Skip to main content



JINGTU . The Chinese term jingtu ("pure land"), pronounced jōdo in Japanese, refers to the Chinese Buddhist tradition of devotion to Amitābha Buddha in order to be reborn into his Pure Land as a means of attaining enlightenment. Because many Amitābha devotees believed that sincerely chanting Amitābha's name guaranteed salvation in the next life, this practice became an auxiliary spiritual discipline for most Buddhists in East Asia and an important refuge for the laity, but often became a primary and sometimes exclusive orientation in times of crisis. At the heart of this exclusivistic tendency was despair about achieving enlightenment through traditional practices based on one's own effort, and enthusiasm over the compassionate vow of Amitābha to welcome devotees at death to the blessings of his Pure Land. Beginning in the seventh century ce, this tendency became recognized as a separate religious orientation called the Pure Land teaching (jingtu-zong ).

Unlike counterparts in Japan, Pure Land devotees in China never developed into a centrally organized property-holding denomination with formalized methods of succession (except for the White Lotus movement during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries). Instead, the Pure Land devotional movement was a loosely knit association of individuals based on the promises of Indian scriptures interpreted by Chinese thinkers and supported by such practical devices as rosaries, paintings, liturgies, and stories about supernatural visions and deathbed miracles indicating successful rebirth into the Pure Land.

Formation of Chinese Pure Land

The term jingtu was invented in China to refer to Sukhāvatī, the land of bliss created in the western regions by Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Life and Infinite Light, for the purification and enlightenment of beings. Mahāyāna Buddhists believe that all Buddhas have spheres of activity (Skt., ketra, "lands"), but Amitābha's land became most popular based on his vows that ordinary people can be reborn into his land through simple devotion and thereby attain a speedy, painless, and guaranteed enlightenment.

Beginning in 179 ce, when the Banzhou sanmei jing (Skt., Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra ) was translated into Chinese, the visualization of Amitābha was recommended as a meditation practice for bringing a Buddha into one's presence. In the third century more Amitābha scriptures were translated, so that by the fourth century there are reports of the first Chinese Pure land devotees (Que Gongce and his disciple Wei Shidu), the first Pure Land lectures (by Zhu Faguang) and the first construction of images and pictures of Amitābha and his Pure Land.

In 402 ce, meditation master Lushan Huiyuan (334416) formed a devotional group in South China. It consisted of Huiyuan and 123 laypeople and clergy who sought to support one another in visualizing and making offerings to Amitābha to facilitate rebirth in the Pure Land. Centuries later, this group came to be regarded as the original White Lotus Society. After the death of Huiyuan and his immediate disciples, little is heard of Pure Land practices in the south for the next few centuries.

The Shansi Pure Land movement

In response to the ravages of war, famine, and the uncertainties of the religious life during the sixth century, the monks Tanluan (c. 488c. 554) and Daochuo (562645) pioneered an independent Pure Land movement at the Xuanzhong Monastery in the remote hills of the Bingzhou area of Shansi Province in North China. By this time, the most important Indian Pure Land scriptures had been translated into Chinese. These included the Amitābha Sūtra (Chin., Amitofo jing ), the "larger" Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Chin., Wuliangshou jing ), the Guan wuliangshou jing, and the Wangsheng lun, attributed to Vasubandhu. These texts mention that enlightenment is difficult in our age because of the five afflictions (wuzhuo ): war and natural disasters, deluded ideas, greed and hatred, infirmity of body and mind, and shortness of life. According to Tanluan, the compassionate aid of Amitābha is thus a necessity for salvation.

In his major work, the Wangsheng lunchu (a commentary to Vasubandhu's treatise), Tanluan divides Buddhism into two paths, the "difficult" and the "easy." The Difficult Path includes all traditional Buddhist practices based on self-effort. Later, Daochuo referred to this as the Path of the Sages (shengdao ) and proclaimed that such practices were doomed to failure, not only because of the five afflictions but also because our age was the period predicted by the scriptures when true Buddhism would disappear (mofa ; Jpn., mappō ). Thus it became a key Pure Land idea that salvation through self-effort was impossible. Instead of the Difficult Path, Tanluan advocated the Easy Path made available through the forty-eight vows of Amitābha recorded in the Wuliangshou jing. Tanluan was the first in North China to emphasize how these vows promised rebirth in the Pure Land through the "other power" (tali ) of Amitābha followed by the assurance of nonretrogression into lower rebirths and the speedy attainment of enlightenment.

