Visualization and Buddhafields

Eidetic visualization (Tibetan gsal-snang གསལ་སྣང་ “vivid appearance”) — the creation of a minutely detailed mental image of the deity being contemplated, along with the deity’s palace, retinue, appurtenances, and the subtle deities distributed on the divine body — lies at the heart of Tibetan tantric meditation.

Indeed, a sufficiently clear, vivid, detailed, three-dimensional, solid, immediately present visualization is held to affect public reality as well; what the highly skilled meditator creates with the mind can be seen by and interact with others. For example, the meditator may make himself invisible, or appear in many places at once, or, by visualizing himself as the deity, appear as that deity to others; a skilled meditator can visualize — and therefore produce — a ruinous hailstorm, the destruction of an enemy, or the embodiment of a deity within a protective talisman (Beyer, 1973, pp. 68-76).

In his Sngags-rim chen-mo (Peking 6210, སྔགས་རིམ་ཆེན་མོ་), Tsong-kha-pa describes a practitioner of the highest contemplative attainments. “One who has gained perfect power in knowledge,” he says, “has attained complete control of appearances, and has

reached the very limits of his own aim, and he is able, through his contemplation alone, to serve the aim of other beings… He understands the magical attainments, and he is able to accomplish the aims of countless others… If he firmly places himself in Emptiness, and then arises therefrom, he is able to empower the appearance of anything he wishes (186.1.6-186.2.2; Beyer, 1973, p. 75).

Indeed, at this level of the path, a skilled and compassionate bodhisattva can visualize — and therefore create in public reality — an entire heavenly world, joyous and immaculate, free of suffering, filled with jeweled trees and celestial music, where others can dwell and seek enlightenment — a Buddhafield (Sanskrit buddhakṣetra) or Pure Land (Chinese jìngtǔ 净土).

Of course, the minutely detailed eidetic visualization of an entire Buddhafield is a virtuoso contemplative performance. Kamalaśīla, in the first Bhāvanākrama, says that the ability “to manifest magical creations, heavens and retinues, and to train all beings in the bliss of the perfect Law” is the ultimate criterion of ethical and contemplative success; it is only on the tenth and final bodhisattva stage that a bodhisattva “possesses the special knowledge needed to train beings through magical creations” (Beyer, 1974, p. 114; Tucci, 1958, pp. 227-228, 280).

The most famous of these magically created Buddhafields is, of course, Sukhāvatī, the Pure Land of Amitābha (Chinese āmítuó fó 阿彌陀佛), which is the central focus of Pure Land Buddhism; but the texts say that there are in fact billions and billions of such Buddhafields, which have been created by billions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas using their powers of creative visualization.

And the way to reach such a Pure Land — to enter the divine palace, see its presiding deity face-to-face, worship and receive the empowerment of the deity — is to create it oneself, to visualize in minute detail the presiding deity and all the wonders of the Buddhafield. Done during life, this contemplative technique produces a joyous visionary experience; done at the moment of death, the visualization guarantees rebirth in the same Buddhafield the meditator has visualized.

Remembrance of the Buddha

Eidetic visualization in Buddhism is ultimately linked to a much earlier practice that we may translate as “remembrance of the Buddha” (Sanskrit buddhānusmṛti, Pāli buddhānussati, Chinese niànfó 念佛, Tibetan sangs-rgyas rjes-su dran-pa སངས་རྒྱས་རྗེས་སུ་དྲན་པ་). Remembrance of the Buddha, in turn, was one of several types of remembrance, probably originally the triad of remembrances of the qualities of Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. Two processes seem to have worked on this practice. First, there were added, over time, additional remembrances, such as the remembrances of virtue, generosity, and the qualities of the gods; and, second, the remembrance of the Buddha became disentangled from the other remembrances, and became an independent practice.

These remembrances were a form of discursive and motivational contemplation, rather than anything involving iconographic visualization. The remembrance of the Buddha followed a standard formula of ten epithets: the meditator would recall that the Buddha, whose teachings he was to follow, was perfectly and fully enlightened, perfect in knowledge and deed, the knower of the world, the unsurpassed, the tamer of those to be tamed, the teacher of gods and humans (Ñāṇamoli, 1964, pp. 206-230; Ehara, Soma Thera, & Kheminda Thera, 1961, pp. 140-148; Harrison, 1992, p. 217; Kinnard, 1999, pp. 73-74). The idea was to create a positive and hopeful attitude toward the process of meditation as a preparation for the more structured contemplative practices that followed.

Thus Buddhaghosa, the fifth-century Theravāda commentator, in the Visuddhimagga (VII.68), after a lengthy discussion of each element of the buddhānussati, says that a monk who is devoted to the practice has much happiness and gladness, conquers fear and dread, is able to endure pain, and “comes to feel as if he were living in the Master’s presence… When he encounters an opportunity for transgression, he has awareness of conscience and shame as vivid as though he were face-to-face with the Master” (Ñāṇamoli, 1964, p. 230).

By the second century CE, buddhānusmṛti had developed from this sort of inspirational contemplation into an iconographic visualization of the physical body of the Buddha. There were probably several reasons for this change, among them perhaps the development of Buddha images in stone and wood that could be used as a basis for the practice (Kinnard, 1999, p. 72).

In a passage from the Ekottarāgama (Taishō 125, 増壹阿含經), we read: “Without having any other thought, he remembers (niàn 念) the Buddha. He contemplates the image (xíng 形) of the Tathāgata without taking his eyes off it. Not taking is eyes off it, he remembers (niàn 念) the virtues of the Tathāgata — the Tathāgata’s body made of diamond, endowed with the ten powers… the Tathāgata’s countenance, upright and peerless, so that one never tires of beholding it” (2.554a21-a23; Harrison, 1978, pp. 37-38). It is not clear whether the Chinese term xíng 形 “form, shape, appearance” refers to a physical image or to a visualization, although the Sanskrit term it translates — pratibimba, “reflected image, reflection, mirrored form” (Rahula & Boin-Webb, 2001, pp. 187, 275) — suggests the latter.

