Pure Land Buddhism:
The Path of Serene Trust
In order to understand
Pure Land Buddhism it is helpful to be familiar with some specific aspects
of Buddhist teaching:
MERIT AND ITS TRANSFER.
There are benefits to be derived from the non-attached practices of Wisdom
and Compassion; these practices include the Buddhist Precepts which are
guidelines for enlightened living. These benefits, or "merit," may be
accumulated and subsequently transferred to any or all sentient beings for
their benefit (transpersonal) or rededicated so as to transform it into a
benefit for one's self (personal).
OTHER BUDDHAS. Shakyamuni,
the historical Buddha of our age, is not the only Buddha to ever have
existed. Indeed, all beings have the nature to become totally awakened to
the Truth of the Universe. One of the first Buddhas other than Shakyamuni
to be mentioned in the Buddhist tradition was the Buddha Maitreya, the
next Buddha who will appear in our own world-system which is known as the
BUDDHA-FIELDS. Buddhas spread their influence over a system of worlds in
which they teach Dharma and exert their benevolence. Shakyamuni is the
Buddha of our own world system. Buddha-realms may be seen as both literal
RELATIONSHIP WITH A BUDDHA. Bodhisattvas are "Enlightenment Beings" who
are on the path toward Nirvana, the end of suffering, the realm of Perfect
Peace. They work not only for their own Enlightenment, but also for the
Enlightenment of all sentient beings. Once Bodhisattvahood is attained,
the Bodhisattva is instructed by a Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha's teacher was
the Buddha Dipamkara; in turn, Shakyamuni Buddha is the teacher of the
Buddha to come, Maitreya.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught
about a Buddha named Amitabha ("Boundless Light," also known as Amitayus,
or "Boundless Life") who presides over a Buddha-realm known as Sukhavati,
a realm of rebirth in which all impediments to the attainment of final
Enlightenment are nonexistent. This realm, or Pure Land (also known as the
Realm of Bliss) is the result of the accumulated merit of the Bodhisattva
Dharmakara, who practiced for eons before becoming the Buddha Amitabha.
Dharmakara vowed that when he attained Buddhahood, the realm over which he
would preside would include the finest features of all the other
Buddha-realms. These other realms were revealed to Dharmakara by his
teacher, the Buddha Lokesvararaja.
Pure Land Buddhism is
described as the Path of Serene Trust, or "prasada" in Sanskrit. This term
is broadly interpreted as "faith," and means that one has serene trust and
confidence in the power and wisdom of Buddhas, or that one has the firm
conviction that the Bodhisattva Vow made by all Buddhas, namely, to lead
all sentient beings to Enlightenment, has been or will be fulfilled.
Praising a Buddha's
virtues and keeping a Buddha in mind at all times has been practiced since
the earliest days of Buddhism. Indeed, the act of taking refuge in the
Buddha means to put one's trust in the Buddha as an honored teacher. In
the Pratyutpanna Sutra, an early Buddhist text, Shakyamuni Buddha talks
about the practice of Pratyutpanna Samadhi, in which one can directly
perceive the Buddhas of the Ten Directions face to face.
The object of Pure Land
Buddhism is rebirth into the Realm of Bliss. This may be seen as literal
rebirth into the Buddha-realm called Sukhavati and/or as experiencing the
direct realization of the realm of the Purified Mind, in which a person
becomes one with the limitless Compassion and Widsom which are the prime
characteristics of Buddha Amitabha. Pure Land Buddhism rests on the
Aspiration or the Vow for
effort aimed at Buddha Remembrance Samadhi, "Buddhanusmrti" in Sanskrit, "Nien-Fo"
in Chinese. Buddhanusmrti means "To stay mindful of the Buddha," and has
been a central practice of Pure Land Buddhism since its beginnings.
Nien-Fo also refers to the recitation of the Buddha's name, among other
The Pure Land tripod of
Faith, Aspiration and Practice was modified in 12th century Japan. The
18th vow of Dharmakara was interpreted to mean that one only need to
recite Amitabha's name to attain rebirth (see next section). The teacher
Shinran further narrowed this interpretation to say that the Nembutsu
(Japanese for Nien-Fo) is recited until the Mind of Faith manifests
itself, and that faith in Amida Buddha (the Japanese term for Amitabha) is
sufficient for rebirth. The Japanese Pure Land schools are still
characterized as "faith-only" schools, while classical Pure Land Buddhism
still relies on the tripod of Faith, Aspiration and Practice as
made 48 vows regarding the nature of his yet-to-be Buddha-realm. Among
these are four very crucial vows, the 18th, 19th, 20th and 22nd. These
vows are enumerated in the Larger Sukhavati Sutra, one of the three main
Pure Land scriptures.
The 18th vow states that
anyone who has vowed to be reborn into the Realm of Bliss and has
dedicated their roots of merit to this rebirth will indeed be reborn
there, even if this vow has been sincerely made as few as ten times.
The 19th vow states that
Amitabha Buddha will appear at the moment of death to one who cultivates
virtue, resolves to seek awakening, and single-mindedly aspires to be
reborn into the Realm of Bliss.
