The Three Sages of the West

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on June 13, 2016.)

This ornate set of the Three Sages stands in a side hall at Linggu Temple, Nanjing

A temple visitor might encounter a set of three figures in its own hall outside of the main compound. These are the "Three Sages of the West," alternately called "Saints" instead of "Sages."

The central figure is arguably the most popular Buddha in East Asia. Called Omitofo (sometimes transliterated Emitofo) in Chinese, or Amitabha Buddha in Sanskrit, he is the Buddha of the Western Pure Land, a place to which devotees may go if they recite his name sincerely.

It's easy for those with concepts of "heaven" to mistake the Pure Land (called in Sanskrit Sukhavati) for a place of eternal bliss. Rather, the goal of Pure Land practice (sometimes called "Amidism" in English) is to reach the Pure Land to obtain further teachings from Amitabha in order to attain full enlightenment.

When found in the set of Three Sages, Amitabha stands in the center, with a Bodhisattva on either side. One of these is Avalokiteshvara, called in Chinese Guan Yin or Guan Shi Yin. He (or sometimes she) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and can be recognized by a small figure of Amitabha in his headdress. This is because Avalokiteshvara is considered to be an emanation of Amitabha.

On the other side is the Bodhisattva named Mahasthamaprapta (Chinese Da Shi Zhi). Despite his early appearance in the Buddhist "pantheon," little is said of him (again, sometimes her) apart from his appearance with the Three Sages. He is known to represent the power of Wisdom (symbolized by the vase in his headdress), balancing Avalokiteshvara's power of Compassion.

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