What is the Pure Land?
by Rev. Nobuo Haneda
The Japanese word for Shin Buddhism is Jodo
Shinshu (“True School of the Pure Land”). Jodo
means ‘Pure Land.” The unique feature of Shin Buddhism (or Jodo
Shinshu) is that it talks about the concept of “the Pure Land” as the
most important thing. Thus without a good grasp of this concept, we cannot
understand Shin Buddhism.
However, among all Shin Buddhist concepts, the Pure Land seems to me the most difficult to understand. Traditionally, on a folklore level, many people believed in the literal descriptions of the Pure Land in the sutras (that talk about wonderful things to be enjoyed, such as delicious foods, wonderful music, and the comfortable climate) and desired to enjoy them in the Pure Land after their deaths. But this literal interpretation of the Pure Land—an interpretation based on affirmation of human greed and attachment—is against Buddhism, which challenges human greed and attachment. Thus the Pure Land masters cautioned people not to take descriptions of the Pure Land literally. For example, T’an-luan (476-542, the third Pure Land patriarch) said, “If people hear that they will constantly experience pleasure in the Pure Land and desire to be born there because of it, they will not be born there.”
We must know that just as Buddhas (like Amida and
Vairocana) and bodhisattvas (like Maitreya and Manjusri) are symbols, the
terms denoting places such as the Pure Land and Hell are also symbols. What,
then, does the Pure Land symbolize? Buddhist scholars often explain that the
Pure Land is a symbol for the ultimate truth, nirvana, or suchness. But their
explanations often complicate, rather than clarifSr, the issue. Thus in this
essay, I will attempt to present what I consider a simple and concrete
interpretation of the Pure Land—an interpretation given by Shin teachers
such as Rev. Rijin Yasuda (1900-82). I will attempt to answer the following
four questions: (1) “What does the Pure Land symbolize?”; (2) “Why did
Dharmakara (or Amida) create the Pure Land?; (3) “What is the power of the
Pure Land?”; and (4) “Who can be born in the Pure Land?”
(1) What does the Pure Land symbolize?
Before I answer this question, let me first discuss
how the Larger Sutra, the basic text
of Shin Buddhism, depicts the Pure Land. According to the sutra, the Pure Land
consists of three components: (1) Amida Buddha, the master of the land; (2)
innumerable bodhisattvas and sravakas, the
people in the land; and (3) the things in the environment, such as the ground,
trees, rivers, lakes, and houses. Let me talk about these respectively.
The first component of the Pure Land, Amida Buddha, is
the master of the land. The Pure Land is a place where Amida Buddha is
teaching and his spirit pervades. Who, then, is Amida Buddha? What is his
spirit? Amida Buddha is a symbol of a perpetual seeker and his spirit is the
spirit of a perpetual seeker.
The Larger Sutra
says that Amida was originally a young seeker by the name of Dharmakara.
When Dharmakara met his teacher, he awakened his aspiration to become a Buddha
and create a wonderful Buddha-land. Dharmakara then asked his teacher for
instructions on the creation of the Buddha-land. Using the example of a person
emptying the ocean and finally obtaining a treasure that lies
at the bottom of the ocean, the teacher told Dharmakara that if he kept on
seeking a treasure (i.e., Buddhahood), he would eventually be able to attain
it. This instruction became Dharmakara’s spiritual basis.
What, then, does it mean to “seek a treasure (i.e.,
Buddhahood)” in Buddhism? When we are first told to “seek a treasure,”
we generally think that there is a qualitative difference between
“seeking” (the process) and “treasure” (the goal). We think of it just
as we think of drilling for oil, in which drilling is the process and oil is
the goal. But if we think this way, we are misunderstanding the teaching about
“seeking a treasure.” In Buddhism there is no qualitative difference
between the process and the goal; there is n “treasure” (or goal) apart
from “seeking” (the process). The “treasure” (or goal) means the
perfect seeking, the perfect process. Process is “seeking” and the goal is
“perfect seeking.” Thus, “seeking a treasure” means that we seek
perfect seeking or perfect seeker-hood.
