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introduction to Buddhism and its permutations

The Jodo (Pure Land) School


The general Japanese name for Amita-pietism is Jodo meaning 'Pure Land,' which is a translation of Sukhavati ('Land of Bliss'). Those who believe in Amita Buddha will be born in the Pure Land' to become a Buddha.

The idea of being 'saved' is generally considered new in Buddhism. But King Milinda (Menandros, a Greek ruler in Sagara, about 115 BC) questioned a learned priest Nagasena, saying that it was unreasonable that a man of bad conduct could be saved if he believed in a Buddha on the eve of his death. Nagasena replied:

"A stone, however small, will sink into the water, but even a stone weighing hundreds of tons if put on a ship will float." Nagarjuna again asserted that there were two ways for entering Buddhahood, one difficult and one easy. One was traveling on foot and the other was passage by boat. The idea of boat or vehicle expressed here at least suggested the appellations 'Hinayana' and 'Mahayana,' the Great and Small Vehicles, even though the terms were not actually designated by Nagarjuna himself. Amita-pietism will be the greatest of all vehicles to convey those who are in need of such means.

There are two original texts in Sanskrit, a large and a small Sukhavczti-vyuha ('Sutra of the Land of Bliss'), both of which were translated into Chinese. Chinese translations from 147 to 713 AD were twelve in number, but at present only five are in existence.

From the facts just stated one can scarcely doubt the origin of this doctrine of salvation by Amita. Since the faith seemed so strange to some people, various ideas and hypotheses have been proposed regarding this faith. Some have asserted that it was borrowed from Christianity, chiefly from the legend of Thomas' mission in India (Dahlmann). Others have pointed out certain resemblances in the Avesta or in Manichaeism (Eliot). Some have gone so far as to say that it might have been acquired on the way from Central Asia to the East (Reischauer).

These authorities generally formed their opinions from outward resemblances without entering into the internal development of Mahayanistic ideas. The faith in Amita was simply the outcome of a far-reaching contemplation of the Buddha-nature. If you strip away all the external features of Sakyamuni and all the conditions of his Indian life, you will find an ideal Buddha to suit his perfect Enlightenment. To be more definite, if we depict a Buddha on the basis of perfect Enlightenment we come to the ideal of Buddhahood, i.e., Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life. When the ideal of Nirvana which is spaceless and timeless, birthless and deathless, changeless or waveless is realized, it will be nothing but the Infinite (Amita or Amitabha). The description of the Land of Bliss, the name of Unbounded Light and Life, and the illumined person of limitless wisdom and benevolence, are simply interpretations given to the Infinite.

The decisive authorities chosen by Shinran (1173-1262) are T'an-luan, Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao, by whom the details of the easy way and the perfect reliance on the Buddha's power are minutely annotated. In Japan there are many authorities (the history of the faith is very long), though Genshin (942-1017) and Hönen (1133-1212) are the pre-eminent promoters of the doctrine. Prince Shötoku, in the reign of the Empress Suiko (593-628 AD), is said to have believed in Amita. At any rate, a reference to the Western Land of Bliss is found in one of his commentaries. Ein, a Korean priest, lectured in 640 AD on the Sutra of the Land of Bliss before the Throne. In the Nara period (710-793 AD) Gyogi is said to have traveled about and propagated the faith among the people. Kanjin, a Chinese vinaya (discipline) master who came to Nara in 754 AD, imparted the worship of Amita to his Japanese pupil, Eiei, on the eve of the latter's death near Kuangtung.

But in the Nara period the Amita-pietism was not systematically taught; though there must have been some followers who privately adhered to it.

In the Tendai School the Amita worship was taken up and promoted as an all-inclusive faith. It was Jikaku Daishi (Ennin), the third patriarch, who instituted the two forms of repeating the Amita formula, standing and Sitting, and introduced a music relating to the Land of Bliss. Even now adherents read the smaller Sukhavati text in the daily service. On that account their protest against Honen's founding a new exclusive school of Amita-pietism was exceptionally strong. Prohibition of the Jodo School did not satisfy them and they attempted to insult Honen's corpse although it was already buried.

