The Urban Dharma Newsletter - August 15, 2006


In This Issue: Pureland Buddhism

1. On Being a Monk - Part 7 - 8/2006 - 1hr 21min - MP3 - 18.7 MB

2. My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha - by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna

3. What is Pure Land Buddhism?

4. Pure Land Sutras

5. The Amida Sutra - (Skt. Smaller Sukhavativyuha sutra)

6. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Teachers

7. Pure Land Buddhism: The Path of Serene Trust



1. On Being a Monk - Part 7 - 8/2006 - 1hr 21min - MP3 - 18.7 MB


My interview with Rev. Nori Ito a priest at The Los Angeles Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. We talk about his life and work as a priest at a Pureland Temple in Los Angeles. Growing up in Los Angeles as a Buddhist Japanese American, his school years, meeting his wife and his Buddhist ordination. How he started a Buddhist club at Occidental College, his work with the Los Angeles Buddhist/Catholic Dialogue and taking students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to introduce them to the horrors of the atomic bomb and nuclear war.

2. My Experiences with Amitabha Buddha - by Rev. Tri Ratna Priya Karuna


I never thought that our Abbess Rev. Karuna would ask me to give another Dharma talk on Amitabha Buddha so soon after the last one. I thought I would be back to such subjects as the Four Brahma Viharas or the Twelve Links of Causation. Nevertheless, I am delighted to have another opportunity to talk about Amitabha Buddha and the teachings associated with Him.

It is safe to state categorically that no religion in world history has managed to survive for hundreds of years, let alone over two millennia, if it has appealed only to scholars and intellectuals. Therefore, since Buddhism has flourished for over 2500 years, there must be important elements in it that have nourished and sustained millions of people through the centuries who, even if they were born with less than brilliant minds or lacked the educational opportunities to develop their mental abilities, were nevertheless endowed with rich emotional resources and the capacity for deep faith.

The poor, humble, hard working people gained their primary satisfaction not from scholastic pursuits, but from the expression and involvement of their emotions in various relationships. They wanted to give love, of course, but most of all they wanted to feel loved, nurtured and protected, not just by a human support group like family, friends and lovers, but also by some infinitely caring and compassionate divine powers.

The great masters who shaped and developed the Mahayana or Great Vehicle during the latter decades BCE and the early centuries CE, were keenly aware of the deep need that existed among the majority of lay persons who followed the Dharma teachings for a primarily devotional form of Buddhism that could bring meaning and inspiration into their drab lives.

With the appearance of the three sutras which tell the story of Amitabha Buddha and the development of the trikaya doctrine which I discussed in my last talk, a purely devotional sect of Buddhism not only became a possibility, but eventually a reality. In India, a preference for the intellectual approach and the supreme importance of wisdom as the ultimate goal prevented any form of Buddhism that emphasized faith and devotion from becoming an independent school there. However, it is interesting to note that the great Nagarjuna--who lived in the second century CE, founded the extremely influential Madhyamika sect, and according to tradition, revealed the Prajnaparamita literature to the world--expressed the view "that for those who seriously undertake to lead the Buddhist life, two paths are open, the difficult path of self reliance and the easy path of dependence upon the compassion of the Buddha." Nagarjuna has been called by some authorities the second most important figure in the history of Buddhism, and because of his recognition of the legitimacy of the path of faith and devotion, he is considered to be the first Patriarch of the Pure Land devotional schools of the Far East.

Nagarjuna stated that the principal activity of those who follow the devotional path should be simply the worship of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, and Amitabha Buddha.

Maitreya, waiting in the Tusita heaven until it is his time to come into the world, is obviously not--now or for thousands of years to come--involved in the unfolding destiny of the world. Thus it would seem that the deities most deserving of veneration in Nagarjuna's day, as well as our time, are Amitabha Buddha and his son/daughter Kwan Yin, since it is they who are actively in charge during this world-period.

Even though for many centuries devotional Buddhism of one sect or another was practiced by all schools of Mahayana as an integral part of their programs of study, practice and worship, it was not until the fourth century of the common era in China that a monk named Hui Yuan (333-416 CE) developed an intensely devotional sect whose adherents concentrated upon the worship of Amitabha Buddha. Eventually, this sect became acknowledged as a separate school, the Pure Land school, which in time was accepted universally as one of the four main schools of Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhism in general passed through many vicissitudes in China, reaching its zenith of power, influence and popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), declining and periodically reasserting itself during later centuries. In time, as a result of all the strains to which Buddhism was subjected, the scholastic sects fell by the wayside, while only the two strongest and most popular sects managed to survive. These two were the Ch'an sect, known as Zen in Japan, and the Pure Land sect.