The 20th vow guarantees
rebirth into the Realm of Bliss for those who have cultivated virtue, have
sought awakening, and have single-mindedly aspired to be reborn into this
The 22nd vow states that
once reborn into the Realm of Bliss, one may either complete the
Bodhisattva Path and attain Perfect Full Awakening, or may take what are
known as the Vows of Samanthabhadra, namely to follow the full Bodhisattva
Path and to return to the cycle of rebirth to save all sentient beings.
The principal Pure Land
The Smaller Sukhavati
Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha speaks to his disciple Sariputra about
the Realm of Bliss, giving a concise description of Amitabha's
Buddha-realm. This is probably the most recited of the three main Pure
The Larger Sukhavati
Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha gives his disciple Ananda a detailed
description of the Realm of Bliss. He also recounts the history of the
Bodhisattva Dharmakara and describes the 48 vows in detail.
The Visualization Sutra or
Kuan Wu-Liang-Shou-Fo Ching, which was composed in China. This sutra, also
regarded as a meditation manual, gives a detailed description of the
features of the Pure Land. This includes descriptions of the
characteristics of Amitabha Buddha and the attendant Bodhisattvas:
Avalokitesvara, representing engaged compassion, and Mahasthamaprapta,
representing wisdom. Avalokitesvara means "Regarder of the Cries of the
World," while Mahasthamaprapta means "The One Who Has Attained Great
Whenever Pure Land
Buddhism is discussed these two important concepts usually arise.
Self-Power refers to to methods we practice on our own, the power of our
own mind. Other-Power refers to the power of the vows of Amitabha Buddha
which facilitate rebirth in the Realm of Bliss, as well as the
manifestation of these vows through the transference of Amitabha's own
merit to us.
In classical Pure Land
Buddhism, Self-Power and Other-Power work together. Through recitation,
meditation and visualization practices, vowing to be reborn and
manifesting the mind of faith, we attain Buddha Remembrance Samadhi,
uniting one's Self-Power with the Other-Power of Buddha Amitabha, the
essence of Universal Compassion and Wisdom.
In Japanese Pure Land
Buddhism however, there is an exclusive reliance on Other-Power. Reciting
the Buddha's name with faith is all that is necessary, and Other-Power
practices are seen as essentially useless. A person is totally reliant on
the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; essentially, the saying of the Buddha's
name arises solely from the power of Amida's vows. This causes Japanese
Pure Land to be more of a salvation-based form, unlike the classical Pure
Land Buddhism that originally developed in China.
Recitation is one of the
central practices of Pure Land Buddhism. It involves the concentrated and
heartfelt repetitive recitation of "Namo Amitabha Buddha" (Homage to the
Buddha of Boundless Compassion and Wisdom). In Chinese this phrase is "Namo
Omito-Fo," in Japanese, "Namu Amida Butsu."
Recitation practice has
long been recognized as an easy practice that carries with it the benefits
of practice offered by the major schools of Buddhism:
It encompasses the
Meditation School because concentrated recitation enables us to rid
ourselves of delusions and attachments.
It encompasses the Sutra
Studies School because the sacred words "Amitabha Buddha" contain
innumerable sublime meanings.
It encompasses the
Discipline School because deep recitation purifies and stills the karmas
of body, speech and thought.
It encompasses the
Esoteric School because the recitation of the words "Amitabha Buddha" have
the same effect as when one recites a mantra.
Visualization is another
practice that is central to Pure Land Buddhism. Most of the visualizations
are of Amitabha Buddha, the attendant Bodhisattvas and the Realm of Bliss
itself. These visualizations, 16 in all, are described in detail in the
Yet another practice is
the reading of the Pure Land sutras. This practice assists us in keeping
the name of Amitabha Buddha firmly in mind, as well as strengthening our
resolve for rebirth.
The elements of most Pure
Land rituals are based on the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu's concept of
the Five Gates of Mindfulness:
Praise and Veneration.
Making the Vow for
One fact become undeniably
clear: Pure Land practice can accommodate people of any and all
capacities. This is why Pure Land Buddhism is a marvelous path for those
who are seeking liberation in this modern age when there are so very many
distractions and impediments to Enlightenment. Also, be sure to see our
Daily Pure Land Practice page.
The Unified Practice
The unified practice of
Ch'an and Pure Land is the unified practice of Compassion and Widsom. Pure
Land practice allows one to open up the heart, thus developing Compassion;
Ch'an practice shows one how to concentrate the mind, thus developing
Wisdom. When Compassion and Wisdom combine in a dynamic relationship, our
True Mind is realized, our True Heart comes forth, and Enlightenment is
assured (For a comparison of Ch'an/Zen and Pure Land, see Comparing the
The unified practice of
Ch'an and Pure Land, known in Chinese as "Ch'an-ching I-chih," has a long
history. As early as the 4th century C.E., the Chinese Ancestor Hui-Yuan
(334-416), considered to the be first Pure Land Ancestor, incorporated
meditative discipline into Pure Land practice.