Upatissa’s Vimuttimagga, possibly to be dated to the first or second century CE — originally written in Pāli, but currently available only in a sixth-century Chinese translation by Saṅghapāla (Taishō 1648, 解脫道論) — is also suggestive: the practitioner performs the remembrance repeatedly; its practice is called the undisturbed dwelling of the mind. “If one wishes to meditate on the Buddhas,” Upatissa says, “one should worship Buddha images and other such objects” (Ehara, Soma Thera, & Kheminda Thera, 1961, p. 141).

But most influential, I think, was a wave of visionary devotionalism that began in northwestern India in the early centuries CE, affecting both Buddhism and the Hindu Vaiṣṇava tradition, including the Bhagavadgītā itself (Beyer, 1977). This visionary devotionalism will be the subject of our discussion.

The samādhi of standing face-to-face with all the Buddhas
The nature of the vision

In Buddhist literature of the early centuries CE, there are recurring references to a samādhi with slightly variant names but consisting essentially of a powerful and overwhelming vision of all the Buddhas. In the Dàzhìdù lún (Taishō 1509, 大智度論), *Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa, attributed to Nāgārjuna, we read that “Bodhisattvas possess a samādhi called the samādhi of seeing all the Buddhas of the three worlds. A bodhisattva who enters this samādhi can distinctly see all the the Buddhas of the three worlds and hear their discourse of the Dharma” (Pas, 1995, pp. 354-355, n. 21). In the Guān wúliàngshòu fó jīng (Taishō 365, 佛說觀無量壽佛經), *Amitāyur-buddhānusmṛti Sūtra, which we will discuss in more detail below, Queen Vaidehī is promised that she will be reborn in Sukhāvatī and there experience the samādhi of being in the presence of all the Buddhas (Inagaki, 2003, p. 86).

In the two earliest versions of the story of Sadāprarudita in the Aṣṭasāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, the first as translated by Lokakṣema (Taishō 224, 道行般若經), which we will also discuss in more detail below, and the second as translated by Zhi Qian (Taishō 225, 大明度經) (Lancaster, 1974, p. 83), the protagonist Sadāprarudita is inspired in his quest for the Bodhisattva Dharmodgata in the magical city of Gandhavatī by spontaneously entering into the samādhi of seeing all the Buddhas of the ten directions (Lancaster, 1974, p. 84; Harrison, 1978a, p. 42). In an apparently later version of the story, as reflected in the Sanskrit texts of the Aṣṭasāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and as translated by Mokṣala in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrika-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Taisho 221, 放光般若經), Sadāprarudita begins his quest by spontaneously entering not one but a whole series of samādhis. But even here, the last two are the samādhi of seeing the Tathāgatas and the samādhi of one who sees all the Tathāgatas — and, as a result, Sadāprarudita “now sees Buddhas and Lords in the countless world systems in the ten directions as these reveal this very perfection of wisdom to bodhisattvas” (Conze, 1973, p. 282-283; Sanskrit text in Vaidya, 1961).

There is every reason to believe that all these various names refer to the same visionary samādhi or to a few very closely related samādhis — brilliant, vivid, present, interactive, and overwhelming.

Spontaneous visions

If this samādhi is a visionary experience, how much control does the meditator have over entering into it? There are certainly passages suggesting that the experience of the samādhi is a matter of uncontrollable grace — that it is given to the meditator as a spontaneous vision bestowed by others, rather than achieved through contemplative practice. For example, in Nāgārjuna’s Shízhù pípóshā lún (Taishō 1521, 十住毘婆沙論), *Daśabhūmi-vibhāṣa Śāstra, we read, “I only wish that all the Tathāgatas increasingly bestow on me their compassion, and grant me, in the present life, a vision of themselves before my eyes” (26:44b19-20; Pas, 1995, p. 40).

Similarly, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra (Taishō 262, 妙法蓮華經) says that the vision of the Buddha preaching on Mt. Gṛdhrakūṭa is granted as a sign of the acceptance of the teachings:

O Ajita! Those sons and daughters of a virtuous family, who, hearing me teach the great length of the Buddha’s lifespan, wholeheartedly accept it, will see the Buddha, who always dwells on Mt. Gṛdhrakūṭa together with the great bodhisattvas and śrāvakas, teaching the Dharma to the assembly. Moreover, they will see the land of this Sahā world, which is made of lapis lazuli, level and even. The network of roads is laid out like a chessboard, paved with jāmbūnada gold and bordered with jeweled trees. All its foundations, towers, and balconies will be made of treasures, and the multitude of these bodhisattvas will be dwelling in them. Those who can see such things should know that to be able to do so is a sign of their full and willing acceptance (Kubo & Yuyama, 2007, p. 240).

Huiyuan (慧遠) (334–416 CE) is traditionally considered the First Patriarch of the Pure Land School in China. His followers — and perhaps even Huiyuan himself — were apparently subject to just such spontaneous visions of the Buddha. The early biographical sources contain a number of passages concerning the visions received by Huiyuan’s followers. For example, in the Guǎng hóngmíng jí (Taishō 2103, 廣弘明集), Expanded Records to Spread and Clarify, we read of Liu Chengzhi (劉程之):

When he had spent just a year concentrating his thought and sitting in dhyāna, he saw in samādhi the Buddha. Whenever he met an icon on his ways, the Buddha would manifest himself in the air, his halo illuminating heaven and earth which all assumed a golden color, and again (he would see himself) wearing a kāśāya and bathing in the jewel pond (of Sukhāvatī). When he had come (out of) samādhi, he asked the monks to recite the sūtra (304b8-304b11; Zürcher, 2007/1959, p. 221).

