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The Origins of Key Pure Land Terms

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In Pure Land Buddhism today, there are a number of elementary terms and concepts which are taken for granted. As Pure Land Buddhism spread from India into China eventually making its way to Japan, these basic terms underwent changes in interpretation and meaning. In re-examining their origins, however, we can make important conceptual linkages between disparate forms of contemporary Buddhism, such as Japanese Pure Land and Southeast Asian Theravada.

Below is an explaination of the following concepts:

1. Dedicating Merit (eko)

2. Faith and Three Minds (sanjin)

3. Invoking the Name of Amida Buddha (nembutsu)

4. Ordinary Deluded Person (bonpu)

5. Original Vow (hongan)

6. Pure Land (jodo)

7. Three Ages of the Dharma (shozo-matsu)


Eko comes from the Chinese equivalent (hui-hsiang) of the Sanskrit word parinamana. The e (hui) means "to revolve" and the ko (hsiang) means "direction". Therefore eko literally means "to change direction". Eko signifies that the reward of one's merits is directed toward the purpose of one's own salvation or toward others in order to help them. Merit dedication has had many different interpretations throughout Buddhist history. In the early stages of Buddhism, it referred to a master's dedication of his teachings (and so his merits or learning) to his disciples. In later Mahayana Buddhism, this inclusion of others in one's merits was broadened to include others with no direct relation to oneself. The influence of merit dedication upon the nature of one's own merit is to make it transcend any purely personal relation and so become a universal kind of merit.


The great Chinese Pure Land master Hui-yuan (Eon) differentiated between three kinds of merit dedication: 1) the first kind is the concentration of one's merit toward the goal of one's own salvation, 2) the second is the inclusion of others in the benefit of one's own merit, to help them toward salvation, 3) the third is the achievement of a universal kind of merit when it comprehends without distinction one's salvation and others' salvation. Ch'eng-kuan(Chokan), in his Commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hua-yen ching), analyzed these three differences and divided them further into ten distinct categories. T'an-luan (Donran), in his Commentary on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng lun chu), points out two kinds of merit dedication in Pure Land Buddhism: 1) the bestowing of one's own earned merit on one's Birth in the Pure Land while one is still alive, 2) the will to come back to the imperfect world after death in order to help others even after one has reached salvation in the Pure Land. Shan-tao (Zendo), in his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu), refers to merit dedication as the earnest and sincere dedication of two kinds of merit: that which one accumulated in one's past and present lives, and that which derives from one's praise of others' good practice.


Within the sutras which concern Pure Land teachings, the word sanjin is frequently used. The foundation of this term comes from three terms found in the Pure Land Sanskrit texts: shraddha, prasada, and adhimukti. Shraddha was translated into Chinese as hsin which means faith. Prasada was translated into Chinese as ch'eng-ching which means purity. Adhimukti was translated as hsin-chieh which means faith through understanding. Within the sutras concerning Pure Land teachings, prasada is the most commonly found of the three terms. In Hinduism, the idea of faith is expressed as bhakti. Bhakti is regarded as the highest path of interface with the gods and also implies the deepest reverence for gods. On the other hand, Pure Land prasada differs in that it appears less emotional and more serene and subtle due to its relation to prajna (wisdom) and samadhi (concentration) [Fujita 616]. From these terms, Pure Land teaching developed three concrete aspects of faith called sanjin.

The teachings concerning the "three minds" or three kinds of mind necessary for Buddhist enlightenment occurs in every sect and tradition, however, the mode of explanation varies in accord with its central teachings. This is also true in the Pure Land tradition. The Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) itself does not explain precisely what kinds of mindset are comprized by the "three kinds of mind." As a result the many commentators on the Meditation Sutra in China wrote many different explanations of these three kinds of mind. Shan-tao in his commentary on the Commentary on the the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching shu) first elaborated a clear and impressive explanation of the three kinds of mind which the proper nembutsu practitioner must possess. The peaceful mind (anjin) is an equivalent of the "three states of mind" (sanjin). This key notion of the "peaceful mind" is closely connected to two other key notions: the "performance of the five right practices" (kigyo) and the "four ways in which the nembutsu is practiced" (sago).

