Pure Land Buddhism
Amida's Pure Land
Icon of the Kamakura Shogunate 
Amida Buddha (Main Deity of Pure Land Buddhism)
The Gohonzon (Sacred Object) of Nichiren Buddhism
Bodhidharma (First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism)
Kamakura Buddhism
Heian culture, like the medieval Europe of Dante and Thomas Aquinas, seemed to be asking: “How can all human experience, all aspects of religion and all that we know of the universe, be fitted into a vast but unifying system in which everything finds its place?” The rather disorderly pattern of Heian beliefs and observances, Confucian, Taoist, Shinto, and Buddhist, appeared to want to include everything. In a far more sophisticated way, so did the complex mandalas, and graduated hierarchies of religion, in the grand intellectual constructions of Shingon and Tendai.
Painting of the Seige of Sanjo Palace (from the Heiji Monogatari)
Martin Luther posting his "95 Theses" to the door of a Wittenberg churchThe new movements of the next era, the Kamakura, sought with Martin Luther to ask instead: “How can I know that I am saved?” Not “What is the world like?” but, “How can I find peace?” ... In a troubled time of change, a troubled individual may well put finding a single, simple, sure key to personal peace of mind, understood as assurance of personal salvation or liberation, ahead of a comprehensive, intellectually satisfying world-system. In both Reformation Europe and Kamakura Japan, the answer to anguish was salvation based on simple faith, the one thing anyone can have, faith alone — the mappo means. Three movements, new to Japan in the independent form they now took, gave their answers: Pure Land, Nichiren (Lotus Sutra), and Zen Buddhism. In this chapter we will deal with the first two, popular movements based essentially on faith. In the next chapter we will look at Zen, which found its peace in zazen meditation instead, and was based in the rising samurai class. (IJR, 126)
Lotus Icon
Buddha preaching the Lotus Sutra
Savior Buddhas
Karmic Merit 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. For example, in the prologue of the Lotus Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha lists ten benefits associated with the “inconceivable power” of the sutra, the seventh of which is as follows:
Lotus FlowerGood men, the seventh inconceivable benefit and power of this sutra is this: If good men or good women, while the Buddha is in the world or after he has passed into extinction, are able to hear this sutra and rejoice and put faith and hope in it, greeting it as something rare; if they accept, uphold, read, recite, copy, explain, preach, and practice it as it directs, conceiving a desire for enlightenment, cultivating good roots, nurturing minds of great compassion, and desiring to save all living beings from their sufferings, then although they have not yet been able to practice the six paramitas [perfections], the six paramitas will of themselves appear before them. In their present bodies they will be able to gain the truth of birthlessness, their earthly desires and their sufferings of birth and death will in one moment be cast off and destroyed, and they will ascend to the seventh stage of the bodhisattva. (Lotus Sutra, Prologue)
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 earlier forms of Buddhism.
Meditating Buddha formed from the words "Be a lamp unto yourself" (the Buddha's final teaching)
Lotus Icon
Painting of Amida's Pure Land
A Pure Land is not one of the heavens of the devas or gods. These one enters through accumulation of good karma, but they are far from eternal since tenancy lasts only as long as one’s finite amount of good karma holds out. Nor is a Pure Land Nirvana, which is beyond all conditioned reality, even reality “conditioned” by heavenly beauty as rapturous as a Pure Land’s. But entry into nirvana is easy from a Pure Land since, unlike the situation in the Impure Lands of ordinary life, full of distractions stemming from attachments and desires, nothing in the buddha-land distracts one from making those final meditations that lead to ultimate release. (IJR, 127)
Amida Buddha on a lotus throne
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. ...
Detail from a painting of Amida's Pure Land (with jeweled trees)
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.
Detail from the Pure Land Mandala with the faithful being reborn in a lotus pond
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. (Experience of Buddhism, 187)
Among the forty-eight vows that Amitabha (J: Amida) made prior to attaining enlightenment, the eighteenth (which comes to be known as the “Primal Vow“ (本願 hongan) is particularly significant:
18. When I attain buddhahood, if all sentient beings in the ten directions, who aspire in all sincerity and faith to be born in my land and think of me even ten times, are not born there, then may I not attain supreme enlightenment. (Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra)
Kanji for "nembutsu" (thinking of/reciting the name of a buddha)
The Eighteenth vow 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:
Altar in a Pure Land Temple
I. Mindfulness of the Buddha
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/Tendai tradition.
samsara = nirvana
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).

