The date when these beliefs first became part of the accepted Mahayana creed cannot be fixed but probably the symmetrical arrangement of five Buddhas is not anterior to the tantric period of Buddhism. The most important of the five are Vairocana and Amitâbha.
In the older works of art his figure is human, without redundant limbs, and represents a youth in the costume of an Indian prince with a high jewelled chignon, or sometimes a crown. The head-dress is usually surmounted by a small figure of Amitâbha. His right hand is extended in the position known as the gesture of charity.
For the believer performs an act to wit, the invocation of Amitâbha to which has been attached the wonderful result that the performer is reborn in a blessed state. This is not essentially different from the idea found in the Pali Canon that attentions paid to a Buddha may be rewarded by a happy rebirth in heaven.
He is primarily a deity of the nether world, but like Amitâbha and Avalokita he made a vow to help all living creatures and specially to deliver them from hell. The Taoists pictured hell as divided into ten departments ruled over by as many kings, and Chinese fancy made Ti-tsang the superintendent of these functionaries.
In Nepal the nine Dharmas receive superstitious homage rather than intelligent study, but in Tibet and the Far East the Prajñâ-pâramitâ, the Lotus and the sutras about Amitâbha are in daily use for public worship and private reading.
It says nothing of the Mâdhyamika philosophy and most of it deals with the need of good conduct and the terrors of future punishment, quite in the manner of the Hinayana. But it also commends the use of images and incense in worship, it mentions Avalokita and Amitâbha and it holds up the ideal of attaining Buddhahood.
In Northern Buddhism we find Amitâbha, the boundless Light; Avalokiteshvara, the source of incarnations, and the Universal Mind, Mandjusri. But the Buddha Himself is sometimes worshipped as a Trinity; on a stone in Buddha Gaya is inscribed a salutation to Him as an incarnation of the Eternal One, and it is said: "Om! In extinct religions the same idea of a Trinity is found.
The human life of Gotama, though not denied, is regarded as the manifestation of a cosmic force which also reveals itself in countless other Buddhas who are not merely his predecessors or destined successors but the rulers of paradises in other worlds. Faith in a Buddha, especially in Amitâbha, can secure rebirth in his paradise.
This last expression bears a remarkable resemblance to the name of Amitâbha and we can understand that he should rule the west, because it is the home to which the sun and departed spirits go. Amitâbha's Paradise is called Sukhâvatî or Happy Land.
This supports the theory that this worship was foreign and imported into India. This worship and the doctrine on which it is based are an almost complete contradiction of Gotama's teaching, for they amount to this, that religion consists in faith in Amitâbha and prayer to him, in return for which he will receive his followers after death in his paradise.