Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism or Amidism, devotional sect of Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan, centering on worship of the Buddha Amitabha. According to the Pure Land Sutras, composed in India in the 2d cent. A.D., Amitabha vowed to save all sentient beings by granting them rebirth in his realm, the "Western Paradise," a pure land endowed with miraculous characteristics ensuring its inhabitants easy entry into nirvana. Salvation could be attained by invoking the name of Amitabha with absolute faith in his grace and the efficacy of his vow. It was believed that Amitabha and his retinue would appear to the faithful at the time of death and convey them to his paradise. In both China and Japan the movement gained impetus from the idea of the "end of the Dharma," which divided the development of Buddhism into three ages: that of the true, the counterfeit, and the decaying dharma, that is, Buddhist teaching. Those living in the present final, degenerate age cannot attain enlightenment by the original means of self-effort, austerity, and superior knowledge and must rely entirely on faith. There were devotees of Amitabha in China as early as the end of the 3d cent. A.D.; the sect was officially founded in 402 by its first patriarch, Hui-Yuan. Later masters spread the faith among the masses, sometimes using evangelical methods, contrasting the torments of hell with the bliss of the "Western Paradise." In Japan, Pure Land Buddhism was established as a sect by Honen (1133-1212), who taught that even those who had mastered Buddhist philosophy "should behave themselves like simpleminded folk" and renounce all practices except the nembutsu, recitation of the formula Namu Amida Butsu [homage to Amitabha Buddha]. His disciple Shinran (1173-1262) carried Honen's teachings to their logical conclusion by abandoning monastic celibacy and marrying. Shinran held that reliance on one's own effort or on any practice other than the nembutsu would show lack of faith in Amitabha. He broke with Honen's followers on these issues and became the leader of the True Pure Land Sect, which grew to be the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. The numerous representations of Amitabha with his attendant bodhisattvas and the depictions of hell testify to the influence of Pure Land Buddhism on Chinese and Japanese Buddhist art. For translations of the Pure Land Sutras, see E. B. Crowell, Buddhist Mahayana Texts (1894, repr. 1969) and Alfred Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (1965).

Pure Land Buddhism (Jìngtǔzōng; 浄土教, Jōdokyō; Korean: 정토종, jeongtojong; Vietnamese: 浄土宗, Tịnh Độ Tông), also sometimes referred to as Amidism, is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and currently one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in East Asia, along with Chán (Zen). In Chinese Buddhism, most monks practise it in combination with Chán or other practices. It is a devotional or "faith"-oriented branch of Buddhism focused on Amitābha Buddha.

Pure Land Buddhism is often found within Mahayana Buddhist practices such as the Chinese Tiantai school, or Japanese Shingon Buddhism. However, Pure Land Buddhism is also an independent school as seen in the Japanese Jōdo Shū and Jōdo Shinshū schools. There is not one school of Pure Land Buddhism per se; rather it is a large subset of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

One key concept behind Pure Land Buddhism is that Nirvana has become increasingly difficult to obtain through meditative practices. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that only through devotion to Amitābha Buddha can one be reborn in the Pure Land, a perfect heavenly abode in which enlightenment is guaranteed. Pure Land Buddhism was popular among commoners and monastics as it provided a straightforward way of expressing faith as a Buddhist. In medieval Japan it was also popular among those on the outskirts of society, such as prostitutes and social outcasts who, though often denied spiritual services in society, could find a form of religious practice in the worship of Buddha Amitābha.


Pure Land Buddhism is based on the Pure Land sutras, first brought to China as early as 148 CE, when the Parthian monk Ān Shìgāo began translating sutras into Chinese at the White Horse Temple in the imperial capital of Luòyáng, during the Hàn dynasty. The Kushan monk Lokakśema, who arrived in Luòyáng two decades after An Shìgao, is often attributed with the earliest translations of the core sutras of Pure Land Buddhism. These sutras describe Amitābha and his heaven-like Pure Land, called Sukhāvatī.

Although Amitabha was mentioned or featured in a number of Buddhist sutras, the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life is often considered the most important and definitive. In this sutra, the Buddha describes to his assistant, Ānanda, how Amitabha, as an advanced monk named Dharmakara, made a great series of vows to save all beings, and through his great merit, created a realm called the Land of Bliss (Sukhavati). This paradise would later come to be known as the Pure Land in Chinese translation.

Pure Land Buddhism played a minor role in early Indian Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana branch, but first became prominent with the founding of a monastery upon the top of Mount Lushan by Hui-yuan in 402. It quickly spread throughout China and was systematized by a series of elite monastic thinkers, namely Tanluan, Daochuo, Shandao, and others. Prominent again by influential monks such as Lianchi (蓮池), Ouyi (藕益) and Yin Guang (印光). The Buddhist Encyclopedia published a lineage that includes 13 Patriarchs of Pure Land Buddhism The religious movement spread to Japan and slowly grew in prominence. Hōnen (1133–1212) established Pure Land Buddhism as an independent sect in Japan, known as Jōdo Shu. Today Pure Land is, together with Chan, the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Contemporary Pure Land traditions see Amitabha preaching the Dharma in his buddha-field (buddhakṣetra), called the "Pure Land" (zh. 净土, pinyin jìngtǔ, jp. 浄土 jōdo, vi. Tịnh độ) or "Western Pureland" (Ch. 西天, pinyin xītiān), a region offering respite from karmic transmigration. The Vietnamese also use the term Tây Phương Cực Lạc (西方極樂) for "Western Land of Bliss", or more accurately, "Western Paradise". In such traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of enlightenment. After practitioners attain enlightenment in the Pure Land, rather than becoming a Buddha and entering nirvana, they will return to the six realms as bodhisattvas to help deluded beings in samsara.

