Before delving into how a post on Pure Land Buddhism relates to Christian apologetics, let me provide a brief introduction to the history and development of thought in this ancient Buddhist philosophy.
Pure Land Buddhism is a Mahayana School of Buddhism; it focuses on the attainment of nirvana through the merits of Amitabha Buddha, who is the focus of this sect. Pure Land Buddhism started in India during the Kushan era and then spread to China from Gandhara. The missionaries from Gandhara translated the texts into Chinese.
Scriptures: The Pure Land scriptures include Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. These describe the Pure Land of Amitabha and the bliss available to those who call Amitabha to mind continually.
“The Larger Sutra is the only extant sutra that relates the narrative of how the bodhisattva Dharma-Storehouse (Dharmākara) established and fulfilled vows to become Amida (“immeasurable [light and life]”), the buddha of compassion who leads all beings to enlightenment by enabling them to be born into his buddha-field” (2).
Origin: Pure Land Buddhism started in India during the Kushan era and then spread to China from Gandhara. Pure land sects are Mahayana Buddhism schools which became institutionalised and formed sects when it entered Japan from Korea. The sects representing Pure Land Buddhism include Jodoshu and Jodo Shinshu.
In the 12th century, Honan simplified the teachings of this sect and it became immensely popular. Shinran was his disciple and started his own school called Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, or Shin Buddhism, is based upon the teachings and writings of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262) and Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499). “Shonin” is a Japanese term that means sage or master. “Jodo Shinshu” means literally “True Pure Land Sect” (1). Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin are two prominent masters of this school of Buddhism taught in Japan. Master Shinran expounded the “True Pure Land Way,” or the path whose practice is LISTENING DEEPLY to the Dharma preached by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Larger Pure Land Sutra. This practice entails total faith in and reliance upon Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life (1).
Amitabha Buddha: Amitabha Buddha was once a mortal king who, in his desire to attain nirvana, approached Buddha Lokeshvararaja, who is spoken of in the Larger Pure Land Sutra. In his quest for nirvana, Amitabha relinquished his kingdom, riches, and privileges and, after many austere measures and practices, became a Boddhisattva, calling himself Dharmakara. Dharmakara means “Dharma store house.”
Bodhisattva Dharmakara asked Buddha Lokeshvararaja to show him all the billions of buddha-lands of the cosmos. When he was granted this request, Bodhisattva Dharmakara determined to create a Pure Land of his own, containing all the virtues of the other buddhas’ buddha-lands but without any of the evils in those buddha-lands. He then was inspired to make 48 Vows, detailing the attributes of his Pure Land which he intended and vowed to create. The most outstanding of these vows is presented in the Larger Pure Land Sutra as Vow 18, otherwise called the Primal Vow, which reads as follows: “If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.” Other Buddhas vow to save all beings through performing various difficult practices that only talented people can successfully perform and only through very many lives. Bodhisattva Dharmakara wished to create a special buddha-land where ALL beings can IMMEDIATELY be saved and become fully enlightened buddhas, whether male or female, young or old, good or evil, educated or illiterate (1).
Salvation by Faith: Thus, Amitabha Buddha provides the easiest way for lay people to attain nirvana. Anyone who trusts and believes in him and takes refuge in him will enter the “Pure Land of Bliss.” Amitabha Buddha, similair to Jesus, offers salvation by faith through grace.
Heaven: “In Amida’s buddha-land (what we call the Pure Land or Sukhavati), the sincere petitioner who takes single minded refuge in Amida Buddha – including the most evil reprobates – are saved and will, after death, be reborn and attain enlightenment (Buddhahood) without the confusing and conflicting pains and distractions of mortal existence and bypassing what would, without Amida’s saving grace, be countless rebirths in the lower realms of suffering” (1).
Transfer of Merit: The Boddhisattva Amitabha out of compassion for struggling humanity has accumulated vast stores of merit after practise and good works for aeons . This could be transferred to those who trust him and their good karma would outweight their bad ones and they can attain liberation and enter the world of Amitabha, the pure land of bliss.