In Japan, where Buddhism was originally introduced in 552 CE, it was not until the Kamakura period (1185-1397 CE) that Pure Land Buddhism, which emphasized the idea of salvation through the grace of Amitabha Buddha, was propagated. Before long it gained a wide following among the farmers, fishermen, laborers, and shopkeepers, who were grievously oppressed by the higher classes of society.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, two great masters appeared on the scene, and it is to their credit that Pure Land Buddhism has flourished and grown until it has become the most popular and widely accepted form of Buddhism in Japan. The first of these masters, Honen Shonen (or Saint Honen) founded the Jodo shu, Pure Land sect, and later Shinran Shonin (Saint Shinran) founded the Jodo Shin shu, the True Pure Land sect. Both masters emphasized that those persons who, while longing to be reborn in the Pure Land, thought of Amitabha Buddha with sincerity and faith and repeated the nembutsu or the mantra Namo Amida Butstu, would after their death, be welcomed into the Sukhavati, Pure Land. Honen and Shinran both believed that calling upon the sacred name of Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu, Jap.) was sufficient , since the name itself contains the essence of Amida Buddha and is inseparable from Him.

Honen, while not disparaging other Buddhist practices such as study, meditation, asceticism, etc., clearly considered that the repetition of the nembutsu was superior to all other practices. However, he repeatedly states that unquestioning faith in Amida Buddha and his power to lead one to rebirth in the Pure Land is absolutely essential for the attainment of this goal. Shinran, on the other hand, taught that the desire to be reborn in the Pure Land was sufficient to ensure rebirth there, because Amida Buddha himself, will supply this unquestioning faith once a devotee sincerely wishes for salvation and begins to believe in Him.

Honen taught that Amida Buddha has the power to come forth and welcome to his Pure Land those persons who possess the very worst karma, because humankind has so seriously degenerated since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha. Shinran went even further and stated that Amida Butsu's vow of salvation was intended primarily for the sinner, since a virtuous person can attain enlightenment through self effort. Devotional Buddhism, then, after twelve centuries of development, reached its climax in the teachings of Shinran Shonin. He went so far as to state categorically that rebirth in the Pure Land is identical with the attainment of Nirvana. In a beautiful quotation Shinran said, "In the Pure Land is unsurpassed Enlightenment."

Shinran recommended that we should seek rebirth in the Pure Land or Enlightenment not so much during the course of our everyday lives, with all their stress and distractions, but especially when we are dying. Then the faith that Amida himself has supplied, if we have fervently and sincerely desired to be reborn in the Pure Land, will lead us to an instant of pure egolessness, during which we will realize that any attempt to gain Enlightenment by our own efforts will only strengthen our sense of separateness.

As we drift closer to death, we will surrender unconditionally to the Compassion of Amida Buddha, relying on Him to carry us, regardless of our unworthiness, to the blessed shores of Sukhavati. Just imagine that after a life fraught with suffering, frustration and anguish, the heart in your bosom begins to falter, and each new breath requires a supreme effort. A minister of the Jodo Shin shu has been called to console you in your moment of extreme distress. He has brought with him to your bedside a beautiful painting or image of Amida Buddha, and he will place in your hand one end of a golden thread. The other end of the thread will be attached to the radiant figure of Amida Buddha, and symbolically you are united with him. As your consciousness leaves your worn out body, your eyes will linger for a moment on the painting or image of Amida, and then as your spirit rises from your discarded physical remains, the depiction of Amida will fade and be replaced by the real Amida Buddha, accompanied by Kwan Yin and Seishi, and surrounded by His heavenly host. Amid the rejoicing and celestial music of innumerable angels, you will be carried off to the Happy Land of Bliss, Sukhavati, the Western Paradise. Once there you will never again be subject to the law of karma and have to be reborn in one of the six realms of the wheel of transmigration. However, even at this point you will not retreat into the cool refuge of final Nirvana, detached from the world and all of its suffering creatures. Nothing will force you to return to the earth except your own overflowing compassion and intense desire to liberate other beings from suffering if and when the opportunity arises. Eventually, according to the inexorable will of Amida Buddha, all beings in one way or another will be led to Enlightenment.

Now let us look at the figures which I have brought for you to see. The main figure, naturally, represents Amitabha Buddha, looking in all respects exactly like Sakyamuni Buddha, because they are in essence the same. The hands are in the mudra which symbolizes Amida's vow to save all beings. To the left of Amitabha you see the representation of his son/daughter Avalokitesvara, called Kwan Yin in China and Kannon in Japan, a personification of the compassion of Amitabha. She holds in her hands a lotus blossom with a reliquary, in which she will carry the spirit of the deceased human back to the Western Paradise, where it will be reborn. On the other side of Amitabha, you see a representation of Mahastamprapta, which literally means One Who Has Gained Great Power, called Seishi Bosatsu in Japan, he can be thought of as a personification of great wisdom.

The other two figures I have placed on the altar, one on each side of the triad of deities, may at first glance, appear incongruous and inappropriate. Instead, they are touching depiction of the most humble devotees one could hope to find anywhere. To me they represent those millions of oppressed persons who possibly must wear rags and hardly have a crust of bread to eat or a place in which to sleep. These humble ones are worthy to stand beside Amitabha because they are not separated from him by a false sense of a permanent self or ego, which is the worst barrier that can prevent a person from receiving the transforming grace and abundant life energy that Amitabha eagerly sends to all his children. They see only beauty around them, reflected from the purity and benevolence of their own inner beings, and all outward unpleasantness fades into nothingness compared to the bliss and security they feel coming from Amitabha's limitless love for them.