On Mount Hiei there were earnest followers of Amita-pietism who devoted themselves to the study and practice of the school. A brilliant representative was Genshin, otherwise known as Eshin, who wrote, among others, an important treatise for the faith and invented a special pictorial art of paradise and Amiita welcoming the pious believers. A learned follower of his line, Ryonin, founded an eclectic sect of the Tendai and Jodo Schools called Yu-zunembutsu Sect ('All Permeating Faith of the Buddha Amita') which, in reality, is a compromise between the Lotus doctrine and Amita-pietisnm. He is said to have been inspired by Amita himself about the truth, "One in all, all in one; one acts .for all, all act for one." It is the idea of salvation by another's power, mutual help being the basic idea. Accordingly, an act of adoration to the Buddha done by one will be of help to another. Their practice will be not only for one another but also for the salvation of society at large. This faith became extinct soon after Ryonin's death but was revived by Hömyo one of the believers, in 1321. Although it belongs to Amita-pietisnm, it uses the Lotus text and the Wreath text as well. Thus we can regard it as belonging to the doctrine of the 'Holy Path' rather than to that of the 'Pure Land.' The headquarters of this school are at the Dainembutsuji Temple, Hirano, near Osaka, where it governs some 357 monasteries.

In this respect, we must remember that there is in the Tendai School itself a sub-sect called Shinsei Branch, founded in the Tokugawa period (about 1780), which devotes itself to the worship of Amita and rules over more than 400 monasteries, while the two branches, Sammon and Jimon, govern more than 3,000 and 800 monasteries, respectively.

The worship of Amita has prevailed considerably in the Shingon center, Koyasan, as it has in the Tendai center, Mount Hiei, but we cannot determine how far the school was studied or practiced in the Shingon School at an early period. However, among some sixty-six existing monasteries at Koyasan, the older edifices have the Buddha Amitabha as the chief object of worship.

At the end of the Heian period, Kakuban (Kokyö Daishi, 1095-1145) a distinguished priest of the Daidenpoin at Koya and afterwards the founder of the new sect of Shingon, earnestly devoted himself to the faith of Amita and aspired for a birth in the Land of Bliss in the ensuing life. Thus we can presume that the school must have been taken up by influential circles.

Ryohen, a learned priest of Kongósammaiin, who was a professed believer of Amita, traveled to Tanabe, Kii, and converted a chief of the fishing village there. According to his teacher's instruction, the new convert went to Koyasan and built the Karukaya Hall ('Grass-thatched Hall') which became the headquarters of the Amita faith. Almost all of the Hijiri class (sage) at Köyasan were Amita-pietists who traveled throughout the district and worked for Koyasan as propagandists. "Wherever we go the voice of the Amita formula is heard," is recorded in one of the memorials presented to the Government. "In front of and behind the monasteries, under the roofs, and by the waysides the sacred place is getting so noisy that no one can quietly meditate and concentrate one's mind." Iyeyasu finally ordered that the Amita formula should be repeated only in the Karukaya Hall.


Kiiya was the earliest Amita-pietist who publicly worked for the propagation of the faith. He is said to have been a son of Emperor Daigo, or at any rate a scion of the Imperial family. He traveled to the country places, built bridges and dug wells for the people whenever needed. In 938 AD he came to the capital (Kyoto) and strolled through the streets loudly reciting the Amita hymns specially composed by himself, modulating the voice to music, beating a bowl and dancing as he went on. The people called him 'sage of the streets.' He built the Rokuhara Monastery in which he enshrined a large statue of the Eleven-faced Kwannon (Avalokitesvara) and a copy of the Tripitaka literature. Tairano Sadamori followed him from a deep admiration of his personality. He traveled farther to the Ainu district and the Buddhist teaching was for the time accepted by the aborigines. The Amita formula recited according to his style was called Kuyanembutsu ~ and the dance was called hachi-tataki ('beating a bowl'). His school was famed as the School of Küya. The Koshö Monastery (one of Kaya's priestly names was Koshö commonly called Küya Hall, still exists in Shijó, Kyoto, and the street itself is named Takaki-chö after his dancing style hachi-tataki. After his death his school became extinct, though the Ji School of Amita-pietism revived it, honoring Küya as the remote founder of the Ji School, which rules over 486 monasteries at present.

Philosophical and Religious

Amita-pietism as represented by the Jodo School of Hónen, the Shin School of Shinran and the Ji School of Ippen, shows a unique aspect of Buddhism. While all other schools of Mahayana insist on self-enlightenment, these schools teach sole reliance on the Buddha's power. The Buddha of all other exoteric schools is Sakyamuni while the Buddha of these schools is Amita or Amitabha ('Infinite Light') or Amitayus ('Infinite Life') whose Land of Bliss (Sukhavati) is laid in the Western Quarter, often designated as the Pure Land (Jodo).

