If you have a Unicode font installed you’ll be able to see the mantra with diacritics here: Oṃ Amideva Hrīḥ.
Amitabha (his name means infinite radiance) is an archetypal Buddha who is supremely important in far eastern Buddhism. He represents love and compassion, and he is pictured as being the rich, warm color of the setting sun.
Amitabha is one of the so-called Dhyani-Buddhas, a set of five non-historical, symbolic figures who are arranged in a mandala. The other Buddhas in this set are Vairocana (center), Akshobhya (East), Ratnasambhava (South), and Amoghasiddhi (North).
Amitabha is dressed as a monk, with his hands in the mudra (hand gesture) of dhyana (meditation). The dhyana mudra is how one traditionally arranges one’s hands during Buddhist meditation, all those pictures of yoga practitioners with their hands on their knees notwithstanding. This hand position is very balanced and subtle; the thumbs lightly touch, neither pushing together nor falling apart.
Amitabha is of great important in far-eastern Buddhism, where he is known as Amida. He also has a Bodhisattva form called Amitayus, which means “Infinite Life.” The Bodhisattva form is, unlike the monastic Buddha-form, arrayed as a young prince with long hair and adorned with jewelry and fine silks. In some traditions Amitabha and Amitayus are seen as being essentially the same being, while in other traditions they are distinct.
Amitabha is the head of the Lotus (padma) family. This family includes some of the most famous Buddhas and bodhisattvas, including Avalokiteshvara, Padmasambhava, White Tara, and the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.
He sits on a lotus throne decorated with his sacred animal, the peacock. In Indian folklore it is said that the peacock’s brilliant colors come from the poison of the snakes they eat. These poisons are transmuted into beauty, and likewise Amitabha’s practice turns the poison of greed into love. The connection between greed and love may not be immediately obvious, but one only has to think of the contrast between lust (desiring another person in order to gratify our appetites) and true love (valuing the uniqueness and the potential of another as a person in their own right) to appreciate the symbolism.
Amitabha was one of the first Buddhas to have his own visualization practice. There are several sutras devoted to him. The Amitayurdhyana Sutra (the Teaching of the Meditation on Amitabha) explains 16 meditations that visualize the Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land, Sukhavati (“the realm of bliss”). This was a teaching given to Queen Vaidehi, who had been imprisoned by her evil son, Ajatasatru. The Buddha introduces the meditation thus:
Do you not know now that the Buddha Amitayus is not far from here? You should concentrate your thoughts upon and visualize that Buddha-land which is the result of pure actions. I shall now give you detailed instructions so that you and future generations who desire to practice the pure actions may attain birth in the Western Realm of Ultimate Bliss.
So you may be wondering, what is a Pure Land? A Pure Land is what we might think of as a parallel dimension or alternative universe which has been constructed by the infinite merit of a Buddha in his eons of practice. In a Pure Land everything is conducive to gaining enlightenment. You don’t have to worry about earning a living or finding the time to meditate. You’re born, full grown, in a lotus, and the teaching of the prevailing Buddha is everywhere. A Pure Land is a sort of heaven into which one can aspire to be reborn. This aspiration is the central theme of what is known as Pure Land Buddhism
Amitabha’s mantra is a variant of his name. Amideva is just the Tibetan pronunciation of Amitabha (although I was told for a long time that “deva” here meant “god”).
(As an aside, a friend of mine was ordained and given the name “Amaradeva” which means “deathless god.” Symbolically amara (deathless) signifies enlightenment and deva means “radiant” and so the name could be parsed as “one who radiates awakening.” However his colleagues at work got the understanding of “deathless god” a little mixed up and were perturbed to contemplate that they would soon be working with “The Lord of the Undead.” Such are the perils of using Indic names in the West!)
Click below to hear an MP3 version:
The final h in hriih has the effect of producing an echo sound. So the syllable is pronounced hrii-hii.