So lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books on Pure Land Buddhism (浄土仏教). It started with Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Finding Our True Home, which is a very modern interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism. I found the book interesting, but also kind of frustrating at times because of his liberal interpretation of some things, and how he dismisses some aspects of Pure Land Buddhism so easily.1
Then I started reading other books like famous 17th century text, Mind Seal of the Buddhas by by Venerable Ou-I (藕益, 1599～1655) of the Tientai School (free to read here), and then the Letters of Yin-Kuang (available here) which contains letters from a famous Chinese Buddhist monk named Yin-Guang (印光, 1861-1940).
Unlike Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, which is targeted toward Westerners interested in Zen meditation (not Pure Land), the books by Ou-I and Yin-Guang were written by Chinese authors for Chinese Buddhists. So, to me they seemed less “filtered” since there was no need to explain or dismiss any aspects of Buddhism to unfamiliar readers. Otherwise though, they reflect a general teaching about Pure Land Buddhism that is prevalent throughout East Asia.
From these books I learned some interesting points about Chinese Pure Land Buddhism I wanted to share with readers. I’m familiar with Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu) and have followed both, but I know very little about Chinese or mainland Pure Land Buddhism. The first time I was even exposed to it was when I visited the Vietnamese temple in early 2013.
Just like in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Chinese Pure Land Buddhism focuses on Amitabha Buddha (阿弥陀) and the Pure Land (浄土). The Pure Land is not a heaven-like realm.2 Instead, like all Buddhas, Amitabha created the Pure Land as a kind of refuge, so beings could be reborn there and progress on the Buddhist path much more easily. The Pure Land has a great community of teachers and followers, and has no obstructions. So, people who have a difficult life, or have difficulty following the Buddhist teachings can choose to be reborn there instead and then make progress.
Also, both Buddhist groups believe in the importance of reciting the Buddha’s name. As explained in the Pure Land Sutras, if you sincerely recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, you can be reborn in the Pure Land upon death. This is based on Amitabha Buddha’s 18th vow. As Ou-I wrote:
Achieving rebirth in the Pure Land depends entirely on Faith and Vows, while the level of rebirth depends on depth of practice.
Both Buddhist groups rely on the teachings of Shan-Dao (善導, 613-681) or Zendō in Japanese (mentioned here) and other early Indian/Chinese Buddhist teachers. Shan-tao stressed the importance of reciting the Buddha’s name a lot, and focusing your Buddhist practice on that in particular. Other Buddhist practices are seen as “supporting” this but are secondary to reciting the Buddha’s name.
According to tradition, Shan-tao would recite the Buddha’s name ten of thousands of times a day. However, reciting without confidence and faith in the Buddha’s vow is pointless. So the emphasis by both Ou-I and Yin-Guang (and Honen from Japan) is on faith. As Honen said:
So then, believe that you can attain ojo [rebirth in the Pure Land, 往生] by one repetition, and yet go on practicing it your whole life long.
Relationship with Zen
The relationship with Chinese “Chan” Buddhism (Zen) is long and complicated, but by the time of the Ming Dynasty (明朝), Chan and Pure Land Buddhism slowly converged into two sides of the same “Chinese Buddhism”. This in turn influenced China’s neighbors of Korea and Vietnam.
To illustrate this point, Buddhist authors in late-medieval China and Vietnam frequently describe Pure Land Buddhism’s practice of reciting the Buddha’s name in terms of three levels:
- Mundane, regular level: reciting the Buddha’s name to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
- Middle-level: reciting the Buddha’s name to “bring out” the Buddha within the practitioner.
- High-level: reciting the Buddha’s name with the understanding that there is no Buddha outside the mind.
Examples of these teachings include Tue Trung (Tuệ Trung Thượng Sĩ) in Vietnam and Ou-I in China.
The point is that the “ultimate” teaching of Pure Land Buddhism has nothing to do with an external refuge, but that the Pure Land is the mind itself, and is synonymous with Chan (Zen) teachings in Chinese Buddhism. The division between the two schools is mostly at surface-level. The task of the practitioner is to simply awaken to this truth through reciting the Buddha’s name and mindfulness, rather than traditional meditation. However, this doesn’t discourage Buddhists who simply want to be reborn in the Pure Land though, since it all ultimately converges anyway.
Ou-I wrote about this stating:
Believing in inner truth (noumenon) means having deep faith that the ten billion Buddha-lands (worlds) are in reality not outside our Mind. Since there is really nothing outside of this Mind, we have deep certainty that the whole assembly of beings and surroundings in the Western Paradise [the Pure Land] is a set of reflections appearing in our mind. (pg. 40)
Even in contemporary writings, you see this same teaching still taught. For example, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Finding Our True Home:
When Recollecting the Buddha, the practitioner begins by supposing that the Buddha is a reality outside himself or herself. He or she might visualize the Buddha in the Jeta Grove or on Vulture Peak in India. However, gradually the Buddha becomes a reality both within and without. In our compassion, there are seeds of solidity, freedom, love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. (Pg 97)
The point is that Pure Land Buddhism in China, represents a kind of synthesis between Zen thought and Pure Land Buddhism, but still maintains enough diversity to include people of different temperaments and backgrounds.
Pure Land Buddhism in China has a long, rich tradition that has slowly evolved over the years and integrated with other traditions within East Asian Buddhism as a whole.
1 There are a lot of things I like about Thich Nhat Hanh, and his sutra commentaries, but in this book, it felt like he was trying too hard to dismiss the traditional interpretation, and to prove his interpretation that the Pure Land was simply a healthy Buddhist community (sangha).
2 I made a Youtube video about this recently. :)
3 Both Zen and Pure Land Buddhism in Japan branched off from Chinese Buddhism during the earlier Song Dynasty (宋朝), and developed differently into distinct sects, rather than blending together. Late-medieval politics (i.e. Edo Period) emphasized this clean separation between sects. However, in modern-day Buddhism on the ground, it’s not unusual to have Zen temples with altars to Amitabha Buddha, and Pure Land temples with Zen meditation courses.