The Principal Sutras of Pure Land Schools ── General Meanings
Every sect and school must have its own primary sutras to base on, otherwise no matter how it is expressed in profound and mysterious words, or how efficacious and moved it is, or appealing in attracting many people, the teaching is known as “heretic”, because it is not spoken by the Buddha.
The primary sutras that the Pure Land sect is based are: The Buddha-Spoken Infinite Life Sutra, The Buddha-Spoken Contemplation Sutra and The Buddha-Spoken Amitabha Sutra. They are known as the “Three Pure Land Sutras”.
The teachings of the three Pure Land sutras are not different from each other; they are the same and in consistence—all talking about the teaching of deliverance, not the teaching of cultivation. The target of deliverance is each of us present here, and each of sentient beings with deep and heavy afflictions.
If the afflicted sentient beings with heavy karmic offenses do not rely on Amitabha’s vows of deliverance, they cannot escape from reincarnations of the Three Domains and the Six Realms, not to mention achieve Buddhahood and deliver sentient beings!
The three Pure Land sutras are words of Shakyamuni Buddha. The passing-on of the Pure Land teachings and its elaborations were accomplished by the patriarchs.
The first in the lineage of the Pure Land teaching is Nagarjuna Bodhisattva. Nagarjuna Bodhisattva wrote a book entitled “The Discourse on the Ten Stages”, in which a chapter is on “the Easy Path”. This chapter mainly expounds on the 18th Vow of the Infinite Life Sutra – the pro-active, equal, and unconditional deliverance of Amitabha Buddha.
Next in the lineage is Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, who succeeded the thought of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva and wrote the book “The Treatise of Rebirth”. Based on Nagarjuna’s concepts, he expands and discusses the objectives of the three Pure Land sutras.
Both Nagarjuna Bodhisattva and Vasubandhu Bodhisattva are Indians, bodhisattvas in India. In China, the one who continued this lineage were Master Tanluan in the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 AD), Master Daochuo in the Sui Dynasty (581-619 AD), and Master Shandao in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The one who compiled all the teachings of all patriarchs is Master Shandao in Tang Dynasty.
These are the three patriarchs in China who succeeded the thought of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, and expounded on the important meanings of the three Pure Land sutras.
Following the lineage of Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Tanluan, Daochuo in the Pure Land teaching, Master Shandao wrote a magnificent work called the ‘Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra’ about the principles of Pure Land Buddhism, based on the Buddhist sutras [spoken by the Buddha], the classification of teaching and lineage in transmission [by patriarchs]. All necessary structures in systems and organization are readily completed, so the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra is regarded to be a book for the inauguration of Pure Land School of Buddhism.
The most fundamental practice of all sects and schools of Buddhism must be based on the sutras. Similarly, adoption of a practice for rebirth in the Land of Bliss, which is very important, must also be based on a solid ground, and cannot be any arbitrary act without a base. The adopted practice must be based on the trustworthy words of a sage, i.e. what the Buddha says. If we do not follow the Buddha’s words, the result will like what this saying describes, “If one word is deviated from the sutras, it is equivalent to the demon’s words”.
Among the sutras, there are principal sutras that each Buddhist sect and school bases on. The principal sutras of Pure Land Buddhism are sutras about rebirth. Within the 84,000 teachings expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha, there are around 200 sutras mentioned about the Land of Bliss and Amitabha Buddha.
So to speak, Shakyamuni Buddha always reminds sentient beings, especially at the end of his life, that they must recite Amitabha’s name so as to attain rebirth in the Land of Bliss. Among all the sutras, there are only three, i.e. the Three Pure Land Sutras, focus only on the Land of Bliss and expound the compassion and greatness of Amitabha Buddha from start to finish. So, the Three Pure Land Sutras are the sutras on rebirth that we follow.
Our learning and practice of the Pure Land teaching is based on a theoretical ground, and the most important part is the sutras that are surely the words told by the Buddha. Only those words delivered by the Buddha can be relied on as the basis of our learning of Buddhism.
The Buddha is an enlightened being who have realized the truth of universe. He understands thoroughly the truth of human life and universe. Naturally, his words reveal the truth. So, only those words spoken by the Buddha can be the theoretical ground of the teaching of our school.
Besides, we have to follow the teachings passed down by the patriarchs of our sect’s lineage. Because the Buddha is a man of great wisdom, and his words cannot be fully understood by ordinary beings like us. Even we read some sentences in the sutras first-hand, we may or may not understand its meanings—could be right, or could be wrong or distorted. So, it is better to study the sutras in accordance with the explanations of the patriarchs of our sect’s lineage so as to avoid misunderstandings.
