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  • Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice by Charles B. Jones
  • Kendall Marchman
Charles B. Jones, Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019. vii, 205 pp. US$68 (hb). ISBN 978-0-824-87971-6

Single-authored monographs on Pure Land Buddhism in China are incredibly rare, and Jones’s Chinese Pure Land Buddhism: Understanding a Tradition of Practice is a welcome contribution that will change the way scholars of Buddhism and Chinese religion view this tradition. The book consists of nine chapters including the succinct but essential introduction and conclusion. Of the seven body chapters, only two have not previously been published elsewhere; however, the other five have been revised, and scholars will want to revisit their merits. Jones admits in his conclusion that it is difficult to create a cohesive book that is largely comprised of previously published articles, but he achieves this task skilfully (p. 169). The new contributions are woven into the existing scholarship to craft an impressive volume that will force scholars of Chinese Buddhism to re-evaluate how we discuss Pure Land Buddhism in China in our research and classrooms—thankfully, the book is appropriate for both settings.

The introduction (chapter 1) fittingly begins with practice, particularly the ubiquity of nianfo 念佛 and rosaries throughout Chinese religious communities. Westerners often have trouble understanding these practices as Buddhist; Jones points out that they are not alone, as many Buddhists throughout history have as well. An abundance of Buddhist commentarial literature reveals that there was no shortage of critics who argued that Pure Land practices distorted the dharma. As a result, these critiques have led to a distinct lack of interest from Western scholars until very recently (p. 2). Scholars have accordingly [End Page 297] “lacked a general orientation” to the Chinese Pure Land tradition (p. 3). As a result, some scholars have refused to recognize it as a tradition at all, or asserted that it is so diffused within the larger Chinese Buddhist milieu that it is indistinct. Jones pushes back against both these claims, seeking to “define Pure Land as a distinctive and bounded part of Chinese Buddhism” (p. 3). Playfully borrowing from A.A. Milne, in chapter 2, Jones suggests that there is still “a sort of something” about Pure Land in China. The chapter is one of the original offerings in the book, and is likely its most important chapter. Jones’s search through CBETA illustrates that though there is no significant mention of Pure Land as an independent institution (jingtu zong 淨土宗), there are other options such as Pure Land dharma-gate (jingtu famen 淨土法門) and the dharma-gate of nianfo (nianfo famen 念佛法門). This last one is particularly important, because it marks the Pure Land dharma-gate as a tradition of practice, the central claim of the book. The essential feature of this tradition, Jones argues, is the assertion that non-elite Buddhists could achieve the same goals (non-retrogression and ultimately Buddhahood) as (or perhaps more) efficiently as elite monastics. First noting the contributions of Tanluan 曇鸞 (476–542) and Daochuo 道綽 (562–645), Jones proceeds to explain that he views Shandao 善導 (613–681) as the beginning of this tradition of practice, given that he was the first to focus on emphasizing Pure Land practice among the non-elite. At first glance this might seem like another standard history of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism that is actually in service to the Japanese Pure Land tradition; however, Jones does not end the story of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism with Shandao before jumping to Japan, as many Pure Land histories often do. Each succeeding chapter adds to Jones’s claim that there is a distinct Chinese Pure Land tradition right up to contemporary China that developed independently from the Japanese sects.

Chapter 3, “The Development of the Concept of the Pure Land,” stands as perhaps the best single introduction to early Pure Land Buddhism that I have encountered. Instructors will find it an incredibly valuable resource appropriate for undergraduates as Jones weaves through the roots of the Pure Land Buddhism before China, the textual resources which influenced the “tradition of practice,” and...


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