Living Rissho Ankoku Ron

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by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

Review of Pure Land Buddhism Part 1:
The Triple Pure Land Sutras

The Master Replied

WNSD1: p. 118 - 123, WND: p. 12 – 15


                      The host's reply to the guest commences the most complex part of the Rissho Ankoku Ron. At this point, Nichiren moves from a general outline of the situation facing Japan to a specific critique of Honen's magnum opus, the Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu Shu or Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu and the Original Vow. Honen and the Collection of Passages on the Nembutsu were very well known to Nichiren and his contemporaries. Likewise the tradition of Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia which this section discusses in detail was also very well known; so Nichiren did not have to provide any background, but took it for granted that his audience knew what he was talking about. In our case, however, we need to become familiar with the larger context in which Nichiren was writing, starting with the very beginnings of Pure Land Buddhism.


                      After the passing of the Buddha in the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., his sutras (which means "threads of discourse") were preserved by means of an oral transmission by the monastic Sangha. Starting around the first century B.C.E. these sutras were recorded in writing. Today, there are two major recensions of those discourses that may be representative of the historical Buddha's actual teachings. One version belongs to the Theravadin school of Sri Lanka and SE Asia and because it is in the dialect known as Pali it is often called the Pali Canon (even when it has been translated into other languages like English). The other version originated with the Sarvastivadin school (which disappeared along with the rest of Indian Buddhism in the 12th century CE) and now only exists in a Chinese translation called the Agama sutras. While there are some differences, on the whole both of these recensions have a consistent view of the Buddha's main teachings such as the four noble truths, dependent origination, and the eightfold path. In fact, the two collections are obviously two different versions of the same material.


                      Alongside the Pali Canon and the Agamas, the earliest of the Mahayana sutras were also written down. The Mahayana canon, however, grew and evolved over a period of several hundred years. Even individual sutras like the Lotus Sutra took several centuries to achieve the form by which they are known today. While the Mahayana sutras do seem to take the basic teachings of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon or the Agamas as their starting point, they also attempt to go beyond them in terms of subtlety of understanding, spiritual aspiration, and the scope of liberation. The Mahayana sutras especially emphasize and elaborate on the teaching of emptiness and the bodhisattva way consisting of the six perfections. They also introduce the concept of celestial buddhas who have created pure lands throughout the universe into which sentient beings can be reborn and thereby enjoy the best conditions and most suitable environment to complete their bodhisattva practices and attain buddhahood themselves. The Triple Pure Land Sutras that became so influential throughout East Asia expound on the most popular buddha and pure land of all - Amitabha Buddha (aka Amitayus) and the Pure Land of the West. These sutras are: the Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life, the Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life, and the Pure Land Sutra.


The Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life (aka the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, Jap. Muryoju-kyo) originated in India and was first translated into Chinese in the second century C.E. It tells the story of a bodhisattva named Dharmakara (Dharma Treasury) who made 48 vows to create the best of all pure lands in the western region of the universe beyond all known worlds wherein all beings could attain enlightenment. In fulfilling his vows he became a buddha known either as Amitabha (Infinite Light) or Amitayus (Infinite Life). The 18th vow in particular became known in the Pure Land tradition as the Original Vow that expressed his true intention for all beings. The 18th vow states:


If, when I attain buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions, who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my name even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the Wonderful Dharma. (Adapted from The Three Pure Land Sutras, p. 243)


Alternatively, the part that is usually translated as "call my name" could be translated as "are mindful of my name." The Japanese term "nembutsu" which refers to the chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha could mean either "calling on" or "being mindful of the Buddha."


