The School of Pure Land (known is Japan as the School of Pure Thought) is another important Chinese school of Buddhism. It emerged about A.D. 500 as a form of devotion to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and differs from the Ch'an school in that it encourages idolatry. The School of Pure Land is not nearly as strong in China as it once was but it remains one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.

The School of Pure Land emerged about A.D. 500 in China as a form of devotion to Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and differs from the Ch'an school in that it encourages idolatry. The School of Pure Land is not nearly as strong in China as it once was but it remains one of the largest Buddhist sects in Japan.

Pure Land Buddhism (also known as Jodo, Jodoshu, or Jodoshinshu) spread during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) but was introduced by the Chinese to Japan much earlier. It emphasizes faith in the saving grace of Amida, another enlightened being, rather than through meditation. Today it has 6 million followers and 7,000 affiliated temples across Japan and has a large following among ordinary Japanese. Pure Land is another word for heaven.

The School of Pure Land takes the Mahayana belief in Buddhas or Bodhisattvas a step further than Buddhist traditionalists want to go by giving Bodhisattvas the power to help people attain enlightenment that otherwise would be unable to attain it on their own. The emphasis on Bodhisattvas is manifested in the numerous depictions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Pure Land temples and caves.

Pure Land Buddhists reveres Amida (literally meaning “infinite light” or “infinite life”), the Buddha of the Western Paradise, and stress the universality of salvation. They believe that salvation is achieved through faith rather than good works and that Buddha and heaven are close at hand and everywhere rather in some far off place as Buddhists had been taught to believe.

Appeal of the School of Pure Land

According to the BBC: “ Pure Land Buddhism offers a way to enlightenment for people who can't handle the subtleties of meditation, endure long rituals, or just live especially good lives. The essential practice in Pure Land Buddhism is the chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha with total concentration, trusting that one will be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where it is much easier for a being to work towards enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhism adds mystical elements to the basic Buddhist teachings which make those teachings easier (and more comforting) to work with. These elements include faith and trust and a personal relationship with Amitabha Buddha, who is regarded by Pure Land Buddhists as a sort of saviour; and belief in the Pure Land, a place which provides a stepping stone towards enlightenment and liberation. Pure Land Buddhism is particularly popular in China and Japan. [Source: BBC]

“The sect's teachings brought it huge popularity in Japan, since here was a form of Buddhism that didn't require a person to be clever, or a monk, and that was open to the outcasts of society. It remains a popular group in Buddhism - and the reasons that made it popular 700 years ago are exactly the same ones that make it popular today.

Dr. Eno wrote: “Pure Land was a popularized form of Buddhism which preached that salvation could be attained through purely devotional practices, such as the chanting of sutras or brief devotional formulas, the worship of Buddha images, and financial contributions to temples. Pure Land represented a non-intellectual form of Buddhism that appealed most directly to the enormous and illiterate peasant population of China. It taught the poor that through devotion they could escape their lives of misery and be admitted after death to the Western Paradise, the “pure land” where one enjoyed eternal comfort and joy, free of the toils of “ samsara”. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

History of Pure Land Buddhism


Some historians believe the School of Pure Land originated in India but there is no definitive proof of this because the oldest known texts are in Chinese not Sanskrit. Others say the sect was founded by the Chinese monk Hui Yuan (A.D. 334-417). In any case as the school became popular in China, images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas acquired Chinese names and statues of the sitting Buddha (in meditation) and the sleeping Buddha (asceticism) were raised all over the country.

According to the BBC: “ Pure Land Buddhism as a school of Buddhist thinking began in India around the 2nd century B.C.. It spread to China where there was a strong cult of Amitabha by the 2nd century CE, and then spread to Japan around the A.D. 6th century. Pure Land Buddhism received a major boost to its popularity in the 12th century with the simplifications made by Honen. A century later Shinran (1173-1262), a disciple of Honen, brought a new understanding of the Pure Land ideas, and this became the foundation of the Shin (true) sect. [Source: BBC]

Pure Land Buddhism took off in Japan when the monk Honen (1133-1212) simplified the teachings and practices of the sect so that anyone could cope with them. He eliminated the intellectual difficulties and complex meditation practices used by other schools of Buddhism. Honen taught that rebirth in the Pure Land was certain for anyone who recited the name with complete trust and sincerity. Honen said that all that was needed was. saying "Namu Amida Butsu" with a conviction that by saying it one will certainly attain birth in the Pure Land.

“The result was a form of Buddhism accessible to anyone, even if they were illiterate or stupid. Honen didn't simplify Buddhism through a patronising attitude to inferior people. He believed that most people, and he included himself, could not achieve liberation through any of their own activities. The only way to achieve buddhahood was through the help of Amitabha.