Thus, adherents believe that Amitabha Buddha provided an alternate practice towards attaining enlightenment: the Pure Land. In Pure Land Buddhist thought, Enlightenment is difficult to obtain without the assistance of Amitabha Buddha, since people are now living in a degenerate era, known as the Age of Dharma Decline. Instead of solitary meditative work toward enlightenment, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that devotion to Amitabha leads one to the Pure Land, from which enlightenment is guaranteed.

In medieval East Asian culture, this belief was particularly popular among peasants and individuals who were considered "impure", such as hunters, fishermen, those who tan hides, prostitutes and so on. Pure Land Buddhism provided a way to practice Buddhism for those who were not capable of practicing other forms. In fact, in the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life the Amitabha Buddha makes 48 vows, and the 18th Vow states that Amitabha will grant rebirth to his Pure Land anyone who can recite his name as little as 10 times..

The Pure Land

The Pure Land is described in the Limitless Life Sutra as a land of beauty that surpasses all other realms. More importantly for the Pure Land practitioner, once one has been "born" into this land (birth occurs painlessly through lotus flowers), one will never again be reborn. In the Pure Land one will be personally instructed by Amitabha Buddha and numerous Bodhisattvas until one reaches full and complete enlightenment. In effect, being born into the Pure Land is akin to achieving enlightenment, through escaping samsara, the Buddhist concept of "the wheel of birth and death."

Pure Land Practice

It is believed, that if practitioners chant Amitābha Buddha's name, or the nianfo, when their current life comes to an end they can be received with their karma by Amitābha Buddha (帶業往生). This fairly simple form of veneration has contributed greatly to its popularity throughout East Asia. This practice is called nembutsu in Japanese, or Buddha recitation, or "Being Mindful of the Buddha."

Another alternate practice found in Pure Land Buddhism is meditation or contemplation of Amitābha and/or his Pure Land. The basis for this is found in the Contemplation Sutra, where The Buddha describes to Queen Vaidehi what Amitābha looks like and how to meditate upon him. Visualization practices for Amitābha are more popular among esoteric Buddhist sects, such as Japanese Shingon Buddhism, while the nianfo is more popular among lay followers.

According to the Amida Sutra, people with "few roots of goodness or a small stock of merit" cannot go there. A dying person might have his thoughts in chaos, or someone might prevent him from saying the nianfo. A dying animal may have many people say nianfo for it. Within 8-12 hours after death, family and friends should not move the dying person's body and should not cry (the soul would feel unable to leave this world, while asking the majority buddhist monks may agree someone to donate organs), nianfo to the dying person. The effect of nianfo to death of traffic accidents or cancer were the most.

According to the reports of the buddhists, there are evidences of dying people going to the pure land. They are:

Knowing the time of death(预知时至) - some prepare by bathing and chanting the nianfo.

The "three saints in the west"(西方三圣)(Amitābha Buddha and the two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara on his right and Mahāsthāmaprāpta on his left), appear and welcome the dying person. Visions of other buddhas or bodhisttvas are disregarded as they may be bad spirits disguising themselves, attempting to stop the person from entering the Pure Land.

Facial expression is red and happy.

Body is soft.

Some people see warm brightness or hear good music.

Leave sariras after cremation.

Relatives or friends may dream of the dying person.

The last part of the body to become cold is the top of the head (fontanel). In Buddhist teaching, souls who enter the Pure Land leave the body through the fontanel at the top of the skull. Hence, this part of the body stays warmer longer than the rest of the body. The Ba shi gui ju bu zhu(八識規矩補註), reads: "to birth in saints the last body temperature in top of head, to deva in eyes, to human in heart, to hungry ghosts in belly, to animals in knee cap, to naraka in sole of feet."

The dying person may demonstrate some, but not necessarily all, of these evidences. For example, their facial expression may be happy, but they may not demonstrate other signs, such as sarira and dreams.

Eastern Pure Land

In esoteric Vajrayāna Buddhism, Amitābha's Western Pure Land (Sukhāvatī) is the counterpart to Akṣobhya's Eastern Pure Land, or Abhirati. While especially recognized by the Japanese Shingon sect, Eastern Pure Land Buddhism is less popular than Western Pure Land Buddhism.

See also


Further reading

  • Eitel, Ernest J. Hand-Book of Chinese Buddhism, being a Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary with Vocabularies of Buddhist Terms in Pali, Singhalese, Siamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Mongolian and Japanese (Second Edition). New Delhi, Madras: Asian Educational Services. 1992.

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