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What is Chinese Pure Land Buddhism?
Origin of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism
Many years ago, in the late 1970s, as a university student of Buddhist studies I was not very interested in 'Pure Land Buddhism'. In comparison with "real" Buddhism, by which I meant Theravada and Zen at the time, it seemed a flaky cop out. Such is youth and the burden of opinion! Many, many years later in 2003, whilst living in Malaysia I made friends with some Pure Land practitioners and came to see the beauty and power in the practice. It is also quite rigorous, and my younger opinion quite unfounded! I would like to note that I am only writing about Chinese Pure land teaching as they are my current area of study and practice. I do not have first hand information about the very popular Japanese Pure Land teachings.
The texts mentioning Amitabha Buddha and means of attaining rebirth in his pure land seem to be of Indian origin, although it is not certain as to whether there was an equivalent Pure Land school in India. What is known is that the original texts were taken to China and translated by Indian monks. The first text to be translated was the the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra. This sutra was taken to China by the Indian monk, Lokaksema, around 178 - 189 CE. This sutra clearly says that a constant calling of Amitabha Buddha to mind and a visualising of His Pure Land will result in rebirth in that Pure Land. Important though it was, this is not the sutra that became the basis for much of Pure Land Buddhism, as it continues today in Taiwan and Malaysia, for example. The two main texts which form the foundation of latter day Pure Land teachings were another two texts translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, the Larger and Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras. It is the 'Larger' sutra that contains the story of how a bodhisattva made 48 vows, including the creation of a pure land, and who the fulfilment of these vows became Amitabha Buddha. The 18th vow states that if any being recites the name of Amitabha Buddha ten times or more, they will attain rebirth in the Pure Land. It is this promise of rebirth in the Pure Land that is the basis for Pure Land Buddhist practice today.
First beginnings in China: Hui Yuan
The first formulation of a school focusing on rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land was around 402 CE. Basing his teaching on the Pratyutpanna Sutra, Hui Yuan gathered a group on Mount Lu and founded The White Lotus Society. They were not interested in spreading a new school, rather their aim was to retire from the world and prepare to go to the Pure Land. The idea of the White Lotus society did serve to inspire later generations of pure land believers, however.
Pure Land practices became part of many Chinese Buddhist schools, from the T’ien-t’ai onwards; although there was also a separate Pure Land school, and in fact, after imperial persecution of Buddhism around 845CE, only the Pure Land and Chan schools were left!
The practices developed into a form more recognisable today; pure land teaching were no longer just for recluses ready to leave the world. As mentioned above, the emphasis came to be on Amitabha's vows as detailed in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra (known as the Infinite Light Sutra), especially the promise to help all beings who recited his name to be reborn in the Pure Land. Thus chanting the name of Amitabha became the primary practice.
Also influential in shaping Pure Land Buddhism into the form we have it today was T'an luan (476-542). One of his contributions was to emphasise the 'other power' of Amitabha rather than the 'self power' that characterised most of other forms of Buddhist practice. A student of Tan-luan, Tao-cho (562-645) continued the emphasis on repetition of the Buddha's name. He was said to repeat the Buddha's name 70,000 times a day. Apparently he had disciples who would fill buckets with dried beans to keep count of his chanting! Shan-tao was a disciple of Tao-cho. He was a prolific writer and Pure Land evangelist. In Pure Land history there is a famous parable attributed to Shan-tao of the two rivers and the white path, which describes his understanding of Pure Land practice. You can read a version of the parable here.
Pure Land Buddhism today owes a lot to Shan-tao who shaped much of the practice as it is today. In my research for this page I had little success finding information about the history of Pure Land Buddhism in China from Shan-tao onwards. I would ask anyone with information about English language sources to contact me through the comments section of this page. I am also looking for material regarding the spread of Pure Land Buddhism to Malaysia. Thanks in advance for any help offered! Amituofo.
Pure Land Practice Today
The information in this section is taken from my understanding of what I learned in Malaysia as well as the excellent website belonging to The Amitabha Buddhist Retreat Centre .
In a way the practice of Pure Land Buddhism is not technique oriented, " We practice to calm the mind so our innate wisdom will arise." It's not about fixing the mind in some way. There is currently a lot of interest in the health benefits of meditation, of which there are many, but it should be remembered that the primary function of meditation is spiritual development. Thus we chant Amituofo partly to get out of our own way. As the mind settles, we tend to create and experience fewer problems!
For most of us, getting to the point where our innate wisdom can arise takes a lot of work! That work takes the form of both formal chanting and meditation as well as paying attention to our state of mind during the day so that we live in accord with the Buddhist guidelines on moral and ethical living. Another reason for this ongoing vigilance is so that we come to realise, rather than just intellectually appreciate the nature of thought as thought rather than our 'real identity'.
The foundation of formal practice is chanting the name, 'Amitufo'. As we chant and gently bring the wandering mind back to the sound of the Buddha's name, the mind calms. Pure Land Buddhists believe that chanting the Buddha's name, together with vowing or asking to be reborn in the Pure Land establishes a connection that will result in our being reborn in the Pure Land after death. Once in the Pure Land we are able to continue our cultivation of the teachings free from being reborn in this world again. We don't have to become 'enlightened' (whatever that means), we seek to be reborn in the Pure Land and continue our spiritual development from that ideally conducive environment. For many of us this last part is a matter of faith, rather than direct knowledge. Such faith is a help, but ultimately another thought and not direct reality. Thus it is to be held lightly and not as a point to argue about!
For far more knowledgeable accounts of Pure Land practice please follow the link above as well as read Venerable Wu Lin's blog.
Pure Land Buddhism is very popular in Asian countries such as Taiwan and Malaysia. In Malaysia, for example, many cities have Pure Land Buddhist centres that offer free teachings and where the members regularly carry out community service to benefit the local society as well as more specifically Buddhist 'good deeds' such as releasing animals bought for slaughter, back into the wild. I was very fortunate to learn about Pure Land teachings at one of these centres in Kuala Lumpur and I extend my thanks for their patience and generosity.