“A century after Honen, one of his disciples, Shinran (1173-1262) brought a new understanding of the Pure Land ideas. Shinran taught that what truly mattered was not the chanting of the name but faith. Chanting on its own had no value at all. Those who follow the Shin school say that liberation is the consequence of a person achieving genuine faith in Amitabha Buddha and his vow to save all beings who trusted in him.

Honen and Shinran

Honen (1133-1212), the Japanese man who made Pure Land Buddhism an independent sect, eschewed scholarly metaphysics and promoted the use of simple prayers and chants such as "Hail Amida Buddha," as a means to enlightenment. He once said "Even a bad man will be received in Buddha's Land, but how much more a good man!" The idea of hell and judges is important in the Pure Land school of Buddhism.

Honen studied as a Tendai monk at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, beginning at age 13, and read the Chinese “Tripitaka” five times and was respected for his learning. He began teaching the Pure Land faith after realizing, at age 43, that the teachings of the Buddhist elite were lacking and that reliance on Amida was the only way to reach enlightenment and it was something that could be obtained by anyone not just pious monks. This message appealed to both the elite and ordinary people but was opposed by the old schools. Honen and his followers were persecuted. At the age of 75 Honen was banished to Shikoku. Some of his followers were executed.

Shinran (1173-1262) was one Honen’s favorite disciples. He is regarded as the actual founder of the Pure Land sect in Japan. He renounced the monk’s life and married a young noblewoman, arguing that celibacy and dietary rules demonstrated reliance on self-power. He was banished and spent much of his life in the provinces. His grandson carried on his lineages, which remains alive among his descendants today.

The Pure Land sect became very powerful when it was adopted by the ancestors of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan’s first shogun. Ieyasu himself reportedly hand-copied the “nenbutsu“ prayer every day on a small piece of paper. Ieyasu’s descendant turned some of Pure Land temples into military fortresses with cannons, high walls and gates.

Shinran’s Beliefs

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Hōnen and Shinran were both exiled in 1207 by the government, which objected to the practice of chanting the "nembutsu". “Nembutsu” means “I put my faith in Amida Buddha.” Practitioners believed that by chanting this they would attain salvation.) Shortly after this, Shinran abandoned the "nembutsu" practice, which he then considered self-centered and opposed to the teaching of salvation by Other Power. Shinran married and had children, thus also departing from the clerical life. His most significant treatise is the "Kyōgyōshinshō" (Teaching Practice, Faith, and Realization).” [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]In “Lamentation and Self-Reflection,” Shinran wrote :
Although I have entered the Pure Land path,
I remain incapable of true and genuine thoughts and feelings.
My very existence is pervaded by vanity and falsehood;
There is nothing at all of any purity of mind.

Being unrepentant and lacking in shame,
I have no mind of truth and sincerity.
And yet, because the Name has been given by Amida Buddha,
The universe is suffused with its virtues.

Deeply saddening is it that in these times
Both the monks and laity in Japan,
While seeking to conform with Buddhist manner and deportment,
Worship gods and spirits of the heavens and earth. [Source: “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 226-227]

Amitabha in Pure Land Buddhism

According to the BBC: “ The Pure Land sect emphasizes the important role played in liberation by Amitabha (which means Immeasurable Light) who is also called Amitayus (which means Immeasurable Life). People who sincerely call on Amitabha for help will be reborn in Sukhavati - The Pure Land or The Western Paradise - where there are no distractions and where they can continue to work towards liberation under the most favourable conditions. [Source: BBC]

“The nature of Amitabha is not entirely clear. Encyclopedia Britannica describes him as "the great saviour deity worshiped principally by members of the Pure Land sect in Japan." Another writer says "Amitabha is neither a God who punishes and rewards, gives mercy or imposes tests, nor a divinity that we can petition or beg for special favours". The mystical view of Amitabha regards him as an eternal Buddha, and believes that he manifested himself in human history as Gautama, or "The Buddha". Amitabha translates as "Amito-fo" in Chinese and "Amida" in Japanese.

“The story of Amitabha: Once there was a king who was so deeply moved by the suffering of beings in the world that he gave up his throne and became a monk named Dharmakara. Dharmakara was heavily influenced by the 81st Buddha and vowed to become a Buddha himself, with the aim of creating a Buddha-land that would be free of all limitations. He meditated at length on other Buddha-lands and set down what he learned in 48 vows. Eventually he achieved enlightenment and became Amitabha Buddha and established his Buddha-land of Sukhavati.

His most important vow was the 18th, which said: If I were to become a Buddha, and people, hearing my Name, have faith and joy and recite it for even ten times, but are not born into my Pure Land, may I not gain enlightenment. Since he did gain enlightenment, it follows that those who do have faith and joy and who recite his name will be born into the Pure Land.

Japanese Pure Land mandala

School of Pure Land Beliefs

The purity referred to in the School of Pure Land is the state a Bodhisattva attains upon achieving enlightenment. Followers of the school believe that impure people can attain their own personal enlightenment by linking themselves with a Bodhisattva, notably Amitabha/Amida, the Buddha who set up and rules over the Western Paradise. Pure Land followers believe that no matter how wicked a person is they can attain a form of enlightenment with simple faith, that is some cases is manifested simply by murmuring a few phrases.

