The Jodo Shinshu Tradition


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Pure Land and Shin Buddhism

In the West there is a tendency to focus on the do-it-yourself nature both of Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment and his guidance to us to work towards liberation though our own effort.


Buddhists in the West often downplay (or reject) the role of faith and devotion. Yet these components of have been a part of Buddhsim from the beginning, as we can see in the practices of bowing to Buddha, bodhissatvas , monks and teachers, lighting insence, reciting (and copying) sutras, and decorating monasteries and temples with sculpture and paintings.

From early on devotional practices such as "Recollecting of the Buddha"—bringing the Buddha to mind, reciting his name, and by visualizing his image and/or his Pure Land or field of activity—were common. With the advent of the mahayana and its cults of divine buddhas and bodhisattvas, bodhisattas such as
 Avalalokiteshvara, Maiijushri, Maitreya and Kshitigarbha each had
 his (or her) own Pure Land.


Pure Land Buddhism is described as the Path of Serene Trust, or faith. One has serene trust and confidence in the power and wisdom of Buddhas, or one has the firm conviction that the Bodhisattva Vow made by all Buddhas, namely, to lead all sentient beings to Enlightenment, has been or will be fulfilled.

Praising a Buddha's virtues and keeping a Buddha in mind at all times has been practiced since the earliest days of Buddhism. Indeed, the act of taking refuge in the Buddha means to put one's trust in the Buddha as an honored teacher.

The object of Pure Land Buddhism is rebirth into the Realm of Bliss. This may be seen as literal rebirth into the Buddha-realm called Sukhavati and/or as experiencing the direct realization of the realm of the Purified Mind, in which a person becomes one with the limitless Compassion and Widsom which are the prime characteristics of Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese). Pure Land Buddhism rests on:

  • Faith

  • Aspiration or the Vow for rebirth

  • Practice—single-minded effort aimed at Buddha Remembrance Samadhi (Buddhanusmrti in Sanskrit). "Staying mindful of the Buddha" has been a central practice of Pure Land Buddhism since its beginnings, as has the recitation of the Buddha's name.

While the Japanese Pure Land schools became characterized as "faith-only" schools (see below), classical Pure Land Buddhism continued to relie on the tripod of faith, aspiration and practice as expedients.

Key Concepts

In order to understand Pure Land Buddhism it is helpful to be familiar with some specific aspects of Buddhist teaching:

  • Merit and its transfer
    There are benefits to be derived from the non-attached practices of Wisdom and Compassion; these practices include the Buddhist Precepts which are guidelines for enlightened living. These benefits, or "merit," may be accumulated and subsequently transferred to any or all sentient beings for their benefit (transpersonal) or rededicated so as to transform it into a benefit for one's self (personal).

  • Other Buddhas
    Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha of our age, is not the only Buddha to ever have existed. Indeed, all beings have the nature to become totally awakened to the Truth of the Universe. One of the first Buddhas other than Shakyamuni to be mentioned in the Buddhist tradition was the Buddha Maitreya, the next Buddha who will appear in our own world-system which is known as the Saha World.

  • Buddha-realms, buddha-fields
    Buddhas spread their influence over a system of worlds in which they teach Dharma and exert their benevolence. Shakyamuni is the Buddha of our own world system. Buddha-realms may be seen as both literal and metaphorical.

  • A bodhisattva's relationship with a buddha
    Bodhisattvas are "Enlightenment Beings" who are on the path toward Nirvana, the end of suffering, the realm of Perfect Peace. They work not only for their own Enlightenment, but also for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. Once Bodhisattvahood is attained, the Bodhisattva is instructed by a Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha's teacher was the Buddha Dipamkara; in turn, Shakyamuni Buddha is the teacher of the Buddha to come, Maitreya.

Self-power, other-power

Self-power refers to to methods we practice on our own, the power of our own mind. Other-power refers to the power of the vows of Amitabha Buddha which facilitate rebirth in the Realm of Bliss, as well as the manifestation of these vows through the transference of Amitabha's own merit to us.

In classical Pure Land Buddhism, self-power and other-power work together. Through recitation, meditation and visualization practices, vowing to be reborn and manifesting the mind of faith, we attain Buddha Remembrance Samadhi, uniting one's Self-Power with the other-power of Buddha Amitabha, the essence of Universal Compassion and Wisdom.



The Ch'an Pure Land tripod of faith, aspiration and practice was modified in 12th century Japan. Both Jodo-Shu and Jodo-Shinshu arose at a time when many believed that enlightenment was no longer attainable through personal effort (jiriki) alone. With the intervention of Amida—through reciting Amitabha's name—one could be reborn in the Pure Land.

In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism there is an exclusive reliance on other-power (as opposed to self-power). Reciting the Buddha's name with faith is all that is necessary, and other-power practices are seen as essentially useless. A person is totally reliant on the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; essentially, the saying of the Buddha's name arises solely from the power of Amida's vows. This causes Japanese Pure Land to be more of a salvation-based form, unlike the classical Pure Land Buddhism that originally developed in China.

