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Book Review: Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice

Charles B. Jones has recently published a slate of vastly informative publications on the Pure Land tradition. In 2019, the associate professor of Religion and Cultures at Catholic University of America published a monograph with University of Hawaii Press, Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice (2019), which adopts a Chinese Pure Land perspective and focuses on how Pure Land became an authentic tradition of practice in Chinese society.

His new book from Shambhala Publications, Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice (2021), contextualizes Pure Land in a broader manner, examining its overall contribution to the Buddhist body of thought over nearly two millennia. It also sets about dispelling long-held stereotypes about this Mahayana tradition. There remains much content about Chinese Pure Land development, but further analyzed and unpacked are key periods, figures, and thought currents in India and Japan, the two other major centers of Pure Land philosophy.


From the outset, Jones says his book is “about a buddha and his buddha-land.” This frames the entire tradition on its own terms—that among the diverse extant schools of Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism is known for its firm faith in a specific Buddha other than Shakyamuni. As anyone who practices Pure Land would assert, the focus on Amitabha Buddha does not mean abandoning Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings like the Noble Eightfold Path, karma, and so on. In fact, Pure Land practitioners believe that their sacred texts—the three Pure Land sutras—bear witness to Shakyamuni directing all beings to Amitabha Buddha in the context of Pure Land eschatology and soteriology, which offer the most assured path to liberation. In the epoch of the Dharma-ending Age, only Amitabha can save us from ourselves.

The book is divided into two primary parts. Part One, History and Development, encompasses the sub-sections:

1. The Story of Amitābha and His Pure Land
2. Early Indian Developments
3. Pure Land Origins in China
4. Shandao’s Breakthrough
5. Further Developments in China
6. The Synthesis of Yunqi Zhuhong
7. The Modern Period in China
8. Pure Land Goes to Japan
9. Ryōnin and the Yūzū Nenbutsushū
10. Hōnen and the Jōdo Shū, Shinran and the Jōdo Shinshū
11. Ippen and the Jishū

Part Two, Themes and Practices, includes the sections:

1. The Primary Practice: Nianfo/Nenbutsu
2. Self-Power and Other-Power
3. Group Practice and Ritual
4. Women in Pure Land Thought and Practice

There are important points worth noting in all chapters, although there are some core rubrics. The first chapter explains the narrative of Amitabha and his creation of Sukhavati, the Western Land of Bliss, where Pure Land devotees aspire to be reborn with the assurance of future buddhahood. Chapter Two discusses the Indian expression of “Pure Land” practice, although “any and every Buddhist in India aspired to rebirth in Utmost Bliss; it did not belong to any identifiable school or sect.” (37) In other words, Indic antecedents, while never forming an outright school, were critical in providing the Mahayana worldview that Chinese Pure Land Buddhism would draw from for a formalized body of Pure Land doctrine.

Chapter four, appropriately titled “Shandao’s Breakthrough,” outlines Master Shandao’s (613–81) critical contributions. Jones considers Shandao so important that he devotes the full chapter to him, explaining:

Shandao contributed four new ideas that made the Pure Land path clearer and more accessible. His innovations instilled confidence that any practitioner at any level of attainment would be certain to gain entrance to the Pure Land. These ideas were (1) that all beings could perceive the Pure Land as a ‘complete enjoyment land’; (2) that the ten nian required for rebirth are oral invocations and not mental contemplations; (3) that beings in all nine levels of rebirth in the Pure Land are ordinary beings and not āryans (advanced sages); and (4) that rebirth in the Pure Land comes about primarily through the power of Amitābha’s original vows.


The formation of a tradition proper is highlighted in later chapters. Events during the Song dynasty, saw the inception of the patriarchate, (73–74) a formal list of significant forebears or “lineage fathers” that, in its final and present-day form, provides “a roster of important contributors to the propagation, defense, and/or doctrinal articulation of a certain kind of Pure Land thought and practice.” (75). The 13-head list does not represent a direct transmission of the lineage, but rather their fidelity to the core dogma of Amitabha’s Primal Vow:

The patriarchs put the spotlight on Amitābha and his Pure Land in particular and argued against seeking rebirth in the eastern Pure Land of the buddha Akṣobhya, the Inner Court of Maitreya in the Tuṣita Heaven, or any other buddha-land. They passed on Shandao’s claim that even the most wicked and unaccomplished person could attain rebirth in the Pure Land against those who believed that it was only open to the most advanced bodhisattvas.


