The Pure Land is Around Us


For my class on Esoteric Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, I have been reading materials in Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. This is a collection of essays edited by the professor for the course. The topic matter of the collection is fairly obvious but one of the essays in it was particularly interesting. This was James Sanford’s Breath of Life: The Esoteric Nembutsu. This is the same James Sanford that wrote one of the few works on the Tachikawa cult in Japan, an organization that was later suppressed because its (seeming) heretical ideas.

In his essay, he discusses some of the esoteric understandings of the nembutsu practice in Shingon and Tendai and their influence on the various Pure Land religious movements that started up during the Kamakura period and later (when there was a great diversification in Japanese Buddhist thought and organization). For those that are not aware, the nembutsu practice is where Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha, a Buddha who presides over a “Pure Land” or Land of Bliss (a sort of Buddhist heaven where everything is well and it is easy to practice Buddhism). In the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra, Amitabha/Amida promised that any that called on him would be reborn in this land after death, which would remove the barriers that this unclean world offers to Buddhist practice. Thus, those reborn there would become enlightened by practicing there in ease. Pure Land practices exist throughout Buddhism from Tibet through China and then regions that derived their lineages from either of these. The funerary rites that I had done for my father with his remains were Tibetan and their goal was the release of his consciousness to be reborn in Sukhavati, which is a Pure Land.

There eventually arose a number of Buddhist organizations or cults (in the proper sense) that made the Pure Land practice of chanting the nembutsu (either “Namu Amida Butsu” or “南無阿弥陀仏”) into their primary practice. The idea being that in these degenerate times, the best that one can hope for is to be reborn in a better place because it is so hard to truly practice and become enlightened. The Institute of Buddhist Studies is run as an academic program but also a seminary for the Jodo Shinshu branch of Pure Land Buddhism, which is organized in America as the “Buddhist Churches of America”, so Buddhists that you know may very well be Pure Land Buddhists, even here in America.

The practice is, itself, quite simple as it involves chanting the above over and over again (though there are nuances to its practice depending on school). When this became an exceptionally popular practice, it was heavily practiced in both Shingon and Tendai but they had their own, more esoteric understanding, of the meaning of the chanting, linking it to the breath and life, and to the realization of the Pure Land in this world. It turns out that these understandings had an influence on the Pure Land schools outside of both Shingon and Tendai, some of which were considered rather unorthodox or even heretical. I had not previously been aware of this.

Sanford quotes a number of texts but I found this bit interesting, which is quoting the apocryphal Rennyo Shonin Hisho (The Secret Book of Saint Rennyo):

Due to the loving kindness of Sun and Moon, Water and Fire, of all beings, both the sentient and nonsentient, even down to the grass and trees, there is not one but that participates in the virtues of water and fire. The Western Paradise is spoken of as being ten trillion worlds away, but when darkness is dispelled by the single, thought-free heart, the moon of the Single Heart of the Western Quarter appears at once. This is to know that the Pure Land fills all ten quarters of the heart. When we say, "Namu Amida Butsu" or "Namu Muryoju Nyorai," Amida is nowhere else but here... Amida is in my four limbs and head... When one contemplates the Pure Land of Amida as Mind-Alone, neither the Pure Land nor the befouled world is anywhere but here."

The interesting bit, to me, is the self-identification of the practitioner, who is chanting, with Amida. Instead of Amida Buddha being elsewhere or another being, he is the practitioner. The Pure Land is, itself, the world all around you. The latter, by the way, is the understanding that I had been taught within a Tendai framework for this. The identification of the self with deity is a core practice in esoteric Buddhism in all of its traditions as well.

This unification of the deity with the self and the other world with this world brings to mind the various antinomial movements of Europe which saw Heaven as already being present on Earth or that the Second Coming could be understood on another level as being an event that was not to occur in the future but in a kind of eternal present if the individual realized it. Since the group that Sanford drew the text from, the Hiji Homon, was considered a marginal and heretical group, the parallels seem to be strong in some ways. Of the various antinomial groups in Europe, very few survived to current times (the Quakers, the Amish, and the Mennonites) because of the active suppression of them as heretical.

All in all, this was fairly interesting.