Thursday, March 6, 2014

Introduction to Buddhism III: The Pure Land Tradition

The beginning point: Tendai School of Buddhism

The Tendai school of Buddhism has been called "one of the most important developments in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism." {1} It is the largest school of Buddhism and has had great practical devotional influence onChinese and Japanese society.
Tendai's doctrines and practices are based on the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra), which also provides the basis of the Nichiren and Pure Land schools. It is therefore sometimes known as the Lotus School (Chinese Fa-hua; Japanese Hokke), but most commonly as T'ien-T'ai (China) or Tendai (Japan), for the southeastern Chinese mountain on which its teachings originally developed.

History of Tendai

The Lotus Sutra was translated into Chinese in the 5th century by Kumarajiva, and taught in North China by the monks and first patriarchs, Hui-wen and Hui-ssu. Chih-hi, a student of Hui-ssu, settled on Mount T'ien-t'ai in southeast China and established a famous monastery there. He is regarded as the founder of the Tendai school because he propounded the systematic and definitive interpretation of Lotus doctrines.

Tendai Beliefs and Practices

Tendai has been a syncretistic movement, embracing other Buddhist schools, from Vinaya to Shingon and Zen, as well as Shinto, the indigenous Japanese tradition, but its distinctive focus continues to be the teachings of the LotusSutra.

The Lotus Sutra teaches the way to salvation, which is defined as attaining buddhahood. It presents itself as the true and complete teaching of the Buddha, who is described as more of a cosmic being than a historical figure. The Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is "a transcendent eternal being, preaching to myriad arhats, gods, bodhisattvas, and other figures using all sorts of sermons, lectures, imaginative parables, and miracles.  He teaches three ways to salvation:
  • Srakakayana ("way of the disciples"), the way of those who seek to become an arhat
  • Pratyeka-buddhayana - the way of those to seek to attain salvation for themselves alone
  • Bodhisattvayana ("way of the bodhisattvas") - the way of those who postpone their own enlightenment to help others achieve it

Share the Art of the Lotus Sutra Book
The sutra is divided into several chapters -- 28 in the Kamarajiva translation -- in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text, partly prose and partly verse, contains some of the most beautiful passages of the world's religious literature.
It could take years to absorb all the teachings in such a rich text. However, three principal themes dominate the Lotus Sutra.

All Vehicles Are One Vehicle

In early passages the Buddha tells the assembly that his earlier teachings were provisional. People were not ready for his highest teaching, he said, and had to be brought to enlightenment by expedient means. But the Lotus represents the final, highest teaching, and supersedes all other teaching.
In particular, the Buddha addressed the doctrine of triyana, or "three vehicles" to nirvana. Very simply, the triyana describes people who realize enlightenment by hearing the Buddha's sermons, people who realize enlightenment for themselves through their own effort, and the path of the bodhisattva. But the Lotus Sutra says that the three vehicles are one vehicle, the buddha vehicle, through which all beings become buddhas.

All Beings May Become Buddhas

A theme expressed throughout the sutra is that all beings may attain buddhahood and attain Nirvana. A significant point is that in the dialogues the Buddha promises several women that they will attain buddhahood without having to be reborn as men.
The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sutra as dharmakaya -- the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space. Because the dharmakaya is all beings, all beings have the potential to awaken to their true nature and attain buddhahood.

The Importance of Faith and Devotion

Buddhahood may not be attained through intellect alone. Indeed, the Mahayana view is that the absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. The Lotus Sutra stresses the importance of faith and devotion as means to realization of enlightenment. Among other significant points, the stress on faith and devotion makes buddhahood more accessible to laypeople, who do not spend their lives in ascetic monastic practice.

