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Pure Land Buddhism and the Construction of Buddhist Studies

Pure Land Buddhism and the Construction of Buddhist Studies

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Published by ShankerThapa

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: ShankerThapa on May 03, 2010
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Aaron Proffitt
MA Religious Studies graduate studentUniversity of Colorado at Boulder 
Pure Land Buddhism and the Construction of Buddhist Studies
Historically speaking, both the Japanese and pan-Asian "Pure Land Buddhist"discourses have been marginalized in popular literature and academic discourse
.On theone hand, Pure Land Buddhism is seeminglyincompatible with Western notions of Buddhism as a “rational” philosophy. Additionally, early European scholars of Buddhismwere concerned primarily with early Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. This resulted inthe marginalization of most forms of Buddhist practice and devotion. On the other hand,Japanese suppressionof Buddhism during the early period of modernization (c. 1890-) infavor of the nationalist ideologies known as "State Shi
" and "New Buddhism"disregarded and suppressed the role that Pure Land Buddhism had played in the creationof Japanese identity. As a result, Pure Land oriented devotional practices in bothmonastic and lay cultural spheres have been neglected as significant forces in theBuddhist worldview.I will first provide evidence that many famous Buddhist thinkers, whom are oftenrevered for their philosophical contributions, were also influential in the propagation of Pure Land soteriology. My subsequent examination will consist of a deconstruction of the biases present in pre-modern and modern "Orientalist" and "Occidentalist" discourses,essentially identifying how and why each position neglected such an important dimensionof the Buddhist experience. I willthen move to reassess the importance of Pure Landoriented devotionalism as a significant force in the broader Mahayana context. I willconclude by proposing a recalibration of the field of Buddhist Studies towards ritual,devotional, and popular/vernacular literature. It is my position that these methodologiesand topics better serve to present Buddhisttraditions as they have actually been practiced.If we are to use the term“Buddhism” as a reified category, it would serve our purposes, professionally and ethically, to base our work in the "on-the-ground" reality as it isunderstood by the majority of practitioners.
A Brief History of Pure Land Devotionalism
According to basic Buddhist cosmology,the semi-historical Buddha who lived inIndia roughly 500 BCE was not the only Buddha. He was one of manyBuddhas, or "awakened" ones, in a long line going back countless eons.
Many of these past Buddhashad accumulated great merits through their ascetic practices which were carried out over many eons. These merits came to form "buddha-spheres"or "buddha-realms"whereadvanced buddhas and bodhisattvas could go to purify and perfect themselves and their abilities to procure and transfer merit.
The concept ofa "Pure Land" evolved in India asa product of the e
arly Mahāsāńgika and
Mahayanist discourse. These realms were seen to provide a practitioner with the opportunity to study with a living Buddha.
As such, theterm "Pure Land Buddhism” as I will be using it refers primarily to the praxis foundthroughout Asia designed to allow one to attain rebirth in these "buddha-spheres."
The Pure Land devotional cults
of the Buddha Amitābha have
historically beenvery popular and important. This devotional path has commonly been referred to as the"easy path." As told in the
, or Sutra of the Land of Bliss (commonlyknown as the Pure Land Sutra),
countless eons ago, a king named Dharmakāra met aBuddha named Lokeśvararāja and renounced the throne to pursue the bodhisattva path.Dharmakāra vowed to
transfer all of his bodhisattva merits towards the creation ofa purified realm of bliss
, known as Sukhāvatī,
in which all sentient beings could be rebornso as to attain enlightenment more easily.
Upon completion of his vows, Dharmakāra
would attain Buddhahoo
d as the Buddha Amitābha. As he is currently known asAmitābha, we can infer that Pure Land devotees believe that the Bodhisattva Dharmakāra
did indeed complete all of his vows. Each vow discusses a different category of beingthat must be saved by Dharmak 
āra. These
various beings included poor people, thewicked and socially transgressive people, women, and all sorts of other beings who weretypically excluded from Buddhist enlightenment discourse. According to the story,
Dharmakāra felt
that this world was so corrupt that it would be nearly impossible for most sentient beings to attain enlightenment. Therefore, he created a place where thisgoal was more readily attainable.
3In order to understand the Pure Land Sutras and Mahayana devotional practices ingeneral we must discuss the ideas of 
, or contemplation, and
; Jp.
) which means "buddha-remembrance."
Early Mahayanadevotional practices were directed towards various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and their Pure Lands. The appropriate Samadhi visualization or chanting exercises associated witheach Buddha or Bodhisattva eventually came to compose a rather significant body of literature.
One of the earliest Mahayana texts was the
focused upon Amitābha
Buddha. There are strong similarities between this early sutraand the shorter versions of the Pure Land Sutras. Each text claims that the chief means of achieving birth in a Pure Land is through “buddha-remembrance” practices. This impliesthat a relationship exists between these two texts, supporting the idea that
centered practices come from early Mahayana developments.
Very little is understoodabout the context for the Indian practices associated with this cult. We can, however,examine the works of early Mahayana Buddhist thinkers so as to understand how theyviewed these practices associated with the Buddha
 Nāgārjuna (c. 150
250) founded the Mādhyamika
School, and helped pioneer theidea of 
, or emptiness.
Briefly put, all things are interdependent and lack anysubstantial reality of their own. Realization of this, in a Buddhist worldview, is supposedto create within the practitioner a strong desire to save all sentient beings. Therefore,ideas such as
ultimately collapse into a single holistic concept of theuniverse and the purpose of Buddhist prac
tice within it. Nāgārjuna promoted devotion to
the Mahayana celestial buddhas as part of his philosophical system.
His emphasis onthe "easy practice"
of the Amitābha Samā
dhi for attaining rebirth in the Pure Land placeshim as one of the first and most importantproponents of this method of practice.
Vasubandhu (c.320-
400) belonged to the Yogācāra, or consciousness
-only, schoolwhich teaches "how to meditate on the relation between one’s consciousness and theworld and reach Enlightenment through realization of the intrinsic unity between them."
This school became Fax
iang in China and Hossō, one of the six Nara schools, in Japan.

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