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2B. The "Three Minds" (sanjin) as set forth in the Meditation Sutra

I. the sincere mind (shijoshin)

II. the profound mind (jinshin)

IIa) the profound conviction that one is sinful and deluded (shinki)

IIb)the deep faith that Amida Buddha can & will still extend his salvific power (shinpo)

III. the mind that transfers all merit [toward birth in the Pure Land] and resolves to be born there


Nembutsu in Japanese Buddhism refers to thinking of a buddha and recitation of the buddha's name. The original Sanskrit term is buddhanusmrti which means "to concentrate and to think of a buddha" or buddhamanasikara which means "to be mindful of a buddha." "Recollection of the Buddha" (along with the Dharma and the Sangha) is one of the oldest practices in Buddhism which developed after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. This practice continues today in the Theravada tradition. In the Mahayana tradition, "Recollection of the Buddha" developed further in India and Central Asia during the beginning of the Christian era. The increasing distance from the era of Shakyamuni Buddha fueled a desire to see or to encounter a buddha. This desire brought about the development of meditative practices, such as the samadhi of gseeing a buddha". This samadhi of "seeing a buddha", however, further developed into visual contemplation of a buddha's body. As such, in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life, the oldest of the three principal Pure Land sutras, "thinking on the Buddha" (cittotpadyante) appears, but not "uttering praise to Amida Buddha.

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In the development of Mahayana in China, it was usual at first "to think" of Amida Buddha. However, in order to better concentrate the mind, recitation of Amida Buddha's name developed. In the Meditation Sutra, it is recommended that people recite aloud "Namu Amida Butsu" ten times. By the time this sutra was composed, the practice of uttering these words was already apparently a central mode of meditating on Amida Buddha. This is why as early as Tan-luan's Hymns in Praise of Amida Buddha these six characters appear on page one as the epigraph, evincing the primacy of reciting this central formula of praise. Again in his Commentary on the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wang-sheng-lun chu), Tan-luan declares that the whole spirit and meaning of the the Sutra of Immeasurable Life is contained in the six characters of this short invocation. From that time this practice grew important until, with Shan-tao, it was ultimately considered to be the only really necessary practice. Later Shan-tao declared that these six characters signify taking refuge in Amida Buddha and the practice of the nembutsu. Honen begins his Senchakushu with these words and explains that the nembutsu is foremost among the practices for Birth in the Pure Land.

Because the nembutsu is written with six characters (na-mu-a-mi-da-butsu) it is also called the "name of six
Chinese characters" (rokuji-myogo) or simply the "name" (myogo). In most forms of Buddhism there is the practice of reciting "the name" (myogo) of the Buddha. It is unclear precisely what the original Sanskrit term for "the name" (namadheya) connoted. It was T'an-luan who first gave prominent emphasis to this term. Tan-luan's explanation is that there is a direct connection between "the name" and "the body" of the Buddha. Later, Shan-tao focused on the eighteenth vow of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life and referred to the practice of nembutsu recitation as "the name." Honen, under Shan-tao's influence, focused on the recitation of the nembutsu recommended in the Meditation Sutra.


This phrase in the original is composed of three sets of two characters, zai-aku sho-ji no bon-pu. The first is a compound of two characters, meaning respectively "sinfulness" and "evil." The second term literally "birth and death" refers to samsara, the painful and endless cycle of transmigration from one life to the next of those beings unable to follow the Buddha's Dharma to enlightenment. The last term is the Chinese equivalent of the Sanskrit word prthagjana, which can be translated as "a man of lower caste or character or profession", "an ordinary person professing Buddhism", "a fool", "common people".[Monier-Wiliams, 646].