Apart from following the sutras and following the commentaries and interpretations of our patriarchs, we also observe evidences and facts. Both the theories spoken by the Buddha and the interpretations made by patriarchs are correct; but how to proof that the theories are factual truth? This requires evidences, including evidence by sutras, evidence by commentaries, and evidence by facts.
“Evidence by scriptures” refers to sutras [spoken by the Buddha] and commentaries explained by patriarchs. These scriptures form the bases of our teaching, without which it is just an empty talk. Nowadays, there are many new religious beliefs, of which the teachings are invented by respective founders, without any reference to scriptures of the Buddhist sutras and the patriarchs’ commentaries. So, “evidence by scriptures” is the primary source or root [of our teachings].
The principles and reasoning spoken in the sutras are “evidence by commentaries”. These commentaries, of course, have to follow the tradition passed on by patriarchs of the school’s linage, because we may not be able to understand the principles and reasoning in the sutras. We have to rely on explanations made by the patriarchs. This is the meaning of “evidence by commentaries”.
Nevertheless, “evidence by facts” is even more important than “evidence by sutras” and “evidence by commentaries”. For instance, in regard to the matter of assured rebirth in the Land of Bliss through Amitabha-recitation, we already have the “evidence by sutras” and the “evidence by commentaries”. A question remains: Is there any people really reborn in the Land of Bliss? If there is none, it lacks of evidence by facts. How can people believe?
If there are factual evidences—i.e., there are people reborn in the Land of Bliss through Amitabha-recitation, and there are many of them since antiquity, at home and abroad, it can demonstrate that the factual evidences are sufficient to prove that the sutras and the commentaries are true with no mistake. Will this inspire us to strengthen our faith on a solid ground?
From the perspective of the self-power teaching, the nine levels [of rebirth in the Contemplation Sutra] are interconnected and can be expanded to infinite levels. However, based on Amitabha’s deliverance, the infinite levels can be grouped into one level only, and the infinite kinds of aptitude can also be grouped into just one – the kind of aptitude that has no chance to leave [the cycle of reincarnation].
Why did Shakyamuni Buddha not talk about this teaching [of Amitabha’s deliverance] in the very beginning? The reason lies at his approach of teaching that is conducive to learning by people of various aptitudes: to teach in accordance with their aptitudes. If Shakyamuni Buddha starts with this teaching, people may have difficulty in believing and accepting it. So, he needs to tone up the aptitudes of various people first, and then wait for the ripened conditions appropriate for him to talk about this teaching.
The same approach is used in the Contemplation Sutra. He does not start with this teaching [of Amitabha-recitation], but the 13 contemplations in the meditative virtues, and then goes on with the Three Meritorious Deeds and the Nine Levels of Rebirth. Only in the final section he speaks of this teaching [of Amitabha-recitation].
The sutra that entirely devotes to this teaching is the Amitabha Sutra. Among the three Pure Land sutras, the Amitabha Sutra can be regarded as the conclusive one. The Amitabha Sutra does not talk about the Three Meritorious Deeds and the Nine Levels of Rebirth, not about the 13 contemplations in the meditative virtues, not about the Three Learnings and a myriad practices of the Six Paramitas; it talks only about holding fast Amitabha’s name, and the Three States of Mind and Name-Recitation of the Eighteenth Vow.
There are over 200 Buddhist scriptures mentioning Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land in the West. Within these 200 plus scriptures, Shakyamuni Buddha mentions about Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Bliss to some extent.
Take the king of all sutras—Avatamsaka Sutra for example: what is the ultimate goal of its teaching? It points to rebirth in the Land of Bliss. So, in the final section of the Avatamsaka Sutra, Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, with the Ten Great Vows, leads all bodhisattvas of dharma body who have attended the Avatamsaka assembly to dedicate and aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Therefore, the Avatamsake Sutra is closely related to Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land.
The Lotus Sutra, another sutra that focuses on the complete and immediate way to attain Buddhahood, also says, “All beings can achieve the Buddhist Way if they recite Namo Buddha once.” In its discourse, the sutra talks about the process of cultivation of Amitabha Buddha on the causal ground. So, this remark is also related to Amitabha Buddha.
