What is Pure Land Buddhism (Part 2)?

Greetings, ya’ll.

Here I will continue my entry on Pure Land Buddhism. Last time I explained that the term “Pure Land Buddhism” is used to refer to both:

1. Broad Mahayana concern for rebirth in the “Buddha Realm” (aka, “Pure Land”) of a particular Buddha

2. Jodo, Jodoshin, and Ji Schools that emerged in medieval Japan.

I also mentioned that I tend to reserve the label “Pure Land Buddhism” for the later, preferring to recognize the former as a basic, or generic, dimension of Mahayana Buddhism.

Anyway, today I will describe the Pure Land Buddhism of Honen briefly, and I think in Part 3 I will talk about Honen’s disciples, including Shinran, and then I’ll talk about Ippen (who is totally fascinating, even though I know far too little about him!). Eventually, after briefly sketching “Pure Land Buddhism,” I will move on to consider other broader issues in Mahayana thought and practice concerning the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha. Eventually, I might actually talk about my own research! Ah!

But for now…

(Note: Since this is a short blog entry, I will not cover everything, just a few things that immediately spring to mind. So if you feel that I’ve missed something important, please let me know :-) )

In the late Heian period, a Tendai monk named Honen came to embrace one part of the Mt. Hiei monastic curriculum to the (seeming) exclusion of the other parts. Honen took the Larger Pure Land Sutra as his justification for practice, and preached a radically universal path to awakening. According to Honen’s reading of the Larger Pure Land Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha’s sole reason for appearing in the world was to preach the Dharma of the Buddha Amitabha, that who ever calls upon this Buddha by name in the form of the nenbutsu, “Namu Amida Butsu,” giving rise to deep faith in this Buddha, will attain Rebirth in that Buddha’s land, where awakening is more easily attainable. Honen argued that the nenbutsu was a practice selected by both Amitabha and Shakyamuni, and that this practice is praised by all Buddhas as an all-embracing, superior gate to awakening.

Honen’s logic was quite simple, yet compelling. The best Dharma must necessarily be that which saves all sentient beings without exception. Since beings possess a broad range of capacities and abilities, potential for awakening cannot depend on the abilities of sentient beings, because then only a few would attain awakening. In other words, the “Path of Sages,” the elite practice culture, could not be the ultimate basis for Buddhism. Moreover, since the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni was so far in the past, the declining capacities of sentient beings to attain awakening had similarly made it even more difficult to rely upon even one’s singlular devotion to the Dharma. Therefore, the highest Dharma cannot be reserved solely for those with money or intellect, or the circumstances to cultivate extraordinary effort. Honen argued that sentient beings needed to rely on the “other power” of Amida (Skt. Amitabha).

After reading the entire canon three times, Honen concluded that the chanting of the name of the Buddha Amitabha, “Namu Amida Butsu,” was simple enough to be universally attainable, and moreover, had been selected by all Buddhas as an effective practice for the universal attainment of Buddhahood. Therefore, the only essential practice is the nenbutsu, all else is secondary.

By Honen’s time, the nenbutsu was already a popular practice in all levels of society in China, Korea, and Japan. In Japan, during the mid-late Heian period, Pure Land movements of lay people and lay-monastics  had grown more widespread, so there are some scholars that see Honen as “tapping a market” that was already flourishing. I think that this perspective better explains the backlash and persecution that Honen experienced. I don’t find his nenbutsu doctrine to be all that “radical,” most monks in East Asia say the nenbutsu and aspire for Rebirth in the Pure Land, but what I do find to be radical about Honen was his ability to tap into the faith of the common people. This devotion and will, not fancy “doctrine,” is what the authorities feared. If salvation lies in a universal practice, if salvation lies in the hands of the Buddha Amida, and not the state, not the clergy, not even the effort of the lucky few, then common people are perhaps less obliged to follow the legal contracts that threaten divine retribution.

If Amida Buddha is the ultimate unmediated source of awakening, then the state does not control one’s ultimate fate. I think the state was already fearful of uprising (most oppressive regimes are), and Honen’s doctrine was empowering to common people and elites alike, providing them with a practice that gave them individually a direct line to salvation/awakening. Other forms of Buddhism had already been doing this for some time, but Honen’s charismatic teaching style seems to have struck a chord with commoners, samurai, elites, and other monks.

Honen did not implant Amitabha/Pure Land devotion in the minds of the populace, but I think his invocation of the power of the Pure Land mythos was potentially anti-institutional, on the one hand, and profoundly empowering, on the other. Pure Land Buddhism is interesting, I think, because it seems like an “other worldly” path, but inevitably seems to lead to “this worldly” action. This elicited both persecution from the authorities, and the fervent embrace of people open to a new interpretation of an already common object of devotion.

