The Historical past of Pure Land Buddhism


Pure Land is each a definite faculty of Buddhism that developed in Japan and, says Aaron Proffitt, a cornerstone of the entire Mahayana custom.

A contemporary portray of Sukhavati, the pure land that’s related in Mahayana Buddhism with the buddha Amitabha, identified in Japanese as Amida.

Early Orientalist students of Buddhism working underneath colonialism had little curiosity within the variety and vitality of dwelling Buddhist cultures. As a substitute, they cherry-picked the Buddhist teachings to suit their very own modernist, Protestant worldview.

This ahistorical perspective on Buddhism—a “Buddhism” created by and for European intellectuals—was then used to criticize dwelling Buddhist cultures. These students believed that Mahayana Buddhism normally, however particularly the Pure Land teachings, had been a perverse distortion of the buddhadharma (as they outlined it).

Sadly, this angle remains to be extensively seen. Pure Land Buddhism is arguably probably the most generally practiced type of Buddhism on the planet. But in English-language tutorial and in style writing it’s largely ignored, or wholly misunderstood.

The Pure Land teachings are basic to Mahayana philosophy, ritual, meditation, artwork, and scripture. Usually, we may consider Mahayana Buddhism itself as a “Buddhism of the Pure Lands.” Extra particularly, the time period “Pure Land Buddhism” additionally refers to a definite type or faculty of Buddhism that developed in Japan. Whereas drawing on the overall Pure Land teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, this faculty focuses notably on contemplation of the Pure Land named Sukhavati (Land of Bliss) and the Buddha of that land, Amitabha.

Whereas some Mahayana Buddhists could aspire to be reborn within the Pure Land within the subsequent life, others conceive of the Pure Land as a logo for nirvana that’s in some sense current inside this world. Others could maintain each positions on the similar time. Because the Contemplation Sutra says, “the thoughts that creates the Buddha is the Buddha.”

Shinran, the founding father of Shin, recognized seven monks as instrumental within the growth of Pure Land Buddhism: Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Tan-luan, Daochuo, Shandao, Genshin, and Honen. Picture by Gerald Ford.

Pure Land Teachings in India

At present we divide the Buddhist world into Theravada and Mahayana, but this division wasn’t at all times so clear-cut. Many components we now establish as Mahayana or Theravada or tantra developed progressively inside various early Indian cultural contexts within the interval 500 BCE–100 CE, earlier than the sutras we now have entry to had been written down.

For probably the most half, the texts written within the literary language often known as Pali, which at the moment we affiliate with Theravada Buddhism, protect a worldview that implies just one buddha could exist at a time. However the physique of sutras we now label as Mahayana provide various views on the character of buddhahood and the trail to awakening.

Buddhists of all faculties agree that Shakyamuni Buddha taught about buddhas of the previous and future, however inside Mahayana sutras and tantras, it’s believed the Buddha additionally taught about different buddhas of this age, comparable to Akshobhya, Vairocana, and Amitabha.

Sukhavati and Amitabha seem to have been very talked-about when Mahayana texts had been written down, as they’re talked about in actually a whole bunch of Mahayana sutras and tantras. Later treatises coping with the Pure Land teachings are attributed to nice Indian masters comparable to Nagarjuna (circa 150–250 CE) and Vasubandhu (fourth–fifth century CE).

A statue of Amitabha at Donglin Temple on the foot of China’s Mount Lu. The temple was based by the Pure Land patriarch Huiyuan. Picture by Imaginechina Restricted / Alamy Inventory Picture

Pure Land Buddhism in China

Buddhism was transmitted alongside commerce routes all through South and Central Asia, and by the primary century of the Widespread Period it started taking root in China. Mahayana Buddhism was notably embraced, and because the Pure Land teachings are a basic facet of Mahayana philosophy and observe, various views on the pure lands flourished in China early on.

Born in Gandhara in 147 CE, the monk Lokaksema translated Sanskrit Mahayana texts into Chinese language, together with the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra (the Sutra on the Samadhi for Encountering Face-Face the Buddhas of the Current). The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra was notably influential upon the monk Huiyuan (334–416), whom later generations acknowledged as the primary Pure Land patriarch.

Huiyuan organized Pure Land observe societies, known as White Lotus Societies, whose practitioners contemplated Amitabha Buddha with a view to obtain mystical visions of him. This impressed later types of communal Pure Land observe. Like most different Chinese language Buddhist masters, Huiyuan was additionally accustomed to Daoist and Confucian thought. He’s well-known for rebuking a neighborhood warlord by declaring “monks don’t revere kings.”

Zhiyi (538–597) of Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang, China, is considered the founding father of the Tiantai custom, which supplied an indigenous Chinese language strategy to Indian Buddhism. Zhiyi revered Nagarjuna’s teachings on vacancy, and supplied a complete understanding of Buddhist doctrine and meditation that ended up influencing the entire of East Asian Buddhism.

Zhiyi’s perspective on Pure Land observe additionally drew upon the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra, recommending recitation of the title of Amitabha as a manner of staying centered throughout meditation. A few of the most influential Pure Land academics in East Asian historical past had been related to the Tiantai lineage, often known as Cheontae in Korea and Tendai in Japan.

The works of Shandao (613–681) characterize one other necessary strand of East Asian Pure Land Buddhist thought. Shandao was revered for his visionary experiences and meditative prowess. What distinguishes Shandao was his revolutionary instructing that Pure Land practices may also help even strange beings attain rebirth within the Pure Land, and thus awakening. This was in distinction to the elite view that Pure Land rebirth was solely attainable for extremely achieved bodhisattvas.

