Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
Friendly_Inquirer
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Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 6:32 am

As a Pure Land Buddhist, I read the Pali scriptures and try to relate them to Pure Land teachings. This is because I accept the authority of the Pali scriptures, which are equivalent to the Chinese Agamas.

In starting this thread, I have no interest in convincing others to be Pure Land Buddhists. The Buddha taught 84,000 paths to enlightenment, and Theravada is legitimately one of those paths. Instead, I would like to show how we're not so different from each other.

It makes me happy to focus on the commonalities we share. Please, then, let me explain how Pure Land Buddhism might relate to the Pali canon.

First of all, what is the Pure Land? Shinran Shonin, along with the Pure Land masters who came before him, defined the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana, and the vivid descriptions in the Pure Land scriptures, including jeweled trees and clear ponds, as expedient means for explaining a reality beyond our understanding.

In the Pali scriptures, the Buddha almost always described Nirvana in negative terms, such as unborn, unconditioned, cessation of suffering, etc. Because Nirvana is so utterly beyond what human words can describe, the Buddha usually explained Nirvana by what it is not. The Pure Land, then, is an expedient device for ordinary people to think of Nirvana in positive terms, terms which are easier to imagine and conceptualize.

In the Pali scriptures, the Buddha describes Nirvana or Nibbana as a realm beyond our everyday experience:
The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as an 'ayatana'. This means realm, plane or sphere. It is a sphere where there is nothing at all that correspond to our mundane experience, and therefore it has to be described by way of negations as the negation of all the limited and determinate qualities of conditioned things.

The Buddha also refers to Nibbana as a, 'Dhatu' an element, the 'deathless element'. He compares the element of Nibbana to an ocean. He says that just as the great ocean remains at the same level no matter how much water pours into it from the rivers, without increase or decrease, so the Nibbana element remains the same, no matter whether many or few people attain Nibbana.
http://www.beyondthenet.net/dhamma/nibbanaReal.htm
In his understanding that the Pure Land is really the formless realm of Nirvana, Shinran explained rebirth into the Pure Land as "the birth of non-birth," much like how the Buddha described Nirvana as "the unborn."

The next question we can now ask is, who is Amida or Amitabha, the object of devotion in Pure Land Buddhism? In a conventional sense, Amida is a literal Buddha from billions of Buddha-lands away, who attained Buddhahood ten kalpas ago. We can relate this to what the Buddha teaches in the Pali canon, because it's in the Pali scriptures where he originally spoke of intelligent life in other world systems, along with Buddhas who came before him. Given this context, a Buddha from another world system is not so far-fetched.

On a deeper or more esoteric level, Amida is more than a literal Buddha. Shinran Shonin and the Pure Land masters often described Amida as Dharma-body itself, the Buddha-nature in all things and beings, the original enlightenment which compassionately leads all beings to enlightenment. Amida is, in this sense, Nirvana personified:
Supreme Buddha is formless, and because of being formless is called jinen. Buddha, when appearing with form, is not called supreme nirvana. In order to make it known that supreme Buddha is formless, the name Amida Buddha is expressly used; so I have been taught. Amida Buddha fulfills the purpose of making us know the significance of jinen.
http://shinranworks.com/hymns-in-japane ... inen-honi/
The last thing I'd like to share in relating Pure Land Buddhism to the Pali canon is the meaning behind the Nembutsu, the primary practice of Pure Land Buddhism. The original meaning of the word Nembutsu or Nianfo is "mindfulness of the Buddha," a practice which falls under right mindfulness and right concentration in the Eight-Fold Path. Mindfulness of the Buddha is a practice which goes back to the Pali canon, though we might be mindful of the Buddha under a different name.

While Theravada Buddhists practice mindfulness of Shakyamuni Buddha in order to cultivate his qualities within themselves, Pure Land Buddhists recite Amida's name in order to cultivate the Amida-nature within. Because of the Mahayana doctrine of the interpenetration of all phenomena, it's often been taught by Pure Land masters that our own Buddha-nature is the same as Amida's, and in reciting Amida's name, we awaken to our Amida-self, the Buddha-nature within.

