A form of Buddhism that I respect but have not had the opportunity to study carefully is Pureland, which is open to all. I’ve asked my blogging and dharma friend Peace Paul, also known as Ananda, to write a guest post on it.
Pureland Buddhism is the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in the world. If you have not encountered Pureland Buddhism, it may be because teachers bringing Buddhism to the West have downplayed its centrality in their traditions. Chinese, Tibetan, Nepali, Vietnamese, and other Buddhists practice Pureland Buddhism. Japanese Pureland Buddhism has existed in the United States for over 100 years.
Pureland Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. It is very old, with the earliest Chinese translations of Pureland texts dating back to the second century of the Common Era. Which means that it is likely that the original texts go back at least another 100 years to the first century, probably earlier. The Pali Cannon was written down around the 29th year before the Common Era. So both texts were recorded right around the beginning of the Common Era. It is speculated that the Pureland tradition, like the Pali Cannon, has a long oral tradition going back to the time of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Whereas monks preserved the Pali Cannon, the Pureland tradition was preserved and practiced predominately by lay people.
To many “Pureland Buddhism’” refers the Japanese variety of Jodo Shin Shu. There is, however, a very strong Pureland tradition in the Buddhism found in Tibet and Nepal. For example, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung is the mantra of Chenrezig (Quan Yin in Chinese) who is always pictured with Amitabha on his head and who welcomes beings, after death, into Amitabha’s Pureland of Dewachin (Sukhavati in Sanskrit.)
Generally speaking, Pureland Buddhism teaches that by having faith in and mindfulness (Smirti) of Amitabha, one can be reborn in Amitabha’s (measureless light) Pureland of Sukhavati (sweet land) after death. In Sukhavati the conditions are perfect for us to become Buddhas. Some practitioners believe Sukhavati to be a real place; others understand it in a more metaphysical sense. As conditioned beings, it is impossible to understand what the Pureland truly is. At best, the sutras and teachings are the proverbial “finger pointing at the moon.”
Most commonly mindfulness of Amitabha or alternatively Amitayus (measureless life) is accomplished through repetition of some variation of Amitabha’s name; Omito Fo in Chinese, Om Amitabha Hung in Tibetan, Namo Amida Butsu in Japanese, or simply the Namo Amida Bu that is used in our tradition. There are many other forms, and different languages and cultures will have multiple ways to recite the name.
Pureland Buddhism holds the three Pureland sutras as central. These are the Shorter and Longer Pureland Sutras and the Contemplation Sutra. Also important is the Surangama Samadhi Sutra. In the Pali Cannon there are also a multitude of references to pure abodes, and rebirth therein. There are likewise numerous Purelands associated with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas mention in the Mahayana sutras as well as the Vajrayana tantras.
Pureland Buddhism is Refuge Buddhism. It is the practice of continual remembrance of and taking refuge in the Buddha, specifically Amida Buddha (Measureless Awakening). The practice of remembering the Buddha is called Nembutsu in Japanese. The simplest way to practice Nembutsu is through reciting, Namo Amida Bu, which is, in essence, a concise refuge prayer.
Pureland practitioners rely, not on our selves, but on Amida Buddha. We recognize that we are caught up in ignorance. As ignorant beings we cannot affect our own liberation. Buddhas are unconditioned. How can we, as conditioned beings, realize that which is unconditioned? Recognizing our limitations, we understand that it is only in the presence of the Buddha that we can awaken and become Buddhas. The presence of a Buddha is, I imagine, much like the aura of love and joy surrounding living saints. We can’t quite describe it, but we definitely feel it and are transformed by it.
All of the above is completely in line with core Buddhist teachings. Stated in a more traditional way, we have realized that we are suffering. We understand that the source of this suffering is our ignorance (avidya). Finally we have taken refuge in the Buddha as the path out of suffering.
Interestingly avidya, the term for ignorance, literally means not seeing. Thus for Pureland Buddhists, the opposite of avidya is seeing (vidya) the Buddha. In all of the Pureland sutras Shakyamuni helps Ananda, and by extension us, see (vidya) Amitabha Buddha in his Pureland. When Ananda sees the Pureland of the Buddha of Measureless Light (Amitabha) he realizes the spiritual reality of the ongoing and ever-present awakening activity of the Buddha.
Pureland Buddhism is fundamentally a form of lay Buddhism. It is practiced by people with families and jobs and the many difficulties of life in the world. While all of the more traditional monastic practices of precepts, dhyana (concentrative meditation), study, ritual, etc., can be valuable, they are secondary to mindfulness of Buddha (Nembutsu).
Nembutsu is portable. Namo Amida Bu can be recited, vocally or sub-vocally. It can be recited in the supermarket, the hospital, at one’s job, or anywhere else. Namo Amida Bu can be recited through all of the various mind states: anger, desire, depression, happiness, sadness, agitation, etc. Namo Amida Bu is universal. All can recite it. One’s gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, age, nationality, etc., do not matter. Even those who break the precepts and commit evil can take refuge in Amida Buddha. The Buddha receives all and is compassionate towards all. None are excluded. The Buddha’s compassion is unconditional; there is no condition or prerequisite necessary for us to be held by the compassion of the Buddha. However, if our life is lived at odds with the Buddha and Dharma, then it may be difficult for us to see the compassion that is so freely given.
As Refuge Buddhists, our focus is on remembering the Buddha – not on becoming enlightened. Nembutsu is a vehicle through which we are opened to the unconditional compassion of the Buddha. We may experience the compassionate reality of the Buddha through a profound spiritual experience, or just a deeper sense of peace and joy. No matter our experience, in life we rely on whatever light we have from the Buddha to try to navigate daily difficulties. When we rely on ourselves, we tend to create more suffering. When we rely on the Buddha, there is likely to be more light and love in the world.
While we are in this world, if we feel so moved, we can work with others to try and further the work of Shakyamuni Buddha in transforming this world into a Pureland, an ideal realm for awakening, a world in which there is less suffering caused by war, privation, and discrimination, a world in which kindness and compassion are taught and practiced widely.
In any case, we should always try to remember the Buddha, the source of awakening and the expression of unconditional compassion, love, and wisdom.
Namo Amida Bu!
This Chinese version of the Nembutsu is a favorite of mine.