- The Pure Land School
- and Its Influence on Chinese Society
- Dr. Latika Lahiri
- © Copyright retained by the author
As a new way of life, Buddhism unleashed tremendous creative forces
which expressed themselves through various aspects of social, political and cultural life
including art, literature, architecture and philosophy. The universal appeal of the
religion found favour with millions of Indians and foreigners alike. It was a most
dominant medium through which Indian culture found its way to China and spread there.
Buddhism in China had passed through many vicissitudes. It spread,
developed and obtained maturity six hundred years after it was first introduced in China.
It was during the 4th and 8th century of the Christian era that China practically became a
Buddhist country. It reached its greatest height under the patronage of the Northern-Wei
Dynasty (A.D 381-534). Further during the brilliant first half of the T'ang Dynasty (A.D
618-907) Buddhism entered into a new phase in China.
The success of Buddhism in China was due to its readiness to compromise
with the existing religious beliefs-Confucianism and Taoism. It was gradually absorbed
into the mainstream of Chinese culture and most of the Buddhist ideas and thoughts, which
were incompatible with Chinese religious and social system were eventually neutralised. A
period of assimilation had already begun as we find in the seventh century a great
transformation of Buddhism took place. This transformation was to be seen even in its
basic doctrine. It became more sinicized and it adjusted itself with Chinese environment.
It is aptly remarked "China changed Buddhism much more than Buddhism changed
During the heydays of Buddhism under the patronage of the Empress Wu of
the T'ang Dynasty, Buddhism was being reshaped steadily into a number of sects and
institutions which had very little resemblance with Indian Buddhism.
During this period China had developed a number of sects, many of these
sects were based mainly on the single text and had only fleeting significance but four
principal schools endured to play an important role not only in China but also in Korea
and Japan. The outstanding examples of such change and adaptation might be seen in the
T'ien-t'ai, the Pure Land and the Chan schools which originated in Chinese soil. In
India different Buddhist schools arose as a result of India's love for philosophical
speculation and China's love for classification produced ten different Buddhist schools.
Out of these some were of Indian origin and four had entirely independent growth. The
schools of Buddhist philosophy in China in the Sui and the T'ang periods were not without
effect on Chinese mind.
The T'ien-tai (Tendai in Japan) and the Hua-yen (Avatamsaka) were
very scholastic and doctrinal which had little bearing on Chinese mind. The
T'ien-tai was founded by a Chinese monk Chih-yi (A.D 538-597) the name of the
school was given T'ien-tai after the name of the mountain of the same name (Heavenly
terrace), a great Buddhist centre at Che-chiang. It flourished for some time as it had
stressed some of the Buddhist elements which were more native to Chinese thinking. The
Pure Land and the Ch'an school originated in China and played a prominent role in the
history of Far Eastern Buddhism.
In the following pages I would like to discuss the popularity of the
Pure Land School in China.
The Pure Land or Ching-t'u is the Western Paradise presided over by
Amitabha, Buddha of infinite or measureless light, attended by Avalokite'svara Bodhisattva
The beauty and excellence of the abode of Amitaabha, Sukhaavatii, the
land of eternal bliss has been described in the literature in most extravagant terms. The
Paradise or Sukhaavatii is situated to the West of our world where spring is eternal and
rebirth takes place in the lotus, it is free from temptation and defilement. This school
is a popular devotional form of Buddhism that teaches salvation by faith. On commenting
Wu-liang-chou ching Amitaayus or Amitaabha Suutra and the Small Suutras - A-mi-t'o
Ching, the commentator remarked, "All the forms of Buddhism are good but how long and
laborious it is to efface one's Karman by means of the "n"m process of
other sects; where as in the sect, of Pure Land it is a matter of instant, the time of an
act of repentance and of a sincere desire.... They declared that disavowal immediately
effaced all sins, even those which the other sects held as irremissable". This
belief had far reaching effects in the subsequent development of Chinese thoughts.
