How An Anti-Pureland ‘Treatise’ Failed


The following are excerpts from ‘Buddhism In Taiwan: Religion And The State: 1660-1990’ (pp. 124-133) by Charles Brewer Jones (University of Hawai’i Press) with comments.

Excerpt: What follows is a classic story of piety versus academic inquiry…

Comments: There should always be great piety towards learning, practice and teaching according to time-tested sutras taught by the Buddha, and treatises taught by great masters, as exemplified by Great Master Yinguang (1861-1940), the Thirteenth Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition (净土宗十三祖印光大师), instead of propagating unsubstantiated speculations such as the below, which do not even qualify to be actual academic inquiry.

Excerpt: It is difficult to read Yinshun’s [印顺: 1906-2005] “New ‘Treatise’ on the Pure Land” without perceiving his distaste for the kind of Pure Land piety advocated by [Great Master] Yinguang and popular throughout China. This simple and exclusive devotion to the practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name in the hope of gaining rebirth in the Western Paradise must have appeared to him at the heart of the crass, popular Buddhism that he had vowed to reform in his youth…

: Such a ‘treatise’ is thus more of an argument against the time-tested Pure Land teachings. It also means the author failed to understand and appreciate them, to be further shown…

Excerpt: Among devotees, Pure Lands are psychological constructions of idealized worlds. In China, these Pure Lands have four characteristics: (1) They are level, with no mountains, valleys, rivers, oceans, or sharp stones. Yinshun believes that this represents the terrain of the Gangetic plains… (2) They are symmetrical and well-ordered: the trees are evenly spaced and in rows, and the landscape is balanced. Yinshun here comments that this aspect is not so important within Chinese culture, as a glance at a typical Chinese landscape painting will reveal; (3) They are very clean, and free of any impurity whatsoever; (4) They are very rich, adorned with golden sands and jewel-laden trees. This last item Yinshun takes to be a peculiarly Mahayana conceit, and reveals the popular origins of the Mahayana schools: Whereas Hinayana taught contentment with what one possessed, Mahayana scriptures are full of grandeur (pp. 9-10).

Comments: More accurately, Pure Lands are physical ideal worlds too, as actualised by Buddhas’ perfect compassion and wisdom to benefit all. According to the sutras, there are more than these four characteristics of Pure Lands. Respectively, the four theories stated do not make sense as: (1) It is possible to equate description of any place with some other place, while not proving that the described must be from that equated to. For example, some aspects of Buddhist descriptions of the hells seem equivalent to god-centric faiths’ hell(s). Yet, this does not mean the first was inspired by the latter. The level nature of Pure Land represents equality and equanimity, the lack of rivers and oceans represent the lack of physical obstacles and danger, and the lack of sharp stones represent the lack of pain and suffering. (2) This point is irrelevant, while it makes sense that Pure Lands are orderly instead of chaotic like this defiled land of ours, which represents our convoluted minds and mixed karma. (3) Of course Pure Lands should be clean and undefiled; thus are they known as Pure Lands. (4) The grandeur of Pure Lands in Mahayana sutras are expressions of Buddhas’ immeasurable meritorious virtues, and are for skilful attraction of sentient beings to be born there. The jewels (or gems) in Pure Land radiate the Dharma too. They are never mere material objects but are the most refined forms for aiding refinement of our spirituality.

Excerpt: More importantly, the presentation of the Pure Land as found in the Indian sutras reveals how scriptures reflect the social and geographical contexts of their authors; for example, the notion of many bathing pools and shady trees in the Pure Land would have naturally occurred to authors living in the hot, dry climate of central India. (p.11). In a direct jab at the Pure Land school, Yinshun points out that it really resembles a Marxist utopia (p.12); one can imagine how the citizens of the ROC [Republic Of China] after 1949 would have reacted to this comparison!

Comments: The Pure Land sutras were not authored by the unenlightened, but recorded by the enlightened, with the fully enlightened teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha. Pools and trees in Pure Land do not simply reflect the background of ancient India, as these are timeless and thus universal aspects of any paradisiacal place that will always be appreciated. Through comparison, it is easy to realise that no ‘Marxist Utopia’ resembles Pure Land in form or ideology.

