Pure Land Buddhism in Japan

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Of the many types of Buddhism in Japan, Pure Land Buddhism stands to be one of the most popular sects in both the present and throughout history. This particular sect of Buddhism revolves around the worship of the Buddha Amida and his vow to save all those who have believe in his power by chanting Amida’s name before death, earnestly hoping for rebirth into the Pure Land in which one can easily attain nirvana. In this sense, Pure Land Buddhism provides a stark contrast to many of the other forms of Buddhism that advocate the necessity of experiencing countless rebirths over multiple kalpas, or immeasurably long periods of time, in order to achieve a state of non-retrogression and achieve Buddhahood. Because of this contrast, some scholars (primarily western ones) completely refute the teachings due to its inconsistencies with the Dharma taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni. Nagarjuna, another well-known Buddha, in his discourse on the ten stages also held a relatively negative perspective of Amidism, referring to it as the ‘easy way’ to attain enlightenment, suitable for the mentally weak with no aspiration (Inagaki). However despite these controversial aspects, there are yet sufficient reasons that Pure Land Buddhism should still be considered an authentic sect within Japanese Buddhism.

It could be argued that the most noticeable contribution of the Pure Land teachings towards Buddhism was improving the religion’s accessibility for the common people. Those that normally had no disposition to participate in the meticulous, difficult lifestyle of Buddhist monks could find comfort within Pure Land principles that only required nembutsu, or the chanting of Amida’s name. Although Pure Land Buddhism existed in Japan as early as the 6th century CE, its widespread popularity did not occur until a monk named Honen began to preach his simplified interpretation of a form of Amidism that was written by a monk named Genshin in the late 10th century (Hays, 2009). This was significant in that it replaced the tedious practices common in other sects existing during the late Heian and early Kamakura period for a simpler approach.

Despite other traditional Buddhist sects attempting to suppress the spread of Pure Land teachings, its followers grew to be a formidable force in Japan. This was due to the efforts of Honen and his disciple Shinran who popularized the form and gave the common people the means to participate in Buddhism, a religion that was primarily associated with aristocracy at the time. In addition to the common people, because Pure Land Buddhism also advocated the salvation of all those who had faith in the Buddha Amida, even criminals could practice Pure Land teachings, allowing more followers into the sect. Thus, this increased interest in Buddhism brought by newfound accessibility to formerly enigmatic approaches to attaining enlightenment had a significant impact in Japanese Buddhism by changing the preconception that only people of special status or nobility could be Buddhists to one that allows everyone to easily become Bodhisattvas.

On the surface, Pure Land Buddhism seems to stray far from the traditional teachings of Shakyamuni and Nagarjuna. However, it is difficult to completely deny its connections to principal Mahayana concepts. For example, the chanting of the Buddha Amida’s name may not be simply revering the Buddha as an omnipotent being comparable to God, but also have a purpose in stimulating the inherent Buddha nature of a practitioner of Amidism, much like the chanting of various sutras in other forms of Buddhism. On a similar aspect, the Pure Land that one experiences rebirth through absolute faith may be metaphorically implying a higher state of mind achieved when one draws out his or her Buddha nature (BBC).

Although Honen and Shinran would most likely argue that the Pure Land is an existential plane that exists separately from the saha world (the world as we know it), this is doubtful according to the Vimalakirti Sutra that insists that the saha world itself is the Buddha world and that a Pure Land separate from the Buddha world cannot exist. Therefore, despite Honen and Shinran’s assertions to the contrary, the practice of nembutsu and the entrance into the Pure Land may be closely connected to the practitioner’s change in mental state rather than a literal rebirth into a holy paradise.

Even from a chronological standpoint, the other Buddhist sects of the Kamakura period had little basis to deny Pure Land’s authenticity. The practice of chanting the Buddha Amida’s name, an integral part of Pure Land teachings, has roots from some of the oldest Buddhist traditions dating back to the death of Siddhartha Gautama. Nembutsu can be literally translated as “thinking of the Buddha,” a concept that arose from the growing yearning to see a Buddha after Shakyamuni had passed away. Thinking of the Buddha was a prevalent concept during the growth of Mahayana teachings in China, and later developed from just thinking of the Buddha Amida to reciting his name aloud in order to further increase concentration when meditating on the Buddha. The Pure Land of Amida is even mentioned in the texts of the Lotus Sutra, as a place of rebirth to easily achieve nirvana for those unable to escape from the burning house of transmigration. The most essential aspects of Pure Land Buddhism having existed from the early stages of Mahayana further reinforce Pure Land’s position as an authentic Buddhist sect.

Also noticeable is that although Pure Land Buddhism does emphasize that one cannot obtain enlightenment solely through one’s own efforts, it does not deny that one must still practice the Buddha Way after being reborn into the Western Paradise in order to complete the journey to nirvana. Therefore, taking the Mahayana teaching of non-self into account, it would be hypocritical to accuse Pure Land Buddhism of inauthenticity due to a lack of reliance on the ‘self’. It is possible that the concept regarding the shift from the reliance on ‘self’ towards the reliance on the Buddha Amida advocated by Honen and primarily Shinran corresponds with the traditional Mahayana teachings of ‘no self’. A notable exception to this perspective would be the requirement to chant Amida’s name ten times at the exact moment before one passes away, which exudes ritualistic and mystical elements. However, considering that the esoteric Buddhism of Kukai also includes many ritualistic elements, it is difficult to utilize this issue to dismiss the legitimacy of Pure Land Buddhism.

