What is the Pure Land

Download This Talk

When Buddhism was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century, it was adopted as a state religion by the government of the time. The aristocracy used Buddhism as a vehicle to pray for the safety of the state and for their own longevity. Esoteric Buddhism was particularly suitable for this purpose, so Esoteric Buddhism became popular in the early stages of the development of Japanese Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism, on the other hand, remained somewhat peripheral for several centuries. Generally speaking, whereas Esoteric Buddhism as a state religion in Japan was very much concerned with worldly happiness, Pure Land Buddhism was far more concerned with the spiritual liberation of the individual and developed along those lines.

Although there had appeared a number of noble Pure Land figures such as Kyoshin (-866), Kuya (903-972), Ryogen (912-985), Genshin (942-1017) and Yokan (1033-1111), Pure Land Buddhism had to wait for the advent of Honen and Shinran before really starting to develop and flourish as a great spiritual movement of MahAyAna Buddhism in Japan.

Pure Land Buddhism is not the name for a particular Buddhist denomination but a general appellation for various Buddhist schools that teach people the doctrine of birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as the way to attain Buddhahood. The main texts in Pure Land Buddhism are:


  1. The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life
  2. The Sutra of Meditation
  3. The Amida Sutra


  1. The Commentary on the Dacabhumi by Nagarjuna (born in 2nd century?),
  2. The Treatise on the Pure Land by Vasubandhu (born in 5th century),
  3. The Commentary on the Treatise by T’an-luan (476-542),
  4. The Commentary on the Land of Happiness and Peace by Tao-ch’o (562-645),
  5. The Exposition of the Sutra of Meditation by Shan-tao (613-681),
  6. The Essentials of Birth [in the Pure Land] by Genshin (942-1017),
  7. The Collection of Passages about the Nembutsu based on the Selected Original Prayer or The Senjaku-hongan-nembutsu-shu by Honen,
  8. The Collection of Passages Expounding the True Teaching, Living, Faith and Realizing of the Pure Land or The Kygyoshinsho by Shinran (1173-1262).

Needless to say, amongst all the voluminous writings to do with Pure Land Buddhism, the three Pure Land sutras mentioned above are of quite particular importance. The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life and The Amida Sutra have the same Sanskrit name, SukhavatIvyuha, but they are actually quite different texts. I would like to refer to them as the Larger SukhavatIvyuha and the Smaller SukhavatIvyuha. Each of them has several different versions, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. According to academic studies of the texts, the oldest Chinese version of the larger SukhavatIvyuha, The Daiamidakyo, is believed to be older than the existing Sanskrit text, having been translated in the second or third century. The original Sanskrit text for this sutra is now lost and is believed to have had a different form. Professor Fujita Kotatsu, an eminent Japanese scholar in this field, concludes, after a detailed discussion in his book, A Study of Early Pure Land Thought, that early Pure Land thought must have appeared somewhere in North India or Central Asia around A.D. 100.
As regards the Sutra of Meditation, there actually is no Sanskrit version, despite the fact that the sutra played a very important role in Pure Land tradition. This sutra is believed to have originated in Central Asia. It is said to have been translated into Chinese by KalayaCas after his visit to China in 424.

These sutras describe Amida Buddha and his Pure Land in detail. How did the idea of the Pure Land originate? What did it stem from? Investigation into the origin of Pure Land thought has been a mammoth task for modern Buddhist scholars and continues to be so to this day. There are various opinions as to the origin of the notion of Amida Buddha. Some think the idea originated outside India, in Zoroastrianism for example, or in the worship of the God of the Sun in Iran; some think it originated inside India, in Vishnu or Brahma, for example, as described in Veda mythology. Still others say it stemmed from certain notions already existent in Early Buddhism.

As you probably know, “sukhavatiI,” the first half of Sukhavativyuha, means “land of happiness,” while the latter half, “vyuha,” means “adornments” or “embellishments.” Thus the literal translation of the title is “Embellishments of the Land of Happiness.” Amida’s Country is a place where everyone, once born there, can find happiness in various ways. As indicated by the title, the sutra describes, with rich Indian imagination, what a very happy land this is. The extravagant imagery is very similar to that used to describe the heavenly land of Hindu mythology. This is why some scholars presuppose that Pure Land thought stemmed from the notion of a heavenly land, deva’s (god’s) world. Indian tradition must have exerted a certain influence, of course, but I don’t think that it was the only source of influence.

Because the notion of “birth in a heaven (deva’s world)” is found in Early Buddhist texts such as the Suttanipata and the Dhammapada, it is accepted amongst scholars that the notion did have some influence on the formation of Pure Land thought. At the time, however, lay people were simply taught that they would be born in some heavenly place if they did good deeds in this world. For them the attainment of Enlightenment was not the ultimate concern.

Dr Issai Funahashi points out that the teaching of the four kinds of samana fruit found in the Theravada texts actually comes much closer to the notion of birth in the Pure Land. The four kinds of samana fruit are:

1) Sotapanna – those who have abandoned all false views in the Triple World and have entered into the pure stream of sanctification. They are definitely proceeding toward Enlightenment, even if they repeat the cycle of birth-and-death between the world of human beings and the world of gods (heaven) seven times at most.

