The Virtues of the Pure Land Buddhist Path

Amida Buddha seated in the Pure Land

Recently I read a post by Rev. Brad Warner, even though it was (according to the website) a re-post of an older article. I never read the original, so it was new enough for me. I enjoyed it because I share his frustrations sometimes with certain trends I tend to see in the American Buddhist scene.

I found Brad’s words particular striking here:

One [trend] was that dependable puppy dog of a word, “mindfulness.” Christ I hate that word.

Strangely I do too. I’ve read the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Frames of Reference (cultivating awareness in how you think, feel) and really do try to apply it in my life. It often works, because if I know I losing my temper, I stop losing my temper. Same with deflating lust too. What Shakyamuni Buddha taught is true and real, and can be applied to great benefit in one’s life. But Rev. Warner has a point in that it gets used too much in American Buddhism, and in my opinion, takes on a mystical connotation that sounds really silly and New Age.

Another point, I found interesting:

One of the greatest things about Zen practice is that it’s incredibly portable. You don’t need anything special. You don’t need a temple or monastery. You don’t need to memorize any chants or read any books. You don’t need a congregation. Zen goes anywhere you go.

I actually disagree with this somewhat only because I see the proliferation of “Zen” products, meditation cushions1 and of course Zen robes, Zen clocks, Zen incense, Zen books, Zen music.2 But I believe Brad’s right in that meditation in the sincerest form is indeed very portable and practical. The point here, is substance, not form.

But I realize that Zen just isn’t for me.3 Long time readers know that I’ve been a harsh critic of Honen and Shinran at times, while other times, I admit that I am still deeply devoted to the nembutsu and Pure Land Buddhism in general. I guess while reading Brad’s writings, it made me think to myself “Hm, the nembutsu is also portable and doesn’t need anything special.”

But also, the virtues of the Pure Land Buddhist Path in general are:

  • No claptrap about mindfulness and living in the moment. It’s not that they are not part of Buddhism and the Pure Land Path, it’s just that they come with the territory anyway. You don’t need someone to constantly remind you of it. In fact, you never really need to ever hear or think about it ever in the course of the Pure Land Path. Follow it long enough, and you’ll just live it.4
  • It’s hard to get an ego-trip in Pure Land Buddhism because one reflects on one’s own faults. People who are ex-Christians/Buddhist converts often hate to confront the word sin, but a reflection of one’s behavior, including the really ugly stuff, has very practical value. We are deluded, sinful beings. We have to accept that. Until we do, Buddhist practice is only so much empty formality and ritual.
  • No cryptic teachings. Pure Land Buddhism is upfront, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of Buddhism. It opens many doors, but doesn’t confound you with riddles or hidden surprises.
  • You don’t have to pay huge amounts of money just to see a famous guru. Pure Land Buddhism doesn’t have gurus, and based on my own experience, they’re lucky if they can fill a room for their free talks.
  • No one makes Pure Land clocks, meditation cushions, incense and so on. It’s relatively commercial free. It’s not “hip” enough, and in a way that’s really nice.
  • “Politics” in Pure Land Buddhism are relatively subdued, so no fights over Dharma transmissions, sex scandals and such. Most Jodo Shu or Jodo Shinshu priests are ordained through a regular, old, well-established seminary process much like priests in other religions. Monastics who follow the Pure Land Path likewise are part of a larger, well-established community, and have nothing to “claim” or “possess”, which is as it should be.
  • Best of all, the sheer variety of people who follow the Pure Land path is very nice. I still meet a few people who try to re-write Pure Land Buddhism to fit their own Zen fantasies, but the majority of the people I meet are working-class people, or venerable monastics. All of them recite the nembutsu and aspire to be reborn there.

Ultimately, Shakyamuni Buddha encourage people work diligently toward liberation, but left it to them to decide how to do this. As the Buddha taught in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

The Pure Land is easy to reach, but very few actually go there. It rejects nobody, but naturally and unfailingly attracts beings. (trans. Rev. Inagaki)

So, if you’re like me and tired of the usual American (or Western) Buddhist scene, take up the nembutsu. You don’t have to give up your other practices, don’t have to “toe an unseen line”, but you’d be surprised what the Pure Land Path can offer.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Today is a double-post. Just too many things I wanted to talk about at once. :)

P.P.S. The best starting point, and still my favorite, is the Jodo Shu english website. As for the portability and simplicity of the nembutsu, Bencho offers useful advice in this old post.