According to the Mahaayaanist's common belief, supported by scriptures,
the period which immediately followed after the attainment of Nirvaa.na by each of the
earthly Buddha was known as a period of Gradual Degeneration. The second period was known
as the era of True Law characterised by continued efforts inspite of his demise. After
these two successive periods, the period which followed was known as Period of Reflected
Law in which outside form of religion was maintained but the essence perished. The fourth
or the last period was known as Mo-fa in Chinese, the period of Final Degeneration. In
this period of Mo-fa only saviour was Amitaabha and the Doctrine of Pure Land could save
the humanity. The Mahaayaana Buddhism thus provided compassionate, comforting gods for
every human need.
The Chinese Buddhists were greatly confused by multifarious forms of
Buddhist doctrine which were introduced in China from India and Central Asia, by
importation of missionaries belonging to different schools and different countries. It was
difficult for them to understand the scholastic doctrinal discussion and discourses
organised by learned monks and intellectual lay followers. They found the same difficulty
in the pursuit of scriptural studies and monastic discipline as well. Under such confused
circumstances many Buddhist monks and untold number of lay followers believed that their
only hope of salvation lay in the faith of Amitaabha Buddha.
The original Sanskrit word Amitaabha was mostly known early Chinese
Buddhism as Wu-liang-shou (Amitaayus) or Wu-liang-shou-fo, (Amitaayus Buddha). We must
note that, Wu-liang-shou-fo of the Sui Dynasty (A.D 581-618) changed into its original
Sanskrit word Amitaabha during the T'ang period, when it was transliterated as
A-mi-to-fo. This is supported by a number of inscribed images of Amitaabha Buddha in
different Buddhist caves and temples belonging to the T'ang Dynasty (A.D 618-907).
Amitaabha had been translated into Chinese either as Wu-liang-shou or Wu-liang-kuang
meaning infinite age, infinite light. The latter is more appropriate than the former. The
unlimited lustre and light of Buddha Ra'smi-Prabhaasa pervades every corner of the
world, so he is called Amitaabha.
In the museum of K'ai-feng in Ho-nan one stone tablet contains two
niches, one containing image of Wu-liang-shou (Amitaayus) and the other Amitaabha. Why the
object of worship is different? These might have been carved in the transition period when
the idea of Wu-liang-shou-fo of the Northern-Wei was in the process of changing into
The tradition connects the beginning of the Amitaabha cult with the
name of early 3rd century Wei-shih-tu  and Wei's mother who lived in Lo-yang. This is
the first mention of Wu-liang-shou (Amitaayus-Amitaabha) in the early Buddhist literature
in China where in a special kind of ceremony the devotees took the vow to be reborn in
Western Paradise. We can find the same kind of devotional cult in the monastery of
Hsiang-yang  where venerable Tao-an with a number of disciples made a vow before an
icon of Maitreya Bodhisattva to be reborn in Tushita heaven.
During the Eastern Chin Dynasty (A.D 317 - 420) a brilliant monk
Chih-tun was a great follower of the Sukhaavati. He described the happy land of the West
as An-yang (Peaceful nourishment), as an ideal society where there is no rulers, no
officials, no ranks, no titles.
One of the most important figures of the early history of the cult was
venerable Hui-yuan. In A.D 402 Hui-yuan with an assembly of 123 followers made a solemn
vows before an icon of Amitaabha to be reborn in the Western Paradise. Hui-yuans
biography also contains the text of vow taken before Amitaabha. This heralds the beginning
of the Pure Land school in China. This event is an important landmark in the early history
of Chinese Buddhism. It is a manifestation of simple and concrete nature of devotional
creed propagated by Hui-yuan which was warmly welcomed by the monks and lay followers as a
way of life. Hui-yuan preferred this simple creed as the means of reaching the Western
Paradise than the laborious concentration and trance of the Hiinayaana system  The
early suutra Pan-chou-san-mei (Pratyutpanna Sammukhaavasthita-Samaadhi Suutra) was
translated by Lokak-Sema of the Eastern Han Dynasty (B.C 25-220A.D.). This suutra
describes the practice of remembrance(Anusmrti) of the Buddha Amitaabha and extolls
the mental concentration which enables the devotee to behold Amitaabha standing before the
eyes. It is interesting to note that Hui-yuan, the first patriarch of the Pure Land
school, was a brilliant Confucian scholar and was proficient in Tao Philosophy before he
was converted to Buddhism by his master Tao-An. Hui-yuan founded a community of monks
known as White Lotus Society after the lotus pond at Mount Lu near his monastery. For
several centuries it survived and enjoyed general esteem. After the 11th century.
