Buddhism A–Z
What is Pure Land Buddhism?
Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Pure Land (Sukhavati), Courtesy of Barbara and William Karatz Gift and other donors.

Pure Land Buddhism is one of the most widely practiced forms of Buddhism, especially in East Asia.  It is also one of the oldest branches of Mahayana Buddhism. Pure Land philosophy and practices are not limited to the specifically designated Pure Land traditions, such as Japanese Jodo Shinshu, but are found in many schools of Mahayana.

Pure Land is very broadly understood as a devotional approach to Buddhism that centers on faith in Amitabha Buddha, a transcendent figure whose name means “infinite light.” Devotion to Amitabha enables one to be reborn in Sukhavati, the western pure land or “Western Paradise.” This is a sublime place where enlightenment is easily realized. But note that Sukhavati, or any pure land, can be understood in many ways.

Especially in East Asia, Pure Land teachings and practices have been popular with laypeople. The simple, devotional practices fit more easily into a busy household than hours of meditation or sutra study.

What Is a Pure Land?

“Pure land” is the English rendering of the Chinese jingtu, meaning “purified ground.” The concept of pure lands appears to have originated in India in early Mahayana Buddhism, possibly about the 1st century CE. Originally a pure land was a buddhaksetra, or “buddha field,” in Sanskrit. This was the sphere of activity of a buddha, where a buddha leads people to enlightenment. A buddhaksetra was imagined to be a place of special purity, sometimes even a world unto itself. In time it was believed that a buddha field spontaneously emerged around a newly enlightened buddha. So there are as many pure lands as there are buddhas.

The Vimalakirti Sutra, ca.100 CE, teaches that enlightened beings who perceive the essential purity of the world dwell in purity; the buddha field is pure when the mind is pure. This suggests a buddha field is not a physical place but a mental state. A person with a defiled mind may be standing in the same spot but see no paradise. 

Pure lands are also understood as blissful places that offer an uncommon opportunity for enlightenment, and those reborn in a pure land may easily achieve Nirvana.

The Pure Land Sutras

The Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, a Mahayana sutra that dates to the 1st-3rd century CE, tells the story of a monk named Dharmakara. (This sutra is also sometimes called the Longer Amitabha Sutra or the Longer Pure Land Sutra.) Dharmakara meditated for five eons, seeking to merge all of the best qualities of buddha fields into one especially pure buddha field. He made a number of vows that people who properly direct their devotion and resolution may be reborn there. When Dharmakara realized enlightenment, he became Amitabha, and his buddha field Sukhavati appeared. 

This sutra and two others provide the doctrinal basis of Pure Land Buddhism. The Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra is cherished for its rich and inspiring descriptions of Sukhavati. The Amitayurdhyana Sutra, or Visualization Sutra, is best known for its teachings on visualizing Sukhavati and on stages of spiritual attainment.

Beginnings of Pure Land Buddhism

For a time, the teachings on buddha fields were common to all of Mahayana; there was no “Pure Land school” in India. Pure Land, as a particular branch of practice, began to evolve in China. In 402 CE, a Chinese monk named Huiyuan organized a White Lotus Society with some other monks and laypeople. It’s recorded that this group vowed before an image of Amitabha that they would be reborn in Sukhavati.

In the centuries that followed, iconic images of Amitabha became a favorite theme in Chinese Buddhist art. Reverently chanting Amitabha’s name became a common practice in much of Chinese Buddhism. Other devotional practices associated with Amitabha include bowing, visualizations, and chanting of the Pure Land sutras. Of the many forms of Buddhism that began in China, the two most often practiced today are Pure Land and Chan (Zen).

From China, Pure Land practices were transmitted to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. For the most part, in Korea and Vietnam the Pure Land teachings and practices were absorbed into Buddhism generally, but in Japan they became their own schools.

Pure Land in Japan

Pure Land devotional practices were first introduced into Japan by the Tendai sect, which is dedicated to reconciling all the diverse practices and teachings of Buddhism. Then the Tendai monk Hōnen (1133-1212) founded Jodo Shu, or the “pure land school.” Hōnen had been looking for a way to bring Buddhism to all people, not just to monks and nuns. He became persuaded that the only practice needed was the nembutsu, the chanting of Amitabha’s name. 

A student of  Hōnen’s named Shinran (1173-1263) founded Jodo Shinshu (“true pure land school”), which often is called just Shin Buddhism. The primary difference between these two schools is that Hōnen emphasized many repetitions of the nembutsu, while Shinran thought one recitation was enough if said with complete faith and sincerity. Jodo Shinshu is the largest Pure Land school in Japan today.

There are two other recognized Pure Land sects in Japan. One is Ji-shu, the “time school,” founded in 1270 by an itinerant clergyman named Ippen. Ji-shu teaches that the power to liberate is entirely in the hands of Amitabha, and that one’s own faith doesn’t matter. And even before Hōnen a Tendai monk named Ryōnin (1072–1132) was teaching that it was important for many people to chant the nembutsu together to create merit for all people. Ryōnin’s teachings survive in the Yūzūnenbutsu school of Japan.

Related Reading

Buddha Amitabha.

A Brief History of Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land is both a distinct school of Buddhism that developed in Japan and, says Aaron Proffitt, a cornerstone of the whole Mahayana tradition.

The Primal Vow of Pure Land Buddhism

The foundation of the Pure Land path, explains Takashi Miyaji, is Amitabha Buddha’s vow to liberate anyone who calls on him.

Buddha Amitabha.

Radical Thinkers of Pure Land Buddhism

Mark Unno looks at the historical figures behind Pure Land Buddhism — the tradition based on the enlightened realm of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.