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group study Pure Land Buddhism and Guruyoga Tantra

Group study openly invites people to exchange thoughts together based on premises that are always explicitly pointed out, however loose they might be, and when any fixed outcome isn't called for. It's good to keep mindful and respectful of both what is and what isn't relevant for discussion though.

Energetic conflict(s):      None. Only usual carefulness is asked.

  1. Teacher Needed (learning is too difficult without teacher's detailed assistance or supervision)

Discussion premise:      Buddhist — Please try to uphold this point of view so that the discussion always returns to it.

Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
First, look through the Preliminaries of Buddhist Practice thread and make sure that you understand what is the starting point for this thread.

Pure Land Buddhism is often referred to as the most simple way to enter the Mahayana Buddha Dharma. Mindfulness of the Buddha, name of the Buddha, specific mantras associated with the Buddha, and visualizing the Buddha's Pure Land and mandala. The Pure Land practitioners make an active effort to attune with their chosen Buddha and eventually realize the Buddha's enlightenment via the gradual Bodhisattva path. An important aspect of this is the belief in the Pure Lands of Buddhas, each of them a paradise reflecting the vows and the heart of the individual Buddha and into where it's possible to gain entry and rebirth for a guaranteed safe practice of Dharma. Sometimes Pure Land practice can be characterized as a spiritual "life insurance" which thwarts the bad outcomes of incomplete practice when life is cut short.

Vajrayana Buddhism commonly seeks union through tantric practices which emphasize pure vision. The subjective experiences are transformed into pure and immediately liberated of karmic traces when they are viewed without ego or self-clinging by residing in one's own Buddha-nature. One of the most important root practices is Guruyoga which can also be realized through different types of visualization — including visualizing oneself as the Buddha and seeing one's environment as the Pure Land —, informal prayer, and mantra chanting of the chosen Buddha or meditative deity, i.e. yidam. Note the outward similarity to Mahayana Pure Land practices! However, there also are more complicated practices that may even incorporate multiple yidams. All such practices create connections to Pure Lands of the enlightened teachers and yidams, no doubt, although this often isn't the emphasis of tantra.

The difference between Mahayana approach and Vajrayana is that of causal and resultant vehicle. Whereas Daoist Neidan and Mahayana Buddhist practices create causal grounds for purification and wish to grow a germ to Enlightened perfection, hence causal vehicles, tantra connects with the Buddha's pure vision where suffering and self-grasping are finished already, hence an immediate non-dual union and resultant vehicle.

I feel that there is enough common ground in both Mahayana and Vajrayana approaches because both fundamentally represent the devotional part of Buddhist tradition. Heartfelt devotion (without sentimental attachment) certainly is more intimate and accessible than the "guys loiter in the corner and stare at the wall" type of meditation. Therefore, all discussion about Pure Land and simple Guruyoga practices is welcome here. Feel free to praise your favorite Buddha or yidam!
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Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member

The Pure Land School​

Relatively unfamiliar to and, perhaps, misunderstood by the West is the Pure Land School, originated in China, which upholds the teachings in five sūtras and one treatise. For example, in the Amitābha Sūtra (Sūtra 23), Śākyamuni Buddha says, “Therefore, Śāriputra, if, among good men and good women, there are those who believe [my words], they should resolve to be reborn in that land.” Taking the Buddha’s instruction to heart, the devotees of this school strive, as their immediate goal, to be reborn in Sukhāvatī, Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. In that splendid environment and in the excellent company of advanced Bodhisattvas, one will attain Buddhahood with Amitābha’s training and support, bypassing the long Way to Buddhahood through one’s cycle of birth and death in the Three Realms of Existence. However, one may choose to return to our impure world any time for delivering sentient beings if one feels compelled and able to do so.

That Buddha has two names in Sanskrit: Amitābha means infinite light, describing His wisdom, and Amitāyus means infinite life, describing His dharma body (dharmakāya), which is beyond the concept of space and time. Chinese Buddhists call Him Amituo, omitting the fourth syllable in either Sanskrit name. He was once a monk named Dharmākara, who, resolved to attain Buddhahood, had made forty-eight vows to form His splendid Buddha Land and to draw aspiring sentient beings there. One of His vows states that everyone can be reborn there by saying His name in earnest faith even with only ten repetitions (vow 18 in Sūtra 25).

The Pure Land School does not claim that rebirth in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land can be achieved through faith only. There are three requirements: faith, resolve, and training. The devotees train either in thinking of Amitābha Buddha with appearance, such as saying His name, visualizing His image and His land, and reciting His mantra (Mantra 5 or 6), or in thinking of Him in the back of one’s mind without appearance. Thinking of Amitābha Buddha is their way to practice śamatha; being vigilant in their thinking is their way to practice vipaśyanā.

When ordinary beings die, karmic forces arise from their minds, driving each to be reborn in a karmic life form and in an environment upon which the new life form relies. Therefore, in order to open a pure dimension in one’s mind, it would be imperative to sustain the right thought and unwavering aspiration up to the final moment—quite a challenge for the dying one. Besides, in the above sūtra, Śākyamuni Buddha says, “No one with the condition of few roots of goodness and a meager store of merits can be reborn in that land.” Although the Pure Land School claims that their Dharma Door is the Hard-to-Believe Easy Path, it really may not be that easy.