The reason I say so is that the only Dharma (truth)
that Buddhism teaches us is the truth of impermanence. The truth of
impermanence is the freshness of life, or creativeness of life. When this
truth starts to permeate us and we start to embody this truth, we become
seekers; we can no longer be complacent with fixed values. Then, what do we
seek? We seek to fully seek—to fully embody the truth. We seek to become a
perfect seeker—one who fully embodies the truth.
The Larger Sutra
says that Dharmakara attained the “treasure” and became a Buddha. This
means that Dharmakara fully embodied the truth of impermanence—that he
became a perfect seeker and learner. Thus when Dharmakara became a Buddha, be
became a Buddha by the name of Namu
Amida Butsu (Bowing Amida Buddha). His name means that he has become a
Buddha who is constantly “bowing his head before all Buddhas”—that he is
constantly respecting them and learning from them. His Name means the
fulfillment of the deepest human aspiration—the aspiration to live a rich,
full, and creative life. His spirit of perfect studentship pervades every
corner of the Pure Land.
The second component of the Pure Land is the
bodhisattvas (seekers) and sravakas (listeners),
the people in the land. In the Pure Land there are innumerable bodhisattvas
and sravakas. They have come to the
Pure Land from all the ten directions, because they wanted to emulate the
spirit of Amida. In the Pure Land, Amida is constantly teaching the Dharma to
them; and they are passionately and diligently listening to him.
The third component of the Pure Land is the things in
the land, such as the ground, trees, rivers, lakes, and houses. Whenever
things in the Pure Land make sounds, their sounds turn into the sounds of the
Dharma. For example, whenever the ripples of rivers or the leaves of trees
generate sounds, their sounds become the sounds of the Dharma. In this way,
all things in the Pure Land are constantly teaching the Dharma to the people
in the land.
To summarize, the essence of the three components of
the Pure Land is the same; it is the Dharma, the truth of impermanence. Amida
Buddha is a perfect seeker, an embodiment of the truth of impermanence, and
his spirit of perfect studentship pervades everywhere; all people in the land
are diligently learning his spirit; and everything in the land is teaching the
What, then, does the Pure Land symbolize? When I read
the above depiction of the Pure Land in the Larger
Sutra, the term that immediately comes to my mind is “the Sangha”—a
place where a teacher and his students are wholeheartedly seeking the
Dharma. I believe that the Pure Land is a symbol of
“the Sangha.” This is probably the most concrete way of defining the Pure
Land. In this connection, I recollect the following words of Rev. Rijin
Yasuda that he uttered in one of his lectures:
People say various things about birth in the Pure
Land. But could there be any greater “birth in the Pure Land” than the
fact that we are now sitting and learning the Dharma together? ... This
place where we are listening to the Dharma together is the Pure Land. Our
being allowed to be part of this place, of this Sangha, is “birth in the
you think that you can have anything greater than this in your life—the fact
that you are listening to the Dharma as a member of the Sangha? Some people
may speak about the wonderful things to be obtained in the Pure Land after
death, but those things are nothing but projections of human greed. The fact
that we are privileged to be part of the Sangha is our liberation, our
“birth in the Pure Land.”
(Cf. Dharma Breeze, Volume III)
Now I have said that the Pure Land is a symbol of the Sangha—a place where a teacher and his students are wholeheartedly seeking the Dharma. In short, it is a place where we can have true friends.
This definition of the Pure Land as the Sangha—as a
place where we can have true friends, is consistent with the definition of the
Pure Land by Shan-tao (613-81, the fifth Pure Land patriarch). Shan-tao
defines this shore and the other shore (i.e., the Pure Land) in his famous
parable of “The Two Rivers and White Path.” He defines this shore: “The
wilderness where no human being is seen. One constantly follows evil friends,
without ever meeting a true teacher.” He defines the other shore (i.e., the
Pure Land): “The traveler immediately reaches the western shore; he meets
his good friends, and his joy is limitless.” Shan-tao explains that this
shore symbolizes the world of loneliness or solitude where one does not have
any true friend; the other shore (i.e., the Pure Land) symbolizes the world
where one has true friends.
