Comparative Studies Excerpts Q&A

Are the Pure Land Sutras Authentic?

Question: The book ‘What Buddhists Believe’ seems to say Theravada Buddhism does not recognise the Pure Land Sutras. Since the scriptures were all recollected by Ananda, how is this possible?

Answer: Most Theravada Buddhists do not recognise the Pure Land Sutras as been taught by the Buddha as they are not found in the Pali Canon. However, there is no solid evidence that everything the Buddha taught is found only in the Pali Canon, because the Buddha taught for many (45) years, while the Pali Canon is not that big (as it can be easily read many times over in a lifetime) in comparison to the Mahayana Canon. There is also evidence that parts of the Mahayana Canon can be more accurate than the Pali Canon (see below).

Mahayana Buddhists believe Ananda was there at the council of 500 Arahants held after the Buddha’s parinirvana to recall both the Buddha’s original teachings. The problem is, all the teachings were committed only to their memories as writing wasn’t popular yet. They were written down only around 1st century BCE (while Buddha passed into parinirvana at around 483 BCE). That’s a difference of some 383 years. It is almost natural that different texts are passed down by oral teaching differently, ending up in different Canons.

According to a recent tabulation of the translated texts (which is ongoing!) in the Chinese Canon edited in Japan under the title ‘Taisho Tripitaka’, which currently contains 2,184 texts, more than 13 per cent of all the scriptures held to be authentic in the Chinese tradition recognise Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land. That is about 283 Sutras! The 3 Pure Land Sutras only happen to be the ones that focus entirely on Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land.

It is not possible that this tight network of cross-referenced Sutras which mention Amitabha Buddha is a huge hoax. Historically, scholars do not have any credible conspiracy theories as to how the Mahayana Sutras could be written by hoaxsters. The wisdom within is just too profound! Most of all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Throughout history, countless people have found solace in Pure Land practice and manifested signs of birth in Pure Land that no one can deny.

The late author of ‘What Buddhists Believe’ is a well known Theravada teacher, but there are parts in this book that Mahayanists would disagree with. I think you were referring to the following part of the book below. Please consider these excerpts from the section on the nature of Bodhisattvas (http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/whatbelieve.pdf) with some comments on them:

Excerpt: According to the Pali texts there is no mention of Buddha Bodhi being the only way to attain the final goal of Nibbanic bliss.

Comments: There are different grades of Nirvana. Even Theravadins acknowledge that the Buddha’s enlightenment is greater than that of the Arahants. It is logical then, to see that Nibbanic bliss can differ in grade too.

Excerpt: It was very rare for a disciple during the Buddha’s time to forgo the opportunity to attain sainthood and instead declare bodhisatvahood as his aspiration. However, there are some records that some followers of the Buddha did aspire to become Bodhisattas to gain ‘Buddhahood’.

Comments: As the Theravada tradition focuses more on the Arahant ideal, it is natural that its texts contain less records on the Bodhisattva ideal. However, only Bodhisattvas can become Buddhas. This is agreed by all Theravadins too. Without the Bodhisattva ideal, there would be no Buddha and no Buddhism; not even Theravada Buddhism.

Excerpt: In the Mahayana school of thought, the Bodhisatva cult however, plays an important role. The Mahayana ideal regards the Bodhisatta as a being who, having brought himself to the brink of Nibbana, voluntarily delays the acquisition of his prize so that he may return to the world to make it accessible to others. He deliberately chooses to postpone his release from Samsara in order to show the path for others to attain Nibbana.

Comments: (The word ‘cult’ here refers to ‘worship’, not as in ‘evil cults’.) The above is a common misunderstanding of how Bodhisattvas work. Good Bodhisattvas will always strive to attain Buddhahood as the attainment of it allows them to operate with greater efficiency in manifesting as more enlightened Bodhisattvas (who might appear to be still on their way to Buddhahood) to help more beings. There is not so much conscious delay of Buddhahood but continua refusal to retire as ‘stagnant Buddhas’ not that there are any such beings, as all Buddhas have perfect and active compassion. For more on this, please see http://purelanders.com/2009/11/11/paradox-bodhisattvahoodbuddhahood-vowsperfections

Excerpt: Although Theravada Buddhists respect Bodhisatvas, they do not regard them as being in the position to enlighten or save others before their own enlightenment. Bodhisatvas are, therefore, not regarded as saviors. In order to gain their final salvation, all beings must follow the method prescribed by the Buddha and follow the example set by Him. They must also personally eradicate their mental defilements and develop all the great virtues.

