Pure and Impure Lands

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PURE AND IMPURE LANDS . In Mahāyāna Buddhism, a "Pure Land" is a purified land where buddhas and bodhisattva s, the future buddhas, dwell. In contrast, the realms inhabited by ordinary sentient beings are called "Impure Lands," for they are tainted by blind passion.

In Chinese Buddhism, two technical terms, jingtu and huitu, are used to refer to Pure and Impure Lands, respectively. The concept behind these terms, however, is attested to in Indian Buddhist texts by such terms as buddhaketra-pariśuddhi ("the purification of the buddha land") or pariśuddha buddhaketram ("purified buddha land"), as in the Aasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (edited by Rajendralala Mitra, Calcutta, 1888, pp. 362363), and apariśuddha buddhaketram ("unpurified buddha land") or klia buddhaketram ("tainted buddha land"), as in the Karuāpuarīka Sūtra (edited by Yamada Isshi, London, 1968; vol. 2, pp. 52, 81). It was in accordance with such usage that jingtu and huitu were established in Chinese as technical terms.

The notion of a "buddha land" (Skt., buddhaketra ; Pali, buddhakkhetta ) derives from the period of early Buddhism. According to the Theravāda interpretation, the buddhaketra is the realm in which the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha prevail. However, in Mahāyāna Buddhism numerous buddha lands are said to exist in order to accommodate the numerous bodhisattva s who become buddhas; or rather, the merit accumulated by these bodhisattva s through their long spiritual careers goes toward creating a purified realm responsive to their influence. In other words, because of the basic Buddhist premise that no two buddhas can preside over the same Buddha land, the "new" buddhas are forced to emerge, as it were, in lands far distant from that of Śākyamuni, which is called the Sahā Land. These are located variously in the ten directions (the eight points of the compass, the zenith, and the nadir) of the cosmos. It is among these "distant" Pure Lands, described as "numberless as the sands of the River Ganges," that we find Amitābha (Amitāyus) Buddha's Sukhāvatī (to the west), Akobhya's Abhirati (to the east), and Bhaiajyaguruvaiūryaprabha's Vaiūryanirbhāsā (also to the east).

The best-known of these Pure Lands is Sukhāvatī. This Pure Land is described in detail in three sūtras, the Larger Sukhāvatīvyuha Sūtra, the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyuha Sūtra, and the Guan Wuliangshou jing. Of these, the first two Sūtra s are believed to have been compiled in northwest India around 100 ce. Modern scholarship is in general agreement, however, that the main body of the Kuan ching was compiled in Central Asia, and that accretions were made during the course of its translation into Chinese. But while the conditions surrounding the compilation of these sūtras differ, all three texts share in depicting the splendor of the Pure Land and the majestic appearances of Amitābha (Amitāyus) and his disciples and attending bodhisattva s. These depictions undoubtedly reflect ideal perceptions of the buddha land, buddhas, and bodhisattva s of the period when each of the sūtras was compiled. The ideal depiction of Sukhāvatī can be viewed as a symbolic and hypostatized representation of Mahāyāna Buddhist enlightenment. A Pure Land is a "purified land," that is, a realm that came into existence by "purifying the land." To "purify the land" means that the Mahāyāna bodhisattva s purify everything in the land in which they will appear upon becoming buddhas; this "purification" includes leading all sentient beings to buddhahood. Of course, such acts entail nothing less than the fulfillment both of the bodhisattva s' cultivation of the pāramitā s ("perfections") and of his vow to benefit all beings. As such, the Pure Land can be regarded as hypostatized representation of the Buddha's enlightenment. For example, even though Sukhāvatī is described as a realm that exists to the west, it is in reality a realm that transcends space. While it is said to exist beyond billions of buddha lands, this is actually nothing but a symbolic expression for infinite distance; what is originally beyond space was expressed in the context of space.