I am sure that everyone here today, like the imaginary couple we have just discussed, would prefer to cast his/her cares aside and experience the peace and bliss of the Pure Land here and now in their own daily lives. It is as though each of us is a lightbulb, until the electricity which is Amitabha is turned on. As far as rebirth in the Pure Land is concerned, once we allow Amitabha Buddha to shine through us, we become like homing pigeons that instinctively will find our way home to Sukhavati, no matter what the distance, difficulty or danger of the flight.

So, what does Amitabha mean to my own life? I can state categorically that without the influence and inspiration of Amitabha I would not be here today. I accept the doctrine of Anatta or no permanent soul and realize that lacking any essence of my own, I only function as a channel through which Amitabha may send his healing, enhancing, nourishing energy to all other living beings. If there is any merit in my work, it is because Amitabha Buddha is expressing himself through me.

However, practically all of my training in Buddhism has been here at I.B.M.C., which considers itself to be a Zen temple. Therefore, in addition to my faith in Amitabha, I believe that every sincere Buddhist devotee should have a meditation practice if he is mentally equipped to do so. My channel through which Amitabha flows is partially obstructed and the flow of Amitabha's grace is impeded by the accumulated sludge of defilements which I have allowed through ignorance, anger and delusion to creep into my consciousness. I know of no better way to scour, cleanse and unblock my channel than by the daily practice of meditation. Is it possible to be both a Zen Buddhist and a Pure Land Buddhist at the same time? For the answer to this question I refer to the inspiring book Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, by our esteemed founder Dr. Thich Thien-An. He states that certain eminent scholars who advocate the exclusive development of Zen style "self power" do not consider reliance on the "other power", meaning that they rely only on the Zen master who teaches them how to sit, discipline the mind , work with a koan and practice shikentaza. Dr. Thien-An asks the question, "Without the constant prodding of the master how many people would reach satori?"

This question leads to the inescapable conclusion that if a Zen master who has realized only a limited amount of wisdom and compassion can be of such enormous assistance to his students during their quest for enlightenment, then Amitabha Buddha who has reached a state of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion, undoubtedly can help them infinitely more.

Dr. Thien-An states categorically that belief in the "other power" of Amitabha Buddha helps us develop our "self-power". In fact, he strongly recommends a practice which combines the development of Zen-style "self power" with reliance on the "other power" of Amitabha Buddha. In other words, the student should combine formal meditation with the chanting of the mantra "Namo Amitabha Buddha." The meditator and the Buddha become fused together in a mystical union. No longer is there any distinction between Zen and Pure Land, self-power or other power, wisdom or compassion, for everything has become transformed into the brightness of Infinite Light. Samsara becomes Nirvana. All the bliss and purity of the Western Paradise are realized in the here and now of every day life. Here the Zen and Pure Land schools meet in that common center from which they both emanate, the One Mind of Buddha, which is our true and permanent Essence of Mind.

3. What is Pure Land Buddhism?


The Essence of Pure Land Buddhism

In the world there are many ideologies, systems of thought, and creeds by which we attempt to lead a better life or to realize an ideal society. Buddhism offers an excellent way for everyone to realize the ultimate goal of human existence in terms of "attaining enlightenment" through the profound awareness of truth.

According to Shakyamuni Buddha, final peace in the world as well as in the individual will be realized when the individual becomes liberated from ignorance and self-attachment, which are the causes of our suffering. Beyond the horizon of the finite, self-limited world, we can find the infinite world of great peace and happiness. When we learn and practice the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the scriptures, we will be able to attain this final state.

In the teachings of the Buddha, we can find many ways of realizing this final state. They may be classified into the two major streams: the Mahayana and the Theravada, the Esoteric and the Exoteric, the Easy Path and the Difficult Path, or Other-power and Self-power, respectively. According to the Pure Land tradition, the entire teaching of the Buddha can be divided into the twofold path of the Holy Way (shodomon) and the Pure Land (jodomon).

The Holy Way is the way to attain enlightenment after eliminating ignorance and self-attachment by one's own effort. This may be called the way of wisdom, for it is the way to accomplish enlightenment by the power of wisdom attained through self-discipline. It is vitally important for a Buddhist to follow the teachings of the Buddha in order to achieve religious peace of mind. However, when observing our existential being seriously in the light of the way of wisdom, we often come to realize how much we are unable to fulfill the required disciplines to eliminate ignorance and self-attachment. The more we seriously reflect upon ourselves, the more we may find ourselves "unliberated" by the way of wisdom.

