The Three Pure Land Sutras

Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith
Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith

The Three Pure Land Sutras comprise our classical sacred texts.  They are:

  1. The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Bussetsu Muryōju Kyō), commonly called The Larger Sutra,
  2. The Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Bussetsu Kammuryōju Kyō), or the Contemplation Sutra, and
  3. The Sutra on Amida Buddha (Bussetsu Amida Kyō), or Amida Sutra.

These Sutras are a popular source of spiritual nourishment for a significant proportion of Buddhists. For example, I think it plausible that, since most Buddhists live in eastern Asia, which is largely of the Mahayana tradition, the Amida Sutra is the most widely read of all Buddhist scriptures, except, perhaps, the Dharmapada.

It is also feasible that, because there is a widespread revival of Buddhism in China – especially Pure Land Buddhism -, the The Three Pure Land Sutras are gaining in popularity and becoming widely circulated again. In China, Pure Land Buddhism is often practiced alongside Ch’an (Zen) and its Sutras are revered in the T’ien-t’ai sect, as well.

After the parinirvana (death) of Shakyamuni Buddha, a Council was convened by 500 of his most accomplished disciples (Arhats). After he also attained the status of Arhat, one of Shakyamuni’s most devout followers, Ananda, who was famous for his retentive memory, recited the Sutras, which were approved as authentic by the Council, committed to memory,  and passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Sutras were not originally written documents but kept for safe-keeping in the hearts and minds of the Buddhist community, especially the ordained Sangha. From about 2,000 years ago, the Sutras were gradually recorded for posterity.  I am not sure why this should have happened but imagine that there must have been a gathering sense of threat and crisis within the Buddhist community.

Some Sutras were not delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha but by one of his disciples or other great enlightened teachers. One such famous example is the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Huineng) of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. The Three Pure Land Sutras, however, were delivered by Shakyamuni Buddha.

Even though Sutras have come down to us in written form over many hundreds of years, it is still common practice for monks and lay-people to learn some of them by heart. This intimate holding of Sutras within the hearts and minds of Buddhists means that they continue to be truly living books.

It is a wonderful privilege to hold a Sutra in one’s heart and mind, so that it is part of one’s organism. In Jodo Shinshu the most popular Sutra to be committed to memory is the gatha Shoshin-nembutsu- ge, which is a summary, composed by Shinran Shonin, of The Three Pure Land Sutras and the commentaries of the Pure Land Masters through  the ages.

I have also heard of people who have committed the Tannishô to memory. The Tannishô is very like a Sutra because it qualifies as having been ‘heard’ in the phrase ‘Thus have I heard’ that is at the beginning of most Sutras.  This means that the disciple has ‘heard’ (adopted or put into practice and ratified for himself) the teaching of his master; and that his account has been approved as authentic. Since we have the writings of Shinran, this is easy to do in the case of the Tannishô.

As I understand it, people traditionally have not usually read Sutras without the aid of a commentary, composed by a learned and enlightened scholar. Yet, these days, our sacred texts are often published without any accompanying written guide to  understanding them. This is unfortunate, because many ideas in Buddhist Sutras are unfamiliar and difficult, and have been so since early times.

Shinran’s writings, especially the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho and the Wasan are essentially commentaries on The Three Pure Land Sutras and the teachings of the Dharma Masters.  When we read The Three Pure Land Sutras we do so in conjunction with Shinran’s writings, so that we can understand them with greater clarity.

Shin-zoku nitai

At Ibaraki Sainenji; where Shinran first began writing the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho. Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith

Shin-zoku nitai is usually translated ‘the true way and the worldly way’. Although it is implicit in the Jodo Shinshu no Seikatsu Shinjo (Shin Buddhist Creed), it seems to have fallen out of favour during the last forty years, or so.

The concept derives from the Letters of Rennyo, and the Ryogemon (Statement of Received Understanding) which enjoin certain rules (Okite) upon Jodo Shinshu followers. One of these rules, which Rennyo Shonin repeatedly upheld in his letters, is:

‘Deeply savour your faith in Amida Buddha, but do not outwardly put on airs of faith.’ (HBL, p. 44)  This suggests a deep inner life and an outward way that conforms with ordinary manners and mores.

