The Three Pure Land Sutras comprise our classical sacred texts. They are:
- The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Bussetsu Muryōju Kyō), commonly called The Larger Sutra,
- The Sutra of Contemplation of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (Bussetsu Kammuryōju Kyō), or the Contemplation Sutra, and
- 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.