Background: Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism


Pure Land Buddhism and Dogen's Zen Buddhism

Mark Unno


Pure Land Buddhism and the Philosophy of Honen and Shinran

Pure Land school. Advocates of the Pure Land teachings can be identified quite early in Chinese Buddhist history, but Pure Land Buddhism emerged as a major force in the T'ang Dynasty along with Zen. While both arose partially as a reaction against the metaphysical excesses of the philosophical schools, Zen focused on awakening through monastic practice, while Pure Land focused on attaining birth in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha through practices that were accessible to lay people.

Pure Land Sutras. Three of the most prominent sutras of the Pure Land schools of East Asian Buddhism are The Larger Sutra of Eternal Life, The Amida Sutra (Smaller Sutra of Eternal Life), and The Meditation Sutra. Like many other Mahayana Sutras such as the Lotus, Flower Ornament, and Vimalakirti, these sutras were compiled near the beginning of the Common Era. At the center of these sutras is the story of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, a former king who decides to set out to seek enlightenment. In the process of doing so, he establishes the Western Pure Land; when sentient beings accumulate sufficient virtue, they are born there, and due to the ideal conditions, immediately attain enlightenment. In later developments, especially in Japan, the Pure Land becomes virtually synonymous with ultimate reality, emptiness, nirvana.

Practitioners aspiring to birth in the Pure Land visualize the jewelled paradise of the Buddha Amitabha, where the evil karma of his or her past is transformed into the Pure Land and the virtue of its Buddha. Ultimately, even the Pure Land is transcended, and the practitioner attains awareness of the non-origination of things, a virtual synonym of emptiness.

Amitabha Buddha. Bodhisattva Dharmakara eventually becomes the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. Amitabha is also known as Amitayus, the Buddha of Eternal Life, hence the title of the Larger Sutra. In China and Japan, these two names, sometimes referring to distinct Buddhas in the Indian context, are referred to singularly as A-mi-t'o in Chinese and Amida in Japanese. Furthermore, although male in the Indian context, Amitabha becomes increasingly referred to in female, maternal terms in East Asia. The distinctive characteristic of Amitabha is compassion.

The Name of Amida Buddha. In the Meditation Sutra, it is stated that, for those who are unable to achieve the meditative visualization of the Pure Land, the recitative invocation of Amitabha's name is sufficient to attain birth. In China, and especially Japan, this becomes the most widespread form of practice, known as the nembutsu, in which the repetition of the name, Namu Amida Butsu (I take refuge in Amida Buddha), is the very manifestation of Amida. Philosophically, to take refuge in Amida Buddha is to abandon ego-centered, attached thinking and to entrust oneself to the infinite wisdom (light) and infinite compassion (life) of Amida. Since the ultimate body, or dharmakaya, of Amida is formless, one attains formless reality through the name.

Kannon. Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, is an emanation of Amida. Originating as a male bodhisattva in India, Avalokiteóvara, this bodhisattva became female in East Asia and has been one of the most popular deities of devotion.

Honen (1133-1212). Exponent of Pure Land Buddhism. Honen broke with the traditional views of other Buddhists who looked to a variety of teachings and instead advocated the single-minded recitation of the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu. Honen was known for his broad and deep philosophical understanding, the purity of his observance of the precepts, and his ability to cultivate various states of meditation including visualizations.

Self-power and other-power. However, he abandoned ritual observance of all of these practices at the age of forty-three and turned his attention solely to the nembutsu. His conclusion was that, no matter how skillful he may have appeared outwardly, inwardly it was impossible to become free from thoughts of attachment, conceit, and insecurity. The failure of this self-effort or self-power (jiriki) opened up the realm of other-power (tariki), the formless reality of the highest truth taking shape in the wisdom and compassion of boundless light, Amida Buddha, embodied in the name. The two ideas of self-power and other-power are complementary. Without seeing the one, the other cannot be seen; they are like the clouds and the sun that shines through them.

Foolish being. Honen states, "In the path of the Pure Land one attains birth by returning to an ignorant fool."1 One aspect of this indicates the foolishness of sentient beings, the other aspect the wisdom of one who is aware of foolishness, a kind of beginner's mind. Thus the same being who attains awareness of his or her foolishness is also regarded as "equal to the buddhas."

Pure Land beyond form. The Pure Land no longer refers to a jewelled paradise here; it refers to the realm of emptiness in which all beings and phenomena are grasped in their suchness. When a disciple asked Honen near the end of his life, "Master, what is the importance of visualizations," Honen replied, "At first I, Honen, also engaged in such frivolities, but no longer. Now I simply say the nembutsu of entrusting." "Even if one is able to see the jewelled trees [of the Pure Land], they could not be more beautiful than the blossoms and fruit of plum and peach trees [found in this world]."2

In a sense, the Pure Land can be understood to be the realm of emptiness. Honen taught that the unfolding of Amida's compassion and wisdom was felt in this life, but birth in the Pure Land in the next. This parallels the relationship between nirvana and Parinirvana in the life of Sakyamuni. As long as one has attachments, it can be misleading and dangerous to say that emptiness is already present. However, at the very end of is life, when a disciple asked Honen if he would be born in the Pure Land, he replied, "Since I have always been in the Pure Land, that will not happen."3

Shinran (1173-1262). Exponent of Pure Land Buddhism who studied with Honen. His form of Pure Land Buddhism is often referred to as Shin Buddhism, reflecting his expression, Jodo-shinshu, the true teaching of the Pure Land. Like his teacher, he emphasizes the awareness of the foolish being who, endeavoring to free him or herself from the cycle of ignorance and attachment, sees more and more clearly his or her own foolishness.

