Understanding Chinese Pure land Buddhism

A hanging scroll (kakejiku) depicting the Seven Pure Land Masters according to the Jodo Shinshu tradition.
A hanging scroll (kakejiku 掛け軸) depicting the Seven Pure Land Masters according to the Jodo Shinshu tradition. Taken at Seattle Betsuin Temple with permission in 2010.

I have been continuing my read of the new book Chinese Pure Land Buddhism (first mentioned here), and enjoying it thoroughly. This is the first helpful Buddhist book that I have read in a long time.

In today’s post, I wanted to highlight an excellent passage in the first chapter on how the Pure Land Buddhist tradition is organized.

This passage applies not just to the tradition within China, but I believe across most of Pure Land Buddhism to some extent or another. Given Buddhism’s long history in Asia, I believe this passage also helps to explain the particular endurance of the Pure Land tradition.

China’s history, particular its government attitude, toward Buddhism has been rocky to say the least. At times, such as the early Tang Dynasty, it has been heavily supported and patronized, and at other times it has been persecuted, or relegated to the sidelines compared to the more native Confucian and Taoist traditions. Nevertheless, the Pure Land tradition, like its Chan (Zen) counterpart, has proven remarkably flexible and thrived for centuries.

But why?

At the end of the first chapter, the author concludes:

One may compare it [the Pure Land Buddhist tradition] to something like the tradition of Marian prayer within the Catholic Church. Practitioners do not seek to break with the Church and will see to it that their practice violates no canon of orthodoxy. At the same time, they will maintain its distinctiveness and hold it out as an option for those in the Church who feel drawn to it. They will provide an appropriate doctrinal justification for those practice to defend it from detractors, and they may at times form associations such as Marian Sodalites for mutual support in the practice. They generally will not disparage other traditions of practice nor call for exclusive commitment.

Pages 31 and 32

Pure Land Buddhism differs from some other more familiar traditions in that it does not usually have a master-disciple relationship. It’s more of a common fellowship among like-minded Buddhists:

A tradition [such as Pure Land Buddhism] does not need institutions or lineages to endure; it simply needs people to engage it and pass it along to subsequent generations.

Page 32

I personally have always been a bit uneasy about Buddhist lineages that rely on strict master-disciple relationships. It feels like putting all your eggs in one basket. If the basket is rotten, your eggs eventually fall through and shatter, leading to a lot of pain and misery.

As a lay Buddhist, I know in a general sense what I should do walk the Buddhist path: things like observing the Five Precepts, goodwill towards others, and deepening my understanding of the Dharma. Wisdom, conduct, and practice in other words.

At the same time, there is a need, like all people, for some sense of structure and community. I find that Pure Land Buddhism tends to strike that balance about as well as any tradition within Buddhism that I can think of between a concrete set of traditions and practices, without being too narrow either.

But, as I said before, Buddhism has many gates to accommodate many kinds of people, and that I believe is one of its sources of strength.

Namu Amida Butsu

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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