The concept of relying completely on the Buddha Amida instead of through one’s own devotion and practice may have seemed strange to the other Buddhist sects like Tendai and Shingon likely due to their ingrained beliefs on the process of attaining the ultimate. From an objective perspective however, traditional Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism preach very similar concepts. In detail, the concept of skillful means and compassion for others is prevalent in both traditional and Pure Land teachings. The only difference is that in traditional Buddhism, the practitioner is on the side which is being compassionate and utilizing skillful means to help others attain enlightenment, while Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes the receiving side of the same skillful means and compassion by the Buddha Amida and his vow to save all faithful sentient beings; they can be seen as two sides of the same coin. With this in consideration, it may be more accurate to consider Pure Land Buddhism not as a separate entity from traditional Buddhism, but rather the same teaching in a different perspective.

Concerning Shinran’s development of Pure Land teachings, superficially it may appear to diverge from not just Mahayana teachings, but even traditional Jodo teachings, and is likely to be the primary basis of most criticism towards this form of Buddhism. An example of this involves whether entering the Pure Land is viewed as a means for the attainment of nirvana or as nirvana itself. Although traditional Jodo teachings state that once one is reborn into the Western Paradise, one must still practice the Buddha way in order to reach nirvana. On the other hand, Shinran believed that the very rebirth into the Pure Land itself was equivalent to attaining the ultimate and entering enlightenment.

However, if one considers the Pure Land as an alternative term for a higher state of mind, considering the rebirth in the Pure Land as attaining nirvana adheres to traditional Buddhist beliefs. However, it is unlikely that Shinran supported this belief for he and Honen advocated the Pure Land as a real place for practicing the Buddha way. Another controversial aspect of Shinran’s Jodo Shinshu involves the emphasis on complete faith for the Buddha Amida, even going so far as to state that criminals would have a greater opportunity to enter the Pure Land than those who do good deeds. He states that this is because criminals are more likely to have blind faith in Amida than good people relying on one’s own abilities. On the surface, this may seem to discourage acts of good deeds and encourage misdeeds, but Shinran’s true intentions can be seen as completely different. Shinran himself had refuted the utility of conducting evil to enter the Pure Land by asserting that good and evil deeds of people are only the results of the karmic conditions accumulated throughout their previous lives.

Instead of directly discouraging people to do good deeds, Shinran may have been emphasizing more on the detachment from the notion of doing good (or bad). Committing good deeds and expecting a reward, in this case the entrance into the Pure Land, can hardly be seen as an honorable act worthy of a Buddha. It may be because only a Buddha or those who have already achieved the state of non-retrogression can truly conduct good deeds out of pure selflessness that Shinran’s teachings of absolute faith in the Buddha Amida have some credibility as a reasonable means of attaining nirvana. This also explains why Honen and Shinran asserted that the age of Mappo, an age where Buddhist ideas are deteriorating and is impossible to attain enlightenment through one’s own practice, was upon them and that Amida’s benevolence was the only path to become a Buddha.

There is also the question of whether the Buddha Amida was a Buddha who truly existed or was simply a fictitious existence told by the Buddha Shakyamuni, which would challenge the validation of the Pure Land thought. This is due to the Buddha Shakyamuni having been a historical person known as Siddhartha Gautama while there are no historical documents of Amida’s direct appearance or teachings (Phap, 2016). However, Honen argues that both Amida and Shakyamuni are necessary for the spread of the Dharma, for Amida had been introduced by Shakyamuni while Shakyamuni required the narrative of the Buddha Amida as skillful means to spread his teachings. Shinran further develops this concept by focusing more on the significance of Amida, by stating that Shakyamuni is a manifestation of the Buddha Amida and would not have become a Buddha had Amida not existed. This is supported in the Infinite Life Sutra where Amida is considered the original Buddha who resides in all Buddhas. Thus, it could be said that the relationship between Shakyamuni and Amida is that of interpenetration, which also coincides with the teachings of non-dualism prevalent in Mahayana.

From its development and popularization in the early Kamakura period, Pure Land Buddhism and its unique forms of praxis stirred significant conflict within the Buddhist scene at the time. Despite appearing completely radical compared to the Buddhist norms of Tendai, Shingon, Zen, and other major traditional Buddhist sects, the accessibility in its methods of attaining the ultimate contributed greatly to its rise as one of the dominant Buddhist forms in Japan. There are yet many criticisms toward Pure Land Buddhism for being inauthentic and transgressing from the Dharma taught by Shakyamuni, however many of these criticisms fail to recognize that Pure Land thought is heavily rooted in the traditional Mahayana teachings. Although it is not certain whether the Pure Land is what Honen and Shinran believed to be a physical manifestation of a holy land for the studying of the Dharma or is a metaphor for an enlightened state of mind, Pure Land Buddhism is not bereft of any of the qualities of an authentic form of Japanese Buddhism, which is supported by its sheer prevalence in the Buddhist scene.

Cite this paper

Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. (2021, Jan 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/pure-land-buddhism-in-japan/



Is Pure Land Buddhism still practiced?
Yes, Pure Land Buddhism is still practiced today by millions of people in East Asia and around the world. It remains one of the most popular and influential forms of Mahayana Buddhism.
What type of Buddhism is Pure Land?
Pure Land Buddhism is a type of Mahayana Buddhism that stresses faith in the Buddha Amitabha. It is the largest form of Buddhism in East Asia.
When did Pure Land Buddhism become popular in Japan?
Pure Land Buddhism became popular in Japan in the 12th century.
Who founded Pure Land Buddhism in Japan?
Qualitative research is a method of inquiry employed in many different academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. It is a method of data collection and analysis that focuses on observing and describing social phenomena in naturalistic settings.
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