When we lose the way to enlightenment by the Holy Way, we often sink down into a world of darkness and despair. Amida Buddha, however, provides a way for us to attain salvation from this hopeless state. This is the way illuminated by the light of the grace of Amida Buddha, the Path to the Pure Land. The Pure Land school opens the channel to attain salvation for those unliberated through the way of wisdom. However, since this school is different from the Holy Path, it is sometimes referred to as pseudo-Buddhism. It seems to be Buddhism, but it is not considered to be genuine from the traditional point of view. Pure Land Buddhism is also mistakenly regarded as a religion for lazy people. It is sometimes called the Easy Path as it requires only the simple act of faith and recitation of the nembutsu as its primary religious disciplines rather than the many practices of observing precepts, attaining the state of "emptiness," chanting the various sutras and so forth, as the means of reaching enlightenment.

The Pure Land school established on this basis may be called the way of salvation by a "power outside of ourselves," or "other power" (i.e., the power of Amida Buddha). Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha and the teaching by which to become a buddha, that is, Buddhism is the way through which everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, or ability can be liberated and attain enlightenment. Therefore, if anyone of disability were excluded it could not be considered Buddhism in its true sense. In other words, Buddhism cannot reveal its truth if anyone is eliminated. When Buddhism is understood as the way of universal salvation, we can understand the profound meaning of the Pure Land school. The essence of Pure Land Buddhism is revealed and apprehended through this line of reasoning and belief.

God and Amida Buddha

The most important thing for us to understand Buddhism is the fact that Shakyamuni, a human being, awakened to truth and became the Buddha. We discussed the three-bodies of Buddha (trikaya) previously. This was an expression of the insight of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. The fact that Shakyamuni became a buddha means that every human being can become a buddha. The Mahayana tradition strongly emphasizes that every sentient being has buddha-nature (Skt. buddhata, Jp. bussho). We have buddha-nature within ourselves. A buddha and an ordinary person are ultimately the same by nature, the same ontologically. The only difference is the degree of apprehension of truth. A buddha has attained perfect wisdom, but we sentient beings have not yet attained it. That is, a buddha and an ordinary person differ from each other epistemologically.

On the other hand the Christian God has a different nature from Buddha. God is the creator of the universe, the absolute existence, the highest being, etc. God is quite different from man. He is the creator and man is the created. God is perfect good and man is a sinner. Man cannot become God however hard he may try. God and man are totally different from each other by nature, different ontologically. While God is perfect truth, man cannot attain the perfect truth of God. God is far from us. He is beyond our apprehension. God and man differ from each other epistemologically.

Thus the difference between God and Buddha in relation to man would be as follows: God is different from man epistemologically and ontologically, whereas Buddha is different from man epistemologically but not ontologically.

However, when we come to Pure Land Buddhism, God and Amida Buddha seem to be the same. Both are believed in as a savior by devotees. Among the branches of Buddhism, the Pure Land school particularly emphasizes "faith." Devotees of the school realize that they do not attain enlightenment by their own power, but by simply having faith in Amida's power of salvation.

We have buddha-nature within ourselves but we cannot reveal its true nature by ourselves. Its revelation is achieved only by Amida's grace. Our salvation is entirely dependent upon Amida Buddha. Thus as far as this aspect of Amida as a savior is concerned, we may see that Amida and God appear to be the same, but Amida also has a different aspect from that of God. Amida Buddha is not the creator or ground of all being.

According to the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, Amida Buddha is described as follows. Many eons ago there was a king. He had the opportunity to listen to a sermon given by a buddha, Tathagata Lokeshvararaja (Sejizaio-nyorai). Upon hearing the sermon, he made up his mind to renounce his palace life, and he became a monk called Bodhisattva Dharmakara (Hozo-bosatsu). He established forty-eight vows as a Bodhisattva and practiced austere religious disciplines for a long time. He accomplished these vows and became the Buddha called Amitabha. Among the forty-eight vows, the eighteenth vow is the vow of the nembutsu through which every man can attain salvation.

Now you may notice that Amida was a man and became a buddha. He is not the creator nor an absolute being, but his prolonged religious practices made him a great savior of the world. This indicates that he does not belong to the domain of God but to that of Buddha. He is within the range of Buddhist divinity.

Furthermore, the story of Amida's enlightenment reflects the life of Shakyamuni. This means that Amida Buddha is the symbolic expression of the ultimate nature of Shakyamuni Buddha. He is the great liberator of the world and the great source of all life. Once again, God and Amida Buddha are both considered great saviors of the world.

From: A Raft from The Other Shore Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism by Sho-on Hattori, published by Jodo Shu Press and available at amazon.com

4. Pure Land Sutras


After having read through all of the sacred texts on Mt. Hiei, Honen stated that among all the sutras which were preserved there, only the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, the Meditation Sutra and the Amida Sutra fully and rightfully expound the teaching of Birth in the Pure Land through Amida Buddha's power. This designation was the first time that these three sutras had been compiled into one definitive teaching on Pure Land Buddhism. This was Honen's original contribution to Pure Land thought.

1) Sutra of Immeasurable Life (muryoju-kyo)

This sutra represents the story of Shakyamuni Buddha's reply to a question posed by his disciple Ananda. The first half tells us about the forty-eight parts of Amida's Original Vow (hongan) of which the most important is the eighteenth (juhachi-gan). The sutra goes on to explain that all persons, whether of superior, intermediate or inferior capacity, can attain Birth in the Pure Land.

