Buddhism Pure Land Sūtras
by
Jeff Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0132

Introduction

Pure Land Buddhism is today one of the largest and most widespread traditions. With roots in India and Central Asia, it has flourished especially in East Asia and has also had a major impact on Tibet and the Himalayan region. Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the buddha known as Amitābha (Infinite Light) or Amitāyus (Infinite Life), who resides in a wonderful place called Sukhāvatī (Realm of Bliss). This type of blissful place is labeled a “pure land” in the East Asian tradition, and so popular is Amitābha’s realm that it is frequently named the Pure Land. As a somewhat distinct, self-sufficient form of Buddhism, the Pure Land tradition owes its existence above all to the popular influence of three particular sutras. These are the two Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras (“Adornments of the blissful realm,” hereafter called the Larger and Smaller sutras) that are extant in Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and several Central Asian languages, and the Guān Wúliàngshòu Fó Jīng (Visualization of Amitāyus Buddha Sutra, hereafter called the Visualization Sutra), apparently of Chinese composition. These sutras all describe the wonderful nature of the Pure Land and recommend rebirth therein through various practices, especially contemplation on Amitābha and Sukhāvatī and calling on Amitābha’s help through devotional acts. The Larger Sutra contains a narrative that has been particularly influential, describing how an ancient bodhisattva came to be the buddha Amitābha through the fulfillment of forty-eight (in some versions, forty-seven) vows designed to create a realm of peace where buddhahood is easy for all to attain. This bibliography focuses especially on this group of texts, which due to their importance are often simply called “the three Pure Land sutras.” However, more than a fifth of the sutras in the Taishō Tripitaka contain reference to Amitābha and his Pure Land, and furthermore there are many other celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas that have their own pure lands. Some attention, therefore, is given to these figures and the texts that relate to them as well.

The Three Pure Land Sūtras

The three “canonical” Pure Land sutras are the Larger and Smaller sutras and the Visualization Sutra. Together they are often referred to simply as the “triple sutra.” Given their importance in East Asian Buddhist history, it is not surprising that they are among the first (Cowell 1969) and most often translated of all Buddhist sutras into English, rivaled perhaps only by the Lotus and Heart sutras. Another reason is their connection to the Jōdo Shinshū tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, which was one of the first Asian Buddhist groups to move into North America in an organized fashion and with a large population of devotees in need of translated materials. It is from this connection that we see translations of the mid-20th century and scholarly attempts such as Ryukoku University Translation Center 1984 as well as nonscholarly translations such as Seki and Vergara 1973. Indeed, it is remarkable how few translations into English have not come through some sort of connection to Jōdo Shinshū. Hsuan Hua’s reprinted text (Hsuan 2003) is one of a small number of such texts, issued in this case by a major Chinese Buddhist missionary to North America. Among newer translations, Nagao 2003 and Nagao 2009 are noteworthy as very fresh and professional, and Gómez 1996 is widely lauded as a groundbreaking work that fruitfully brings multiple versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras together. Meanwhile Inagaki 1994 remains a tremendously useful resource, packed with a dizzying variety of supplemental material; it is also available without the additional material in a slightly updated translation in the BDK English Tripitaka series. Shinshū Seiten Hensan Iinkai 1994 provides Chinese and Japanese versions.

  • Cowell, E. B., ed. Buddhist Mahāyāna Texts. Sacred Books of the East 49. New York: Dover, 1969.

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    The first volume to include English translations of all three main Pure Land sutras, originally published in 1894. Also includes several other sutras and commentaries. Note that the cover states “edited by E. B. Cowell and others” and the series editor is F. Max Müller, so this volume can be found under various listings in different catalogues. Also, because they are in the public domain, cheap reprints of these translations have appeared, especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Originally published in 1894 (Oxford: Clarendon).

  • Gómez, Luis O. The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996.

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    Offers four English translations: a Sanskrit Larger Sutra, a Chinese Larger Sutra, a Sanskrit Smaller Sutra, and a Chinese Smaller Sutra. This innovative approach allows researchers to compare and contrast the different renditions, noting differences and developments. While there are many notes in the book, the translation itself is deliberately nontechnical and highly readable. Additional, more technical translations of these texts by Gómez are planned for the future.

  • Hsuan, Hua. A General Explanation of the Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra. 2d ed. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2003.

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    Translation of the Smaller Sutra with extensive commentary by a 20th-century Chinese Buddhist master. The Chinese perspective of the translation and commentary is not only useful in its own right, but also helps shed light on how the many Japanese-based translations and commentaries in this bibliography may be influenced by their cultural background.

  • Inagaki, Hisao. The Three Pure Land Sutras: A Study and Translation from Chinese. Kyoto: Nagata Bunshodo, 1994.

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    A fantastic resource, this book not only translates the three primary Pure Land sutras but also provides copious supporting materials: visuals, explanations of key terms and concepts, historical interpreters of the sutras, and more. Written from a scholarly Jōdo Shinshū perspective and thus not without sectarian biases, but nonetheless very highly recommended.

  • Nagao, Gadjin M., ed. The Three Pure Land Sutras. Vol. 1. The Amida Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra. Shin Buddhism Translation series. Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 2003.

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    Newer translations of the Smaller Sutra and Visualization Sutra by a highly accomplished translation team that has rendered writings of Shinran, Rennyo, and other Pure Land works.

  • Nagao, Gadjin M., ed. The Three Pure Land Sutras. Vol. 2. The Larger Sutra. Shin Buddhism Translation series. Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center, 2009.

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    Very recent translation by a team that specializes in Pure Land works. The team works from a Jōdo Shinshū perspective but generally tries to read the text without excessive interpretation, leaving any comments on sectarian positions to the notes.

  • Ryukoku University Translation Center, trans. The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life as Expounded by Śākyamuni Buddha. Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1984.

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    Full translation of the Visualization Sutra with commentary. Tends to take a Jōdo Shinshū doctrinal approach to the material.

  • Seki, Hozen, and Kyojo Ananda Vergara. Buddha Tells of the Infinite: The Amida Kyo (仏説阿彌陀經 ). New York: American Buddhist Academy, 1973.

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    Translation of the Smaller Sutra with commentary by a Jōdo Shinshū missionary priest in New York City. Helpful for students because it lists in parallel the Chinese characters, their direct translations into English and Sanskrit, and an English verse translation.

  • Shinshū Seiten Hensan Iinkai. Jōdosanbukyō. Kyoto: Jōdoshinshū Honganji-ha, 1994.

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    Easily obtainable Japanese language edition of all three main Pure Land sutras, with parallel Chinese and Japanese versions.

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