Introduction: Pure Land Buddhism
by J.C. Cleary
Buddhism has evolved many, many forms during its long history. Codes of conduct, guidelines for communal life, rituals, meditative practices, modes of teaching, images, fables and philosophies have varied greatly over time and place. According to the fundamental Buddhist principle of skill-in-means, this multiformity is natural and proper, a necessary response to the great variety of circumstances in which Buddhism has been propagated.
Skill-in-means requires that the presentation of the Buddhist Teaching, (sometimes simply called "the Dharma"), be adapted to the mentality and circumstances of the people being taught. According to Buddhist seers, the absolute truth is inconceivable and cannot be captured in any particular formulation. Therefore in Buddhism there is no fixed dogma, only provisional, partial expressions of the teaching, suited to the capabilities of the audience being addressed.
In keeping with this fundamental principle, a tolerant, nonsectarian approach has normally prevailed throughout Buddhist history. Where dogmatic controversies and sectarian partisanship have cropped up in the communities of Buddhist followers, these are distortions of the teaching, and have always been based on misunderstanding and misinformation. In embracing Pure Land Buddhism, therefore, people are not rejecting any of the other streams of the Buddhist tradition--they have only decided that Pure Land methods are most appropriate and most effective for them.
Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of faith, of faith in Amitabha Buddha [and in one's capacity to achieve Buddhahood]. Amitabha Buddha presides over the Pure Land, a "paradise" in the west, the land of ultimate bliss, named "Peaceful Nurturing." In the Pure Land, there is none of the suffering and defilement and delusion that normally blocks people's efforts toward enlightenment here in our world (which the Buddhists named Endurance.!?)
The immediate goal of Pure Land believers is to be reborn in Amitabha's Pure Land. There, in more favorable surroundings, in the presence of Amitabha, they will eventually attain complete enlightenment.
The essence of Pure Land practice thus consists of invoking the name of Amitabha Buddha, contemplating the qualities of Amitabha, visualizing Amitabha, and taking vows to be born in the Pure Land.
Making a vow to attain birth in the Pure Land signifies a fundamental reorientation of the believer's motivations and will. No longer is the purpose of life brute survival, or fulfillment of a social role, or the struggle to wrest some satisfaction from a frustrating, taxing environment. By vowing to be reborn in the Pure Land, believers shift their focus. The joys and sorrows of this world become incidental, inconsequential. The present life takes on value chiefly as an opportunity to concentrate one's awareness on Amitabha, and purify one's mind accordingly.
The hallmark of Pure Land Buddhism is reciting the buddha-name, invoking Amitabha Buddha by chanting his name. Through reciting the buddha-name, people focus their attention on Amitabha Buddha. This promotes mindfulness of buddha, otherwise known as buddha-remembrance [buddha recitation].
In what sense is buddha "remembered"? "Buddha" is the name for the one reality that underlies all forms of being, as well as an epithet for those who witness and express this reality. According to the Buddhist Teaching, all people possess an inherently enlightened true nature that is their real identity. By becoming mindful of buddha, therefore, people are just regaining their own real identity. They are remembering their own buddha-nature.
Buddha as such is a concept that transcends any particular embodiment, such as Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical buddha born in India), or Maitreya Buddha (the future buddha), or Vairocana Buddha (the cosmic buddha) or Amitabha Buddha (the buddha of the western paradise). Buddha exists in many forms, but all share the same "body of reality," the same Dharmakaya, which is formless, omnipresent, all-pervading, indescribable, infinite--the everywhere-equal essence of all things, the one reality within-and-beyond all appearances.
Dharmakaya Buddha is utterly abstract and in fact inconceivable, so buddha takes on particular forms to communicate with living beings by coming within their range of perception. For most people, this is the only way that buddha can become comprehensible and of practical use. The particular embodiments of buddha, known as Nirmanakaya, are supreme examples of compassionate skill-in-means.
Pure Land people focus on buddha in the form of Amitabha, the buddha of infinite life and infinite light. Believers put their faith in Amitabha Buddha and recite his name, confident in the promises he has given to deliver all who invoke his name. All classes of people, whatever their other characteristics or shortcomings, are guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land and ultimate salvation, if only they invoke Amitabha's name with singleminded concentration and sincere faith.