2) Meditation Sutra (kammuryoju-kyo)

This sutra tells the story of Queen Vaidehi's who's son Prince Ajatashatru plotted with the Buddha's cousin and renegade disciple Devadatta to kill his father, King Bimbisara. When the Queen try to foil their plan, Ajatashatru imprisoned her far away from the palace and the king. In her grief, she beseeched Shakyamuni: "Oh, Buddha, what did I do that I should give birth to a son who now wants to kill me? And through what fate do you have a man like Devadatta as your relative? Oh, Buddha, I have a request," she continued, "Tell me, if you can, some land where there is no suffering, for I want to be born in such a world." By way of answer, Shakyamuni emanated from his forehead a ray of light which illuminated the wonders of many buddha lands far away. Vaidehi thus understood that the ideal world of which she had dreamed actually existed as Amida Buddha's Pure Land. Vaidehi immediately resolved to be born there and asked Shakyamuni how she could do so. Shakyamuni then taught her the contemplative visualization of the Pure Land through thirteen successive stages of meditation which are detailed in this sutra.


The Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (kammuryoju-kyo sho or kangyo-sho) is the great Chinese Pure Land master Shan-tao's (Zendo) most important work. In this work, he made a number of radical advances in Pure Land thought which laid the foundations for the subsequent development of Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan. Shan-tao became Honen's greatest influence for having developed the nembutsu as the reciting of Amida's name rather than the visualization of him in his Pure Land.

3) Amida Sutra or the smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life (amida-kyo)

The message of the Amida Sutra is a simple one. It details a discourse of Shakyamuni to his disciple Shariputra about the Pure Land and the benefits of nembutsu practice. As this particular sutra is quite short, it is popular for chanting.

In addition, of the treatises which Honen felt fully and properly explained birth in the Pure Land, he listed only Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (ojoron).The Ojoron is a commentary on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life which establishes the Indian master Vasubandhu as one of the two Indian patriatrchs of Pure Land Buddhism, along with Nagarjuna. The Ojoron has been traditionally viewed as Vasubandhu's expression of his own desire to be born in the Pure Land. The Ojoron is significant for the influence it had on the Chinese master T'an-luan (Donran) who wrote a commentary on it which taught that all beings can be born in the Pure Land through the great power of Amida's vow.

5. The Amida Sutra - (Skt. Smaller Sukhavativyuha sutra) - (Ch. Amituo jing) - (Jp. Amida-kyo)


Based on the contemporary Japanese translation of the Jodo Shu Research Institute, published in Kyoka Kenkyu (Journal of Jodo Shu Edification Studies), No. 14, 2003 - Translation by Imperial Edict of the Qin Kumarajiva, Yao-Qin dynasty Dharma Priest of the Tripitaka1

I, Ananda, heard the following from the Buddha, Shakyamuni. At one time Shakyamuni was at the Jetavana garden in Shravasti.2 As many as twelve hundred and fifty people assembled, and they were especially eminent monks. They were all illustrious practitioners known as arhats who had eliminated their delusions and were of great renown.3 Among them, the elders Shariputra, Mahamaudgalyayana, Mahakashyapa, Mahakatyayana, Mahakausthila, Revata, Suddhipanthaka, Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Pindola Bharadvaja, Kalodayin, Mahakapphina, Vakkula, and Aniruddha, were outstanding disciples.4 There was also a vast number of bodhisattvas; the most excellent among them were Dharma Prince Manjushri, the Bodhisattva Ajita, the Bodhisattva Gandhahastin, and the Bodhisattva Nityodyukta.5 In addition, innumerable celestial deities such as Indra had gathered6.

Then the Buddha Shakyamuni explained to the elder Shariputra: "To the far west of this world (of delusion), beyond as many as ten trillion buddha-worlds, there’s another world called Ultimate Bliss with a buddha whose name is Amitabha, who is there even now teaching the Dharma.7 Shariputra, do you know why that buddha-world is called Ultimate Bliss? It is because the people who live there never experience suffering; they are mantled in multitude forms of happiness. For that reason it is called Ultimate Bliss.

“Also, Shariputra, the world is adorned with seven railings, with seven rows of gauze curtains with little bells, and surrounded by seven rows of trees.8 All are set with four kinds of jewels, which adorn the world throughout. For that reason this world is called Ultimate Bliss.

"Again, Shariputra, in that world there are lotus ponds whose shores are decorated with seven kinds of jewels.9 The ponds brim with waters of eight good qualities and the floor of the ponds are lined with sand of gold.10 The ponds are surrounded by steps on their four sides made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. Above are pavilions lavishly adorned with the seven jewels of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, red pearls, and agate.11 There are lotuses blooming in the ponds, and their flowers are as large as the wheel of a cart. The blue flowers emit a blue light; the yellow flowers emit a yellow light; the red flowers emit a red light; and the white flowers emit a white light. Each of the lotus flowers glows, weaving an harmonic scene while emitting a subtle fragrance. Shariputra, this land of Ultimate Bliss is an ideal environment so that whatever one lays eyes upon will bring about awakening.