Similarly, in the Gāosēng zhuàn (T. 2059, 高僧傳), Biographies of Eminent Monks, we read of the death of Huiyong (慧永):

Although his disease was very grave, he (still) assiduously observed the monastic rules… Shortly afterwards, he suddenly asked for his clothes, folded his hands, sought for his sandals and wanted to stand up, as if he was seeing something. When the monks, all startled, asked him (what he saw), he replied: “The Buddha is coming.” When he had finished speaking he died, at the age of eighty-three (359c28-360a2; Zürcher, 2007/1959, p. 222).

Eidetic visualization

However, we also have, probably from Kashmir or Inner Asia (Beyer, 1977, pp. 335-336), a number of meditation manuals devoted specifically to the deliberate cultivation of this same samādhi. The historically most important of these was undoubtedly the Bānzhōu sānmèi jīng (Taishō 418, 般舟三昧經), The Sūtra of the Samādhi of One who Stands Face-to-Face with the Buddhas of the Present. No Sanskrit text has survived; the original title, Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra, has been preserved in the Tibetan translation, འཕགས་པ་ད་ལྟར་གྱི་སངས་རྒྱས་མངོན་སུམ་དུ་བཞུགས་པའི་ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་ཅེས་བྱ་བ་ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་མདོ (Peking 801; Harrison, 1978b, 1990).

The text gives every appearance of being early; Shinkō Mochizuki gives an estimate of the first century BCE, and Julian Pas the first century CE (Pas, 1995, p. 40). It was, in fact, one of the very first Buddhist texts translated into Chinese, by Lokakṣema in 179 CE. And the manual was popular. There have been a total of seven Chinese translations, of which four still exist, including abridged versions based on earlier translations, presumably for the convenience of practitioners (Harrison, 1978a, p. 39; Pas, 1995, p. 40).

The manual sets forth detailed instructions for entering the pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi (Chinese 現在佛悉在前立三昧, Tibetan ད་ལྟར་གྱི་སངས་རྒྱས་མངོན་སུམ་དུ་བཞུགས་པའི་ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་), a visualization in which the meditator sees himself face-to-face with a Buddha of the present time, “as if he were standing before his eyes.” Thus:

Tibetan version: What then, sons of good family, is the calling to mind of the Buddha? It is when one concentrates on the Tathāgata in this way: He, the Tathāgata,… endowed with the thirty-two marks of the Great Man and a body with a color like gold, resembling a bright, shining, and well-set golden image, and well adorned like a bejewelled pillar, teaches the Dharma in the midst of an assembly of śrāvakas (Harrison, 1990, p. 37)

Chinese version: They should always call him to mind in this way: The Buddha’s body is endowed with all the thirty-two marks, he radiates light, he is fine and upstanding beyond compare, in the midst of the assembly of monks he preaches the sūtras (Harrison, 1998, p. 19)

And again:

Tibetan version: Bhadrapāla, how then should bodhisattvas and mahāsattvas cultivate this samādhi? Bhadrapāla, just as I am at present sitting before you and teaching the Dharma, in the same way, Bhadrapāla, bodhisattvas should concentrate on the Tathāgatas, Arhats, and Perfectly Awakened Ones as sitting on the Buddha-throne and teaching the Dharma. They should concentrate on the Tathāgatas as being endowed with all the finest aspects, handsome, beautiful, lovely to behold, and endowed with bodily perfection. They should look at the bodies of the Tathagatas, Arhats. and Perfectly Awakened Ones with their Marks of the Great Man… also once more apprehend the external features of the Marks of the Great Man (Harrison, 1990, p. 68)

Chinese version: How should this meditation for bodhisattvas be undertaken? Just as I, the Buddha, am now preaching sutras in your presence, bodhisattvas should think that the Buddhas are all standing before them; they should call to mind in full the Buddhas, who are upright, whom everyone wants to see. They should think of each and every mark, recalling that no one can see the tops of the Buddhas’ heads. They should think of all this in full, and they will see the Buddhas (Harrison, 1998, p. 35)

Another meditation manual, the Siwei liuyao fa (Taishō 617, 思惟畧要法), A Brief Method of Meditation, claiming Kumārajīva as its translator, and also apparently from Kashmir or Inner Asia, sets forth the following practice of buddhānusmṛti (niànfó 念佛):

When you see a beautiful image that looks like a real Buddha, carefully note every sign — from the uṣṇīṣa and ūrṇa to the feet and back from the feet to the uṣṇīṣa — and then go to a quiet place, close your eyes and fix your mind on the image, with no other thoughts. If another thought arises, gather your mind together and bring it back to the image. When you have thus meditated until you can see the image whenever you wish, this is to attain to samādhi by meditation on an image… Only after this will you be able to see the living body of the Buddha face-to-face… Watch your mind like a mother watching a child, that it does not fall into a pit or well or dangerous pathway (Beyer, 1977, pp. 337-338).

When the meditator is able to see the image perfectly formed, he may proceed to visualize the living body of the Buddha, sitting under the tree of enlightenment with shining radiance, or preaching the Law in the Deer Park, or blazing with glory on Mt. Gṛḍhrakuṭa. Or further:

Sit facing the bright and shining east, without mountains or rivers or rocks, seeing only a Buddha sitting crosslegged, his hands raised, preaching the Law. With the eye of your mind contemplate his brilliance: fix your mind on the Buddha, with no other object. If your mind finds another object, gather it together and bring it back. When you can see this, increase the number of Buddhas to ten, then to a hundred, then to a thousand, then to innumerable Buddhas… When you can see this with the eye of your mind, turn your body to the southeast and contemplate as above (Beyer, 1977, pp. 337-338).

The meditation continues in the ten directions, until the practitioner enters the samādhi of the Buddhas of the ten directions.

Although the various names of the samādhi indicate a vision of all the Buddhas of the ten directions — or at least millions and billions of Buddhas — the samādhi, based on its heritage as buddhānusmṛti, foregrounds a particular Buddha. Originally this appears to have been Śākyamuni, the Buddha of the present age, in his resplendent form, lustrous and brilliant, adorned with the thirty-two signs and eighty characteristics of a great man (see, generally, Krishnan & Tadikonda, 2012). But, apparently over time, the foregrounded Buddha came instead to be one of the great cosmic Buddhas who had created a visionary Buddhafield, surrounded by his retinue, preaching the Dharma, embedded in a jewelled and glittering landscape, and with millions and billions of Buddhas in all directions in the background.