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In Mahayana Buddhism, this notion is applied to oneself, and the common sense of the Chinese and Japanese terms is perjorative, but within the Pure Land tradition the sense is quite different. The common meaning comes from a more relative, social stance, while the Pure Land meaning comes from a more subjective and personally religious one. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is an extremely important notion in that it describes the situation of the sincere practitioner who nevertheless finds him or herself totally incapable of avoiding the acts prohibited by the Buddha. This unique sense of "ordinary person" in the Pure Land tradition developed out of the belief in the Age of the Final Dharma (mappo) and Shan-tao's view of humanity based of the two profound minds of self-introspection and trust in Amida Buddha (shinki-shinpo). Caught as he or she is in this Age of the Final Dharma (mappo), the practitioner turns to the nembutsu in hope of Birth in the Pure Land, and so, of eventual enlightenment. Honen beautifully expresses this sincere admission of weakness as follows: "I am an ordinary human being attached to the material world and hesitating in confusion. It is difficult for me to achieve enlightenment. I am chained to the cycle of birth and death within the three worlds."(SHZ. 460).

The three classes of people (sanpai) is a categorization of people which is explained in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life. The people who are born in the Pure Land are divided into three classes according to their religious practice: the superior, middle and lower classes. The superior class indicates the people who renounce the world to become monks, and the middle class indicates the people who erform manifold meritorious practices in the world. The lower class is that of the ordinary deluded person (bonpu). Honen focused upon this lower class and concluded that it was for the lower class of people that the Nembutsu practice was chosen by Amida Buddha. The nine levels of people (kuhon) is the classification found in the Meditation Sutra. In the sutra, those who attain Birth in the Pure Land are classified into nine levels according to their innate capacities. It is thought that the later Meditation Sutra based its nine divisions on the earlier three class version of the older Sutra of Immeasurable Life. Honen's ultimate aim is to show that in the end all of the practices recommended for each of these levels should, in this Age of the Final Dharma, be replaced by the nembutsu.

5. ORIGINAL VOW (hongan)


The future Amida Buddha, Dharmakara Bodhisattva (Hozo bosatsu), is described in various versions of the Sutra of Immeasurable Light as having made his own original vows after having contemplated all the vows of all the previous Buddhas and all of the lands created through the fulfillment of these vows. Filled with compassion for the suffering of sentient beings, Dharmakara Bodhisattva vowed that he would not enter into final enlightenment (as Amida Buddha) until he had, by the infinite merits of his own practice, created a Pure Land in which even the worst sinner could be saved by thinking on Amida Buddha ten times. This vow of all embracing compassion by Amida is expressed especially clearly in his Eighteenth Original Vow (juhachigan) : "When I attain Buddhahood, if all sentient beings in the ten directions, who aspire in all sincerity and faith to be born in my land and think of me even ten times, are not born there, then may I not attain supreme enlightenment."

The various versions of the Sutra of Immeasurable Light give various lists of Amida's vows, but the list which received the primary focus of Shan-tao was the forty eight vows described in the Wu-liang-shou ching. The earlier translations, the Ta a-mi-t'o ching (Larger Amida Sutra) and the P'ing-teng-chueh ching (Sutra of Universal Enlightenment) present a somewhat different set of twenty-four vows. The Wu-liang-shou-ju-lai hui (Chapter on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life in the Sutra of Accumulated Treasures) carries a forty-eight-fold original vow which is almost the same as that of the Wu-liang-shou ching. The Wu-liang-shou chuang-yen ching says the original vow is thirty-six-fold. In the Sanskrit, the Original Vow is forty-six-fold. In Tibetan, the Original Vow is forty-nine-fold.


There are two main opinions as to how the concept of the Pure Land first appeared. One holds that its origins lie outside Buddhism and India in Zoroastrian ideas or the legend of Socotra Island, or a Garden of Eden. The other notion is that it originated in Buddhism and in India. Whatever may be its origin, in the Sanskrit sutras, the word which comes closest in meaning to "pure land" is the word vishuddha-ksetra (buddha land). However, there is no word which correctly corresponds to the Chinese word ching-t'u (Jp. jodo) or pure land (Fujita, 507-511).