“Also, Shariputra, in Amitabha Buddha’s land of Ultimate Bliss, there is always heavenly music playing. Moreover, the ground is made of gold, and flower petals float down from the skies six times every day.12 Early every morning, the people there gather the petals into their flower baskets and travel to ten trillion buddha-worlds to offer them in worship to the buddhas. Having become mealtime during this activity, they return in an instant to Ultimate Bliss, take their meal and then practice mindfulness by walking. Shariputra, the land of Ultimate Bliss is an ideal environment to follow the Buddha path and awaken to enlightenment.

"Furthermore, Shariputra, in the land of Ultimate Bliss there are various birds of brilliant coloring, such as white egrets, peacocks, parrots, sharikas, kalavinkas, and jivamjivakas.13 The birds sing six times a day in exquisite voices. Their very singing expresses Amitabha’s teachings, such as the Five Roots of Goodness, the Five Powers, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path.14 When the people of the land of Ultimate Bliss hear the bird’s voices, all of their thoughts are dedicated to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

“Shariputra, do not assume that these were born as birds as a result of misdeeds in former lives. This is because in the land of Ultimate Bliss, the three unfortunate realms of hell, hungry ghosts, and animals do not exist. Shariputra, you will not even hear the names of these three realms in the land of Ultimate Bliss. How could it be said that one could fall into one of these unfortunate realms when they do not in fact exist? Amitabha Buddha manifested these birds in the hope that they would transmit these teachings with their songs.

“Shariputra, in the land of Ultimate Bliss, a pleasant breeze wafts, swaying the rows of trees colored with various jewels and waving the gauze curtains with little bells, stirring an exquisite melody. This is just as though hundreds of thousands of musical instruments were being played in unison. For all who hear this melody, their devotion to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha is spontaneously deepened. Shariputra, in this way the land of Ultimate Bliss is an ideal environment so that whatever one hears will bring about awakening.

“Shariputra, why do you suppose this Buddha is called Amitabha? Shariputra, this Buddha emits immeasurable light, shedding light upon all the worlds of the ten directions without obstruction. For that reason this Buddha is called Amitabha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light. Also, Shariputra, the lifespan of this Buddha and those in the land of Ultimate Bliss is immeasurably long of incalculable aeons.15 For that reason this Buddha is called Amitayus, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. Shariputra, from the day Amitabha achieved enlightenment until the present day, an eternity of ten aeons has already passed. In addition, Shariputra, this Buddha has an immeasurable number of disciples, practitioners called arhats (who have eliminated their passions), whose numbers are incalculable. So are the numbers of the bodhisattvas also incalculable. Shariputra, in this way the land of Ultimate Bliss is an ideal environment for sentient beings to achieve enlightenment.

“Moreover, Shariputra, all sentient beings born in the land of Ultimate Bliss will never veer from the Buddhist path on their way to enlightenment. The vast majority have the virtue of becoming a buddha in their very next life. Their numbers are so vast as to be unknowable by calculation, and can only be explained in terms of counting for immeasurable incalculable aeons.

"Shariputra, those sentient beings who now hear of this Pure Land should aspire to achieve Birth in this land of Ultimate Bliss because there they can join these virtuous beings. However, Shariputra, those that aspire to be born in this land cannot rely merely on the roots of goodness acquired through spiritual practices or the effects of virtuous merit. (Then what should they do to attain this Birth?)16

“Shariputra, should good men and good women hear of the teaching of Amitabha and assiduously recite the nenbutsu invocation, “Namu Amida Butsu” (Homage to Amitabha Buddha) for one day, two days, three, four, five, six, or seven days, or more, then at the end of their lives, Amitabha Buddha will appear before their very eyes with his entourage of bodhisattvas and saintly disciples from the land of Ultimate Bliss. For that reason, in their last moment they will be without anxiety and Amitabha will bring them forthwith to be born in Amitabha Buddha’s land of Ultimate Bliss.

“Shariputra, I clearly see the benefit of this (that Amitabha Buddha’s salvation is without fail) and therefore explain to you that sentient beings hearing this teaching should aspire to be born in Amitabha’s Pure Land (to assuredly attain Birth there).

“Shariputra, as I have now praised the sublime virtue of Amitabha, (who established the nenbutsu for Birth), so are there buddhas (with buddha-worlds) to the east such as Akshobhya Buddha, Merudhvaja Buddha, Mahameru Buddha, Meruprabhasa Buddha, and Manjudhvaja Buddha as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River.17 Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.18

“In addition, there are buddhas (with buddha-worlds) to the south such as Candra Suryapradipa Buddha, Yashaprabha Buddha, Maharciskandha Buddha, Merupradipa Buddha, and Anantavirya Buddha as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River. Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.’

“Furthermore, there are buddhas (with buddha-worlds) to the west such as Amitayus Buddha, Amitaketu Buddha, Amitadhvaja Buddha, Mahaprabha Buddha, Mahaprabhasa Buddha, Ratnaketu Buddha, and Suddharasmiprabha Buddha as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River.19 Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.’

