Buddhist 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. 🙂
The 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