“Layout of the Land of Happiness”

--By Sramanerika Heng Hsien

      Sukhavativyuha is the short title for The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra.1 There are two sutras by this title, one long and one short. We’ll read the shorter one, of a length convenient to memorize and chant.2

      The Sutra describes the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, which is called in Sanskrit Sukhavati, ‘the land possessing happiness’, or ‘the land of ultimate bliss’. Vyuha means ‘a setting forth’, ‘a disposition’, or ‘a layout’. In other words, the Sutra tells how the Land of Ultimate Bliss, Sukhavati, is laid out and arranged.

      If one recites this Buddha’s name, saying constantly Namo mitabhabuddhaya, Homage to the Buddha Amitabha, he can be reborn in the Pure Land Sukhavati, and witness for himself the splendid adornments described in this Sutra.

      The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra was spoken by the Buddha without anyone’s request. But, you say, we always hear;

      Dharma does not arise of itself;
      The Way is not practiced in vain.

In general, because the Buddhadharma is spoken to meet the needs of living beings, someone must ask to hear a given sutra before it is explained. The Buddha spoke the Amitabha Sutra although no one had asked for it because no one knew anything about the principle of its teaching, so no one could request it.

      Previous lessons have described the sounds and writing system for Sanskrit. Now we will look at these sounds in more detail.

      The unit of discrimination in Sanskrit is the syllable, or aksara, ‘imperishable’ which we’ve been learning to write. The title Sukhavativyuha divides into six aksaras represented by six letter-units:

In Sanskrit each vowel counts for one syllable, and the surrounding consonants 'adorn' that vowel. The letter s is given as the syllable sa. If you want to write just s alone, you must add another mark: . The , after any consonant tells you not to say the a vowel you would normally pronounce. To write sa or ka or any consonant plus a, you just write the letter and don't need to write in the vowel a, because the vowel a is a natural part of the pronunciation of each consonant. But if the vowel is other than a, you add a small sign which represents that vowel.

      In the alphabet, the fourteen Sanskrit vowels are written as full letters. Those large forms are only used when you write the letters by themselves, or when you write a word which begins with a vowel. Otherwise, after any consonant, you use the shortened forms shown below:

Here is how you write the letter ka with these various signs:

The same signs are added to any Sanskrit consonant.

      Consequently in the sutra title sa is the letter of the alphabet, and adding , u we have su. kha has an additional to become kha. va and ha have no extra signs, for a is understood. ti has the sign i which makes ta into ti.

      In THE SYLLABLE vyu however, there is no vowel between the v and y. You might think this should be written v plus yu. But v by itself can't be pronounced, for no consonant can be said without a vowel (just try). The v actually relies on the , u of yu to be pornounced, leaning heavily on the y, just as pictured in the writing: vyu. Therefore, va loses the support of its vertical line l and at the same time loses its a vowel, and is directly attached to the yu and is written . This is the principle followed in writing all combinations of Sanskrit consonants when no vowel falls in between. We say it's a consonant cluster when two or more consonants cluster or group up before a single vowel. The cluster is a single syllable and is written as one unit: vyu.

      The Sutra's title then consists of six sounds written as six characters or units. It is made up of the two words sukhavati 'land of bliss' and vyuha 'arrangement'. These two words together form one phrase and the phrase as a whole has one meaning 'layout of the Land of Happiness'. This is one analysis of the title.

      You should now be ready to decipher these words from next issue's lesson:


Answers to last issue's test:

Avatamsaka  * is r when a consonant
    follows it with no vowel in between:
  stands for jna.


1Corresponds to the title of the Chinese translation of this sutra, Sanskrit Buddhabhasita-amitabha-sutra, done by the Venerable Kumarajiva whose biography appears in VBS #23. An English translation of this sutra from the Chinese by Upasaka I Kuo Jung is found in VBS #9. The Sanskrit text will follow the Muller-Nanjio edition, Anecdota Oxoniensia, Aryan Series, Vol. I, Part III, Clarendon Press, 1883.

2The merit from memorizing and reciting this Sutra is inconceivable and it may be used to cross over departed friends and relatives to a favorable rebirth.

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