During the Kamakura period, Honen had many famous disciples like Bencho, Shoku, and others who preached different versions of Honen’s doctrine. Honen leveled substantial critiques against many forms of Buddhist practice, but that doesn’t mean that he rejected them absolutely. He still kept the precepts and engaged in long periods of meditative nenbutsu practice. Honen remained a “Tendai” monk till his death. Some say that he practiced what he preached, but didn’t preach all that he practiced. As a result, his disciples and the traditions that drew their inspiration from his teaching career were quite diverse.

Honen’s magnum-opus, the Senchakushu, was written as a secret teaching to his immediate disciples. Many modern and contemporary scholars, I think, misread Honen in two ways. First, Honen was not rejecting all forms of Buddhism other than nenbutsu recitation. We can see this from his own lifestyle. Second, Honen did not found a new kind of Buddhism. We can see this from the early history of his immediate followers and their interactions with other monks. Honen explains at the end of his text (it seems like many don’t actually read to the end…) that all forms of meditation are available for practice in the Pure Land. He argues for a preliminary “bracketing” of these various practices while focuing on nenbutsu for now, so that you can get to the Pure Land, and then you will attain awakening through the various practices that he “rejects” at the beginning.

Honen also mentions that assurance of rebirth in the Pure Land is attainable in this life, and some have read that to mean that glimpses of the Pure Land are possible in this life. Some of his disciples seem to have taken a traditional Shingon/Tendai view that these “glimpses” are the same as Pure Land rebirth, that the Pure Land is attainable here and now, and this would mean that for those who attain assurance of rebirth here and now, all practices are once again available for practice. I think this is probably an extreme interpretation of Honen, but it is one interpretation.

I think that like many Buddhist thinkers, Honen established his teachings with an implicit tension built in. This tension sould have an effect on the lives of those who seriously engaged in his form of practice. Honen taught a means of transformation that was new, but not wholly dissimilar from the perspectives that preceded him. The reason I reserve the label “Pure Land Buddhism” for those traditions growing out of Honen’s career is because he rooted his practice primarily in the Pure Land mythos of Amitabha’s Pure Land, and when/if other practices were included, they were included with that perspective in mind.

Honen’s disciples, and the disciples of Honen’s disciples, came from many different Buddhist institutions with their own perspectives on Pure Land practice. Honen did not establish a new kind of Buddhism, but rather constructed a conceptual position from which monks interested in Amitabha could come together and evaluate the various claims made about Pure Land Rebirth. Eventually, this conceptual position, known as the Jodo “shu,” came to become its own sect apart from the traditions of Kyoto and Nara institutions. (At this time, the word “shu,” which is today often translated as “sect,” meant something closer to “discipline” or “area of study/focus.” Sometimes these “shu” were associated with a particular institution, and over time, these “shu” became “sects.”) However, this did not happen in Honen’s lifetime, but happened several generations or centuries later.

During Honen’s time, there were many different perspectives on the nenbutsu and its function as a form of practice. Some engaged in intensive chanting retreats, saying the name millions of times until a vision of the Buddha appeared before them. This is perhaps one of the earliest uses of “nenbutsu” (which literally means “Buddha Mindfulness”), to bring about an encounter with a Buddha that had not passed into parinirvana. Other monks practiced a “tantric” form of nenbutsu practice in which the chanting of the name of a Buddha like a mantra in which attainment of Pure Land Rebirth is attained in this body, here and now. (Btw, most mantras are in fact simply the names of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. The famous, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” is a mantra for Avalokitesvara, “Mani Padme” being another name for this Bodhisattva, somewhat-literally “Mr. Jewel-Lotus.”) Others chant the name of a Buddha and realize that this world itself is a Pure Land being “purified.” In other words, there are many diverse perspectives on what Pure Land devotion might entail. Honen built upon his creative reading of the Chinese monk Shandao, and simply focused on the cultivation of faith in the Buddha Amitabha through the practice of the nenbutsu, a single minded devotion that is said to bring about a transformation in this life, and Buddhahood in the next. In a way, Honen established a new perspective from which to engage and debate the meaning of Buddhist practice and devotion, adding a new voice to an already diverse Mahayana Pure Land environment.

That is all for now. I apologize if that post was a bit rambling. Sometimes the thoughts just flow in whatever order they want. If this were an academic paper, I’d refine it down and reorganize. But, we’re all friends here, so whatev’s ;-) Let me know if you have any questions or comments or suggestions!