Pure Land Buddhism
“Other Power” in the Mahayana Tradition


 
Savior Buddhas & their Texts
Samantabhadra’s function in the Lotus Sutra — to protect those who rehearse and venerate the sutra itself — reflects the growing magical, salvific function of Buddhist scriptures. Indeed, in the Mahayana the personae of bodhisattvas were not the only agents of salvation; the very texts in which they figured, because they contained and conveyed the Dharma, came to be seen as having the power both to enlighten and to protect beings who turned to them. ... This gave rise, in the Mahayana, to self-laudatory texts, sutras that devote a few lines or a chapter to the praise of their own preservation, recitation, and power. Indeed, in other portions of the Lotus Sutra, we can read how those who commit to memory or copy out but a portion of it will be guaranteed immense soteriological benefits. In time, whole Buddhist sects came to be focused on the salvific power of such texts, the prime example, perhaps, being the Japanese Nichiren sect, where the primacy of the Lotus Sutra is much emphasized. ... In time, also, some sutras appeared that were almost entirely self-laudatory in nature, as the following selection testifies. Here the emphasis is not so much on the recitation of the text as on its writing, its copying — something that was seen as a powerful, protective act of praise and merit. The following example comes from a relatively obscure text, the Aparimitayuh Sutra (Discourse on Unbounded Life). ...
 
Whoever copies or sponsors the copying of this Aparimitayuh Sutra will never be reborn in the hells, nor among animals, nor in the world of Yama, nor in any of the places of inopportune rebirth. ...
Whoever copies or sponsors the copying of this Aparimitayuh Sutra will be followed everywhere by the four celestial guardian kings, who will ensure his or her protection. ...
 
Whoever copies or sponsors the copying of this Aparimitayuh Sutra will be reborn in the Sukhavati world system, Buddha field of the Tathagata Amitabha. ... 
Whoever copies or sponsors the copying of this Aparimitayuh Sutra will never be reborn as a woman. (Experience of Buddhism, 196-7)
 
Amitabha’s Pure Land
This notion of “other-power” is further developed in the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha (Larger Pure Land Sutra), which was written during the 2nd century CE. In this sutra, Sakyamuni recounts the story of a king named Dharmakara who becomes a monk and then makes forty-eight “bodhisattva vows” that he promises to fulfill before becoming a Buddha. After an unfathomably long period of time, he does indeed become a Buddhaknown as “Amitayus” (Infinite Life) or “Amitabha” (Infinite Light) implying that his vows have been fulfilled. The overall thrust of his vows concern the creation of a Buddha-land that will provide a perfect environment for attaining enlightenment:
 
I, Ananda, heard the following from the Buddha, Shakyamuni. At one time Shakyamuni was at the Jetavana garden in Shravasti. As many as twelve hundred and fifty people assembled, and they were especially eminent monks. They were all illustrious practitioners known as arhats who had eliminated their delusions and were of great renown. ... Then the Buddha Shakyamuni explained to the elder Shariputra: “To the far west of this world (of delusion), beyond as many as ten trillion buddha-worlds, there’s another world called Ultimate Bliss with a buddha whose name is Amitabha, who is there even now teaching the Dharma. Shariputra, do you know why that buddha-world is called Ultimate Bliss? It is because the people who live there never experience suffering; they are mantled in multitude forms of happiness. For that reason it is called Ultimate Bliss.
 
 
“Also, Shariputra, the world is adorned with seven railings, with seven rows of gauze curtains with little bells, and surrounded by seven rows of trees. All are set with four kinds of jewels, which adorn the world throughout. For that reason this world is called Ultimate Bliss.
 
 
“Again, Shariputra, in that world there are lotus ponds whose shores are decorated with seven kinds of jewels. The ponds brim with waters of eight good qualities and the floor of the ponds are lined with sand of gold. The ponds are surrounded by steps on their four sides made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. Above are pavilions lavishly adorned with the seven jewels of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, red pearls, and agate. There are lotuses blooming in the ponds, and their flowers are as large as the wheel of a cart. The blue flowers emit a blue light; the yellow flowers emit a yellow light; the red flowers emit a red light; and the white flowers emit a white light. Each of the lotus flowers glows, weaving an harmonic scene while emitting a subtle fragrance. Shariputra, this land of Ultimate Bliss is an ideal environment so that whatever one lays eyes upon will bring about awakening. (jsri.jp...)
 
  • How does the Pure Land compare with Abrahamic conceptions of Heaven?
  • Why do you think the description of the Pure Land is so detailed?
 
The Forty-Eight Vows
Among the forty-eight vows that Amitabha promised to fulfill before becoming a Buddha, the following are particularly significant:
 
11. I shall not attain supreme enlightenment if any sentient being in my land would not certainly achieve supreme enlightenment and realize great nirvana.
18. When I realize supreme enlightenment, there will be sentient beings in other Buddha-lands who, after hearing my name, dedicate their good roots to birth in my land in thought after thought. Even if they have only ten such thoughts, they will be born in my land ... (A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras, 342-3)
 

Nianfo/Nembutsu
The Eleventh vow is important because it assures the faithful that Amitabha did create a Pure Land in which enlightenment is guaranteed. The Eighteenth vow, on the other hand, indicates the means by which rebirth in the Pure Land may be attained — though there are at least three significantly different ways that the Sanskrit term buddhanusmrti (Chinese: nianfo, Japanese: nembutsu) can be interpreted:
 
 

(i) Since the term buddhanusmrti literally means mindfulness of the Buddha, the strictest practices involve a focused contemplation (samadhi) of Amitabha, such as the 90-day constantly walking meditation practiced in the Tiantai tradition. From the Tiantai perspective, the goal of this practice was to visualize oneself as Amitabha in order to experience this world as the Pure Land — which is to say that samsara is in fact nirvana when seen from an enlightened perspective (a universally accepted principle of Mahayana Buddhism).

 
(ii) A second approach is to continually repeat Amitabha Buddha’s name in an attempt to experience a visualization of Amitabha in the Pure Land (known as nembutsu samadhi in Japanese). Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Japanese Pure Land tradition, is said to have experienced nembutsu samadhi several times between 1198 and 1206. This may be thought of as the kind of pure thought that is required to guarantee rebirth in the Pure Land.
 

 

(iii) A third approach is based on the Chinese translation of the term buddhanusmrti as nianfo (Japanese: nembutsu), which can mean both mindfulness of the Buddha and “recitation the Buddha’s name. The latter interpretation became standard in East Asia, leading to the belief that one could attain rebirth in the Pure Land by simply reciting the mantra “I take refuge in Amitabha Buddha” (namo amituofo in Chinese or namu amida butsu in Japanese). In the Japanese Jodo Shinshu tradition (the most popular branch of Buddhism in Japan), the “faith” element is pushed to the extreme by claiming that one’s salvation is assured the moment one sincerely believes in Amitabha’s 18th vow (i.e. the promise that those who recite his name will be reborn in the Pure Land).

 


 

In contrast to the Japanese tradition, the Chinese Pure Land tradition merged with Chan Buddhism during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) resulting in a combination of “self power” and other power” in most forms of Chinese Buddhism. In other words, one conscientiously works towards awakening through meditation and study, while also engaging in faith-based practices, such as reciting the name of Amitabha, chanting Buddhist sutras, and worshiping images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Although these two approaches may appear contradictory, both lead to the dissolution of the ego — the key to attaining nirvana — by either realizing the principle of interconnectedness through one’s own efforts or opening oneself up to the transforming power of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who embody this principle in a more tangible form.

 


Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Gakkai
A Japanese Fusion of Self Power & Other Power