Appendix I: The Pure Land Tradition

The goal of all Buddhist practice is to achieve Enlightenment and transcend the cycle of Birth and Death -- that is, to attain Buddhahood. In the Mahayana tradition, the precondition for Buddhahood is the Bodhi Mind, the aspiration to achieve Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, oneself included. (23)

Since sentient beings are of different spiritual capacities and inclinations, many levels of teaching and numerous methods were devised in order to reach everyone. Traditionally, the sutras speak of 84,000, i.e., an infinite number of methods, depending on the circumstances, the times and the target audience. All these methods are expedients -- different medicines for different individuals with different illnesses at different times. (24) Within each method, the success or failure of an individual's cultivation depends on his depth of practice and understanding, that is, on his mind

A) Self-power, other-power

Throughout history, the Patriarchs have elaborated various systems to categorize Dharma methods and the sutras in which they are expounded. One convenient division is into methods based on self-effort (self-power) and those that rely on the assistance of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (other-power). (25) This distinction is, of course, merely for explanatory purposes, as the Truth is, ultimately, one and indivisible: self-power is other-power, other-power is self-power. (26)

Traditionally, most Buddhist schools and methods take the self-power approach: progress along the path of Enlightenment is achieved only through intense and sustained personal effort. Because of the dedication and effort involved, schools of this self-power, self-effort tradition all have a distinct monastic bias. The laity has generally played only a supportive role, with the most spiritually advanced ideally becoming monks and nuns. Best known of these traditions are Theravada and Zen.

Parallel to this, particularly following the development of Mahayana thought and the rise of lay Buddhism, a more flexible tradition eventually arose, combining self-power with other-power -- the assistance and support provided by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to sincere seekers of the Way. Most representative of this tradition are the Esoteric and Pure Land schools. However, unlike the former (or for that matter, the Zen school), Pure Land does not stress the master-disciple relationship and de-emphasizes the role of sub-schools, roshis/gurus and rituals. Moreover, the main aim of Pure Land -- rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss through the power of Amitabha Buddha's Vows -- is a realistic goal, though to be understood at several levels. Therein lies the appeal and strength of Pure Land. (27) 

B) Pure Land in a Nutshell

Pure Land is the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia. Like all Mahayana schools, it requires first and foremost the development of the Bodhi Mind, the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. (28)

How is Pure Land practiced?

The main form of cultivation is Buddha Recitation, which consists of repeating the words "Amitabha Buddha" or visualizing (concentrating on) this Buddha or His pure realm -- His Pure Land.

How does Pure Land work?

i) By practicing Buddha Recitation singlemindedly, with utter sincerity and faith, the cultivator reins in his wandering mind. He puts a stop to the continuous stream of illusory thought filled with greed anger and delusion characteristic of the human mind. His mind thus becomes empty and still and he awakens. Buddha Recitation in that sense is a kung-an -- it is a Zen practice.

ii) Alternatively, during singleminded recitation, with utter sincerity and faith, the cultivator strongly identifies with Amitabha Buddha -- becomes one with Amitabha Buddha and His Vow to rescue all sentient beings. Rebirth in the Pure Land is therefore a natural occurrence. It is this aspect that particularly characterizes the Pure Land school.

In its totality, Pure Land reflects the teachings of Buddhism as expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra: mutual identity and interpenetration of all and everything -- the simplest method contains the ultimate and the ultimate is found in the simplest. (29) 

c) Transference of Merit

Central to the Pure Land tradition is the figure of Amitabha Buddha, who came to exemplify the Bodhisattva ideal and the doctrine of transfer (or dedication) of merit. This is particularly apparent in the life story of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, (30) the future Amitabha Buddha, as related in the sutras.

The Mahayana idea of the Buddha being able to impart his power to others marks one of those epoch-making deviations which set off the Mahayana from so-called ... original Buddhism ... The Mahayanists accumulate stocks of merit not only for the material of their own enlightenment but for the general cultivation of merit which can be shared equally by their fellow-beings, animate and inanimate. This is the true meaning of Parinamana, that is, turning one's merit over to others for their spiritual interest. (D.T. Suzuki, tr., The Lankavatara Sutra, p. xix.)

The rationale for such conduct, which on the surface appears to run counter to the law of Cause and Effect, may be explained in the following passage concerning one of the three Pure Land sages, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin): 

Some of us may ask whether the effect of karma can be reverted by repeating the name of Kuan-Yin. This question is tied up with that of rebirth in Sukhavati [the Pure Land] and it may be answered by saying that invocation of Kuan-Yin's name forms another cause which will right away offset the previous karma. We know, for example, that if there is a dark, heavy cloud above, the chances are that it will rain. But we also know that if a strong wind should blow, the cloud will be carried away somewhere else and we will not feel the rain. Similarly, the addition of one big factor can alter the whole course of karma ...

It is only by accepting the idea of life as one whole that both Theravadins and Mahayanists can advocate the practice of transference of merit to others. With the case of Kuan-Yin then, by calling on Her name we identify ourselves with Her and as a result of this identification Her merits flow over to us. These merits which are now ours then counterbalance our bad karma and save us from calamity. The law of cause and effect still stands good. All that has happened is that a powerful and immensely good karma has overshadowed the weaker one. (Tech Eng Soon - Penang Buddhist Association, c. 1960. Pamphlet.)

This concept of transference of merit, which presupposes a receptive mind on the part of the cultivator, is emphasized in Pure Land. However, the concept also exists, albeit in embryonic form, in the Theravada tradition, as exemplified in the beautiful story of the Venerable Angulimala. (31) 

D) Faith and Mind

Faith is an important component of Pure Land Buddhism. (32) However, wisdom or Mind also plays a crucial, if less visible, role. This interrelationship is clearly illustrated in the Meditation Sutra: the worst sinner, guilty of matricide and parricide, etc. may still achieve rebirth in the Pure Land if, on the verge of death, he concentrates on the Buddha's name one to ten times with utmost faith and sincerity.

This passage can be understood at two levels. At the level of everyday life, just as the worst criminal once genuinely reformed is no longer a threat to society and may be pardoned, the sinner once truly repentant may, through the vow-power of Amitabha Buddha, achieve rebirth in the Pure Land -- albeit at the lowest possible grade. Thus, Pure Land offers hope to everyone; yet at the same time, the law of Cause and Effect remains valid.

At the higher level of principle or Mind, as the Sixth Patriarch taught in the Platform Sutra:

A foolish passing thought makes one an ordinary man, while an enlightened second thought makes one a Buddha.

Therefore, once the sinner repents and concentrates on the Buddha's name with utmost sincerity and one-pointedness of mind, for that moment he becomes an awakened person silently merging into the stream of the Sages -- can Enlightenment then be far away? As the Meditation Sutra states: "the Land of Amitabha Buddha is not far from here!" (33)


This, then, is the Pure Land tradition, harmonizing everyday practice and the transcendental, self-power and other-power. This tradition is, by all accounts, one of the pillars of the great Mahayana edifice, that lofty tradition of the great Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Samantabhadra -- so much so that Pure Land has been, for centuries, one of the most enduring and widespread forms of Buddhism in Asia.

Van Hien Study Group

Autumn 1992