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1: Infinite Light
The pure land tradition of Buddhism matured in China, but it accomplished its full development in the Shin school of Pure Land Buddhism. The Shin school is the culmination of Pure Land thought that took place in Japan. The Japanese may not have offered very many original ideas to world thought or world culture, but in
Shin we find a major contribution that the Japanese can make to the world and to all other Buddhist schools. There is one other Buddhist school that originated in Japan—Nichiren. But all the other schools more or less trace their origin, as well as their form, to either China or India. Nichiren is sometimes confused with nationalism, but that is not its original intention.
But Shin is absolutely free from such connections. In that sense, Shin is remarkable.
(1173–1263), the founder of the Shin school, lived in Kyoto, Japan. He is said to be of noble lineage, but that, I suspect, is fiction. He must have been more than just an ordinary person and probably belonged to a relatively cultured family, but he did not belong to the nobility. He might have had some connection with a noble family, but his training, his religious development,
took place when he was exiled to the remote northern country, far away from the capital, the center of Japanese culture in those days. He was a follower of
Honen, who founded the Pure Land school in Japan in 1175. Honen's influence was extensive at the time, and priests of the traditional schools were not pleased with his popularity. Somehow they contrived to have him and his followers,
including Shinran, banished to the country.
Shinran's religious experience deepened during his period of exile. While living in the culturally deprived areas of Japan, he developed a profound understanding of the needs of the common people. In those days Buddhism was basically an aristocratic religion, and the study of Buddhism was confined to the learned class. Their approach was intellectual and rational, but Shinran knew that that was not the way to the authentic religious life. There had to be a more direct way, a religious experience that did not require the medium of learning or elaborate rituals. All such things had to be cast aside in order for one to have religious awakening. Shinran experienced this for himself, and he discovered the most direct way to that awakening.
Of all the developments that Mahayana Buddhism has achieved in East Asia, the most remarkable one is the Shin teaching of Pure Land Buddhism. It is remarkable because geographically its birthplace is Japan, and historically it is the latest evolution and the highest point reached in Pure Land Mahayana. The Pure
Land ideas first originated in India, marked by the appearance of Pure Land scriptures probably about three hundred years after the time of the historical
Buddha; that is, about one century before the Christian era.
China the Pure Land movement took place toward the end of the fifth century,
when the White Lotus Society was formed by Hui-yuan and his friends in 403 CE.
The idea of a Buddha Land presided over by the Buddha is as old as Buddhism itself, but the tradition based on the desire to be born in such a land, in order to attain the final end of the Buddhist life, did not materialize until
Buddhism flourished in China as a practical religion. It took the Japanese genius of the thirteenth century to further develop it in the form of the Shin teaching as we have it today.
Pure Land doctrine is quite heavily laden with all kinds of what I call accretions. These elaborations and appendages are not necessary for modern people to comprehend in order to get at the gist of the teaching.
Teaching of Amida
Buddha is the focus of the Pure Land teaching. He is depicted as being so many feet tall and endowed with all the admirable physical qualities of a great being. He emits light beams from his body, illuminating all the worlds—not just one world but the entire universe—so many worlds that it defies our human calculation of measurement. Every ray of light that comes out of his body, the pores of his skin, is a Buddha, amounting to countless Buddhas. These descriptions are extravagant, beyond human imagination.
This view, of course, is the product of human imagination, so I cannot say it is beyond it. But the ancient Indian minds are richly endowed with the ability to create fantastic imagery. Indians are the only people so extraordinarily gifted in that faculty. When you read the sutras and listen to the old ways of explaining Pure Land teaching, you are staggered at the disparity between the
Indian interpretation and the modern way of thinking about such things. I am not going to go into the embroidered doctrines, so my explanation may seem somewhat prosaic and devoid of the glamour and rich imagery of the traditional
Amida will be brought down to earth, the teaching is not to be treated from the intellectual standpoint or on the relative, earthly plane of thought, for it is altogether beyond human intellection. At the same time, however, Amida and Pure
Land are revealed on this earth, but not as taught by orthodox teachers. The
Pure Land is not many millions of millions of miles away to the West. According to my understanding, Pure Land is right here, and those who have eyes can see it around them. And Amida is not presiding over an ethereal paradise; his Pure
Land is this defiled earth itself. It is now apparent that my Pure Land interpretation will go directly against the traditional or conventional view.
But I have my own explanation, and perhaps my interpretation will lead you to agree with my views.
friend in Brazil recently wrote to me, requesting that I write out the essential teachings of the Pure Land school in English, because it is difficult to translate Japanese into Portuguese. He wanted me also to present the doctrine in such a manner that it would emphasize its similarity to Christian theology, to show that Amida and Pure Land doctrine are at least superficially close to Christianity, yet retain their characteristic Buddhist features. So I
sent him my explanation. Whether he agreed with it or not, I do not know. At any rate, I kept a copy for my own use, and I shall share parts of it with you.
I wrote that we believe in Amida Butsu, Amida Buddha, as savior of all beings.
"Savior" is not a word that is normally used among Buddhists, and when it is used it is complying with Christian religious terminology. Amida
Buddha is infinite light and eternal life. All beings are born in sin and burdened with sin. Of course, the idea of sin must be interpreted in the
Buddhist sense of karmic evil.
we believe in Amida Buddha as our
as it is sometimes called. It is the term used to express love and compassion.
means parent, but not either parent, rather both mother and father; not separate personalities, but both fatherly and motherly qualities united in one personality. The honorific
is the familiar form of
is the standard form. In Christianity, God is addressed as the Father—"Our
Father who art in Heaven"—but Oyasama is not in Heaven, nor is Oyasama
Father. It is incorrect to say "he" or "she," for no gender distinction is found. I don't like to say "it," so I don't know what to say.
is a unique word, deeply endearing and at the same time rich with religious significance and warmth.