Basing his teachings on the Wangsheng lun, Tanluan adopted as a curriculum of practice the five types of devotion to Amitābha (nianfo ; Jpn., nembutsu ) in order to ensure access to Amitābha's power: (1) to make prostrations to Amitābha and wish to be reborn in his land; (2) to sing praises to Amitābha and recite his name; (3) to make vows to be reborn into his Pure Land; (4) to visualize the appearance of Amitābha and the Pure land; and (5) to transfer these merits to all beings for their salvation. Tanluan and others emphasized the necessity of seeking the Pure Land not for its own pleasures but to attain enlightenment so as to return to this world to save others. This desire for enlightenment (bodhicitta ) was held to be a primary condition for rebirth, thus demonstrating a continuity between the values of Pure Land and those of other forms of Buddhism.

Vocal recitation

The practice of vocal recitation and singing praises to Amitābha soon became the most striking form of Pure Land devotion in China. For Tanluan, this involved a mystical union with the name of Amitābha, which he believed had unlimited power, and required an exclusive and total concentration that precluded attention to other Buddhas and subordinated all other practices. Incessant vocal recitation then became a trademark of Daochuo, who made the first rosaries for counting recitations of Amitābha's name. By teaching this practice to laity, a popular religious movement developed with the slogan "Chant the Buddha's name and be reborn in the Pure Land" (nianfo wangsheng ). His disciple Shandao (613681) established scriptural arguments for vocal recitation of Amitābha's name as a minimal but sufficient practice to ensure the rebirth of ordinary people into the Pure Land. Although Shandao personally was preoccupied with visualization practices, he is most famous for his list of "five correct practices," in which he substituted chanting the scriptures and reciting Amitābha's name for making a vow and transferring merits. For Shandao, the recitation of Amitābha's name was the only "correct and determining action" necessary for salvation. In the next century, Fazhao furthured this trend by developing a five-rhythm melodic recitation of Amitābha's name, a practice still popular today. In the Song dynasty (9601279), block printing enabled the distribution of devotional pamphlets and recitation cards in which one could record the number of one's recitations as a visible reminder to maintain one's practice.

Consolidation of the Pure Land school

Although Shandao studied under Daochuo, he spent his mature years in the national capital, Chang'an, where the stature of his achievements in meditation and the comprehensiveness of his writings firmly established the theory and practice of Pure Land devotionalism among Chinese Buddhist leaders. Besides his theoretical and liturgical writings, the Guan wuliangshou chingshu, Guannian men, Banzhou zan, Wangshen lizanji, and Fashi zan, Shandao brought added prestige to the movement by painting more than three hundred images of the Pure Land and, at the request of Empress Wu, supervising the construction of the great Vairocana Buddha image at Lung-men between the years 672 and 675. The ascendency of Pure Land devotion as a major force can be seen by the increasing number of sculptures of Amitābha, which in the Lung-men caves came to outnumber those of Śākyamuni by a factor of twelve and those of Maitreya by a factor of ten in the period from 650 to 690.

In the generation after Shandao, Pure Land writings such as the Shi jingtu chuni lun, by Shandao's disciple Huaigan, and the Jingtu shii lun, based on the Anloji of Daochuo, summarized and applied the Pure Land doctrine in the question-and-answer format of a catechism. Studies of Indian Pure Land scriptures and essays on Pure Land subjects faded away in favor of ritual texts and manuals of practice. The banzhou sanmei ritual (based on the practice found in the Banzhou sanmei jing ) was propogated by Huiri (680748), Chengyuan, and Fazhao, whereas the more exclusive practice of verbal recitation was taught by Daxing and Daojing. Thus, by the beginning of the eighth century a cohesive core of Pure Land beliefs, values, and practices has emerged based upon a sense of the inadequacy or inappropriateness of all other Buddhist teachings and the attractiveness of Amitābha and his Pure Land. The Chinese Pure Land movement had reached its full definition and most exclusive form. One could safely live and die within a world of writings and practices devoted only to rebirth in the Pure Land and in which exclusive devotion to Amitābha was trumpeted as the only guaranteed method of salvation for all. For laity and those distressed by their inadequacies, Pure Land offered a simple but potent formula: (1) the miraculous power of one practice (nianfo as recitation), (2) directed toward one Buddha (Amitābha), (3) to achieve rebirth in one place (the Western Pure Land), (4) so that in one more rebirth Buddhahood could be achieved. Although other forms of Chinese Buddhist practice had not been abolished, for adherents of Pure Land they had been displaced as a major focus and obligation for the present life and largely postponed until rebirth in Sukhāvatī.

