Yesterday, I kind of had a small epiphany with regard to the Pure Land in Buddhism (浄土 jōdo in Japanese). The Pure Land is an interesting subject of discussion in Buddhism. It’s a big part of East Asian Buddhism, and a popular focus for lay Buddhists because the Pure Land is intended to be a refuge from the ups and downs of this world, but it also is a place where one can progress in Buddhism much more easily. However, Western Buddhists frequently criticize it as a “cultural” phenomenon and not true “pristine” Buddhism, so it’s regularly ignored. I’ve seen some Western priests dismiss it or joke about it.
Anyhow, a couple weeks ago, I was reading about the famous restorer of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Rennyo (蓮如, 1415-1499) who wrote this in a letter to followers:
….Over and above this, what should we take to be the meaning of reciting the Nembutsu? It is a response coming from one’s indebtedness [to the Buddha] (御恩放射) thanking him that one is saved through birth in the Pure Land by the power of faith in the present. As long as we have life in us, we should say the nembutsu thinking of it as a response of thankfulness.
(Gobunsho, letter 3, 御文書、一帖の三 猟漁)
I’ve read this phrase before and thought it pretty strange.
But then, my little epiphany came after staying at my friend’s Catholic priory in Oregon a couple weekends ago. The community of priests there asked for no money, no donation, anything. My daughter and I were welcome to stay there for free. It was a nice room too with all the basics we needed. Because they freely provided this room and board for us, I wanted to give something back. I went and bought some pastries from a nearby bakery and left them in the priests’ kitchen, and we also attended Mass, and tried to be good guests.
The Pure Land of the Buddha is much like this too. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, tells people in the sutras “Hey, if you need a place to rest and recover, go stay at the Amitabha retreat center”.
So you call up Amitabha Buddha and you tell him you want to stay at his place for a while. Amitabha Buddha says “sure, come stay with me as long as you like. It’s free”.
You go there, and it is a really nice place: beautiful garden, free food, meditation classes, even free wifi!
You think to yourself “I don’t deserve this! I should do something to pay back all their kindness”. You want to do the right thing. So, you start attending the meditation classes, and you offer to help in the kitchen. No one expects anything, but the kindness of Amitabha Buddha really warms your heart and you want to help in some way. Or, you want to show appreciation by participating in the meditation classes.
When I was first exploring Buddhism, my interest was really in Zen only. Pretty typical for many people who first explore Buddhism because Zen just looks so cool. But I found I was never that motivated, and frequently lost interest, or pursued other religions. Then, when I visited Japan in 2005, I encountered a Pure Land temple named Chion-in which is a famous temple in the city of Kyoto. I saw a monk there chanting before a statue of the Buddha and was fascinated, so when I learned about the Pure Land, I was really moved by the story of the Buddha, the Pure Land and how anyone could go there. So, I started reciting the Buddha’s name (namu amida butsu) that night and kept doing it for years.
But people will say “How do you know the Pure Land exists?” or “Isn’t it just a Buddhist heaven?” or “Is this even real Buddhism? You’re not doing any Buddhist practices!” and so on.
I don’t think it matters though. If the Pure Land really exists or not isn’t actually that important. The story and imagery are important. If you moved by the imagery, and want to go there, then that is the same as being there. Why? Because either way, it’s in the heart. Whereever you go, the Pure Land is there. The kindness and beauty of the Pure Land provide a kind of spiritual refuge from the ups and downs of life, and the kindness of Amitabha Buddha who freely offers the Pure Land motivate people to do more good. I found it’s often inspired me when I felt discouraged in life.
The fact that the Pure Land is offered so freely to anyone who just recites the Buddha’s name is something inspirational, which is why it is so popular in East Asian Buddhism. Western Buddhists may not appreciate this point until they experience hardships in their lives, and feel very discouraged. It is hard to explain but kind of profound in a way.