The critical division of the Buddha's teaching adopted by Honen was into the two doctrines of the Holy Path and the Pure Land, originally proposed by Tao-ch'o ~ (Doshaku) of China, c. 645. The former is the difficult way to traverse while the latter is the easy way to travel defined by Nagarjuna. There is another division which was proposed by Vasubandhu and elucidated by Tao-ch'o, that is, the ways of self-power and of another's power. Another's power here means the power of the Buddha Amitabha, not any other's power like that of Yuzãnembutsu. Those who pursue the Holy Path can attain Buddhahood in this world, if they are qualified, while those who aspire for the Pure Land can attain Buddhahood only in Sukhavati, the Pure Land.

Now what is Sukhavati and who is Amitabha or Amitayus? We have seen that the Amitabha or Amitayus ('Infinite Light' or 'Infinite Life') is a Buddha idealized from the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. If the Buddha is purely idealized he will be simply the Infinite in principle. The Infinite will then be identical with Thus-ness. The Infinite, if depicted in reference to space, will be the Infinite Light, and if depicted in reference to time, the Infinite Life. This is Dharmcz-kaya (ideal). This Dharma-kaya is the Sambhoga-kaya (the 'Reward-body' or 'body of enjoyment'), if the Buddha is viewed as a Buddha 'coming down to the world.' If he is viewed as a Bodhisattva going up to the Buddhahood, he is a would-be Buddha like the toiling Bodhisattva (Sakyamuni). It is Sakyamuni himself who describes in the Sukhavati-vyuha the activities of the would-be Buddha, Dharmakara, as if it had been his former existence.

The vow, original to the would-be Buddha or even to Sakyamuni himself, is fully expressed in forty-eight items in the text. Item Nos. 12 and 13 refer to the Infinite Light and the Infinite Life. "If he cannot get such aspects of Infinite Light and Life he will not be a Buddha." If he becomes a Buddha he can constitute a Buddha Land as he likes. A Buddha, of course, lives in the 'Nirvana of No Abode,' and hence he can live anywhere and everywhere. His vow is to establish the Land of Bliss for the sake of all beings. An ideal land with adornments, ideal plants, ideal lakes or what not is all for receiving pious aspirants. The eighteenth vow, which is, regarded as most important, promises a birth in his Land of Bliss to those who have a perfect reliance on the Buddha, believing with serene heart and repeating the Buddha's name. The nineteenth vow promises a welcome by the Buddha himself on the eve of death to those who perform meritorious deeds. The twentieth vow further indicates that anyone who repeats his name with the object of winning a birth in his Land will also be received.

As to the interpretation of these three vows, there are certain differences among the schools. Generally speaking, the Jodo School takes the vows as literally as possible, while the Shin School elucidates the intent of them rather freely to suit all parts of the text. According to the Jodo School these three vows should be taken separately as they are independent vows, though there are some differences in importance.

To the Shin School, however, they are interdependent. The eighteenth is the fundamental vow. The nineteenth and the twentieth are subordinate vows. Though the eighteenth vow expects sole reliance on the Buddha, the followers of the nineteenth and twentieth vows depend on their own actions, the former on meritorious deeds and the latter on repetition of the Buddha's name. They have no complete reliance on the Buddha's power. So their destiny cannot be the Pure Land itself. They must, according to Shinran, go through some purgatory, which is called the 'secluded place', or the 'realm of neglect' referred to in other sections of the text. But they will be transformed and in the end admitted to the real Land of Bliss.

With regard to the appearance of Amita or Amitabha, their opinions are also at variance. It is said to have been ten kalpas (long periods) ago. The Jodo School takes this literally, while the Shin School holds that the time 'ten kalpas ago' is something like ages ago,' and may refer to a second or third appearance. The original Buddha may be of much more remote age. Thus the 'Lotus' doctrine is here applied to the Amita-pietism.

The smaller text of Sukhavati-vyuha is a résumé or abridged text of the larger one. The last of the three texts, the Amitayurdhana Sutra tells us the origin of the Pure Land doctrine taught by the Buddha Sakyamuni. Ajatasatru, the prince heir apparent of Rajagriha, revolted against his father King Bimbisara and imprisoned him. His consort Vaidehi too was confined to a room. Thereupon the Queen asked the Buddha to show her a better place where no such calamities could be encountered. The World-Honored One appeared before her and showed all the Buddha lands and she chose the Land of Amita as the best of all. The Buddha then taught her how to meditate upon it and finally to be admitted there. He instructed her by his own way of teaching and at the same time by the special teaching of Amita. That both teachings were one in the end could be seen from the words he spoke to Ananda at the conclusion of his sermons. "0 Ananda! Remember this sermon and rehearse it to the assembly on the Vulture Peak. By this sermon, I mean the name of Amitabha." From this we can infer the object of the sermon was the adoration of Amita. Thus, see that Sakyamuni's teaching was after all not different from of Amitabha.