The Sanskrit term Sukhavati is the most common translation for jodo or the more generic Japanese word for heaven, gokuraku ("highest joy" or "perfect bliss"). As such, the concept of "pure land" seems to have first come together after Buddhism entered China. In the Pure Land tradition, it was T'an-luan (Jp. Donran) who first used the title "the Pure Land of Peace and Bliss" (an-le ching-t'u) to explain Amida's land. After him, the term "Pure Land" came to mean "Amida Buddha's Pure Land." There are three basic interpretations of this word "pure land" in Japanese Pure Land Buddhism:

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6a) the purified land (jobukkokudo)

The idea of "the purified land" has a number of meanings. One is the buddha lands purified by a bodhisattva or buddha. Another is the purification of this world. A third is the practice of the bodhisattvas as expounded in the various Prajnaparamita sutras. Finally, the purification of these buddha lands means the bodhisattvas' fulfillment of their vows to gain enlightenment and to save beings.

6b) the Pure Land which exists in one's mind (jojakkodo)

The Pure Land "which exists in one's mind" is an absolute and unconditioned or ideal one. One experiences and enjoys it simply through one's faith and belief in it's existence. This type of Pure Land was advocated by the Chinese master Chih-i. According to the Vimalakirti Sutra (Yuima-gyo), if one's mind is pure, then according to this purity, the land is pure (T. 475, 14:538). This idea was very popular and favored in Tendai medieval innate enlightenment (hongaku) thought. Essentially, the Pure Land is seen as existing only in one's mind.

6c) the Pure Land of the next life (raisejodo)

The Pure Land "of the next life" is based on the idea of many buddha lands which was developed after Shakyamuni's death. This interpretation contrasts with the previous one in its emphasis on the existential reality of the Pure Land. Various examples of this kind of pure land are Maitreya's Tusita Heaven, Aksobhya's world of Abhirati, Bhaisajyaguru's eastern world of Vaiduryanirbhasa, and Amida's Sukhavati. This Pure Land (raisejodo) is the one which Honen emphasized and is the one adopted by Jodo Shu.


These are the three epochs of the present historical Buddha's, Shakyamuni, teaching. The first age corresponds to the time of Shakyamuni when his teachings were easily accessed and people could gain enlightenment quickly (shobo). The second age was after Shakyamuni and all his disciples passed away, when the teachings were harder to access and successfully practice (zoho). The last, Age of the Final Dharma (mappo), refers to our present historical period where Shakyamuni's teachings are extremely distant and difficult to achieve. There are several explanations concerning the length of the three periods. According to the Mahavairocana Sutra, the Age of the Right Dharma lasts for one thousand years, while that of the Semblance of the Dharma lasts for five hundred years. Tao-ch'o (Doshaku) [562-645] was convinced that he was actually living in the Age of the Final Dharma, which no doubt influenced his decision of writing the An-le chi. His understanding became a central tenet of the Pure Land doctrine.

Age of the Final Dharma (Skt. saddharmavipralopa) literally means "ruin of true Dharma". It has also been
translated, accurately considering its nuances, as "the dissolution of the Dharma." In this age, it is felt that the capability of people (kikon) to practice Shakyamuni's teachings is greatly diminished. Honen frequently
emphasized that it is not the efficacy of a certain Buddhist practice that is most important but rather our ability to practice it. From this standpoint, he concluded that embracing Amida's guidance through the nembutsu was the most accessible and beneficial practice for this defiled Age of the Final Dharma. It is felt that at the end of the third epoch, when the teaching is in grave decline, the Buddha of the next epoch, Maitreya (Miroku bosatsu) will appear to revitalize the Buddhist teachings.


Fujita Kotatsu, Genshi Jodo shiso no kenkyu (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1970).

Monier-Wiliams, Sir Monier, Sanskrit-English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).