The story of Amitabha.
In the Longer Pure Land Sutra, the Buddha, extols Amitabha and the Pure Land. Initially, this sutra represents a dialog between Sakyamuni and his cousin and disciple, Ananda. Amitabha once was a human being, no different from any of us. He was a king, but that just meant that he held a high social position, not that he had a different nature from ours. But what a transformation he underwent! This king became increasingly concerned over the suffering of all of the people surrounding him. When he heard the preaching of Lokeshvararaja, the Buddha of his age, he resolved to become a Buddha himself and prepare a paradise for all sentient beings so that they would no longer suffer. He took on the name Dharmakara and spent the next five kalpas (a very long period of time) in deep meditation. Then he uttered 48 vows, in which he promised to forego his own enlightenment if he had not accomplished those goals. There appears to be unanimity among commentators that the 18th vow is the "most important" one. However, it is obvious that all the vows hang together in mutual dependence in Dharmakara's pledge. The 18th vow reads in Inagaki's translation, section 7:
Dharmakara now entered the cycle of rebirths in order to attain full enlightenment. After billions of years he achieved his goal and became the Buddha Amithaba (the Buddha of Infinite Light). He immediately created his Pure Land. Amitabha's spiritual state is that of a transcendental Buddha, which means that he has not departed for nirvana, but is present in his portion of the universe teaching the dharma and welcoming anyone who wants to enter his realm. We must understand that in Mahayana cosmology the idea that different Buddhas oversee different regions of the universe is a common conception. Paradoxically, the sutras refer to the universe as the "lands of the ten quarters." It includes the abodes of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and actually there are myriads of Buddha fields. However, the "western" paradise of Amitabhra is distinguished from the others by its perfection in all aspects.
"Calling on the Buddha's name" became embodied in a mantra, which in Japanese is called the nembutsu. This term is derived from the Sanskrit Namas Amitabhaya Buddhaya (or, more correct: Namo'mitabhaya Bhuddaya which means "I worship (or "bow down") the Buddha Amitabha." From there it turned into the Japanese Namu-Amida-Butsu, or Nembutsu. Some writers give a different interpretation of the phrase by saying that Nem in Nembutsu is derived from the Japanese nen, taken over from the Chinese nien, both of which mean "to remember" or "to contemplate." They rightly acknowledge that the original Sanskrit would have been Amitabha smriti, a valid concept for Pure Land Buddhism, but the former derivation seems to be less forced. A highly questionable understanding is one that limits the derivation of the term to Japanese alone, ignoring its obvious antecedents in Chinese and Sanskrit. Furthermore, to read exclusivity (i.e. Amida alone) into the phrase itself is a philosophical expansion that is not integral to the phrase. We'll come back to the nature of the nembutsu later on. Buddhists had used this formula for a long time before it became integral to the newly-formed Japanese Pure Land Schools. A point of discussion that we need to address later will be whether the number "ten" is supposed to be an exact requirement or whether it simply stands for an indefinite number greater than zero.
The three fundamental sutras depict the Pure Land in extremely lavish terms, to the point where one has to realize that the descriptions are not intended to be literal, but figurative, trying to represent a transcendent beauty that goes far beyond common human perceptions.
The Australian poet Harold Stewart commented,
Consider the following piece of landscaping, as described in the Longer Pure Land Sutra, section 14:
Of course, we all know that such jewels are inedible, but that fact makes no difference. Those who have attained residency in the Pure Land have sublime bodies and are treated to physical pleasures for their own sake. There is no longer an actual need to be satisfied. Thus we read in section 17:
In any event, the physical surroundings are not the most important aspect of Amitabha's Pure Land. Sakyamuni comments (Longer Sutra, section 31):
By this time Sakyamuni's audience in the sutra has changed. He is now addressing the boddhisattva Maitreya, other human beings, and--surprisingly--gods (devas). The surprise lies in the fact that Buddhism usually teaches that only human beings can attain nirvana, thereby closing the door to the gods, who need to wait until eventually their karma permits them to be reborn as humans. See Buddhist the cosmology as illustrated by the Tibetan bhavachakra mandala. However, entry into the Pure Land is not the same thing as attaining nirvana, and everyone who is reborn into the Pure Land will do so as a male human being. Thereby nirvana is made possible as a next step for gods as well as for beings who stand below humans.
