The Real Treasure Was Inside Us All Along

A reprint of the Taima Mandala, one of my favorite works of Buddhist art, with the Jodo Shinshu-sect crest at the top and bottom, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I have been reading up on the Obaku sect (Ōbaku-shū, 黄檗宗) of Japanese Zen Buddhism: the same sect that Tetsugen was a disciple of. Obaku Zen is the third and last Zen sect to come to Japan to China, centuries after Rinzai and Soto were imported. Rinzai and Soto were both imported from China during the Song Dynasty. Obaku had the same lineage as Rinzai Zen, but was imported at the end of the Ming Dynasty, and had evolved over time to include some elements of Pure Land Buddhism, but with distinctly Chinese-Zen flavor.

In Japan, due to the Obaku sect’s common ancestry with the Rinzai sect, it was gradually absorbed administratively by the latter, but it’s arrival in Japan also reinvigorated Zen-monastic discipline. Soto and Rinzai sects frequently studied for a time at Obaku temple communities.

Obaku Zen, though small, still retains its more Sinified liturgy (sutra recitation is pronounced in a more more Chinese, less Japanese, style) and integration of Pure Land teachings.

For example their temple homepage lists an interesting excerpt from an earlier publication about the meaning of the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in a Zen context. What follows is the original excerpt, plus my rough translation:


If we take this world that exists as none other than Mind only, such that all of its affairs, its phenomenon, and such all depend on the movements of the Mind, and thus are “Conscious-only”, then the “Pure Land” is that which dwells in the heart. That is to say, Amitabha Buddha is this very self.

from「己身」の「弥陀」 (“Amitabha Buddha of the self”) from 黄檗宗青年僧の会発行「黄檗」(“Obaku Zen young monk’s periodical ‘Obaku'”)

To borrow that 1980’s cliché found in every Saturday morning cartoon: the real treasure was inside us all along.

The term “Conscious-only” or yuishin (唯心) is the Buddhist term for the Yogacara Buddhist school of philosophy, which taught that all things we perceive, think and feel are ultimately projections of the mind itself. It’s a subject that is super fascinating and far beyond the scope of this post, but important to understand that the Yogacara tradition of Buddhism has had a huge influence on Buddhism at large. I highly, highly recommend the book Living Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism if you’d like a general overview of Conscious-only Buddhism. It is a book that I come back to every now and then.

In any case, this concept of the Pure Land as the mind only might seem far-fetched given the overall trend, especially in Japanese Buddhist history, to focus on Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land as separate, external entities. However if you’ll recall, the Chinese monk Ouyi who also lived in Ming Dynasty promoted a similar outlook:1 that in the end the real Pure Land was our Mind, and yet it’s perfectly fine to continue practicing Pure Land Buddhism as if it were external.

You might even say that the real bodhisattvas we encountered were the friends we made along the way. 🤪

Namu Amida Butsu

1 It’s tempting to argue that the Zen traditions of Soto and Rinzai that came to Japan earlier are more “pristine” than the later Obaku tradition, but I think that’s it’s a highly romanticized view of the past. Further, it’s important for religious traditions to “till the soil” from time to time, innovate and such. We can’t recreate the original 5th Century BCE community of the Buddha and his direct disciples, nor can we recreate the early Zen traditions in China and so on. We can learn from them, and keep innovating as time goes on. Later Zen tradition in China probably reflected continuous innovation as it vied with other schools of thought: Confucian, Taoist, other Buddhist schools, etc.

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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