Just How Buddhist is Pure Land Buddhism?

According to the [Pratyutpanna Samādhi] sutra, the nature of the visions are dream-like and the sutra states that they are possible because all phenomena are empty and made by mind. According to the Pratyutpanna, these visions are possible because: "this triple world is nothing but thought. That is because however I discriminate things [Skt. vikalpayati, mentally construct], so they appear.” The sutra also links this visionary samadhi with the realization of emptiness, stating that "he who obtains the samadhi of emptiness by thus concentrating on the Tathagata without apprehending him, he is known as one who calls to mind the Buddha.” Thus, one should not think that these Buddhas actually come from somewhere or go anywhere, they are to be understood as similar to empty space and as not existing in some substantial or objective way, since they are empty, like all dharmas, of inherent existence (svabhavena sunya). —from Wikipedia

The Mahāyāna movement claims to have been founded by the Buddha himself, though at first confined to a select group of hearers. The consensus of the evidence, however, is that it originated in South India in the 1st century A.D.  —A. K. Warder, in Indian Buddhism

The Mahāsaṁgha separation of the arhant from the buddha and subsequent raising of the buddha to the status of a transcendental being, not merely an enlightened being, was thus the necessary prerequisite for the development of the Mahayāna.  —ibid.

     Lately I have come into contact with a small number of devout and rather stern western Pure Land Buddhists, mainly through Discord servers with which I have been involved. I have never had much interest in Pure Land Buddhism, largely because I am not by nature disposed towards religious devotionalism, and even more largely because, historically speaking, it pretty obviously was never taught by the historical Gotama Buddha. Even so, because I have been exposed to it lately, and because it is ostensibly Buddhist, I have looked into it a little, mainly by looking on Wikipedia and rereading certain parts of A. K. Warder’s history of Buddhism in India, Indian Buddhism (Motilal Banarsidass, Dehli, 2004).

     Pure Land Buddhism, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a kind of more or less Buddhist devotionalism which urges its followers to pray to, or chant the name of, a non-terrestrial (and non-historical) Buddha, usually one named Amitābha in Sanskrit (Amida in Japanese), for the sake of being reborn, after death in this world, into a heavenlike “Buddha-field” or Pure Land created by the psychic powers of one of these non-terrestrial Buddhas. This school of Buddhism is centered not on the historical Buddha but rather on a few mythological ones not found in the earlier (pre-Mahayana) texts.

     Contemplation of the qualities of the (historical) Buddha, or Buddhānussati, is one of the forty basic meditation exercises listed in orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition, although it is considered a very elementary practice not conducive even to first jhāna. So although there is certainly some devotionalism to be found in the earliest strata of Buddhist doctrine, and in Theravada, it is not considered to be salvific. It may protect a person from hell or some other lower realm if they contemplate the qualities of the Buddha on their deathbed, simply by directing their thoughts toward something uplifting in their last moments; but Pure Land doctrines are far beyond this.

     According to Wikipedia, one of the earliest mentions of Amitābha, as well as one of the earliest known Mahayana Sutras, is the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra, supposedly composed in the area of Gandhara sometime during the first century BCE. The sutra mentions Amitābha but does not endorse praying or chanting to him in order to be reborn into his Buddha land.

     Possibly the first fully Pure Land sutra, as opposed to a transitional “proto” Pure Land one like the aforementioned, would be the two Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras, the Longer and the Shorter, with the shorter one probably being the earlier of the two. These also, according to Wikipedia articles, are theorized to have been composed in the general area of Gandhara during the time of the Kushan Empire, around the first and second centuries CE. Again according to Wikipedia, these were possibly composed by proto-Mahayana Mahīshāsaka and/or Lokottaravāda monks (these two schools were pre-Mahayana Indian schools of Buddhism which, if I remember correctly, were offshoots of the Mahāsanghika school, the branch of Buddhism that diverged from the Theras after the Second Great Council around a hundred years after the death of the Buddha.) On the other hand, A. K. Warder, in his book Indian Buddhism, claims that, although a Sanskrit text of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra was unearthed in Khotan in central Asia in the 1890s, the text itself was probably composed in South India.