The Parables

A distinctive feature of the Lotus Sutra is the use of parables. The parables contain many layers of metaphor that have inspired many layers of interpretation. This is merely a list of the major parables:
·                        The Burning House. A man lures his children out of a burning house (Chapter 3).
·                        The Prodigal Son. A poor, self-loathing man gradually learns that he is wealthy beyond measure (Chapter 4).
·                        The Medicinal Herbs. Although they grow in the same ground and receive the same rain, plants grow in different ways (Chapter 5).
·                        The Phantom City. A man leading people on a difficult journey conjures an illusion of a beautiful city to give them the heart to keep going (Chapter 7).
·                        The Gem in the Jacket. A man sews a gem into his friend's jacket. However, the friend wanders in poverty not knowing that he possesses a gem of great value (Chapter 8).
·                        The Gem in the King's Top-Knot. A king bestows many gifts but reserves his most priceless jewel for a person of exceptional merit (Chapter 14).
·                        The Excellent Physician. A physician's children are dying of poison but lack the sense to take medicine (Chapter 16).


Burton Watson's translation of The Lotus Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1993) has gained great popularity since its publication for its clarity and readability. 
There is a new translation of The Lotus Sutra by Gene Reeves (Wisdom Publications, 2008) that has received very good reviews, although I have not read it myself.
 Pure Land Buddhism

Buddhism has evolved many, many forms during its long history. Codes of conduct, guidelines for communal life, rituals, meditative practices, modes of teaching, images, fables and philosophies have varied greatly over time and place. According to the fundamental Buddhist principle of skill-in-means, this multiformity is natural and proper, a necessary response to the great variety of circumstances in which Buddhism has been propagated.
Skill-in-means requires that the presentation of the Buddhist Teaching, (sometimes simply called “the Dharma”), be adapted to the mentality and circumstances of the people being taught. According to Buddhist seers, the absolute truth is inconceivable and cannot be captured in any particular formulation. Therefore in Buddhism there is no fixed dogma, only provisional, partial expressions of the teaching, suited to the capabilities of the audience being addressed.
In keeping with this fundamental principle, a tolerant, nonsectarian approach has normally prevailed throughout Buddhist history. Where dogmatic controversies and sectarian partisanship have cropped up in the communities of Buddhist followers, these are distortions of the teaching, and have always been based on misunderstanding and misinformation. In embracing Pure Land Buddhism, therefore, people are not rejecting any of the other streams of the Buddhist tradition–they have only decided that Pure Land methods are most appropriate and most effective for them.
Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of faith, of faith in Amitabha Buddha [and in one's capacity to achieve Buddhahood]. Amitabha Buddha presides over the Pure Land, a “paradise” in the west, the land of ultimate bliss, named “Peaceful Nurturing.” In the Pure Land, there is none of the suffering and defilement and delusion that normally blocks people’s efforts toward enlightenment here in our world (which the Buddhists named Endurance.!?)
The immediate goal of Pure Land believers is to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. There, in more favorable surroundings, in the presence of Amitabha, they will eventually attain complete enlightenment.
The essence of Pure Land practice thus consists of invoking the name of Amitabha Buddha, contemplating the qualities of Amitabha, visualizing Amitabha, and taking vows to be born in the Pure Land.
Making a vow to attain birth in the Pure Land signifies a fundamental reorientation of the believer’s motivations and will. No longer is the purpose of life brute survival, or fulfillment of a social role, or the struggle to wrest some satisfaction from a frustrating, taxing environment. By vowing to be reborn in the Pure Land, believers shift their focus. The joys and sorrows of this world become incidental, inconsequential. The present life takes on value chiefly as an opportunity to concentrate one’s awareness on Amitabha, and purify one’s mind accordingly.
The hallmark of Pure Land Buddhism is reciting the buddha-name, invoking Amitabha Buddha by chanting his name. Through reciting the buddha-name, people focus their attention on Amitabha Buddha. This promotes mindfulness of buddha, otherwise known as buddha-remembrance [buddha recitation].
In what sense is buddha “remembered”? “Buddha” is the name for the one reality that underlies all forms of being, as well as an epithet for those who witness and express this reality. According to the Buddhist Teaching, all people possess an inherently enlightened true nature that is their real identity. By becoming mindful of buddha, therefore, people are just regaining their own real identity. They are remembering their own buddha-nature.
Buddha as such is a concept that transcends any particular embodiment, such as Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical buddha born in India), or Maitreya Buddha (the future buddha), or Vairocana Buddha (the cosmic buddha) or Amitabha Buddha (the buddha of the western paradise). Buddha exists in many forms, but all share the same “body of reality,” the same Dharmakaya, which is formless, omnipresent, all-pervading, indescribable, infinite–the everywhere-equal essence of all things, the one reality within-and-beyond all appearances.
Dharmakaya Buddha is utterly abstract and in fact inconceivable, so buddha takes on particular forms to communicate with living beings by coming within their range of perception. For most people, this is the only way that buddha can become comprehensible and of practical use. The particular embodiments of buddha, known as Nirmanakaya, are supreme examples of compassionate skill-in-means.
Pure Land people focus on buddha in the form of Amitabha, the buddha of infinite life and infinite light. Believers put their faith in Amitabha Buddha and recite his name, confident in the promises he has given to deliver all who invoke his name. All classes of people, whatever their other characteristics or shortcomings, are guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land and ultimate salvation, if only they invoke Amitabha’s name with singleminded concentration and sincere faith.
Quoted from Pure Land Pure Mind translated by J.C. Cleary