Besides, the Suramgama Sutra that aims at enlightenment also contains a chapter entitled the “Chapter of Perfect Paranormal Power through Buddha-invocation by Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta”. It explains that one can see the Buddha and achieve Buddhahood at present and in future through recollection and recitation of the Buddha. It also introduces Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta who has achieved anutpattika-dharma-ksanti (the enlightenment that is cognizant of complete non-arising) with the Buddha-invocation mind, and he is still active at present in the worlds of the ten directions to embrace and direct those Amitabha-reciters to be reborn in the Pure Land. It is clear that this sutra is also related to Amitabha and the Land of Bliss.
The Sutra of Bhaisajyaguru (Medicine-Master) also says, if one recites the name of the Master and dedicates the merits for aspiration to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, he will be received by eight great bodhisattvas leading him to the Land of Bliss.
The Ksitigarbha Sutra also mentions that if one recites the Buddha’s name once near the end-of-life, all heavy offenses of the Five Gravest Transgressions and slandering of the teachings will be clear off, and he will be reborn in the Pure Land. So to speak, many important sutras are related to Amitabha’s Pure Land.
We regards the Contemplation Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, and the Infinite Life Sutra as the principal and founding sutras of our school’s teaching, and these three sutras are also known as the “basic classical scriptures” or “fundamental sutras”. Any other important and well-known sutras, such as the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Suramgama Sutra, etc. as mentioned above, are not listed as our school’s primary sutras.
What are the reasons behind? It is because these three sutras are specialized classical scriptures that focus mainly on Amitabha Buddha and his Land of Bliss, and nothing else. The other sutras put Amitabha Buddha and the Land of Bliss on the sidelines and only speaking of them incidentally; their focus is not on this area. Hence, other sutras cannot be read as the fundamental sutras, but side reference only. Contents about Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land in other sutras, however, can be used as complementary reference in certain areas that are not mentioned in the fundamental sutras.
No matter how extensive the scripture of a sutra is, it must have a main theme, which is known as the “sutra-eye”— the eye of that sutra. We have to grasp the “sutra-eye” when we read a sutra.
If we don’t have eyes, we cannot see the most important gems even though we have entered a treasure depository. If that is the case, the result is same as staying outside. We may have read a sutra for many thousand times, but if we don’t know the “sutra-eye”, we can only have the merits and virtues of sutra-recitation, and cannot be benefitted from the sutra.
All sutras talk about two things: method and goal. Following a given “method”, one can reach the “goal”. The three Pure Land sutras are about reaching the goal of rebirth in the Land of Bliss through the method of Amitabha-recitation.
If we exclusively practice the Pure Land teaching, the three Pure Land sutras are the sutras that we should chant if we want to. All these three Pure Land sutras talk about the method of Amitabha-recitation and the goal of rebirth. In this case, let’s simply “exclusively recite Amitabha’s name and aspire to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land”.
The principal sutras of the Pure Land Buddhism include: the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra. Of course, the three sutras have different text and vary in length; but they all have the same line of thinking and objective. There is no difference. They talk about only one thing, not two. Hence, the method of our rebirth is name-recitation in accordance with the Fundamental Vow. By name-recitation, we can get on board Amitabha’s boat of the Fundamental Vow.
The Infinite Life Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra too, are the principal sutras of the Pure Land teachings, all about Amitabha’s proactive, equal, and unconditional deliverance.
As they are the principal sutras of the Pure Land teachings (main basis, essential foundation), their general idea must be the identical and consistent; and it is not possible to be different, varied, and conflicting.
Within the Tripitaka and the Twelve Divisions, the sutras that exclusively talk about the Pure Land teachings are the three Pure Land sutras: the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra. These sutras are the principal texts [of our teachings]. Some other sutras also mention about Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land, such as the Chapter on Practice and Vow of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra in the Flower Adornment Sutra, and the Chapter on the Complete Paranormal Power through Amitabha-invocation by Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta in the Suramgama Sutra.
The Pure Land Trilogy of Sutras begin with the Infinite Life Sutra, elaborate on the theme in the Contemplation Sutra, and make conclusion in the Amitabha Sutra.
The Infinite life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra are the three principal sutras that Pure Land teaching is based on. No matter how profound and mysterious, or how simple and easy a presentation of the Pure Land teaching is, it should not violate the aim and objectives of the three sutras.
If there are violation and distortion, or slight deviation, it is not the Pure Land teaching anymore; it is a deviant, or even heterodox, teaching. The teaching principle of the three Pure Land sutras is not different from each other’s; they are the same and consistent. They all talk about the teaching of deliverance, not the teaching of cultivation. So, we must clearly grasp the main theme and meaning of the three sutras.
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