Actually, the sense of two spheres of reality is intrinsic to the Mahayana world view. Shin-zoku nitai is certainly a variant of this traditional idea but I cannot see how that invalidates it in practical terms.

The original idea in the Mahayana is well-known. It is the Way of Two Truths.

‘In general Buddhism, when all existences in the universe are considered, those which are in the relative and discriminating states are called ‘zokutai‘ (Sk. samvrti-satya) and those in the absolute non-discriminating states are called ‘shintai’ (Sk. paramartha-satya).  However, Jodo Shinshu considers ‘shintai‘ as religious life, and ‘zokutai‘ as ethical life. (SS, p. 482)

The eighteenth (Primal) Vow affords the scriptural basis for shin-zoku nitai because it contains the clear path to liberation through entrusting heart (shinjin) but adds a warning about the exclusion of ‘those who have committed the five grave offences and abused the right Dharma.’

In the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (CWS, pp. 143-150), Shinran deals with the exclusion clause , upholding Shan-tao’s interpretation that this statement is a caution against bad behaviour, but not a hindrance to absolute and universal salvation through the power of the Primal Vow.

The Larger Sutra as a whole is also redolent with shin-zoku nitai. It includes the account of the causal Vows, which bring us salvation, and also  the grave and miserable world of the Five Evils. Like the exclusion clause of the eighteenth Vow, the Sutra encourages us to take up an ethical demeanour in the world, despite the suffering caused by the Five Evils.

So the Sutra and the eighteenth Vow stand as the model of shin-zoku nitai: salvation is realised unconditionally and universally through entrusting heart, but – because of the warning – our sense of gratitude makes us aware that we ought to behave ethically in response.

Shin-zoku nitai means that once shinjin is firmly established we then seek to give form to our gratitude by saying the nembutsu and ethical behaviour: obeying the law, the life of benevolence and righteousness, and  diligence in the affairs of the world.

This outward way of life, zokutai, is entirely voluntary. It is neither an automatic outcome of Other Power entrusting heart, nor does it play a part in our salvation, and neither is it mandatory.  The way of nembutsu is fundamentally a life of freedom and jinen, naturalness.

‘The life of benevolence and righteousness’ refer to the Confucian way but, for us, kindness is enough.

The underlying motivation for framing our debt of gratitude in this way is to play our part in not bringing the nembutsu teaching into disrepute. While this seems a bland basis for personal demeanour, it is, nonetheless, consistent with the development of the Vinaya, the rules for bhiksus, many of which which were created in response to the need to avoid causing scandal to laymen and laywomen.

A further problem may seem to be that shin-zoku nitai is an attempt to maintain conflicting elements of one’s life.  However, I think shin-zoku nitai is a way of balance. The interplay of religious and secular inform each other – zokutai constantly reminding us of our shortcomings, and shintai constantly leading us to adore the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha in everything that we undergo.

It is sometimes said that one source of the idea of shin-zoku nitai can be found in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, chapter 6, which is a quotation from Lamp for the Last Dharma-Age (by Saicho):

‘He is a dharma-king that, basing himself on oneness, sets flowing the cultivation of beings.

‘He is a benevolent king that, widely reigning over the four seas, sends down the winds of virtue.

‘The benevolent king and the dharma-king, in mutual correspondence, give guidance to beings.  The supra-mundane truth and the mundane truth, depending on each other, cause the teaching to spread.  Thus, the profound writings are everywhere throughout the land, and the benevolent guidance reaches everywhere under heaven.’ (CWS, p. 244)

It is interesting to note that, although this passage occurs in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, Shinran discouraged to use of secular power to support the Dharma. (CWS, p. 568)

It seems to me that the way of shin-zoku nitai, while it has fallen away as a straightforward guiding principle, nevertheless reminds us that the outward assertion of a religious identity can simply serve to massage our ego.  Hence, conformity to common mores that unite us with others is a worthy objective.