The spread of Pure Land

As early as Tanxian (d. 440), a member of Huiyuan's community on Lushan, advocates of Pure Land devotionalism had collected stories about those who had attained rebirth in the Pure Land. These stories recorded religious practices of devotees and unusual deathbed occurrences that were signs of rebirth in the Pure Land: music emanating from the sky, a sweet fragrance, five-colored clouds, visions of attendants welcoming one to the Pure Land, or pathways of light. The earliest surviving collection of Pure Land biographies is the Jingtu lun, compiled by Jiacai in the mid-seventh century. Of the twenty biographies he recorded, six are of monks, four of nuns, five of laymen, and five of laywomen. The enduring prominence of laity and of women in the movement makes it unique among the Buddhist traditions of China.

The Bingzhou area of North China remained the heart of Pure Land practice according to biographical records of eminent monks of the Tang dynasty (618906). Among Pure Land collections, the Wangsheng xifang jingtu ruiying zhuan, compiled by 805 ce, lists 26 people from North China (Shansi and Shensi provinces) and only 7 from South China (Chekiang and Kiangsu provinces). By contrast, in the treatment of the Pure Land movement in the thirteenth century Fozu tongji, there are biographies of only 20 people from Shansi, 20 from Shensi, but 129 from Chekiang and 24 from Kiangsu. This marks a definite shift of the focus of Pure Land devotionalism from North to South China. In addition, the sequence of patriarchs offered by the Fozu tongji begins with a Southerner, Lushan Huiyuan, skips Tanluan and Daochuo, and goes on to Shandao, Chengyuan (713803), Fazhao, Shaokang (d. 805), and Yenshou (904975). This pattern also appears in the Lobang wenlei, compiled by Zongxiao (11511214), and it is a standard format in the Ming dynasty (13681644) lineages.


Pure Land devotionalism did not spread without opposition. In the seventh century, yogācāra advocates argued against Shandao by claiming that the Pure Land was an expedient device for special circumstances that did not ensure final salvation, and that in any event ordinary people were not qualified to be reborn there. More vigorous attacks came in the early eighth century from the Southern Chan (Zen) school, which criticized Pure Land as dualistic, encouraging attachment, and promising future enlightenment as a delusive crutch for people of inferior spiritual capacities. Cimin Huiri (680748) criticized Chan followers for their arrogant rejection of the many devotional practices recommended throughout Buddhist scriptures and in turn accused them of being ignorant of the higher forms of Indian chan (Skt., dhyāna, "meditation").

Integration and levels of nianfo

More constructively, the eighth-century Wu fangpian nianfo men interpreted both Chan and Pure Land as having five progressive levels of practice, each of which is regarded as an expedient device (fangpian ; Skt., upāya ). Insofar as practitioners have different spiritual needs and capacities, each level is valid but not exhaustive. The five expedient methods of nianfo are: (1) the Buddha's name is recited to attain rebirth in the Pure Land; (2) the form of the Buddha is visualized to eradicate sins; (3) all items of perception are seen as mere products of mind; (4) the mind and its objects of perception are both transcended; and (5) the perfect understanding of how true nature arises is gained. This scheme influenced the fourfold nianfo of Zongmi (780841): (1) vocally calling the Buddha's name; (2) visualizing the Buddha's form as an image or painting to receive the five spiritual powers and see all Buddhas in the ten directions; (3) visualizing the major and minor marks of the Buddha to eradicate all sins; and (4) contemplating the absolute true nature wherein the Buddha has no marks and no name and one uses no-thought (wui) as the method to contemplate the Buddha (nianfo ). Thus, at the highest level, Pure Land forms unite with Chan formlessness. This idea of the progressive levels of nianfo culminated in such thinkers as Zhixu (15991655), who proclaimed Pure Land devotion as supreme because it could include all Chan and Tiantai practices within different levels of nianfo.

