Pure Land Buddhism
by Dr. 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...
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 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 singlemindedly. 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 singleminded, 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 [Bodhi Mind].
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 - 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 singlemindedly 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 singlemindedly."
"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.