In the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra, the foregrounded Buddha is Amitābha — indeed, the text contains the first datable reference to Amitābha in Buddhist literature — but the foregrounded figure apparently could be any Buddha (Karlsson, 2000, p. 68; Shih, 1992, p. 30; Harrison, 1998, pp. 2-3). In fact, there was a great florescence of Buddhas and their Buddhafields around this time. Akṣobhya — and his Buddhafield of Abhirati in the east — has a Pure Land-type sūtra, the Āchù fóguó jīng (Taishō 313, 阿閦佛國經), *Akṣobhya-buddhakṣetra Sūtra, which was translated in 147 CE, thus predating the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra by some thirty years.

These texts were followed by translations of Pure Land-type sūtras of Mañjuśrī and his Buddhafield Vimala, Wénshūshīlì fótǔjìng jīng (Taishō 318, 文殊師利佛土嚴淨經), *Mañjusrī-buddhakṣetra-guṇa-vyūha Sūtra, translated in 290 CE; and of Bhaiṣajyaguru and his Buddhafield Vaiḍūryanirbhāsa, whose earliest sūtra, the Yàoshī jīng (藥師經), *Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra, is preserved in the twelfth chapter of the Guàndǐng jīng (Taishō 1331, 灌頂經), *Abhiśeka-mantra Sūtra, translated in the first half of the fourth century (Nattier, 2000, p. 79). By the time we reach the three primary Pure Land sūtras — including the Amitāyur-buddhānusmṛti Sūtra, which we will discuss below — the central figure in the samādhi is unequivocally Amitābha.


Moreover, it is striking that this samādhi is frequently described as being interactive; that is, not only can the meditator hear the visionary Buddha speak and preach the Law, but the foregrounded Buddha will also answer questions posed by the meditator, saying things that the meditator did not know. For example, the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra says,

Tibetan version: As you have said, because the forms are good and clear the reflections appear. In the same manner, when those bodhisattvas have cultivated this samādhi properly, those Tathāgatas are seen by the bodhisattvas with little difficulty. Having seen them they ask questions, and are delighted by the answering of those questions (Harrison, 1990, p. 42)

Chinese version: When the forms are clear, everything is clear. If one wishes to see the Buddha then one sees him. If one sees him then one asks questions. If one asks then one is answered. One hears the sutras and rejoices greatly (Harrison, 1998, p. 21).

Even if a question is not answered immediately by the visionary Buddha, the answer will be revealed by the Buddha in a subsequent dream:

Tibetan version: Furthermore, Bhadrapāla, for those bodhisattvas who preserve this samādhi, sutras which have not [previously] been expounded to or heard by them will be spoken and their uttering heard, even if it is only in their dreams (Harrison, 1990, p. 117).

Chinese version: Furthermore, Bhadrapāla, as for sūtras which these bodhisattvas have not hitherto recited and sūtra volumes which they have not previously heard, these bodhisattvas will, by means of the numinous power of this meditation, obtain all the names of those sūtra volumes in their dreams, they will see them all and hear all the sounds of the sutras. If they do not obtain them in the daytime, then they see and obtain them all at night in their dreams (Harrison, 1998, p. 61).

Huiyuan was a devotee of the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra and its samādhi. In 406 CE, he wrote a letter to the eminent Kuchean monk-translator Kumarajiva, which is preserved in the Dàshèng dàyì zhāng (T 1856, 大乘大義章), Topics on the Great Meaning of the Mahāyāna, in which he made particular note of this interactivity: “The sutra says that [by means of] the buddhānusmṛti-samādhi (niànfó sānmèi 念佛三昧) one sees the Buddhas. One questions them, and they answer back and thus resolve the snares of doubts.” (Jones, 2008, p. 178). Kumarajiva, in his reply, agreed: “They contemplate (niàn 念) Amitābha and all the Buddhas of the present, and with their mind residing in one place, they can attain a vision of the Buddhas and ask about their doubts… All the Bodhisattvas [who] attain this samādhi see the Buddhas and then ask their questions and have all their doubts resolved” (Jones, 2008, pp. 180, 183).

Two visionary tales

It is possible that the vision of the Buddha developed over time from being a matter of uncontrollable grace to being a deliberate practice of eidetic visualization. But there are also texts in which the vision bestowed and the vision attained are in fact two moments in a single narrative. We can call such a narrative a Buddhist visionary tale, in which the protagonist is first given a vision and then, after suffering sorrow and hardships, is taught how to enter that vision intentionally.

The Guān wúliàngshòu fó jīng (Taishō 365, 佛說觀無量壽佛經) is one of the three key Pure Land sūtras. Its Sanskrit title is often given as Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra, following the usage of Junjiru Takakusu in his well-known English translation of 1894; other scholars offer instead the alternative Amitāyur-buddhānusmṛti Sūtra — assuming, of course, that there was a Sanskrit original in the first place, which some scholars have doubted.

In whatever language it was originally written, the text appears to be one of the visualization sūtras, such as we have discussed, that were composed in the area around Kashmir or associated areas of Central Asia, probably at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century (Williams, 2000, p. 187; Pas, 1995, p. 35). Unlike the related Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra, it is not a philosophical text, but rather “a manual for practitioners” (Pas, 1974, p. 96).

In this sūtra, Queen Vaidehī has been imprisoned by her son, who has already murdered his father, and who takes up a sharp sword to kill her, dissuaded at last only by the intervention of his ministers. In her prison cell, she is granted a vision of all the pure Buddhafields of the ten directions. She asks the Buddha how to meditate so as to gain a vision of the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī, and she is told: “It is by the power of the Buddha that you gain a vision of that Pure Land, as clearly as you see the reflection of your face in a bright mirror… You are still an ordinary person, and your concentration is weak; you have not gained the divine eye, and you cannot see what is far off; but all the Buddhas have skill in means, that you may be granted the vision.”