Excerpt: In one of the more controversial chapters of his New Treatise, Yinshun discusses the possible origin of the figure of Amitabha Buddha within the context of Hindu solar worship. Several factors led him to believe that Amitabha Buddha derived directly from the Hindu solar deity Mitra, and perhaps also from Persian antecedents. First, the name “Amitabha” itself means “limitless light.” Second, the first visualization prescribed in the Meditation Sutra (Guan Wuliangshoufo Jing, T.365) is that of the setting sun, a vision that would be consonant with the western localization of Amitabha’s Pure Land (pp. 22-23). Although this is all Yinshun had to say on this topic, and the discussion only occupies one page of his New Treatise, it must have proven very offensive to the average Pure Land devotee who conceived Amitabha as an existent Buddha and not a constructed deity whose derivation could be elucidated historically. At the very least, this is one aspect of his Pure Land theories that several commentators on the ensuing controversy have all fixated upon.

Comments: Many religious and mythological beings share similar characteristics due to archetypal elements used to represent them. However, this does not mean they share the same origins. For instance, probably every ancient culture worshipped the sun to some extent, but this does not mean one religious system linked to the sun led to another’s arising. ‘Amitabha’ means ‘Immeasurable Light’, which is not what any sun has! In fact, our sun’s light is not seen half of the time (i.e. at night), while the sun will fizzle out eventually. Its light is not immeasurable at all. The practice of visualising the setting sun is to help set a spiritual sense of direction to be born in the Western Pure Land while training concentration. There is not a single trace of sun worship in any Buddhist sutra. What presented were weak arguments attempting to denounce the central importance and reality of the Buddha (Amitabha) that all Buddhas will teach about. Sakyamuni Buddha himself taught about Amitabha Buddha in some 290 sutras!

Excerpt: Yinshun goes on from this discussion of Amitabha’s origins to his pairing with two other Buddhist figures generally represented as residing in the East: Aksobhya and Bhaisajya-raja. In the first instance, he points out how in the Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra, Aksobhya, whose name means “unmoving” represents wisdom. Thus, in following the motion of the sun from the east to the west as a metaphor for the believer’s progress in the Buddhist path, this juxtaposition of Aksobhya and Amitabha reflects the movement of the devotee from initial wisdom… to fuII buddhahood (pp. 26-28). Those who rely on reciting Amitabha’s name to attain rebirth in the Western Paradise while ignoring the symbolism of Aksobhya are seeking buddhahood without first aspiring to the cultivation of wisdom or enlightenment (p. 29).

Comments: This idea of the sun ‘moving’ from east to west representing a Buddhist’s progress does not appear in any sutra. It is sheer conjecture. Also, complete wisdom, that is the essence of full enlightenment (Buddhahood) is mostly swiftly realised in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land! This means it is ‘with wisdom’ and ‘for wisdom’ that birth there is sought!

Excerpt: The juxtaposition of Amitabha and Bhaisajya-raja Buddha represents another sort of symbiosis that, unlike the relationship between Amitabha and Aksobhya, has actually received attention within Chinese Buddhist culture. Bhaisajya-raja, or Medicine King Buddha, brings healing for illness, and protection from accidents, financial ruin, natural disasters, and the like. When paired with Amitabha, he represents happiness and longevity in this life, while the latter represents salvation after death…

Comments: Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha, as in the case of any other Buddha or great Bodhisattva. since with equally perfect compassion and merits to share, also has healing and protective effects for well-being, as attested by many practitioners in history. Amitabha Buddha is also widely known as the ‘Unsurpassable Great King Of Healers’ (无上大医王). Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha thus also results in longevity. As any good Pure Land practitioner can tell, it leads to increasing happiness in this life as we speak too, before experience of ultimate bliss in his Pure Land. This is salvation before and after death.

Excerpt: Yinshun finds much to criticize in the aspiration to seek rebirth in Amitabha’s Western Paradise (wangsheng jingtu). He points out that there is another way to achieve rebirth in a Pure Land, and that is to “adorn” a Pure Land oneself (zhuangyan jingtu). In this connection, Yinshun reminds the reader that Amitabha himself did not attain his present life in the Western Paradise by merely reciting a buddha’s name; rather, he first generated bodhicitta, the vow to achieve perfect enlightenment out of compassion for all sentient beings, and then worked to reach this goal over several aeons. The Pure Land that came into being as the “dependent recompense” of his exalted state represented the fulfillment of this vow. In Yinshun’s view, Buddhists ought to take this as their model of practice, since it reflects the Mahayana ideal of personal striving for the perfection of one’s own wisdom and compassion, and does not seek rebirth in a Pure Land in utter dependence upon a buddha’s saving power. This latter path makes the Pure Land into just another heaven and the buddha who creates it just another savior-deity (pp. 38-41).

