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 Pure Land Scriptures

1. THE CORE SUTRAS

It is important to know both the core sutras of the Pure Land school and its lineage masters, for the masters founded the school on the teachings in the sutras.

The “core sutras” refer to the scriptures in which the teachings and practices of a Dharma school are grounded.

The Pure Land school, whose ultimate aim is rebirth in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Land of Bliss, has three core sutras:

  1. Infinite Life Sutra, as Spoken by the Buddha. It is also known as Infinite Life Sutra, Life Sutra, Sutra of Two Fascicles and Longer Sutra.
  2. Contemplation of Infinite Life Sutra, as Spoken by the Buddha, also known as Contemplation Sutra.
  3. Amitabha Sutra, as Spoken by the Buddha. It is also known as Amitabha Sutra and Shorter Sutra.

We use Master Sanghavarman’s translation of the Infinite Life Sutra and Master Kumarajiva’s rendition of the Amitabha Sutra. Many Buddhist sutras contain references to the Western Land of Bliss, but only these three have been designated core sutras of the Pure Land school. The reason is twofold:

  1. The three texts focus solely on the splendors of the Land of Bliss and how to gain rebirth there. They do not mix in other matters.
  2. They all have as their guiding principle the “Fundamental Vow of Amitabha Buddha and the single-minded recitation of his name.”

The three sutras all have their special characteristics, strengths and emphases.

The Infinite Life Sutra discusses Amitabha Buddha’s 48 Great Vows at length and expounds the basic point that rebirth is achieved through the recitation of Amitabha’s name. It is the cornerstone of all Pure Land teachings.

The Contemplation Sutra speaks of the meditative and non-meditative virtues, as well as the three meritorious practices and the nine levels of rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Drawing people of all capabilities and karmic inclinations to recite Amitabha’s name, it provides the broadest induction into the Pure Land school.

Direct in its approach and omitting expedient means, the Amitabha Sutra talks exclusively about recitation of Amitabha’s name, describing the support voiced by the Buddhas in all ten directions. It constitutes the summation of Pure Land practice.

It can be said that the Longer Sutra is the source, the Contemplation Sutra the extension and the Amitabha Sutra the conclusion.

2. COMMENTARIES FROM OUR LINEAGE (PATH OF THE GREAT VOW)

It is also necessary to be familiar with the commentaries and explications of our lineage, so as to teach and practice according to tradition and to maintain the purity of the heritage.

After Shakyamuni Buddha delivered the Three Pure Land Sutras, the first to teach Pure Land practice independently was India’s Bodhisattva Nagarjuna (c. 150-250), acclaimed as the “first patriarch of all eight schools” of Chinese Buddhism. Nagarjuna, who received a prophecy of Buddhahood from the Buddha, wrote the Chapter on the Easy Path. There he classified the Buddha’s teachings into “the Easy Path and the Difficult Way.” He said that to practice name-recitation according to Amitabha’s 18th Vow was like crossing the water on a ship; it was easy, relaxing and reassuring. Nagarjuna also composed The Twelve Rites, praising the virtues of Amitabha Buddha.

Then came the “Master of Ten Thousand Commentaries,” Bodhisattva Vasubandhu (c. 320-400) of India. Summarizing the principles of the Three Pure Land Sutras, he wrote the Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land. It explained that rebirth could be achieved through single-minded aspiration and a mere five recitations of Amitabha’s name. Perfect enlightenment would quickly follow.

Next was Master Tanluan (476-542) of the Northern Wei Dynasty, who was known as “the divine Luan.” Following the Dharma tradition of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, he composed the Commentary on the Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land. He brought to light the hidden meaning of the Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land, explicating the Difficult and Easy paths as “self-power” and “other-power” respectively, with the latter stemming from the Fundamental Vow of Amitabha Buddha. He also wrote the Gatha in Praise of Amitabha Buddha, which extolled the merits of Amitabha’s Pure Land.

After him came the highly virtuous and influential Master Daochuo (562-645) of the Sui-Tang period. Consciously following Master Tanluan’s footsteps, he composed the Collection on the Land of Peace and Joy, which expounded the notion of the Sacred and the Pure Land paths. Harmonizing his teaching with the conditions of the time, Daochuo encouraged people to seek rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land.