I think that religious faith should not become an instrument of identity, ego and conflict. Even with the most noble of intentions we find our blind passions (bonno, Skt. kleshas) lurking in the background. Rather, we let the warm embrace of the Buddha within our heart cause us to seek to put others at ease, and to live in peace.

Sharing the true Dharma

Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith)
Image courtesy of Mark Healsmith

‘I shall follow the Teaching of Amida Buddha.

‘Awakening to the right path, let us share the true Dharma with others.’ (Jodo Shinshu no seikatsu shinjo, SB p. 6)

This is the third section of the Jodo Shinshu Creed. Each of the four sections of the Creed suggests action in response to the gift of Amida Buddha, and the impact it has upon our lives. In this case we pledge to follow the teaching, which Amida Buddha has bestowed upon us, leading us to become aware of the right path. When that happens we may naturally feel inclined to share the true Dharma with others as a result of the joy and liberation we experience.

There is nothing unusual about this. The current Buddhist era began with the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha and his eventual acceptance of the task of spreading the light that he had received. Indeed, Shakyamuni Buddha revealed the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.

The Teaching of Amida Buddha is found in the Three Pure Land Sutras, the teachings of the seven Dharma Masters, Shinran Shonin and his successors. It is to this teaching that we undertake to devote ourselves. And that is what Shin Buddhists do. Whether they read the teachings themselves, as Rennyo Shonin encouraged us to do, or hear it mediated through a wise teacher friend, these textual resources are the primary source of Amida Buddha’s teaching.

The essence of the teachings in the Sutras and Dharma Masters resides in Shinran Shonin’s own writing. It is here that we find a clear expression of the true teaching of nembutsu. In fact, most of my spiritual life has followed the notion, which I first encountered in the writing of Zuiken, that the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho is Shinran’s ‘Dharma body’. By extension this also includes the Wasan, since Shinran intended his hymns to be a straightforward exposition of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho in plain language.

When it comes to our promise to ‘spread the true Dharma’, I think there are many ways people may do this. One of them is to just be ourselves. By this I mean, if we have a sense  of the joy of liberation and absolute trust in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, we will surely have a measure of personal honesty. Because we are secure in the embrace of the Buddha, we would not feel any need to act piously, constantly moralising and striving to create a persona that is designed to impress others.  We would be very ‘human’, living ordinary lives, earning our living and enjoying the company of friends and loved ones.

Not everyone will feel inspired to be more outspoken about the Dharma. I spent at least fifteen years keeping my relationship with It more-or-less to myself. In fact, constantly talking about the Dharma may prove to be a great way to ‘lose friends and alienate people’, to quote the independent thinker Jonar Nader. We Australians live in a very materialistic environment, where there is much grinding cynicism about the spiritual life, or, indeed, any kind of personal commitment.

These are just plain facts of life. We need to take stock of the facts without feeling either disappointment or discouragement.

Other people quite enjoy chattering about the Dharma all the time. These days, I am one of them, but my attitude has been framed by a series of life-events, which have encouraged this.

The penultimate occasion was on the day of my return from tokudo in October 1994. Our temple master in Sydney, the late Rev Toshio Murakami, met me at the airport when I arrived on my way home from Japan to Adelaide. As we were sharing a coffee, I asked Murakami Sensei if he could think of any way I could repay the great privilege of tokudo and he said, ‘Write about the Dharma!’

But a long time before my ordination I had already formed a view of the process of spreading the teaching that is derived from Buddhist tradition. This is that all followers of the Dharma, including the arhats who compiled the scriptures, simply reported what they had heard, that is to say, understood and experienced.

So it is, that all sutras begin with the phrase ‘Thus have I heard’. (CWS, p. 214) In the beginning these people were the direct disciples of the Buddha, who knew him in person.

So my own particular kind of logic has further developed from Zuiken’s description of the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho as Shinran Shonin’s ‘Dharma body’. Hence, I think there is a very real sense that, in reading and studying  the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, or the Wasan, we are inclined to express the true Dharma in the sense of ‘Thus have I heard': through a personal encounter with Shinran in his writing, having put his teaching into practice and come to an understanding of it from our experience.  We have imbibed the Dharma of Amida Buddha directly from Shinran.