     Wikipedia says:

In the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, the Buddha begins by describing to his attendant Ānanda a past life of the Buddha Amitābha. He states that in a past life, Amitābha was once a king who renounced his kingdom and became a bodhisattva monk named Dharmākara ("Dharma Storehouse”). Under the guidance of the buddha Lokeśvararāja ("World Sovereign King"), innumerable buddha-lands throughout the ten directions were revealed to him.  After meditating for five eons as a bodhisattva, he then made a great series of vows to save all sentient beings, and through his great merit, created the realm of Sukhāvatī ("Ultimate Bliss”). This land of Sukhāvatī would later come to be known as a pure land (Ch. 淨土) in Chinese translation.

     According to Warder, the Dharmākara mentioned above was “obviously a hedonist,” who insisted on the best, most pleasant Buddha-field to be his ultimate domain after becoming a Buddha—hence the magnificent splendor of Sukhāvatī, far surpassing the Iron-Age Ganges Valley of “our” Gotama Buddha. According to Warder,

The beings there spend their time in pleasurable play and enjoy whatever they wish. If they bathe in the rivers the water seems to each one to be at the exact temperature he wishes; if any do not wish to hear the music they do not hear it, whilst those who wish to hear it do hear it and hear whatever music they would like to hear, including of course the chanting of the doctrine if they so wish, the doctrine of emptiness, signlessness, uncommittedness, non-synthesizing, not being born, non-occurrence, non-being, cessation, etc. There is no difference between gods and men there.

     It is also this sutra which is the first known, either in the longer or shorter form, to assert that reciting the name Amitābha ten times, in good faith, is sufficient to assure rebirth in his Buddha-field or Pure Land.

     Despite its rather sketchy probable origins in Mahayana Buddhism centuries after the time of the Buddha, and its radical deviation from the earlier teachings, Pure Land has become the predominant form of Buddhism in East Asia, particularly China, Korea, and Japan. But according to archeological evidence, Pure Land was not prevalent in China until the seventh century CE, due to the influence of the “first patriarch of Pure Land,” a monk named Tanluan.

     One explanation for the virtual replacement of yogic practice with devotionalism in Pure Land Buddhism is that, after Buddhism became a mainstream popular religion, the overwhelming majority of its practitioners felt themselves, sooner or later, to be incapable of liberation through following the early teachings. (This was certainly true of the monk/patriarch Shinran in medieval Japan.) Praying to an exalted being is much easier than following that being’s instructions for saving oneself, as early Christians also discovered. This tendency towards devotionalism was intensified by the common belief that Dharma was in decline in a degenerate world, a spiritual Dark Age was at hand, and the best people could do was to try to get into a better, less degenerate world system where Dharma was in a much healthier state. Then again, I suspect that liberation has always been very difficult to achieve for almost everyone, partly because in a Samsaric context it is pretty much meaningless and utterly impossible; it’s simply Off the Scale. Warder’s theory that Mahayana and its variant of Pure Land Buddhism arose in South India, if it is true, could also be a case of more emotional and devotional South Indians modifying Buddhism to be more in accordance with their temperament, much as devotionalistic Hinduism as it exists today (as opposed to archaic Vedic Brahmanism) also is said to have been “invented” in the south.

     As with other schools of Buddhism, all of them in fact, different directions were taken by Pure Land thinkers. Some believed that Buddha-fields were somehow beyond the scope of the earlier, traditional cosmology of the three realms: sensual realm (in which we humans live), Brahma realm of form, and formless Brahma realm. I have heard a theory, I think from a western Pure Land Buddhist, that the Divine Abodes mentioned in Theravada are Buddha-fields such as those described in Pure Land scriptures; but although there are similarities, like being accessible only to good Buddhists, the Divine Abodes are the highest Brahma realms in the world of form (i.e. the inhabitants still have physical bodies), and are available only to Anāgāmīs, or very advanced Buddhist “saints.” Also, it may be that jhāna is required to attain these realms, since early Buddhism, including orthodox Theravada, claims that jhāna is necessary to attain ANY Brahma realm.

     At any rate, Pure Land philosophy began fragmenting into philosophical factions. Again from the Wikipedia:

“western-direction Pure Land” (xīfāng jìngtǔ 西方淨 土) or “other-direction Pure Land” (tāfāng jìngtǔ 他方淨土) which saw the Pure Land as another realm that was far away from this world and which one could attain after death by being reborn there after performing various Pure Land practices. This view was defended by figures like Tanluan and Shandao and tended to be popular among the more devotional oriented figures which taught about the Pure Land and these figures tended to focus on the magnificent features of the Pure Land in order to arouse a desire to go to there in their disciples.

