Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Buddhism and the Pure Land
Though some argue that its core beliefs and practices stand in opposition to the original teaching of the Buddha, Pure Land Buddhism is the most widely practiced sect of Buddhism in the world today. There are a number of reasons for the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism. It is possibly the most accessible form of Buddhism to the common people. The stories of the Pure Land give all those who practice and believe in the Pure Land a chance to reach enlightenment.
In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of life is to eventually reach enlightenment, or “Nirvana” as it is referred to in Buddhism. Traditionally, to attain Nirvana, followers must closely follow the teachings of the Buddha and take refuge in the Three Jewels; Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
The Three Jewels
The Dharma is a word for the teachings of the Buddha, including the “four noble truths” the “eight-fold path,” and the “cardinal precepts,” which are essentially just lists of how to live a moral life. The Dharma also includes the Buddhist Sutras, which are the scriptures of Buddhism.
The Sangha is the community of Buddhists, including monks, nuns, and lay people, with which Buddhists practice their faith. It is generally considered important in Buddhism to seek guidance from a teacher, who can help guide the practitioner along the path to enlightenment. In order to attain Nirvana, in most sects of Buddhism, it is also extremely important to maintain a regular meditation practice (Gach 73-88).
Karma and Rebirth
In Buddhist belief, before attaining Nirvana, one must be reborn many times in order to create good karma for themselves, and eventually free themselves from karma entirely. Karma is essentially a system of cause and effect in Eastern religions. Karma determines the conditions a person will be reborn into, and a person’s current life is the direct result of their karma from previous lifetimes. If one lives a selfish or otherwise evil life, they may be reborn into one of the lower realms, such as the hell, hungry ghost, or animal realms. Living a good life allows a being to be reborn into higher realms. Eventually, through meditation and closely following the Buddha’s teachings, one can be free from the entire cycle of karma and reach Nirvana, the ultimate state of enlightenment, in which continued rebirths are unnecessary (Lopez 60).
What is The Pure Land?
The Pure Land, however, is a way to escape suffering and rebirth into these lower realms before attaining Nirvana. Pure Land Buddhism is considered a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, but has some different beliefs than traditional Buddhism. In Pure Land Buddhism, one must only speak the name of Amitabha Buddha to be reborn into the Pure Land upon death. Amitabha Buddha, according to Pure Land beliefs, vowed to save all sentient beings who called upon his name. When someone calls upon Amitabha Buddha, they are able to be reborn into the Pure Land, where enlightenment can be obtained much more easily than on Earth. One needs not even seek guidance from a teacher in this tradition, as all guidance is received from Amitabha Buddha. It isn’t necessary to meditate or even to closely follow the Buddha’s teachings to be allowed to enter the Pure Land (Gach 219-221).
The Pure Land vs. Heaven
It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the idea of the Pure Land and certain Christian beliefs. The idea of being able to be reborn into the Pure Land just by speaking Amitabha Buddha’s name is very similar to the idea of being forgiven for one’s sins and being able to go to Heaven just by accepting Jesus as the savior. In both of these belief systems, even the most evil people can have a second chance in the afterlife just by turning to the divinity figure of their religion (Leeming 69-72).
Why is Belief in the Pure Land so Important?
Because the Pure Land is so easy to reach, the goal of enlightenment, or Nirvana, is made much more attainable for followers of Pure Land Buddhism. The Pure Land welcomes “rich and poor, man and woman, old and young” (Gach 220). This is significant because it makes Buddhism, and the Buddha’s teachings, much more accessible to the common man. Because Nirvana was considered a difficult goal, especially for laypeople (people who are not monks or nuns), “various alternatives to it have been set forth, none perhaps more famous than the so-called ‘pure land’” (Lopez 60). The idea of the Pure Land was put forth to give followers an easier way to attain enlightenment, since a life of strict adherence to the Buddha’s teachings and meditation would not be realistic for common people trying to practice Buddhism.
The idea of rebirth into the Pure Land also gives great amounts of comfort to the dying, and the family members of the dying. Reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha “is a central element of death rituals” (Lopez 61). This “offers deathbed reassurance of a blessed afterlife” (Gach 220). Beings who are reborn into the Pure Land “suffer no bodily pain and no mental pain, rather they gain measureless causes for happiness” (Lopez 62). You can see how this idea of the Pure Land has gained popularity throughout Buddhist cultures as a means for helping followers to deal with death.
The idea of the Pure Land in some Buddhist traditions has become a powerful myth. The possibility of being reborn into the Pure Land gives hope for attaining Nirvana to Buddhists who may not be able to follow the path set forth by the Buddha in this lifetime. Even people who have made many mistakes throughout their lifetime can escape the fate created by the negative karma they have accumulated and have a blissful afterlife.
Gach, Gary. "Paths of Devotion and Transformation: The Pure Land and Vajrayana Buddhism." The Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Indianapolis: Alpha, 2002. 217-40. Print.
Leeming, David Adams. "Buddhist: The Pure Land." The World of Myth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 69-72. Print.
Lopez, Donald S, Jr. "Rebirth in the Land of Bliss." Buddhist Scriptures. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004. 60-68. Print.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber