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meditation in Pure Land Buddhism
March 27th, 2014

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

meditation in Pure Land Buddhism

It is regularly stated that Pure Land Buddhism does not promote meditation. This is a misunderstanding.

First, there are three sūtras to consider about Pure Land, but they're just the ones specifically covering Amida's Pure Land, which doesn't mean they supersede the other Mahāyāna sūtras… Just like you cannot pick Theravādin sūtras about ethics to then ignore the sūtras about e.g. Dependent Origination, you cannot pick these three sūtras to then ignore the other Mahāyāna sūtras e.g. on emptiness.

Second, even if there were only these three sūtras, meditation / cultivation would still be on the menu!

These three sūtras —delivered by Śākyamuni Buddha— concern:
• the Buddha of Infinite Life ("larger sūtra");
• the visualisation of the Buddha of Infinite Life ("contemplation sūtra");
• Amitāyus Buddha (again, "smaller sūtra").

Unsurprisingly, the objects of meditation in Pure Land Buddhism are centred around the object of faith: contemplating various aspects of the Pure Land, or some characteristics of the great bodhisattvas or even of Amida Buddha… The Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra thus promotes rather complex "single-pointed concentration" techniques, specific to Pure Land.  The idea that Pure Land Buddhism doesn't include meditation is erroneous: it is true that, at entry level, it starts with faith… but it will then use the said faith as a supportive condition for meditation!

As presented in my post on Shinran's compassionate contribution (, it is correct to assert that the emergence of Jōdo Shinshū in Japan was accompanied by an apparent  lowering of standards in terms of practice. But this was to open the doors to all, and bring them to the Path, without pre-requisite; this is not due to Shinran dismissing cultivation, but to making the transition towards cultivation as easy as it may be.

Some of the pedagogical means involved in Pure Land meditation are classical in the Mahāyāna teaching toolbox: when characteristics are 'unlimited', cultivating a visualisation of them is equivalent to letting go of our classical discernment (based on borders and limits and thresholds… duality).

Ching-ying Hui-yüan (523–592) interpreted the sūtra as targeted at advanced meditators, accompanied by encouragement for higher rebirth. Shan-tao (613–681) later saw the sūtra first and foremost as revealing the possibility of rebirth in Pure Land even for the least worthy, and meditation as a secondary topic by comparison to such an extraordinary good news. The debate did not stop there, but the commentaries make clear that meditation is part of the path…

Just like the notion of 'self' easily creeps back in conversations on selflessness (e.g. in the form of a unique, identifiable, trackable  "stream of consciousness", which is a blatant misunderstanding of causality), a common misconception easily creeps back in conversations on Pure Land Buddhism: the idea that cultivation is foreign to Pure Land Buddhism.

The easiest way to debunk this is to keep in mind that reaching the Pure Land is only reaching a realm supportive of cultivation! The Pure Land is not the goal, is not even a warranty to attain the goal: it is a supportive mindset! Supportive of the cultivation of the Eightfold Path, supportive of the Bodhisattva path with its ambitious bhūmis, supportive of meditation… Shinran's focus, on easing anyone in, is not only compatible with the doctrine of Pure Land, it is the ideal of it: supporting anyone to cultivate the Path, by providing the simplest possible entry!

However, just like not "committing the five grave offences" is a question of tendencies (and your mindset becomes the Pure Land precisely when these unskilful tendencies are sorted out), "meditating" is a question of skilful tendencies! The fact that the single-pointed meditation (around chants, mantras, visualisations…) might not look like zazen or vipaśyanā  doesn't make it any less 'practical'.

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
Image: "Taima Mandala", of which the central image is the Pure Land itself, while the left, right, and lower borders are covered with images from… the Contemplation Sūtra.