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

Review of Pure Land Buddhism Part 3:
Pure Land Buddhism in Japan


                      Pure Land Buddhism was a ubiquitous feature of Japanese Buddhism right from the start. The Pure Land Buddhism of the Nara period (710-794) and the Heian period (794-1185) that followed was not the sole practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha nor was it a separate school of Buddhist practice. Rather, as in Chinese Buddhism, nembutsu was a practice utilized by all schools as a form of meditation. The term “nembutsu” in fact means “thinking of the Buddha” and does not exclusively mean the vocal recitation of “Namu Amida Butsu,” but includes the various forms of contemplation and visualization associated with Amitabha Buddha. Many Buddhist clergy of all schools and their aristocratic patrons aspired to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. Lectures were given on the Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life, copies of the Triple Pure Land Sutras and the Pratyutpanna Sutra abounded; and many statues, paintings and mandalas of Amitabha Buddha, his attendants, and the wonders of his Pure Land were made. Many monks and nuns took up the meditative practices of visualizing Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land, contemplating his wisdom and virtues, as well as keeping his name in mind or even reciting it out loud.


                      The simple practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha was spread among the common people by wandering holy men like Gyogi (668-749) and later Kuya (903-972) in spite of laws which forbade the unauthorized propagation of Buddhism outside the aristocracy and the official government sponsored temples, whose sole job was to pray for the peace of the nation. However, even this early popularization of vocal nembutsu was not taught as an exclusive practice, and both Gyogi and Kuya and others like them were devoted to the study and practice of Buddhism as a whole. They also dedicated themselves to building bridges, digging wells, clearing roads, setting up hospices and other social welfare projects of practical benefit for the people.


                      Pure Land practice was also given further impetus by the Tendai school (the Japanese version of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school) founded by Saicho (767-822), known as Dengyo after his death. Saicho himself aspired to rebirth in the Pure Land, but it was Ennin (794-864), also known as Jikaku, the third chief priest of the main Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei, who established the Jogyo Zammai-do (Hall for Walking Meditation) in 849. This hall was dedicated to the practice of the constant walking meditation taught in the Great Concentration and Insight of Chih-i which featured the chanting of nembutsu as discussed previously. After that, Pure Land devotion became an important part of Tendai Buddhism.


                      The Tendai monk Genshin (942-1017) made an especially important contribution to the development of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan when he wrote his Ojo-yoshu (Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land) in 985. The Ojo-yoshu was a compilation of passages compiled to warn the reader about the sufferings of the six lower worlds (hells, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humanity, and the heavens). In particular, its gruesome descriptions of the torments awaiting wrongdoers in the hell realms was intended to cause people to aspire to rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. This work became immensely popular in Japan and even gained acclaim in China. However, even though Genshin had been inspired by Shan-tao, he did not advocate the exclusive practice of vocal nembutsu. In fact, he remained an orthodox Tendai monk who was equally, if not more, devoted to the Lotus Sutra as he was to the Pure Land teachings and practices. In fact, Genshin advocates the simple practice of vocal nembutsu only for those whose capacities are so weak that they are incapable of the more disciplined and rigorous practices of the Tendai school encompassing everything from the specifically Pure Land practice of visualizing Amitabha Buddha to the more general Mahayana practice of the six perfections.


                      This by no means exhausts the many different teachers or approaches to Pure Land Buddhism during the Nara and Heian periods of Japan. Other notable Pure Land practitioners include: Yokan (1033-1111) of the Sanron school who wrote a work called the Ten Conditions for Rebirth in the Pure Land which emphasized the vocal recitation of nembutsu as a primary practice; Ryonin (1072-1134) of the Tendai school who developed the Yuzu Nembutsu (the Nembutsu of Mutual Interpenetration) wherein it is taught that the nembutsu contains the merits of all other practices and one person’s practice becomes the practice of all; and Kakuban (1095-1143) of the Shingon school who provided an esoteric explanation for the nembutsu and set the stage for the later development of the Shingi (New Doctrine) school of Shingon in the late 13th century. However, none of these earlier teachers ever tried to establish a separate school or argue for the exclusive practice of vocal nembutsu. Nor did the practice of vocal nembutsu ever become the basis of a powerful mass movement outside the purview of the government authorized schools of Buddhism until Honen inaugurated his Pure Land movement and wrote the Senchaku-shu, the Nembutsu of the Original Vow Chosen Above All.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2004.

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