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.