“mind-only Pure Land” (wéixīn jìngtǔ 唯心淨土), which was also favored by the Chan (Zen) tradition, held that this world is itself a Pure Land and it only appears impure because of our own impure minds project impurity on the world. In this view, by purifying our minds we gain the Pure Land. A passage from the Contemplation Sutra which states “this mind creates the Buddha, this mind is the Buddha” is also used by the defenders of this view.

     The second group at least makes me feel a little better about Pure Land doctrines being found in so many Zen temples and monasteries. I can accept this second version, and was impressed when I read something like it in the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng, although it still probably wasn’t taught by the historical Gotama Buddha.

     I still am unclear on just how Buddhist, in the literal, original sense, Pure Land is. I have met at least one rather stern Pure Lander who appears to be uncompromising in his traditional Buddhist morals, which is certainly something. On the other hand, one Pure Land follower was claiming that ANY teaching that is conducive to enlightenment or liberation is legitimate Buddhavācana, that is, genuine teachings of Buddha; which I simply cannot accept, since Buddhavācana implies that the Buddha, Gotama Buddha, really said it, or at least a paraphrase, something like it. And for that matter, I am quite unsure just how conducive to enlightenment Pure Land doctrines are, considering that they deviate wildly from the earliest teachings of the earliest schools—Liberation in This Very Life—to postponement until one is reborn in a legendary Buddha-field that is known only through mythology and dogma, and of course cannot be demonstrated to be true in this life…again, much like the heavenly dogmas of Christianity.

     I may have offended a few Pure Land Buddhists out there with these musings, but that was not my intention. They are welcome to leave comments presenting their own, clearer view of this type of Buddhism. My intention IS, however, to point out to those openminded to my musings that Pure Land was NOT taught by the Buddha and is in some ways apparently the practical opposite of what he DID teach. So although I am very ambivalent on the “Buddhist-ness” of Pure Land (especially the western-direction version of it), I accept Pure Land Buddhists as fellow humans, some of them very good humans, who nevertheless have been misguided, or else they just do not care if their Buddhism resembles what the Buddha actually taught. As the Kālāma Sutta admonishes, don’t believe something just because it has been a venerated tradition passed down for generations, don’t believe something just out of respect for a teacher, don’t believe something just because it sounds reasonable—believe it only if you can verify it to be true, if you believe anything at all. And that really does rule out belief in Amitābha Buddha and his Sukhāvatī Buddha-field. Then again, faithful devotionalists have become saintly and wise believing all sorts of things.  


  1. Thank you for writing this article. I would consider myself a Pure Land Buddhist. I understand that it was not taught by the historical Buddha. The Pure Land teachings are a result of Mahayana development centuries after the lifetime of Siddharta Gautama.

    The Pure Land teachings work for me because 1) they provide an allegorical alternative to samsara which can be easily communicated with others (I live in Singapore where many Chinese Buddhists are Pure Land) and 2) the practice of reciting Amitabha’s name makes me feel peaceful and is a shelter from samsaric mental chattering.

    Ramana Maharshi said that there are two paths to liberation - one is the path of self-enquiry and the other is the path of surrender. Pure Land belongs to the latter category. It encourages folks to surrender to the Other-Power of Amitabha Buddha, a personification of Dharma.

    What I love about the Pure Land teachings is that it can be used a salvic vehicle for “the masses” (such as a relatively “unspiritual” person who is on the verge of death), people who are already religiously inclined and people who are ready to accept 唯心净土,自性弥陀 (Mind is Pure Land and Amitabha is self-nature). The Pure Land is a sacred myth/teaching which, like Hui Neng's finger points to the moon of Ultimate Reality.

  2. You say “ believe it only if you can verify it to be true”. Have you ‘verified’ the reality of Nirvana for yourself, the existence of other samsaric realms, or the operations of the law of karma? Surely we need to take certain doctrines on faith, based on the view that the Buddha had a level of insight that eludes most of us (even you!)

    1. If Nirvana is ultimate reality, then it is certain to "exist." Karma is not so much a "law" as cetanā, or Will; though there is always a certain amount of "faith" required to believe anything, including atheistic scientific realism. At some point one has to go with what seems most likely, and I do not consider scientific realism to be most likely.


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