The Pure Land Tradition:
The goal of all Buddhist practice is to achieve Enlightenment and transcend the cycle of Birth and Death - that is, to attain Buddha hood.
In the Mahayana tradition, the precondition for Buddha hood is the Bodhi Mind, the aspiration to achieve Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, oneself included.
Since sentient beings are of different spiritual capacities and inclinations, many levels of teaching and numerous methods were devised in order to reach everyone
Traditionally, the sutras speak of 84,000. I.e., an infinite number, depending on the circumstances, the times and target audience.
All these methods are expedients - different medicines for different individuals with different illnesses at different times - but all are intrinsically perfect and complete. Within each method, the success or failure of an individual's cultivation depends on his depth of practice and understanding, that is, on his mind.
Self power, other power:
Throughout history, the Patriarchs have elaborated various systems to categorize Dharma methods and the sutras in which they are expounded. One convenient division is into methods based on self-effort (self-power) and those rely on the assistance of the Buddhas and Budhisattvas (other-power).
Traditionally, most Buddhist schools and methods take the self-power approach: progress along the path of Enlightenment is achieved only through intense and sustained personal effort. Because of the dedication and effort involved schools of this self-power, self-effort tradition all have a distinct monastic bias.
The laity has generally played only a supportive role, which the most spiritually advanced ideally joining the Order of monks and nuns. Best knowns of these traditions are Theravada and Zen.
Parallel to this, particularly following the development of Mahayana thought and the rise of any Buddhism, a more flexible tradition eventually came into being, combine self-power with other-power - the assistance and support provided by the Buddhas and Budhisattvas to sincere seekers of the way.
Most representative of this tradition are the Esoteric and
Pure Land schools. However unlike the former (or Zen), Pure Land does not stress the master-disciple relationship and de-emphasizes the role of sub-schools, gurus/roshia and rituals. Moreover, the main aim of Pure Land - rebirth in Buddha land through self effort and the power of Amitabha Buddha's Vows (rather than attainment of Enlightenment or Buddha hood in the current lifetime) - is a realistic goal, though to be understood at several levels. Therein lies the appeal and strength of Pure Land.
Pure Land, like all Mahayana schools, requires first and foremost the development of the Bodhi Mind, the aspiration to attain Buddha hood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
From this starting point, the main tenets of the school can be understood at the main levels, the transcendental and the popular - depending on the background and capacities of the cultivator.
1) In its popular form, i.e. for ordinary practitioners in this spiritually Degenerate Age, some twenty-six centuries after the demise of the historical Buddha, Pure Land involves seeking rebirth in the Land of Amitabha Buddha. This is achieving within one lifetime through the practice of Amitabha recitation with sincere faith and vows, leading to one-pointedness of mind or samadhi.
Thus at the popular level, the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha is an ideal training ground, an ideal environment where the practitioner is reborn thanks both to his own efforts and the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows. No longer subject to retrogression, having left Birth and Death behind forever, the cultivator can now focus all his efforts towards the ultimate aim of Buddha hood. This aspect of Pure Land is the form under which the school is popularly known.
2) At the advanced level, i.e. for cultivators of high spiritual capacity, the Pure Land method, like other methods, reverts the ordinary, deluded mind to the Self-nature True Mind. In the process wisdom and Buddha hood are eventually attained.
The high-level form of Pure Land is practiced by those of deep spiritual capacities:
"When the mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure ........to recite the Buddha's name is to recite the Mind."
In its totality, Pure Land reflects the highest teaching of Buddhism as expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra: mutual identity and interpenetrating, the simplest method contains the ultimate and the ultimate is found in the simplest.
These three factors are the cornerstones of Pure Land Buddhism. If they are present, rebirth in the Pure Land is achieved.
Faith means faith in Amitabha Buddha's Vows to rescue all who recite His name, as well as faith in one's own Self-Nature, which is intrinsically the same as His (to recite the Buddha's name is to recite the Mind).
Vows are the determination to be reborn in the Pure Land - in one's pure mind - so as to be in the position to save oneself and others.
