Pure Land Buddhism is one of the complex dimensions of Buddhist traditions, not a coherent body of thought, but rather a flexible, polysemic, overdetermined, multidimensional network of texts, terms, ideas, floating signifiers, and images spread widely across Asia. Its resources formed an extremely important part of Mahayana Buddhism, but non-Asians have historically been less interested in them than in other aspects of Buddhism in part because of the strong role historically played by the expansive imaginative premise of other cosmic realms (though such an imaginary was entirely characteristic of premodern Mahayana Buddhism). In addition, much Pure Land emphasis has not been on control of mind via meditation but on the “soteriology” of some kind of reliance on the dynamic of “another,” which in various ways subordinates the role of the ordinary agentive self (but entails fundamental questions about the definition of enlightenment). Several significantly diverse interpretations have operated in the Pure Land framework. A “traditional” version, which dominated continental Asia, was based on a deferral of expectation of serious enlightenment to the future realm of the Buddha Amitābha (in Japanese, Amida; in Chinese, Amituo)—a future “space” alternate to our present world in which the Buddha would be present to assist the practitioner toward enlightenment—based on the assumption of an extended timeline in the process of enlightenment. Another interpretation, associated especially with Chan or Zen “mind-only” teachings, situated the perfection of the Pure Land in this present world. Both of these versions could be assimilated to tantrism or esotericism. A third type, which was relatively distinctive to Jōdoshinshū Buddhism in Japan, emphasized the possibility of first-stage (or higher) enlightenment in the present but ultimately only in accordance with “entrusting to or accepting the gift of the Buddha,” that is, a transformative process beyond any volitional control or intentional practices. All these ideas were related to neither Christianity nor ontological “dualism” but concerned deferral, meditation, or involuntariness within a purely Buddhist context. In terms of social history the Pure Land frequently offered a way of Buddhist practice that was relatively more open to householder nonmonastics. However, Pure Land–oriented traditions could still be as complex, buddhologically sophisticated, ritually engaged, contemplatively active, and even discipline-directed as others. The chief scholarly problems in the study of Pure Land have been an earlier tendency of Western scholars to underemphasize the importance of this side of Buddhism, as well as a tendency for the narrative of the powerful Jōdoshinshū school in Japan to overwhelm the historical perspective.
For early Western students of Buddhism, the question of Pure Land’s legitimacy within the Buddhist tradition actually posed a problem (as discussed in Steadman 1987), but such views have long been superseded from a variety of angles. As emphasized in Blum 1994, Pure Land was a form of path (mārga) that overlapped with other kinds of Buddhist practice and was rarely sharply distinguishable. Many scholars see Pure Land traditions as to some extent unified by existential themes of piety and trust (Corless 1993), light (Ingram 1974), or taking refuge (Carter 1993). Gómez 2000 focuses on the general theme of hope. Lai 1981 finds a narrative logic in the emergence of the Pure Land mythos from early Buddhism, and Lubac 1955 shows how modern Christian scholarship might interact with Pure Land. However, Kirkland 2000 and Yu 2014 emphasize the hybridity and diversity found under the Pure Land label.
Blum, Mark L. “Pure Land Buddhism as an Alternative Mārga.” Eastern Buddhist, n.s., 27.1 (Spring 1994): 30–77.
In detail, relates Pure Land traditions to the Chinese debates about practice in terms of subitist (sudden) versus gradual enlightenment theories and to Japanese polemics about self-power and other power. The argument illustrates how completely Pure Land overlapped with East Asian Buddhism in general, although there was to some extent a distinguishable Pure Land path.
Carter, John Ross. “‘Relying upon’ or ‘Taking Refuge’ as a Genuinely Human Activity.” Annual Memoirs of the Ōtani University Shin Buddhist Comprehensive Research Institute (Shinshū Sōgō Kenkyūjo kenkyū kiyō) 11 (1993): 17–42.
Comparative discussion of the spiritual issue of trust in the transcendent from the standpoint of a scholar of South Asian religions.
Corless, Roger. “Pure Land Piety.” In Buddhist Spirituality, Vol. 1. Edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, 242–271. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Describes how, at imaginative, existential, and aesthetic levels, the various Pure Land traditions were linked by their themes of light and trust, motifs that provide bridges to other world religions.
Gómez, Luis O. “Buddhism as a Religion of Hope: Observations on the ‘Logic’ of a Doctrine and Its Foundational Myth.” Eastern Buddhist, n.s., 32.1 (2000): 1–21.
Any analysis of the Pure Land narrative inevitably brings in issues such as grace, assurance of salvation, and “outside” powers, but the handling of these depends on underlying “theological,” doctrinal, and mythic assumptions. Author finds that Pure Land is tied together by ideas of transferable merit (bodhisattva vows), which lead to practices of faith and hope, all thoroughly Buddhist.
Ingram, Paul O. “The Symbolism of Light and Pure Land Buddhist Soteriology.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1.4 (December 1974): 331–345.
Explores the theme of light as a common form of religious imagery.
Kirkland, Russell. “Pure Land’s Multilineal Ancestry: A New Metaphor for Understanding the Evolution of ‘Living Religions.’” Pacific World, 3d ser., 2 (Fall 2000): 177–189.
Argues that the seeming idiosyncrasies of the evolution of Buddhism in East Asia can be best understood as multiple adaptations to the various indigenous cultural traditions of the region, thus creating—following a genetics metaphor—individual traditions possessing compound heritages. As an example the author details the Chinese concept of Latter Dharma (mo-fa, or Japanese mappō).
Lai, Whalen. “From Sakyamuni to Amitabha: The Logic behind the Pure Land Devotion.” Ching Feng 24.3 (1981): 156–174.
Using Kenneth Burke’s concept of logology, the author argues that the original Buddhist narrative contained within itself a karmic theodicy impelling Buddhist teaching in the Pure Land direction.
Lubac, Henri de. Aspects du Bouddhisme. Vol. 2, Amida. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1955.
One-volume treatment of Pure Land from India to Japan by a perceptive Jesuit religious studies scholar from an earlier generation of European scholarship. Dated but summarizes the principal philosophical and historical issues, which persist.
Steadman, James D. “Pure Land Buddhism and the Buddhist Historical Tradition.” Religious Studies 23.3 (September 1987): 407–421.
Following an old tradition of doubt about Pure Land’s legitimate continuity with early Buddhism, offers an analysis of the difficulties of historical classification.
Yu, Jimmy. “Pure Land Devotion in East Asia.” In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to East and Inner Asian Buddhism. Edited by Mario Poceski, 201–220. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
Pure Land Buddhism was a messy and manifold body of practices that in China was transmitted pervasively without any distinct institutional or social structure; broad views of its long-term history in Asia have been distorted by biases derived from the sectarian Japanese organizations (Jōdōshū and Jōdōshinshū), especially in conjunction with modern state formation and Western religious studies and Buddhology. Author suggests broadening and correcting the field by relabeling it “Pure Land studies” and by paying attention to the sheer diversity entailed in local variations, visual representations, literary expansion, lay Pure Land societies, and especially ritual performance particularly at the deathbed.
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