Buddhism, today one of the world’s largest religions, began with a single person. Siddartha Gautama was an Indian prince who lived in the sixth or fifth century BCE and became known as the Buddha (“Awakened One”) after his enlightenment during meditation—a sudden understanding of the cause of human suffering and how to escape it. Also known as Shakyamuni (“Sage of the Shakya clan”), he was revered for his teachings, the basis of the many variations of Buddhism that spread throughout East Asia.
Shakyamuni is depicted here in old age, dying on his bed. Buddhist temples display large paintings like this in February, the month associated with Shakyamuni’s nirvana, or release from mortal suffering.
In some forms of Buddhism, only a few devoted people, usually monks or nuns, are considered capable of reaching enlightenment by closely following the Buddha’s path. Other forms of Buddhism regard Shakyamuni as just one of many buddhas, and teach that anyone can reach enlightenment and become a buddha with the assistance of bodhisattvas—spiritual beings who deferred their own path to enlightenment in order to help others.
Amida Buddha is flanked by his two assistants, the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi, and surrounded by many other bodhisattvas descending to earth to help people reach enlightenment.
Amida is one of the many buddhas recognized by the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Unlike Shakyamuni, the Amida Buddha is not usually regarded as having been a real person but a spiritual concept with a backstory: a monk who became a bodhisattva and finally a buddha after countless lives. He vowed to create a "pure land of ultimate bliss" that would be open to anyone reciting his name. The many buddhas of Mahayana Buddhism each has his own pure land, but Amida is by far the most popular among worshippers in Japan for his welcoming message.
Once reborn in Amida's Pure Land, a person can continue to strive toward enlightenment without the difficulties of life on earth, coached by Amida and the many bodhisattvas residing there.