The principal difference of the Jodo School from that of Shin is in the treatment of the repetition of the Buddha's name. With J0do the devotional repetition of the Buddha's name is a necessary action of the pious to deepen the faith, without which salvation will never be complete; while according to the Shin School it is simply an action of gratitude or an expression of thanksgiving, after one's realizing the Buddha's power conferred on one. The Shin School holds the exclusive worship of the Amitabha, not allowing even that of Sakyamuni, the strict prohibition of prayers in any form on account of private interests, and the abolition of all disciplinary rules and the priestly or ecclesiastical life, thus forming a community of purely lay believers, i.e., householders. As the orthodox Jodo School with all kindred sects still conforms to the old priestly life, it differs extensively from the Shin School.

The Ji School of Amita-pietism is somewhat different. It was founded in 1276 by Ippen (1238-1289). He set forth the rule of reciting the hymns of Shan-tao (Zendo) six times every day, hence the name Ji (time). In theory he derived his idea from the Lotus, as did Ryonin of Yuzünembutsu, but in practice he followed Küya who invented a popular dance for the popularization of the Amita-faith. Thus the school has a totally different feature from the other schools of Amita-pietism. Ippen is said to have visited Kumano Shrine in Ku in 1275 where he was inspired by a holy verse of four lines, which he believed to have come from the deity of the shrine. Each of the first three lines was headed by a numeral, 6, 10, 10,000 and the last line by 'people,' altogether making up 'six hundred thousand people.' He at once made up his mind to save that number of people by a propagation of the Amita-faith. Now Amita-pietism with all its kindred schools taken together has more than one-half of the Japanese population as adherents.

Amita-pietism is of four aspects: 1. That of Tendai and Shingon, in which Amita is one of the five Wisdom Buddha's (Dhyani Buddhas) governing the Western Quarters, having Mahavairocana (the Great Sun Buddha) at the center. 2. That of Yüzunembutsu in which the value of one's faith in Amita is transferable to another or vice versa, i.e., religion of mutual help with faith. 3. That of Jödo, in which Amita's faith is taught exclusively in accordance with the three Sukhavati texts of the school, especially based on the Buddha's vows. 4. That of Shin in which the faith is taught strictly in accordance with the eighteenth vow of the Buddha described in the larger Sukhavati text. In both Jodo and Shin the Buddha Amita is more than one of the five Buddhas, although his Land is laid in the Western Quarter; instead, he is the one central Buddha. Of these four aspects, the first originated from mystics, the second was influenced by Lotus principles, the third was based chiefly on the three vows, and the fourth centered on one vow of the Amita.

Thus we see the ideas of the Amita schools concerning the Buddhalogical principle of Mahayana. According to the theory of original immanence of Tendai and the duo-homoiousian (two essences in one) theory of Shingon, the principle of one-is-all and all-are-one will be readily admitted. Of the five Wisdom Buddhas, Amitabha of the West may be identical with the central Mahavairocana, the Buddha of homo-cosmic identity. Without reference to mysticism, Amitabha's original vows, his attainment of Buddhahood of Infinite Light and Life, and his establishment of the Land of Bliss are all fully described in the Sukhavati text. It is but natural that Sakyamuni, who hinted to his pupils in the Lotus not to regard him as a Buddha of eighty years of age with a small stature, for he is in reality a Buddha of remote ages and of world-wide pervasions, should be identified with the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. A complete reliance on such a Buddha's power will be a reasonable outcome of this teaching. Shinran especially represents the last stage of this idea. He insisted on an absolute faith in Amita, not making any effort for enlightenment by oneself. One should rely exclusively and absolutely on Amita, faith alone being the cause of salvation. According to him, even the believing thought itself is the grace of the Buddha, arid one's remembrance or repetition of the name of the Buddha is simply a token of free thanksgiving shown toward the Buddha.


The general Japanese name for Amita-pietism is Jodo meaning 'Pure Land,' which is a translation of Sukhavati ('Land of Bliss'). Those who believe in Amita Buddha will be born in the Pure Land' to become a Buddha.

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