The queen will not accept that such visions are the product of an uncontrollable grace, and she persists: “It is by the power of the Buddha that people such as I can see that land; but after the Buddha has passed away, all beings will be evil and without virtue, suffering the five sufferings. How can they see this Land of Happiness?” Whereupon the remainder of the text consists of detailed and explicit instructions on the conscious visualization of the Buddha Amitābha — here given his alternative name Amitāyus — along with his retinue and his Buddhafield.

The text gives thirteen specific visualizations for rendering Buddhafield of Sukhavatī — contemplating the setting sun until one has a clear vision of it whether one’s eyes are open or closed; visualizing that the western region is flooded by water and that the water turns into ice and then into beryl; visualizing the jeweled trees, the water in the ponds, the jeweled towers, the lotus throne, the Buddha Amitāyus himself, the two accompanying bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta. For example, here is part of the visualization of Amitāyus:

After you have succeeded in seeing these images, next envision the physical characteristics and the light of Amitayus… From all the pores of his body issues forth a flood of light, as magnificent as Mount Sumeru. His aureole is as broad as a hundred koṭis of universes, each containing a thousand million worlds. In this aureole reside transformed Buddhas numbering as many as a million koṭis of nayutas multiplied by the number of the sands of the Ganges. Each Buddha is attended by innumerable and uncountable transformed bodhisattvas…

In contemplating him, begin with one of his physical characteristics. Visualize only the white tuft of hair between his eyebrows until you see it quite clearly and distinctly. When you visualize it, all the eighty-four thousand physical characteristics will spontaneously become manifest. When you see Amitāyus, you will also see innumerable Buddhas of the ten quarters. Having visualized these innumerable Buddhas, you will receive from each the prediction of your future Buddhahood. This is the general perception of all the physical characteristics of the Buddha and is known as the ninth contemplation. To practice in this way is called the correct contemplation, and to practice otherwise is incorrect (Inagaki, 2003, pp. 75-76; Beyer, 1974, pp. 117-124).

After receiving these instructions, Queen Vaidehī gains “great awakening with clarity of mind and insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,” along with a promise that she would be reborn in Sukhāvatī and there experience the samādhi of being in the presence of all the Buddhas (Inagaki, 2003, p. 86) — arguably the same thing.

One of the most famous stories in the Buddhist Prajñāpāramitā literature is that of Sadāprarudita — “Ever-Weeping” — and his quest for the Law. The most popular version is found in the Sanskrit sources and in the Chinese translation by Mokṣala in 291 CE, embedded in his translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Taishō 221, 放光般1若經), as well as in other later Chinese translations. But the earliest Chinese translation of the text was by the Indo-Scythian monk Lokakṣema in 179 CE, embedded in his translation of the Aṣṭasahāsrikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Taishō 224, 道行般若經) (Lancaster, 1974).

As the story is told by Lokakṣema, Sadāprarudita has four escalating visionary experiences — two dreams of devas who tell him to seek the Law; a deva who appears before him in the sky and, in answer to Sadāprarudita’s question, tells him to seek the Law in the east; and a magically created Buddha body that appears in space, preaches the Law, and tells Sadāprarudita about the wondrous city of Gandhavatī and the Bodhisattva Dharmodgata who dwells there teaching the perfection of wisdom, whereupon Sadāprarudita enters spontaneously into the the samādhi of seeing of the Buddhas of the ten directions — an involuntary visionary revelation, gratuitous, unsought, and overwhelming.

It is clear too from its description that the city of Gandhavatī is a sort of Buddhafield: its walls are made of the seven precious things; it is filled with jeweled trees, the soft sweet sound of bells, and the singing of birds; its streams are covered with lotuses and fragrant flowers; boats covered with precious gems float on its gentle rivers. In order to reach the city, Sadāprarudita undergoes great hardship, and finally he sees Dharmodgata sitting in a mind-created tower made of the seven precious things, adorned with red sandalwood and encircled with strings of pearls. When Sadāprarudita hears the teachings of Dharmodgata, he enters into 60,000 samādhis, including the samādhi of seeing all the Buddhas. And at that point Dharmodgata arises from his throne and departs (Paul, 1984, 118-128). We will look at the Mokṣala version of this scene later.

These two stories have several narrative elements in common. Both Queen Vaidehī and Sadāprarudita, under conditions of great sorrow and hardship, experience unsought and overwhelming visions. They are able to hear a Buddha teach them the Law, and then each enters — or is promised — a vision of seeing all the Buddhas. In other words, both protagonists complete a narrative circle, and now become able to do for themselves what previously they could experience only by an act of spontaneous grace.

Visualization in the Bhagavadgītā

We have seen that non-Tantric Buddhist texts of the early centuries CE describe a process of eidetic visualization, often of considerable detail and complexity, under the rubric anusmṛti, and often embedded in a story in which the protagonist is taught to reproduce contemplatively a vision that is first offered by a gratuitous grace.

A case can be made that this was not solely a Buddhist development, but rather was part of a wave of visionary devotionalism which swept over northwest India in the early centuries CE, and which brought its technique of iconographic visualization not only to Buddhist Pure Land and tantric practices but also to the Vaiṣṇava practice of bhakti.

In chapter eleven of the Bhagavadgītā, the warrior Arjuna has an overwhelming vision of his charioteer Kṛṣṇa as he really is — the cosmic Viṣṇu, with all the creatures of the world being devoured and spewed forth from the thousand heads with their thousand mouths, with his fiery light filling the whole universe and scorching it with fierce radiance.