Chapter six is fully devoted to Ming-era monk Yunqi Zhuhong (1535–1615), who synthesized neo-Confucian ideas of li (principle) and shih (phenomena) to mobilize apologia for Pure Land, and “organized the varieties of nianfo practice so that it harmonized with other Buddhist methods, including sudden-enlightenment Chan.” (95) Jones accords Yunqi Zhuhong importance secondary only to Shandao himself. Wrapping up the Pure Land tradition in China in chapter seven, Jones provides a compelling story about Pure Land’s transition from the early Republican period to the present day. Familiar names such as Master Yinguang (1861–1940) appear as seminal movers and shakers. It is worth quoting this final segment extensively, as Jones summarizes the vital position of Pure Land in China today:

A few leaders have followed Yinguang in recommending an exclusive commitment to Pure Land practice, such as the monk Jingkong (1927–), but the more usual pattern is to incorporate Pure Land methods into the wider panoply of Buddhist practice. Thus, monasteries, temples, and other Buddhist institutions regularly provide instruction in Pure Land and nianfo retreats as part of their menu of offerings alongside Chan meditation retreats, sūtra lectures, chanting services, and other activities and educational offerings.


Jones observes that Pure Land in China is less a sectarian group, church, or denomination than a “dharma-gate” or tradition of practice—Jones’ preferred choice of words. Expressed more robustly, it does not matter what other practices or studies Buddhists pursue: Pure Land is the “safety net” that reassures disciples of liberation in the face of inevitable failings and inadequacies. As Jones says, “In China, almost every Buddhist is a Pure Land Buddhist.” (106)

He likens this tradition to Marian devotion in Roman Catholicism—a poetic irony, given the traditional conflation of Pure Land Buddhism with Protestant thought. His observation is perhaps influenced by the similarity of wearing cross necklaces and Pure Land recitation beads around the wrist as respective indicators of Christian and Buddhist identity. The resemblances do not stop there:

“When encountering one another as Buddhists, people will replace “hello” and “goodbye” with the name of Amitābha. . . . Rather like devotions to the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism, it is a mode of being Buddhist available to all.”


The exception to the analysis of Pure Land being only a “tradition or practice” is the pristine Pure Land tradition, led by Masters Huijing and Jingzong. It is more explicitly grounded in the idea of institutional continuity since Shandao, and stresses fidelity and one-minded devotion to Amitabha Buddha, without which the rationale of Pure Land falls apart.

Chapters Eight to Eleven are devoted to the Japanese development of Pure Land Buddhism. One interesting observation from the outset is that Pure Land, unlike its bottom-up nature in China, was a very top-down institution when introduced to the Japanese court as a protective force for the emperor and the nation. Therefore:

From this beginning, Buddhism gradually moved outward from the royal court and aristocratic families to the masses. Since competition for prestige and financial support accompanied its very inception, Japanese Buddhists tended to form groups that claimed loyalty to the exclusion of other groups early on. The final result for the way Pure Land developed in Japan was that, unlike in China, denomination-like social groups became the main carriers of the tradition.


This uniquely hierarchical dissemination of Pure Land morphed into a movement with more popular appeal thanks to the spread of deathbed rituals, a concern obviously not limited to aristocrats, and religious wanderers called hijiri that preached Pure Land on the road. The holy man Kuya (903–72) is one of the most well-known examples. Key figures such as Chiko (710–94), Saicho (767–822), and Kukai (774–835), and particularly Genshin (942–1017) and his Ōjōyōshū helped to establish the presence of Pure Land in Japan, but it was a priest from the Tendai tradition, Ryonin (1072–1132), who promoted nembutsu as a core practice for the first time. Henceforth, Pure Land thought in Japan came into a theological and philosophical maturity of its own, with innovative and compelling ideas on nembutsu, shinjin (true entrusting), tariki (other-power), and much more.

