illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Pure Land buddhism in early Japan.
Hōnen (1133–1212), founder of the Jōdo ("Pure Land") school based on Chinese commentaries, and his disciple Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the Jōdo Shin ("True Pure Land") school, lived in a difficult period in Japan full of conflicts and inevitable economic consequences of these conflicts. This context had much consequences on the teachings themselves but also on their popularity, as the population in such distressed situation were naturally looking for answers with regards to the cause of so much suffering, and for solutions.
A fundamental trait of Pure Land Buddhism is the belief that one lives in the mappō period, the Latter Days of the Dharma, a period during which the teachings have been so corrupted and diluted that they lost their efficacy, and thus a period during which one's effort and willingness is never enough to reach Enlightenment. Of course, the political and economical difficulties can then be 'blamed' on the dissolution of the Dharma and the disappearance of wholesome leaders —a blame which pleased the crowd but pleased neither the political power nor the other schools of Buddhism and resulted in persecutions.
Linked to the teachings on mappō is the reliance on the compassion of Amida buddha to help us achieve Enlightenment (thanks to a rebirth in his Pure Land, which he vowed to keep for all truly wishing his help). And the reliance appears in Jōdo and Jōdo Shin buddhism as the teaching of nembutsu, or chanting/praising the name of Amida. This teaching was very popular, as one can easily imagine that distressed populations had little opportunities to deepen their philosophical understanding of Emptiness and were appreciative of a more 'accessible' path.
Detractors of Pure Land often cited (and still do) the nembutsu as a reliance on ritual, thus seen as contradicting directly the Buddha's teachings.
But this criticism doesn't affect Jōdo practitioners in the least, for a clear reason: they believe (due to mappō) that the teachings that reached us are actually no longer trust-worthy so the contradiction is of no valid significance!
Moreover, the detractors seem to entirely miss the fact that the chanting is not so far from a mindfulness practice. The Jōdo school actually considered that chanting was a purification method.
It may be noted that the Jōdo shin school pushed the conclusions of the mappō teachings to their logical conclusion and saw the nembutsu slightly differently from the Jōdo school.
In Jōdo, nembutsu is still perceived as a purifying method, i.e. the alliance of self-power (of one's own efforts toward salvation) and the other-power (of Amida 's compassion). Jōdo practitioners chant continuously to purify their karma and have the right state of mind at death to facilitate the appropriate rebirth in the Pure Land (one never knows when death comes, so it is better to chant continuously!).
In Jōdo Shin, nembutsu is seen as purely an expression of gratitude to Amida. Jōdo Shin practitioners do not belief in self-power at all, so any entry in Pure Land is purely due to Amida 's compassion and there is little point in, or insistence on, continuous chanting.
Jōdo Shin included teachings that the benefit of faith (faith which arose due to the compassion of Amida in the first place!) can be experienced in this life. The philosophical basis behind Pure Land remains buddha-nature (i.e. everyone can realise buddhahood), and thus there is no inherent separation between saṃsāra, Pure Land and nirvāṇa. However, realisation would be obtained only through the power of Amida 's compassion rather than one's own effort. One could also say that one's efforts were precisely created by Amida 's compassion though, so both Jōdo and Jōdo Shin still support the idea of 'practices', rituals, 'appreciation'…
When pushed to its extreme, Amida can be somehow seen (from other buddhist schools) as just another divine emanation of the Trikāya (the "three bodies" of Buddha): the compassion itself of Amida, which supports our realisation (and possibly manifests itself via the efforts it leads us to undertake), can be reasonably associated to the Dharmakāya; after all, the Dharmakāya can be perceived as compassionate equanimity and a compassion which touches all beings without discrimination is not so distinguishable…
In such sense, Jōdo and Jōdo Shin definitely pertain to Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, in spite of and initial apparent disconnect with the early teachings (about "right effort" notably, but also "right concentration" etc.).
(photo: Amitabha buddha,