Hui-yuan's White Lotus Society believed to have connection with conspiracy and rebellion
was branded as secret society . Thus the White Lotus Society founded by Hui-yuan
ceased to be applied to his own community.
The principal scriptures of the Pure Land School are the greater
Sukhaavatii-Vyuuha and smaller work of the same name. There are 12 translations of the
greater Sukhaavatii-Vyuuha Suutra in Chinese. Among these 12 translations only 5 are
extant. The earliest two translations were done by An-shih-kao and Lokarak.sa of the 2nd
century of the Christian era. Kumaarajiiva, the greatest scholar and translator,
translated Smaller Sukhaavatii Vyuuha in A.D 402. into Chinese. The Smaller Suutra
corresponds to the Sanskrit text with a few exceptions. Prof. Max Muller had translated
the text into English with notes. There is another translation of the Smaller text by
Huan-Chuang. The translations of Kumaarajiiva, Huan-chuang and Kaalayasas were very
popular and were available in every monastery of China.
In the first half of the 6th century, the doctrines of Pure Land began
as a vigorous practical movement. The teaching had a brilliant success in China. The
simple invocation to Amitaabha, the meditation upon Amitaabha and the Pure Land became
widespread in the temples and monasteries of other schools as well. The impact of the Pure
Land in the domain of art, architecture, social and folk life of China was very much
widespread. In the artistic and cultural life of the two capital cities of Ch'ang-An and
Lo-Yang, the Pure Land School was omnipresent. The images of Amitaaha and the
Avalokite'svara adorned the Buddhist temples, Buddhist establishments, and private houses.
The scenic view of the Western Paradise became popular motif of the artists. Many
paintings of Western Paradise on silk have been found in Tun-Huang caves.
Here I propose to analyse the essential changes in the nature of
worship and ideas manifested in sculpturing of the images during the period of
constructing the Lung-Men grottoes near Lo-Yang in Ho-Nan Province. During the two
dynastic periods of the Northern-Wei and the T'ang, a great number of images of the Buddha
and Bodhisattva were sculptured that show a distinctive mark in the changes of faith of
the Buddhist followers. According to a Japanese scholar Toshio Nagahiro there were 43
images of Saakyamuni, 35 Maitreya, 8 Wu-liang-shou, Amitaabha nil, 19 Avalokite'svara,
belonging to the Northern-Wei period whereas 9 Saakyamuni, 11 Maitreya, Wu-Liang-Shou nil,
Amitaabha 110, Avalokite'svara 34 belonged to the T'ang period. During this period we see
the number of Amitaabha is twelve times more than that of Saakya and ten times more than
that of Maitreya.
In the early T'ang period the Buddhist monks propagated the doctrine of
Pure Land in places along the coast of the Yellow river which like wild fire spread every
where. This we gather from various references. The great monks Tao-cho, Shan-tao
were the zealous propagators of the new doctrine, and their unceasing propagation of this
faith created anew upsurge in the Buddhist world of China. The Emperor Kao-Tsung and the
Empress Wu-tse-t'ien of the T'ang were great patrons of the doctrine. During their
time Ch'ang-An and Lo-yang became the important centres of the Amita cult. Naturally
Amitaabha Buddha became very popular, and therefore, the number of Amitaabha images became
more than what it was in the early period. Tao-cho and Shan-tao propagated various
ceremonies connected with the Amitaabha doctrine. According to them they belonged to the
period of "Mo-fa"(Final Degenerated period) in which every one was ignorant and
corrupt. They would be saved only by having complete faith in Amitaabha.
The relics of Lung- Men consequently show the maximum number of images
of Amitaabha, the lord of the Western Paradise.
