Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism
Amitābha Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara (right) and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (left)
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Pure Land Buddhism (simplified Chinese: 净土宗; traditional Chinese: 淨土宗; pinyin: Jìngtǔzōng; Japanese: 浄土仏教[1], Jōdo bukkyō; Korean: 정토종, jeongtojong; Vietnamese: Tịnh Độ Tông), also referred to as Amidism[2][3] in English, is a broad branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism and currently one of the most popular traditions of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land is a branch of Buddhism focused on Amitābha Buddha. The term is used to describe both the Pure Land soteriology of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which may be better understood as Pure Land traditions, and the separate Pure Land sects that developed in Japan; in other countries and times, it formed part of the basis of Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions.

Pure Land oriented practices and concepts are found within basic Mahāyāna Buddhist cosmology, and form an important component of the Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Tibet. Chinese Chán and Tiantai schools, as well as the Japanese Shingon and Tendai sects, have strong Pure Land components to their practice and belief. However, Pure Land Buddhism eventually became an independent school in its own right as can be seen in the Japanese Jōdo Shū and Jōdo Shinshū[4] schools.


Early history

Statue of Amitābha Buddha seated in meditation. Borobodur, Java, Indonesia.
Book open to the Japanese version of Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra.
Mount Lu, where the Chinese Pure Land tradition was founded.

The Pure Land teachings were first developed in India, and were very popular in Kashmir and Central Asia, where they may have originated.[5] Pure Land sutras were brought from the Gandhāra region to China as early as 147 CE, when the Kushan monk Lokakṣema began translating the first Buddhist sūtras into Chinese.[6] The earliest of these translations show evidence of having been translated from the Gāndhārī language, a prakrit descended from Vedic Sanskrit, which was used in Northwest India.[7]

The Pure Land sūtras are principally the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. The shorter sūtra is also known as the Amitābha Sūtra, and the longer sūtra is also known as the Infinite Life Sūtra. These sutras describe Amitābha and his Pure Land of Bliss, called Sukhāvatī. Also related to the Pure Land tradition is the Pratyutpannabuddha Saṃmukhāvasthita Samādhi Sūtra, which describes the practice of reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha as a meditation method. In addition to these, many other Mahāyāna texts also feature Amitābha Buddha, and a total of 290 such works have been identified in the Taishō Tripiṭaka.[8]

In the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, the Buddha begins by describing to his attendant Ānanda a past life of the buddha Amitābha. He states that in a past life, Amitābha was once king who renounced his kingdom, and became a bodhisattva monk named Dharmākara ("Dharma Storehouse").[9] Under the guidance of the buddha Lokeśvararāja ("World Sovereign King"), innumerable buddha-lands throughout the ten directions were revealed to him.[9] After meditating for five eons as a bodhisattva, he then made a great series of vows to save all sentient beings, and through his great merit, created the realm of Sukhāvatī ("Ultimate Bliss").[9][10] This land of Sukhāvatī would later come to be known as the Pure Land (Ch. 淨土) in Chinese translation.

In the Buddhist traditions of India, Pure Land doctrines and practices were disseminated by well-known exponents of the Mahāyāna teachings, including Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu.[11] Although Amitābha is honored and venerated in Pure Land traditions, this was clearly distinguished from worship of the Hindu gods, as Pure Land practice has its roots in the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva.[12]

The Pure Land teachings first became prominent in China with the founding of Donglin Temple at Mount Lu (Ch. 廬山) by Huiyuan (Ch. 慧遠) in 402 CE. As a young man, Huiyuan practiced Daoism, but felt the theories of immortality to be vague and unreliable, and unrepresentative of the ultimate truth.[13] Instead, he turned to Buddhism and became a monk learning under Daoan (Ch. 道安). Later he founded a monastery at the top of Mount Lu, and invited well-known literati to study and practice Buddhism there, where they formed the White Lotus Society (Ch. 白蓮社).[14] They accepted the Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra and the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra as their standards among the Buddhist sūtras, and they advocated the practice of reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha in order to attain rebirth in the western pure land of Sukhāvatī.[15] The Mount Lu is regarded as the among the most sacred religious sites of the Pure Land Buddhist tradition,[16] and the site of the first Pure Land gathering.[17]

The Pure Land teachings and meditation methods quickly spread throughout China and were systematized by a series of elite monastic thinkers, namely Tanluan, Daochuo, Shandao, and others. The main teaching of the Chinese Pure Land tradition is based on focusing the mind with Mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. buddhānusmṛti) through recitation of the name of Amitābha Buddha, so as to attain rebirth in his pure land of Sukhāvatī.[18]

