This work presents a translation of the Amitabha Sutra, seminal text of Pure Land Buddhism, along with a translation of a commentary on the sutra by the eminent seventeenth century Pure Land Master Ou-i. It is appropriate to introduce the translations with a few words on the general nature of the Buddhist teachings and the specifics of Pure Land Buddhism, and a brief note on the life and times of Master Ou-i himself, and the moment in Buddhist history in which he worked.
Buddhism: Skill in Means
Buddhism has taken on many diverse forms during its two and a half thousand year history, but none has been more influential than Pure Land Buddhism. The special methods and techniques of Pure Land Buddhism are specifically designed to enhance the spiritual focus of all people. Pure Land practices can be integrated into the daily work and family life of anyone of any age, no matter what their circumstances, no matter how pressed they are for time, no matter what their karmic entanglements. For this reason, Pure Land Buddhism has always been immensely popular wherever it has been propagated, and has been the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in East Asia for the past thousand years and more.
According to the basic principle of Buddhist teaching, the principle of skill in means, it is essential that any presentation of the Buddhist message be adapted to the needs and capacities of the particular people to whom it is being offered. From the Buddhist point of view, then, it is not only perfectly legitimate, but absolutely necessary, that Buddhism should have taken on so many forms during its long history.
Within the perspective of skill in means, there can be no question of judging any particular form of the true Buddhist Teaching as higher or lower than any other form. People's needs vary, and so through the generations enlightened teachers acting out of wisdom and compassion have established teachings that vary in form, but still serve the same goal.
The only thing that matters is the effectiveness of any given formulation of Buddhism -- whether it leads people to act more charitably, to behave with self-restraint, to show patience towards others, to dedicate themselves to spiritual advancement, to perfect their powers of concentration, and ultimately to develop enlightened wisdom. There's a Zen saying: "Even false words are true if they lead to liberation; even true words are false if they become the object of attachment."
The champions of Pure Land Buddhism have always made the case that Pure Land methods are especially valuable because they are particularly effective in meeting the needs of the greatest number of people. When we face facts, most of us have to admit that we see little realistic prospect of achieving salvation through the eons of gradual practice spoken of in the Buddhist scriptures, or the heroic efforts of the Zen masters, or the years of esoteric dedication demanded by the Esoteric Schools. Pure Land practice, on the other hand, is explicitly designed as an easy way, open to all.