Dual cultivation

The Chan patriarch Yungming Yenshou (904975) is famous for advocating the "dual cultivation of Chan and Pure Land" (chanjing shuangxiu ) as being doubly effective, like a "tiger wearing horns." His proposal was partially based on Feixi's idea that Chan and Pure Land were like the dialectic of emptiness and form, or underlying principle (li) and phenomenal events (shi), and each would be incomplete without the other. In his Wanshan tonggui Yenshou considered Pure Land and Chan to be focused on phenomena and thus to represent only one aspect of the One Mind, namely its external functioning (yong ). Basing his teaching on the Dacheng qixin lun (Awakening of faith in the Mahāyāna), Yenshou taught that phenomena must be balanced by the other aspect of the One Mind, namely its underlying nature (ti). The Pure Land, like all phenomena, is perception-only (weixin ), and the division between Pure Land and Chan is transcended when one is enlightened to the true nature of the One Mind.

Pure Land practices were an important part of the devotional life of many Chinese Buddhists usually identified with other traditions. Monks such as Zhiyi, Daoxuan, and Jizang, who are normally listed as the patriarchs of the Tiantai, Vinaya, and Sanlun schools, respectively, all employed Pure Land regimens in their practice. Tiantai Zhiyi (538597) had a doctrine of four levels of Buddha lands and advocated a ninety-day practice of chanting Amitābha's name while constantly walking, a practice still undertaken in Japan. Tiantai became further identified with Pure Land when an eighth-century commentary on the Guan jing was attributed to Zhiyi. Later, Siming Zhili (9601028) composed a subcommentary titled Miaozong chao, in which he presented his doctrine of "visualizing the Buddha in terms of the [mundane and absolute aspects of] mind" (yuexin guanfo ). Basing his doctrine on the Dacheng qixin lun, he argued that all religious practices are the mind's external functioning (yong) and are for the sole purpose of revealing the mind's underlying nature (ti). When our conditioned minds seek enlightenment by visualizing Amitābha, the underlying nature responds with an image in our minds so that there is temporarily a distinction between Buddhas and humans. However, in the act of seeking insight, practitioners are also united with the underlying enlightened nature. These two levels of activity reflect the two aspects of the One Mind; they are Zhili's interpretation of the Guan jing phrase: "This mind is the Buddha, this mind creates the Buddha." This doctrine had enormous influence, since Zhili's works became authoritative for Tiantai from the Song dynasty (9601279) onward, and most Tiantai masters came to seek rebirth in the Pure Land.

The revival of Buddhism under the patronage of the Song dynasty was not marked by the intense textual and doctrinal studies of the Tang period; rather, the focus was on personal cultivation. In spite of Chan's initial antagonism to Pure Land, the Chan monastic code Chanlin chinggui (1311) recommended chanting Amitābha's name at funerals. Gradually, Yenshou's teaching of dual cultivation permeated all aspects of the Chan tradition and remains a model up to today. Various masters in the Wenyan Chan lineage taught that the Pure Land is a mental representation only. Cique Zongze formed a nianfo recitation society in 1089, asserting that "one's self-nature is Amitābha." Later teachers who used the practice of meditating on a question (huatou ) such as Hanshan Deqing (15461623) urged that disciples ask "Who is it that recites the Buddha's name?" after each recitation of the name of Amitābha in order to achieve Chan enlightenment. Pure Land devotionalism as a supreme path was periodically championed by such figures as Zhuhong (15351615), Zhixu (15991655), the layman Peng Shaosheng (17391796), and his nephew Peng Xisu (who compiled the biographies of approximately five hundred Pure Land devotees).