Practice generally means reciting the Buddha's name to the point where one's Mind and that of Amitabha Buddha are in unison - i.e. to the point of singlemindness. Samadhi and wisdom are then achieved.
Please note that all Buddhist teachings are expedients, dividing the one and indivisible Truth into many parts.
Faith, Vows and Practice, although three are really one.
Thus it can be said that rebirth in the Pure Land depends on three conditions, two conditions (Faith or Vows) or even one condition (Faith), as the one contains all and all is contained in the one.
The formula to be used depends on the audience and the times. The aim is to enable sentient beings to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land as a steppingstone towards Buddha hood.
Central to the Pure Land tradition is the figure of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, the future Amitabha Buddha, who came to exemplify the Bodhisattva ideal and the doctrine of dedication of merit. This merit transference is the source of the vow-power, or other-power in Pure Land Buddhism.
The Mahayana idea of the Buddha being able to impart his power to others marks one of those epoch-making deviations which set off the Mahayana from so-called .....original Buddhism.....The Mahayanist accumulates stocks of merit not only for the material of their own enlightenment but for the general cultivation of merit which can be shared equally by their fellow-beings, animate or inanimate. This is the true meaning of Parinamara that is turning one's merit over to others for their spiritual interest.
The rationale for such conduct, which on the surface appears to run counter to the laws of Cause and Effect, may be explained in the following passage concerning one of the three Pure Land sages, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin):
Some of us may ask whether the effect of karma may be reverted by repeating the name of Kuan-yin. This question is tie up with that rebirth in [the Pure Land] and it may be answered by saying that invocation of Kuan-Yin's name forms another cause which will right away offset the previous karma. We know for example that if there is a dark, heavy cloud above, the chances are that it will rain. But we also know that if a strong wind should blow, the cloud will be carried away somewhere else and will not feel the rain. Similarly, the addition of one big factor can alter the whole cause of karma.
It is only be accepting the idea of life as one whole that both Theravadins and Mahayanists can advocate the practice of transference of merit to others. With the case of Kuan-Yin then, by reciting Her name we identify ourselves with Her and as a result of this identification Her merit flow over to us. These merits which are now ours then counterbalance our bad karma and save us from calamity. This law of Cause and Effect still stands good. All karma has overshadowed the weaker one...
This concept of transference of merit, which presupposes a receptive mind on the part of the cultivator, is emphasized in Pure Land.
Faith is an important component of Pure Land Buddhism. However wisdom or Mind also plays a crucial, if less visible role. This interrelationship is clearly illustrated in the Meditation Sutra:
The worst sinner, guilty of matricide and parricide, etc. may still achieve rebirth in the Pure Land if, on the verge of death, he recites the Buddha's name one to ten times with utmost faith and sincerity.
This passage can be understood at two levels. At the level of everyday life, just as the worst criminal once genuinely reformed is no longer a threat to society and may be pardoned, the sinner once truly repent may, through the Vow-power of Amitabha Buddha, achieve rebirth in the Pure Land - albeit at the lowest grade.
Thus Pure Land offers hope to everyone; yet at the same time, the law of Cause and effect remains valid.
Therefore, once the sinner repents and recites the Buddha's name with utmost sincerity and one pointedness of mind, for that moment he becomes an awakened person silently merging into the stream of the Sages - Can Enlightenment and Buddha hood then be that far away? As the Meditation Sutra states: "the Land of Amitabha Buddha is not far from here!"
Whether one is a layperson or has left the home-life, one should respect elders and be harmonious to those surrounding you. One should endure what others cannot achieve. One should take others' difficulties unto oneself and help them succeed in their undertakings.
While sitting quietly, one should often reflect upon one's own faults, and when chatting with friends, one should not discuss the rights and wrongs of others.
Constantly maintain a humble and heart; even if one has upheld true cultivation, one should still feel one's practice is shallow and never boast.
One should mind one's own business and not business of others. Only look after the good examples of others instead of bad ones. One should see oneself as mundane and everyone else as Bodhisattvas.
If one can cultivate according to these teachings, one is sure to reach the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.