“In brief, the Japanese Pure Land contribution to Buddhist philosophy may be said to lie in its fusion of two fundamental attitudes. On the one hand, it stands squarely upon a Mahayana Buddhist conception of enlightened wisdom as radically nondichotomous and nondual with reality, indicated with such terms as thusness, buddha-nature, and emptiness. On the other hand, it directly confronts the nature of human existence in its ineluctable finitude: karmically conditioned, discriminative and reifying in awareness, and given to the afflicting passions of attachment to a falsely conceived self surrounded by substantial objects. Through its probing religious anthropology, Japanese Pure Land thought explores the paradoxical issues of how transformative awakening can be possible for the ignorant self, how attainment as liberation from defiled self-will can occur, and the nature of the world of religious realization that unfolds within the locus of a person’s samsaric existence” (2).
Pure Land Buddhism, true to it’s Mahayana foundation, believes in non-duality as the ultimate truth and the soul-less-ness of man as its foundation along with the doctrine of Dharma and Karma.
AN APPROACH TO SHARING CHRIST USING THE TEACHINGS OF PURE LAND BUDDHISM
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, does a wonderful comparison in Church Dogmatics between Reformed Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism as taught by Honen and Shinran.
He surveyed the religious traditions of the world in search of doctrinal parallels to Christianity and concluded that it was the Japanese Pure Land tradition that provided “the most exact, comprehensive, and plausible ‘pagan’ parallel to Christianity” (Barth 1961, 1,2: 342). He expresses some shock at the depth and specificity of resemblance, commenting that the Pure Land thought of Hōnen and Shinran, in particular, “parallels not so much Roman or Greek Catholicism but rather, of all things, the Christianity of the Reformation, and therefore confronts Christianity with the question of its truth precisely in its form as a consistent religion of grace” (2).
The following are examples of the parallels I’ve found between Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity and how Christianity stands superior in comparison:
1.Amithaba Buddha as a shadow of Christ. Amithaba is not a historical figure, but Christ is and He in reality provides the much longed for salvation that was revealed to these people through the Amithaba figure.
2. Sukhavati as a shadow of the true heaven.
3. The historical reality of Christ as opposed to the myth of the Amithaba Buddha. The great number of manuscript evidence for the Gospels coupled with the external evidence through the Talmud and the writings of Jewish historian Josephus and Roman historians Tacitus, Thallus, and Seutonius give strong proof for the reality of Jesus, his miracles, his death, and resurrection. Amithaba is not supported by such historically reliable evidences.
4. Double imputation in Christ vs transfer of merit of Amithaba to the devotee. In Christ, our sins are dealt with and His merit is transferred to us. In Amithaba, the sins are not dealt with; there is simply a transfer of merit so that the good merits outweigh the bad ones and the believer in Amithaba enters the pureland of bliss after his death.
5. The name of Jesus vs the name of Amitaba. The name of Christ is the highest given to man. There is authority in the name of Jesus. All prayers are made in the name of Jesus because it is only through Him that we can appraoch God. No vain repetition or chanting of the name of Christ is encouraged or taught in Christianity. Chanting the name of Amitaba in Pure land is one of the ways of attaining salvation. This recitation of the name of Buddha Amithaba is called nembutsu. Saying “Namu Amida Butsu” with conviction certifies that one attains birth in the Pure Land.
6. Justice. Justice is not served in Pureland, whereas Christ takes up the punishment and justice is obtained. One good deed cannot cancel a bad deed.
7. Faith as persuation based on evidence(objective and subjective) vs blind faith in Amitabha. Amitabha has not demonstrated his love in a verifiable manner. Christ, on the other hand, demonstrated his love in a historical verifiable manner so that even after 2000 years we are able to historically and archeologically demostrate what Christ said and did.
8. The Bible vs the Pure Land Sutras. The Bible has the greatest number of manuscript evidence, and its historical reliability has been established. It is not so with the Pure Land Sutras.
9. Assurance of salvation vs wishful thinking of nembutsu. The historically reliable Christ gives personal evidence to the individual by granting him a clean conscience, freedom from sins, peace of mind, and His presence through the Holy Spirit who will always be with the believer and guide him in the right path.
10.Personal relationship with Jesus vs Personal relationship with Amithaba. The great historical evidences for the resurrection and the appearances of Jesus to Paul and a group of five hundred after the resurrection (the veracity of which was sealed by the blood of the martyred eyewitnesses) give sufficient proof to the reality of Jesus and the resurrection. Personal experience adds to this list of proofs. These justify a personal relationship with Jesus. The life of Amithaba is not historically verifiable and lacks credibility. Any belief in it is just blind faith which is not based on evidence.