The Lung-men caves also bear innumerable dedicatory inscriptions. These
inscriptions are indispensable materials to evaluate the popularity of the Amitaabha
Buddha, desire and aspiration of the people irrespective of imperial family monks, nuns
and laity, their superstition and beliefs. Beside this, donatory or dedicatory
inscriptions which have come down to us show not only the trend of Buddhism but also the
socio-political and socio-economic come on prevailing during the period. Most of the
offerings are made for the welfare of the departed relatives and the prayers inscribed
invariably contain devout wishes for the happiness of seven generations of parents and of
the present generation. In China from time immemorial ancestor worship was deeply rooted
in the society. The prayer for the repose of the ancestor's spirit well indicates how
Buddhism was inseparably connected with that of old and powerful Confucian idea of
morality-Hsiao, 'filial piety' which characterises the Chinese family system.
It was believed that Amitaabha of the Sukhaavatii, the divinity of
Mahaakaru.na and Salvation can save the living beings of six gatis (six conditions
of sentient existence, viz., devas, men, asuras, beings in the hell, pretas and animals).
He can save the souls after death and lead them to the Pure Land. The dead can be conveyed
out of the hell into Amitaabha's Paradise by burning printed prayer either on their grave
or on the altar set up for the purpose of celebrating the winter solstice or on some other
occasion for the worship of the dead. Thus united by faith and striving for virtue, all
will behold Amitaabha and enter into the world of bliss. This idea is very much compatible
with the idea of ancestral worship as well as the merit of "filial piety". Thus
the idea of Amitaabha and his Paradise greatly impressed the masses of China.
The hankering for long life, immortality and eternal youth was deeply
rooted in the Chinese society. The idea of Wu-liang-shou (the idea of infinite life) made
a great impression on the mind of the Taoist in China.
I may mention here that from time immemorial there had been quest for
elixir of life in China. In the 13th cent. one mendicant Ch'in-ch'ang- chun reached
Samarkand in A.D 1221 and went to camp of Chengiz Khan. The great Khan greeted him and
asked him, "Adept! what medicine for long life and eternal youth you have brought for
me from afar" He replied, "I know only the art of protecting life but no elixir
to protect it".
The Taoist after the spread of Amitaabha cult often invoked the name of
Amitaabha. Amita Buddha became a divine spirit to the Taoist. We find in the Ch'ing
Dynasty novel "Dream of Red Mansion", Hung-luo-meng, the Taoist priests often
take the name of Amitaabha when they go out for begging. The Buddhist and Taoist used to
greet each other taking the name Amitaabha.
There is no doubt that during the T'ang period the broad mass of people
believed in the Pure Land doctrine. Amidism ultimately became a dominant school and
captured the imagination of the people who found the mystic and transcendental
philosophies of the other schools too difficult to realise in life. The doctrine of Saakya
and Maitreya of this mortal world was transformed into the Pure Land doctrine of different
Nirvaa.na gradually changed its meaning, "absolute faith" and
devotion in Amitaabha was thought to be the definite way of salvation. The artist's
portrayal of Paradise became quite specific. "The new word Amita is a precious sword
cutting down all heresies". This has been conceived as bark of mercy which helps the
faithful devotees to cross the ocean of sorrows and distress and thus leads to the Western
Paradise the land of eternal bliss. This is the shortest means of avoiding the wheel of
transmigration and simple means which helps us out of this existence.
1. Edwin 0, Reischauer-John K. Fair Bank, The East Asia, The Great
Tradition, p. 170.
2. B. Nanjio's Catalogue 1577-Appendix III, 12.
3. N.C., App. III. 16.
4. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, Chap III. Note
5. Ibid., Chapter IV.
6. Su mi-lo-p'u-Sa-sheng-tuo-t'a-t'ien Ching., tranl., by
Chin Sheng in A.D. 455. A Suutra spoken by Buddha about the meditation
of the Bodhisattva Maitreya going to be reborn in Tusita heaven.
7. E. Zurcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China., Appendix IV. p.
8. Ibid., pp. 35, 220-221.
9. N.C., 73, 421.
10. Jian-bo-zen, Hu Hua., Concise History of China, pp. 70, 80,
11. Journal of the N. China Branch of R.A.S. Vol. LXIV 1933, Early
Chinese Travellers and their successors, by Wu-lien-teh.