A Very Short History of Pure Land

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Amida Buddha

At the same time that Mahayana Buddhism was establishing itself in the Asian cultures, the Pure Land tradition had also established itself in India. There are few substantive historic materials extant, but early scriptures of this tradition (which later became known as the Triple Sutras) appeared during the initial period of the Mahayana movement. Two of them are of Indian origin and date from about the first century B.C. The third scripture, which dates from about the fourth century, exists only in a Chinese version. It first appeared in what T. Unno describes as the "Central Asian and Northern Chinese cultural sphere". Their basic message centers on the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha to bring all who call upon his name to full awakening.

By the fourth century, Pure Land was spreading throughout China in various manifestations. By the fifth century over two hundred Buddhist texts mention the name of Amida as the source of power for release from the bondage of our suffering. The great Chinese Patriarch Chih-i, T'ien T'ai founder, made the use of Name Meditation an integral part of his great thought, practice, and writings.

Although the Pure Land tradition matured in China, it reached a very active state of development in Japan as a result of the work of Honen and Shinran. They realized that Buddhism is ineffective when treated as a mere intellectual pastime, rational discipline, or ritual ceremony. Rather, Buddhism is only effective when practiced as a direct Way that engages the whole being...a spiritual Path that is not dependent on academic learning, cultural or intellectual sophistication, or elaborate rituals.

It was in the sixth century that Japan was introduced to Buddhism, and with it the Triple Sutras. Monks and Nuns were gradually attracted to Pure Land devotional practices as they found their other practices to be generally unfulfilling and lacking in spiritual consolation. At that same time, the general population was effectively excluded from the Path because Buddhism had become essentially elitist, a way followed by the nobility and by the monastics of the time.

The twelfth century was a time in Japan of great social unrest, natural calamities, and of inner and outer turmoil. It was in this time, in the year 1175, that the Japanese Tendai monk Honen created what effectively became an independent Jodo, or Pure Land School, in response to the spiritual hunger of ordinary, average people, He was also responding as well, as others had before him, to his own inner needs.

Honen's way consisted of exclusive reliance on the Primal Vow of Buddha Amida, made real in his own life experience by faith as he recited or chanted Amida's name. This recitation, called the Nembutsu, consists of the phrase "Namu Amida Butsu", which means "Homage to Amida Buddha". It is something anyone can do, and does not require either education, or many hours of free time. It can be done any time, any place.

Honen reached beyond the confines of monasticism to begin the Bodhisattva task of helping everyone to achieve Enlightenment. It was then that Amida's Primal Vow began to play a full and crucial role in Japanese society, opening the door to Pure Land Buddhism for anyone and everyone.

Honen's efforts attracted other monks, including Shinran (1173-1263). Shinran was also a Tendai monk 40 years Honen's junior. He became Honen's student, and together they spread the message of Amida's Primal Vow, and the way of entrusting in that vow by reciting the Nembutsu, the hallmark of the Pure Land path.

As was written at that time, "This is indeed the true teaching which is easy to practice even for ordinary people. Of all the lifetime teachings of the Great Sage, nothing surpasses this ocean-like virtue. Those who wish to leave this defiled world of samsara and aspire for the Pure Land, those who are confused about religious practices and faiths, those who are dark in mind and lacking in wisdom, and those who are burdened with heavy evil karma and many hindrances - should, by all means, esteem the Tathagata Shakyamuni's exhortation and follow the supreme direct path to Enlightenment; they should exclusively hold fast to the this practice and only uphold Faith".

Shinran had learned, as Honen had before him, that in the Nembutsu there was a direct way of entrusting themselves to the Primal Vow of Amida to bring all beings to an Awakening.

This is the great gift given to the world in the Pure Land path.It was the gift originally given by Shakyamuni. It was the gift extended by our master Chih-i, and it was the gift personified by Amida. Pure Land is the most widespread school of Buddhism in the world.


If Pure Land Buddhism is presented plainly in the language of any people in any culture, it can be as effective today as it was in earlier times. It is this gift which we encourage each person to consider carefully when searching for a "way" to awaken to one's Original Nature.

If we understand that all beings are already in possession of Buddha Nature, then it is our duty and privilege to rediscover our Original Mind, and understand the part played by our physical senses in it's loss. This is what Enlightenment is all about. Enlightened is what we already are, naturally, and all we have to do is rediscover it. The word "HONGAKU" deals with this insight and comes to us through the Tendai doctrine of Original Enlightenment. In it we discover the truth of Endless Light, of Boundless Life, of All-encompasing Compassion, of Great Wisdom, Great Strength, of Great Powers of Attainment.

We are these things. Because we possess Buddha-nature as our very nature, we are inherently enlightened even in our greatest darkness. It is only because we have lost sight of our true nature and have become fiercely attached to a false sense of ego-self that we fail to realize this. This state of non-understanding is called delusional thinking. Once we are able to recognize our delusional state, we then can return quite naturally to the non-delusional, inherently enlightened, state of being which is our natural condition...our Original Nature.

Amitabha invites awareness of this Original Nature by the simple process of entrusting ourselves to Amida and to the potential of the Primal Vow, and to its awakening potential for all beings. In recitation, in chanting the Nembutsu - this Mantra of Amida - our faith in action unfailingly opens the door to awakening as we practice with sincerity and diligence.

It is with love and admiration of the countless lives which have preceded ours, lives which turned the great Wheel of Dharma in all areas of Asia, that we identify ourselves with the Pure Land heritage and say:

Namu Amida Butsu

Namo Amito-Fo

Namo Amitabha Buddha

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