Pure Land Buddhism
Buddhism has evolved many, many forms during its long history. Codes of conduct, guidelines for communal life, rituals, meditative practices, modes of teaching, images, fables and philosophies have varied greatly over time and place. According to the fundamental Buddhist principle of skill-in-means, this multiformity is natural and proper, a necessary response to the great variety of circumstances in which Buddhism has been propagated.
Skill-in-means requires that the presentation of the Buddhist Teaching, (sometimes simply called “the Dharma”), be adapted to the mentality and circumstances of the people being taught. According to Buddhist seers, the absolute truth is inconceivable and cannot be captured in any particular formulation. Therefore in Buddhism there is no fixed dogma, only provisional, partial expressions of the teaching, suited to the capabilities of the audience being addressed.
In keeping with this fundamental principle, a tolerant, nonsectarian approach has normally prevailed throughout Buddhist history. Where dogmatic controversies and sectarian partisanship have cropped up in the communities of Buddhist followers, these are distortions of the teaching, and have always been based on misunderstanding and misinformation. In embracing Pure Land Buddhism, therefore, people are not rejecting any of the other streams of the Buddhist tradition–they have only decided that Pure Land methods are most appropriate and most effective for them.
Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of faith, of faith in Amitabha Buddha [and in one's capacity to achieve Buddhahood]. Amitabha Buddha presides over the Pure Land, a “paradise” in the west, the land of ultimate bliss, named “Peaceful Nurturing.” In the Pure Land, there is none of the suffering and defilement and delusion that normally blocks people’s efforts toward enlightenment here in our world (which the Buddhists named Endurance.!?)
The immediate goal of Pure Land believers is to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. There, in more favorable surroundings, in the presence of Amitabha, they will eventually attain complete enlightenment.
The essence of Pure Land practice thus consists of invoking the name of Amitabha Buddha, contemplating the qualities of Amitabha, visualizing Amitabha, and taking vows to be born in the Pure Land.
Making a vow to attain birth in the Pure Land signifies a fundamental reorientation of the believer’s motivations and will. No longer is the purpose of life brute survival, or fulfillment of a social role, or the struggle to wrest some satisfaction from a frustrating, taxing environment. By vowing to be reborn in the Pure Land, believers shift their focus. The joys and sorrows of this world become incidental, inconsequential. The present life takes on value chiefly as an opportunity to concentrate one’s awareness on Amitabha, and purify one’s mind accordingly.
The hallmark of Pure Land Buddhism is reciting the buddha-name, invoking Amitabha Buddha by chanting his name. Through reciting the buddha-name, people focus their attention on Amitabha Buddha. This promotes mindfulness of buddha, otherwise known as buddha-remembrance [buddha recitation].
In what sense is buddha “remembered”? “Buddha” is the name for the one reality that underlies all forms of being, as well as an epithet for those who witness and express this reality. According to the Buddhist Teaching, all people possess an inherently enlightened true nature that is their real identity. By becoming mindful of buddha, therefore, people are just regaining their own real identity. They are remembering their own buddha-nature.
Buddha as such is a concept that transcends any particular embodiment, such as Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical buddha born in India), or Maitreya Buddha (the future buddha), or Vairocana Buddha (the cosmic buddha) or Amitabha Buddha (the buddha of the western paradise). Buddha exists in many forms, but all share the same “body of reality,” the same Dharmakaya, which is formless, omnipresent, all-pervading, indescribable, infinite–the everywhere-equal essence of all things, the one reality within-and-beyond all appearances.
Dharmakaya Buddha is utterly abstract and in fact inconceivable, so buddha takes on particular forms to communicate with living beings by coming within their range of perception. For most people, this is the only way that buddha can become comprehensible and of practical use. The particular embodiments of buddha, known as Nirmanakaya, are supreme examples of compassionate skill-in-means.
Pure Land people focus on buddha in the form of Amitabha, the buddha of infinite life and infinite light. Believers put their faith in Amitabha Buddha and recite his name, confident in the promises he has given to deliver all who invoke his name. All classes of people, whatever their other characteristics or shortcomings, are guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land and ultimate salvation, if only they invoke Amitabha’s name with singleminded concentration and sincere faith.
Quoted from Pure Land Pure Mind translated by J.C. Cleary