Meditating Gnu realizing the identity of samsara and nirvana
Bamboo page divider
Honen reciting the nembutsu to enter nembutsu samadhi
II. Nembutsu Recitation
Kanji for "nembutsu"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.
Painting of Honen
In the early thirteenth century, shortly after the founding of the Kamakura shogunate, there appeared a Tendai monk, Honen, who rejected traditional Pure Land Buddhism in favor of a bold, new interpretation that became the basis of his new school of Pure Land Buddhism (Jodo-shu). Although Honen (1133-1212) was a learned monk trained at Mount Hiei [the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism], because this was a time at which it was widely believed that Buddhist teaching and practice had entered an age of decline (mappo), he no longer thought that full enlightenment was a practical possibility, and he explicitly rejected even the aspiration toward enlightenment (bodaishin), which had long been regarded as the essential first step toward Buddhist liberation. Honen’s rejection of traditional practice was sweeping, and he declared that except for the nembutsu [i.e. Namu Amida Butsu], all other practices were useless. (SJT, 213)
Jiriki and Tariki: self power and other power
Honen divided Buddhism into two gateways to liberation: the shodomon (“Gate of the Saintly Path”) and the jodomon (“Gate of the Pure Land”). The former depended on one’s own power (jiriki), the later on the power of another (tariki). Honen contended that the “holy” path was very difficult, especially in our degenerate times, and that in the mappo throwing oneself on the power of another, Amida, was not only easier but better. (IJR, 130)
The One-Page Testament
The One-Page Testament
The method of final salvation that I have propounded is neither a sort of meditation, such as has been practiced by many scholars in China and Japan, nor is it a repetition of the Buddha’s name by those who have studied and understood the deep meaning of it. It is nothing but the mere repetition of the “Namu Amida Butsu,” without a doubt of His mercy, whereby one may be born into the Land of Perfect Bliss. The mere repetition with firm faith includes all the practical details, such as the three-fold preparation of mind and the four practical rules. If I as an individual had any doctrine more profound than this, I should miss the mercy of the two Honorable Ones, Amida and Shaka [i.e. Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha], and be left out of the Vow of the Amida Buddha. Those who believe this, though they clearly understand all the teachings Shaka taught throughout his whole life, should behave themselves like simple-minded folk, who know not a single letter, or like ignorant nuns or monks whose faith is implicitly simple. Thus without pedantic airs, they should fervently practice the repetition of the name of Amida, and that alone.  (SJT, 226)
Click for video of 24-Hour Nembutsu Chanting
Bamboo page divider
Amida Buddha descending to take the faithful up to the Pure Land
III. Faith in Amida’s Saving Grace
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).
Painting of Shinran with his wife
Shinran sculptureAs radical as Honen was in his innovations, it was Shinran (1173-1262) and Ippen (1239-1289), two of his spiritual descendants, who pushed the issue of simplicity even beyond Honen’s position. Although they never disputed Honen’s teachings openly, their interpretations differed from his understanding of the nembutsu as a means to rebirth that required human initiative and effort. While studying at Mount Hiei as a young monk, Shinran underwent a spiritual crisis in which he came to doubt the efficacy of his own efforts to gain perfection. Morality was of limited effect, as were ritual actions; nothing, it seemed, could eradicate the deep-seated imperfection of being human. When Shinran left Mount Hiei and the path of the sages, he turned to Honen’s new teaching of the exclusive nembutsu, but he came to see that even chanting Amida’s name was a matter of individual effort and therefore of limited effect in gaining full salvation. His dilemma was resolved when he realized that salvation was not won through human effort but was granted by Amida Buddha, the compassionate one who vowed to save all people, regardless of their moral standing or religious achievements. By rejecting all practices performed through one’s own effort (jiriki), Shinran went even further than his teacher by suggesting that chanting the nembutsu should not result from deliberative effort but from the saving action granted by Amida. Monastic discipline and other religious rituals were no longer necessary, and while in exile with Honen, who had been banished to the northern province of Echigo for his heterodox teaching, Shinran openly married a woman and later had children by her. “If even good people can be reborn in the Pure Land,” he said, “how much more the wicked man.”  (SJT, 215-6; cf. IJR, 131-4)
A Record in Lament of Divergencies
Saved by the inconceivable working of Amida’s Vow, I shall realize birth in the Pure Land”: the moment you entrust yourself thus to the Vow, so that the mind set upon saying the Name (nembutsu) arises within you, you are brought to share in the benefit of being grasped by Amida, never to be abandoned.
Know that the Primal Vow of Amida makes no distinction between people young or old, good or evil; only the entrusting of yourself to it is essential. For it was made to save the person whose karmic evil is deep-rooted and whose blind passions abound.
