Pure Land Buddhism

Galen Amstutz

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Pure Land Buddhism

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Pure Land Buddhism is one of the complex dimensions of Buddhist traditions, not a coherent body of thought, but rather a flexible, polysemic, overdetermined, multidimensional network of texts, terms, ideas, floating signifiers, and images spread widely across Asia. Its resources formed an extremely important part of Mahayana Buddhism, but non-Asians have historically been less interested in them than in other aspects of Buddhism in part because of the strong role historically played by the expansive imaginative premise of other cosmic realms (though such an imaginary was entirely characteristic of premodern Mahayana Buddhism). In addition, much Pure Land emphasis has not been on control of mind via meditation but on the “soteriology” of some kind of reliance on the dynamic of “another,” which in various ways subordinates the role of the ordinary agentive self (but entails fundamental questions about the definition of enlightenment). Several significantly diverse interpretations have operated in the Pure Land framework. A “traditional” version, which dominated continental Asia, was based on a deferral of expectation of serious enlightenment to the future realm of the Buddha Amitābha (in Japanese, Amida; in Chinese, Amituo)—a future “space” alternate to our present world in which the Buddha would be present to assist the practitioner toward enlightenment—based on the assumption of an extended timeline in the process of enlightenment. Another interpretation, associated especially with Chan or Zen “mind-only” teachings, situated the perfection of the Pure Land in this present world. Both of these versions could be assimilated to tantrism or esotericism. A third type, which was relatively distinctive to Jōdoshinshū Buddhism in Japan, emphasized the possibility of first-stage (or higher) enlightenment in the present but ultimately only in accordance with “entrusting to or accepting the gift of the Buddha,” that is, a transformative process beyond any volitional control or intentional practices. All these ideas were related to neither Christianity nor ontological “dualism” but concerned deferral, meditation, or involuntariness within a purely Buddhist context. In terms of social history the Pure Land frequently offered a way of Buddhist practice that was relatively more open to householder nonmonastics. However, Pure Land–oriented traditions could still be as complex, buddhologically sophisticated, ritually engaged, contemplatively active, and even discipline-directed as others. The chief scholarly problems in the study of Pure Land have been an earlier tendency of Western scholars to underemphasize the importance of this side of Buddhism, as well as a tendency for the narrative of the powerful Jōdoshinshū school in Japan to overwhelm the historical perspective.

Article.  19045 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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