Pure Land Essentials


Sinjin: True entrusting

 Primal Vow: The text of the 18th vow of Amitabha Buddha, according to Infinite Life Sutra, reads:[1]

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.



This means concentration on Buddha and his virtues, or recitation of the Buddha's name.
No special way of reciting the name is laid down. It can be done silently or aloud, alone or in a group and with or without musical accompaniment. The important thing is to chant the name single-mindedly, while sincerely wishing to be reborn in the Pure Land.


The Pure Land scriptures include The Infinite Life Sutra, The Contemplation Sutra and The Amitabha Sutra.


Chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha does not do anything at all to help the person to the Pure Land. Chanting is nothing more than an expression of gratitude to Amitabha Buddha and an expression of the chanter's faith.
But it's not possible to do away with the chanting: Shinran wrote "the True Faith is necessarily accompanied by the utterance of the Name".


Shin Buddhists say that faith in Amitabha Buddha is not something that the believer should take the credit for since it's not something that the believer does for themselves. Their faith is a gift from Amitabha Buddha.
And in keeping with this style of humility, Shin Buddhists don't accept the idea that beings can earn merit for themselves by their own acts; neither good deeds, nor performing rituals help.
This has huge moral implications in that it implies (and Shinran quite explicitly said) that a sinner with faith will be made welcome in the Pure Land - even more welcome than a good man who has faith and pride. :  Excellent first person article about Pure Land and why it is comfortable (with some tweaks) for this Western author.

Jodo shu:  Honen Buddhism


Wealthy family, father fatally wounded and asked son to become a monk and pray for his and his own salvation.  Studied Tendai Buddhism.  Great scholar....(read first quote...the limits to his “self power’)  Exiled by the Emperor and some of his followers killed.  Returned to Kyoto for the last few years of his life.

Historical biography of Honen:

Honen Quotes:

Essentially Buddhism includes observation of precepts (sila), realization of concentration (samadhi), and attainment of wisdom (prajna). But I cannot accomplish these three-fold requirements. Is there any other way by which even I could be liberated? I visited many temples and priests, but no one gave me a satisfactory answer. So once again I have come back to the library at Kurodani to study harder than ever to find the way of salvation."

Remember that it is useless to try to force those to believe who will not, for even the Buddha himself cannot do that.