Aspects of Shin Buddhism

  • For Shin Buddhists, the true nature of things is a lively wisdom and compassion that resonates in the lives of ordinary people. This wisdom and compassion takes form as Amida Buddha.

  • To ordinary people, especially those who were unable to follow him in his monastic way of life, Shakyamuni Buddha explained how Amida Buddha could bring everyone, without exception, to Buddhahood, which is the highest level of human fulfillment.

  • The final objective for Buddhists is to become a Buddha because Buddhas have perfect understanding, are completely free of attachments and therefore always act in ways that are genuinely beneficial. This objective meets the highest aspiration of the human heart. We remain spiritually and morally immature and ill-at-ease until we are fully developed and perfected Buddhas, full of love, kindness and freedom from fear and anxiety - transcending the thrall of birth and death.

  • In the Larger Sutra on Immeasurable Life, Shakyamuni explained how a monk called Dharmakara ('Dharma Treasury') made vows to lead all beings to enlightenment by creating a Pure Land, a realm that is free from the misleading ignorance that hinders our progress to Buddhahood, and how he would enable us all to be born there. Furthermore, Shakyamuni explained that Amida has attained enlightenment in the deep boundless past and has achieved his purpose for us.

  • Amida also made vows in relation to us, people stranded in the realm of ignorance. These are the vows of infinite light and infinite life.

  • Light is wisdom, and life is the compassion that results from perfect wisdom. Amida Buddha's understanding is so complete that when he thinks of us he knows us exactly as we are and, indeed, accepts us as we are because of his perfect wisdom.

  • The primary focus for Shin Buddhists is Nembutsu, the Name of the Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu, which means, "I take refuge in Amida Buddha". Amida vowed that his Name would be heard "throughout the ten directions," (Larger Sutra 7) that is, everywhere, and that those who say his name, entrusting themselves to him, will be born in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood.

  • Although the names of ordinary people can have immense power, Amida Buddha's Name has limitless power. The name of someone we love may evoke fond memories and longing but the Name is Amida Buddha - active in our lives and our consciousness. All of Amida Buddha's virtues, his Life and Light, are embodied in his Name.

  • Namu Amida Butsu is the Japanese pronunciation of the original Sanskrit phrase, Namo'mitabhaya buddhaya, which was also transliterated into Chinese characters and pronounced Namo 'mito fo. The six Chinese characters are still the main written form of the principal image in Shin Buddhist temples and home shrines. Indeed, the correct iconic representation of Amida Buddha is really his written Name: Namu Amida Butsu. In Shin Buddhism, if statues and pictures of Amida Buddha are used, these are actually graphic representations of the Name.

  • Nembutsu people live in the Light and Life of Amida Buddha and see their own reality as distinctly different from his. Because Amida is fully enlightened, we become ever more deeply aware of our own profound ignorance: a kind of blindness, which is a sense of being trapped and unable to overcome the evil oppression of our egocentricity.

  • Although we may practice meditation and seek to control our desires in order to free ourselves, we begin to become aware of the intractable nature of our karmic evil and of our bondage to self-centeredness. Even the good we do can become a source of spiritual pride and arrogance that may frustrate any progress we make. Shin Buddhism encourages us to heed the bidding of Shakyamuni in the Larger Sutra, and to relinquish all of our spiritual needs to Amida Buddha. In so doing we accept the Vow (will, mind or intention) and the Name of Amida ("Namu Amida Butsu") and, therefore, our ultimate destiny - Buddhahood, Nirvana. When this happens, our life becomes a joyful adventure, characterized by a sense of indebtedness.

  • The difficulty many of us have is in accepting that we are really taken in by wisdom and compassion just as we are: unable to become good or better people. All of us have an unendurably painful dark side: deep and terrible greed and anger. Worse, we are profoundly ignorant and constantly shocked at our own insensitivity. Within ourselves, we discover the existential pain that afflicts us all in this "Last Dharma Age", the age of mappo.

  • The person who awakens to Amida's Mind - in other words, accepts the Primal Vow - is born in the Pure Land. However, since the time of the great Shin Buddhist master Shan-tao, who lived in seventh-century China, it has been clearly understood that the Pure Land is, in fact, Nirvana or Buddhahood - ultimate realization of transcendence; in Buddhist terms "extinction of birth and death".

  • A Buddha is free of all attachment and aversion and has realized the true nature of things: wisdom and compassion. For this reason, he or she understands other people perfectly and moves to free them from the delusions that keep them in suffering and anxiety. So it is that our goal does not end in self-absorbed bliss but in reaching out to others to help them as well.

From Buddhist Information of North America web site

Jodo Shinshu: A Brief Introduction
Rev. Kenryu Tsuji

Introduction to Pure Land Tradition
Dr. Alfred Bloom

Shin Buddhism
Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji

Shin Buddhism
Buddhist Churches of America (BCA)

f For study resources on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism see the Learning Center's Jodo Shinshu Study section.