Devas, humans and lesser beings, including even those that crawl, have all been blessed by your compassionate guidance and have thereby attained deliverance from suffering and affliction.
It is significant that by this time he follows up immediately by persuading his listeners to pursue the "Way" (dharma) to the Pure Land.
That land is sublime, blissful, serene and pure. Why do you not diligently practice good, reflect on the naturalness of the Way and realize that it is above all discriminations and is boundlessly pervasive? You should each make a great effort to attain it. Strive to escape from Samsara and be born in the Land of Peace and Provision. Then, the causes of the five evil realms having been destroyed, they will naturally cease to be, and so you will progress unhindered in your pursuit of the Way.
No one is entitled to be born into the Pure Land, but everyone is invited. We see here that anyone, once located in the Pure Land, will find it very easy to continue the journey and take the final step to nirvana. Later on, the question as to whether the Pure Land and nirvana are synonymous became a topic of discussion. As the Buddha continues this exposition, he declares that sadly not many people devote themselves to attaining it.
The Pure Land is easy to reach, but very few actually go there. It rejects nobody, but naturally and unfailingly attracts beings. Why do you not abandon worldly matters and strive to enter the Way? If you do, you will obtain an infinitely long life and one of limitless bliss.
An important point to observe in the development of Pure Land thought is that, given the teachings of the Larger Sutra, admission to the Pure Land is something that needs to be earned. It may not be difficult to attain, but it must be attained. In a further passage, Sakyamuni explains to the bodhisattva Maitreya that in particular, good people and gods benefit from the advantage of living in, not just Amitabha's, but any Buddha's Buddha-land:
If here in this world you are upright in thought and will, and abstain from doing evil, then you will attain the utmost virtue, unsurpassed in all the lands throughout the ten quarters. Why is this so? Devas and humans in the Buddha-lands naturally do good and rarely commit evil, and so, it is easy to teach and train them.
As it turns out, the Larger Sutra even goes on to makes a definite distinction between those beings who passed away in the full wisdom of Amitabha and those who are only half-convinced. The former, upon death, are immediately reborn and transformed into full residents of the Pure Land, while the latter must first pass through a period of development in preparation for the next birth.
Then the Bodhisattva Maitreya said to the Buddha, "World-Honored One, for what reason are some of the inhabitants of that land in the
embryonic state and the others born by transformation?"
The Buddha replied, "Maitreya, if there are sentient beings who do various meritorious deeds aspiring for birth in that land while still entertaining doubt, such beings are unable to comprehend the Buddha-wisdom, inconceivable wisdom, ineffable wisdom, boundless Mahayana wisdom, and incomparable, unequaled, and unsurpassed supreme wisdom. Although they doubt these wisdoms, they still believe in retribution for evil and reward for virtue and so cultivate a stock of merits, aspiring for birth in that land.
Such beings are born in a palace, where they dwell for five hundred years without being able to behold the Buddha, hear his exposition of the Dharma, or see the hosts of bodhisattvas and shravakas [disciples]. For this reason, that type of birth in the Pure Land is called 'embryonic state.'
The Meditation Sutra, part 1, sec.7, states the requirements for relocating into the Pure Land in very straightforward terms.
Those who wish to be born in that country of Buddha have to cultivate a threefold goodness. First, they should act in proper filial fashion towards their parents and support them; serve and respect their teachers and elders; be of compassionate mind, abstain from doing any injury, and cultivate the ten virtuous actions. Second, they should take and observe the vow of seeking refuge with the Three jewels, fulfill all moral precepts, and not lower their dignity or neglect any ceremonial observance. Third, they should give their whole mind to the attainment of perfect wisdom, deeply believe in the principle of cause and effect, study and recite the Mahayana doctrine, and persuade and encourage others who pursue the same course as themselves.
TENTATIVE TABLE OF CONTENTS
Pure Land Home Page 1 A Few Words of Clarification Page 2 Scriptures and Basics Page 3 The Story of Amitabha Page 4 The Seven Shin Patriarchs Page 5 Honen Shonen Page 6 Shinran Shonin Page 7 Other Japanese Schools Page 8 Chinese Schools Page 9 Interaction with Christianity