2) Sakadagamin – those who have attained the stage in which there is only one more rebirth. They are said to have one more birth in heaven before returning to earth for the attainment of Enlightenment.

3) Anagamin – those who have attained the stage of non-returning. They will never return to earth but will attain Enlightenment in heaven.

4) Arahat – those who have attained Enlightenment in this world. They will have no rebirth.

In this teaching the attainment of Enlightenment or NirvAna is the ultimate goal. In this respect it is much closer to the notion of birth in the Pure Land, because the purpose of attaining birth in the Pure Land is nothing other than the attainment of Enlightenment. In Pure Land Buddhism, however, there is no longer the idea of transmigration between this world and heaven. It is abandoned. The only concern is the attainment of Enlightenment through birth in the Pure Land. Birth in the Pure Land is called birth of no birth [and no death]. The Pure Land is the world of Enlightenment where there is no birth and no death. Thus the Pure Land is also said to be the equivalent of NirvAna. Birth in the Pure Land means attaining Buddhahood.

In his main writing, The Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran says:

When ordinary people possessed of blind passions, the multitude caught in birth-and-death and defiled by evil karma, are awakened to the faith and practice whereby they are made to be born in the Pure Land owing to Amida’s virtue of turning his merit over to others, they join the company of the rightly assured [of birth in the Pure Land] in the Mahayana. As they abide in the company of the rightly assured, they are sure of attaining Nirvana; as they are sure of attaining Nirvana, they are eternally blessed; eternal bliss is ultimate peace; peace is incomparable Nirvana; Nirvana is the Dharma-kaya of non-doing; the Dharma-kaya of non-doing is Reality; Reality is Dharma-nature; Dharma-nature is true Suchness; true Suchness is the suchness of the One. Being so, Amida Nyorai (tatha + agata), coming (agata) from Suchness (tatha), reveals himself in various bodies, such as the Body of Recompense, the Body of Response, and the Body of Transformation.

He also says in the same book:

Humbly reflecting on the true Buddha and his Land, I find that the Buddha is the Tathagata of inconceivable Light and the Land is the land of Infinite Light.

Of all the opinions put forward as to the origin of the Pure Land the one that has charmed me most is Dr Akira Hirakawa’s view that the Pure Land was modeled on a stupa or memorial tower to Gautama Buddha. Detailed description of the Pure Land is very similar to the structure of a stupa such as one found at Sajchi.

As you may know the Mahayana movement is said to have arisen amongst those who revered a stupa. When holding meetings at a stupa, they chanted sutras, sat in meditation and conversed on the Buddha. Over the years that followed the death of the Buddha they must have reflected deeply upon him. What was the Buddha? How did he live? Why did he die? Where did he come from and where did he go to? Where is he? What is the essence of the Buddha? Mahayana Buddhism developed, I think, from within the movement whereby those that gathered at his stupa sought to return to the Buddha.

Although the Buddha’s physical body (rupa-kaya) had long passed away, the truth (dharma) he taught still remained, working within his indirect disciples. People thought, in Mahayana Buddhism, that the essence or the true body of the Buddha was the Dharma and called it dharma-kaya. This Dharma-kaya is always working with Wisdom and Love – two essential aspects of the Buddha. The Dharma-kaya in itself has no form and is beyond description. When it works for all beings in manifest form, it is called “Sambhoga-kaya,” the Body of Recompense. Amida Buddha is such a Buddha of Sambhoga-kaya, because he is a Buddha who attained Buddhahood as a result of a long period of self-discipline, based on his original prayers when still a bodhisattva. Amida Buddha is thus a Buddha of Dharma-kaya in its manifest form.

When Mahayana Buddhism came into being as a result of a movement to return to the Buddha, it’s my belief that the essential will of Gautama Buddha, by which I mean his sincere and earnest prayer that all beings be saved, was given symbolic form by those gathered around Gautama Buddha’s stupa and conceptualized as Amida Buddha, a Buddha of Infinite Light and Eternal Life. And from the stupa itself his followers acquired some sort of image of the Pure Land.

The Land of Happiness (SukhavatI) is called the Pure Land because of its purifying function. The power of purification comes from the Buddha’s Enlightenment. The Buddha’s Enlightenment is entirely beyond all the defilement of this world (Triple World). To be a Buddha means to continue to be enlightened oneself and to continue to help others be enlightened.

In Buddhism people and their environment are believed to be very closely interrelated. Every Buddha is held to have his own country. Amongst the countless Buddhas that feature in Mahayana sutras there is not a single one that does not have his own land. Each Buddha lives with his friends in his own country. As stated in the Vimalakilrti-nirdeca-sutra, “When the mind is purified the land is purified too.” Since every Buddha has his mind purified through Enlightenment, his land is pure and is called a “pure land.”

