Recently, I stumbled upon a particularly fascinating book on the oft-neglected subject of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism titled Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice. This book was published in 2020, so it’s quite recent.
The book seeks to clarify what defines the Chinese “Pure Land Buddhist tradition” by relying on more native Chinese sources, rather than Western interpretations. I have only started reading the book and it has done much to clarify my own misconceptions.
In particular, one the first chapters attempts to define what Chinese Pure Land Buddhism is rather than what it isn’t (a common trope from earlier Western research). In Japan, due to certain historical and political factors, Buddhism as a religion has been divided into a number of fixed sects 宗 (shū), such as Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu, Soto Zen Shu and so on. Each has a set founder, a set practice, and set lineage, etc. This is what most Westerners are familiar with and tends to resonate with our own Protestant religious landscape.
However, when you look at mainland Buddhism such as in China, and probably also Vietnam and Korea, you don’t see such a division. Western research has tended to assume that is because there are no explicitly-defined sects, it’s just one syncretic, Buddhist tradition. However, the book demonstrates that if you scratch the surface you will find unique practices, traditions, it’s just that Western scholarship hasn’t adequately defined them yet.
In the context of Pure Land Buddhism in China, Chinese Buddhist writers have rarely used the equivalent term 宗 (zōng, sounds like “tsohng”) as in 浄土宗 (jìng tǔ zōng, “Pure Land Sect”) to describe the traditions therein. Instead, the book shows that the term 法門 (fǎmén, sounds like “fah-muhn”), or Dharma-gate, was much more commonly used throughout Chinese-Buddhist history. For clarity, the “Dharma” here refers to the Buddhist teachings as taught by the historical Buddha, or in a broader sense, the nature of reality. The Buddha didn’t invent the Dharma, he awakened to what was already there, just as other Buddhas supposedly did, and shared with others.
In any case, the notion of Dharma Gate, rather than “sect” kind of blew my mind.
The idea of gates is nothing new in Buddhism: many Buddhist temples, including urban ones, have a “gate” representing one’s entrance to the Buddhist path. Even becoming Buddhist is sometimes referred to as “passing through the Gate of the Dharma”,
However, in this context, it means something bigger. In the famous Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses the analogy of a burning household, and the efforts to lead the children out of the house with promises of gifts, only to reveal that all the gifts were the same (and much better than what was originally promised). A frequent theme in the Lotus Sutra is thus “expedient means” or upāya in Sanskrit: using a variety of teachings and methods to suit the backgrounds and inclinations of various living beings to help them take those first steps. Ensure no one is left behind, in other words.
This gives rise to the idea of many different “gates”, usually based around specific Buddhist practices rather than a sectarian interpretation, all converging on the same point in the middle.
Imagine someone going through one gate at the local sports stadium versus a different gate. Sometimes, this is less about choice, and more about which parking lot you parked in,1 but other times it might be because you like to stop and get some garlic fries on the way in, or maybe you like taking the less crowded gate even if you have to walk a bit further to your seat. Maybe you just really want that beer. In any case, you arrive at your seat, but the experience leading up to it will be different until you converge to your seat. It’s all the same stadium one way or another, but you have some agency about which gate you pass through and how you will get to your seat.
I like this expression of the various “dharma gates” of Buddhism because it doesn’t divide Buddhism into competing sects, nor does it necessarily imply one gate is better than another (they’re all roughly equidistant to the goal). It’s more about choice.
And the concept of a “dharma gate” isn’t limited to particular traditions. As the book shows, the Pure Land “dharma gate” has within it many different sub-gates, based on particular practices (reciting sutras, prostrations, meditation practices, etc). Zen-based traditions might also vary somewhat by practices, the degree they do this or that, and thus there’s not just “Zen gate”, but many gates within.
I like sects as much as the next person,2 but I think describing Buddhism as a large religion with many “dharma-gates” rather than denominations or sects, is a more accurate model. Imagine the Buddhist religion as the Colosseum of Rome. Buddhism as whole tends to place heavy emphasis on practice and less on dogma, so it’s more of a matter of finding a practice (e.g. a dharma-gate) and entering through that gate. In time your practice and understanding will converge with other Buddhists over time.
1 In the same way, sometimes we living beings are hemmed in by our past karmic circumstances and thus our options for practicing Buddhism are more limited.
2 I am sorry, but I couldn’t resist the joke. 😝