Buddha-name recitation is practiced in many forms:
silently or aloud, alone or in groups, by itself or combined with visualization of Amitabha or contemplation of the concept of buddha, or combined
introduction with the methods of Zen. The aim is to concentrate one's attention on Amitabha, and let all other thoughts die away. At first and all along, miscellaneous thoughts intrude, and the mind wanders. But with sustained effort, one's focus on the buddha-name becomes progressively more steady and clear. Mindfulness of buddha--buddha-remembrance--grows stronger and purer.
Reciting the buddha-name functions as a powerful antidote to those great enemies of clear awareness that Buddhists have traditionally labeled "oblivion" and "scattering." "Oblivion" refers to the tendency of the human mind when not occupied by its habitual thoughts to sink into a state of torpor and sleepy nescience. "Scattering" is the other pole of ordinary mental life, where the consciousness flies off in all directions pursuing objects of thought and desire.
Through the centuries, those who practice it have found that buddha-name recitation is a much more beneficial use of mind than the ordinary run of hopes and fears that would otherwise preoccupy their minds. Calm focus replaces agitation and anxiety, producing a most invigorating saving of energy. "Mixed mindfulness is the disease. Mindfulness of buddha is the medicine."
According to the Pure Land teaching, all sorts of evil karma are dissolved by reciting the buddha-name wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. What is karma? In Buddhist terms, "karma" means "deeds," "actions." Through sequences of cause and effect, what we do and what those we interact with do determines our experience and shapes our perceptions, which in turn guides our further actions.
Habitual patterns of perception and behavior build up and acquire momentum. Now we are in the grips of "karmic consciousness," so-called because it is a state of mind at once the result of past deeds and the source of future deeds. This is the existential trap from which all forms of Buddhist practice aim to extricate us.
According to the Pure Land teaching, buddha-name recitation is more effective for this purpose than any other practice, and can be carried out by anyone. The key is being single-minded, focusing the mind totally on Amitabha, and thus interrupting the onward flow of karmic consciousness. This is where Zen and Pure Land meet.
All Classes Go to the Pure Land
Buddha-name recitation enables all classes of people to attain birth in the Pure Land, from the most virtuous Buddhist saints, to those who are incapable of meritorious actions and do not develop the aspiration for enlightenment.
In Pure Land terminology, 'nine classes" go to the Pure Land. The highest class are those who achieve the traditional goals of Buddhism--that is, who free themselves from desire, observe the precepts, and practice the six perfections of giving, discipline, forbearance, energetic progress, meditation and wisdom. The lowest class who go to the Pure Land are those who keep on, as wayward human animals, piling up evil karma and committing all kinds of sins: even they can attain birth in the Pure Land, if only they focus their minds and recite the buddha-name.
Buddha-name recitation in itself dissolves away evil karma, no matter how serious - so say the Pure Land teachings. Infinity lies latent in the gaps within moment-to-moment mundanity - in the Zen formulation. But above all it is the power of Amitabha that makes birth in the Pure Land possible for sinners as well as saints, because Amitabha has vowed to save all who faithfully and single-mindedly invoke his name.
The Pure Land
Amitabha's Pure Land is depicted in a way designed to attract believers. In the Pure Land there is no sickness, old age, or death. The sufferings and difficulties of this world do not exist. Those born in the Pure Land come forth there from lotus flowers, not from a woman's womb in pain and blood, and once born they are received and welcome by Amitabha and his assistants. They receive immortal, transformed bodies, and are beyond the danger of falling back into lesser incarnations. They are in the direct presence of Amitabha Buddha and the great bodhisattvas Kuan-yin (Avalokitesvara) and Shih-chih (Mahasthamaprapta), who aid in their ultimate enlightenment.
Those who go to the Pure Land live there among beings of the highest virtue. Beautiful clothing and fine food are provided to them ready-made. There are no extremes of heat and cold. Correct states of concentration are easy to achieve and maintain. There are no such things as greed, ignorance, anger, strife, or laziness.
