The origin of Pure Land belief

In order to lead people to enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha gradually conveyed his teachings over a period of over 40 years, preparing his listeners step by step to understand his final teaching.  The Buddha’s first sermon (The Four Noble Truths) was generally directed to monks, who renounced the secular world and aspired for breaking the cycle of rebirth (Sravaka disciples).  For ordinary people, however, who live in the social fabric of daily life, the teaching of renouncing the secular world and extinguishing desires was an impossible path to follow.

In order to offer ordinary people hope for an end to their sufferings, Shakyamuni started in the next step of his teaching to refer to a possibility of salvation in a future life.   Through this concept, Shakyamuni aimed at triggering hope (that an end to sufferings is possible).

The teaching of a “better life after death” was only a provisional transient device, employed to dispel pessimism and lack of hope: Both nirvana and the pure land were metaphorical devices employed by Shakyamuni to develop his followers' understanding”.

D.Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, page 6

The concept of rebirth in a “Pure Land” after death was a shift in Buddhist teachings - away from early Buddhism’s (Theravada) nihilistic views. This shift started as a small step in the path of Mahayana Buddhism, which continued to gradually develop further, until the Buddha’s listeners were prepared to receive the final teaching of the Buddha. The final teaching in Buddhism is that which can lead people to enlightenment - transforming their current circumstances into a pure land - in this lifetime, not after death. 

Revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime requires a diligent practice by the individual.  Pure Land belief, however, offers salvation after death through depending on an external power of Amida.  In this, the essence of Amida Buddhism is not very different from Abrahamic religions and belief in God and Heaven - a concept very similar to the Pure Land.

Pure Land and the challenging concept of Buddhanature

Nichiren explains:

                                “Myoho-renge-kyo is the Buddhanature of all living beings.

The Buddhanature is the Dharma nature, and the Dharma nature is enlightenment….

the Buddhanature that all beings possess is called by the name Myoho-renge-kyo....

Therefore, if you recite these words of the daimoku once, then the Buddhanature of all living beings will be summoned”. WND1 p131

The concept of the “Buddhanature” implies that each person has a full potential to attain the highest state of life - in one’s current circumstances.  Disbelief in one’s full potential to manifest Buddhahood would lead - as a matter of course - to seek Buddhahood somewhere else apart from this life.

If the Buddhanature is inherent as a potential in the life of individual since birth, then a correct practice should be able to reveal one’s Buddhanature during this current  life.  SGI literature explains that it is exactly through transforming one’s current circumstances that one can reveal one’s Buddhanature and enjoy the highest state of life:

        "In his treatise 'The Opening of the Eyes,' Nichiren Daishonin writes: 'In his earlier

        teachings, Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of the present world as an impure land. But now, in

        the 'Life Span' chapter of the Lotus Sutra, he has reversed this, revealing that this world is

        the true land' Our communities are the 'true land' of our mission.

        We should, therefore, not lament about the places where we find ourselves right now.

        The challenge falls to us to transform them, through our own efforts, into victorious Lands

        of Tranquil Light--realms of Buddhahood.

        Such is a way of life based on the essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra."

SGI Newsletter 7696, Feb.2009


Author:  Safwan Darshams

                                         Back to : Amida and SGI BUddhism