Entrusting in the name of Amida, who is Nirvana personified, we are led to the realm of Nirvana. This is from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns; the original nature of your own mind. The natural state of the universe unmanifest. Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home...

Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light-Buddha Amitabha.
I am sorry if I am not explaining this very well, and I'm happy to offer clarifications. My only intention is to show possible commonalities between the Theravada school and the Pure Land school of Buddhism. :anjali:

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Mkoll
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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Mkoll » Thu Feb 02, 2017 9:30 am

Thank you for sharing.

One question. My impression was that the Pure Land of Mahayana is more akin not to Nibbana itself, but to the Pure Abodes in Theravada. These are places the non-returner goes to finish his training for arahantship. I get this impression from the Wiki on Pure Land which says:
In Pure Land traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of enlightenment. Upon entry into the Pure Land, the practitioner is then instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until full and complete enlightenment is reached. This person then has the choice of returning at any time as a bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help all sentient beings in saṃsāra, or to stay the whole duration, reach Buddhahood, and subsequently deliver beings to the shore of liberation.
So when you say "the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana," are you describing this popular perception and actually accept that one still must be trained in the Pure Land? Or are you saying that the Pure Land is Nirvana and there is no more training to do? Or something else?
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Zom » Thu Feb 02, 2017 11:35 am

and actually accept that one still must be trained in the Pure Land?
I read these Pure Land Sutras recently. One does not have to be "trained" there - Pure Lands are described as sweetest heaven, where everything "teaches you pure Dharma" :D Even waters in the ponds, winds, etc.. So, you keep indulging in sensual pleasures and "practise" at the same time (just by doing nothing). Like attaining enlightenment while watching TV show or playing video game :D No wonder why Pure Land Buddhism is/was so popular.

The whole conception of such a startling heaven land is based on earlier mayahana doctrines about Buddha's (physic) powers, which are so great, that he can easily create this kind of a realm for "his followers", who are in return are expected to pray this Buddha, thus asking him for admission to Pure Lands.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Dhammanando » Thu Feb 02, 2017 11:45 am

Friendly_Inquirer wrote:As a Pure Land Buddhist,
Welcome to Dhamma Wheel.

May I ask what kind of Pure Land Buddhist you are? I seem to detect in your post a mélange of three rather different (though not necessarily discordant) perspectives on this strand of Mahayanism: the Shin, the mainland East Asian, and the Tantric.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by zerotime » Thu Feb 02, 2017 12:14 pm

yes, I have the same doubt that the venerable doubt. Pure Land schools are diverse

Friendly_Inquirer
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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 1:54 pm

Dhammanando wrote:
Friendly_Inquirer wrote:As a Pure Land Buddhist,
Welcome to Dhamma Wheel.

May I ask what kind of Pure Land Buddhist you are? I seem to detect in your post a mélange of three rather different (though not necessarily discordant) perspectives on this strand of Mahayanism: the Shin, the mainland East Asian, and the Tantric.
That's a really good question. One should keep in mind that Pure Land practice can be found in the Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu sects of Japan, in Tibetan Buddhism, and in Chinese Cha'an Buddhism as well, along with other Mahayana sects. The fact that Pure Land practices and influences are so common throughout the Mahayana schools shows how significant Amida and the Pure Land are in the Mahayana.

The Tibetan devotion to Avalalokitesvara, and the chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum, is Pure Land Buddhist in nature. This is because, in the original sutra where we find the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, Avalokitesvara teaches the mantra at the behest of Amida Buddha. The words "Mani Padme" mean "The Jewel of the Lotus," a reference to rebirth in a lotus blossom in the Pure Land. Tibetan Buddhists petition Avalokitesvara for their rebirth into the Pure Land, because he's traditionally taught in the Pure Land schools to be the companion of Amitabha who embodies his compassion.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 1:59 pm

Mkoll wrote:Thank you for sharing.