The Pure Land is described, metaphorically, as resplendent with all manner of jewels and precious things, towers of agate, palaces of jade. There are huge trees made of various gems, covered with fruits and flowers. Giant lotuses spread their fragrance everywhere. There are pools, also made of seven jewels, and filled with the purest water, which adjusts itself to the depth and temperature the bathers prefer. Underfoot, gold covers the ground. Flowers fall from the sky day and night, and the whole sky is covered with a net made of gold and silver and pearls. The Pure Land is perfumed with beautiful scents and filled with celestial music.
Most precious of all, in the Pure Land, we are told, not only the buddha and bodhisattvas, Amitabha and his assistants, but even the birds and the trees (as manifestations of Amitabha) are continuously expounding the Dharma, the Buddhist Teaching.
Pure Land Literature
Pure Land literature offers many stories presented as real-life biographical accounts which corroborate the efficacy of Pure Land practice, and the description of the Pure Land paradise drawn from the scriptures. Like most Buddhist biographies written in China, these accounts are very terse, and focus on the subject's religious life. There are stories of men and women, monks and nuns, nobles and high officials and commoners too, people young and old in various stations of life, all devoted to Pure Land practice.
The stories often relate people's early experience of Buddhism, and note the various practices they took up and the scriptures they studied. In due time, as the stories tell it, their faith in Pure Land is awakened, perhaps by meeting an inspirational teacher, perhaps through a dream or vision, perhaps from hearing the Pure Land scriptures, perhaps from personal acquaintance with a devoted Pure Land practitioner.
The stories always make a point of the zeal and dedication of the true believer in reciting the buddha-name. Here are some typical descriptions:
"He cut off his motivation for worldly things and dedicated his mind to the Pure Land."
"He concentrated his mind on reciting the buddha-name."
"She recited the buddha-name with complete sincerity."
"He set his will on the Pure Land."
"She recited the buddha-name day and night without stopping."
"He recited the buddha-name single-mindedly."
"She developed the mind of faith and recited the buddha-name tirelessly."
"She turned her mind to buddha-name recitation and practiced it wholeheartedly, never slacking off."
"The older he became, the more earnest he was in reciting the buddha-name."
This is the message of the Pure Land life stories.
The climax of a typical Pure Land biography comes in the subject's death scene, when buddha-name recitation is rewarded and the Pure Land teachings are confirmed. The believer dies peacefully, even joyously, with mind and body composed, in full confidence of rebirth in paradise, reciting the buddha-name. Often the Pure Land devotee is able to predict his or her own death in advance, and calmly bid farewell to loved ones. Sometimes the believer receives reassuring visits from Amitabha in dreams or visions to prepare her or him to face the end.
Various signs give proof that the dying person is about to be reborn in the Pure Land. Uncanny fragrances and supernatural colored lights fill the room. Celestial music is heard. Flowers from the Pure Land appear: yellow lotuses, green lotuses, golden lotuses. The dying person sees Amitabha coming from the west to welcome him, or feels Amitabha's hand on his head, or sees Amitabha accompanied by Kuan-yin and Shih-chih appear to lead him to paradise. The dying person sees visions of the Pure Land: Amitabha and his companions seated on a jeweled dais, or the seven jewel ponds, or a staircase of gems leading up to the Pure Land.
Those close to the dying believer receive assurances that rebirth in the Pure Land is imminent. In the most frequent motif, the dying person announces to his or her companions, "Buddha is coming to welcome me!" The dying person's relatives dream of a lotus opening in the Pure Land's jewel pond, with their reborn kinsman appearing inside it. Or the relatives see visions of the deceased riding off to the west on a green lotus. Or the dead person visits the survivors in dreams and assures them that she has indeed been reborn in the Pure Land.
After the person dies, the people in the room perceive a magical fragrance and hear celestial music gradually fading away toward the west. A golden lotus might appear on the death bed or on top of the coffin. The dead believer's corpse does not decompose. Auspicious colored clouds hang over the funeral pyre.
With elements like these, the death scenes in Pure Land biographies are meant to prove to the faithful that rebirth in the Pure Land is indeed the guaranteed fate of those who recite the buddha-name.
Besides collections of believers' biographies, Pure Land literature includes other types of works designed to promote faith in the Pure Land teachings.
