What is Pure Land Buddhism? A look at how East Asian Buddhists sing and strive for Buddhahood

Many people in the West interpret Buddhism as a path of meditation leading to enlightenment.

What many may not know is that this interpretation differs considerably from its practice in East Asia.

I spent many years observing Buddhist temples in Taiwan and mainland China, and my research resulted in the book “Chinese Pure Land Buddhism”. This form of Buddhism teaches people to appeal to a Buddha named Amitābha in the hope that when they die he will take them to his pure Buddha land, a great place to pursue the practices that will lead them to become Buddhas, or fully awakened and liberated beings.

This form of practice – at the heart of Pure Land Buddhism – arose from Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that emerged from the first to the sixth century CE.

Buddhism in China

One of the innovative teachings of Mahayana Buddhism was that the cosmos is inhabited by millions of Buddhas, not just the historical founder of the religion. Since all of these Buddhas had to reside somewhere, and their surroundings had to be as pure as they were, it follows that there are many lands of Buddhas.

Pure Land Buddhism taught that the Pure Land of Amitābha was accessible to ordinary people after their death. Before the development of Pure Land Buddhism, the only path to enlightenment was through a strenuous path of study and practice that was beyond the reach of most people.

In China, the Pure Land teaching enabled ordinary people to free themselves from suffering and attain Buddhahood. As Pure Land Buddhism has spread and become dominant in other countries in East Asia, China is its homeland.

The theory of karma

Buddhists believe that all living things are stuck in an endless loop of birth and rebirth and that good or bad fortune they experience results from karma. Karma is a moral force created by the deeds we do: virtuous deeds bring better fortune, while bad or even simply ignorant deeds bring unhappiness.

It is said that karma determines future life in terms of gender, intelligence and other personal attributes as well as its environment.

The Shaolin temple in the Chinese province of Henan.
Ren Hongbing / VCG via Getty Images

As it is believed that a Buddha has completely purified his karma, his body and mind are free from all blemishes and the earth in which he inhabits is perfect. Several Buddhist scriptures describe the “Buddha lands” as paradises free from moral evil and free from all defilements.

Many Buddhists hope to be born in a Buddha land so that they can complete their path under the direct supervision of a Buddha.

The founding story

According to the Sutra, or scripture, on the Buddha of Infinite Life no later than the third century, a monk named Dharmākara decided to become a Buddha. After much study and deliberation, he made 48 vows which specified what kind of Buddha he would be and what his land of Buddha would look like.

Most of these vows presented a scene familiar to believers: as a Buddha he would be powerful, wise, and compassionate. His land would be beautiful, and the beings who would share it with him would be so accomplished that they would already have many of the powers and attributes of a Buddha. These included perfect eloquence and the ability to see and hear at great distances.

But among the vows recorded in the Sutra, it was the 18th that changed everything. This vow stipulated that whoever would be content to think of him before death would be reborn in his country of Buddha:

“If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the countries of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully confide in me desire to be born in my country and even think of me ten times,” Dharmākara said.

The fact that he achieved his goal and became the Buddha named Amitābha meant that the wish came true. However, the term “ten times” referring to Amitabha’s thoughts was vague. Another scripture, the Sutra on Visualizing the Buddha of Infinite Life, clarified that it is sufficient to pronounce the name of this Buddha ten times.

In addition, Dharmākara had also stated that those who “commit the five grave breaches and abuse the Dharma right” would be excluded. This Sutra has removed such restrictions. Both scriptures enabled ordinary Buddhists to aspire to rebirth in this Pure Land.

Pure Land in China

Buddhism entered China about 2,000 years ago and developed slowly as scriptures became available for translation and missionaries learned to communicate their message.

The story of the Dharmākara vows has proven to be particularly popular. The Infinite Life Buddha Sutra was translated into Chinese several times, and learned monks lectured and commented on the Pure Land Sutras.

Chanting the name of Buddha Amitabha.

Monks and nuns chanted the Amitābha Sutra during their daily devotions. This Sutra, along with the two already mentioned, became the “Three Pure Land Sutras” which anchored the emerging tradition.

Early Chinese commentators on these sutras held that it takes large reserves of good karma from the past to hear about these teachings. They also preached that if the mind was not purified by a previous practice, then one could not see the Pure Land in all its glory.

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In search of Buddhahood

In the 6th and 7th centuries, three monks named Tanluan, Daochuo and especially Shandao provided new interpretations and practices that gave the ordinary believer full access to the Pure Land without needing to earn or earn it.

First, they said rebirth in the Pure Land is an “easy path” compared to the “difficult path” of traditional Buddhist practice.

Second, that Amitabha Buddha help the practitioner by adding his “other power” to the believer’s “self power”. In other words, the power of the Buddha directly assisted the believer and brought him to the Pure Land. “Personal power,” or the believer’s own effort, could have beneficial effects, but it was not enough for liberation. The addition of the power of the Buddha guaranteed liberation at the end of this life.

Third, they defined the main practice by calling out Amitābha’s name aloud. In the original texts, it was not clear whether the practice consisted of difficult meditations or oral invocation, but they clearly indicated that simply repeating “Hail to Amitaqbha Buddha” would cause the Buddha to carry one to the sea. Pure Land.

The Pure Land was not a final destination, like paradise in Christianity. The point of rebirth there had to be in the perfect environment to become a Buddha. One would still need to strive for Buddhahood, but one’s own power with that of Amitābha would guarantee the end result.

Consider being on an escalator. If one cannot walk at all, he will carry one to the top, but if one can walk even a little, his speed will combine with the movement of the escalator to get there. arrive faster.

Chanting the name of buddha

Pure Land believers can recite “Hail to Amitābha Buddha” silently or aloud while counting the repetitions on a rosary; they can participate in group practice at a local Buddhist temple; they can even participate in one-, three- or seven-day retreats that combine recitation with repentance and meditation rituals.

It remains the most widespread form of Buddhist practice in East Asia to this day.