By means of such descriptions, the Pure Land sūtras succeeded in capturing the imagination of ordinary people. Consequently, the practice of contemplating the Buddha (buddhānusmti ; Chin., nianfo ), a relatively easy form of religious practice leading to birth in the Pure Land and eventual enlightenment (buddhahood) there, gained wide popularity among Buddhists. In the same vein, the name Sukhāvatī ("realm of bliss"), which originally denoted a realm of absolute religious bliss, also acquired connotations of relative, this-worldly happiness. Given its popular appeal, Sukhāvatī quickly became the object of the most dominant form of Buddhist devotion in East Asia. Hence, "Pure Land" in Chinese Buddhism came to be regarded as synonymous with Amitābha's Pure Land. In following this practice, the Japanese Buddhist sects that are based on the worship of Amitābha (Jpn., Amida) Buddha are called Jōdoshū (the Pure Land sect) and Jōdo Shinshū (the True Pure Land sect).

In Mahāyāna Buddhism there are also other kinds of Pure Lands different in nature from the "distant" Pure Lands discussed earlier. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra espouses the idea that when bodhisattva s purify their mind this Sahā world itself becomes a Pure Land. This view of Pure Land was advocated in China and Japan by the Chan and Zen sects respectively and led to the development of the concept of the "mind-only Pure Land." The Lotus Sūtra contains elements that lead some to regard Gdhrakūathe Vulture's Peak where Śākyamuni Buddha preached the Lotus Sūtra as a Pure Land. The Japanese Nichiren sect later came to view this mountain as an ideal realm and espoused the notion of "Vulture's Peak Pure Land." The Avatasaka Sūtra speaks of Vairocana's Padmagarbha, a Pure Land in which the entire world is enveloped in a lotus flower, a notion that the Chinese Huayan and Japanese Kegon sects have made an integral part of their doctrine. Finally, the Ghandhavyūha Sūtra speaks of a Ghandhavyūha realm. Later, the Japanese Shingon sect came to regard this realm as the Pure Land of Mahāvairocana Buddha and to identify it with our present Sahā world. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhism the Tuita Heaven, where the bodhisattva Maitreya now dwells, and the Potalaka Mountain, where the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara dwells, are both sometimes referred to as Pure Lands and have been the objects of large devotional followings.

In response to such views, the Karuāpuarīka Sūtra emphasized the great compassion of Śākyamuni Buddha, who appeared in this Impure Land, rather than the buddhas of the "distant" Pure Lands such as Amitābha and Akobhya. This text developed in opposition to the notion of "extra-worldly" Pure Lands but never wielded much influence. The same sūtra explains that our Impure Land is characterized by the "five corruptions" (pañca kaāyā : the corruptions of the times, of views, of blind passion, of sentient beings, and of life). However in later periods, especially in Japan, it became customary to explain the Impure Land as coextensive with the "six destinies" (a gataya : the destinies of hell, of hungry spirits, of beasts, of asura s, of humans, and of heavenly beings) as seen, for example, in Genshin's Ōjōyōshū. In this case also, the Impure Land was posited in contradistinction to Amida's Pure Land. Here the Impure Land was characterized as something that one grows weary of and wishes to leave behind in favor of birth in Sukhāvatī.

See Also

Amitābha; Jingtu; Jōdo Shinshū; Jōdoshū.


Fujita Kōtatsu. Genshi jōdo shisō no kenkyū. Tokyo, 1970. A comprehensive examination of the formation of Pure Land texts and doctrines. Contains a brief summary in English.

Suzuki, D. T. "The Development of the Pure Land Doctrine in Buddhism." Eastern Buddhist 3 (1925): 285326. Reprinted in Collected Writings on Shin Buddhism, edited by the Eastern Buddhist Society (Kyoto, 1973), pages 331. Although limited in focus to Japanese Buddhism, this work provides an excellent introduction to the Pure Land tradition.

New Sources

Blum, M. L., and Gyonen. The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyonen's Jodo Homon Genrusho. New York, 2002.

Hirota, D. Toward a Contemporary Understanding of Pure Land Buddhism: Creating a Shin Buddhist Theology in a Religiously Plural World. Albany, N.Y., 2000.

Nattier, Jan. "The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23, no. 1 (2000): 71102.

Payne, R. K., and K. K. Tanaka. Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitabha. Honolulu, 2004.

Wong, D. C. Four Sichuan Buddhist Steles and the Beginnings of Pure Land Imagery in China. New York, 1999.

Won, U.-b., and B. H. Lim. A History of Korean Buddhist Culture and Some Essays: The Buddhist Pure Land & the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. Seoul, 1992.

Fujita KŌtatsu (1987)

Translated from Japanese by Kenneth K. Tanaka
Revised Bibliography