Many commentaries were composed on the sutras basic to Pure Land Buddhism: the Amitabha Sutra, the Contemplation of Amative Sutra (Meditation Sutra), and the Sutra of Infinite Life (Longer Amitabha Sutra).
Pure Land adepts also wrote essays to explain Pure Land beliefs in terms of Great Vehicle Buddhism as a whole, and to answer objections to Pure Land teachings and clarify points of doubt.
Some writers linked the Pure Land teaching to the other currents in Buddhism by picking out references to Amitabha's Pure Land and buddha-name recitation contained in the Buddhist scriptures and philosophical treatises not identified with the Pure Land school.
There are many records of talks given by famous Pure Land teachers down through the centuries, and personal letters they wrote, urging people to adopt Pure Land practice as the most effective way to make progress on the Buddhist Path.
Pure Land Associations
For many Pure Land Buddhists, an important means of strengthening their faith has been membership in a group of fellow believers. The faithful join to form Pure Land associations, where they can meet regularly with like-minded people to recite the buddha-name and, if they are fortunate, listen to genuine teachers expound Pure Land texts. Though buddha-name recitation can of course be done alone in private, many people have found group recitation very powerful in helping them to focus their attention. Being part of a community with shared beliefs helps to reinforce the dedication of the individual and his belief that Pure Land is a correct application of the Dharma that really works for people of that place and time. When methods are being applied correctly, the group also provides the individual believer with living examples of the mental strength and unshakable serenity acquired by long term practitioners of buddha-name recitation.
Pure Land adepts often founded teaching centers where people could gather to recite the buddha-name and hear the Pure Land doctrine. They enrolled believers in religious associations dedicated to buddha-remembrance, with their own bylaws for membership, scheduled meetings, and guidelines for practice. Though many monks and nuns practiced buddha-name recitation, and many lay Buddhists pursued Pure Land practice on their own, the typical institutional form of Pure Land Buddhism was the voluntary association of lay people, sometimes, but not always, led by monks and nuns.
On a purely social level, Pure Land associations could evolve into communities that offered their members not only ideological companionship and a sense of belonging, but also tangible material support in the form of mutual aid and a network of people who could be trusted and relied on. In many times and places, Pure Land societies have had their own facilities and funds. Under oppressive conditions, where the local social structure offered little security and much institutionalized violence and exploitation, popular religious groupings might become the real locus of loyalty and community feeling.
Pure Land Buddhism as Other-worldly
Among the many varieties of Buddhism, the Pure Land teaching most deserves the epithet "other-worldly," often erroneously applied to Buddhism as a whole. Pure Land doctrine teaches that this world is an arena of unavoidable suffering and frustration, and holds out the vivid prospect of rebirth in another, better world, where sickness, pain and death do not exist. This world is a hopeless trap, from which we can escape only by the power of Amitabha. Unless we attain rebirth in the Pure Land, peace and happiness, to say nothing of enlightenment, are beyond reach.
From a Buddhist perspective, it is the modern "this-worldly" orientation to life that is a form of unrealistic escapism and unwarranted pessimism about human possibilities. It is unrealistic because it seeks the meaning of life in gratifications that can only be temporary and partial: it seeks escape from mortality in transient pleasures. It is unnecessarily pessimistic because it ignores or denies the transcendental capacity inherent in humankind: "turning one's back on enlightenment to join with the dusts."
Pure Land Buddhism within the Buddhist Spectrum
What was the relationship between Pure Land and the other forms of Buddhism in East Asia?
Pure Land teaching incorporated many of the standards and perspectives that were basic in popular Buddhism as a whole, deriving from the Buddhist scriptures. Pure Land teachers urged their listeners to observe the basic Buddhist moral code, to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual excess, and intoxication. Strict vegetarianism was encouraged, as a corollary to the precept against taking life. Pure Land people were to give their allegiance to the "Three Jewels," that is, the enlightened one (Buddha), the teaching of enlightenment (Dharma), and the community of seekers (Sangha).