This set the stage for the emergence of formal Pure Land institutions, with Honen and the Jodo Shu, the fragmentation of his school (monryu), and the rise of Shinran and the Jodo Shinshu. Jones’ observations about Jodo Shinshu’s historical and modern resemblances to the Protestant system (148–49) reveal that the conflation of Pure Land Buddhist concepts with Protestant thought can be largely attributed to Western readings of Jodo Shinshu thought, which was relatively accessible in the early decades of encounter with Pure Land Buddhists in Japan. Jones also covers Ippen (1239–89) and his Jishu, which was eventually absorbed by the Jodo Shinshu under Rennyo (1415–99). There is much more nuance and complexity to the Pure Land Japanese Buddhist experience through many centuries of history, but suffice to say that Jones does very well in covering all the major strands of Japanese Pure Land thought.

With this grand historical synthesis complete, Part Two of Jones’ book looks at four important issues in Pure Land Buddhism separately: nianfo or nembutsu, self-power and other-power, group practice and ritual, and women in Pure Land. He outlines the specific methods of nianfo or nembutsu, analyzes the philosophical and theological differences in self-power/other-power between Chinese and Korean Pure Land, and the practice of nianfo/nembutsu beyond a solitary setting or individual context.

Although ritual practices such as deathbed recitations are quite common, there has been appallingly little English-language material on anything concerning ritualized practices, not only historically but especially present-day, lived, contemporary practices. Jones looks at a group retreat in Taiwan and how ritual is interwoven into the life milestones of a Jodo Shinshu parish in Japan: an infant rite for a baby’s birth, a confirmation ceremony to affirm affiliation to the Jodo Shinshu tradition and receive a Dharma name, wedding vows, funeral rites, and home visits by priests to chant before a family altar or to commemorate the death of a loved one. (207–08) The final section of the book looks at the contested, ambiguous role of women in the Pure Land tradition, of which the Chinese tradition is well aware. A traditional, literal reading of the Infinite Life Sutra is that beings born in the Pure Land will not be reborn as female, which has surely troubled not only women but some men as well:  

That the tradition came to believe that women did not inhabit the western Pure Land is humorously shown in Zhuhong’s 1584 book “Answers to Forty-Eight Questions about Pure Land,” in which one of his lay followers posed a series of questions for Zhuhong to address. In the thirteenth exchange, the layman makes clear to Zhuhong that he and his fellows would find an absence of women a good reason not to seek rebirth in the Pure Land. It would not be a “Land of Bliss” at all.


This amusing story has serious implications, one which Zhuhong does not truly answer satisfactorily. Two contradictions have dogged the Pure Land movement for centuries: first, that gender plays no role in enlightenment, yet the male gender is always the default; and secondly, that women can be reborn in the Pure Land, yet the Pure Land has no women. Both seem to implicitly suggest that women’s spiritual capacities are inferior to those of men. The dissonance between these two tensions has negative, very real-life consequences. One example is that of Japanese female ministers, who are ordained by the Jodo Shinshu hierarchy. Holding institutional authority and overcoming cultural bias are two different matters, and they suffer the disappointment of parishioners expecting their husbands or other male ministers for home visits. Jones notes, “Some keep forging ahead, while others find the daily struggle against this kind of cultural bias too exhausting.” (215)

While Jones’ section on women is quite brief compared with his exhaustive coverage of other issues and periods, perhaps this is the next battle that should be fought—expanding contemporary studies and surveys of women in the Pure Land Buddhist traditions across East Asia, and, like Shandao, Honen, and Shinran in the past, paving a new path in hermeneutics, exegesis, and pedagogy for women in today’s Pure Land.

This is a comprehensive and engaging introduction to the Pure Land tradition, combining the author’s academic rigor and background with an easy writing style. Jones’ last publication of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism did an excellent job of explaining the character and history of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism precisely because it demystified the tradition as a school of Chinese Mahayana. The trajectory of Pure Land Buddhism as a whole is often seen as a relatively isolated phenomenon in East Asia. This book demystifies Pure Land as a school of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, practice, and philosophy, and will help the general reader understand that it is neither esoteric nor impenetrable, but as Buddhist as vipassana or Zen. Jones writes eloquently and appealingly, and his analysis of Pure Land is a joy to read.

Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice is one of two books released so far in Shambhala’s “Buddhist Foundations” series. It offers comprehensive but digestible introductions to the traditions, core philosophies, and contemplative techniques of the Buddhist traditions, unpacking history, philosophy, practice, and more. My own belief is that this volume will expose a wider range of readers and seekers to the Pure Land faith in the publishing house’s tradition of combining popular accessibility with scholarly rigour and historical criticism.


Charles B. Jones. 2021. Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.

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