                      The exclusionary clause in this vow refers to those who “commit the five gravest offences” which are: (1) killing one’s father, (2) or mother, (3) or an arhat, (4) injuring the Buddha (since it is believed that a buddha cannot be murdered), (5) creating a schism in the Sangha. These five acts are so heinous that one who commits them is said to be reborn in hell immediately upon dying. “Abusing the Wonderful Dharma” refers to the “Saddharma,” the same “Wonderful Dharma” that also appears in the title of the Lotus Sutra. Abusing the Wonderful Dharma means to disparage, misrepresent, or neglect the true intent of the Buddha’s teachings as expressed, for instance, in the Lotus Sutra. Pure Land Buddhists sometimes claim that this “exclusionary clause” was just a warning and that Amitabha Buddha in fact excludes no one. Nichiren, however, took this passage at its word. I will return to this point later.


                      Later on Shakyamuni Buddha, who is relating the story of Amitabha Buddha, states that this teaching will outlast all the others:


          I have expounded this teaching for the sake of sentient beings and enabled you to see Amitayus and all in his land. Strive to do what you should. After I have passed into nirvana, do not allow doubt to arise. In the future, the Buddhist scriptures and teachings will perish. But, out of pity and compassion, I will especially preserve this sutra and maintain it in the world for a hundred years more. Those beings that encounter it will attain deliverance in accord with their aspiration. (Ibid, p. 312)


                      The Sutra of Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life (Jap. Kammuryoju-kyo) was allegedly translated into Chinese from the Sanskrit in the fifth century but no extant Sanskrit or even Tibetan copy of it has been found. It opens with story of Prince Ajatashatru's palace coup. At the urging of Devadatta who had ambitions to take over the Sangha, Prince Ajatashatru imprisoned his father, King Bimbisara, and tried to starve him to death. Queen Vaidehi, however, smuggled food and drink on her person when visiting her husband in the dungeon and thereby kept him alive. When Ajatashatru found out about this he threatened to cut her down himself with his sword but was restrained by one of his ministers and the physician Jivaka. Instead, he had her locked away in the palace. Filled with despair she looked to Vulture Peak and called out for the Buddha to send his disciples to comfort her with the teaching of the Dharma. Miraculously, the Buddha appeared himself along with Ananda and Mahamaudgalyayana. Queen Vaidehi then asked the Buddha what she had done to deserve such an evil son, and also why was it that the Buddha also had such an evil cousin as Devadatta. Apparently these questions were taken as rhetorical because they are not answered in this sutra (though the Buddha does discuss his past karmic relations with Devadatta in the Lotus Sutra). Queen Vaidehi then asks if there is a land where she can be reborn where she will be free of sorrow and afflictions. The rest of the sutra is the Buddha's response as he teaches a total of 16 subjects for contemplation. The first 13 deal with various aspects of the Pure Land of the West and of Amitabha Buddha and his attendants Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva. The last 3 deal with contemplations involving those of high, middle or low spiritual capacity and their response to the saving power of Amitabha Buddha. The power of simply hearing and saying the name of Amitabha Buddha is especially stressed towards the end of this sutra.


                      The Pure Land Sutra (aka the Smaller Sukhavativyuha Sutra Jap. Amida-kyo) was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva in the fifth century. In it, the Buddha expounds on the benefits of calling on the name of Amitabha or Amitayus and also the advantages of aspiring to birth in the Pure Land of the West.


                      Though there were a multitude of pure lands with resident celestial buddhas distributed throughout the universe according to the Mahayana sutras, Amitabha Buddha and his Western Pure Land became the most popular because it was believed that this buddha and his pure land manifested all the virtues of all the others. Best of all was the fact that one needs only call upon Amitabha's name to be reborn there. Because these three sutras in particular emphasized the power of simply calling upon Amitabha Buddha's name, they soon eclipsed all other Pure Land sutras, including even those about Amitabha Buddha. As we shall soon see, they even threatened to eclipse the rest of the Buddha Dharma altogether.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

More Articles by Rev. Ryuei

Life of Nichiren
Life of the Buddha
Overview of Buddhism
History of the Hokke Shu
Pali Canon Commentaries
Mahayana Sutra Commentaries
Six Senior Disciples of Nichiren

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