All through Chinese language historical past, Chan (Zen) masters, in addition to systematizers of East Asian Esoteric (tantric) Buddhism, have promoted Pure Land practices. The Chan scholar–monk Yongming Yanshou (904–975) drew on the lengthy historical past of Chan–Pure Land observe and argued that when Pure Land practices are built-in with Chan meditation, it’s more practical than when Chan meditation is practiced alone. To today, Chan meditation, esoteric practices, and Pure Land practices perform collectively inside Chinese language, Korean, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Japanese Buddhism.

Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet

Tibetan Buddhism developed later than East Asian Buddhism, so it was in a position to attract upon the total vary of Indian Buddhist texts. Ultimately the tantras had been emphasised. Whereas we could typically affiliate the tantras with the fast attainment of buddhahood on this physique and world, many tantras are stated to result in rebirth within the pure lands, particularly Sukhavati.

The Pure Land custom has manifested in myriad methods in Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava (circa eighth–ninth century) was an awesome tantric instructor in Tibet who got here to be acknowledged as an incarnation of Amitabha Buddha; the Tibetan lineage of reincarnated tulkus often known as the Panchen Lamas are stated to be emanations of Amitabha. A Tibetan ritual often known as phowa includes practitioners ejecting their consciousness out the highest of their heads and into Sukhavati. Probably the most necessary mantras in Tibetan Buddhism is that of Avalokiteshvara, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which is claimed to result in rebirth in Sukhavati.

In Tibet, as in India and most of Asia, Pure Land Buddhism has not functioned as a definite sect or faculty. As a substitute, Pure Land philosophy and practices have been integral to various Mahayana traditions. In Japan, Pure Land Buddhism emerged as a definite strategy to Buddhism.

Higashi-Honganji in Kyoto is without doubt one of the head temples of the Shin sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Shinran’s ashes are in a mausoleum on the temple’s grounds. Picture by Basile Morin

Japanese Pure Land Buddhism

The Japanese monk Eon was a scholar of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Center Approach) philosophy who traveled to China in 608 CE. Upon his return to Japan over thirty years later, he selected the Pure Land teachings as the topic of his first lecture.

Devotion to Amitabha turned a significant function of Japanese Buddhism. Initially, Japanese Buddhists practiced the dedication of advantage to assist their ancestors attain rebirth within the Pure Land, however over time, aspiring to at least one’s personal rebirth within the Pure Land turned in style.

Japanese monks related to the Mount Hiei Tendai custom, comparable to Ennin (794–864) and Genshin (942–1017), promoted Tendai philosophy, esoteric ritual, and the observe of nembutsu (Pure Land contemplation and the recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s title). Wandering ascetics comparable to Kuya (903–972) traveled between mountain monastic facilities and {the marketplace} to share Pure Land teachings with the widespread individuals.

Kakuban (1095–1143), and later Dohan (1179–1252), drew upon the esoteric understanding of mantra and promoted the concept Amitabha Buddha is finest understood because the breath of lifetime of all beings and that Pure Land “rebirth” is identical as attaining buddhahood on this very physique.

Within the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the rising energy of the samurai class despatched Japan into chaos. In response to this social upheaval, an egalitarian strategy to Buddhism emerged that emphasised the Pure Land path as open to strange individuals, not simply these engaged in elite monastic observe. The medieval Japanese Pure Land faculties tended to emphasise the Pure Land path nearly to the exclusion of practices comparable to scholasticism, Zen meditation, and esoteric ritual, whereas on the similar time drawing upon the philosophical insights that arose from these traditions.

Honen (1133–1212) is the good revolutionary of Japanese Pure Land historical past. Drawing on his broad erudition in Mahayana philosophy and observe, and the works of Shandao specifically, Honen sought the instructing that might be only for individuals dwelling on this age of chaos and anxiousness. Ultimately, Honen got here to see the recitation of the title of Amitabha, “Namu Amida Butsu,” because the important observe.

As a result of this straightforward observe is feasible for all individuals, no matter gender or social station, it exemplifies the common compassion and knowledge of Amitabha Buddha. Honen impressed a motion that, although persecuted by the powers that be, ended up remodeling Japanese Buddhism by making a “Buddhism of the Pure Land.”
Honen’s disciple Shinran (1173–1263) referred to himself as a “stubble headed dummy,” and claimed to not even have one pupil. But the Jodo Shinshu lineage that appears to him as its founder is the biggest faculty of Buddhism in Japan and one of many oldest and largest within the Americas as effectively, making him one of the crucial influential Buddhist thinkers in world historical past.

Shinran argued that progress alongside the trail, Pure Land rebirth, and the attainment of awakening happen not by way of one’s personal efforts alone. Somewhat, Amitabha Buddha is the dynamic pressure to which beings spontaneously awaken by way of a radical letting go—an expertise often known as shinjin, “the thoughts of confidence” or “awakening.”

Girls have performed an necessary position in Pure Land Buddhism, and Shinran owed his success in some ways to the ladies in his life. With out his spouse, Eshinni, who supported his ministry, and his daughter Kakushinni, who constructed a mausoleum devoted to him, Shinran seemingly would have been little greater than an historic footnote.

Though Pure Land Buddhism stays understudied and poorly understood within the English-speaking world, students and practitioners at the moment are constructing new bridges with different Buddhist faculties and serving to individuals perceive what Pure Land Buddhism actually is. In time, the profundity and variety of the Pure Land custom will turn out to be obvious.


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