Pure Land teachers adopted the usual Buddhist moral perspective of cause and effect, of rewards and punishments according to one's actions. Pure Land people were taught to accumulate merit by good works, such as giving charity to the needy, helping widows and orphans, maintaining public facilities, supporting monks and nuns, contributing money and supplies for ceremonies and rituals, and making donations to Buddhist projects like building temples, casting statues and painting images, and copying and printing scriptures. Many Pure Land believers, in addition to reciting the buddha-name, studied and chanted various Buddhist scriptures, like the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Flower Ornament (Avatamsaka) Sutra. All these merit-making activities were viewed as auxiliary to the main work of reciting the buddha-name.
Pure Land theorists were faced with the task of clarifying their teaching of salvation through faith in Amitabha, given the mainstream scriptural Buddhist view of salvation as the reward for eons of diligent effort at self-discipline and purification and refinement of perceptions. By holding out the prospect of rebirth in the Pure Land through buddha-name recitation even to sinners, the Pure Land teaching appears to depart from a strict rule of karmic reward, which emphasizes the individual's own efforts as the decisive factor in spiritual attainment.
The Pure Land teachers explained this apparent anomaly by appealing to the infinite compassion of Amitabha Buddha (as an expedient embodiment of the infinitely pervasive Dharmakaya Buddha), who promises that all who invoke his name will attain birth in his Pure Land. The pioneers of the Pure Land teaching indeed took the position that for people in the later ages, the arduous path of self-restraint and purification proposed in the old Buddhist scriptures was no longer feasible. For average people, the only hope of salvation would be to rely on another power than their own, the power of Amitabha Buddha. [in addition to their own personal effort].
The Pure Land practice of reciting the buddha-name bears a familiar resemblance to the chanting of mantras that plays a major role in esoteric Buddhism. As the Pure Land master Chu-hung said, "the buddha-name is equivalent to upholding a mantra. After you have gained power by reciting the buddha-name, you will be able to face objects with equanimity."
According to the Pure Land teaching, invoking the buddha-name brings into play the vows of Amitabha Buddha, whose supernatural powers bring those who invoke him rebirth in the Pure Land. The key element is faith in Amitabha, and the Pure Land teaching is propounded as an easy path open to everyone.
Reciting the buddha-name and chanting mantras can be seen to operate in similar ways, from the point of view of the analysis of the workings of the human mind taught by Yogacara Buddhism and adopted by the Zen school.
Both practices in effect suspend the operation of the discriminating intellect, the faculty of the internal dialogue through which people from moment to moment define and perpetuate their customary world of perception. As the Yogacara bodhisattvas pointed out, people ordinarily are not in touch with phenomena themselves, but rather with mental representations projected onto phenomena. What we ordinarily perceive is not the world itself, but a description of the world that we have been conditioned to accept. The internal
dialogue of the intellect holds in place these representations, which make up the world of delusion.
By focusing on the sounds of the mantra or the syllables of the buddha-name invocation, the internal dialogue is stopped. Once its grip is loosened, the description it perpetuates is suspended. Then other descriptions of reality, other worlds, can come into view (such as Amitabha and the Pure Land, or the interplay of deities visualized in esoteric Buddhism, or the infinite vistas of the Avatamsaka Sutra).
Operating in East Asia, Pure Land teachers had to reconcile their views with the perspective of Zen Buddhism. While Pure Land was the most widespread popular form of Buddhism in East Asia, Zen was the form that was intellectually preeminent.
According to the Zen school, since all people inherently possess buddha-nature, the potential for enlightenment, enlightenment equal to the buddhas can be attained in this lifetime by a properly directed and executed effort to break through the barriers of delusion. Rather than venerating the Buddhist scriptures as sacred but unattainable standards, the Zen people went to great lengths to apply the perceptions revealed in the sutras in practice. Generations of enlightened Zen adepts "appeared in the world" to demonstrate a freedom from worldly bonds and a mastery of the Buddha Dharma that proved that liberation was not an unattainable goal. Through their personal example and the unparalleled originality of their utterances, the Zen masters made a great impact on East Asian high culture in the realms of religion, philosophy, and aesthetics. The prestige of Zen was such that the other schools of Buddhists, and Confucians and Taoists as well, all had to answer to its perspectives.
