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About Pure Land Buddhism
»What is Pure Land Buddhism?  »Pure Land Sutras  »Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and teachers
What is Pure Land Buddhism?
The Essence of Pure Land Buddhism
In the world there are many ideologies, systems of thought, and creeds by which we attempt to lead a better life or to realize an ideal society. Buddhism offers an excellent way for everyone to realize the ultimate goal of human existence in terms of "attaining enlightenment" through the profound awareness of truth.
According to Shakyamuni Buddha, final peace in the world as well as in the individual will be realized when the individual becomes liberated from ignorance and self-attachment, which are the causes of our suffering. Beyond the horizon of the finite, self-limited world, we can find the infinite world of great peace and happiness. When we learn and practice the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the scriptures, we will be able to attain this final state.
In the teachings of the Buddha, we can find many ways of realizing this final state. They may be classified into the two major streams: the Mahayana and the Theravada, the Esoteric and the Exoteric, the Easy Path and the Difficult Path, or Other-power and Self-power, respectively. According to the Pure Land tradition, the entire teaching of the Buddha can be divided into the twofold path of the Holy Way (shodomon) and the Pure Land (jodomon).
The Holy Way is the way to attain enlightenment after eliminating ignorance and self-attachment by one's own effort. This may be called the way of wisdom, for it is the way to accomplish enlightenment by the power of wisdom attained through self-discipline. It is vitally important for a Buddhist to follow the teachings of the Buddha in order to achieve religious peace of mind. However, when observing our existential being seriously in the light of the way of wisdom, we often come to realize how much we are unable to fulfill the required disciplines to eliminate ignorance and self-attachment. The more we seriously reflect upon ourselves, the more we may find ourselves "unliberated" by the way of wisdom.
When we lose the way to enlightenment by the Holy Way, we often sink down into a world of darkness and despair. Amida Buddha, however, provides a way for us to attain salvation from this hopeless state. This is the way illuminated by the light of the grace of Amida Buddha, the Path to the Pure Land. The Pure Land school opens the channel to attain salvation for those unliberated through the way of wisdom. However, since this school is different from the Holy Path, it is sometimes referred to as pseudo-Buddhism. It seems to be Buddhism, but it is not considered to be genuine from the traditional point of view. Pure Land Buddhism is also mistakenly regarded as a religion for lazy people. It is sometimes called the Easy Path as it requires only the simple act of faith and recitation of the nembutsu as its primary religious disciplines rather than the many practices of observing precepts, attaining the state of "emptiness," chanting the various sutras and so forth, as the means of reaching enlightenment.
The Pure Land school established on this basis may be called the way of salvation by a "power outside of ourselves," or "other power" (i.e., the power of Amida Buddha). Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha and the teaching by which to become a buddha, that is, Buddhism is the way through which everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, or ability can be liberated and attain enlightenment. Therefore, if anyone of disability were excluded it could not be considered Buddhism in its true sense. In other words, Buddhism cannot reveal its truth if anyone is eliminated. When Buddhism is understood as the way of universal salvation, we can understand the profound meaning of the Pure Land school. The essence of Pure Land Buddhism is revealed and apprehended through this line of reasoning and belief.
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God and Amida Buddha
The most important thing for us to understand Buddhism is the fact that Shakyamuni, a human being, awakened to truth and became the Buddha. We discussed the three-bodies of Buddha (trikaya) previously. This was an expression of the insight of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. The fact that Shakyamuni became a buddha means that every human being can become a buddha. The Mahayana tradition strongly emphasizes that every sentient being has buddha-nature (Skt. buddhata, Jp. bussho). We have buddha-nature within ourselves. A buddha and an ordinary person are ultimately the same by nature, the same ontologically. The only difference is the degree of apprehension of truth. A buddha has attained perfect wisdom, but we sentient beings have not yet attained it. That is, a buddha and an ordinary person differ from each other epistemologically.
On the other hand the Christian God has a different nature from Buddha. God is the creator of the universe, the absolute existence, the highest being, etc. God is quite different from man. He is the creator and man is the created. God is perfect good and man is a sinner. Man cannot become God however hard he may try. God and man are totally different from each other by nature, different ontologically. While God is perfect truth, man cannot attain the perfect truth of God. God is far from us. He is beyond our apprehension. God and man differ from each other epistemologically.
Thus the difference between God and Buddha in relation to man would be as follows: God is different from man epistemologically and ontologically, whereas Buddha is different from man epistemologically but not ontologically.
However, when we come to Pure Land Buddhism, God and Amida Buddha seem to be the same. Both are believed in as a savior by devotees. Among the branches of Buddhism, the Pure Land school particularly emphasizes "faith." Devotees of the school realize that they do not attain enlightenment by their own power, but by simply having faith in Amida's power of salvation.
We have buddha-nature within ourselves but we cannot reveal its true nature by ourselves. Its revelation is achieved only by Amida's grace. Our salvation is entirely dependent upon Amida Buddha. Thus as far as this aspect of Amida as a savior is concerned, we may see that Amida and God appear to be the same, but Amida also has a different aspect from that of God. Amida Buddha is not the creator or ground of all being.
According to the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, Amida Buddha is described as follows. Many eons ago there was a king. He had the opportunity to listen to a sermon given by a buddha, Tathagata Lokeshvararaja (Sejizaio-nyorai). Upon hearing the sermon, he made up his mind to renounce his palace life, and he became a monk called Bodhisattva Dharmakara (Hozo-bosatsu). He established forty-eight vows as a Bodhisattva and practiced austere religious disciplines for a long time. He accomplished these vows and became the Buddha called Amitabha. Among the forty-eight vows, the eighteenth vow is the vow of the nembutsu through which every man can attain salvation.
Now you may notice that Amida was a man and became a buddha. He is not the creator nor an absolute being, but his prolonged religious practices made him a great savior of the world. This indicates that he does not belong to the domain of God but to that of Buddha. He is within the range of Buddhist divinity
Furthermore, the story of Amida's enlightenment reflects the life of Shakyamuni. This means that Amida Buddha is the symbolic expression of the ultimate nature of Shakyamuni Buddha. He is the great liberator of the world and the great source of all life. Once again, God and Amida Buddha are both considered great saviors of the world.
From A Raft from The Other Shore Honen and the Way of Pure Land Buddhism by Sho-on Hattori, published by Jodo Shu Press and available at amazon.com
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