Of the various forms of Buddhism that developed after the demise of the historical Buddha in 480 B.C., 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." (Keith Crim, editor, Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, p. 586.)
The most common Pure Land practice is the recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name (Buddha Recitation or Buddha Remembrance). 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 Amitabha, Mind-Only Pure Land). Thus, to recite the Buddha's name is to recite the Buddha of our own mind, to return to our own pure mind.
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.
v) It is a shortcut that leads the cultivator to escape Birth and Death and attain Buddhahood for himself and, ultimately, other sentient beings (Bodhi Mind):
"Whoever recites the name of Amitabha Buddha, whether in the present time, or in future time, will surely see the Buddha Amitabha and never become separated from him. By reason of that association, just as one associating with the maker of perfumes becomes permeated with the same perfumes, so he will become perfumed by Amitabha's compassion, and will become enlightened without any other expedient means." (Surangama Sutra in Dwight Goddard, ed.A Buddhist Bible, p. 245)
Van Hien Study Group
updated: Memorial Day, 2000