Pure Land Buddhism
 
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Other Power in Mahayana Buddhism
Beginning with the Lotus Sutra (c. 200 CE), Mahayana developed various sutras that claimed to be able to generate “merit” through memorizing, reciting, copying or having others copy the sutra in question. This development is significant because it represents a reliance on “other-power” that seems to stand in stark contrast to the “self-power” techniques advocated by the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni.
 
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:
 
This world Sukhavati, Ananda, which is the world system of the Lord Amitabha, is rich and prosperous, comfortable, fertile, delightful and crowded with many Gods and men. And in this world system, Ananda, there are no hells, no animals, no ghosts, no Asuras and none of the inauspicious places of rebirth. ... And from each jewel lotus issue thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of rays. And at the end of each ray there issue thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas, with golden-coloured bodies, who bear the thirty-two marks of the superman, and who, in all the ten directions, go into countless world systems, and there demonstrate Dharma. ...
 
 
And all the beings who have been born, who are born, who will be born in this Buddha field, they all are fixed on the right method of salvation, until they have won Nirvana. And why? Because there is here no place for and no conception of the two other groups, i.e. of those who are not fixed at all, and those who are fixed on wrong ways. For this reason also that world-system is called the “Happy Land.” [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 123-4]
 
 
Amitabha’s 48 Vows
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 ...
 
19. When I become a Buddha, I shall appear with an assembly of monks at the deathbeds of sentient beings of other Buddha-lands who have brought forth bodhicitta, who think of my land with a pure mind, and who dedicate their good roots to birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss. I shall not attain supreme enlightenment if I would fail to do so.
 
20. When I become a Buddha, all the sentient beings in countless Buddha-lands, who, having heard my name and dedicated their good roots to birth in the Land of Utmost Bliss, will be born there. Otherwise, I shall not attain supreme enlightenment. [A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras, 342-3]
 

Chinese Pure Land Buddhism
T
an-luan (476-542)
T’an-luan [the first patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism in China] was inspired by Amitabha’s eighteenth vow, which stated that “all beings” who think of the Amitabha Buddha for even one thought moment with sincerity and faith when they hear his name will be born into the Pure Land. T’an-luan interpreted “all beings” to mean that not just saintly bodhisattvas, but even common persons, including sinners, can be born into the Pure Land through the help of Amitabha Buddha. With this possibility in mind, T’an-luan distinguished between the “difficult” and “easy” paths to Awakening. Given that the human condition is affected by ignorance and defilements, practice based just on one’s own efforts is the difficult path. This is especially the case in the age of the Degenerate Dharma. On the other hand, practice becomes the easy path if it is based on one’s desire to be born into the Pure Land. This inspiration opened the doors to popular Pure Land devotionalism in China. ...
 
If one were asked to define the single most representative feature of Pure Land practice, nianfo would probably be one’s choice. As used colloquially among Chinese Buddhists today, nianfo can have two different meanings, depending on whether one takes it in its literal sense as “mindful recollection (nian) of the Buddha (fo)” or its implied sense of “intonation (nian) of the Buddha’s name (fo minghao).” This divergence is not a characteristic inherent to the term’s original usage but a product of its long and involved history in China. In its very ambiguity, we find a geologic record of the complex forces that shaped Chinese Pure Land in the past, as well as an emblem of the tensions that continue to animate it today. [Buddhism in Practice, 360]
 
The task for T’an-luan was to define what the “easy” practice should be that depends on the grace of Amitabha Buddha and results in birth in the Pure Land. Studying the Pure Land texts, T’an-luan concluded that all beings, even evil persons, can be released from their defilements by reciting the name Amitabha Buddha. Now, if this “recitation of the Buddhas name” (nien-fo) depends just on the efforts of the recitor, the results would be minimal. However, T’an-luan believed that the effectiveness of the recitation was dependent on Amitabha Buddha himself. Tao-luan [sic] claimed that the name of Amitabha Buddha itself embodies the Buddha reality for which it stands. To invoke Amitabha’s name is to make present in one’s life the Buddha reality it represents. To explain how this name could have the power to purify one’s life, T’an-luan likened it to a “Mani gem.” Tradition teaches that if you throw such a gem into muddy water, the jewel cleanses the water of impurities. T’an-luan taught that since the name Amitabha means “infinite light,” and since the name embodies the reality it represents, then to recite this name brings its infinte light into one’s life. Its brilliance, like with a Mani gem, penetrates the mind of the recitor, bringing it immeasurable wisdom-light that purifies it of ignorance and defilements. ...
 
A Conversation with Abbot Sheng-lin
Zen isn’t suitable anymore. To practice Zen you need deep roots. People with deep roots are rare. They didn’t used to be. In the past, anybody could practice Zen. But not now. This isn’t just my opinion. It was Yin-kuang’s opinion too. [Yin-kuang was a monk of the early twentieth century who reestablished Pure Land practice in China.] Nowadays, Pure Land practice is the only practice suitable for everyone. The difference is that Pure Land practice depends on the power of the Buddha. You don’t need deep roots. Zen practice depends completely on yourself. It’s much harder, especially now.
       In the past, there were many enlightened monks. But how many are enlightened now? None that I know of. Some monks might think they’re enlightened, but they’re not. They mistake delusion for enlightenment. That’s why Yin-kuang said it’s better to chant the name of the Buddha, to rely on the Buddha. Who’s more powerful, you or the Buddha? Pure Land practice is more certain to achieve results. If your roots aren’t deep, and you practice Zen, you can practice all your life and never get anywhere. Pure Land practice isn’t easy, though. You have to make up your mind to be reborn in the Pure Land; otherwise chanting the Buddha’s name won’t do any good, it’s just superstition. Pure Land practice is beyond reason, it’s a matter of faith. But faith is more powerful than reason. You can’t see the Pure Land. Only buddhas can see the Pure Land. Eyes are useless. You have to rely on the Buddha. [Road to Heaven, 112]
 
T’an-luan drew a distinction between “self power” and “Other power,” which became fundamental for Pure Land thought. Self power refers to relying on one’s own efforts in taking up a discipline and engaging in religious practice. This self-power attitude, T’an-luan taught, manifests a certain pride and can actually reinforce the self-centeredness one is trying to overcome. On the other hand, by relying on Other power in one’s practice, that is, on the action of Amitabha Buddha, one is humbly allowing oneself to be transformed. [Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 226-8]
 
 
To the Land of Bliss
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