Only repeat the name of Amida with all your heart. Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying, never cease the practice of it even for a moment. This is the very work which unfailingly issues in salvation, for it is in accordance with the Original Vow of that Buddha. (Hōnen, quoting Zendō [Chinese: Shan-tao])

[I lack] the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amida Butsu of Hosshō-ji, though less intelligent, contributes in leading the people to the Pure Land as an advocate of the nembutsu. After death, if I could be born in the world of humans, I would like to be born a very ignorant man and to diligently practice the nembutsu. (Tsuneni Oserarekeru Okotoba - Common Sayings of Hōnen)

From the One Sheet Document:
"In China and Japan, many Buddhist masters and scholars understand that the nembutsu is to meditate deeply on Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. However, I do not understand the nembutsu in this way. Reciting the nembutsu does not come from studying and understanding its meaning. There is no other reason or cause by which we can utterly believe in attaining birth in the Pure Land than the nembutsu itself. Reciting the nembutsu and believing in birth in the Pure Land naturally gives rise to the three minds (sanjin) and the four modes of practice (shishu). If I am withholding any deeper knowledge beyond simple recitation of the nembutsu, then may I lose sight of the compassion of Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha and slip through the embrace of Amida's original vow. Even if those who believe in the nembutsu study the teaching which Shakyamuni taught his whole life, they should not put on any airs and should sincerely practice the nembutsu, just as an illiterate fool, a nun or one who is ignorant of Buddhism. I hereby authorize this document with my hand print. The Jodo Shu way of the established mind (anjin) is completely imparted here. I, Genku, have no other teaching than this. In order to prevent misinterpretation after my passing away, I make this final testament."
January 23, the Second Year of Kenryaku (1212)

Honen’s Famous Disciple:  Shinran


Historical biography can be found at:
Tendai monk to Honen’s disciple.  Fell into disfavor when Honen was exiled.  Went into the far provinces and married, taught and created a tremendous movement among the peasant classes and lower Samurai.  Called himself neither monk nor layman, something in between.
“Being grasped by Unhindered Light is felt, but is beyond conceptual understanding; to be free of any form of self-centered calculation is to have realized Other Power.”
“If I were capable of realizing Buddhahood by other religious practices and yet fall into hell for saying the nembutsu, I might have dire regrets for having been deceived. But since I am absolutely incapable of any religious practice, hell is my only home.”
“The Nembutsu is non-practice and non-good for those who practice it. It is non-practice for us, because it is not the practice which we do out of our own contrivance; and it is non-good because it is not the good which we do out of our own contrivance. It is entirely due to Other Power (Natural Power) and is free from self power.”
“Awaken to the life nurturing Primal Vow of Amida; those who only entrust in this universal activity of love and compassion, through the benefit of embraced and never forsaken, all attain Enlightenment.”

“What a joy it is that I place my mind in the soil of the Primal Vow and I let my thoughts flow into the sea of the inconceivable Dharma.”

Buddhist Beliefs, Practices and Experiences
21 Shin Buddhist Beliefs

What We Believe?
Shin Buddhism

Below is a brief summary in 21 points of the core beliefs and tents of our international association. These basic beliefs are skillful instruments given to us by the Buddha, so that we can awaken to our deepest inner potential of compassion and wisdom. They are not creedal pronouncements that bind us into dogmatism. In order to touch the Ultimate Dimension, we must go beyond all words and ideas, and experience the ineffable Oneness of Reality as it is. Words and ideas can help us along the path, but let's not be attached to them. Let them serve as guideposts to awakening.

The 21 points cover such topics like the ultimate nature of reality, the significance of our Buddha, the purpose of life, basic practices, death, hell, evil, eternal life, salvation, scriptures, etc. Ultimately, these 21 points can be summed up in the belief in the One Life, compassion, love, hope, and the inner potential of every human being.

1. We believe….there is only One Life, present in everybody, in everything and everywhere, manifesting in infinite forms who is the beauty and power of the cosmos.  This is not a God but is that which transcends Creator and creation and is our true nature; for this reason, the Buddha is known as the teacher of gods and humans. 