One question. My impression was that the Pure Land of Mahayana is more akin not to Nibbana itself, but to the Pure Abodes in Theravada. These are places the non-returner goes to finish his training for arahantship. I get this impression from the Wiki on Pure Land which says:
In Pure Land traditions, entering the Pure Land is popularly perceived as equivalent to the attainment of enlightenment. Upon entry into the Pure Land, the practitioner is then instructed by Amitābha Buddha and numerous bodhisattvas until full and complete enlightenment is reached. This person then has the choice of returning at any time as a bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help all sentient beings in saṃsāra, or to stay the whole duration, reach Buddhahood, and subsequently deliver beings to the shore of liberation.
So when you say "the Pure Land as the realm of Nirvana," are you describing this popular perception and actually accept that one still must be trained in the Pure Land? Or are you saying that the Pure Land is Nirvana and there is no more training to do? Or something else?
According to Shinran, one immediately attains enlightenment the moment one is reborn into the Pure Land. This is because Shinran, along with the Pure Land masters who came before him, such as Tuan-luan and Shandao, taught that the Pure Land is the formless realm of Nirvana:
The land of bliss is the realm of nirvana, the uncreated;
I fear it is hard to be born there by doing sundry good acts according to our diverse conditions.
Hence, the Tathagata selected the essential dharma,
Instructing beings to say Amida’s Name with singleness, again singleness.
http://shinranworks.com/the-major-expos ... -and-land/
Later today, I can go more into detail regarding how the Pure Land scriptures themselves support the belief that the Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 4:00 pm

In the writings of Shinran, which are based on the Pure Land masters who came before him, Amida and the Pure Land are different aspects of the same reality, which can be variously described as Nirvana, Dharma-body, the Buddha-nature in all things, etc.:
Nirvana has innumerable names. It is impossible to give them in detail; I will list only a few. Nirvana is called extinction of passions, the uncreated, peaceful happiness, eternal bliss, true reality, dharma-body, dharma-nature, suchness, oneness, and Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.

Since it is with this heart and mind of all sentient beings that they entrust themselves to the Vow of the dharma-body as compassionate means, this shinjin is none other than Buddha-nature. This Buddha-nature is dharma-nature. Dharma-nature is dharma-body. For this reason there are two kinds of dharma-body with regard to the Buddha. The first is called dharma-body as suchness and the second, dharma-body as compassionate means. Dharma-body as suchness has neither color nor form; thus, the mind cannot grasp it nor words describe it. From this oneness was manifested form, called dharma-body as compassionate means.
http://shinranwritings.blogspot.com/p/n ... alone.html
I am happy to offer clarifications on the above quote for those not familiar with it. Thank you for letting me share it.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by santa100 » Thu Feb 02, 2017 5:09 pm

Friendly_Inquirer wrote:According to Shinran, one immediately attains enlightenment the moment one is reborn into the Pure Land. This is because Shinran, along with the Pure Land masters who came before him, such as Tuan-luan and Shandao, taught that the Pure Land is the formless realm of Nirvana
It's important to specify the exact meaning of "enlightenment". From the Pali Canon, there're 4 stages of enlightenment, Stream-Entry, Once-Return, Non-Return, and Arahantship. The first three still have "work to be done" while the last stage means there's "no further work to be done". According to Amitayurdhyana Sutra, one of the three principal PUre Land sutras (the other two are Amitabha Sutra and Infinite Life Sutra), there're nine levels/grades of rebirths in the PUre Land realm. This means that PUre Land realms would have a wide range of beings at different levels of virtue/meditation/wisdom spectrum and still have "work to be done" (in the Theravada lingo). As you probably already seen on DW, Theravada takes a very rigorous approach when it comes to examination and verification of the truth. It's a "teaching-based" system instead of "teacher-based". I'm sure master Shinran was a wise and virtuous being, but his words and teaching would still need to be put under the test of the Texts and the Discipline just like everybody else. Matter of fact, even in Mahayana, there's the Four Dharma Reliances, one of which says to rely on the teaching instead of the teacher. This is very much in accordance with the Buddha's instruction of the Four Great References in the Pali Canon.