The Pure Land school accepted the Zen perspective as valid in principle, but questioned how many people could get results by using Zen methods. Pure Land teachers granted that Zen might indeed be the "direct vehicle," but insisted that for most people it was too rigorous and demanding to be practicable. The Pure Land method of buddha-name recitation was offered as a simpler method by which average people could make progress toward enlightenment. The Pure Land teachers pointed out that many who scorned Pure Land methods as simplistic, and who proudly claimed allegiance to the Zen school, actually achieved nothing by stubbornly clinging to Zen methods. "With Zen, nine out of ten fail. With Pure Land, ten thousand out of ten thousand succeed."
The Zen school itself came to make room for Pure Land methods. From the time of Yung-ming Yen-shou in tenth century China, who was a master of scriptural Buddhism, Pure Land, and the Zen school, the synthesis of Zen and Pure Land figured prominently in the teachings of many Zen adepts.
In the Zen understanding of Pure Land, Amitabha Buddha represents the enlightened essence of our own true identity, while the Pure Land is the purity of our inherent buddha mind. Buddha-name recitation is effective as a means to cut through the deluded stream of consciousness and focus the mind on its true nature. "Being born in the Pure Land" means reaching the state of mental purity where discriminating thought is unborn and immediate awareness is unimpeded.
The synthesis of Zen and Pure Land methods was epitomized by the "buddha-name recitation meditation case" taught by many Zen masters. "Meditation cases" (koans) in Zen are generally short sayings or question-answer pairs or dialogues or action-scenes which were designed for use as focal points in meditation. They were designed with multiple levels of meaning that interact with the mind of the person meditating to shift routine patterns of thought and open up deeper perceptions. Sustained concentration on the meditation point provides the opportunity for direct insights beyond the level of words.
Examples of meditation cases are: "What was your original face before your father and mother were born?" "The myriad things return to one: what does the one return to?" "What is the Dharmakaya? A flowering hedge." "What is every-atom samadhi? Water in the bucket, food in the bowl." Sayings like these were everyday fare in the Zen school. The Pure Land master Chu-hung whose teachings are translated below put together a detailed compendium of how to meditate with koans.
In the buddha-name recitation meditation case, the person intently reciting the buddha-name asks himself or herself, "Who is the one reciting the buddha-name?"
"Who is the one mindful of buddha?" The question is answered when the practitioner comes face to face with his or her own buddha-nature. The one mindful of buddha is the buddha within us. This is the Zen rationale for Pure Land practice.
The Present Translation
For this book I have translated texts from sixteenth century China that I hope will serve as an informative introduction to Pure Land Buddhist methods and teachings. The texts contain detailed explanations of Pure Land practice, vigorous encouragements to recite the buddha-name, and theoretical discussions relating Pure Land beliefs to the other branches of Buddhism. The synthesis of Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and the Buddhism of the Buddhist scriptures is very much in evidence.
These texts display the characteristic tone and concerns of Pure Land writings. They put forward the Pure Land teaching in clear language as an expression of skill-in-means, as the most appropriate and expedient method for people of ordinary capabilities to advance on the Buddhist Path.
After the rise of Pure Land Buddhism, many eminent teachers had occasion to explain Pure Land practice in terms of the all-encompassing theoretical outlook of Great Vehicle Buddhism as a whole. By the sixteenth century, late in the Ming dynasty, Chinese Buddhism was in a period of retrieving and reassembling its ancient heritage. There was a deliberate attempt by the learned to extract the gist of the classic teachings, and spread their message to a wider popular audience. Many Buddhist writers of the time offered reasoned explanations of the interrelationships among the various streams of the Buddhist teaching, harmonizing apparent divergences. Consequently, the Ming era Pure Land texts translated in this book are rich in information for modern day Buddhists of any denomination who are trying to comprehend the various pans of the Buddhist tradition in terms of the whole spectrum of Buddhist practice, thought, and imagery.
The works translated below serve as an overall theoretical and practical guide to the Pure Land teaching, placing it squarely within the wider tradition of East Asian Buddhism. As always, I have done my best to make the translation faithful to the substance and tone of the original, and in English as fluent as the original Chinese.
J. C. Cleary Spring 1994