Working harder, intellectualizing, or getting mad did not work for many people mired in miserable, daily suffering-and so there arose a remarkable version of Mahayana Buddhism that pushed the envelope almost to the end of Buddhism itself. Gautama Buddha had insisted that our future depends on our own efforts, not anything in our environment. The Mahayana turn suggested, in an echo of Christianity, that someone else could help. But nirvana itself still had limited appeal, and that gave an opening to the sects that would eventually become Japan's most popular, Jodo-"pure land" in Japanese-and its further refinement, Jodo Shinshu.
Pure Land Buddhism first emerged in northern India and Central Asia in the second century a.d., soon after Christians began explaining their beliefs. That was when one of the earliest and most important Pure Land sutras, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha, was probably composed in northwest India. The sutra tells of the bodhisattva Dharmakara (sometimes called Hozo) who resolved to establish a Land of Bliss in the west, made 48 vows concerning it, and resolved to stay clear of enlightenment until he accomplished all of them.
Those vows by the numbers became famous. Nos. 12 and 13 were that Dharmakara would achieve merit that could fill the universe. No. 17 was that the name he would take on, Amitabha ("limitless light") or Amitayus ("limitless life") Buddha, would be proclaimed in all lands and his offer would be universally known. No. 18 was that those believing in him would be reborn into a Land of Bliss filled with sweet-smelling trees; importantly, extensive meditation or action were not needed.
A second sutra, the Smaller Sukhavati-vyuha, further described the Land of Bliss, which would later be called the Pure Land, and stated firmly that rebirth into that land is not a reward for good works in this life. It stated that if anyone hears the name of Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha and keeps it in mind for one to seven nights before death, that person will be reborn into the Pure Land. Over time in Japan, passive hearing turned into active oral recitation, with Pure Landers chanting Namu Amida Butsu, which literally means Adoration to Amida Buddha or "I take refuge in Amida Buddha." (Amida combines the two names of the boddhisattva, and Japanese refer to the entire phrase as the Nembutsu.)
Did a real Dharmakara exist? No, today's Jodo priests say, but it's the thought that counts: People who called on Amida Buddha could tap into the cosmic force and be reincarnated in the Pure Land. Buddhists from other schools thought the notion nonsense, but many Japanese were depressed by the thought that their Buddhist advancement depended on jiriki, their own strength. Perhaps influenced directly or indirectly by Christianity, they wondered if tariki, the strength of another, could be involved-and if so, what had to be done to summon that strength? As cultural historian G.B. Sansom noted, "The doctrine of salvation by faith and a belief in the paradise of Amida were so simple and so attractive that all sects felt obliged to incorporate them in their creeds."
Furthermore, even though the Pure Land was to be only a way-station for one life on the way to nirvana, Jodo Buddhists found that living in the Pure Land was seen as a happy enough outcome. They more and more fixed on that good news rather than the supposed eventuality of personal extinction.
At first, Jodo Buddhists said that believers needed constant recitation of the Nembutsu to put its mystical powers to work. Later, some said a one-a-day spiritual vitamin would work. Eshin Sozu (942Ð1017), also known as Genshin, said that if a dying man said the Nembutsu only once with complete sincerity, he would receive entry to the Pure Land. This emphasis on faith appealed immensely to the poor who had to scramble for food and could not be constantly reciting mantras. Honen Shonin (1133Ð1212) emphasized the view that merely saying the Nembutsu in faith was sufficient: The flow of spiritual energy was not from here to there but from there to here.
Honen's student Shinran Shonin (1173Ð1263) also decided to leave the Tendai mountain to teach on the plain. Shinran had not found enlightenment or peace during his monk's training and work on Mount Hiei-and, like Martin Luther 300 years later, the harder he tried the more frustrated he became. Shinran's move to a village, followed by marriage and fatherhood, changed Shinran's view of human attachment so that he saw no need to be detached from everything. He even wrote that the human ability to be attached was a sign of the mercy of Amida Buddha.
Shinran began calling himself Gutoku, which literally means "foolish, bald-headed old man." He recognized his total inability to free himself from bad behavior through his own power, and thought that many Buddhist practices-even recitation of the Nembutsu-could make people prideful, like Pharisees. Shinran took his emphasis on faith in Amida Buddha all the way: What's important, he said, is not meditation or particular actions, or recital of the Nembutsu even once, but faith alone. Moreover, Shinran went on to state that we do not even develop faith on our own power; Amida Buddha makes a free gift of faith to some, so that our salvation is the result of tariki (other-power) rather than jiriki (self-power).
Shinran summed up his view of our natures in a poem: "With mind of asps and scorpions vile / How can I hope to practice good? / Without His Grace, and gifts from Him, / Life will end but in repentless mood." He noted the difference between high-minded Buddhist theology and low practice, criticizing monks who "look for 'lucky days,' worship other gods on earth and in heaven, indulge in fortune-telling, and practice charms." He wrote that "two things are essential to faith. The first is to be convinced of our own sinfulness; from the bondage of evil deeds we possess no means of emancipating ourselves. The second is, therefore, to throw our helpless souls wholly upon the divine power of Amida."
Shinran's disciples became known as Jodo Shinshu ("True teaching about the Pure Land") believers. They upset the Buddhist establishment by not only minimizing the importance of meditation but opposing it, arguing that the practice gave the mind more opportunity for evil thoughts. A later Jodo Shinshu priest, Naito Kanji, argued that "when engaged in meditation, all kinds of bad thoughts arise and do not stop for a minute. Consequently our breasts are more disturbed than when we do our work in the world, and it is appropriate to compare it to tying a mountain monkey to a post."
The Pure Land faith's emphasis on Amida's virtues ignored the early Buddhist emphasis on personal karma, but all Mahayana groups, relying as they did on the work of a bodhisattva, were unorthodox in that way. Jodo Shinshu was unique in its dismissal of the kugyo-the ascetic hard practice-of other sects and its focus on the Pure Land more than on nirvana.