At a later date, the Pure Land teachings spread to Japan and slowly grew in prominence. Genshin (942-1017) caused Fujiwara no Michinaga (966-1028) to accept the Pure Land teachings. Hōnen (1133–1212) established Pure Land Buddhism as an independent sect in Japan, known as Jōdo Shu. Today Pure Land is an important form of Buddhism in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The Pure Land

Two mural panels depicting The Pure Land of Amitabha held at the Birmingham Museum of Art

Contemporary Pure Land traditions see Amitābha expounding the Dharma in his buddha-field (Skt. buddhakṣetra), or "pure land" (Ch. 净土, jìngtǔ), a region offering respite from karmic transmigration. Amitābha's pure land of Sukhāvatī is described in the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra as a land of beauty that surpasses all other realms. It is said to be inhabited by many gods, men, flowers, fruits, and adorned with wish-granting trees where rare birds come to rest. [19] In Pure Land traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of enlightenment. Upon entry into the Pure Land, the practitioner is then instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until full and complete enlightenment is reached. This person then has the choice of returning at any time as a bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help all sentient beings in saṃsāra, or to stay the whole duration, reach Buddhahood, and subsequently deliver beings to the shore of liberation.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there are many buddhas, and each buddha has a pure land. Amitābha's pure land of Sukhāvatī is understood to be in the western direction, whereas Akṣobhya's pure land of Abhirati is to the east. While recognized by the Japanese Shingon sect, Eastern Pure Land Buddhism is less popular than Western Pure Land Buddhism. Though there are other traditions devoted to various Pure Lands, Amitabha's is by far the most popular.


Charles Luk identifies three meditation practices as being widely used in Pure Land Buddhism.[20]

Mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha

Repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha is traditionally a form of Mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. buddhānusmṛti). This term was translated into Chinese as nianfo, by which it is popularly known in English. The practice is described as calling the buddha to mind by repeating his name, to enable the practitioner to bring all his or her attention upon that buddha (See: samādhi).[21] This may be done vocally or mentally, and with or without the use of Buddhist prayer beads. Those who practice this method often commit to a fixed set of repetitions per day, often from 50,000 to over 500,000.[21] According to tradition, the second patriarch of the Pure Land school, Shandao, is said to have practiced this day and night without interruption, each time emitting light from his mouth. Therefore he was bestowed with the title "Great Master of Light" (大師光明) by the Tang Dynasty emperor Gao Zong (Ch. 高宗).[22]

In Chinese Buddhism, there is a related practice called the "dual path of Chán and Pure Land cultivation", which is also called the "dual path of emptiness and existence."[23] As taught by Nan Huaijin, the name of Amitābha Buddha is recited slowly, and the mind is emptied out after each repetition. When idle thoughts arise, the phrase is repeated again to clear them. With constant practice, the mind is able to remain peacefully in emptiness, culminating in the attainment of samādhi.[23]

Pure Land Rebirth Dhāraṇī

Repeating the Pure Land Rebirth Dhāraṇī is another method in Pure Land Buddhism. Similar to the mindfulness practice of repeating the name of Amitābha Buddha, this dhāraṇī is another method of meditation and recitation in Pure Land Buddhism. The repetition of this dhāraṇī is said to be very popular among traditional Chinese Buddhists.[22] It is traditionally preserved in Sanskrit, and it is said that when a devotee succeeds in realizing singleness of mind by repeating a mantra, its true and profound meaning will be clearly revealed.[22]

namo amitābhāya tathāgatāya tadyathā
amṛtabhave amṛtasaṃbhave
amṛtavikrānte amṛtavikrāntagāmini
gagana kīrtīchare svāhā

Visualization methods

Another practice found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditative contemplation and visualization of Amitābha Buddha, his attendant bodhisattvas, and the Pure Land. The basis of this is found in the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra ("Amitābha Meditation Sūtra"), in which the Buddha describes to Queen Vaidehi the practices of thirteen progressive visualization methods, corresponding to the attainment of various levels of rebirth in the Pure Land.[24] The first of these steps is contemplation of a setting sun, until the visualization is clear whether the eyes are open or closed.[25] Each progressive step adds complexity to the visualization of Sukhāvatī, with the final contemplation being an expansive visual which includes the Amitābha Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas.[25] According to Inagaki Hisao, this progressive visualization method was widely followed in the past for the purpose of developing samādhi.[12] Visualization practises for Amitābha are also popular in Japanese Shingon Buddhism as well as other schools of Esoteric Buddhism.

Going to the Pure Land

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