       Thus, entrusting yourself to the Primal Vow requires no performance for good, for no act can hold greater virtue than saying the Name. Nor is there need to despair of the evil you commit, for no act is so evil that it obstructs the working of Amida’s Primal Vow.
       Thus were his words ...
   Even a good person can attain birth in the Pure Land,  
so it goes without saying that an evil person will.
Though such is the truth, people commonly say, “Even an evil person attains birth, so naturally a good person will.” This statement may seem well founded at first, but runs counter to the meaning of the Other established through the Primal Vow. This is because a person who relies on the good that he does through self-power fails to entrust himself wholeheartedly to Other Power and therefore is not in accord with Amida’s Primal Vow, but when he abandons his attachment to self-power and entrusts himself totally to Other Power, he will realize birth in the Pure land.
       It is impossible for us, filled as we are with blind passions, to free ourselves from birth and death through any practice whatever. Sorrowing at this, Amida made the Vow, the essential intent of which is the attainment of Buddhahood by the person who is evil. Hence the evil person who entrusts himself to Other Power is precisely the one who possesses the true cause for birth.
       Accordingly he said, “Even the virtuous man is born in the Pure Land, so without question is the man who is evil.”
(SJT, 227-8)

Dharma Wheel Turning
Example of a "fuda" talisman such as Ippen might have distributedIppen studied in Kyoto under one of Honen’s leading disciples and later returned to his home in Shikoku, where he married and carried out his duties as both a monk and a head of a household. In 1263, at the age of twenty-five, he came to doubt the spiritual quality of his householder’s life and, thinking that he should go to the mountains to practice asceticism, set out on a pilgrimage that took him to Zenkoji, a popular destination for pilgrims in what is now Nagano City. ... During his travels, he devised a means of propagating the nembutsu by asking people to recite the nembutsu just “once” (ippen) and, when they did so, giving them a fuda, a paper talisman on which was written the Chinese characters for “na-mu A-mi-da Butsu.” … The talismans distributed by Ippen signified assurance that the recipient was sure to be born in the Pure Land. Ippen’s standard appeal was to ask each person to accept the talisman, awaken one moment of faith, and utter the nembutsu. While at Kumano Shrine on one of his many travels, Ippen made his appeal to a monk, but the monk surprised Ippen by refusing the offer on the grounds that he did not feel the arising of faith. Ippen insisted that the monk accept the talisman even if he lacked faith, and the monk obliged, but Ippen wondered whether what he had done was effective and legitimate.
Ippen meets the Kumano Gongen (a Buddha manifesting in the form of an indigenous kami)
That night, the Kumano deity appeared to him and told him that rebirth was not determined by his act of propagation or the faith of the recipients but by the decisive power of Amida. Therefore, Ippen distributed his talismans without regard for whether people had faith. Ippen thus represents the furthest point of development among the Pure Land innovators: Honen rejected all practices but the nembutsu; Shinran rejected the nembutsu of self-power but retained the importance of faith in Amida’s other power; and Ippen, in a supreme act of faith, dispensed with faith as a spiritual requirement.  (SJT, 216-7)
Click for Nembutsu Odori (Nembutsu Dance)
Lotus Icon
Jiriki and Tariki: Self Power and Other Power
What is the relationship between “Self Power” & “Other Power”?
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Is one approach more authentic and/or effective than the other?
The whole point [of “Other Power”] is that liberation is not arduous, but surprisingly easy. Yet the easiness is what, paradoxically, makes it hard for some people. If all it takes is one jump, what does that say about all the effort some put into their salvation? Perhaps the humility a simple practice required was part of it, for the “easy way” demanded putting aside one’s intellect, pride, and ego. Then, as soon as a person has discarded those fetters by faith, has not she or he already gotten to Buddhist enlightenment, which is nothing but egoless joy in the present moment? ... As the Lotus Sutra also makes clear, self-reliance as a means to Buddhist salvation is not just hard. It can also be highly deceptive. The ultimate point of salvation is negating attachment to one’s illusory ego, and becoming one with the interdependent universe. Yet if practices intended for spiritual advancement are looked at as achievements, like getting promotions and degrees, they many only reinforce that ego and make one proud of one’s holiness — which puts the “saint” back at the beginning again. On the other hand, simply putting trust in the grace and compassion of another, “choosing” Amida’s original vow, is nothing other than forgetting one’s ego, and acknowledging interdependence with the universal buddha-nature which Amida really represents. (IJR, 129-30)
line drawing of a meditator with hands in gasho (faithful) position