Medicine Buddha, Amitabha Buddha

Lately, I’ve been watching this documentary of Buddhist temples in Japan again. I started last year before coming to Ireland, but left off as life got busy. I am still on DVD 8 out of 25. Anyways, last Wednedsay I was watching one episode where they covered this temple called Jōruriji (浄瑠璃寺) in Kyoto. The temple, according to the site, is a temple of the Shingon-Risshu sect.*

Anyways, the temple is among the most beautiful I’ve seen in the series so far, and the host, Itsuki Hiroyuki, was similarly impressed. I found some pictures online here. As you walk through the front gate, you come to a small lagoon. On the left side of the lagoon is a pagoda to the East, and on the right side of the lagoon was another small temple to the West. What makes this significant is that in the East-facing pagoda was a very old statue of the Medicine Buddha, or yakushi nyorai (薬師如来) and in the West-facing temple was a very old statue of Amitabha Buddha, or amida nyorai (阿弥陀如来).

This temple is very unusual in that both Buddhas are given equal prominence, when most temples usually have a central figure, object or mandala for veneration (called gohonzon, ご本尊 in Japanese). Why are both Buddhas venerated there?

Both Buddhas, according to their respective Buddhist texts, preside over Pure Lands as a refuge for beings. The Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land is to the East, and is called the Crystal Pure Land. This is in the Medicine Buddha Sutra. Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land is to the West and is called the Land of Bliss. This is mentioned in a few Pure Land Buddhist texts. So that helps to explain there positions within the temple grounds at least.

Also, the vows of these Buddhas have a different focus. The Medicine Buddha made a series of 12 vows, focusing on things like curing physical and mental ailments for those who called on him, providing material goods for those who called on him, or to help beings awaken from delusion and ignorance if they call on him. The focus of these vows is this life.

The vows of Amitabha Buddha focus on the creation of his Pure Land, the joys one will experience there, and of the various ways one can reborn there after death and attain the Buddhist path more readily than in this world. These vows focus on the life to come, and of providing a refuge to further one’s progress on the Buddhist path.

Another metaphor is that of crossing the shore from this life of suffering and ignorance to the other shore of liberation and wisdom. You see this in Buddhism all the time. The Medicine Buddha’s vows focus on this shore, this life. Amitabha Buddha’s vows focus on crossing over to the other shore.

The video even explained it like so (in Japanese of course):

Medicine Buddha Amitabha Buddha
Where? This shore:
jikan (此岸)
The Other Shore:
higan (彼岸)
Which life? This transient life:
gensei (現世)
The life to come:
raisei (来世)

Of course, the sutras state that one can also be reborn in the Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land if they wish, and Amitabha’s light also helps beings in this life. So there’s quite a bit of overlap. However, the temple of Jōruriji designed the two temples, the two Buddhas as a kind of contrast. If one is concerned about problems in this life, they can call out to the Medicine Buddha or help. If they want to be assured of the life to come, they can call on Amitabha Buddha as well.

A while back, I wrote about this same subject from the Chinese Buddhist perspective, through Master Yin-Shun’s teachings, but what struck me is that the same notion appears in Japanese Buddhism as well. East is traditionally the direction of creation, life, etc. So the Medicine Buddha presides over this life in a way. The West is a symbol of death and decline (e.g. the setting sun), so Amitabha presides over the life to come.

Interesting stuff. The temple is amazing in any case. I really hope to visit that place if I ever get back to Kyoto.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Yakushi Nyorai

* – This is an offshoot branch of Shingon founded by Eison. More on that in a later post.

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5 Comments on “Medicine Buddha, Amitabha Buddha”

  1. Senshin says:

    You write: “Lately, I’ve been watching this documentary of Buddhist temples in Japan again. I started last year before coming to Ireland, but left off as life got busy. I am still on DVD 8 out of 25″


    What DVD series is that? And where did you get it?


  2. Doug says:

    The series is called “100-temple Pilgrimage”, or hyakuji junrei (百寺巡礼) hosted by Itsuki Hiroyuki. It’s all Japanese, but my in-laws bought for me from U-Cann. I can’t understand much, but it’s a cool series anyways. Quite long though (100 temples * 20-minutes each = 2000 minutes of viewing).

  3. Senshin says:

    Thanks for your quick response.

    If it’s in japanese I wouldn’t understand a thing, but it sounds interesting anyway :) )

  4. Linda Lane says:

    Very much enjoy reading your posts! Nice site design too – what are you using on the backend? Content management?

  5. Doug says:

    Linda: Thank you, but I am just using the default templates provided by WordPress. ;)

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