The model of this way of hearing and telling is surely Yuien, the author of Tannisho, who spent a lot of time with Shinran and was able to express the true Dharma at first hand.  Similarly, through constant contact with the teachings of Shinran, we grow in understanding and experience, and then give our own account of them naturally and from the heart to anyone who asks.

The Buddha of Inconceivable Light

Autumn leaves, 2.5.15

This is the second line of the Shoshin nembutsu-ge:

‘I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!’

Although ‘life’ is a popular epithet for Amida Buddha, Shinran uses ‘light’ much more readily. He uses it approximately ten times more frequently than the attribute ‘life’.

Light is an active quality of Amida Buddha.  It is the form of the Buddha. It is a living reality. It assists the Name in bringing us to realisation of truth.

‘Shan-tao states:

“[Amida] takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; [Amida] brings sentient beings to realise shinjin and aspire for birth.” ‘ (CWS, p. 54)

This light is inconceivable but we all know instinctively what it means and the significance it has. For example, we know what people mean when they say that they have ‘seen the light’. It means that something has  become clear to them, often suddenly, in a flash. There is no other word that does justice to that kind of experience.  In ‘seeing the light’ there is a palpable sense of illumination, like turning on a light-switch in a dark room.

The Inconceivable Light of Amida Buddha is just like this. We do not physically ‘see’ it but we know that it causes us to see our inner truth.

Famously, Shakyamuni Buddha described the moment of his enlightenment in that way, too:

‘Ignorance was dispelled and knowledge arose. Darkness was dispelled and light arose.  This is how it should be for those who are ardent in their endeavour.’ (Bhayabheravasutta, GB1, p. 210)

Amida Buddha is the light itself.  In  the world of religious life, that is Amida’s form. In fact, the quotation from Shan-tao above is represented in the most common image of the Buddha that we enshrine in Jodo Shinshu: the scroll that pictures the figure of the Buddha with forty-eight rays of light emanating from it.  This is also a representation of Shinran’s favourite honzon – or principal image –  kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai, ‘Homage to the Tathagata of light filling the ten quarters’. It is another form of the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu.

In the Larger Sutra we learn about Amida Buddha’s ‘twelve lights’ (CWS, p. 177).  I will perhaps write about these another time.

Shinran speaks of Amida’s inconceivable light as being both ‘compassionate’ and the ‘form of wisdom’. Amida Buddha’s light is not distinct from wisdom and compassion. Indeed, Amida Buddha’s light is the ‘form of wisdom’ but, it is also ‘none other than wisdom’, and, in turn, ‘wisdom is the form of light’. (CWS, p. 486)

How does the inconceivable light bring us to realise shinjin? It seems to me that it is when we genuinely know the ‘two-fold deep mind':

‘Deep mind is the deeply entrusting mind. There are two aspects. The first is to believe deeply and decidedly that you are in actuality a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation. The second is to believe deeply and decidedly that Amida Buddha’s Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings, and that allowing yourself to be carried by the power of the Vow without any doubt or apprehension, you will attain birth.’ (CWS, p. 604, et. al.)


  • we see ourselves as we really are – ‘a foolish being of karmic evil caught in birth-and-death, ever sinking and ever wandering in transmigration from innumerable kalpas in the past, with never a condition that would lead to emancipation';
  • and  we simultaneously know ‘that Amida Buddha’s Forty-eight Vows grasp sentient beings';
  • and we consent, ‘without any doubt or apprehension’ to being ‘carried by the power of the Vow’

we join the ranks of the definitely settled.

Once that happens  we leave our selves behind, including ‘reflecting knowingly on our evil hearts’, (CWS, p.459) and, always turning our gaze back to the light of Amida Buddha, joyfully say the Name.

So it is that people of nembutsu live in the light of Amida Buddha:

‘The [Contemplation] Sutra states:

‘ “The Light emanating from Amida Buddha’s features and marks shines everywhere throughout the worlds of the ten quarters, grasping and never abandoning the sentient beings of the nembutsu.” ‘ (CWS, p. 47)

The Buddha of Immeasurable Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery morning and evening when we chant ‘The Sutra’ (o-kyo), the Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu (shoshin nembutsu-ge), we declare ‘I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life!’

