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Differences Between the Sui-Tang and Song-Ming Pure Land Teachings


As we saw in the previous article for this column, Master Shandao’s writings were lost in China during the late Tang dynasty (618–907). Because of this, the Pure Land school lost its “esteem,” “loftiness,” and “pre-eminence,” which are the three main characteristics of an independent Buddhist school. In addition, the patriarchs in the later Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties failed to interpret Pure Land doctrines according to the principal scriptures of the tradition. Instead, they relied on the teachings of other Buddhist schools to interpret Pure Land, so it became an affiliated school.

Let us examine the differences in the Pure Land teaching between the two periods,  collectively called the Sui-Tang era and the Song-Ming era. We can use the example of a famous book called An Important Interpretation of the Amitabha Sutra, written by Master Ouyi, an eminent and influential Pure Land patriarch in the Ming dynasty.

The substance of the Amitabha Sutra: Real Mark versus Name

Master Ouyi stated that the substance of the Amitabha Sutra is “Real Mark” (the transcendence of all conditioned phenomena) because the sutra belongs to the Mahayana teaching. However, Master Tanluan states in his Commentary on Treatise of Rebirth that the substance of all three Pure Land sutras is the “Name.”

Those who have a profound knowledge of Buddhist teaching should know that Real Mark and Name are basically the same, because Amitabha’s Name represents the Real Mark body of Amitabha Buddha.

Because Real Mark is an ineffable and inconceivable concept of the Tientai school, it is difficult to explain to a simple layperson the meaning of Real Mark. On the other hand, Amitabha’s Name is very simple; it can be expressed in words on paper and in speech, so that it can be seen and heard. More importantly, people can recite it!

Main practice: holding the Name with faith and aspiration versus exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name

In the same book, Master Ouyi said that the main practice for rebirth in the Pure Land is holding the Name with faith and aspiration. However, Master Shandao clearly states that exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name is the cause of assured rebirth. What is the difference between the two?

Practically speaking, the former is tricky because faith and aspiration involve the mind state of the practitioner. Ordinary beings like ourselves are virtually unable to manage our minds in terms of faith and aspiration, not least because we are afflicted with doubt, one of the Six Great Afflictions.

Since the mind always wavers back and forth, any teaching that requires us to manage the mind becomes problematic for ordinary beings. So, if practicing Pure Land requires great effort in managing the mind, it becomes a difficult-to-practice teaching rather than an easy-to-practice teaching, as classified by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva.

But if a Pure Land practitioner sincerely accepts that he can attain assured rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss through the practice of recitation, he can easily observe such a teaching. In addition, his faith and aspiration are implicit in the act of recitation. If a practitioner exclusively recites, it means he deeply believes and aspires; otherwise, what are the grounds for reciting “Namo Amituofo” while walking, standing, sitting, and lying down? It is simple logic!

Reward: non-retrogression after rebirth versus the assured rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards in this lifetime

Thirdly, Master Ouyi said that the reward of the practice in Pure Land teaching is non-retrogression after rebirth. However, Master Shandao wrote in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra that the correct understanding of the Pure Land teaching involves the rebirth of ordinary beings in the Pure Land’s Realm of Rewards, and rebirth assured in this lifetime.

“Non-retrogression” is a special term used to express the status and accomplishment of great bodhisattvas. Not many people understand its profound meaning because it involves myriad bodhisattva practices in the pursuit of buddhahood.

Again, if we have a basic knowledge of Buddhism, it is not difficult to understand that all living beings in a buddha’s reward realm, such as Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, dwell in a state of non-retrogression (Skt: avinivartaniya) as stated in the Amitabha Sutra.

However, Master Shandao mentioned ordinary beings when he talked about the rewards of practicing the Pure Land teaching. This means that Amitabha Buddha is specifically focused on delivering us: we are the targets of his deliverance. We are qualified to be reborn in Amitabha’s reward land if we follow what the Buddha teaches.

Rebirth is assured because of deliverance by Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow power

Master Ouyi said the reward of practicing the Pure Land teaching is non-retrogression after rebirth. This means that a practitioner can attain the state of non-retrogression only after rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

However, according to the Pure Land teaching in the Shandao tradition, an ordinary being’s rebirth is assured by Amitabha Buddha in his Fundamental Vow, the 18th Vow. This happens as soon as the practitioner aspires to Pure Land rebirth through exclusive recitation of Amitabha’s Name for the rest of his life.

By comparing and contrasting the two kinds of Pure Land teaching, Pure Land practitioners can easily see which one is more suitable to follow and practice in order to attain assured rebirth in Amitabh’s Land of Bliss in this lifetime.

Actually, Master Shandao had already sub-classified the Pure Land teaching into two kinds in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: one is the Path of Importance and the other is the Path of the Great Vow. The Path of Importance is another name for the Pure Land teaching of the Song and Ming dynasties.

It is unfortunate that the patriarchs in Song and Ming dynasties had no chance to read Master Shandao’s writings, and missed the chance to walk the other path of the Pure Land teaching—the Path of the Great Vow. Because of this incomplete view, the Pure Land school lost its esteem, loftiness, and pre-eminence, the three main characteristics of an independent Buddhist school.

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