In this case the notion of purity is absolute, it is something beyond all discrimination. It is not ‘purity’ as opposed to ‘defilement’ but absolute purity to be realised through Enlightenment. Concerning the purity of Amida’s Pure Land, a very philosophical interpretation can be found in the Commentary on the Treatise of the Pure Land by T’an-luan (467-542):

“One Dharma is Purity. Purity is Unconditioned Dharma-kaya (body) to be realised with True Wisdom. [The Treatise of the Pure Land by Vasubandhu]” These three notions are mutually fusing. Why is it (the ultimate truth) called “One Dharma”? Because it is “Purity.” For what reason is it called “Purity”? Because it is “Unconditioned Dharma-kaya to be realised with True Wisdom.” “True Wisdom” is the wisdom of realising True Reality. Because True Reality is formless, true wisdom is unknowing. “Unconditioned Dharma-kaya ” is the body of Dharma-nature. Because the Dharma-nature is tranquility (nirvana), the Dharma-kaya is formless. Because it is formless, it assumes every possible form. Therefore the Dharma-kaya provides itself with form. Because it is unknowing, there is nothing that it does not know. For this reason, the wisdom of knowing all forms of existence is the true wisdom. The reason why “Wisdom” is described as “True” is in order to show that it works and yet does not work. The reason why the “Dharma-kaya ” is described as “Unconditioned” is in order to show that the Dharma-kaya is neither form nor no-form. A double “No” does not mean “Yes” in opposition to “No.” It is an absolute “Yes” with no “No” standing against it. It is “Yes” all by itself. It is not waiting for any “No” to come up and negate it. This kind of “Yes” is, therefore, neither “Yes” nor “No.” It is something beyond description even by ‘one hundred negations.’ Hence, “Purity.” Purity refers to Unconditioned Dharma-kaya that is to be realised with True Wisdom.

Purity is the absolute principle of Amida’s Pure Land. It can be classified into two kinds of purity: 1) purity of people — Lord and inhabitants — and 2) purity of the environment.

Amida Buddha built his Pure Land for the salvation of all human beings, with absolutely no discrimination against anyone. In this context salvation means birth in the Pure Land, the attainment of Enlightenment. When they enter the Pure Land, people become enlightened through the working of purification of the Pure Land itself.

Purity is the substance of the Pure Land, where people and the environment purify one another unceasingly. As the inhabitants are purified, so the environment becomes pure and as the environment is purified, so the inhabitants become pure. Each has an immediate effect on the other through the act of mutual purification.

In our long tradition of faith in Amida Buddha, therefore, the notion of the Pure Land is very important and the role of the environment is absolutely crucial.

Although descriptions of the Pure Land found in sutras depict it as beautiful and marvelous, we cannot build it in this world. Whatever we fashion, whether it be a temple, a garden or a community, can never be the Pure Land itself. If you think otherwise, you gravely misunderstand the notion of the Pure Land.

What we fashion in this world is just an imitation of the Pure Land. The Zen garden at our Buddhist centre, for instance, is not the Pure Land itself, though you might say it was meant to symbolise the Pure Land – the world of Enlightenment. Indeed for me that is definitely the case. Our Buddha shrine could also be considered as symbolising Amida’s Pure Land. The image of Amida and his Pure Land symbolises the world of NirvAna, of ultimate tranquility, Absolute Nothing beyond being and non-being.

You can see a sort of symbolism in this way of thinking. Such symbolism is very important on our spiritual journey, because it shows us the direction we should take in order to realise the ultimate goal, the Truth, symbolised by the symbol.

Living Pure Land Buddhism can be called dynamic symbolism because it always involves people in creative activities such as building stupas or temples and in purifying or cleaning them as part of their daily lives. Their pure, living faith, the innermost spirituality underpinning such creative activities, does not allow them to stagnate or to become attached to anything anywhere, instead it drives them on in a quest to benefit both themselves and others.

In connection with the dynamic symbolism found in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in Shin Buddhism, I would like to say a few words about another important aspect. At the moment of attaining pure faith, when you are freed from all attachments to your own world, symbols like the garden or the Buddha image come to appear as manifestations of the hidden truth (Dharma-kaya) symbolized by symbols. Not only so-called symbols but everything around you become shining manifestations of the ultimate truth (Dharma-kaya). Everything appears as the workings of the ultimate truth, usually hidden from our eyes. In this respect there is a connection between Shin Buddhism and the deepest aspect of Esoteric Buddhism. The Founder, Shinran Shonin says, however, that we should not be attached to anything, even to faith-experience such as this, otherwise we will be far removed from the truth of Buddhism.

Last but not least, altruism plays a very important role in Pure Land Buddhism, as it does in MahAyana Buddhism in general. Contrary to the usual understanding of Pure Land thought, it is believed amongst Pure Land Buddhists that one who wishes to be born in the Pure Land merely in order to gain happiness will actually not be able to be born in the Pure Land at all.

To conclude this talk, let me quote again from The Commentary on the Treatise by T’an-luan:

Those who are not awakened to the Supreme Enlightenment mind and yet are desirous of being born in the Buddha-land just for the sake of enjoying themselves in the pleasures continuously enjoyed, they have heard, by those that reside there, such people will never attain birth in the Pure Land. So it is said, “the bodhisattva does not wish for himself to indulge in the pleasure of support and maintenance, but he simply desires to eradicate all the sufferings that human beings undergo in the world.”

Thank you.
Kemmyo Taira Sato