Pure Land Buddhism
 
 
Self Power vs. Other Power
Savior Buddhas and 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]
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This development was significant because it represented a reliance on “other-power” that appeared to stand in stark contrast to the “self-power” techniques advocated by the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni.
 

The Pure Land Sutras
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:
 
Sariputra, Sukhavati is adorned and enclosed by seven railings, seven rows of palm trees and strings of bells. And it is beautiful and embellished with four kinds of precious materials: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. …
 
 
And, Sariputra, there are lotus pools there made of seven precious materials: gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, red pearls, diamonds, and coral. They are filled with water endowed with eight good qualities … and they are strewn with sand of gold.
 
 
And going down into those lotus pools, from all four sides, are four flights of steps, beautiful, and embellished with four precious materials … and all around the lotus pools jewel-trees are growing, beautiful, and embellished with seven precious materials. … Furthermore, Sariputra, in that Buddha field, divine musical instruments are always playing, and the earth is pleasant and golden colored. And in that Buddha field, three times each night and three times each day, showers of blossoms fall, divine mandarava blossoms. And the beings there, during the time it takes to eat one morning meal, can pay homage to a hundred thousand billion Buddhas, by going to other universes. And after showering each Tathagata with a hundred thousand billion flowers, they return to their own world in time for a nap. [Experience of Buddhism, 199-200]
 
Through the realization of his vows, Amitabha also gained the power to enable people to be born in his Pure Land, where they can gain Awakening much more easily than in the human realm. Pure Land Buddhism stresses faith in this power of Amitabha to save humankind from rebirth into the realms of ignorance and suffering by bringing those who call on him to his Pure Land. ... Tan-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, Tan-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, 250-1]
 
 
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]

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 based on the Chinese translation of the term buddhanusmrti as nianfo (Japanese: nembutsu), which can mean both mindfulness of the Buddha and “recitation of the Buddha’s name. One may therefore attempt to experience a visualization of Amitabha in the Pure Land (known as nembutsu samadhi in Japanese) by continually repeating Amitabha Buddha’s name. 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 likewise based on the recitation of the nianfo/nembutsu, but in this case the recitation alone is considered sufficient to guarantee rebirth in the Pure Land. Practitioners repeat 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.