“Moreover, there are buddhas (with buddha-worlds) to the north such as Arciskandha Buddha, Vaishvanaranirghosa Buddha, Duspradharsa Buddha, Adityasambhava Buddha, and Jaliniprabha Buddha as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River.20 Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.’

“Additionally, there are buddhas (with buddha-worlds) in the lower regions such as Simha Buddha, Yashas Buddha, Yashahprabhasa Buddha, Dharma Buddha, Dharmadhvaja Buddha, and Dharmadhara as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River. Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.’

“Also, there are buddhas with buddha-worlds in the upper regions such as Brahmaghosa Buddha, Naksatraraja Buddha, Gandhottama Buddha, Gandhaprabhasa Buddha, Maharciskandha Buddha, Ratnakusuma Sampuspitagatra Buddha, Salendraraja Buddha, Ratnotpalashri Buddha, Sarvarthadarsha Buddha, and Sumerukalpa Buddha as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River.21 Each from their own lands, have extended their vast tongues encompassing a billion world systems, pronouncing these words of truth: ‘All of you should believe in The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation.’

“Shariputra, why do you think this discourse was given the appellation The Discourse that tells of all the buddhas who praise the inconceivable virtue of Amitabha and who offer protective salvation? Shariputra, if good men and good women hear the name of this discourse and the name of Amitabha Buddha praised by all the Buddhas, these good men and good women will be protected by all the buddhas and all will (after Birth) attain supreme perfect enlightenment without veering from the Buddhist path. For that reason Shariputra, all of you take these words of mine and of all the Buddhas, accept them and believe in them.

“Shariputra, whosoever (contemplating Amitabha’s land of Ultimate Bliss) aspires to Birth in Amitabha’s land of Ultimate Bliss in the past, present, or future, they will all (after Birth) attain supreme perfect enlightenment without veering from the Buddhist path, having attained Birth in the past, present, or future. That is the reason, Shariputra, those among good men and good women who sincerely believe, if they vow to attain Birth in the land of Ultimate Bliss (and recite the nenbutsu) they should assuredly attain that Birth.

“Shariputra, in the same way I praise the inconceivable virtue of all the buddhas for their protective salvation (given because their hearts were moved by the nenbutsu practitioners), all the buddhas also praise my inconceivable virtues: ‘Shakyamuni Buddha, you have accomplished this most difficult and unprecedented achievement. While being in this present world full of the five corruptions―the corruption of the age, the corruption of views, the corruption of public morality, the corruption of human character, and the corruption of shortening lifespans―you have attained supreme perfect enlightenment, and furthermore, you have explained this teaching (of Ultimate Bliss and Birth there through the nenbutsu), difficult to believe for being beyond the common understanding of this world, for the sake of sentient beings.22

“Shariputra, you should remember this. While being in this present world full of the five corruptions, I have accomplished this most difficult achievement and attained supreme perfect enlightenment. In addition, for the sake of the people of this world, I have explained this teaching (of Ultimate Bliss and Birth there through the nenbutsu), difficult to believe for being beyond the common understanding of this world. For that reason, all of the Buddhas praise me for this ‘most difficult achievement.’”

When Shakyamuni Buddha finished explaining this sutra, Shariputra and all the monks, the realms of celestial beings, people, and the asura demons.23 all were filled with delight having carefully taken each individual word and engraved it on their hearts, and after paying homage to Shakyamuni Buddha, they then departed.

6. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Teachers


Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni is the historical buddha who gained enlightenment and created the teachings of Buddhism in India in the 6th century B.C. Throughout the history of Pure Land Buddhism, people have become confused and sometimes angered at the apparent contradiction of Pure Land teachings in emphasizing Amida Buddha over Shakyamuni Buddha. The doctrine of the "three bodies" (sanjin), however, clarifies their relationship. The "three bodies", also called the "three properties" or the "three enlightened properties", are the three kinds of form that a buddha may manifest as: the Dharma Body is the form in which a buddha transcends physical being and is identical with the undifferentiated unity of being or Suchness; the Bliss or Reward Body is an ethereal body obtained as the "reward" for having completed the bodhisattva practice of aiding other beings to end their suffering and having penetrated the depth of wisdom; and the Manifested Body is the physical form in which the Buddha appears in this world in order to guide sentient beings. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is considered that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is the Manifested Body. Honen believed that Amida is the Reward Body.

Therefore, Pure Land Buddhism does not denigrate the tradition of Shakyamuni's teachings, but rather accesses those same teachings on the cosmic level. It is felt that since Shakyamuni is no longer present in the physical world, we must access this same potential for an end to suffering through the atemporal and all embracing guidance of Amida.

Amida Buddha

Amida Buddha is the central Buddha and object of devotion of Pure Land Buddhism. This Buddha, whose name means "infinite light" and "immeasurable life" is thought to pervade the universe with his presence and power. In the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (muryoju-kyo), it is said that a long time ago a bodhisattva named Dharmakara (Hozo-bosatsu) made forty-eight original vows in order to save all sentient beings and after eons of energetic practice, fulfilled them and so became Amida Buddha and succeeded in creating his Pure Land as a part of his vows. Amida Buddha is believed to still continue his preaching in his Pure Land in the West.