Thus, Buddhism simply confirms the importance of the
truth that all of us already know—the truth that friends are important in
our lives. The place where we can have true friends (the Sangha) is symbolized
as “the Pure Land.” Entering such a place is called birth in the Pure
Land. Having true friends (the Sangha) is the greatest happiness and
liberation taught in Buddhism. Buddhism does not talk about any greater
happiness or liberation.
did Dharmakara (or Amida) create the Pure Land?
As far as Dharmakara’s aspiration for Buddhahood is
concerned, he was no different from other bodhisattvas, because all
bodhisattvas aspire to become Buddhas. But Dharmakara was different from other
bodhisattvas in that he aspired to create the Pure Land, a Buddha-land. Then
why did he create a Buddha-land? It was because he was concerned with the
liberation of the inferior—those who cannot easily attain liberation because
of their heavy karmic evil, and he needed a Buddha-land specifically for them.
The Larger Sutra
says that Dharmakara meditated for five kalpas—an inconceivably long time—to formulate his plan for
creating a Buddha-land that is designed for the liberation of the inferior. If
Dharmakara had been concerned only with the liberation of the religiously
superior, he need not have meditated such a long time. An analogy is this. It
does not take a long time to discover cures for diseases like stomachaches;
but it takes a long time to discover cures for diseases like AIDS. Likewise,
Dharmakara had to meditate a long time in order to discover a cure for the
incurable—in order to create a Buddha-land that is specifically designed for the liberation of the inferior.
Why, then, was it necessary for Dharmakara to create a
Buddha-land for the liberation of the inferior? This question, I believe, is
an extremely important question for those who wish to understand the basic
features of Shin Buddhism. Let me answer this question with the following
Once upon a time there was a teenage boy named John in
a country town in the state of Montana. From an early age, he wanted to become
a dancer. He initially thought that be could become a professional dancer all
by himself. Thus, having bought many books on dancing, he started to learn
dance steps from those books. But, since he was not very talented, it was not
easy for him to reach his goal.
One day John met his uncle, whom he deeply respected.
Having known that John was interested in dancing, his uncle told him, “John,
there is a wonderful dance school named the Astaire Dance School in Hollywood.
Please trust my words and go to Hollywood and enter the school. There are no
requirements for admission. Just trust my words and enter it. If you enter the
school, you’ll be surprised by the rapid progress you’ll make.”
Since John was a trusting boy, he trusted his uncle’s words. He went to Hollywood and entered the Astaire Dance School. When he entered the school, he was deeply impressed by it. The teacher and his students there had a tremendous passion for the art; they were all burning with the desire to perfect it. As soon as John entered the school, he was immediately influenced by the passionate atmosphere of the school. He could not help practicing dancing for hours and hours every day. Thus, although he was not exceptionally talented, he made rapid progress and became one of the best dancers in the school. And eventually he became a famous dancer; his name was known all over the country. He later started his own dance school and many young people came to study there.
I have created this story
with the life of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262, the founder of Shin Buddhism) in mind. The Shin Buddhist implications of the story
are as follows: John is Shinran; his uncle is Honen (Shinran’s teacher); the
dance school is the Pure Land; entrance into the school is “birth in the
Pure Land”; making rapid progress is “attaining the stage of
non-retrogression”; and becoming an accomplished dancer is “becoming a
This story shows that the
school (i.e., the Pure Land) was important and indispensable for an ordinary
person like John (i.e., Shinran), who did not have exceptional talent and
could not reach his goal all by himself. Without entering the school (i.e.,
being born in the Pure Land) John could not find a way to become an
accomplished dancer (i.e., a Buddha). It was not John’s abilities that
realized his goal. It was the powerful and contagious atmosphere of the
school, the power of the burning aspiration entertained by the teacher and
students (i.e., Amida and the bodhisattvas) of the school, that totally
transformed John. Thus, for an ordinary person like John, entrance into the
school was quite important and necessary.
chief doctrinal feature of Shin Buddhism is that it talks about the Pure Land.
