Pure Land in a Nutshell

Of the various forms of Buddhism that developed after the demise of the historical Buddha in 480 BC., Mahayana (the "Great Vehicle") became the dominant tradition in East and parts of Southeast Asia. This broad area encompasses China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, among other countries.

In time, a number of schools arose within Mahayana Buddhism in accordance with the capacities and circumstances of the people, the main ones being the Zen, Pure Land and Esoteric schools. Among these schools, Pure Land has the greatest number of adherents, although its teachings and methodology are not widely known in the West.

Given its popular appeal, [Pure Land] quickly became the object of the most dominant form of Buddhist devotion in East Asia. (M. Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religions, Vol.12.)

What is Pure Land?

[Pure Land comprises the schools] of East Asia which emphasize aspects of Mahayana Buddhism stressing faith in Amida, meditation on and recitation of his name, and the religious goal of being reborn in his "Pure Land," or "Western Paradise." (Crim, Perennial Dictionary of World Religions.)

The most common Pure Land practice is the recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name. This should be done with utmost faith and a sincere vow to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.

Along with this popular form of Pure Land, there is a higher aspect, in which Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, is equated with our Buddha Nature, infinitely bright and everlasting (Self-Nature Amitabba, Mind-Only Pure Land).

Main Characteristics of Pure Land

i) Its teachings are based on compassion, on faith in the compassionate Vows of Amitabha Buddha to welcome and guide all sentient beings to His Pure Land; 
ii) It is an easy method, in terms of both goal (rebirth in the Western Pure Land as a stepping-stone toward Buddhahood) and form of cultivation (can be practiced anywhere, any time with no special liturgy, accoutrements or guidance); 
iii) It is a panacea for the diseases of the mind, unlike other methods or meditations which are directed to specific illnesses (e.g., meditation on the corpse is designed to sever lust, counting the breath is meant to rein in the wandering mind); 
iv) It is a democratic method that empowers its adherents, freeing them from arcane metaphysics as well as dependence on teachers and other mediating authority figures.

For these reasons, Pure Land has, for centuries, been the dominant tradition in East Asia, playing a crucial role in the democratization of Buddhism and the rise of the lay movement. Honen Shonin(1133-1212), the Patriarch of the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan, expressed the very essence of Pure Land teaching when he wrote:

There shall be no distinction, no regard to male or female, good or bad, exalted or lowly; none shall fail to be in his Land of Purity after having called, with complete faith, on Amida.  (Quoted by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis in Joji Okazaki, Pure Land Buddhist Painting, p.14.)

Van Hien Study Group