Pure Land Buddhists believe that Buddhism has entered a Mappo (Later Age) in which Buddhism is in decline and individuals are no longer able to achieve enlightenment on their own and salvation can only be achieved by enlightenment through the mercy of Amida. This idea appealed to many ordinary Japanese who were not turned on by an usual process of mediating, chanting and denying oneself for long periods of time.

The idea is that rather than striving for enlightenment by the accumulation of merit through good deeds and morality an individual can be transported with the help of a Bodhisattvas to a “Pure Land” — the Western Paradise of Amitabha — in his or her next life where attaining enlightenment is profoundly easier than on earth. Amitabha is said to have the power to grant salvation to all those who have faith in him. The moment a believer places his faith in Amitabha he or she is said to have attained a measure of enlightenment.

In the school of Pure Land there is a strong emphasis on devotion. Monks are required to go through a head-shaving ceremony. Followers are expected to abandon all desire, even the desire for enlightenment, and entrust themselves totally to the power of Amitabha. Other practices associated with the school are the chanting of the nembutsu, a simple mantra that goes “Namu Amida Butsu” (“Adoration of the Buddha Amitabha”)

The religious scholar Richard Robinson wrote that Pure Land and Cha’an. sects “differ markedly in several ways: one is pietist, the other is mystic; one stresses faith, the other insight; one requires absolute reliance on the word of a Scripture, the other relies not on Scriptures but on a special transmission from mind to mind...The Pure Land devotee commonly belongs to the Buddhist typology, to the “tribe of lust," while the Ch’an devotee belongs to the “the tribe of wrath”...But both reject the gradual course and...are essentially “sudden” teachings...Both claim a way to infinite merit."

Pure Land Worship

The Pure Land scriptures include The Infinite Life Sutra, The Contemplation Sutra and The Amitabha Sutra. Chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha does not do anything at all to help the person to the Pure Land. Chanting is nothing more than an expression of gratitude to Amitabha Buddha and an expression of the chanter's faith. But it's not possible to do away with the chanting: Shinran wrote "the True Faith is necessarily accompanied by the utterance of the Name". [Source: BBC]

Nembutsu is an important concept. It “means concentration on Buddha and his virtues, or recitation of the Buddha's name. No special way of reciting the name is laid down. It can be done silently or aloud, alone or in a group and with or without musical accompaniment. The important thing is to chant the name single-mindedly, while sincerely wishing to be reborn in the Pure Land.

Shin Buddhists say that faith in Amitabha Buddha is not something that the believer should take the credit for since it's not something that the believer does for themselves. Their faith is a gift from Amitabha Buddha. And in keeping with this style of humility, Shin Buddhists don't accept the idea that beings can earn merit for themselves by their own acts; neither good deeds, nor performing rituals help. This has huge moral implications in that it implies (and Shinran quite explicitly said) that a sinner with faith will be made welcome in the Pure Land - even more welcome than a good man who has faith and pride.

Pure Land Buddhism Issues

According to the BBC: Is this a new understanding of Buddhism? On the surface Pure Land Buddhism seems to have moved a very long way from the basic Buddhist ideas, and it's important to see how it might actually fit in. The way to do this is to tackle each issue and see what's really going on. [Source: BBC]

Amitabha Buddha is treated as if he were God: On the surface, yes. But perhaps chanting Amitabha Buddha's name is not praying to an external deity, but really a way of calling out one's own essential Buddha nature. However some of Shinran's writings do speak of Amitabha Buddha in language that a westerner would regard as describing God.

“The Pure Land appears to be a supernatural place: On the surface, yes. But perhaps the Pure Land is really a poetic metaphor for a higher state of consciousness. Chanting the name can then be seen as a meditative practice that enables the follower to alter their state of mind. (This argument is quite hard to sustain in the face of the importance given to chanting the name in faith at the moment of death - when some supernatural event is clearly expected by most followers. And the chanting is not regarded solely as a meditative practice by most followers. However gaps between populist and sophisticated understanding of religious concepts are common in all faiths.)

There is no reliance on the self to achieve enlightenment: On the surface, yes. But in fact this is just a further move in the direction that Mahayana Buddhism has already taken to allow assistance in the journey to liberation. And the being still has much work to do when they arrive in the Pure Land. (Shinran however taught that arriving in the Pure Land was actually the final liberation - the Pure Land was nirvana.)

Image Sources: 1) 1st Daruma, British Museum, 2) 2nd daruma, Onmark Productions, 3) Koyasan and diagrams JNTO 4) Monks, Ray Kinnane, 5) 19th century monks and hermit 6) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 7) calligraphy, painting, Tokyo National Museum.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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