Sunday, January 8, 2006

Why seek rebirth in the Pure Land?

One of the forms of Buddhism I have always found fascinating is Pure Land, both the "traditional" form associated with Chinese practice as well as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu (or just Shin). I recently ran across a question someone had about the appearance of escapism and other-worldly salvationism of Pure Land and how this can be consistent with the general teachings of Buddhism about the importance of here and now and cultivating our own Buddha-nature. I am not a Pure Land scholar but off the top of my head this is a the quickly response I came up with:

While there is no consensus support for this view, one way to think of it is this:

1. There is only ever the living moment
2. This moment can be seen in terms of form (time and space) and formlessness (the undiscriminated totality)
3. The world of form is defined by its interdependence as impermanence allows causality and hence change; reality is ever unfolding.
4. Form and formlessness are only distinguished as separate things (rather than separate perspectives) by the mind
5. The mind heavily influenced by conditioned responses often focuses on an incorrect view of the world of form
6. Among the delusions of an incorrect view of the world of form are greed, anger, and ignorance
7. These three poisons can keep us from realizing our own inherent potential to change ourselves and the world around us for the better, but more importantly they keep us from realizing that fundamentally we are already complete (i.e. we already possess Buddha-nature)
8. Amitabha can be seen as the primal or eternal or common Buddha-nature of all sentient beings
9. The Pure Land reflects how a Buddha sees the world which is manifested through the pure intentions and meritorious actions on behalf of all sentient beings
10. Initially for many these are seen as an external figure (Amitabha Buddha) and an external place (Pure Land)
11. Aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land is manifested through faith in Amitabha's vow that those who recite his name will achieve this end (rebirth in the Pure Land)
12. In time the practioner may see Amitabha internally, as an aspect of their own self, or themselves as an aspect of Amitabha, or Amitabha as metaphor
13. Eventually for some the distinction is gone--Amitabha is neither a just a figurative myth nor a real but distinct individual
14. Similarly, the Pure Land becomes more than "just" a representation of our goals or "only" a faraway separate world
15. The faith in Amitabha becomes faith in our own pontential for awakening and hence at the point of clarity alluded to one is a realized Buddha*
16. Therefore by dwelling in the Pure Land by seeing the world through pure intentions and actualizing them in meritorious actions we can realize enlightenment

(*this works for Jodo Shu and Shin as well as we are already Buddhas, and hence by having faith in the Vow we have faith in our own capacity for wisdom and compassion despite our perceived shortcomings; just as Amida has already made a Pure Land, we are already sleeping Buddhas--we are awakened to both of these realizations by faith)

Ironically I think that a verse from a sutra associated with Chan Buddhism is helpful here: "Affliction is just Bodhi and the cycle of birth and death is Nirvana"

The Pure Land counterpart to this would be something like "The ordinary man is Amitabha and the everyday world is the Pure Land." The difference between being able to percieve this and not is what people call awakening or enlightenment. Form and formlessness are mutually perceived simulataneously.

(Caveat: this view is based on the premise that rebirth occurs each moment, not ONLY between the lifespans of historically distinct named individuals)


  1. Shinran, the teacher who founded Shin Buddhism, propounded the idea that being a Buddha or a bodhisattva is something that can only be attained in the after-life. The Tannisho,a work written after Shinran's death by a disciple, records Shinran as once saying:

    I, Shinran, have never even once uttered the Nembutsu for the sake of my father and mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth-and-death. When I attain Buddhahood in the next birth, each and everyone will be saved.

    If it were a good accomplished by my own powers, then I could transfer the accumulated merits of Nembutsu to save my father and mother. But since such is not the case, when we become free from self-power and quickly attain the enlightenment of the Pure Land, we will save those bound closest to us through transcendental powers, no matter how deeply they are immersed in the karmic sufferings of the six realms and four modes of birth.

    It seems that in Shinran's thought, enlightenment is a process that can only be perfected in the other-world. But of course that does not mean it is has no bearing in this life when one accepts Amida.

  2. As I noted in my caveat, there is a difference between viewing rebirth strictly in terms of the historical named entity we call a person and the rebirth present in each moment (which encompasses the former). There are those who think of the Pure Land strictly in terms of an "after"-life and those who see life as more than a limited collection of experiences as a named person (where was before? when is after?). I do appreciate the quote. I do not, however, wish to paint all Pure Land practioners (Shin or otherwise) into one corner or another. I would emphasize that my list of progression does not require nor prohibit one from being able to see the Pure Land at any point in regard to rebirth on any level.

    As for my own reading, I don't see anything in the quote that says the Pure Land is only something we can see after the physical death of out historical selves. Instead it seems to be emphasizing the importance of faith and Other-power.


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