Pure Land and The Lotus

Buddhism’s Pure Land and Lotus Sutra traditions are two major “contenders” for adherents in the West. Let me give a brief overview of their perspectives and appeal.

With the Lotus Sutra, the Nichiren schools – including Soka Gakkai – follow the Tendai theory of Critical Classification of Teaching. In this theory, Buddha’s life is traced through five periods in which his teachings are given according to the spiritual development of his disciples. This system maintains that The Lotus Sutra and the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra are the Buddha’s final and supreme teachings, given as his followers attain their highest spiritual development. Any teachings given before those Sutras are considered false teaching.

While Nichiren followed this theory, he also taught that the recitation of the name of the Lotus Sutra (Daimoku – “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo”) contained all the virtue and spiritual power of the Lotus Sutra itself. Therefore, recitation of the title of the Sutra joined the believer with the power of the Universe, bringing material and spiritual benefits. Also, Chapters 2 and 16 are chanted in services with accompanying benefits. Chapter 2 emphasizes the Buddha’s compassion in teaching people at the level they can understand. It’s a graded system, extending from simple, elementary teaching to the profound. This is the basis of the Tendai theory. Chapter 16 proclaims the eternity of the Buddha.

According to the general Pure Land teaching, the world has declined spiritually, and Buddhism along with it. Consequently, people in this world are corrupt and spiritually incapable. The Buddha, recognizing their plight, provided the Nembutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu”) as the means to be born in the Pure Land where conditions are right for the practice to attain enlightenment and Buddhahood. Recitation of the Nembutsu is an easy practice within the capacity of the ordinary person, and its merit brings birth into the Pure Land at death.

Both the tradition of the Lotus and the Pure Land teaching became widely popular in Japan. They gave rise to a saying that “one recites the Lotus in the morning and does Nembutsu in the evening.” This contrast expresses the view that the Lotus Sutra is this-worldly, focusing on this life, while the Pure Land teaching is other-worldly, assuring people of a positive destiny in the afterlife. Nichiren declared that only the Lotus Sutra was true, because the Pure Land teaching was a lower level teaching and was devoted to Amida Buddha rather than Sakyamuni, the teacher of the Lotus. The Pure Land teachers maintained that Pure Land sutras were taught at the same time as the Lotus. Highlighting our spiritual weakness, ineradicable blind passions, and egoism, they emphasized that we need the compassion and assistance of Amida Buddha through the Nembutsu.

Our contemporary world is home to vastly different spiritual traditions, and we can (and should) benefit from the insights they offer. We need spiritual support for living in this complex world, for navigating its many conflicts. Additionally, we need a view of ourselves from the perspective of eternity. The nembutsu and daimoku illustrate how Buddhism’s various expressions offer insights and practices to open our minds to deeper self-understanding… and wider vistas of fulfillment.

Gassho _/_ Al Bloom


p.s. As always, feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think.

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