Shinjin. Like Honen, Shinran advocated the recitation of the nembutsu. Whereas Honen emphasized simply repeating the name constantly, Shinran emphasized the simultaneous awareness of foolishness and the awareness of boundless compassion. The term for this is shinjin, which is often rendered as true entrusting, a letting go of all attachments which enables the natural unfolding of compassion and wisdom. One who attains the wisdom of true entrusting is regarded as the equal of buddhas. Since the heart of the nembutsu, as is the case in all forms of practice which are thought to embody highest truth, is beyond distinctions, Shinran states, "In the nembutsu, no meaning is the true meaning."4 At the same time, Shinran cautions, "If you talk about [this] too much, then 'no meaning' will appear to have some kind of special meaning."5

Naturalness. The foolish being is always contriving or calculating to reach a goal dualistically, whether that goal is material, such as worldly success or health, or is spiritual such as enlightenment or birth. The one who becomes aware of this foolishness and is receptive to the compassion of Amida is led beyond this contrivance to a realm of spontaneous freedom. This spontaneity, in contrast to the contrivance of the foolish being, is called jinen honi, the suchness of spontaneity, or more simply, naturalness.

The Vow of Amida. Shinran understands Amida Buddha in terms of two aspects of the dharmakaya, or dharma-body: dharmakaya-as-emptiness and the dharmakaya-as-compassion. The awareness of dharmakaya-as-compassion leads to the realization of dharmakaya-as-emptiness. The process of being led to the life of spontaneity through the dharmakaya-as-compassion is expressed as entrusting oneself to the Vow of Amida, the vow to lead all sentient beings to buddhahood by awakening them out of their foolishness.


1. Letters of Shinran-A Translation of Mattosho, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, ed. Yoshifumi Ueda (Kyoto: Honganji International Center, 1978, 31.

2. Saihoshinansho, Shinran Shonin zenshu 5 (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1984), 121.

3. Saihoshinansho, 131.

4. Tannisho, Section X, tr. by Taitetsu Unno (Honolulu: Buddhist Studies Center Press, 1984). Note: T. Unno translates this as: "No selfworking is true working."

5. Letters of Shinran, 30.


Philosophical Terms in the Zen Buddhist Thought of Dogen

Dogen Kigen (1200-1253)

(Dogen was the founder of Maura's Zen Buddhist lineage. However, whereas Dogen emphasized Sitting-only, Maura's teacher Go Roshi emphasized Koan practice, the practice of breaking through and manifesting paradoxical reality, such as the mu koan. Nevertheless, the following should give you some ideas about Zen Buddhism.)

Dogen, regarded as the founder of the Soto branch of Zen Buddhism in Japan, went to China and received the transmission of the Chinese master Ru-ch'ing. After returning to Japan he composed the Shobogenzo, regarded by many as the greatest philosophical work in Japanese Zen. He went on to establish Eiheiji, a mountain monastery that has become the main training center of the Soto sect. Dogen apparently transmitted the Dharma to women, since there is the record of a little-known woman Zen master from the Kamakura Period named Mugai Nyodo.

Sitting-only (shikan taza). Although Dogen implemented a variety of ritual forms, he placed his greatest emphasis on sitting meditation. There are two aspects to his notion of sitting-only: 1) He advocated sitting-only as a critique of the over-ritualization of Buddhism during the Kamakura Period. He felt that the various rituals had become a means to embellish and legitimize the life of the court nobility rather than serve the goals of fulfilling the bodhisattva vow and attaining awakening. 2) The "only" of "sitting-only" signifies "not two" or nonduality and stands in contrast to dualistic thinking which is based on some finite, limited, and objectified goal. Sitting-only focusing one's attention on becoming one with the present moment, the activity at hand, as a manifestation of the all-embracing buddha-nature which transcends all dichotomies. In this sense, the "only" of sitting-only is to be manifest whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying, that is, at all times.

Dropping off body-mind (shinjin datsuraku). This is the expression Dogen reports he used as a expression of his awakening in his interview with Ju-ch'ing, his Chinese master. Dropping off body-mind is the expression of practice which corresponds to no-self and emptiness. When one is completely manifesting the activity of awakening, then there is no objectified body or mind. As Dogen states in the Genjokoan, the self is forgotten, and one becomes the activity at hand as the activity of the cosmos.

Practice as awakening. For Dogen who began his quest with the question, "If all beings are primordially awakened, what need is there to seek awakening?" one expression of his response to this problem was to see practice as awakening. This means 1) awakening is inseparable from practice, 2) awakening is to be found in every moment of practice, 3) the true nature of awakening can only be grasped in the midst of practice, and 4) to practice is to manifest awakening.

The samadhi of (awakening) unfolding of itself (jijuyu zammai). When awakening is manifest in the midst of practice, awakening unfolds spontaneously of itself, without any interference from the dualistic, goal-oriented thinking of the self attached to ideas. The self has no self and is open to the unfolding activity at hand/of omnipresent awakening. Rather than trying to force things to fit one's own idea of reality, things of this world authenticate one's own awakening as one's receptivity dovetails with the unfolding reality (See "Genjokoan.") This is also know as the King of samadhis samadhi (zammai-o-zammai).

Beginner's mind (shoshin). This term, which occurs in several Buddhist scriptures including the "Bendowa" chapter of Dogen's Shobogenzo, refers to the beginner practitioner or bodhisattva. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master in Dogen's Soto tradition, interprets beginner's mind as the hallmark of the mature practitioner, the true expert. To give my own interpretation, the true expert is one who has studied extensively and can wield any teaching as a skillful means but does so with the beginner's mind, i.e., the mind of humility. The beginner's mind is the mind of emptiness, highest truth, and is the basis of the true expert who can move freely in the world of conventional truth.