As far as the Pure Land realm as some sort of manifestation of Nirvana, it doesn't seem to have any support in the Lotus Sutra, another popular Mahayana Text. In that sutra, the Buddha said that the Pure Land is just another realm. It's just that in that realm, the conditions are much much more conducive to Dharma cultivation, like, over there, folks never have to spend at least 8 hours working their butts off to put food on the table, and even the trees and birds speak and recite Sutras!
I'll leave it to any Mahayana guru here to provide all the references on those mentioned Texts. Sorry my Mahayana knowledge is a bit rusty for it's been quite a while since I've last read them..

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 6:50 pm

Shinran wrote that those reborn into the Pure Land attain full Buddhahood and then, out of gratitude for Amida's compassion, return to this world to assist in leading other beings to enlightenment. It's supported in the Pure Land scriptures and the writings of the Pure Land masters that the purpose for seeking rebirth into the Pure Land is for the sake of fulfilling one's bodhicitta for the good of all beings.

As a former Tendai monk, Shinran understood Amida and the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra as the same being. Shinran wrote that Amida is a Buddha more ancient than kalpas countless as particles, which is a reference to the lifespan chapter of the Lotus Sutra:
It is taught that ten kalpas have now passed
Since Amida attained Buddhahood,
But he seems a Buddha more ancient
Than kalpas countless as particles.

Kalpas countless as particles: Suppose a great thousandfold world is [ground into powder and] made into ink, and with this ink one passes [through a thousand lands], then deposits a dot of it in one land with the tip of a brush, passes through another thousand lands, then deposits another dot of it, until all the ink is used up. If all the lands passed through were ground into dust and counted, the number of particles would be that of the kalpas expressed, "kalpas countless as particles."
http://shinranwritings.blogspot.com/p/h ... -land.html
One should also keep in mind that the name Amida itself means infinite light and eternal life. Shinran understood Shakyamuni to be an incarnation of Amida, the Eternal Buddha:
Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Sakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya
http://shinranworks.com/hymns-in-japane ... us-sutras/

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Thu Feb 02, 2017 8:39 pm

Friendly_Inquirer wrote: Later today, I can go more into detail regarding how the Pure Land scriptures themselves support the belief that the Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana.
For the time being, here are some passages from the Infinite Life Sutra:
My land, being like Nirvana itself,
Shall be beyond comparison.
I take pity on living beings
And resolve to save them all...

(39) If, when I attain Buddhahood, humans and devas in my land should not enjoy happiness and pleasure comparable to that of a monk who has exhausted all the passions, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment...

That Buddha-land, like the realm of unconditioned Nirvana, is pure and serene, resplendent and blissful...

The Buddha said to Ananda, "Sentient beings who are born in that Buddha-land all reside among those assured of Nirvana...

His light penetrates to the utmost ends of space and guides people to Nirvana...
http://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/larger.html
I'm sorry if the above quotes are not in their proper order.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Mkoll » Thu Feb 02, 2017 11:01 pm

Friendly_Inquirer wrote:For the time being, here are some passages from the Infinite Life Sutra:
My land, being like Nirvana itself,
Shall be beyond comparison.
I take pity on living beings
And resolve to save them all...

(39) If, when I attain Buddhahood, humans and devas in my land should not enjoy happiness and pleasure comparable to that of a monk who has exhausted all the passions, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment...

That Buddha-land, like the realm of unconditioned Nirvana, is pure and serene, resplendent and blissful...

The Buddha said to Ananda, "Sentient beings who are born in that Buddha-land all reside among those assured of Nirvana...

