When it comes to understanding different traditions of practice within the larger framework of the Buddhadharma, the issue of lineage is very important for most Buddhists. A lineage represents an authentic line of transmission for a school’s teachings that can be traced back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself. The Pure Land school is no exception, however the lineage of this school does not necessarily include the names of every master who passed on the teaching and every disciple who received it. Rather, the lineage of the Pure Land school focuses on the masters who made substantial contributions to our understanding and interpretation of the Pure Land sutras taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.
After Shakyamuni, the teachings were received by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva (c. 150–250) and Vasubandhu Bodhisattva in India, and later by Master Tanluan and Master Daochuo in China. Daochuo’s disciple Master Shandao (613–81) synthesized the Pure Land teachings into a coherent, systematic, and complete framework. It was the foundation upon which he inaugurated the Pure Land school of China. About 450 years later, Master Shandao’s writings inspired Master Honen to found the Pure Land school of Japan.
The “Easy Practice” and the “Difficult Practice” by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva
After Shakyamuni Buddha delivered the three Pure Land sutras—the Infinite Life Sutra, the Contemplation Sutra, and the Amitabha Sutra—the first person to initiate the teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance by the power of his vows (later called the Pure Land teaching) as an independent mode of practice was Nagarjuna Bodhisattva in India. Nagarjuna Bodhisattva is acclaimed as the “First Patriarch of all Eight Schools” of Chinese Buddhism.
Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, noted as a First-Stage Bodhisattva from the Land of Bliss (whose appearance in India was predicted by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Sutra of Entry to Lankavatara), wrote the “Discourse on the Ten Stages.” In the Chapter on the Easy Practice, he identified Amitabha’s 18th Vow as the fountainhead of the Pure Land teaching, and referred to this vow as the Fundamental Vow, the lifeline of Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance.
Based on Amitabha’s teaching of deliverance through the Fundamental Vow, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva classified and categorized the Buddha’s teachings into the paths of “Easy Practice” and “Difficult Practice.” He said that practicing Name-recitation according to Amitabha’s Fundamental Vow to attain Pure Land rebirth and perfect Enlightenment was like sailing on a ship: easy and relaxing, fast and reassuring. All of the Buddha’s other teachings are relatively difficult by comparison.
Later, Vasubandhu Bodhisattva of India (c. 320–400), known as the Master of Ten Thousand Commentaries, wrote the Treatise on Rebirth. Based on the three Pure Land sutras and also the categorized teachings of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, he elaborated the method of attaining rebirth through single-minded aspiration and the practice of the fivefold invocation or mindfulness of Amitabha’s Name.
Transmission and dissemination of the Pure Land teaching from India to China
The Pure Land sutras were later transmitted to China and translated into Chinese. In the Jin dynasty, some masters engaged in the practice of self-powered Amitabha-contemplation rather than the practice of Name-recitation in other-power, which is in accordance with the Fundamental Vow. Although they were “pioneering practitioners” of the Pure Land teaching, these masters are not regarded as members of the Pure Land school’s lineage—signified by the lifeline of the Pure Land teaching: Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the great vow of Amitabha’s deliverance.
Not until Master Tanluan (476–542) of the Northern Wei dynasty, also known as “the Divine Luan,” was the tradition of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva and Vasubandhu Bodhisattva restored with Tanluan’s composition Commentary on the Treatise on Rebirth.
Master Tanluan revealed the hidden meaning of the “Treatise on Rebirth in the Pure Land,” and explicated such concepts as the “Difficult Practice” and the “Easy Practice” as the “Self-Power Teaching” and the “Other-Power Teaching” respectively, with the latter stemming from Amitabha’s 18th Vow. He also declared that Amitabha’s Name was actually the body and substance of the three Pure Land sutras.
The highly virtuous and influential Master Daochuo (562–645) of the Sui-Tang period was inspired after reading Master Tanluan’s works. He followed in Master Tanluan’s footsteps and composed the Collection on Peace and Joy, which clarified the differences between the “Sacred Path Teaching” and the “Pure Land Teaching.”
Master Daochuo encouraged people, particularly laypeople, to seek rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land through the simple and easy practice of Amitabha-recitation, not necessarily to be practiced in temples, but in their daily lives. He encouraged practitioners to use beads and other counting devices in their recitation practice. Master Daochuo was, in turn, followed by his illustrious disciple Master Shandao (613–81) of the Tang dynasty.
Master Shandao was the de facto founder of the Pure Land school of China
During the golden age of Chinese Buddhism in the early Tang dynasty, Master Shandao wrote the Five Works in Nine Fascicles, consisting of:
(1) Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra: 4 fascicles
(2) Dharma School of Contemplation and Recitation: 1 fascicle
(3) In Praise of Dharma Practices: 2 fascicles
(4) In Praise of the Rites of Rebirth: 1 fascicle
(5) In Praise of Pratyutpanna (“In the Presence of the Buddhas”): 1 fascicle
These writings definitively established a comprehensive system of teaching and practice in the Pure Land tradition. Because of this, Pure Land emerged as an independent school—not just a mode of practice—and recitation of Amitabha’s name was thenceforth enshrined as the “karma of assurance” of rebirth, because it accords with the Fundamental Vow.
Master Shandao is widely regarded as an incarnation of Amitabha Buddha, and his Pure Land teaching is regarded as the true words spoken by Amitabha Buddha.
The transmission/dissemination of the Pure Land teaching from China to Japan
The lineage continued with Master Honen (1133–1211) of Japan. Basing his teachings on the thoughts of Master Shandao, he composed the Collection on Choosing Buddha-Recitation According to the Fundamental Vow and founded the Pure Land school of Japan.
The above lineage masters all centered their treatises and commentaries on the Fundamental Vow of Amitabha Buddha, the 18th Vow. Drawing on a common source, they promoted the same teachings and practices. This is the lineage of the commentaries; it is also known as the Path of the Great Vow.
The above is but a brief introduction to how the Right Dharma of the Pure Land teaching was transmitted in a lineage spanning from Shakyamuni Buddha to Master Shandao, who officially founded the Pure Land school in China.