- Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitābha
For most scholars even tenuously familiar with Asian religions, Pure Land Buddhism often brings to mind the charismatic figures of Hōnen and Shinran, "founders" of [End Page 277] two Pure Land sects (Jōdoshū and Jōdo Shinshū) of medieval Japan. Virtually every introductory text concludes its summary of Pure Land forms by recounting the radical teaching of these two: their overt rejection of the traditional Buddhist path of diligent effort, acquisition of virtue, and mental purification and that only the recitation of the mantra-like nenbutsu yields birth in Amitābha's heaven-like Pure Land. Pure Land Buddhism is, according to this normative understanding, the exclusivistic exception to Buddhism's general inclusivism.
Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitābha, edited ably by Richard Payne and Kenneth Tanaka, is a welcomed correction to this received interpretation. Rather than emphasizing a normative sectarian Pure Land Buddhism, the broad range of studies herein reveal the diversity of primarily nonsectarian practices devoted to, and doctrinal interpretations of, Amitābha and his pure realm Sukhāvatī. We begin to see how in various contexts, within both Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna forms of Buddhism, Amitābha became an axis of interpretation in the reimagining of Buddhist liberation, yielding different, sometimes contradictory meanings. And vital to understanding this concept is the doctrinal, literary, ritual, social, and even political context of its usage and appropriation. Along the way, we also gain important insights into the construction of orthodoxy, both doctrinal and scholastic, and the sociohistorical location of religious practices in general. This collection also reflects an important shift in Buddhist studies from the traditional focus on texts, doctrines, and nations to one on cultic practices, which, the book's jacket states, "more accurately reflects the organizing themes for most Buddhists."
There is no obvious logic to the order of the essays, nor is there space here to review each one in detail. Consequently, I will focus on three important themes that I (and the editors) see running through the volume. The first highlights the appearance of Amitābha and Sukhāvatī in a wide range of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna forms of Buddhism. Matthew Kapstein, for example, reveals that despite the relative neglect of "Amidism" in Tibetan studies, Amitābha was integral to Tibetan tradition and praxis. He documents the appearance of devotional and ritual traditions expressing aspiration for Sukhāvatī around the twelfth century, due in part to growing soteriological concerns related to the degenerate age and to an emerging belief in Amitābha as the patron Buddha of Tibet. James Sanford demonstrates the importance of Amitābha in Kakuban's (1095-1143) Shingi (New Doctrine) school of esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He also highlights Kakuban's decidedly nondual and immanental interpretation of the Pure Land. Finally, Todd Lewis shows that Amitābha devotion is present in various forms of Newar Buddhism including stupa worship, cultic devotions to Avalokiteśvara, and various lay rituals. In all of these cases, Amitābha devotion does not constitute a separate sectarian identity.
A second theme underscores the variety of practices that involve Amitābha. The essays noted above highlight lay praxis in various regional devotional forms such as nenbutsu recitation, stupa worship, and other lay rituals. Jacqueline Stone traces the major developments in Pure Land deathbed practices in early medieval Japan. These included recitation support groups (e.g., the Samādhi Assembly of Twenty-Five established on Mt. Hiei), camp priests assisting dying warriors, and [End Page 278] even ritual suicide. Hank Glassman traces the origin and development of the cult of Chū jōhime—a daughter whose mother dies, curses her, and demands saving—through the medieval period in Japan. Glassman emphasizes the creative power of performance, "through which preachers made saints flesh and blood...