When Kṛṣṇa returns to his human form, he says to Arjuna, in verses 47 and 48, that it was only through divine grace that Arjuna could see this supreme and luminous form, which can be seen by no one else in the human world. And then, in verses 53 and 54, Kṛṣṇa continues: “Not by the Vedas and not by austerities, not by charity and not by sacrifice can I be seen in such a form as you have seen me; but by bhakti alone can I be known and seen in such a form, as I really am, and entered into.”

Here is a story structure that we have seen before. The hero, Arjuna, receives, through the workings of an uncontrollable grace, a vision of the deity; and then he is taught a contemplative technique by which he can himself reproduce the vision he was given. Here the technique is given a name — bhakti.

What is bhakti? If we put to one side the meanings and practices that are later associated with the term, and look only at its technical usage in the Bhagavadgītā itself, we find that the term is connected with four other words. Bhakti is a kind of yoga — that is, a disciplined contemplative practice; it is an upāsanā — that is, the equivalent of an Upaniṣadic meditation; it is to be performed primarily at the time of death; and it is characterized by terms derived from the root √smṛ — that is, a term the same as or closely related to the Buddhist term anusmṛti.

So bhakti is both a yoga and an upāsanā, a specific form of contemplative practice that is different from the contemplative quest for what the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VI.1) calls “that one thing by knowledge of which all this is known.” In the first verse of chapter seven of the Bhagavadgītā we read: “Attach your mind to me; practice yoga and base yourself on me; and you will know me fully.” In the second verse of chapter twelve, Kṛṣṇa eulogizes the practitioner who follows his teachings, as opposed to the follower of Upaniṣadic meditation: “The one I consider most controlled (yuktatama) is the one who fixes his mind on me and meditates (upāsate) on me, ever controlled (yukta), possessed of the highest faith.” The expression yuktatama links this verse to verse 47 of chapter six: “The most controlled of all yogins id the one who does bhakti (bhājate) on me, his inmost self absorbed in me, possessed of faith.”

This contemplative practice is to be done above all at the moment of death: the mental vision of the moment of death determines the destiny of the soul. In the fifth verse of chapter eight, Kṛṣṇa says, “Whoever at the time of death, when he casts aside his body, bears me in mind (smaran) and departs, comes to my mode of being: there is no doubt of this.”

There is thus an equivalence between bhakti and smṛti. Chapter eight continues:

Whatever state one may bear in mind (smaran) when one finally casts aside one’s body is the state to which one goes, for that state makes one grow into itself. So ever remember me (anusmaran) as you fight, for if you fix your mind and thoughts on me you will come to me: there is no doubt of this. Let the thoughts be controlled (yukta) by yoga and by effort, let them not stray after anything else: one who meditates on the supreme person goes to him. The ancient seer, the ruler, smaller than the small, supporter of all, inconceivable in form, sun-colored beyond the darkness: thus let one remember (anusmared).

Rāmānuja, the great eleventh-century Śrīvaiṣṇava commentator, in the introduction to his commentary on chapter seven of the Bhagavadgītā, says that only the upāsanā that has the form of bhakti can be a means for attaining the supreme being. And, in his commentary on Brahmasūtra 1.1.1, he defines this sort of upāsanā as “steady anusmṛti.” He says that meditation is “a continuity of unwavering smṛti, uninterrupted like a flow of oil.” And he explicitly defines this practice as visualization:

This smṛti takes the form of vision (smṛtir darśanarūpā), and it possesses the character of the immediate perception of an object (pratyakṣatā)… Smṛti takes the form of being ‘right before the eyes’ (sākṣātkārarūpā).”

Again, on Brahmasūtra 3.4.26 he says:

Terms such as meditation or upāsanā refer to an awareness that takes the form of smṛti as clear as immediate perception. By constant practice this becomes ever more perfect until — properly continued to the time of death — it secures liberation.

On the second verse of chapter nine of the Bhagavadgītā, which speaks of “the supreme knowledge known by direct experience (pratyakṣāvagama), Rāmānuja comments: “The meaning is: When one meditates upon me by upāsanā in the form of bhakti, then I become the object of the meditator’s immediate perception.” And on verse 65 of chapter eighteen he says: “Upāsanā takes the form of immediate perception; it is steady anusṛti; it is inexpressibly precious; it is what is here enjoined in the text, ‘Fix your mind on me.’”

The metaphysics of the vision

We looked earlier at the earliest available version of the story of Sadāprarudita, translated by Lokakṣema in 179 CE. The apparently later version, translated by Mokṣala in 291 CE, varies from the earlier version in a significant way.

We can recall that, in the later version, Sadāprarudita enters into a series of samādhis in which he sees the Buddhas in countless world systems in the ten directions. But the vision creates a metaphysical puzzle for him. “After the Tathāgatas had comforted the bodhisattva Sadaprarudita,” the text continues, “they disappeared. That son of good family emerged from those samādhis, and asked himself ‘Where have those Tathāgatas come from, and where have they gone?’” (Harrison, 1978a, p. 42; Conze, 1973, pp. 282-283; Sanskrit text in Vaidya, 1961).

In this later version, too, when Sadāprarudita has finally, after many hardships, come into the presence of the Bodhisattva Dharmodgata, he does not, as in the earlier version, pass into a samādhi, but rather seizes the opportunity to ask Dharmodgata the metaphysical question that has been troubling him throughout his quest. He tells the bodhisattva about his earlier vision of all the Buddhas, and how they all appeared and then vanished, and he asks: “Where did these Tathāgatas come from, and where do they go?” And there the chapter ends.

We should note that the question is in fact a play on words. The term Tathāgata as an epithet of the Buddha means equivocally “one who has thus gone” (tathā-gata) or ”one who has thus come” (tathā-āgata). And then so is Dharmodgata’s answer, which identifies the Tathāgata with tathatā, “suchness” — that is, with the real unchanging nature of things, undifferentiated, without fixed points, with no coming or going (Makransky, 1997, p. 32).

It is in the next chapter that Dharmodgata answers the question.

