul-being and moves to and from this world and Heaven. Amitayus Lord of Infinite Life (known to Buddhists also as Buddha Aparimita ) and Amitābha Lord of Infinite Light are essentially identical in nature but different in appearance, only for our sake.

Amitābha, in monk’s clothes

For 1st century Buddhism to have incorporated a new teaching, meant that Shakyamuni Buddha must have advocated it. Therefore, Sutras that speak to Wayist teaching mostly start with a line that indicated ‘Shakyamuni Buddha said,’ even if said Sutra orinigated in the late first century, five hundred years after Shakyamuni lived on Earth. It is important to acknowledge that after a perfected soul leaves Earth, that it (he/she) is very much alive and potentially present. Sutras in which Shakyamuni expound the glories of Sukhāvatī speak of the presiding deity sometimes as Amitābha and sometimes as Amitayus, therefore reflecting the early development of the Amitayus emanation. When depicted as Amitayus, He is depicted in fine clothes and jewels and as Amitābha, He is clothed in the humble clothing of a monk. In the Chinese and Japanese traditions, both are known as Amida.

Amitābha with radiant halo

Amitayus is often seen wearing a five-pointed regal crown while Amitābha is never seen with a crown. Amitābha may be depicted with a large halo of radiance.

For Buddhists, Amitābha is the head of the Lotus family but Amitayus, being an emanation, is not so depicted.

When standing, Amitābha is often shown with left arm bare, extended downward with thumb and forefinger touching, with the right hand facing outward, also with thumb and forefinger touching. The meaning of this mudra is that wisdom (symbolized by the raised hand) is accessible to even the lowest beings, while the outstretched hand shows that Amitābha’s compassion is directed at the lowest beings who cannot save themselves.

When not depicted alone, Amitābha is often portrayed with two assistants, Avalokiteśvara on the more important right and Mahāsthāmaprāpta on the left. Avalokitesvara can be depicted in male, female, transgender (both genders) or androgynous form (no gender). Chinese devotees usually prefer to depict the female forms of Amitābha’s attendant Bodhisattvas.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, Amitābha is the most ancient Buddha among the Dhyani Buddhas. He is of red colour because of his passionate compassion. For Buddhists in general, Amitābha represents the West. When represented in a stupa or temple, Lord Buddha King Amitābha faces West. He is revered as King of the Western Pure Land. Wayists do not regard Lord Iesous as a westerner. We understand that His human experience makes of Him a citizen of the world, in that He transcends cultural bounds. We understand only one heaven, Sukhāvatī.

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