(580-651), the Fourth Ancestor of the Ch'an school, taught what he called
the "Samadhi of Oneness," utilizing the recitation of the Buddha's name to
pacify the mind. It should be noted that since this practice involved
reciting the name of any Buddha, a practice dating back to the origins of
Buddhism, it was not specifically designed to produce rebirth in the Realm
of Bliss; but it did act as a bridge linking Ch'an and Nien-Fo practices.
Tao-Hsin taught that the Pure Mind is the Pure Buddha Land.
The unified practice was
also advocated by the Fifth Ch'an Ancestor Hung-Jen (601-674) who saw
recitation as a good practice for beginners. Hung-Jen also advocated the
visualization practices laid out in the Visualization Sutra.
Buddha recitation not
concerned with rebirth was taught by a number of Hung-Jen's disciples
including Fa-Chih (635-702), the Fourth Ancestor of the Ox-Head School of
Ch'an. It was also put forth by the Ching-Chung School which was descended
from Chih-Hsien, one of the Fifth Ch'an Ancestor's 10 eminent disciples,
in the early 8th century C.E.
Descendents of Chih-hsien
who advocated the unified practice included Wu-Hsiang, a former Korean
prince who made invocational Nien-Fo practice a key part of the Dharma
Transmission Ceremony. Although the practice was still not centered around
Buddha Amitabha or rebirth in the Realm of Bliss, it marked the first time
that Nien-Fo practice was explicitly adopted as part of a Ch'an school.
Subsequent schools which taught Nien-Fo as part of their training included
the Pao-T'ang School, the Hsuan-Shih Nien-Fo Ch'an School and the Nan-Shan
Nien-Fo Ch'an School.
(679-748) is said to have been the first Pure Land Ancestor to advocate
harmonizing Pure Land practice and Ch'an. Tz'u-min developed his Pure Land
faith after a pilgrimage to India, where he was inspired by stories
centered around Buddha Amitabha and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
The Ch'an Ancestor Pai-Chang
Huai-Hai (720-814), who wrote the "20 Monastic Principles" which were the
blueprint for Ch'an monastic practice, included "Recitation of the Name of
Buddha Amitabha." Pai-Chang stated, "In religious practice, take Buddha
Recitation as a sure method." The practice of chanting Amitabha's name
during a Ch'an monk's funeral was also put forth by Master Pai-Chang.
The T'ang Hui-Ch'an
Persecution (845 C.E.) and the Huei-Ch'ang and Shih-Tsung Persecutions of
the late Chou Dynasty (10th century C.E.) served to bring Ch'an and Pure
Land even closer together. These government crackdowns on Buddhist sects
enervated the academically oriented Buddhist schools such as the
T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen sects. Correspondingly, the rise of
Neo-Confucianism drew many speculative thinkers away from those schools.
But the Ch'an and Pure Land schools, marked by their emphasis on practice,
their extreme degree of portability and their non-reliance on Imperial
patronage, survived intact. By this time, the Ch'an school had
incorporated true Nien-Fo Amitabha practices into its training regimens,
and the Pure Land school had incorporated more meditational elements into
its own system.
The Ch'an monk and Pure
Land practitioner Yung-Ming Yen-Shou (905-975) is said to have been the
key figure in the synthesis of Ch'an and Pure Land during this period. He
taught that the Pure Land is the Realm of the Purified Mind.
The unified practices
were taught in Vietnam by the Thao-Duong School, founded by the Chinese
monk Ts'ao-Tang, who was taken to Vietnam as a prisoner of war in 1069 C.E.
Other eminent Chinese monks who promoted unified practice were Chu-Hung
(1535-1615) and Han-Shan (1546-1623).
During the 17th century
C.E., the monk Yin-Yuan Lung-Chi, known as Obaku in Japanese, brought the
unified Ch'an/Pure Land practice to Japan. His school is known as the
Obaku Zen School, and survives to this day as a minor sect in the shadow
of the much more influential Soto and Rinzai Zen sects.
The unified practice of
Ch'an and Pure Land continues to this day, although it was de-emphasized
in the major Japanese Zen schools. The large Shin sect of Japanese Pure
Land Buddhism discounts any efforts on one's own part to attain
Enlightenment; superficially, Japanese "Other-Power" Pure Land Buddhism
and "Self-Power" Zen Buddhism do not complement each other the way the
Chinese Ch'an and Pure Land schools do. However, there are recent
movements which may yet be influential in returning Japanese Zen to its
In the 1970s, the
formation of the Zen Shin Sangha by Rev. Koshin Ogui in Cleveland, Ohio
was one of the first instances of a Shin Buddhist priest in the United
States combining Japanese Zen and Pure Land practices. Similar movements
have been reported in England, continental Europe and India.
As the esteemed Ch'an
Master Hsu-Yun (1840-1959) put it, "All the Buddhas in every universe,
past, present and future, preach the same Dharma. There is no difference
between the methods advocated by Shakyamuni and Amitabha."
Namo Amitabha Buddha!