The Inclusiveness of Pure Land Buddhism

Amitabha Buddha 2

Lately, I’ve been reading through various Buddhist books I have on my bookshelf (some kindly donated by readers, thank you!), and found an interesting passage from the book The Promise of Amida Buddha, which is a large compendium of the writings of Hōnen, the founder of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in the 13th century. Anyway, this passage comes from Honen’s Commentary on the Three Sutras of Pure Land Buddhism (sanbukyō-shaku, 三部経釈):

Now the essence of our Jōdō Shū is the belief that the three characters, A-mi-da [阿弥陀], embody the entire Buddhist teachings, including the theory of the Shingon school that the letter a in the Sanskrit alphabet indicates the origin of all phenomena and the state of nonproduciton; the teachings of oneness of the three aspects of truth taught by the Tendai school; the theory that the middle path emerges from the eightfold negation taught by the Sanron school;1 the theory of the five levels of contemplation from the principles of mind-only of the Hossō school;2 basically, all of the Dharma in the universe. This is because no Buddhist doctrines are excluded from the teaching for birth in the Pure Land.

Nevertheless, the heart of the vows of Amida Buddha does not expect one to believe in all of the above. He will come to receive all beings who simply recite nembutsu with deep devotion. (pg. 83)

For some reason, I found this passage very striking. Until now, a lot of my experiences in Pure Land Buddhism (both Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu) implied a kind of narrow focus on the Pure Land only, and sometimes I’ve seen a kind of anti-intellectualism from both Japanese and Western sources. This reminds me of neo-orthodox Zen converts, and makes me uncomfortable.

But here, Honen is describing the Pure Land path as a very inclusive path. The foundation of Pure Land Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha, and reciting his name, but if that is the foundation, Honen implies that there are many ways to branch out from there. At least, that’s my interpretation. It’s also possible that Honen wanted to say that the Pure Land Buddhist path overlaps with other Buddhist schools a great deal (even if the terminology differs), and that Pure Land Buddhism is not a rejection of existing teachings.

Anyhow, it’s somehow reassuring to see that Honen not only respected the other Buddhist traditions, but includes them as part of the Pure Land path. Although I’ve followed the Pure Land path for years, and it’s been an essential part of my life, I always worried that I was somehow rejecting other Buddhist doctrines in the process.

P.S. Since Ohigan is coming up, I felt this post was fitting anyway.

1 The Sanron school (三論集) was one of the original six schools of Nara, and is descended from the Indian Madhayamika school.

2 I’ve written about the Hosso school a number of times here, but I have no idea what the Five Levels of Contemplation are. Will look into this further.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

14 thoughts on “The Inclusiveness of Pure Land Buddhism”

  1. I have been very fortunate in that I have always felt this inclusiveness in Pure Land Buddhism. From the time I first contacted a Shin minister and began attending a local temple, I felt very welcomed. The minister at this temple often used examples from other sects and other religions in his talks. From there, I learned teachings from the Kuboses that were also very inclusive. Currently, I have been studying with Amida Trust, which also seems to be very inclusive. It seems to me that both Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu do not exclude anyone, at least from my experience. I’ve read this in writings of Honen and Shinran. Have you read Honen: The Buddhist Saint? If so, how does it compare to this newer book, The Promise of Amida Buddha. It is on my wishlist and am finishing the first one now. Thank you for posting this.

    Namo Amida Butsu!

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    1. Hi Michael,

      Good question. Honen the Buddhist Saint is quite a bit shorter and easier to read because it picks out all the main “quotables” by Honen, and is often organized by topic/timeline.

      Promise of Amida is a big tome, but it does include just about everything Honen ever wrote. So, as a reference or secondary source, it seems to be pretty useful (Honen the Buddhist Saint misses a lot of context).

      I’d start with the shorter book first if you haven’t already read it, and then Promise Amida.

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  2. Doug, this is an excellent post! Thank you for pointing out Honen’s very inclusive and deep view of the truths and meanings that support and underlie reciting Amida’s name.

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    1. Hi Hickersonia,

      Just to warn you, the book is a tome. It’s quite large, so unless you want to read a lot of material, you may want to start with other Jodo Shu or general Pure Land books first if you haven’t already. 🙂

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      1. Ha! 🙂 Thanks, Doug! Fortunately, a large volume of text does not in any way frighten me — ever since I quit drinking about 15 months ago, it seems that all I do is read and read and read.

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  3. Thanks Doug! Great timing as I should finish Honen the Buddhist Saint very soon. I am also interested in reading No Abode: The Record of Ippen. what are your thoughts on this book?

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  4. This post came to me through Miriam Levering, who knows of my strong interest in Pure Land Buddhism. I read Honen the Buddhist Saint years ago, and was impressed by its content, and by its bulk. Now you tell me there is an even larger, better collection. I will rush to get a copy of The Promise of Amida; is Amazon the best source? Living in Tokyo as I do, I hope to strengthen my karmic links to Pure Land Buddhism, in all its manifestations.
    Namu Amida Butsu.
    In gassho,
    Paul McCarthy

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    1. Hi paul mccarthy and welcome!

      I’m glad to hear this post proved useful. I guess more people were interested in Pure Land Buddhism than I thought. 🙂

      For Promise of Amida, it’s a relatively new book and I don’t know who sells or doesn’t sell it. I am somewhat biased because I do post to links to Amazon.com and get a tiny commission from purchases there (see About page for details), but I will say truthfully you can buy it there or probably any online book seller. I doubt it’s sold in Tokyo bookstores even in the English section since it’s not a widely known book, so online retailers tend to have wider selection of obscure books.

      Best of luck in any case.

      P.S. Fixed the typos in your comment, removed the redundant one.

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  5. Happy to see your still blogging. I appreciate what your saying about some in the Zen community. When Bodhidahrma said zen is “A special transmission outside of the sutras” he didn’t mean we throw out the scriptures we experience them.

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