White Lotus Society

Lay recitation societies flourished in the Song dynasty, the most famous being the White Lotus Society, formed by Mao Ziyuan (10861166) in Kiangsu in 1133. While appealing to Lushan Huiyuan's society as a model, Ziyuan added a number of later innovations: vocal recitations; married clergy; strict vegetarianism; the construction of hostels; the active leadership of women; the Tiantai theories of the four Buddha lands and the inseparability of mind-Buddha-living beings; and Zhili's teaching of visualizing the Buddha in terms of the mundane and absolute aspects of mind. He considered all religious practices to be valid insofar as they all have the same goal, all places are identical to the Pure Land, all phenomena are mind-only, and our own natures are identical to that of Amitābha. For ordinary people, however, Ziyuan urged the expedient means (upāya ) of believing that the Pure Land is to the west and adhering to a gradual religious path based on correct faith, practice, and vows. Correct faith and vows were those that conformed to the teachings of Tanluan, Daochuo, and Shandao. Correct practice could be anything based on a person's abilities, but, like Shandao and Yenshou before him, Ziyuan stressed having correct mindfulness at the moment of death to seal rebirth in the Pure Land.

The White Lotus Society had a checkered history of political sponsorship and repression that culminated in its suppression in 1322. By that time it had developed from a centrally organized lay devotional society to a large property-holding movement with White Lotus Halls for charitable activities such as donating cloth to the populace, copying scriptures, and developing bathhouses, waterworks, mills, shops, boats, and land throughout Fukian Province. The reason for its suppression is uncertain, but as a lay society involving women, people from lower levels of society, and working people who met together at night, it probably provoked rumors of rebellion and immorality. The decree of abolishment became a template for branding and suppressing many later groups who developed followings independent of the state, but often with very different beliefs, until all so-called White Lotus groups were finally suppressed in 1813.

Modern status

A fundamentalist view of the Pure Land as an actual place and the need for moral purity was advocated by Yinguang (18611940), but in 1951 he was strongly opposed by Yinshun (1906) in his New Treatise on the Pure Land (Jingtu xinlun ). Arguing that the images of Amitābha and the Pure Land are culturally constructed and recitation is the lowest form of practice, Yinshun challenged the focus on funeral practices and rebirth in the Pure Land. Instead, practitioners should create an earthly Pure Land through inner cultivation and social service. Yinshun's this-worldly emphasis is now central to the two largest worldwide Chinese Buddhist movements, Fo Guang Shan and the Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Association, and the more exclusivistic tendencies of Daochuo, Shandao, and Yinguang are marginalized.

For the last thousand years Pure Land devotion was transmitted in conjunction with Tiantai and Chan, and most contemporary large monasteries include both a Chan meditation hall and a Pure Land recitation hall. Rosaries for reciting Amitābha's name (nianzhu ) and the respectful greeting of "O-mi-to-fo" are found throughout Taiwan today, but rarely in mainland China. Nevertheless, wherever practice exists in a Chinese Buddhist temple, and no matter how it is understood, the melodic chanting of Amitābha's name echoes in its halls as an enduring part of Chinese culture.

See Also

Amitābha; Daochuo; Huiyuan; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Nianfo; Pure and Impure Lands; Shandao; Tanluan.


The most comprehensive scholarly study of jingtu is Mochizuki Shinkō's Chūgoku jōdo kyōri shi (Kyoto, 1942), which has an unpublished English translation by Leo Pruden (1982). The earliest Pure Land scripture translated into Chinese was studied by Paul Harrison, The Samadhi of Direct Encounter with the Buddhas of the Present (Tokyo, 1990). For issues in Pure Land thought, see Ken Tanaka, The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine: Ching-ying Hui-yuan's Commentary on the Visualization Sutra (Albany, N.Y., 1990). The primary Pure Land leader, Shandao, has two studies, Fujiwara Ryō-setsu, The Way of Nirvana: The Concept of Nembutsu in Shan-tao's Pure Land Buddhism (Tokyo, 1974) and Julian Pas, Visions of Sukhāvatī: Shan-tao's Commentary on the Kuan Wu-liang-Shou-Fo Ching (Albany, N.Y., 1995). Later historical developments are found in Peter Gregory and Daniel Getz, ed., Buddhism in the Sung (Honolulu, 2002), Daniel Overmyer, Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), Barend J. ter Haar, The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History (Leiden, 1992), Chun-fang Yu, The Renewal of Buddhism in China: Chu-hung and the Late Ming Synthesis (New York, 1981), and Charles Jones, Buddhism in Taiwan (Honolulu, 1999).

David W. Chappell (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Jingtu." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 24 Jun. 2019 <>.

"Jingtu." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (June 24, 2019).

"Jingtu." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved June 24, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.