Pure Land Buddhism

by | Death and Dying

In a conversation with the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, I had the opportunity to discuss death and dying. In the Tibetan tradition, the teachings on this topic are vast, so I asked Rinpoche what should be emphasized in presenting this material to the West. His immediate response surprised me: “Students need to know more about Pure Lands.” Later in our conversation, I asked him another question: “If someone was to discover that they had less than a year to live, what practice should they concentrate on?” His answer startled me yet again: “They should focus on Pure Land practice.”

Two weeks after my meeting, I staffed a four-day intensive on death presented by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. Eighty percent of this program focused on Pure Land Buddhism. In twenty years of involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, I had never been to a single talk on Pure Land Buddhism. Suddenly, within the space of a few weeks, two of the greatest living masters from both the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions were extolling the value of Pure Lands.

Since then I have interviewed a number of Tibetan masters about the Pure Lands, and was struck by how much emphasis they placed upon them. One meditation master for a three-year retreat in Nepal told me that Pure Land practice comes at the end of their retreat, and is of singular importance. He seemed surprised that Western students didn’t have more experience in Pure Land practice and study.

Prior to these encounters, I thought that Pure Land Buddhism was for common folk, those who couldn’t handle the rigors of “real Buddhism.” I dismissed it as a kind of lazy Buddhism. But there is genuine profundity behind this noble tradition, and reasons why Tibetan masters are now recommending it for Western students. My study of Pure Land Buddhism has deepened my appreciation for the Tibetan tradition, opened my mind to the power of Pure Land doctrine, and humbled my attitude to other schools altogether.

Origins of Pure Land Buddhism: Direct from the Buddha

Pure Land teaching comes directly from the Buddha. At the request of Ananda, and then Shariputra, the Buddha began teaching the three principle sutras that comprise the heart of this tradition: the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, the Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, and the Amitayur dhyana Sutra. Pure Land teaching is mentioned in 200 other sutras and shastras (commentaries), and in the tantras. The teachings were codified and spread by Ananda, Maitreya, and Manjushri. Other major contributors to pure land doctrine were Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asvaghosa., and the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. In the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, the Buddha realized how difficult it would be for people to believe in this “too good to be true” sutra, and said: “The most difficult of all difficulties is to hear this sutra, have faith in it with joy, and hold fast to it. Nothing is more difficult than this.” To further stress the importance of the sutra he went on to say, “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.”

Maitreya (the next historical Buddha after Shakyamuni) studied as a bodhisattva at the side of Shakyamuni, and then ascended to Tushita Heaven where he now teaches. It is taught that nine hundred years after the death of the Buddha, Maitreya descended to north India where he taught for four months to Asanga, and delivered the five treatises that now form a cornerstone in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. At the same time, Maitreya also gave Pure Land teachings to Asanga, who then passed these along to Vasubandhu. According to some scholars, this grounds the Pure Land tradition in the same mythohistoric Maitreya-Asanga link that served as the basis for the Yogachara tradition.

Pureland Buddhism is Contained Within the Two Main Mahayana Buddhist Lineages

Pure Land doctrine, far from being a parenthetical interjection in the history of Buddhism, is therefore contained within the two principle Mahayana lineages, the Yogachara and the Madhyamika, because Vasubandu is considered a patriarch in both.

From the Tibetan perspective, Sakya Pandita was a contributor to Pure Land doctrine, as were Karma Chagme, Tsongkhapa (founder of the Gelug), and Dolpopa, (founder of the Shentong). Even Machig Labdronme, who started the Chod tradition, said “It is exceedingly important that you strive in prayer for birth in Sukhavati.” Khyungpo Naljor, father of the Shangpa Kagyu, said upon his death: “Since I am going to be a Buddha in Sukhavati, direct your prayers there. Do not harbor doubts or ambivalence about it.”

Part of the Tantric Tradition

Pure Land doctrine is generally considered to be a Mahayana teaching, but in Tibet it was embraced and revealed in the tantras as well. Matthew Kapstein goes one step further when he states: “The crucial development for the popular Pure Land orientation in Tibet was certainly the revelation, in the form of rediscovered treasures (terma), of tantric texts focusing on Sukhavati.” Pure Land teachings are therefore found not only in the sutras and tantras, but in the terma tradition.

It is important to acknowledge these formidable sources because it helps to verify the power and authenticity of Pure Land doctrine, and to realize that these great masters did not stoop down when propagating these teachings. These are some of the biggest names in Buddhism.

Sounds Like a Description of Heaven and God But is it “Theistic”

TheIn the Jodo Shu Pure Land tradition of Japan, Nagarjuna is regarded as its first Indian Patriarch. This is important because one of the central attacks on Pure Land doctrine is that it is theistic, a compromised path for those who can’t handle the harsh reality of emptiness. When you read about the extensive descriptions of Sukhavati (a principal Pure Land discussed below) and the Buddha Amitabha who presides over this realm, it sounds like a Christian description of heaven and God.

To have Nagarjuna, the king of emptiness, as a patriarch of Pure Land doctrine, helps to melt the theistic attacks. And to put an exclamation point on this, the Buddha himself predicted that “a monk named Naga[rjuna] will take rebirth in the Blissful Pure Land when he leaves his body.” Tulku Thondup Rinpoche stamps it: “So if the most important master of Buddhism’s greatest nontheistic school was to be born in the pure land, any follower of Buddhism, whether theistic or not, could aspire to be reborn there.” Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Asvaghosha have all vowed to be reborn in the Pure Land, and Chenrezig resides there now.

From its origins in India, Pure Land doctrine spread to China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, where it still remains the principle form of Buddhism. There are over 100,000,000 Pure Land disciples.

This is the first in a series of talks on the concept of the Pure Land Buddhism I presented at the Drala Mountain Center in Colorado.

In this introduction, some of the topics covered are:

    • Why do pure land practice?
    • Where pure land teachings fit into Tibetan buddhism.
    • Difference between traditional pure land doctrine and Tibetan pure land doctrine.
    • How pure land teachings can help you in the bardos after death.
    • How pure land doctrine is connected to phowa.
    • Qualities of Sukhāvatī and how those in Sukhāvatī can help.
    • Four types of “tulkus”. (Reincarnation of a deceased master.)