Pure Land

While Buddha taught that spiritual awakening is available to anyone who quietly looks inside, years down the road, some who practiced his techniques reached the opinion that the teachings—called the “dharma”—were not necessarily realistic for everyone. One such person was a Buddhist monk named Shinran Shonin who lived in 12th century Japan. He was similar to Protestant reformer Martin Luther in that even as a devout monastic, he did not feel satisfied with his religious accomplishment.

Shinran understood intellectually what he was supposed to do during his regular meditation—stand apart from the activity of his mind, observe the stream of thoughts, recognize them for the illusory stories they are—but in practice this seemed nearly impossible to achieve. If this was so difficult for someone like him, who lived away from society and spent countless hours on the task, what about regular people who held jobs and raised families? Was the ultimate goal of attaining “nirvana” during their lifetimes realistic for them? How could they hope to benefit from what the Buddha taught?

This line of thought gave birth to a new variation of Buddhism called Pure Land. In some Asian countries, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, Pure Land is the most popular type of Buddhism. While this isn’t the case in the United States, it is still a widely practiced version of the faith, as evidenced by the local temple whose services, held on Sundays, I decide to attend.

Pure Land offers a unique interpretation of the Buddha: he was the human incarnation of an immeasurable entity, sometimes called “Amida Buddha” or “Eternal Buddha of Light.” This vast Buddha purposefully took human form to inspire humanity and someday, once the teachings of this human Buddha are forgotten, the eternal Buddha will once again walk the earth. The name “Pure Land” is a reference to a place that appears in the recorded teachings of this human Buddha, a fantastic setting where jewel-encrusted trees grow and lotus blossoms reach the size of city blocks. In Pure Land Buddhism, this location is an afterlife destination, a nirvana for anyone and everyone who maintained faith in the immeasurable Buddha during their lives.

Today’s Pure Land service takes place in a mid-century building lined in hedges trimmed with bonsai-precision. Though it is listed as a “temple,” it is part of a network of “Buddhist Churches of America,” so I suppose it is something of a bridge between two worlds. An Asian woman with a thick, swingy bob hair cut welcomes me with the day’s program. Inside looks and feels like a church with pews and an altar, though the elegant simplicity evokes the Japanese design aesthetic. It may have a church-like shape, but the program reveals a filling that is decidedly Buddha flavored. The congregation is called “the sangha,” the choir is the “sangha singers,” and kids attend “dharma school.” We won’t be singing hymns, but we’ll chant verses of dharma—repeated, handed down, and later written by Buddha’s followers—called “sutras.” A dharma discussion will take the place of a sermon.

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14 thoughts on “Pure Land

  1. I smile because when I entered the ministry school of Centers for Spiritual Living called, Holmes Institute and I saw all the religions we would study I thought they had many differences. They did but when all was said and done and we got past the precepts and concepts, rituals and doctrines it was easy to see that at the end of the road there was only One Power and they have all birthed from that One Power. It no longer concerned me about whether someone was talking Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Jew they all end up at the same starting point: One Power. Once I accepted that premise I had no problem accepting them all and as with Corinna’s report on this sect of Buddhism to simply know that the One Power is alive and well and expresses Itself in many forms and the same relationship to It exists for all even when they think there’s is different or special. God is all there is.

    • Pure Land Buddhism is a tricky term because from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, Amitahba’s (Amida) pure land is not a place one goes for certain, unless one aspires, makes meritorious virtue in this life, and has the right Karma from previous lives.

      It’s up to the individual to arrive there and not a choice made by any Buddha.

      A main difference between heaven and a pure land is that a pure land is only a stopping place for practice. One goes there, works to become a Bodhisattva, and then possibly is reborn in many different universes to continue to free sentient beings from samsara.

      I’d say there are different versions of Pure Land belief systems across Eastern and, now, American cultures.

      Fun post to read

      –okiebuddhist

  2. Why is it that people never seem to be satisfied with this life on earth….gratified to have had the opportunity to be alive, even when life is not always easy or pleasant. They seem to have to come up with alternatives for their eternal future. I do understand, but it puzzles me in the long run. Merrill

    • and isnt it more fun not to know? :D

      I know it sounds silly; especially when we start talking about end of life here on earth = death… but i really am starting to think that death is a journey to somewhere really exotic – so exotic that no one wants to come back from it ;)

    • We all love a good story. Santa Claus, the Easter bunny. It doesn’t have to be real or true but it must make us feel uplifted and better about this life and an imagined life to come.
      Unfortunately people get so wrapped up in their particular story that they refuse to recognize that there are many others walking to the same place on a different road.

      • and…because we all suffer from mild forms of hallucination or schizo-affective disorder. I swear there is a ghost in the form of a rabbit in my home. I am not the only one who thinks they have seen it. :-)

    • Hi Merrill: I have the same question. Early on in my Christian experience, I began to think of heaven as a rather glorified earth, the place that God originally made for us to live in before we screwed it up–rather than the stereotypical view of people sitting around on clouds strumming harps…..BORING! woof! (bring a magazine along to read). The majesty of this earth of incredible!

  3. Through your site, I continue to discover, enjoy, and, learn the diversity of what the world has to share…..Thank you………Colleen

  4. Enjoyed hearing peoples’ favorite prayers. I got a book for Christmas by Anne Lamott called Help Thanks Wow. She considers these three prayers to encompass anything we might need to express to a higher power, and I like it.

    I’ve got a question: What is Zen Buddhism, and where does it fit amongst the different schools? (If you’re going to tackle this later, Corinna, just ignore me for now)

  5. Correction about the words comment: those are perfect in a pinch. Personally, I still love my measured litany and prayers. But I have found myself so helpless in thought and speech sometimes that one word prayers are my lifesaver.

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