Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism or Amidism, devotional sect of Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan, centering on worship of the Buddha Amitabha. According to the Pure Land Sutras, composed in India in the 2d cent. a.d., Amitabha vowed to save all sentient beings by granting them rebirth in his realm, the “Western Paradise,” a pure land endowed with miraculous characteristics ensuring its inhabitants easy entry into nirvana. Salvation could be attained by invoking the name of Amitabha with absolute faith in his grace and the efficacy of his vow. It was believed that Amitabha and his retinue would appear to the faithful at the time of death and convey them to his paradise. In both China and Japan the movement gained impetus from the idea of the “end of the Dharma,” which divided the development of Buddhism into three ages: that of the true, the counterfeit, and the decaying dharma, that is, Buddhist teaching. Those living in the present final, degenerate age cannot attain enlightenment by the original means of self-effort, austerity, and superior knowledge and must rely entirely on faith. There were devotees of Amitabha in China as early as the end of the 3d cent. a.d.; the sect was officially founded in 402 by its first patriarch, Hui-Yuan. Later masters spread the faith among the masses, sometimes using evangelical methods, contrasting the torments of hell with the bliss of the “Western Paradise.” In Japan, Pure Land Buddhism was established as a sect by Honen (1133–1212), who taught that even those who had mastered Buddhist philosophy “should behave themselves like simpleminded folk” and renounce all practices except the nembutsu, recitation of the formula Namu Amida Butsu [homage to Amitabha Buddha]. His disciple Shinran (1173–1262) carried Honen's teachings to their logical conclusion by abandoning monastic celibacy and marrying. Shinran held that reliance on one's own effort or on any practice other than the nembutsu would show lack of faith in Amitabha. He broke with Honen's followers on these issues and became the leader of the True Pure Land Sect, which grew to be the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. The numerous representations of Amitabha with his attendant bodhisattvas and the depictions of hell testify to the influence of Pure Land Buddhism on Chinese and Japanese Buddhist art. For translations of the Pure Land Sutras, see E. B. Crowell, Buddhist Mahayana Texts (1894, repr. 1969) and Alfred Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace (1965).

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