The Pure Land Tradition – Pure Land in a Nutshell

Pure Land, like all Mahayana schools, requires first and foremost the development of the Bodhi Mind, the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. From this starting point, the main tenants of the school can be understood at two main levels, the transcendental and the popular — depending on the background and the capacities of the cultivator.

In its popular form, i.e., for ordinary practitioners in this spiritually Degenerate Age, some twenty-six centuries after the demise of the historical Buddha, Pure Land involves seeking rebirth in the Land of Amitabha Buddha. This is achieved within one lifetime through the practice of Buddha Recitation with sincere faith and vows, leading to one-pointedness of mind or samadhi.

The devotees of this school venerated Amitabha Buddha and sought not outright Nirvana but rebirth in the  … “Pure Land” of Amitabha, also called Sukhavati. In that idyllic environment, no new negative karmic accumulations would be created and all existing ones would evaporate. Nirvana would be therefore just a short step away. (J. Snelling, The Buddhist Handbook, p. 133-4).

 Thus, at the popular level, the Pure land of Amitabha Buddha is an ideal training ground, an ideal environment where the practitioner is reborn thanks both to his own efforts and the power of Amitabha Buddha’s Vows (other-power). No longer subject to retrogression, having left Birth and Death behind forever, the cultivator can now focus all his efforts toward the ultimate aim of Buddhahood. This aspect of Pure Land is the form under which the school is popularly known.

At the advanced level, i.e., for cultivators of high spiritual capacity, the Pure Land method, like other methods, reverts the ordinary, deluded mind to the Self-Nature True Mind. In the process, wisdom and Buddhahood are eventually attained. This is exemplified by the following advice of the eminent Zen Master Chu Hung (Jap. Shuko), one of the three “Dragon-Elephants” of 16th-17th century China:

Right now you simply must simply recite the Buddha-name with purity and illumination. Purity means reciting the Buddha-name without any other thoughts. Illumination means reflecting back as you recite the Buddha-name. Purity is samatta, “stopping.” Illumination is vipasyana, “observing.” Unify your mindfulness of Buddha through Buddha-name recitation, and stopping and observing are both present. (J. C. Cleary, Pure Land, Pure Mind.)

As stated in Buddhism of Wisdom and Faith (Section18):

If we have the roots and the temperament of Mahayana followers, we should naturally understand that the goal of Buddha Recitation is to achieve Buddhahood … Why is it that the goal of Buddha Recitation is to become a Buddha? It is because, as we begin reciting, the past, present and future have lost their distinction, marks exist but they have been left behind, form is emptiness, thought is the same as No-Thought, the realm of the Original Nature “apart from thought” of the Tathagata has been penetrated. This state is Buddhahood; what else could it be?

This high-level form of Pure Land is practiced by those of deep spiritual capacities: “when the mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure … to receive the Buddha’s name is to recite the Mind.”  Thus, at the advanced level, Pure Land is Zen, Zen is Pure Land.

In its totality, Pure Land reflects the highest teaching of Buddhism as expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra: mutual identity and interpenetration, the simplest method contains the ultimate and the ultimate is found in the simplest.