2. We believe….in universal compassion. The One Life, symbolized in our tradition as Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light, is infinite in space and time, identifies with our sufferings and joys and enjoins us to be compassionate and loving with others

3. We believe….in universal liberation. The One Life actively seeks to liberate all beings by embodying itself as the nembutsu-Namu-Amida-Butsu; this living nembutsu reveals itself when we are spiritually guided to believe, hear, affirm and entrust ourselves to the One Life.

4. We believe...the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni was the human manifestation of Amida Buddha who in turn is the compassionate expression of the non-conceptual ultimate dimension, known as the dharmakaya.

5. We believe….in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, as the best vehicle to touch that which is true and real, to engage in the beauty of life, and to offer a practical way to transcend suffering and accept impermanence.

6. We believe….life is a bumpy ride, but the universe is fundamentally good; it is our ego-driven life that causes most of the suffering but luckily our self-centeredness can be transformed into a source of wisdom and compassion (Buddhahood). This is the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

7. We believe….nothing just happens but all is the result of karma (cause and effect); this reality emphasizes individual responsibility and the universal karmic power of Amida Buddha, symbolized as the Primal Vow.

8. We believe….in the interdependence of all things, in which everything simultaneously co-arises with everything else (mutual creation) and that every form is intimately part of everything else.

9. We believe….in Other Power (grace). No one human life is wasted or abandoned but all will be transformed by the natural working of the boundless one Life.

10. We believe…every person has a natural and endowed purpose to realize enlightenment by embodying the nembutsu for the sake of all beings.

11. We believe…faith is a transformative experience whose source is Life itself; it is based on confidence, trust, and noetic (intuitive) understanding and is not founded in blind belief, creeds or dogma. 

12. We believe…. spiritual rebirth is the direct result of awakening and entrusting ourselves (shinjin) to our transcending one Life.

13. We believe without severing blind passions, one attains Nirvana. Spiritual rebirth through the nembutsu allows us to live at the juncture of the historical and ultimate dimensions; this corresponds to Shinran’s statement, “I am neither monk nor layman.”

14. We believe…eternal salvation is here and now, and regardless of your race, gender, moral status, age, religion, intelligence or education, all can experience this inner reality by just awakening to and entrusting themselves in the One Life, and voicing the nembutsu.

15. We believe….the Pure Land is the realm of enlightenment (nirvana) and a concrete image of emptiness (shunyata), which is the transcending deathless and eternal dominion beyond conception, devoid of hatred, greed and ignorance.

16. We believe….death is a new beginning, in which we ascend to the Pure Land, only then do we return to this world to help all beings realize enlightenment.

17. We believe….hell is not eternal but is a temporary condition or mind-set, which many of us experience on and off on a daily basis. Evil is not a living entity but is simply the symptom of spiritual ignorance; thus, it can be transformed into compassion and wisdom.

18. We believe….our shadow side (bonpu) must be fully and honestly embraced in order to truly experience the inner transformative light; thereby, we become authentically whole, as we truly are, in the continuous interplay of light and darkness. 

19. We believe….the Threefold Pure Land Sutras, are inspired scriptures, demonstrating the true intent of the Buddha, and for us, are the best teaching to live our lives; but we are open to the entirety of the Buddha Dharma and world spirituality.

20. We believe….our community serves people and the Earth, as the historical Buddha served people and the Earth.

21. We believe…every Shin practitioner should grow in the dharma, have a true engagement with Life, serve others and learn to embody the nembutsu for the sake of all beings.

a reminder

"Buddhism regards beliefs as powerful human inventions that serve as skillful instruments pointing to that which is beyond conception and beyond belief. Therefore, we should not become attached to any belief, even Buddhist ones. We should avoid entangling our spiritual path by concretizing any conceptual model for truth; instead let us awaken to and embody the non-dual truth of Nirvana."

                                         -- G.R. Lewis, BFF Senior Dharma Teacher

LISTENING TO A PERFORMANCE OF chanted Amida-Sutra  (9 minutes) from Musica Sacra on Amazon MP3 and CD
Link for CD:

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