Of the various forms of Buddhism that developed after the demise of the historical Buddha in 480 B.C., Mahayana (the "Great Vehicle") became the dominant tradition in East and parts of Southeast Asia. This broad area encompasses China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, among other countries.
In time, a number of schools arose within Mahayana Buddhism in accordance with the capacities and circumstances of the people, the main ones being the Zen, Pure Land and Esoteric schools. Among these schools, Pure land has the greatest number of adherents, although its teachings and methodology are not widely known in the West.
Given its popular appeal, [Pure Land] quickly became the object of the most dominant form of Buddhist devotion in East Asia. (M. Eliade, ed., Encyclopedia of Religions, Vol. 12.)
The present book, part of a series published by the Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, is a modest attempt to enlarge the understanding of East Asian Buddhism, which (with the possible exception of some segments of Japanese Buddhism) is essentially eclectic in approach and outlook.
What is Pure Land?
[Pure Land comprises the schools] of East Asia which emphasize aspect of Mahayana Buddhism stressing faith in Amida, meditation on and recitation of his name, and the religious goal of being reborn in his "Pure Land," or "Western paradise." (Keith Crim, general editor, Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, p. 586).
In practice, the most common technique of the Pure Land school is the recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name.
Along with this popular form of Pure Land, there is also a higher aspect, in which Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, is equated with our Buddha Nature, infinitely bright and everlasting (Self-Nature Amitabha, Mind-Only Pure Land).
Pure Land: a Compassionate Tradition
Several main elements define Pure Land:
Its teachings are based on compassion, on faith in the compassionate Vows of Amitabha Buddha to welcome and guide all sentient beings who so desire to His Pure Land;
It is an easy method, in terms of both goal (rebirth in the Western Pure Land as a stepping-stone toward Buddhahood) and form of cultivation (can be practiced anywhere, any time with no special liturgy, accoutrements or guidance);
It is a panacea for the diseases of the mind, unlike other methods or meditations which are directed to specific illnesses (for instance, meditation on the corpse is designed to sever lust, while counting the breath is for the purpose of reining in the wandering mind);
It is a democratic method that empowers its adherents, freeing them from arcane metaphysics as well as dependence on teachers, gurus, roshis and other mediating authority figures.
For these reasons, since the thirteenth century, Pure Land has been the dominant tradition in East Asia, playing a crucial role in the democratization of Buddhism and the rise of the lay movement. Honen Shonin (1133-1212), the Patriarch of the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan, expressed the very essence of Pure Land teaching when he wrote:
There shall be no distinction, no regard to male or female, good or bad, exalted or lowly; none shall fail to be in his Land of Purity after having called, with complete faith, on Amida. (Quoted by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis in Joji Okazaki, Pure Land Buddhist Painting, p. 14.)
Van Hien Study Group
Rye Brook, NY: Feb. 1994
It is like a great regal tree growing in the rocks and sand of barren wilderness. When the roots get water, the branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits will all flourish. The regal bodhi-tree growing in the wilderness of Birth and Death is the same. All living beings are its roots; all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are its flowers and fruits. By benefitting all beings with the water of Great Compassion, one can realize the flowers and fruits of the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' wisdom.
The Vows of Samantabhadra