Comments: There is no conflict at all, between aspiring to reach a Pure Land, and creating a Pure Land. In fact, the most efficient way to accomplish both is to do one’s best to make this world a better place right now, while also ensuring that Pure Land is reached, for swift learning from Amitabha Buddha’s example in person, on how to most effectively realise one’s Pure Land elsewhere. Amitabha Buddha, when still a Bodhisattva, reviewed 210 kotis of Buddha Lands, which include many Pure Lands, before beginning to shape his Pure Land. He was capable of this as he was already a great Bodhisattva – which most of us are surely not yet. This is why all Buddhas recommend us to seek birth in his Pure Land, for expediting our perfection of compassion and wisdom, to progress towards Buddhahood. It is in Pure Land, as enabled by Amitabha Buddha, that we will clearly see the suffering of all beings of all realms, thus giving rise to irreversible Bodhicitta, that few of us have these days. Reaching of Pure Land does not utterly depends on Amitabha Buddha too, as self-power via Nianfo practice is needed too, while having more supportive practices ensure higher grades of birth there. It is clear in the Pure Land sutras, that Pure Land is not just another heaven ruled by a deity, as it transcends all heavens, and is the best place to master the Dharma, as taught by Amitabha Buddha with perfect skilful means.

Excerpt: Yinshun argues that the elevation of calling the buddha’s name into a single, all-sufficient practice may be traced to a misunderstanding that confuses nianfo with chengming (calling upon the name [of the Buddha]). Buddhanursmrti, a rich and varied meditation upon the excellent qualities of the Buddha, is one of the earliest forms of Buddhist practice, and in Yinshun’s view constitutes the true form of nianfo, the Chinese term used to translate the Sanskrit. However, since the word nian means both “to contemplate” and “to recite aloud,” the Chinese came to believe that the term nianfo referred to oral invocation. Calling upon the Buddha’s name, on the other hand, is not a form of religious cultivation at all, according to Yinshun, but an expedient means reserved for situations where the believer is in danger, or as a last resort for someone on his or her deathbed with no time for proper repentance and confession… Yinshun then analyzes various scriptures, related to methods for attaining rebirth in various pure lands, that had been translated more than once into Chinese, and shows that the vocabulary of these sutras gradually shifted over time from “reflecting on” or “contemplating” the Buddha to “reciting the Buddha’s name” (pp.56-61).

Comments: It is clear in sutras such as Amitabha Sutra (‘执持名号’: ‘firmly uphold the name [of Amitabha Buddha]’) and Contemplation Sutra (‘称南无阿弥陀佛’: ‘recite “Namo Amituofo”‘), that Nianfo (念佛) in terms of chengming (称名) was taught by Sakyamuni Buddha. It is not so much that ‘reflecting upon’ became mistranslated as ‘reciting’ as both are valid methods to practise, while mindful name recitation is the easiest, without compromising on the benefits. Name recitation is for all occasions, as it was not taught that it is only for emergencies, or that ‘reflecting upon’ is only for non-emergencies.

Excerpt: In a move certain to infuriate his critics, Yinshun illustrates the above point further by referring to a story from a Jin dynasty historical work called the Record of Foreign Lands (Waiguo Ji), in which the people of Parthia, who are very stupid and understand nothing of Buddhism, come upon a golden parrot who recites the Buddha’s name. Convinced that the parrot was an incarnation of Amitabha, they all began joining in the recitation and thus attained rebirth in the Western Paradise. After relating this story, Yinshun points out that the Pure Land scriptures were among the first to be translated into Chinese, and indicates that this was not a compliment to the Chinese people. On the contrary, he takes this as evidence that the earliest Buddhist missionaries to China thought the Chinese people to be as stupid as the Parthians of old, and gave them this lowest form of practice because they did not think the Chinese capable of anything more. Otherwise, they would have translated works on Buddhist doctrine and cultivation (pp. 62-63). So the Chinese go on mindlessly repeating the Buddha’s name, spurred on by ignorant teachers such as Yinguang, whom he singles out by name for criticism at the end of this discussion (p. 64).

Comments: Usage of the story to make the point does not make sense as if the Parthians did indeed reach Pure Land, it did not matter if they were stupid or not. It was an appropriate skilful means utilised to get onto the expressway to Buddhahood via Pure Land, thereby increasing their wisdom quickly. In fact, this makes them not so stupid after all. That the Pure Land sutras were among the first translated to Chinese because the Chinese were deemed stupid does not make sense as these sutras could simply be seen as among the most important and most beneficial to all, which still proves true today! Those who learn and practise the Pure Land teachings properly will mindfully (instead of mindlessly) recite Amitabha Buddha’s name, as taught by very detailed teachers like Great Master Yinguang, as a complete Buddhist doctrine and cultivation, as evident through his many writings, that are still studied today.

