Wednesday, 1 October 2008
written by Lee Yue Heng
The word “progressive” implies a movement beyond tradition and dogma. I have chosen to connect this word with Pure Land Buddhism because I am convinced that this school of Buddhism has a pressing need to progress beyond some of its traditional doctrinal understandings and premodern supernaturalism to remain relevant for the intelligent and critical people of the 21st century. I am aware that some of my views may offend my fellow Buddhists and I apologize in advance. It is not my intention to offend. Rather, this blog is an exercise in challenging some of the dogmas in Pure Land Buddhism which I see as obstacles in it becoming a relevant teaching for our modern time.
The basic teachings of Pure Land Buddhism can be summarized thus: Knowing that in latter times, the spiritual abilities of human beings would degenerate, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni expounded the Pure Land scriptures to provide a way out for all human beings to attain salvation from this world of suffering. Shakyamuni described to his followers how many billions of ages ago, a monk by the name of Dharmakara saw the suffering of all sentient beings and he vowed to save them by creating a paradise (“Pure Land”) with the necessary conditions conducive for attaining enlightenment. The Pure Land that Dharmakara vowed to create would be a place where there would be no suffering and discrimination of any sort. It would be a realm where saintly and enlightened beings could hear the teachings of Buddhism and meditate peacefully without any distractions or danger.
The Pure Land scriptures tell us that after countless ages of practicing austerity and charity, Dharmakara attained enlightenment and he became a Buddha known as “Amitabha” or alternatively “Amitayus”. Amitabha and Amitayus are Sanskrit words and respectively, they mean “Immeasurable Light” and “Immeasurable Life”. According to the Shakyamuni of the Pure Land scriptures, Amitabha’s Pure Land is known as “Sukhavati”, or “The Land of Bliss”. Anyone who has faith in the compassionate vows of Amitabha and seeks rebirth in his Pure Land will be reborn there after this life and be admitted into the presence of Amitabha and the numerous enlightened beings in his Pure Land, to receive training for enlightened. Once enlightenment is attained, the citizens of the Pure Land will return to this world of suffering to save the sentient beings still trapped here.
In mainstream Pure Land Buddhism today, the Pure Land scriptures are accepted as the direct teaching of the historical Buddha and the Pure Land is often described as an actual place somewhere in the universe billions of galaxies away from our planet. The story of how Dharmakara became Amitabha is presented as a historical fact and Amitabha is an actual being living in his Pure Land. At the end of the devotee’s life, Amitabha and his vast entourage of bodhisattvas will come to deliver the devotee to Sukahavati. The vast majority of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism revolves around a religious devotion to Amitabha Buddha, expressed through chanting the Pure Land scriptures and meditating on the name of Amitabha in the hope that at the end of the devotee’s life, one takes birth in his Pure Land. Chinese Mahayana Buddhism also affirms that the devotee who constantly recites the name of Amitabha with faith and devotion can increase longevity and gain protection from demonic influences.
Pure Land Buddhism has an understandable appeal to many people. Human existence is finite. We have to go through many trials and tribulations. Even though we are not sure when or how, it is certain that we will die one day. Many people, myself included, are comforted by the idea of having a benevolent power to protect us and a place to look forward to in the afterlife. This fear of the unknown perhaps explains the vast popularity of Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia (it has almost completely died out in India, the land of its origins).
But we who live in the 21st century are faced with a dilemma when we encounter the basic narrative of Pure Land Buddhism as transmitted to us from premodern India and China. This dilemma is one between accepting the comfort of unverifiable faith and the nagging itch of reason that demands evidence. The Pure Land narrative, when taken literally, requires a human being to take a leap of faith based on something that cannot be verified. A literal reading of the Pure Land scriptures makes extraordinary claims that requires extraordinary evidence. Consider this: Someone informs you that there is a country somewhere in the world which is rich in all manner of natural resources, where its citizens lead carefree lives with everything necessary for their welfare and happiness paid for by the government. You are also informed that this country offers free citizenship to anyone in the world on condition that they swear allegiance to the country’s leader. Would you not be skeptical and demand empirical evidence for this country's existence? Yet there are Pure Land Buddhists who believe in the existence of a supernatural being called Amitabha who, upon their demise, will whisk them off to a literal Pure Land adorned by gold, precious stones and all sorts of magical sights and sounds even though there is no empirical evidence for such a realm.
Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that Pure Land Buddhism is not a teaching of the historical Shakyamuni, but rather a development of the Mahayana movement which most scholars acknowledge to have arisen centuries after Shakyamuni’s passing. The Mahayana scriptures that we have today resulted ffrom centuries of creation and evolution (from the 2nd century AD up until the 11th century AD) which explains why there are numerous versions of the same sutras. The Larger Sukahavtivyuha Sutra, which is the foundational text for Pure Land Buddhism, has survived in seven versions and there are noticeable differences between them. According to the Zhi Qian and Zhi Loujiachen translation, Dharmakara made 24 vows. The Faxian translation lists 36 vows. The Sanskrit and Tibetan versions has 47 vows while the Bodhiruchi and Sanghavarman translations both have 48 vows. The existence of a plurality of texts suggests a diverse process of creation as Buddhists strove to express their understanding of the historical Shakyamuni’s teachings into new narratives.
Another evidence that the Pure Land scriptures were not the work of a single person are internal and external textual contradictions. The seven surviving versions of the Larger Sukahavtivyuha Sutra are significantly different in content. Only the Bodhiruchi and Sanghavarman versions have a long preamble on the acts of the Bodhisattvas while the others do not. The Zhi Qian and Zhi Loujiachen versions have a long description of the Five Evils of the world, which is absent in the Faxian, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Bodhiruchi versions, although the Sanghavarman version has a short version. The Zhi Qian and Zhi Loujiachen version does not refer to Maitreya’s vision while the other five versions do so,
The Larger Sukahavtivyuha Sutra states that people who have committed the five heinous acts and/or blaspheme the Buddha's teachings are barred from rebirth in the Pure Land while the Contemplation Sutra (accepted by scholars as a work of non-Indian origin) contradicts this by stating that those who commit the five heinous acts can also take birth in the Pure Land should they repent at the end of their lives and trust in Amitabha. Pure Land teachers have traditionally reconciled this by saying that the apparent exclusion clause in the Larger Sukahavtivyuha Sutra was an ethical injunction to warn the sutra’s readers from committing these acts. But it seems to my mind that the more likely explanation is that the sutras were composed by different people with different ideas about who would or would not be excluded from the Buddha’s compassion, as embodied by the Pure Land.
Also, a literal reading of the Pure Land texts can present several difficulties. In the Larger Sukahavtivyuha Sutra, we are told that Dharmakara existed immeasurable ages ago. But the story of Dharmakara is couched in cultural references from ancient Vedic India. In the sutra, Dharmakara is quoted as comparing the splendour of the Buddha Lokeshvaraja to Mount Sumeru. He also vowed to worship as many buddhas as “the grains of sand in the Ganges.” The idea of Mount Sumeru was from borrowed from Vedic cosmology and so the name “Ganges” also came from Vedic civilization.
A further indication of the historical origins of the Pure Land scriptures can be found in Dharmakara’s 26th vow where he aspired to provide the body of Narayana for everyone born in his land. Narayana is a name for the Vedic deity Vishnu. The inclusion of this god and the above-mentioned references from Vedic culture indicates that the writer or writers of the sutra was not trying to tell their readers a literal event which took place billions of aeons ago. They were conveying a myth. The mythological nature of the Pure Land scriptures must be accepted as the basis of a Progressive Pure Land Buddhism.
Note: This is the first of a two part essay which has been published on my blog to discuss Progressive Pure Land Buddhism. The differences between the different versions of the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra were compiled by Luis O. Gomez in the appendix of his book The Land of Bliss - an excellent translation and commentary on the Larger and Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutras.