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 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:
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.
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 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.
Making the Vow for Rebirth.
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.”
Namo Amitabha Buddha!