Chinese Pure Land Buddhism
Understanding a Tradition of Practice
Series: Pure Land Buddhist Studies
- ISBN: 9780824879716
- Published By: University of Hawaii Press
- Published: September 2019
B. Charles Jones’ Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice is a definitive work on Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. It offers an incisive analysis of the unique features of this long-standing, hugely influential form of Buddhism: it is neither a school nor a sect, but a “dharma-gate” (famen), which Jones characterizes as a “tradition of practice.” As a bounded tradition of practice, the Pure Land dharma-gate (jingtu famen) distinguishes itself from other dharma-gates based on its unique path of liberation: it offers the nonelite, including evildoers, a chance to be reborn in Amitābha’s Pure Land and to attain the stage of non-retrogression, which circumvents the normal workings of accumulated karma and enables the evil people to escape from the beginningless and endless cycle of death and rebirth (31).
As convincingly argued by Jones, throughout history, the uniqueness and enduring consistency of Chinese Pure Land soteriology is best understood through the series of apologetics launched by many renowned Pure Land masters, including the Pure Land patriarchs. This apologetic tradition has consistently defended the efficacy of the nonelite dharma-gate that gave hope of rebirth in the Western-direction Pure Land (xifang jingtu) to commoners who could not achieve deep absorptive states as required by teachings of mind-only Pure Land (weixin jingtu). Cohered by this apologetic tradition, many varieties of Chinese Pure Land practices unfolded causally throughout history.
This compelling portrayal of Chinese Pure Land successfully corrects two methodological oversights in the past scholarship that have thus far hindered accurate understanding of the nature of Chinese Pure Land. On the one hand, many scholars have measured this tradition of practice against a narrowly defined model that requires self-consciousness, institutional autonomy, continuous lineages, and clearly defined membership. This methodological error has resulted in a series of scholarship that questioned the existence of Chinese Pure Land as a coherent, delineable tradition.
Instead, to correct this reliance on a predetermined set of standards and to offer more than a description of what Chinese Pure Land is not, later scholars have tried to broaden the category by defining it through a particular practice or doctrine, for example, a soteriological goal of rebirth in any Buddha’s pure land. While this effort has helped to remove earlier scholarly projection of external, universalizing categories onto indigenous, complex realities, the result of this broadening of category also made the definition so broad that it fails to explain the evident self-awareness of Chinese Pure Land as a bounded tradition and the practitioners’ effort throughout history to distinguish their own tradition from other dharma-gates. Jones’ monograph marks the first successful method to identify the core causal dynamics that have produced and continue to maintain the vitality of Chinese Pure Land.
Organized thematically, Chinese Pure Land Buddhism maps out both key features and several productive tensions that have animated this living tradition of practice. Chapters 2–3 provide a comprehensive overview. Chapter 2 cites a wide range of primary sources to demonstrate three key features of Chinese Pure Land. First, the two institutional markers zong and zu are interrelated. In the premodern context, zong typically means “essential doctrines” or “cardinal teachings.” Consequently, zu, commonly translated as “patriarch,” in this tradition of practice, does not imply a direct master-disciple relation but instead entails a title granted to a well-respected person who embodies the essential teachings (zong) of Pure Land. Second, the two practical markers famen and zong, when used together with other Pure Land markers such as jingtu or lian , strongly indicate a particular mode of practice such as nianfo. The third key feature concerns the unique soteriology of Chinese Pure Land that even evildoers could escape samsara and convincingly identifies Shandao (613–81) as the father of Chinese Pure Land, whose teaching definitively advocated and defended this dharma-gate for nonelites. Chapter 3 illustrates the key figures and the historical development of this unique soteriology from its Indian roots, to its Chinese developments, and to its modern continuations.
Chapters 4–8 dive into five productive tensions that mark out the uniqueness of this dharma-gate. Chapter 4 examines the most contentious issue in the Pure Land practice, the relation of self-power and other-power in the Chinese Pure Land soteriology. Unlike its Japanese counterpart that came to deprecate self-power and preached sole reliance on the other-power, the Chinese Pure Land dharma-gate consistently preached that self-power and other-power are mutually dependent because of the nondistinction of self and other, and also that this particular mutual dependence between self-power and other power was actualized through the process of empathetic response (ganying) (83–84). Chapter 5 zooms into Chinese Pure Land ethics that demand practitioners to engage in all sorts of virtuous practices to increase their level of rebirth in Amitābha’s Pure Land to speed up the process of attaining buddhahood (102–4).
Chapter 6 maps out both the continuations and changes in the Pure Land tradition from late imperial to modern times. While the apologists during these periods continued to defend the efficacy of this nonelite dharma-gate, there were also new developments. Notably, there has been two consensuses among the Pure Land community since the 16th century: First, reciting Amitābha’s name with a sincere vow to seek rebirth should be the primary practice for all Buddhist practitioners. And second, this dharma-gate neither excluded other forms of study and practice nor violated the orthodox doctrines such as mind-only, buddha-nature, nonduality, and so on (125–26).
Chapter 7 examines a wide variety of practices subsumed under the umbrella term nianfo from its early interpretation as sophisticated, deep, absorptive meditation on the buddhas to its modern sense of reciting Amitābha’s name. Ultimately, Jones cautions scholars to avoid presuming what nianfo entails and suggests that its meaning must be carefully studied and contextualized on a case-by-case basis. Chapter 8 provides an insightful survey of how the idealized biographical portrayals of Lushan Huiyuan (334–416), the first patriarch of Chinese Pure Land, evolved alongside the rise and consolidation of the Chinese Pure Land soteriology. The appendix also maps out the chronology of the rise of the myth of thirteen Chinese Pure Land patriarchs and its earlier renditions.
This monograph is not only methodologically innovative but also thoroughly researched and firmly grounded in primary materials. And yet, it is written in straightforward and nontechnical language. It will be an invaluable resource for both scholars interested in studying this rich, sophisticated tradition and teachers interested in incorporating this hugely influential form of Buddhism into their undergraduate survey courses.
Jessica Xiaomin Zu is assistant professor of religion at USC Dornsife.Jessica Xiaomin ZuDate Of Review:February 28, 2022