Nevertheless, hundreds of stories have been well documented to this day of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen in China who have trained themselves in the way of the Pure Land School and received excellent signs at death. In addition to having visions of Amitābha and His Pure Land before or upon dying, many foretold their departure dates and actually died on those dates. Other signs have included fragrance, radiance, the crown of the head staying warm for hours after death, the body remaining flexible for days after death, and so forth.
There are those who offhandedly assert that one’s leaving saṁsāra for the Pure Land is an act of uncaring for other sentient beings, and indicates a failure to seek enlightenment in one’s present life. These critics need to be reminded that rebirth of every ordinary being is driven, not by a sense of mission, but by ignorance of the truth and thirsty love of being. Although there are those who are fortunate to have heard the Dharma in their present life, their spiritual attainment is subject to regress. Besides, one will never know, as one’s cycle of birth and death turns, how one’s next rebirth will turn out. According to the Mahāyāna doctrine, only a holy being, one who has achieved one of the four voice-hearer fruits or has ascended to the first Bodhisattva ground or above, will never be reborn in any of the four evil life forms. Ordinary beings and Bodhisattvas below the first ground are not exempt from these evil life-paths. Therefore, rebirth in the Pure Land, in total likeness of a Buddha, overriding the karmic force of saṁsāra, is itself a great achievement. It takes great faith, resolve, and training to achieve it. In that dimension, the inhabitants of the Pure Land, biding their time, fully intend to return to our impure world to teach and help others.

Furthermore, records indicate that many adherents of the Pure Land School, including most of the thirteen patriarchs and some of their disciples, before abandoning their bodies for rebirth in the Pure Land, had realized their true mind and seen their Buddha nature. In the terminology of the Chán School, these two realizations are respectively labeled the first gate and the second gate. Therefore, passing these two gateless gates is not achieved exclusively by Chán Buddhists through the Chán Door. Constantly remembering and thinking of a Buddha is a great Dharma Door, through which one may achieve not only realization of one’s Buddha nature during one’s life, as taught by Mahāsthāmaprāpta (Great Might Arrived) Bodhisattva (Sūtra 8), but also rebirth in the Pure Land for advanced training toward Buddhahood—a double accomplishment.

To be reborn in that Pure Land, one basically needs to rely on one’s faith, resolve, and training. However, during the final hours of truth, one can count on an empowering hospice service by a team of volunteers called Lotus Friends, a service provided by some Chinese Buddhist temples and lay groups. Lotus Friends will chant Amitābha Buddha’s name at one’s death bed, invoking over again His blessings and strengthening one’s final mindfulness and aspiration, as one’s consciousness fades into darkness. They usually start chanting before one’s death and continue to chant for eight to twelve hours after death. Departing one’s life peacefully in the company of Lotus Friends chanting “Amitābha Buddha” in unison is a noble sendoff to a noble rebirth. Although one may not necessarily achieve rebirth in the Pure Land, it is comforting to depart this life with the help and support of Lotus Friends. With lovingkindness and compassion for the deceased and the surviving family, Lotus Friends also serve to bear witness to favorable signs, if any, of rebirth in the Pure Land.

Although the Pure Land School has neither a guru-to-disciple lineage nor a centralized institution, it does have a line of thirteen patriarchs, honored posthumously for their achievements and for their auspicious signs of rebirth in the Pure land. Whether or not this school, without a living famous charismatic leader, can find its way into the consciousness of the West remains to be seen.

Source: Rulu, Introduction to Mahayana Buddhist Sutras and Mantra

Five Sūtras and One Treatise (五經一論)​

The Pure Land School follows:

  1. the Sūtra of Amitāyus Buddha (T12n0360)
  2. the Sūtra of Amitābha Buddha (T12n0366)
  3. the Sūtra of Visualization of Amitāyus Buddha (T12n0365)
  4. “Great Might Arrived Bodhisattva’s Thinking-of-Buddhas as the Perfect Passage” (a subsection in fascicle 5 of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra [T19n0945]);
  5. “The Universally Worthy Action Vow” (fascicle 40 of the 40-fascicle version of the Mahāvaipulya Sūtra of Buddha Adornment [T10n0293])
  6. the Upadeśa on the Sūtra of Amitāyus Buddha (T26n1524).

English translations of these six texts are in book Thinking of Amitābha Buddha (AuthorHouse 2012, ISBN: 9781468540895) by Rulu.

The book above includes four other Sutras that relate to the overall philosophy and practice of Pure Land:

  1. Buddha Pronounces the Sūtra of the Pratyutpanna Buddha Sammukhāvasthita Samādhi
  2. Sūtra of Mahā-Prajñā-Pāramitā Pronounced by Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva
  3. Mahāvaipulya Sūtra of the Inconceivable State of Tathāgatas
  4. Sūtra of the Prophecy Bestowed upon Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

I would like to express my fondest thanks to Rulu for translating and publishing this many authentic Dharma texts and even more!

Roots of Virtue

At Your Service
Staff member
This post will be expanded to have basic information about Guruyoga practice and its philosophy.