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...... ... .  . .  .  .
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 China".[1]

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 Ch’an 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-t’ai (Tendai in Japan) and the Hua-yen (Avatamsaka) were very scholastic and doctrinal which had little bearing on Chinese mind. The T'ien-t’ai was founded by a Chinese monk Chih-yi (A.D 538-597)[2] the name of the school was given T'ien-t’ai 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 and Mahaasthaama-Praapta.

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"[3]. 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-t’o-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 Amitaabha.

The tradition connects the beginning of the Amitaabha cult with the name of early 3rd century Wei-shih-tu [4] 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 [5] where venerable Tao-an with a number of disciples made a vow before an icon of Maitreya Bodhisattva to be reborn in Tushita heaven.[6]

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-yuan’s 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 [8] 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 [10]. 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-ch’o, 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-ch’o 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- ch’un 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 world.

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 245.

5. Ibid., Chapter IV.

6. Su mi-lo-p'u-Sa-sheng-tuo-t'a-t'ien Ching., tranl., by Ts’u-K'u

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. 244.

8. Ibid., pp. 35, 220-221.

9. N.C., 73, 421.

10. Jian-bo-zen, Hu Hua., Concise History of China, pp. 70, 80, 81.

11. Journal of the N. China Branch of R.A.S. Vol. LXIV 1933, Early Chinese Travellers and their successors, by Wu-lien-teh.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-8-2000

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