Amida, a symbol of limitless compassion, considered that those who are
inferior needed a place where they could become Buddhas. Thus he created the
Pure Land specifically for them.
Pure Land is a symbol of the Sangha. Birth in the Pure Land is a symbol of
becoming part of the Sangha—a living Buddhist tradition that consists of
great teachers. For those who consider themselves religiously superior, the
Pure Land (the Sangha) may not be necessary. But for those who recognize the
limitations of their abilities, the Pure Land has extremely important meaning.
It is absolutely necessary. It is entirely due to the power they receive in
the Pure Land that they are transformed into Buddhas.
3. What is the
power of the Pure Land?
Here I want to discuss the specific meaning of the
power of the Pure Land that transforms us. When I talk about the power of the
Pure Land (or Amida Buddha) that transforms us, some people may think that I
am talking about some mysterious power. But Buddhism is not a mysticism; there
are no mysterious elements whatsoever in Buddhism. The power of the Pure Land
means the power of the words of historical teachers, human teachers.
Buddhism teaches us the importance of the words that we hear from our
predecessors. It teaches us that listening
to their words alone brings about our birth in the Pure Land and
eventually our Buddhahood. In order to explain the Shin Buddhist emphasis on
the exclusive importance of listening, let me talk about the process of making
make smoked salmon, we must first put salmon into a smoke box. Then, we must
keep them in the box for several days. During that time those salmon will be
exposed to the smoke. After several days, we take them out of the box and find
that they have become smoked salmon.
Buddhist implications of this example are as follows: salmon symbolizes us
human beings; a smoke box symbolizes the Pure Land (the Sangha); entrance into
a smoke box symbolizes birth in the Pure Land (the Sangha); and becoming
perfectly smoked salmon symbolizes becoming Buddhas.
salmon are put into a smoke box and kept there for a certain length of time,
they will never fail to become full-fledged smoked salmon. An important point
to note here is that it is not the talents or abilities of salmon that
transform them into smoked salmon; it is the power of the smoke that
transforms them into full-fledged smoked salmon.
two things are important: “smoke” and “exposure to the smoke.” In
human life, the “smoke” means “words”; and “exposure to the smoke”
means “listening to words.” Just as the exposure to the smoke alone
creates smoked salmon, listening to the
words alone realizes Buddhahood.
far as Shinran was concerned, his birth in the Pure Land meant not only that
be became part of a specific historical fellowship that formed around Honen,
but also that be became part of the great Buddhist tradition of the seven
patriarchs to which Honen guided him. For Shinran the seven patriarchs were
all Buddhas, i.e., historical appearances of Amida Buddha. It was through
listening to their words alone that Shinran was able to become a Buddha. Thus,
Shinran emphasized the exclusive importance of listening to their words. For
example, at the end of his Shoshin-ge, he
says, “Just trust what these [seven] great monks say.” Here Shinran
indicates that “trusting (shin or shinjin)”
means “listening.” According to him, there was a
tremendous joy in listening and listening alone realized Buddhahood.
The Pure Land (the Sangha) is a place where a living
Buddhist tradition is maintained—a place where we are exposed to the words
of our predecessors and are transformed into Buddhas. This spiritual
transformation through listening is technically called
“listening-perfuming” (Skt. sruti-vasana).
Although all Buddhist schools emphasize the importance of listening, Shin
Buddhism is unique in teaching that listening
alone is necessary.
(4) Who can be born in the Pure land?
