The Pure Land Sutras

UntitledBuddhist religion is a little unusual in that there is no one, single sacred text like most familiar religions.  Instead there are large collections of texts called “sutras”. Some sutras are sermons of the historical Buddha that have been passed down. Others are later compositions that rehash or “reboot” earlier sutras, or introduce new concepts.

I forgot when I bought this book shown above, but it contains the three core “Pure Land” that are pertinent to the Buddhist tradition I am affiliated with (Jodo Shinshu):

  • The Immeasurable Life Sutra (無量寿経). A translation is here
  • The Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀経), with translation here
  • The Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra (観無量寿経) which can be found here

Lately, since I have been researching and preparing for the “Beginner Buddhism” series at my local temple, I have brushing up on these lately. It is nice to get back to basics sometimes. 🙂

UntitledThe Immeasurable Life Sutra (ILS) is the longest and probably the oldest of the three sutras. It provides a long introduction to who Amitabha Buddha is, his vows to rescue all beings, creation of the Pure Land, and why he is such an extraordinary buddha among buddhas. The second half of the sutra is also interesting because it provides a good, general overview of many aspects of Buddhism, so in a way the ILS is like a textbook of Buddhism, but from a Pure Land standpoint.

This is a photo I took of the sutra from my camera-phone.  The ILS is popularly used in Jodo Shinshu liturgy, though we don’t chant the entire sutra (it would take hours).  We chant the Juseige and the Sanbutsuge, which are small excerpts.

The Amitabha Sutra is the most interesting in some ways.  It reads like a much more condensed version of the ILS.  It does not talk much about Amitabha Buddha himself, but it does cover many of the same topics: the Pure Land is splendid refuge, one can quickly progress on the Buddhist path, all the buddhas praise it, etc., etc.  However, what makes this sutra interesting is that it is very short and therefore easier to recite in liturgy, and has been the subject of many commentaries over the centuries.  Some commentaries, such as the commentary by Chinese Buddhist Ou-I are particularly good readings.  Of course, the interpretation of a sutra is only as good as the person interpreting, but it’s a great sutra to explore and get different perspectives on.

Finally, the Contemplation of Amitabha [Buddha] Sutra is the third, and most recent of the sutras.  Researchers believe the sutra was actually composed in China, not India, but was eventually brought to India later.  This is similar to the more famous Heart Sutra. In any case, the Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra, as the name implies, is mainly a guide to meditation on the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha, as a means of awakening.  It begins with story that is part of Buddhist history: the overthrow of King Bimbisara by his son Ajattasatru, and in the midst of the turmoil, the Buddha Shakyamuni preaches this sutra to the deposed Queen Vaidehi while she languishes in prison.  The sutra has a lot of visual descriptions that became part of Pure Land Buddhist culture, but the meditation practices contained therein are rarely practiced anymore.  Instead, the most frequently quoted section is at the end when the Buddha preaches of the different kinds of people born into he Pure Land, including those who simply utter his name 10 times (like the Immeasurable Life Sutra).  In any case, I am not aware of the Contemplation Sutra being used in liturgy, unlike the other two.  It’s stated purpose was different.

Anyhow, this is a brief look at the Three Pure Land Sutras.  Their importance is not limited to Pure Land Buddhism, though, since they are frequently used in other Buddhist groups who for some reason or another revere Amitabha Buddha.  But as a foundational text, they are particularly important to Jodo Shinshu and the related Jodo Shu schools.

Namu Amida Butsu

 

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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.

7 thoughts on “The Pure Land Sutras”

  1. Nice coverage, but there are a couple notes I feel like I should point out – because I have a bad habit of being *that guy*.

    1. The idea that the Larger Sutra is the oldest is not universally accepted. I believe Luis O Gomez makes this case in Land of Bliss, but the most I can find at the moment are statements like page 115 that we know very little about the early histories of these sutras. The Shorter Sutra was definitely translated into Chinese later.