Excerpt: Finally, Yinshun attacks a commonly used apologia for Pure Land practice: Relying on comments made by Nagarjuna in his Dasabhumika-vibhasa-sastra (Shizhu Piposha Lun, T.1521), devotees assert that reciting the Buddha’s name constitutes an “easy path” for those unable to take the “difficult path” of attaining the six perfections over several aeons of practice. Yinshun points out that Nagarjuna prefaces his remarks on the “easy path” with some rather sarcastic comments to the effect that it constitutes a path of last resort for those lacking in the bodhisattva’s resolve and compassion… In fact, Yinshun asserts that “easy path” and “difficult path” are misnomers, with his dictum “It is hard to become a buddha by taking the easy path, but it is easy to become a buddha by taking the difficult path.” To illustrate, he relates that Maitreya chose to take the easy path, while Sakyamuni Buddha chose the difficult path. Even though Maitreya took his vows forty aeons before the Buddha, he is still in the Tusita Heaven awaiting the ripening of his practice, while Sakyamuni has already achieved his goal (pp. 64-70).

Comments: As Nagarjuna Bodhisattva himself aspired to reach Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, the above surely betrays misinterpretation and misrepresentation of his teachings! The Easy Path through Pure Land does enable easier and faster practice of the Six Perfections in this life and the next; it does not do away with them altogether, since they are needed for Buddhahood. The Easy Path is the more suitable for most, which is why all Buddhas urge practice of it. If even Bodhisattvas such as Nagarjuna, Manjusri and more aspire to reach Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, how can it be only for those lacking in Bodhicitta and compassion? What lacking compassion would be advocating the Difficult Path for more. The ‘Easy Path’ and ‘Difficult Path’ are not misnomers as the Pure Land path is truly more easy and thus more efficient for all, while the non Pure Land path is extremely difficult, as warned too by Nagarjuna. As Maitreya Bodhisattva’s inner court of Tusita is in a heavenly plane without a Buddha teaching, it is not a true Pure Land. Thus, the comparison is not valid, while it is clear that the swiftest path to Buddhahood is via Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land – or all Buddhas would not teach it to all. Maitreya Bodhisattvas was also present at major Pure Land teaching assemblies of Sakyamuni Buddha, to receive the teachings linked to Amitabha Buddha from him, for teaching them to more later, when he becomes the next Buddha here.

Excerpt: It is not within the scope of this discussion to evaluate the merits of Yinshun’s case; such an undertaking would constitute a book in itself. Our purpose here is simply to see that Yinshun consistently attacked the very form of practice that Yinguang spent his life advocating, relegating it to the very lowest form of cultivation, to be used only as a last resort by the dim-witted and those in dire straits. For Yinshun, to take buddha-recitation and make it the sole form of practice for all people, even those with the intelligence and leisure to undertake true bodhisattva practice, represented a degradation of Buddhism; and his contempt for this way of thinking comes through clearly on every page of his New Treatise.

Comments: The Pure Land teachings are not only NOT the lowest form of cultivation for the dull and desperate, they are the highest practice – as they are for the wisest too. They offer the most streamlined path to Buddhahood, as taken by all great Bodhisattvas as their final practice, as exemplified by Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s tenth great vow – to personally reach, and to guide all to reach Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land. Pure Land practice is thus part of true Bodhisattva practice. As above, there is no need to compromise other efforts beyond Buddha-recitation while practising it.

Excerpt: The Controversy and its Aftermath: The New Treatise came about as a result of a series of lectures Yinshun delivered in the winter of 1951 at the Jingye Monastery (Jingye Conglin) in Hong Kong. His students Yanpei and Miaoqin revised their notes and published them that same year, perhaps conscious of the stir the treatise was likely to cause. The following year, Yinshun received the invitation from his old teacher Daxing to come to Taiwan, and he was installed as the Guiding Master (daoshi) of the BAROC’s [Buddhist Association of the Republic Of China] flagship institution, the Shandao Temple in Taipei. Because of his sudden prominence, his works began circulating among Buddhists, among them the New Treatise on the Pure Land.

Comments: Thank goodness, that there was some revision, which might have lessened the misleading teachings in the ‘treatise’, and their negative impact.