Kannon Bodhisattva

Kannon is the bodhisattva of great compassion, mercy and love who is widely revered thoughout the Buddhist world. Kannon is one of Amida Buddha's attendents who stands to the left. According to the Meditation Sutra (kammuryoju-kyo), this bodhisattva together with Seishi Bodhisattva, accompanies Amida Buddha and welcomes people who recite the name of the Buddha at the time of their deaths. Popular worship of Kannon began in India and was widespread in both China and Japan. Originally, in male form as Avalokiteshvara, Kannon is commonly portrayed as female in China, Japan and the rest of East Asia.

Dai-seishi Bodhisattva (or Mahasthamaprapta)

Seishi is the bodhisattva of wisdom. Seishi is Amida Buddha's other attendent who stands to the right. Literally, the "bodhisattva who attained great strength", Seishi is thought to have attained powers of wisdom and compassion in order to save people. Besides appearing in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life and the Meditation Sutra, the bodhisattva is also mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, as one of those who assembled on Eagle Peak to listen to Shakyamuni's preaching.


According to tradition, Nagarjuna was the first Mahayana patriarch to advocate the Pure Land way and Vasubandhu is attributed with being the first to explain it clearly. One of the most important Mahayana teachers, Vasubandhu was born in Gandhara in India in the fifth century C.E. It is said that he first studied the Theravada teachings but soon turned to Mahayana under the influence of his elder brother Asanga, who was a scholar of the Consciousness Only doctrine. Works attributed to Vasubandhu are so many that he is known as the monk of a thousand writings. In the Pure Land tradition, he is listed as the second of the Pure Land patriarchs in India becasue of his Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng lun).

T'an-luan (Jp. Donran) [467-542]

T'an-luan is the master whom Honen claims as the founder of the Chinese Pure Land School. He first studied Taoist scriptures but when given the Meditation Sutra by Bodhiruci, he was so impressed that he devoted himself to the practice of the Pure Land teachings. He had a great influence on Shan-tao in particular and on Chinese Pure Land Buddhism in general through his Commentary on the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life which taught that all beings can be born in the Pure Land through the great power of Amida's vow. His development of the nembutsu as a six character form of vocal recitation was also seminal.

Tao-ch'o (Jp. Doshaku) [562-645]

Tao-ch'o was first a scholar of the Nirvana School based in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Later, however, when visiting a temple where T'an-luan lived, he was so profoundly moved upon reading a stone inscription commemorating the master that he converted to the Pure Land school.His commentary concerning Pure Land teachings, Collection of Passages on the Land of Peace and Bliss (An-lo chi), was so important that he eventually was designated as one of the Pure Land patriarchs. It was Tao-ch'o who originated the important distinction between the Two Gateways of the Holy Path and the Pure Land. He also developed the idea that ordinary, deluded people (bonpu) living in this Age of the Final Dharma (mappo) are the special objects of Amida's vow.

Shan-tao (Jp. Zendo) [613-681]

Shan-tao is the Chinese patriarch on whom Honen relied for most of his teaching in the Senchakushu. In 641, he visited Tao-ch'o and heard him give a lecture on the Meditation Sutra which greatly deepened his faith in the Pure Land. Shan-tao wrote five works on Pure Land teachings, his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra being the most influential. Shan-tao is generally credited for popularizing the nembutsu as the reciting of Amida's name rather than the visualization of him in his Pure Land.

Genshin (942-1017)

Genshin was a Tendai priest on Mt. Hiei and one of the most important of the early Japanese Pure Land masters. He wrote the Collection on the Essentials for Birth (ojoyoshu), probably the most influential work on Pure Land Buddhism written during the Heian period (794-1192). The Ojoyoshu's vivid description of the horrors of the hells and the marvels of the Pure Land was immensely influential in the popularization of Pure Land teachings. Genshin's teachings on the ignorant, deluded person (bonpu); his concern for an accessible form of nembutsu practice; and his focus on the salvific power of Amida Buddha's Original Vow (hongan) were of great influence to Honen.

7. Pure Land Buddhism: The Path of Serene Trust


Key Concepts

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 Saha World.

* BUDDHA-REALMS or 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 and metaphorical.

* A BODHISATTVA'S 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 following tripod:

* Faith.

* Aspiration or the Vow for Rebirth.

* Practice, single-minded 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 practices.

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 expedients.

The Vows

Bodhisattva Dharmakara 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 realm.

* 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 Sutras

The principal Pure Land sutras are:

* 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 Land sutras.

* 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 Strength."


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 Visualization Sutra.

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.

* Visualization.

* Sutra Recitation.

* Making the Vow for Rebirth.

* Dedicating Merit.

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 Paths.

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.

Ancestor Tao-Hsin (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.

Ancestor Tz'u-Min (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 syncretic roots.

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."


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