P.P.P.S. Another post, highlighting the oft-confused notion of what Buddhist “meditation” is.

1 I admit, I own two. ;p

2 A Google search for “Zen underwear” revealed some disturbing things. 😦

3 I do believe someday I will take up the monastic life, but probably in a Pure Land setting, not in a Zen one. I fear I might be too old by then, but even if I could be a monk for a day, I’d be happy. I figure it’s a nice way to honor the Buddha and the community, past and present. But not until my kids grow up, at least.

4 And if you still don’t believe me, read a famous Chinese commentary on the Amitabha Sutra by Ven. Ou-I in the 17th century. Still one of the best after all these centuries. Or, take a look at Shan-Tao’s (and later Honen’s) teachings on the Three Minds and Four Modes of Practice. Ven. Yin-Shun also had a lot to say on the notion of meditation/devotional Buddhism.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

11 thoughts on “The Virtues of the Pure Land Buddhist Path

  1. Hi Jon L,

    Yes, the simplicity can be very practical, which is probably why Pure Land Buddhism has withstood the test of time. Still, I encourage people to explore the Pure Land Buddhist path in a larger context, not just the particular sectarian one offered by Jodo Shu and Shinshu. I try to take Honen’s teachings as a basis, but explore other things as well. Reading about Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese Pure Land teachings is a good lesson in cross-cultural Buddhism too. :)

  2. Yes, nice post. I always come back to nembutsu ever since I learned about it a few years ago. It’s so simple. And Amitabha promised that this is all we have to do:)

  3. Heh heh, I know how you feel. I tend to appreciate the Pure Land Path when I do something stupid or mean (a nice reminder how deluded I still am), or get tired of all the problems I see in other Western Buddhist communities. I remember E-Sangha’s old Buddhist forums, and while the Zen, NIchiren and Tibetan forums had constant infighting, policies and abuse of power, the Pure Land forum happily ran fine. I can’t remember a single fight, now that I think about it.

    Google Groups has a nice Jodo Shu group if you’re looking for folks to talk to. Most E-Sangha Pure Land folks regrouped there.

  4. And here I was looking forward to an astronomy insight…
    Thank you for pointing out what I have always enjoyed in the Pureland path. Your points really resonate with me. Thanks for posting and looking forwards to the future!

  5. Hi Stephen,

    I admit I haven’t come up with any good Astronomy topics yet and this was kind of spur of the moment.😉 Thanks for the kind encouragement.

  6. Heh, I love Jodo Pure Land too just as you say Doug.I cannot remember one fight in e-sangha tat the PL forum either, a really nice great bunch of people. PL laypeople don’t have any ‘attitude’; well what can we be snobby about? lol.
    Just want to say from personal experience you can do Nembutsu in the hospital, in the CT scanner, attached to an IV, it really lives up to all the promises….

  7. Hey Rory. I can’t remember a fight in the pure land space itself, but I bickered profusely with people in most of the other sections. So lets not give ourselves to much of a pat on the back.

    Also Hi Doug! It’s been like 3 years or so, two different names for your blog, and the death of poor contentious e-sangha since I have read your always interesting stuff on the web. It’s good to see u and baby doing well.

  8. Hi Rory and Erg,

    Always happy to see former E-Sangha-ers again. :) Yeah, I tended to bicker too on other forums, but Pure Land forums were pretty quiet. The Jodo Shu Buddhist Group on Google is also pretty friendly and quiet, non-contentious, so it’s nice to know it wasn’t a fluke. :)

    Erg, it’s been quite a while. I remembered your name as soon as I saw it. Interesting how people inevitably find each other again given enough time.

  9. Yeah it really has been! I got pretty busy working for the House of Representatives, made decent money, sorta forgot about Buddhism. Then, of course, my member lost his reelection bid, I failed, pretty badly, at a transition from political staff work to software sales (to give me more time with the wife and kids) and had to take a job I am overqualified and underpaid for on a campaign because I started job hunting at the wrong part of the cycle. Suddenly I remembered this whole life is dukkha thing I had been conveniently ignoring when things were going smoothly. And that, eventually, led me to bump back into you. The world is a fairly small when you get right down to it.

  10. Hi Erg,

    Sorry to hear about the change in career, but glad to see you around again. I noticed a recent Google search on my stats page for “gerald ford pure land” and suspected someone who used to read the blog was looking for me. Another E-Sangha alumni.

Comments are closed.