Comments: Bodhisattvas might not be able to ‘give’ enlightenment, just as Buddhas cannot either, but they can guide well  especially if they are re-manifested from ancient Buddhas with perfect compassion and wisdom. As there are many grades of enlightenment, Bodhisattvas who are not yet Buddhas can also help show us the path to salvation if they are more advanced in spiritual cultivation than us.

Excerpt: Theravada Buddhists do not subscribe to the belief that everyone must strive to become a Buddha in order to gain Nibbana.

Comments: Mahayana Buddhists also do not subscribe to the belief that all must become Buddhas to attain Nirvana as there are many grades of enlightenment. Also, beings can upgrade their spiritual aspiration, even when they become Arahants.

Excerpt: However, the word ‘Bodhi’ is used to refer to the qualities of a Buddha, or PaccekaBuddha and Arahant in expressions such as Sammasmbodhi, PaccekaBodhi and SavakaBodhi. In addition, many of the Buddhas mentioned in the Mahayana school are not historical Buddhas and are therefore not given much attention by Theravada Buddhists.

Comments: The truth is, the Buddha is also recorded in the Theravada texts (Pali Canon) to have recalled hundreds of his past lives in detail (in the Jataka Tales). In this sense, there is a lot of mention of the path of the Bodhisattva in practice, even though ‘he’ is also not historical. Despite this, much attention is paid by Theravadins on the Jataka Tales too.

Excerpt: The notion that certain Buddha and Bodhisatvas are waiting in Sukhawati (Pure Abode) for those who pray to them is a notion quite foreign to the fundamental Teachings of the Buddha.

Comments: Sukhavati is the name of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, which might be in the Pure Abodes (Suddhavasa). In short, Sukhavati cannot be equated to Suddhavasa directly. What are the ‘fundamental teachings’ of the Buddha? Theravadins would say the Pali Canon contains it, while Mahayanists would say the Mahayana Canon contains it. However, note that the Agama Sutras in the Mahayana Sutras are seen as largely equivalent to the suttas in the Pali Canon (the Nikaya Suttas), while recent research by scholars show that the Agamas are at times more accurate records of the Buddha’s teachings than the Nikayas. It is thus hard to say which Canon is more fundamental or accurate!

Excerpt: Certain Bodhisatvas are said to voluntarily remain in Sukhawati, without gaining enlightenment themselves, until every living being is saved. Given the magnitude of the universe and the infinite number of beings who are enslaved by ignorance and selfish desire, this is clearly an impossible task, since there can be no end to the number of beings.

Comments: These Bodhisattvas are really ancient Buddhas, as mentioned above. If every Buddhist sees the task of guiding all beings to enlightenment as impossible, there would be no one aspiring to be Buddhas, for Buddhas are all the results of having being Bodhisattvas who vow to help all beings. And since not all beings are helped yet when they become Buddhas, they simply re-manifest as Bodhisattvas to carry on helping.

Excerpt: Must a Bodhisatva always be a Buddhist? We may find among Buddhists some self-sacrificing and ever loving Bodhisatvas. Sometimes they may not even be aware of their lofty aspiration, but they instinctively work hard to serve others and cultivate their pristine qualities. Nevertheless, Bodhisattas are not only found among Buddhists, but possibly among the other religionists as well.

Comments: Buddhists need not always be Bodhisattvas, but all Buddhists need to be Bodhisattvas if they wish to become Buddhas. The difference between one who is set to be a Bodhisattva and one who helps others is that the first aspires to help ALL beings reach enlightenment, even if it takes indefinite time.

Excerpt: The Jataka stories, which relate the previous birth stories of the Buddha, describe the families and forms of existence taken by the Bodhisatva. Sometimes He was born as an animal. It is hard to believe that He could have been born in a Buddhist family in each and every life. But no matter what form He was born as or family he was born into. He invariably strived hard to develop certain virtues. His aspiration to gain perfection from life to life until final birth when he emerged as a Buddha, is the quality which clearly distinguishes a Bodhisatta from other beings.

Comments: It is easy to imagine being born into a Buddhist family life after life if one has created strong karmic affinities with Buddhism. Even so, it is not true that all the Jataka Tales record the Buddha being in Buddhist families for all previous lives. Even when not born in a Buddhist family, it is possible to have and nurture the Bodhisattva ideal. Amituofo.

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!