His light penetrates to the utmost ends of space and guides people to Nirvana...
http://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/larger.html
I'm sorry if the above quotes are not in their proper order.
It seems that this passage I emphasized above is saying that those born in the Pure Land still have training to do.

~~~
Friendly_Inquirer wrote:According to Shinran, one immediately attains enlightenment the moment one is reborn into the Pure Land. This is because Shinran, along with the Pure Land masters who came before him, such as Tuan-luan and Shandao, taught that the Pure Land is the formless realm of Nirvana:
The land of bliss is the realm of nirvana, the uncreated;
I fear it is hard to be born there by doing sundry good acts according to our diverse conditions.
Hence, the Tathagata selected the essential dharma,
Instructing beings to say Amida’s Name with singleness, again singleness.
http://shinranworks.com/the-major-expos ... -and-land/
Later today, I can go more into detail regarding how the Pure Land scriptures themselves support the belief that the Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana.
Another passage from that link says:
The place where you will be born is Amida Buddha’s pure fulfilled land. Being born from a lotus transformed, you will constantly see the Buddhas and will realize the various kinds of dharma-insight. Your life will be immeasurable, spanning a hundred thousand kalpas. You will immediately attain highest perfect enlightenment and will never retrogress. I will always protect you.
It's unclear to me what the passage is saying. On the one hand, one immediately attains the "highest perfect enlightenment". This indicates that there is nothing further to do. On the other hand, it says one realizes "the various kinds of dharma-insight" in the Pure Land. This indicates there is still further things to be done.

~~~

I can see why there are different conceptions of the nature of the Pure Land because these are mixed messages. Regardless, being born in the Pure Land would be most excellent and that's enough to know.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Disciple » Thu Feb 02, 2017 11:56 pm

I practice Pure Land every now and then. I take the more traditional stance that the PL is a training ground towards enlightenment just like the pure abodes of Theravada.

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Javi » Fri Feb 03, 2017 1:26 am

Welcome to Dhamma wheel, glad you're into the suttas.
Vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā — All things decay and disappoint, it is through vigilance that you succeed — Mahāparinibbāna Sutta

Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice. — Diogenes of Sinope

I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind — Ecclesiastes 1.14

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Re: Pure Land Buddhism and the Pali Canon

Post by Friendly_Inquirer » Fri Feb 03, 2017 3:48 am

Mkoll wrote: I can see why there are different conceptions of the nature of the Pure Land because these are mixed messages.
As a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I hold Shinran Shonin to be authoritative when it comes to interpreting the Pure Land scriptures. Shinran didn't make up things as he went along, as evidenced by his extensive citations of the Pure Land masters and the Mahayana scriptures in the Kyogyoshinsho:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyogyoshinsho

For a more concise and easily digestible introduction to the teachings of Shinran, I recommend the Essential Shinran by Alfred Bloom.

Please keep in mind my original intention in starting this thread, which is to show possible commonalities between Pure Land Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. I have no desire whatsoever to convert Theravada Buddhism to my school of Buddhism, along with no need whatsoever for external validation of my own religious views.

If starting this thread helps us come to a better appreciation of each other as followers of the Buddha, who taught 84,000 paths to enlightenment for our diverse needs and temperaments, then that's a very good thing. :anjali:
Disciple wrote:I practice Pure Land every now and then. I take the more traditional stance that the PL is a training ground towards enlightenment just like the pure abodes of Theravada.
If you look at the Pure Land masters who Shinran based his teachings on, such as Tan-l'uan and Shandao, you will see that he wasn't breaking tradition in teaching that the Pure Land is the realm of Nirvana. Shinran was very meticulous in showing how the Pure Land tradition which came before him supported what he taught.

Probably the most important and influential of all the Pure Land masters is Shandao:
Shandao was one of the first to propose that salvation through Amitābha could be achieved simply through his name. The practice known as the nianfo as a way of singular devotion to Amitābha Buddha was all that was needed. In one of his more famous writings, Shandao spoke at great length about how simply saying the name of Amitābha was sufficient for salvation.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shandao
Shandao wrote that the Pure Land is the formless realm of Nirvana:
The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana. Thus, in his exegesis of Pure Land sutras, Master Shandao says: “The Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned nirvana. It is hard to gain rebirth there by undertaking the circumstantial miscellaneous practices [of the Five Precepts, Ten Good Actions, and other myriad virtuous practices].”
https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/t ... d-of-bliss
Last edited by Friendly_Inquirer on Fri Feb 03, 2017 4:01 am, edited 1 time in total.

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