Subject: Origin of the Pure Land
Date: Thu, 30 May 2002
From: Tham Kwok Kheong
Dear Dhamma Teacher,
Thank you for the explanation of the Three Versions of Buddhism. I came across this Pure Land sect of Buddhism which portrays reaching the Buddha's Pure Land and eventually Nirvana seemed very simple. I would be grateful if you could provide me with some information on this. Thanks
Pure Land Buddhism had its roots in ancient India (and perhaps amongst the Buddhist sof ancient Iran), but developed fullest in China and East Asia. As a living religion, Buddhism is able to answer challenges from other religions. Today, for example, we have English Buddhist hymns and Sunday Schools, which are our answers to the Christian challenge. The Christians in turn are very interested in learning Buddhist meditation because they face problems (like less people going to church) in the West.
Similarly, sometime between 500 and 1000 years after the Buddha's passing, Buddhism was challenged by other religions like Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism (from Iran). Zoroastrianism teaches that light represents goodness and darkness stands for evil. Manichaeism followed many of the Buddhist teachings, like using Buddhist words. Even the founder, Mani, is called Buddha!
The Mahayanists of ancient India then evolved teachings and worship that centre around the Buddha as the personification of light (representing the ideal of Enlightennment). Instead of talking about Nirvana, these ancient teachers (probably the lay stûpa-keepers) spoke of beautiful paradises, which are really earthly vision of Nirvana.
Devotees are taught a simple mantra, that of reciting the name of Amitâbha (whose name Amita + Abha means “Boundless Light). However, this recitation should also be accompanied with focusing the mind on the image and virtue of the Buddha Amitâbha (Úâkyamuni as the Great Enlightenment). Devotees were also encouraged to use “mudras” (hand gestures like lotus palms, putting palms together) or using beads to help one's recitation. (Muslims later adopted the Buddhist beads and use it for reciting Allah's name!)
In short, Pure Land Buddhism is a simplified form of description and practice of Buddhism for the simple people. This works very well, because the most friendly, generous and exemplary Buddhists are the Amitâbha devotees. Many of them are involved in social work. So we see Buddhism in dynamic action through devoting one's three doors (body, speech and mind) to the Buddha.
See: Fujita Kotatsu, “The Origin of the Pure Land” (The Eastern Buddhist (new series), vol. 29,1 1996:33-51.