The term ‘immeasurable life’ principally means ‘immeasurable length of life’. It also implies an intimate association with life itself.  In other words, Amida Buddha’s life fills both space and time:

‘Nirvana has innumerable names. It is impossible to give them in detail; I will list only a few. Nirvana is called extinction of passions, the uncreated, peaceful happiness, eternal bliss, true reality, dharma-body, dharma-nature, suchness, oneness, and Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is none other than Tathagata. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.’ (Shinran Shonin, Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone’, (CWS, p. 461)

‘… the wisdom that pervades all things is called Fo-t’o (Buddha)’. (CWS, p. 283)

The Buddha Dharma recognises only the Twelve-linked Chain of Dependent Origination (pratitya samutpada) (BBC, pp. 59-80) as the underlying determinant of events and developments, so it is not possible to become a particular Buddha, with specific characteristics, without first laying out an objective (Vows) and then working through many aeons to attain it. Amida Buddha’s especial feature is essentially that those who ‘hear his Name and rejoice in shinjin’ will become Buddhas for the benefit of suffering beings.

In his exposition of the Larger Sutra, which we find in the Hymns of the Pure Land, there is this verse:

‘It is taught that ten kalpas have now passed
Since Amida attained Buddhahood,
But he seems a Buddha more ancient
Than kalpas countless as particles.’ (CWS, p. 340)

A kalpa is a vast unit of time, variously described, but in a footnote Shinran explains is thus:

Kalpas countless as particles: Suppose a great thousandfold world is [ground into powder and] made into ink, and with this ink one passes [through a thousand lands], then deposits a dot of it in one land with the tip of a brush, passes through another thousand lands, then deposits another dot of it, until all the ink is used up. If all the lands passed through were ground into dust and counted, the number of particles would be that of the kalpas expressed, “kalpas countless as particles.”‘ (CWS, p. 340)

So, when Shinran says that Amida Buddha is ‘more ancient than kalpas countless as particles’, he is telling us that Amida Buddha is more ancient than we can measure; an unimaginably great distance into the past.

In another verse, Shinran says,

‘Amida, who attained Buddhahood in the infinite past,
Full of compassion for foolish beings of the five defilements,
Took the form of Sakyamuni Buddha
And appeared in Gaya.’ (CWS, p. 349)

Because there is no limit to Amida Buddha’s life, there is also no limit to the depth of Amida’s practice as a bodhisattva. Amida Buddha’s name, when he was a bodhisattva, was Dharmakara:

‘[Dharmakara] Bodhisattva, having practiced the five gates of entrance and emergence,
Has fulfilled the practice of both self-benefit and benefit of others.
Through inconceivable billions of kalpas,
He has gradually fulfilled the five gates.’ (CWS, p. 624)

With vast term of practice as a bodhisattva, the resulting Pure Land is also vast and infinite:

‘Unhindered light is great compassion;
This light is the wisdom of all the Buddhas.
In contemplating that world [of the Pure Land], it is boundless,
And vast and infinite, like space.’ (CWS, p. 623)

Amida Buddha cannot be limited in time or space.  Indeed, ‘Amida’ means, ‘infinite’. Hence, Amida Buddha is also Supreme Buddha:

‘The Supreme Buddhahood is without form, and being formless, it is called jinen.  When this Buddhahood appears in form, it is not to be called the supreme nirvana. In order to make us realise that the true Buddhahood is without form, it is expressly called Amida Buddha; so I have been taught.  Amida Buddha is the source through which we come to know the way of jinen.’ (Shinran, Jinen Honi Sho, RTS, VII, p. 117)

‘Jinen is a word which means “to be made so from the beginning”.’ (op. cit., p. 116)

Hence, Rennyo Shonin could say:

‘… since Amida Buddha is the original teacher and the original Buddha of all the Buddhas of the three periods and the ten directions, it was Amida who (as the Buddha existing from the distant past) made the all surpassing, great Vow; he himself would save all of us sentient beings equally …’ (Rennyo Shonin, Gobunsho II:8; ET Tv74, #2668 1996, p. 43)