Now let me discuss the last question, “Who can be
born in the Pure Land?” I have earlier noted that Amida Buddha created the
Pure Land specifically for the inferior—those who can not attain liberation
because of their heavy karmic evil. This means that only those who know the
limitations of their abilities—who know themselves to be ignorant and
evil—can be born in the Pure Land. Those who have intellectual or moral
pride cannot be born there.
In other words, the only thing necessary for birth in
the Pure Land is “bowing (namu).” Otherwise, one cannot be born in the
Pure Land. To illustrate the importance of “bowing,” let me tell a story
about Hideyoshi (1536-98, a samurai ruler of Japan) and Rikyu (1522-91, the
systematizer of the art of the tea ceremony).
When Hideyoshi became the ruler of Japan, he summoned
Rikyu, a famous tea master, to serve him as his tea maker. Rikyu is known as
the original designer of the tea house. The tea house that Rikyu designed was
a small cottage-like house, consisting of only two tatami mats. A tea master makes tea inside the house; and guests
enter it through a tiny entrance. The design of the entrance is unique; it is
located at the bottom of a wall. Thus when guests enter the house, they have
to stoop to fit into the small entrance at the bottom of the wall. It looks as
if the guests were bowing their heads before the tea master who sits inside
Rikyu had deep insight into Buddhism. He knew that in
order to enter a noble realm, one had to bow his head deeply. Rikyu knew that
unless one became a bowing person, a humble person, he could not enter the
realm. He knew that “bowing” was the only requirement for entrance.
Thus the only thing that was necessary for Hideyoshi,
the shogun, to enter the tea house
was to bow—to enter it through the lowered entrance. He had to take off his
samurai sword, which meant that he had to forget all about his power, fame,
prestige, and pride. He had to become a naked human being, a humble and
ignorant human being.
But Hideyoshi could not bow. He thought Rikyu was an
arrogant teacher, demanding complete submission from the ruler of Japan. He
thought that Rikyu demanded that the ruler of Japan bow his head before him.
He thought that he could not take such a humiliating action before one of his
subjects. Thus eventually, because of the antagonism and frustration that
Hideyoshi felt towards Rikyu, he ordered Rikyu to commit haraidri. Having received the order, Rikyu committed harakiri
and died. In order to enter the tea room the only thing necessary was
“bowing.” But Hideyoshi could not do that.
The Pure Land is precisely like Rikyu’s tea house.
It is the spiritual realm of Namu Amida
Butsu (Bowing Amida Buddha). It is the land permeated with the “bowing (namu)”
spirit—a student’s spirit. In order to be born there (to be part of
the Sangha), the only thing necessary is “bowing—to become humble
The Pure Land is a symbol of the Sangha—a place
where people are seriously seeking the Dharma. “Birth in the Pure Land” is
a symbol of becoming part of the Sangha. Amida Buddha created the Pure Land specifically
for the inferior. For the inferior, the Pure Land is indispensable. The
power of the Pure Land means the power of the words of Buddhist predecessors.
It is through “listening to their words alone” that one can realize
Buddhahood. The only thing necessary for birth in the Pure Land, the land of
Namu Arnida Butsu (Bowing Amida
Buddha), is “bowing.” Only a bowing person—a person who knows his own
ignorance and evilness—can be born in the Pure Land.
No matter how capable a seed may be, it cannot sprout by itself. If a seed is placed on a rock, it will never sprout. It must have conditions such as heat, moisture, and light. The Pure Land (the Sangha) is the condition that enables us to sprout. It is by receiving power from the Pure Land, from the Sangha, that we can sprout and eventually bear fruit.
Realistically speaking, among the Three Treasures (i.e., the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), the Sangha is the most important. Becoming a member of the Sangha, of a living tradition, is the most important thing in Buddhism. It is the Sangha that enables us to gain insight into the Buddha and the Dharma. Thus Shin Buddhism says that birth in the Pure Land (the Sangha) is the most important thing. Our birth in the Pure Land, our becoming part of the Sangha, is our liberation. (10/1/2000)