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Some Japanese aspects of Amida's Pure Land, before Pure Land Buddhism
June 23rd, 2015 (June 24th, 2015)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Some Japanese aspects of Amida's Pure Land, before Pure Land Buddhism

   In 847, Ennin (793–864) returned to Japan after nearly a decade in China. Although he was aiming for Mount T’ien-t’ai, Ennin never could reach it, due to bureaucratic difficulties, and instead spent some time in Wutaishan (mostly dedicated to a cult of Mañjuśrī) and in Chang’an (studying notably under Faquan, proposing a different form of tantric tradition). Ennin returned to Japan with 584 volumes (221 tantric), 59 mandala, paintings, artefacts, and most importantly the associated knowledge. He was appointed abbot of Enryakuji in 854, adding new meditations techniques from Wutaishan and tantric rituals (notably the “Eight-syllables rite for Mañjuśrī” and the “Ritual of abundant light” which became the Tendai rite for protection of Ruler and State). This mixing of influences participated in distinguishing Japanese Tendai from Chinese T’ien-t’ai.

   Ennin can also be credited for promoting Amidism in Japan, based on a meditation technique mentioned by Chigi (the T’ien-t’ai patriarch): the constantly walking samādhi  (circumambulating an image of Amitabha without rest, for 90 days —or 7 days in another form,— while visualising the image and intoning the name). This explains how Amida became popular in Japan as early as the Heian period, centuries before the actual rise of Pure Land Buddhism.

   The increasing popularity of bodhisattvas and buddhas as ‘saviours’ during the Heian period, and of the notion of a paradise where beings are not subject to downward rebirth, wasn’t as much a moderation of the karmic causality as it was the introduction of the only ‘realistic’ hope (during the Latter Days of Dharma) for salvation.
   Some aspects of Amidism during the Heian period were sociologically interesting, because they reveal adaptations of Buddhism towards what people want  to believe. Buddhism had been introduced for several centuries already, and its main tenets were reasonably understood, but it is during the Heian period that it reached lower stratas of society and became popular. The general population did not necessarily have the education to understand, let alone accept, the most difficult points of the Dharma.

   The buddha Amida shouldn’t a priori be called for a funeral. The name should be called while alive by the person intending to be reborn in his Pure Land, due to the 18th bodhisattva vow of Hōzō Bosatsu (who later became Amida) according to the sūtra of Infinite Life (Muryōjukyō); there’s little point in theory to call Amida for the benefit of another.
   However, “calling Amida’s Name”, “commending someone to Amida’s mercy”  or “chanting the Name of Amida”  was common in Heian Japan… and might still happen at a funeral much later.
   The reason is that the ‘deceased’ might only appear  deceased —due to a spirit / defiled mental stream?— while still having their last subtle breaths. The spirit is trying to get any support for the dying (to concentrate on the nembutsu) stopped, by confusing the mourners into thinking that the time to call Amida has passed. [One might note that later reforms in Shin Buddhism made the concentration on the nembutsu as one's last thought —orientating one's rebirth— less of a 'requirement', but during the Heian period this was considered necessary for Amida to take you into Pure Land]

   It was common for lovers to wish to be reborn “on the same lotus”  in Amida’s paradise, or for parents to wish to meet again a beloved child in Pure Land.
   It was known that this was a worldly wish rather than Buddhist doctrine: when brought together again in another life, people do not recognise each other. In the Tale of Genji, a mother might thus say to her sick daughter “it feels like ages since we last met, although it is really only two or three days, I know that it is foolish of me, but you know, this may be the last time you and I are together, and what good will it do us to meet again only in a future life?”
   Although it was known to be a worldly wish, the theme of rebirth on the same lotus remained and is found e.g. in “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”, a play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725), first performed in 1703… long after the Pure Land teachings had been mastered in Japan! Popular beliefs do not always align with the deeper doctrinal perspectives.

   It was common to "take the precepts" when one felt death coming. 
   According to the Kanmuryōju-kyō (sutra on the Contemplation on Buddha Amitayus, one of the three sūtras of Pure Land Buddhism), a single day and night observing the Precepts (suited to one’s condition, lay or monastic, male or female) can lead to rebirth in paradise, “in the middle form of the middle grade,” a notion relatively distant from the increasingly-popular nembutsu notion.
   As spirits may make someone look dead, sometimes a person might enter the monastic orders after death: “it is too late for her in this life, but please tell [the monks] they are to cut her hair, so that she may at least have the Buddha’s mercy on the dark road before her”. The “dark road” is an expression from the Lotus sūtra. It was understood that this might not help: “it would not light her way to the world beyond just to cut her hair, though, if she is gone, and she would only be more painful to look at, so I am not sure that I recommend it”.

   The "middle form of the middle grade" refers to the nine possible stations in Amida's Pure Land. Such a belief allows for positive or negative karma to be relevant without cancelling the core belief that the paradise itself is due to Amida’s compassion and offered to most beings.
   Repeatedly, the rebirth in Amida’s paradise is evoked as the “birth on a lotus”.  The soul is reborn in Amida’s paradise enthroned on a lotus flower from the lake before Amida and his palace.
   Most 'souls' reaching Amida’s paradise were born not onto open lotus flower but into closed buds, and they had to wait a longer and shorter time for their flowers to open.
   While in a closed bud, they could only distantly hear the music before Amida’s throne. In worldly experience, this might be alluded to the following way: “overhearing the noise of horses and carriages, the ladies here and there felt as though they now knew what it must be like inside the still-unopened lotus flower”.

#Buddhism   #history
Photo: mount Fuji. 
Previous posts related to Pure Land:
On a link between Amida and Zen: cf. +Bup Sahn's post and associated comments, so as not to associate Amida exclusively with Pure Land Buddhism.