Dharmodgata: Tathāgatas certainly do not come from anywhere, nor do they go anywhere. Because Suchness does not move, and the Tathāgata is Suchness. Non-production does not come nor go, and the Tathāgata is non-production. One cannot conceive of the coming or going of the reality-limit, and the Tathāgata is the reality-limit. The same can be said of emptiness, of what exists in accordance with fact, of dispassion, of stopping, of the element of space… A man, scorched by the heat of the summer, during the last month of summer, at noon might see a mirage floating along, and might run towards it, and might think “There I shall find some water, there I shall find something to drink. What do you think, son of good family, has that water come from anywhere, or does that water go anywhere, to the eastern great ocean, or the southern, or the northern, or western?

Sadāprarudita: No water exists in the mirage. How could its coming or going be conceived? That man again is foolish and stupid if, on seeing the mirage, he forms the idea of water where there is no water. Water in its own being certainly does not exist in that mirage (Conze, 1973, p. 291; Sanskrit text in Vaidya, 1961).

And further on:

Dharmodgata: Just so the Tathāgata has taught that all dharmas are like a dream. All those who do not wisely know all dharmas as they really are, i.e. as like a dream, as the Tathāgata has pointed out, they adhere to the Tathāgatas through their name-body and their form-body, and in consequence they imagine that the Tathāgatas come and go… Those who know as they really are all dharmas as like a dream, in agreement with the teaching of the Tathāgata, they do not imagine the coming or going of any dharma, nor its production or stopping (Conze, 1973, p. 292; Sanskrit text in Vaidya, 1961).

In other words, the Buddhas, the Buddhafields, our ordinary experiences — indeed, all events, all dharmas — neither come nor go; they are visions, dreams, images; they are empty. The Amitāyur-buddhānusmṛti Sūtra also draws out the metaphysical implications of visionary practice. As soon as Queen Vaidehī has been taught how to visualize the wondrous body of the Buddha Amitābha and the glittering Buddhafield of Sukhāvatī, she attains “great awakening with clarity of mind and insight into the non-arising of all dharmas” (Inagaki, 2003, p. 86). She too is taught that dharmas do not arise — that they neither come nor go.

The second chapter of the Pratyutpannabuddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi Sūtra makes this explicit. The text compares the visualized Buddha with dreams, reflections, and the skeletons and decaying corpses visualized in the aśubhabhāvanā, the meditation on uncleanness (Harrison, 1978a, p. 52).

Tibetan version: In thinking: “Did these Tathāgatas come from anywhere? Did I go anywhere?” they understand that the Tathāgatas did not come from anywhere. Having understood that their own bodies did not go anywhere either, they think: “Whatever belongs to this Triple World is nothing but thought. Why is that? It is because however I imagine things, that is how they appear” (Harrison, 1990, p. 42).

Chinese version: One reflects thus: “Where did the Buddha come from? Where did I go to?” and one thinks to oneself: “The Buddha came from nowhere, and I also went nowhere.” One thinks to oneself: “The Three Realms — the Realm of Desire, the Realm of Form, and the Realm of the Formless — these Three Realms are simply made by thought. Whatever I think, that I see. The mind creates the Buddha. The mind itself sees him. The mind is the Buddha… A mind with conceptions is stupidity, a mind without conceptions is nirvana. There is nothing in these dharmas which can be enjoyed; they are all made by thinking. If thinking is nothing but empty, then anything which is thought is also utterly nonexistent (Harrison, 1998, pp. 21-22).

This is, by the way, the first known occurrence of the “famous and often cited” (Ray, 2006, p. 146, n. 9) philosophical expression cittamātram idaṃ yad idaṃ traidhātukam, “These three realms are nothing but mind.” The next known occurrence of the expression is in the Daśabhūmika Sūtra (Rahder, 1926, p. 49), and from there it is incorporated and commented on by numerous Buddhist thinkers (Willis, 2002/1982, pp. 26-28).

Kamalaśīla, in his third Bhāvanākrama, explicitly relates this process of visualization and analysis to the standard contemplative sequence of calmness (śamatha) and insight (vipaśyanā). He writes:

The yogin at the outset should practice calmness and place his mind on the body of the Tathāgata as it looks and sounds — the body the color of refined gold, adorned with the major and minor marks, seated in the middle of his retinue, constantly bringing about the welfare of beings through various methods. In order to produce the wish for his qualities, and to pacify laziness, excitement, and so on, the yogin should concentrate as long as possible until he can see the Tathāgata vividly abiding in front of him.

Then the yogin should practice insight by observing that image as it appears, disappears, and then appears again. He should think like this: “Just as the image of the Tathāgata’s body neither appeared from anywhere nor nor goes anywhere, the seated image is without svabhāva and devoid of self and I-ness. In the same way all dharmas are devoid of existence, neither come nor go, and are without substance (Lopez, 1996, p. 130; Sharma, 1997, p. 73).

Huiyuan, as we discussed above, was fascinated with the pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi. He praised the excellence of this samādhi in his Niànfó sānmèi shījí xù (Taishō 2103, 52.351b10, 念佛三昧詩集序), Preface to a Collection of Poems on the Buddhānusmṛti-samādhi, where he wrote that, although there are many different kinds of samādhi, “For high achievement and easy progress, buddhānusmṛti is the first” (52.0351b21, Zurcher, 2007/1959, p. 221).

But Huiyuan found himself puzzled, among other things, by the metaphysics of such visionary experiences. In his letters to Kumārajīva in the Dàshèng dàyì zhāng he asked a total of eighteen doctrinal questions, of which the eleventh was about what Huiyuan called the buddhānusmṛti-samādhi (念佛三昧) (134b4; Zürcher, 2007/1959, p. 221; Jones, 2008, p. 177).

