Pure Land, a Buddhist Approach for Today

1) Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land School

Traditionally, in Mahayana temples and pagodas, monks and nuns recite the Amitabha Sutra in their evening prayer session, followed by the sacred names of the three Pure Land Sages: Amitabha Buddha and the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin/Kannon) and Mahasthamaprapta (Shih Chih/Seishi). Moreover, Buddhist followers, whether clergy or laymen, usually greet fellow cultivators with palms joined and the words "Amitabha Buddha."

Pure Land teaching effectively suits today's times and the Buddhas' intentions and has quietly penetrated the psyche of Buddhists. Wherever Buddhism is practiced, the majority of followers always have the sacred words "Amitabha Buddha" in mind. Japanese Buddhism has the following saying: "the Esoteric School and the T'ien T'ai School are reserved for the nobility, Zen practice is the domain of the samurai, and Pure Land is for ordinary people." And, ordinary people always form the majority.

It follows, therefore, that in Mahayana countries, those who practice Buddha Recitation (i.e., recite Amitabha Buddha's name) represent the majority.

2) Predictions concerning the Pure Land

In the Longer Amitabha Sutra, Buddha Sakyamuni made the following prediction:

In the days to come, the paths of the sutras will come to extinction. I, with compassion and mercy, will purposely make this sutra survive for a hundred years. Anybody who encounters this sutra will, according to his wish, surely attain enlightenment. (tr. in Shozomatsu Wasan: Shinran's Hymns on the Last Age, Ryukoku University Press, p.xv.

In the Great Heap Sutra, Buddha Sakyamuni predicted:

In the Dharma-Ending Age, among the multitude of practitioners, very few will attain the Way. The most they can expect is to rely on the Pure Land method to escape Birth and Death.

Elder Zen Master T'ien Ju also admonished:

In the Dharma-Ending Age, all sutras will disappear, and only the words "Amitabha Buddha" will remain to bring liberation to sentient beings.

This is because [in the distant future] deep in the Degenerate Age, when all sutras have disappeared and people's capacities are at a low level, they will not be aware of any method other than Buddha Recitation. If they do not believe in and practice Pure Land, they will certainly remain mired in the cycle of Birth and Death. Within that cycle, good actions are difficult to perform while bad deeds are easy to commit. Thus, sooner or later they are bound to sink into the hellish realms.

The Patriarch Yin Kuang, a Chinese Pure Land Master of recent times, also said:

In the current Dharma-Ending Age, sentient beings bear heavy karma and their minds are deluded. If they practice other methods rather than Buddha Recitation, they can expect to sow the seeds of merit, virtue and wisdom but not to escape the cycle of Birth and Death in their present lifetimes. Although there are a few instances of great monks exhibiting extraordinary achievement, they are in reality transformation Bodhisattvas. In accordance with their vows, they act as examples for sentient beings in the Dharma-Ending Age, as is taught in the Surangama Sutra [a key Zen text]. Even then, these Bodhisattvas, adapting themselves to people's capacities, can only take the expedient appearance of having awakened to the Way, but not of having attained Enlightenment.[5] In the specific case of Pure Land, very few sentient beings can achieve the Buddha Recitation Samadhi these days, compared to earlier times. However, through Buddha Recitation, they can "take their residual karma along with them" to the Pure Land -- by relying on their own vows and those of Amitabha Buddha. Once there, they have escaped Birth and Death, achieved non-retrogression, and can progress in cultivation until they reach the stage of Non-Birth.

These predictions show clearly that the Pure Land method is well adapted to the causes and conditions of the current period and the capacities of today's people. For this reason, Buddha Sakyamuni made the compassionate vow to preserve and disseminate the Longer Amitabha Sutra, to teach Buddha Recitation to sentient beings. This is also true of the Bodhisattvas and Patriarchs, who, through their compassionate vows and in accord with the current times, also teach the Pure Land method.

It is due to the power of these vows that the Pure Land method has become popular among the majority of Buddhists.

3) The Shift from Zen to Pure Land

From ancient times, Zen has been especially popular in China, Korea and Japan. In Vietnam, as well, with its people rich in intuition and influenced by Chinese thought, Buddhism and Zen used to be synonymous. From the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Buddhist monks and nuns formed a significant percentage of the population, and almost all followed the Zen School. In those days Buddhism was at its apogee in Vietnam (with three monarchs abdicating to become Zen Monks). Numerous monasteries were known to house a great many monks and nuns, to the point where it was said that "the monks quarters (in a certain temple) numbered up to three thousand, and each morning some seventy persons were required to clean and sweep them."

However, from the thirteenth century onwards, the influence of Zen began to wane in both China and Vietnam. On the other hand, Pure Land began to predominate, ultimately taking the lead, until it became the most popular school throughout East Asia.[6]

Some readers may ask, "Who says that our capacities are not the same as those of the ancients? It seems so only because we lack self-confidence and do not exert enough effort."

Answer: Effort and self-reliance should always be encouraged. However, the statement is not really valid. If the majority of today's people were not mediocre, why would Sakyamuni Buddha have taught about the three periods: the Perfect Age of the Dharma, the Dharma Semblance Age, and the Dharma-Ending Age? Moreover, Buddhist sutras mention the five periods of consolidation, from the True Dharma Time to the Dharma Fighting Time (during which monks and laity alike would engage in endless rivalry instead of cultivation). Furthermore, with sutras and commentaries much more available than in earlier times, why is it that practitioners who attain the Way are now so rare? Is it not because the capacities of people today are in general lower and weaker than in earlier times?

As the Patriarch Yin Kuang said:

Cultivation is no different from wearing cotton garments in the summer and heavy padded clothing in winter, we cannot go against the times, capacities and conditions of sentient beings. Even if the Patriarch Bodhidharma himself were to be reborn today, and wished to preach in accordance with the current times and conditions and swiftly emancipate sentient beings, there would be no better method than Pure Land.

Thus, if what we teach is not in accord with the times and the capacities of sentient beings, the latter will surely drown in the sea of suffering. I sincerely call upon you all, even though you may practice a different method, to make the Pure Land your goal. However, if you have reached the stage where a white plum blossom is no different from a yellow chrysanthemum, this writer will gladly rejoice in your attainment!