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Is Pure Land Buddhism “Religious”?

Amitabha Buddha. From Wikimedia Commons.

Wisdom and Faith: Two Sides of the Same Coin

For years, I have been searching for the meaning of life, the absolute truth, the ultimate reality . . . However, although I studied in a Catholic high school, I had no religious inclination to believe in a creator of the universe, generally known as God. I claimed myself to be an atheist.

Twenty years after my high-school education, quite by chance I heard of the Three Universal Truths* at a Buddhist lecture organized by a society to introduce and promote Chinese culture. I was so amazed that I felt all the abstract and open-ended questions in my mind would find an answer in Buddhism. I attended a number of lectures of the class, and attempted to study all the sutras and related Buddhist books systematically and analytically.

I became a “religious” Buddhist a year later, for the simple reason that I felt Buddhism to be a “religion” that denies monotheism. I studied Buddhism as a philosophy that would lead to wisdom. In this Buddhism is quite unusual, because by definition religion is generally related to faith rather than wisdom. I considered this to be one of the unique features of Buddhism.

I was excited to find how Buddhism really broadened my horizons, opening my mind to a better understanding of the cosmos and living beings. In the Avatamsaka Sutra Shakyamuni Buddha, without a telescope or other scientific instruments, depicts the enormous scale of the universe, which is far beyond the knowledge of astronomers and the scope of our imaginations. In the Shurangama Sutra, again without a microscope or other precision instruments, Shakyamuni describes different kinds of living beings, their modes of birth and adaptation to their environment, which is very similar to and even transcends what we learn in chemistry and biology.

I am astonished and entirely convinced by the wisdom of Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived around 2,500 years ago. I am certain that he was not simply a human being, but an enlightened one. I have full trust and faith in him, and complete conviction in the sutras. I have thus come to a gradual understanding of the relationship between wisdom and faith, which are basically the same, just like two sides of the same coin.

Faith through Understanding

Generally, there are two kinds of faith: faith through understanding and faith through trust.

The former is a result of understanding the teachings, practice, and realization, known as the four stages in learning the Buddhist Way. It is regarded as an analytical and scientific approach. Preliminary faith is like standing in front of the “Buddhist door,” while mere understanding is knocking at the door, and practice is entering the door. At this stage, we have gone beyond theory and gained some personal experience. This process is very important, as it enables us to verify a so-called truth. It involves the cultivation of meditative virtues (meditation) and non-meditative virtues (morality). Realization strengthens preliminary faith (deep faith) so that the practitioner can proceed through another door at a higher stage (deep wisdom), until he reaches the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

Faith through understanding is similar to faith based on direct experience through our sense organs and on irrefutable deduction through logical thinking, as discussed in my previous article “Developing the Virtue of Faith,” posted on this website on 29 August.

Faith through Trust

The second kind of faith is known as faith through trust, which is generally regarded as “religious” faith. It is similar to faith based on testimony worthy of confidence, as discussed in “Developing the Virtue of Faith.” Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes faith through trust rather than faith through understanding. Most Buddhists may not really understand the profound meanings and sophisticated concepts of the Buddhist sutras. However, if they know, accept, and believe that a Buddha is perfect and complete in both wisdom and morality, they will firmly believe what a Buddha says (such as regarding the existence of the Land of Bliss), strictly follow what a Buddha teaches (such as exclusive Amitabha-recitation in accordance with Amitabha’s fundamental vow), and obediently act in conformity with a Buddha’s wish (such as aspiring to be reborn in the Land of Bliss). As a result, they gain great realization.

When Shakyamuni Buddha expounded the Pure Land teaching in the Amitabha Sutra, he called upon Shariputra 37 times. Why? It is because Shariputra was the foremost in wisdom amongst all his disciples. Amitabha’s teaching is simple and easy to practice, but very difficult to believe.

Pure Land Buddhism is “Religious”

Some take Buddhism to be a philosophy; others, a science. In all fairness, we could perhaps say it is an “education,” though not just an education for this present life, but also for the next life in another world or realm. Thus, some take Buddhism to be a religion. While it also emphasizes faith, faith is considered one of the roots of virtue, like wisdom.

Until I came across the Pure Land Buddhism of the Shandao tradition, I found the “Path of the Great Vow” in Pure Land Buddhism to be very “religious” in terms of faith (see my previous article, “Following the Teachings of Two Buddhas,” posted on this website on 12 August 2013). It is even more “religious” than monotheistic religions like Christianity, in that analysis is unnecessary. Pure Land practitioners simply trust and follow what the Buddha teaches.

Faith is the first of the Three Sambharas (the other two being Aspiration and Practice), which are considered the three necessary conditions sufficient for rebirth in the Pure Land. Thus, faith is of paramount importance for all Pure Land practitioners. Master Shandao, the de facto founder of the Pure Land School of Buddhism in the Tang dynasty (618–907), told us that faith can be generated, developed, and reinforced through Amitabha-recitation, as well as through the Buddha’s words and teachings. This is known as “faith established through practice.” He also told us how to boost our faith when we come across challenges in our interactions with others. It is a very practical and easy method to follow—not abstract at all—and is known as “faith established through people.”

*Editor’s note: anitya (impermanence), anatman (no-self), and duhkha (suffering) 

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