Saturday, March 7, 2009

What Is the Pure Land?

by Dr. Nobuo Haneda
Reprinted from the Dharma Breeze by permission of the author

The Japanese word for Shin Buddhism is Jodo Shinshu ("True School of the Pure Land"). Jodo means "Pure Land." The unique feature of Shin Buddhism (or Jodo Shinshu) is that it talks about the concept of "the Pure Land" as the most important thing. Thus without a good grasp of this concept, we cannot understand Shin Buddhism.

However, among all Shin Buddhist concepts, the Pure Land seems to me the most difficult to understand. Traditionally, on a folklore level, many people believed in the literal descriptions of the Pure Land in the sutras (that talk about wonderful things to be enjoyed, such as delicious foods, wonderful music, and the comfortable climate) and desired to enjoy them in the Pure Land after their deaths. But this literal interpretation of the Pure Land—an interpretation based on affirmation of human greed and attachment—is against Buddhism, which challenges human greed and attachment. Thus the Pure Land masters cautioned people not to take descriptions of the Pure Land literally. For example, T’an-luan (476-542, the third Pure Land patriarch) said, "If people hear that they will constantly experience pleasure in the Pure Land and desire to be born there because of it, they will not be born there."

We must know that just as Buddhas (like Amida and Vairocana) and bodhisattvas (like Maitreya and Manjusri) are symbols, the terms denoting places such as the Pure Land and Hell are also symbols. What, then, does the Pure Land symbolize? Buddhist scholars often explain that the Pure Land is a symbol for the ultimate truth, nirvana, or suchness. But their explanations often complicate, rather than clarify, the issue. Thus in this essay, I will attempt to present what I consider a simple and concrete interpretation of the Pure Land—an interpretation given by Shin teachers such as Rev. Rijin Yasuda (1900-82). I will attempt to answer the following four questions: (1) "What does the Pure Land symbolize?"; (2) "Why did Dharmakara (or Amida) create the Pure Land?"; (3) "What is the power of the Pure Land?"; and (4) "Who can be born in the Pure Land?"


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