    2. In “The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine”, Tanaka puts forward a number of common theories on the compilation of the Visualization Sutra (pps 38-40). While Meiji asserts it was compiled in China, Fujita states it was compiled in Central Asia – probably the Turfan area. The fact that two other visualization sutras are known to come from Central Asia (one for Avalokitesvara and one for Maitreya), plus the enormous statues in Central Asia (matching the enormous descriptions in the sutra) seem to give some credence for the Central Asia theory. Even Meiji’s theory says that the sutra was compiled from 4 pre-existing, but unrelated parts – allowing for non-Chinese authorship of the individual parts.

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  2. “That Guy”,
    I don’t remember reading that in Gomez’ translation, but it’s been a while since I’ve read it. I do know he omits the Contemplation Sutra because of its questionable origin. I’m certainly interested to hear more on this. Also, Tanaka’s book is definitely worth checking out. A very interesting read. Thanks.

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  3. Michael “Shinyo” san –
    I’ll try again to locate the quote, but it might not be ’til this weekend. Gomez wasn’t the only one who made this case, if I remember correctly. At least one Japanese source posited it as well. The Amida Kyo touches on relatively simple/basic/fundamental concepts – 37 limbs of enlightenment; mindfulness of Buddha, Dharma Sangha; and the three trainings of precepts, concentration, and wisdom. The Larger Sutra touches on many more advanced concepts – emptiness, One Vehicle, dharanis, Dharma Nature, the paramitas, and various samadhis. Doctrinally, it’s fairly easy to make the case that the Larger Sutra is much more advanced and advanced is usually an indication of later.

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    1. In theory though it could be the opposite: the amida kyō condenses the Larger Sutra. That’s the case with the Heart Sutra vs. the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

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      1. The Prajnaparamita Sutras are about the perfection of the wisdom of emptiness. The Heart Sutra condenses these teachings into a highly concentrated teaching on emptiness.

        Meanwhile, the 2 Sukhavati sutras don’t hit a lot of the same topics. They even have some contradictory statements. You would think if it was just a condensation, the Shorter Sutra would just include the important topics, but not once are the vows mentioned, nor are the paramitas, or anything particular to bodhisattva training – instead it mentions the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Some of the features of the Pure Land are contradictory between the two, if the Shorter was merely a summary there were more open-ended ways of summarizing the features mentioned in the Larger. The mention of One Vehicle in the Larger Sutra (at least the Sanghavarman version) would imply that a condensation wouldn’t present Sravakas & Bodhisattvas as separate paths as they do in the Shorter Sutra. Also, nothing is mentioned in the Shorter sutra about the explicit purpose for Buddhas appearing in the world as is given in the Larger Sutra – ie the compassion of the Buddhas and leading all beings toward liberation.

        One of the bigger clues to me is that a lot of Mahayana Sutras actually do date themselves. The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra is one of the earliest Pure Land Sutras translated into Chinese, it says it became popular 40 years after the parinirvana of the Buddha and is a follow up on an earlier teaching about visualizing the qualities of Sukhavati. The Larger sutra mentions the entire lifespan of the Buddha, it mentions the parinirvana multiple times, and at the end of the sutra one of the major reasons given for even expounding the teaching is to not allow doubts to arise after the parinirvana of the Buddha. The concept of parinirvana doesn’t even show up in the Shorter Sutra. Some other clues: the small-ish number of the retinues, the 4 bodhisattvas (doesn’t include ones that are common to later sutras), the fact that Maitreya is referred to as “Ajita”, the fact that the bodhisattvas aren’t even mentioned in the sutra closing, the different manner in which the Pure Land & Amida are introduced in the 2 sutras…

        One last thing that kind of blows the “later condensation” theory out of the water (no pun intended) is that the Heart Sutra is almost a Mahayana re-write of the Kaccā(ya)na.gotta Sutta, which likely came before all of the Prajnaparamita sutras and is arguably the source of all of them.

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