Mom asked sister to read Amitabha Sutra (阿彌陀經) for dad. We had done this a few times since dad passed away. I roughly understood what the sutra was about at the first few readings, so when sister asked what this sutra is talking about, I did a rough explanation.

Some terms, such as arahato samasam buddhasa (阿耨多羅三藐三菩提, in Chinese it means 無上正等正覺, or satori in Japanese), do require some look up. This is when Wikipedia comes in handy. The problem with Buddhism-related entries on the Chinese version of Wikipedia, though, is that not all of them have cross-lingual links to other Wikipedias. Interestingly, this is where a little knowledge of Japanese comes to the rescue. Japan happens to be the farthest place to which Buddhism has spread in Asia, but it is Japanese that acts as the intermediary between the different language traditions.

Amitabha Sutra demonstrates many features found in oral literature: repetition, citation of names, and use of short, rhythmic constructs. The common cited Chinese version is the work of Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什, 344 CE-413 CE), one of the greatest translators in the history of Chinese literature. Still, according to Yang Mu (楊牧), a Taiwanese poet, Kumarajiva’s translation is a mixture of transliterated Sanskrit and some “not entirely gramatically correct written Chinese”, and this contributes to “the exoticism found in the Chinese translation of Buddhist sutras”. Nonetheless, this “exoticism” has contributed a lot to the Chinese language. Many everyday phrase, notably incredible (不可思議, originally a measure of time) and ksana (剎那), comes from this translation practice. One common misconception, though, is the reading of kalpa (); the original Chinese meaning for this character means disaster and trial, but in Sanskrit it actually means a very, very, very long time.

What Amitabha Sutra teaches is simple. Told by Buddha himself, the sutra is about the paradise in which Amitabha resides and achieves his work. It is beautiful and has singing birds. A theological question concerning whether those birds shouldn’t belong to the paradise “because they are animals” (and animals belong to the Realm of Animal) is answered by Buddha. In order to enter this paradise, Buddha says, one needs to heed his teaching, and cite Amitabha’s name. But there’s no need to worry, because this teaching is good for anyone who “has expressed such willingness, is having such willingness, or will express such willingness” to be born in the paradise of Amitabha, and such teaching also works for anyone who “had lived, is living, or will be born to live”. And the teaching has lasted long enough (over five kalpa, which is longer than what human can imagine) and is also taught by gods of different worlds. Anyone who follows Buddha’s teaching in this sutra will be able to achieve arahato samasam buddhasa.

The reading of Amitabha Sutra and the citation of Amitabha’s name makes the fundamental of the Pure Land School (淨土宗). I have some problem with this practice. But the understanding of the sutra helped me understand why this sutra is read and cited in the ritual for the dead in Taiwan. It also helped me understand why mom would read the sutra for dad. For Buddhists, reading the sutra is among the help one could do for the dead.

There are two interesting things about Amitabha Sutra. Although not manifested, the sutra talks about the effectiveness of Buddha’s teaching, and how the faith in it can help the work of gods permeate both time and space, so much so that it works for anyone, including those who were no more (“who had lived”) and those who are to come (“who will be born to live”). This, in turn, demonstrates what books like Sophie’s World say about the Indo-European religions (and cultures, languages, and as a consequence, mentalities): the sensitivity and sensibility of time, the distinction and division between the past, the present and the future (and the further distinction between imperfect and prefect, and so on), the circularity of space and time, and the hope for salvation.

Learning about Buddhism is easier than before. Still, some Japanese or some basic knowledge about Sanskrit (some factual, Linguistics 101 things, such as the language has eight cases, or it has a complex but expressive tense system, or just that it shares many features with other Indo-European languages) will help you (in this case, myself) get a bit further. Actually one of my first paid programming jobs, in 1995, was developing a simple search engine for Chinese Buddhism texts collected by Buddhism Research Center of National Taiwan University. It was one of my first “extreme programming” experience (a friend of mine being the driver, while I observed and helped run the chores). The entire program was written in C, and the search was confined to Chinese texts. How the whole thing has evolved.

So these are the bits and pieces. We spent the evening doing these small researches on the web, learned something. Then some Ketil Bjørnstad over AirTunes.

The sense of loss will not go away. At least it will take another while before we would be able to carry on.

But I’m glad to have come to some more understandings, and equally glad to know that those will not be futile.