Pure Land Buddhism

Origins and Practices

Amitabha Buddha with his attendants Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva.
Tengu800/Wikimedia Commons

Pure Land Buddhism is a somewhat unique school of Buddhism that was popularized in China, where it was transmitted to Japan. Today, it is one of the more popular forms of Buddhism. Developed out of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, Pure Land sees as its goal not liberation into Nirvana, but a rebirth into an interim "Pure Land" from which Nirvana is but a short step away. Early Westerners who encountered Pure Land Buddhism found similarities to the Christian idea of delivery into heaven, though in reality, the Pure Land (often called Sukhavati) is much different.

Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the veneration of Amitābha Buddha, a celestial buddha representing pure perception and a deep awareness of emptiness--a belief which shows the connection of Pure Land to traditional Mahayana Buddhism. Through devotion to Amitābha, followers hope to be reborn in his pure land, a final stopping point with enlightenment itself the next step. In modern practice in some schools of Mahayana, it is thought that all celestial buddhas have their own pure lands, and that veneration and contemplation of any of them can lead to rebirth into that buddha's world on the way to enlightenment.

Origins of Pure Land Buddhism

Mount Lushan, in southeast China, is celebrated for the soft mists that blanket its sheer peaks and deep forest valleys. This scenic area is also a world cultural site. Since ancient times many spiritual and educational centers have been located there. Among these is the birthplace of Pure Land Buddhism.

In 402 CE, the monk and teacher Hui-yuan (336-416) gathered 123 followers in a monastery he had built on the slopes of Mount Lushan. This group, called the White Lotus Society, vowed before an image of Amitabha Buddha that they would be reborn in the Western Paradise.

In the centuries to follow, Pure Land Buddhism would spread throughout China.

The Western Paradise

Sukhavati, the Pure Land of the West, is discussed in the Amitabha Sutra, one of the three sutras that are the principal texts of Pure Land. It is the most important of the many blissful paradises into which Pure Land Buddhists hope to be reborn.

Pure Lands are understood in many ways. They might be a state of mind cultivated through practice, or they might be thought of as a real place. However, it is understood that within a Pure Land, the dharma is proclaimed everywhere, and enlightenment is easily realized.

A Pure Land should not be confused with the Christian principle of a heaven, however. A Pure Land is not a final destination, but a location from which rebirth into Nirvana is thought to be an easy step. It is, however, possible to miss the opportunity and go on to other rebirths back into the lower realms of samsara.

Hui-yuan and other early masters of Pure Land believed that achieving the liberation of nirvana through a life of monastic austerity was too difficult for most people. They rejected the "self-effort" emphasized by earlier schools of Buddhism. Instead, the ideal is a rebirth in a Pure Land, where the toils and worries of ordinary life do not interfere with the devoted practice of the Buddha's teachings. By the grace of Amitabha's compassion, those reborn in a Pure Land find themselves only a short step from Nirvana. Fort his reason, Pure Land became popular with laypeople, for whom the practice and the promise seemed more achievable. ​​

Practices of Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhists accept the basic Buddhist teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The primary practice common to all schools of Pure Land is the recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha. In Chinese, Amitabha is pronounced Am-mi-to; in Japanese, he is Amida; in Korean, he is Amita; in Vietnamese, he is A-di-da. In Tibetan mantras, he is Amideva.

In Chinese, this chant is "Na-mu A-mi-to Fo" (Hail, Amida Buddha). The same chant in Japanese, called the Nembutsu, is "Namu Amida Butsu." Sincere and focused chanting becomes a kind of meditation that helps the Pure Land Buddhist visualize Amitabha Buddha. In the most advanced stage of practice, the follower contemplates Amitabha as not separate from his own being. This, too, shows the inheritance from Mahayana tantric Buddhism, where identification with the deity is central to the practice. 

Pure Land in China, Korea and Vietnam

Pure Land remains one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in China. In the West, most Buddhist temples serving an ethnic Chinese community is some variation of Pure Land.

Wonhyo (617-686) introduced Pure Land to Korea, where it is called Jeongto. Pure Land is also widely practiced by Vietnamese Buddhists.

Pure Land in Japan

Pure Land was founded in Japan by Honen Shonin (1133-1212), a Tendai monk who had become discouraged by monastic practice. Honen emphasized the recitation of the Nembutsu above all other practices, including visualization, rituals, and even the Precepts. Honen's school was called Jodo-kyo or Jodo Shu (School of the Pure Land).

Honen was said to have recited the Nembutsu 60,000 times a day. When not chanting, he preached the virtues of the Nembutsu to laypeople and monastics alike, and he attracted a large following.

Honen's openness to followers from all walks of life caused the displeasure of Japan's ruling elite, who had Honen exiled to a remote part of Japan. Many of Honen's followers were exiled or executed. Honen eventually was pardoned and allowed to return to Kyoto just a year before his death.

Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu

After Honen's death, disputes over the proper doctrines and practices of Jodo Shu broke out among his followers, leading to several divergent factions. One faction was the Chinzei, headed by Honen's disciple, Shokobo Bencho (1162-1238), also called Shoko. Shoko also stressed many recitations of the Nembutsu but believed the Nembutsu did not have to be one's only practice. Shokobo is considered to be the Second Patriarch of Jodo Shu.

Another disciple, Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), was a monk who broke his vows of celibacy to marry. Shinran stressed faith in Amitabha over the number of times the Nembutsu must be recited. He also came to believe that devotion to Amitabha replaced any need for monasticism. He founded Jodo Shinshu (True School of the Pure Land), which abolished monasteries and authorized married priests. Shodo Shinshu is also sometimes called Shin Buddhism.

Today, Pure Land--including Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, and some smaller sects--is the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, exceeding even Zen. 

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Pure Land Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/pure-land-buddhism-450043. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). Pure Land Buddhism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/pure-land-buddhism-450043 O'Brien, Barbara. "Pure Land Buddhism." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/pure-land-buddhism-450043 (accessed January 28, 2023).