He was followed by Master Shandao (613-681) of the Tang Dynasty, who was widely regarded as an incarnation of Amitabha Buddha. A personal disciple of Master Daochuo, he wrote the Five Works in Nine Fascicles, consisting of the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Dharma School of Contemplation and Recitation, In Praise of Dharma Practices, In Praise of the Rites of Rebirth and In Praise of Pratyutpanna (“in the presence of the Buddhas”). These writings definitively set out the teachings and practices of the Pure Land tradition. Pure Land emerged as an independent school, and recitation of Amitabha’s name was thenceforth enshrined as a luminous practice.

The heritage continued with the Japanese master, Honen (1133-1211). Basing his teachings on the thought of Shandao, he composed the Collection on Choosing Buddha-Recitation According to the Fundamental Vow and founded the Pure Land school of Japan.

The above lineage masters all centered their treatises and commentaries on the Fundamental Vow of Amitabha Buddha. They advocated other-power and the Easy Path. Drawing on a common source, they promoted the same teachings and practices. This is the lineage of the commentaries; it is also known as the Path of the Great Vow.

3. INCORPORATING THE PATH OF IMPORTANCE

After the heritage of the Great Vow Path, we need to know about the drawing in, or incorporation, of the Path of Importance. This enables us to recognize the use of expedient means to embrace people of all capabilities and karmic inclinations.

Thirteen patriarchs, or lineage masters, are generally recognized in the Chinese Pure Land school. In order, they are Huiyuan (334-416), Shandao (613-681), Chengyuan (712-802), Fazhao (747-821), Shaokang (736-805), Yanshou (904-975), Shengchang (959-1020), Lianchi (1532-1612), Ouyi (1598-1655), Xingce (1627-1682), Shengan (1686-1734), Chewu (1741-1810) and Yinguang (1861-1941).

Unquestionably, the 13 patriarchs advocated – and urged people to seek – rebirth in the Western Land of Bliss. Each made substantial contributions. According to the Pure Land school’s de facto founder, Master Shandao, the school is divided into two sub-traditions: the Path of Importance and the Path of the Great Vow. To varying degrees, the thought and teaching of the 13 patriarchs inclined towards one or the other path.

Those who promoted the Great Vow were Shandao, Fazhao and Shaokang (Tanluan and Daochuo were of the same persuasion). In modern times, Master Yinguang clearly inclined towards the Great Vow in his thinking, though he often took account of the Path of Importance in his teaching.

Between them, the two paths drew in and accommodated a very extensive range of adherents, turning Pure Land into an independent, preeminent Dharma school.

QUESTION: Master Huiyuan lived some two centuries before Master Shandao, and while the lineage masters from Yanshou through Chewu came later, none of them had seen or read Shandao’s Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. How can they be classified under the Path of Importance, as defined by Shandao?

ANSWER: Classifications can be made according to the characteristics of the patriarchs’ thought and the manner of their teaching. Those who promoted “seeking rebirth in the Pure Land by single-mindedly reciting Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow” belong to the Path of the Great Vow. Those who advocated “practicing the meditative and non-meditative virtues, and dedicating the resulting merit towards rebirth” are proponents of the Path of Importance. This has nothing to do with whether they came early or late, or whether they had read Master Shandao’s works.

QUESTION: So whether they came early or late, whether they had seen Shandao’s writings or not, all Pure Land patriarchs are to be categorized according to either the Path of Importance or the Path of the Great Vow. If such a classification accords with the facts, can the facts be that coincidental? If it does not, then it is a human construct. How can that convince people?

ANSWER: The classification is neither coincidental nor a human construct; its inevitability is a matter of pure logic. For example, if we live in this world, we necessarily dwell either in its eastern half or its western one. Similarly, when it comes to teaching Amitabha’s Pure Land, it is not possible to do so outside the two paths. Besides the 13 patriarchs, all prominent advocates of Pure Land can be put into one or the other category. Tanluan and Daochuo, for instance, promoted the Great Vow, while Cimin taught the Path of Importance.

QUESTION: Since Master Shandao spoke of the two paths and explained the Path of Importance (seeking rebirth by dedicating merit from good deeds) according to the Contemplation Sutra, surely he emphasized both paths? Why do you say Shandao advocated the Path of the Great Vow exclusively?