Huiyuan’s question was essentially whether the Buddhas seen in the samadhi were real. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Buddha did not just appear but was interactive and would answer the questions of the meditator. “If I do not go out of myself, and the Buddha does not come in,” he asked Kumārajīva, “then how is there elucidation? Where would this elucidation come from?” (Jones, 2008, p. 179). Huiyuan, in other words, is sharing the puzzlement of Sadāprarudita, and Kumārajīva gives him a similar answer (Jones, 2008, p. 182):

The sutras explain that all Buddhas’ bodies are produced from the aggregation of conditions, and have no self-nature, but are ultimately empty and quiescent, like dreams and magical illusions. If this is so, then the bodies of all the Buddhas by practicing in accordance with the explanations should not be merely delusions. If [the vision of the Buddhas] is a delusion, then everything must be a delusion. If it is not a delusion, then nothing else is a delusion either.

All of this, of course, becomes in Tantra the visualization of the deity as born from and returning to emptiness (Beyer, 1973, pp. 100-143).

Pure Land and Tantra
Example 1: The maṇḍala of Padmasambhava: an overhead view of the divine dwelling

The samādhi of seeing all the Buddhas developed from the earlier practice of buddhānusmṛti and the visualization of Śākyamuni, the Buddha of the present age, in resplendent form, bearing the thirty-two signs and eighty characteristics of a great man. In the practice described in the Kashmir and Central Asian meditation manuals, the foregrounded figure might be Śākyamuni or — increasingly — one of the great cosmic Buddhas who had created a visionary Buddhafield, embedded in a jewelled and glittering landscape, surrounded by a retinue, and with all the signs of of powerful Buddhahood.

In Buddhist Pure Land practice, this eidetic visualization focused exclusively on the Buddha Amitābha, and the wish to experience, either in the immediate present or after death, the wonders of his Pure Land Sukhāvatī. In Buddhist tantra, the foregrounded Buddha became the high patron deity (Sanskrit iṣṭadevatā, Tibetan yi-dam ཡི་དམ་) in the deity’s own maṇḍala (see generally Beyer, 1973, pp. 40-54). In fact, to visualize the maṇḍala of the deity in a tantric meditation is essentially the same as visualizing a Buddhafield; both are the palace of the deity, with its walls and towers and fierce protectors, the deity in the center, with all the appurtenances and emblems of power, surrounded by a luminous retinue.

Example 2: The maṇḍala of Padmasambhava: the divine dwelling seen from in front

Example 1 shows a conventional Tibetan tantric representation of a maṇḍala — in this case, a maṇḍala of Padmasambhava. It is in fact an overhead vertical view, looking downward from above into the divine mind-created dwelling. That this is the case is made clear by comparing this view with Example 2, which shows Padmasambhava’s maṇḍala as a three-story dwelling as viewed from the front. And this view can be compared in turn with Examples 3 and 4, which are, respectively, Tibetan and Chinese paintings depicting the Buddha Amitābha and his retinue in his divine mind-created Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

The difference between Pure Land and Tantra visualization is this. In Tantra, as in Pure Land practice, the deity is visualized in front of the meditator, to receive worship, offerings, praise, prayer, and the recitation of the mantra. But in Tantra, the visualization is also of oneself as the deity, not only with the vivid appearance (gsal-snang གསལ་སྣང་) of the deity’s body and retinue but also with the deity’s own identity (nga-rgyal ང་རྒྱལ་) and symbolic meaning (dag-dran དག་དྲན་). In fact, we can propose as a definition of tantra that it embraces all and only those practices that include as an essential component the eidetic visualization of oneself as the deity.

Example 3: Tibetan painting of Amitābha in his divine dwelling Sukhāvatī

I remember a conversation I had with a Hare Krishna devotee. We were discussing the way he visualizes the play of Kṛṣṇa and his eternal consort Rādhā in Kṛṣṇa’s heaven Goloka. I asked him if he ever visualized himself as Kṛṣṇa sporting with Rādhā. He looked horrified. “Oh no,” he said. “That would be Tantra, and you would go straight to hell.”

There is reason to place the roots of all these visualization practices in the northwestern part of India in the late centuries BCE or early centuries CE, and to hypothesize a movement of what we can call visionary devotionalism spreading from this region through Kashmir and Central Asia to China. At the same time, we see the appearance of similar visualization techniques in Hindu Vaiṣṇava texts — for example, as we have seen, in the Bhagavadgītā, the key text for all of later Vaiṣṇavism. I think there is little doubt that the Buddhist and Vaiṣṇava techniques are closely related, and come from the same sources.

Eidetic visualization as a visionary experience

There are several features of these eidetic visualizations that are worth noting. To the meditator, the figures visualized are present, real, convincing, detailed, complex, embedded in an extended, three-dimensional, explorable perceptual space, and, in some cases, interactive, so that the meditator can engage with apparently autonomous others.

Example 4: Chinese painting of Amitābha in his divine dwelling Sukhāvatī

Thus, these samādhis are included among what I have called visionary experiences (Beyer, 2009, pp. 260-263) — such things as hallucinations, lucid dreams, visions, apparitions, false awakenings, out-of-body experiences, DMT journeys, hypnagogia, waking dreams, and active imagination. All of these experiences raise important psychological, epistemological, and ontological issues.

Buddhist writers have pointed out that there is a metaphysics implicit in the practice of eidetic visualization; it is the ontology of the vision and the dream. A universe of glittering and quicksilver change is precisely one that can be described as empty. The vision and the dream become the tools to dismantle the hard categories we impose upon reality, to reveal the eternal flowing possibility in which the bodhisattva lives. Such possibility exists only because everything — rocks, flowers, Buddhas, Buddhafields — is made of mind, and therefore empty. These samādhis are interpreted as teaching us to de-reify the world, obliterate the boundaries between the real and the imaginal, and see all our experiences as a Buddhafield — visionary, magical, and full of meaning.


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One Response to “Visualization Before Tantra”

  1. Great article, Steve. I’m about half way through, but appreciating the points you are making, and how psychedelics could hone these visionary skills and very particular exercises. I’m reading Keth Dowman’s translation of The Flight of the Garuda. He relates Tibetan visionary experience and psychedelic experience in his introduction.

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