ExcerptIn his autobiography, Yinshun makes little of the trouble that followed, saying only, “It appears to have elicited some disgust from those people who only want to practice calling the name of Amitabha” (Yinshun 1985:20). This is an understatement. According to Yang Huinan, Yinshun’s critics mounted a whisper campaign against him; and in Taichung, Pure Land devotees burned his books publicly (Yang 1991:23). Jiang asserts that Yinshun’s disciple Li Bingnan himself directly incited the burnings (Jiang 1988:58); but Yang disagrees, saying instead that it was a group of local clergy, recently ordained after having retired from military service (Yang 1991:23, n. 60). I was also told by friends in Taiwan who have spoken to Yinshun that he does not believe Li Bingnan was involved. Yinshun’s attackers sent flyers to all the branches and chapters of the BAROC asking that he be ostracized and his works boycotted, and some within the BAROC even used their influence with the government to have certain Nationalist Party officials issue a statement that Yinshun’s writings were infected with the poison of Communism (perhaps because of his comparison of the Pure Land to an ideal Marxist state?), and requesting that increased attention be given to extirpating his influence (Yang 1991:28).

Comments: It was a mistake to assume that ‘people who only want to practice calling the name of Amitabha’ were the only ones unhappy, as anyone who sees the ‘treatise’ to misrepresent the Dharma would be displeased too. These reactions were understandable due to the grave blasphemy of the precious Pure Land teachings, that were likely to confuse the masses if not curbed in time.

Excerpt: Yinshun finally gave in to the combined pressure of the BAROC and its Nationalist friends. He stepped aside from his position at the Shandao Temple and issued a statement asking pardon for his offense, saying that his treatise was written when he was in flight across China and had no access to the Tripitaka; perhaps his memory of certain canonical passages was faulty. He concluded by humbly asking the government to help him correct his views (Yang 1991 :29). Although he has remained active in some facets of Buddhist life in Taiwan, notably as an ordaining master in several BAROC-sponsored ordination sessions, he has mostly retired from public life, preferring to pass his days in quiet study in his Fuyan Vihara in the town of Chiayi.

Comments: May these comments serve in part as correction of the wrong views.

Excerpt: Yang interprets the ferocity of the reaction against Yinshun as yet another manifestation of the power struggle between the traditionalist and reform factions… The appearance of Yinshun’s controversial book just at the time that Yinshun assumed a high post at the Shandao Temple may have provided the traditionalist faction the opportunity to reassert control over this temple and over BAROC affairs… When Yinguang passed away… popular sentiment began to identify him as the Thirteenth Patriarch of the Pure Land school…

Comments: Reformation should never be through misrepresentation and speculation without in-depth personal learning and practice of the traditional teachings, that were already proven right and effective through thousands of years of teaching and practice by twelve Pure Land Patriarchs, along with many other great masters and lay practitioners.

Excerpt: To this day, Yinshun maintains an ambiguous position within Taiwan Buddhist circles. As a young monk at a Pure Land temple once said to me with a cluck of the tongue and a shake of the head, “Yinshun is a great scholar, but he just doesn’t understand the spirit of the Pure Land.”

Comments: Due to such serious misportrayal of the Pure Land teachings, which are so central to Buddhism on the whole, it cannot be fairly said that he was a ‘great’ scholar. Sadly, some of his disciples and associated organisations to this day retain some of his misunderstandings – even though he formally apologise for his ‘treatise’. Based on the above, he truly did not understand the essence of the Pure Land teachings, while it was Great Master Yinguang, the Thirteenth Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition who truly did. May this historical episode remind all, to learn the actual Pure Land teachings only from the Pure Land sutras, as illuminated upon by the Pure Land Patriarchs and teachers who refer to their works.

Related Articles:

Some Common Pure Land Misconceptions (In ‘The Way To Buddhahood’)
Why Slander Of Pure Land Is Especially Grave
The Fastest Way To Buddhahood Is Via Pure Land
How Is Mindfulness Of Buddha Practice Of The Six Perfections?
Treatise On Resolving Doubts About Pure Land (By Great Master Yinguang)

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  • 凡夫如果从末法又生末法,越生越末,这不是勇敢,真是愚痴!三界火宅都越烧越猛了!如果一直回入娑婆,大多唯有继续生死而已。有易行道不走,却走难行,又易退转的道,是对慧命的一大祸害!说方便就是不究竟者,忽略了每个法门都是方便法。修般若也不是一步登天的,不能直跳到般若中道上。佛说法也是方便说,因为第一义谛不可说。念佛到净土才是最快圆满一生了悟般若波罗蜜的第一方便法门。观音菩萨在那直接教我们心经心法!阿弥陀佛。

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