ANSWER: The Tiantai school classified the Dharma into four paths: Pitaka, Common, Distinctive and Round (perfect). But they promoted only the Round teaching. Likewise, Master Daochuo explained both the Sacred Path and the Pure Land Path, but advocated Pure Land alone.

Consider also a large tree, whose branches and leaves give shade to everything around it. The tree itself, however, is rooted in the earth; it is grounded in a specific space or realm. Similarly, Master Shandao roots himself in the Path of the Great Vow. Though he explicated the meditative and non-meditative virtues of the Path of Importance, he was using them to shed light on the workings of the Great Vow. As he noted in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: “The passages in the [Contemplation] Sutra on meditative and non-meditative virtues are meant only to highlight the point that rebirth is achieved through recitation of Amitabha’s name.” The Commentary also said, “Though preceding passages spoke of the merits of the meditative and non-meditative virtues, the Buddha’s underlying wish is that sentient beings recite Amitabha’s name single-mindedly.”

QUESTION: Yanshou and other masters achieved the status of Pure Land patriarchs, but were not included in your lineage. Why is that?

ANSWER: They were designated patriarchs because of their great contributions to propagation of the Pure Land tradition. As their teaching inclined towards the Path of Importance, they are not a part of our lineage. In classifications relating to any Dharma school, there is always a distinction between primary and secondary elements. The lineage of a school is based solely on the primary factors, not the secondary ones. Within the Pure Land school, the Path of the Great Vow is the root (primary) and the Path of Importance are the branches and leaves (secondary). Therefore we make reference only to the Path of the Great Vow while determining lineage.

QUESTION: The Amitabha Sutra is a core (primary) sutra of the Pure Land school, especially as it speaks solely of recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name. Masters Lianchi and Ouyi both wrote commentaries on it. How can they be classified among the branches and leaves of the Path of Importance?

ANSWER: Though the sutra they explicate is a primary text, their expositions remain entirely within the Path of Importance. Such works as Master Lianchi’s Commentary on the Amitabha Sutra and Master Ouyi’s Explication of the Amitabha Sutra were influenced by the classifications of other schools; they do not thoroughly illuminate the purpose of Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow. Therefore they remain within the confines of the Path of Importance. As for Master Shandao, not only is his In Praise of Dharma Practices – explicating the Amitabha Sutra – a part of the Great Vow Path, but so is his treatise on the Contemplation Sutra. Though that work speaks of the meditative and non-meditative virtues, its core focus is on name-recitation according to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow.

QUESTION: Are the branches and leaves of the Path of Importance of little significance then?

ANSWER: The teachings of the various patriarchs all have their particular timeliness and special circumstances. So long as they are in harmony with prevailing historical conditions, they are significant, even indispensable. If not for the Path of Importance, we would not have “all schools converging with the Pure Land school.” But without the Path of the Great Vow, the situation of “Pure Land dominating the other schools” would not exist. The two paths complement and complete each other, working together to teach sentient beings. As in the case of a tree, the root gives rise to the branches and leaves, which in turn enhance the root. They constitute a single entity.

QUESTION: Why are masters such as Fazhao, who was both a patriarch and an advocate of the Great Vow Path, not included in the lineage?

ANSWER: The meaning of lineage is such that those selected for inclusion not only promoted the Path of the Great Vow exclusively, but also made great contributions to Great Vow thought, leaving important writings to posterity. Accordingly, there are only Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu in India, and Tanluan, Daochuo and Shandao in China.

QUESTION: Tanluan and Daochuo taught extensively, made key contributions to Pure Land thought and are recognized as lineage masters. Why aren’t they listed among the 13 patriarchs?

ANSWER: In truth, there are many factors behind historical traditions. Since the two are lineage masters, their contributions and status surpass those of standard patriarchs. Their standing does not depend on traditional rankings.

English translation by Householder Jingtu

Pure Land Scriptures


Characteristics

Characteristics

  • Recitation of Amitabha’s name, relying on his Fundamental Vow (the 18th)
  • Rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards
  • Rebirth assured in the present lifetime
  • Non-retrogression achieved in this lifetime
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Guiding Principles

Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings