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Pure Land Buddhist Studies

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Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism

Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition

Paul B. Watt

The True Pure Land sect of Japanese Buddhism, or Shin Buddhism, grew out of the teachings of Shinran (1173–1262), a Tendai-trained monk who came to doubt the efficacy of that tradition in what he viewed as a degenerate age. Shinran held that even those unable to fulfill the requirements of the traditional Buddhist path could attain enlightenment through the experience of shinjin, "the entrusting mind"—an expression of the profound realization that the Buddha Amida, who promises birth in his Pure Land to all who trust in him, was nothing other than the true basis of all existence and the sustaining nature of human beings. Over the centuries, the subtleties of Shinran's teachings were often lost. Elaborate rituals developed to focus one's mind at the moment of death so one might travel to the Pure Land unimpeded, and a rich artistic tradition celebrated the moment when Amida and his retinue of bodhisattvas welcome the dying believer. What is more, many Western interpreters tended to reinforce this view of Pure Land Buddhism, seeing in it certain parallels to Christianity.


This volume introduces the thought and selected writings of Yasuda Rijin (1900–1982), a modern Shin Buddhist thinker affiliated with the Otani, or Higashi Honganji, branch of Shin Buddhism. Yasuda sought to restate the teachings of Shinran within a modern tradition that began with the work of Kiyozawa Manshi (1863–1903) and extended through the writings of Yasuda's teachers Kaneko Daiei (1881–1976) and Soga Ryōjin (1875–1971). These men lived through the period of Japan's rapid modernization and viewed the Shin tradition as possessing existential significance for modern men and women. For them, and Yasuda in particular, Amida did not exist in some other-worldly paradise but rather Amida and his Pure Land were to be experienced as lived realities in the present. In the writings and lectures presented here, Yasuda draws on not only classical Shin and Mahayana Buddhist sources, but also the thought of Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), the founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy, and modern Western philosophers such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Buber.

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Immigrants to the Pure Land

The Modernization, Acculturation, and Globalization of Shin Buddhism, 1898-1941

Michihiro Ama

Religious acculturation is typically seen as a one-way process: The dominant religious culture imposes certain behavioral patterns, ethical standards, social values, and organizational and legal requirements onto the immigrant religious tradition. In this view, American society is the active partner in the relationship, while the newly introduced tradition is the passive recipient being changed. Michihiro Ama’s investigation of the early period of Jodo Shinshu in Hawai‘i and the United States sets a new standard for investigating the processes of religious acculturation and a radically new way of thinking about these processes.

Most studies of American religious history are conceptually grounded in a European perspectival position, regarding the U.S. as a continuation of trends and historical events that begin in Europe. Only recently have scholars begun to shift their perspectival locus to Asia. Ama’s use of materials spans the Pacific as he draws on never-before-studied archival works in Japan as well as the U.S. More important, Ama locates immigrant Jodo Shinshu at the interface of two expansionist nations. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, both Japan and the U.S. were extending their realms of influence into the Pacific, where they came into contact—and eventually conflict—with one another. Jodo Shinshu in Hawai‘i and California was altered in relation to a changing Japan just as it was responding to changes in the U.S. Because Jodo Shinshu’s institutional history in the U.S. and the Pacific occurs at a contested interface, Ama defines its acculturation as a dual process of both "Japanization" and "Americanization."

Immigrants to the Pure Land explores in detail the activities of individual Shin Buddhist ministers responsible for making specific decisions regarding the practice of Jodo Shinshu in local sanghas. By focusing so closely, Ama reveals the contestation of immigrant communities faced with discrimination and exploitation in their new homes and with changing messages from Japan. The strategies employed, whether accommodation to the dominant religious culture or assertion of identity, uncover the history of an American church in the making.

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Luminous Bliss

A Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet

Georgios T. Halkias

With an annotated English translation and critical analysis of the Orgyan-gling gold manuscript of the short Sukhāvativyūha-sūtra

Pure Land Buddhism as a whole has received comparatively little attention in Western studies on Buddhism despite the importance of “buddha-fields” (pure lands) for the growth and expression of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In this first religious history of Tibetan Pure Land literature, Georgios Halkias delves into a rich collection of literary, historical, and archaeological sources to highlight important aspects of this neglected pan-Asian Buddhist tradition. He clarifies many of the misconceptions concerning the interpretation of “other-world” soteriology in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and provides translations of original Tibetan sources from the ninth century to the present that represent exoteric and esoteric doctrines that continue to be cherished by Tibetan Buddhists for their joyful descriptions of the Buddhist path. The book is informed by interviews with Tibetan scholars and Buddhist practitioners and by Halkias’ own participant-observation in Tibetan Pure Land rituals and teachings conducted in Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

Divided into three sections, Luminous Bliss shows that Tibetan Pure Land literature exemplifies a synthesis of Mahāyāna sutra-based conceptions with a Vajrayana world-view that fits progressive and sudden approaches to the realization of Pure Land teachings. Part I covers the origins and development of Pure Land in India and the historical circumstances of its adaptation in Tibet and Central Asia. Part II offers an English translation of the short Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra (imported from India during the Tibetan Empire) and contains a survey of original Tibetan Pure Land scriptures and meditative techniques from the dGe-lugs-pa, bKa’-brgyud, rNying-ma, and Sa-skya schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Part III introduces some of the most innovative and popular mortuary cycles and practices related to the Tantric cult of Buddha Amitābha and his Pure Land from the Treasure traditions in the bKa’-brgyud and rNying-ma schools.

Luminous Bliss locates Pure Land Buddhism at the core of Tibet’s religious heritage and demonstrates how this tradition constitutes an integral part of both Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism.

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Pure Land, Real World

Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination

Melissa Anne-Marie Curley

For close to a thousand years Amida’s Pure Land, a paradise of perfect ease and equality, was the most powerful image of shared happiness circulating in the Japanese imagination. In the late nineteenth century, some Buddhist thinkers sought to reinterpret the Pure Land in ways that would allow it speak to modern Japan. Their efforts succeeded in ways they could not have predicted. During the war years, economist Kawakami Hajime, philosopher Miki Kiyoshi, and historian Ienaga Saburō—left-leaning thinkers with no special training in doctrinal studies and no strong connection to any Buddhist institution—seized upon modernized images of Shinran in exile and a transcendent Western Paradise to resist the demands of a state that was bearing down on its citizens with increasing force. Pure Land, Real World treats the religious thought of these three major figures in English for the first time.

Kawakami turned to religion after being imprisoned for his involvement with the Japanese Communist Party, borrowing the Shinshū image of the two truths to assert that Buddhist law and Marxist social science should reinforce each other, like the two wings of a bird. Miki, a member of the Kyoto School who went from prison to the crown prince’s think tank and back again, identified Shinran’s religion as belonging to the proletariat: For him, following Shinran and working toward building a buddha land on earth were akin to realizing social revolution. And Ienaga’s understanding of the Pure Land—as the crystallization of a logic of negation that undermined every real power structure—fueled his battle against the state censorship system, just as he believed it had enabled Shinran to confront the world’s suffering head on.

Such readings of the Pure Land tradition are idiosyncratic—perhaps even heretical—but they hum with the same vibrancy that characterized medieval Pure Land belief. Innovative and refreshingly accessible, Pure Land, Real World shows that the Pure Land tradition informed twentieth-century Japanese thought in profound and surprising ways and suggests that it might do the same for twenty-first-century thinkers. The critical power of Pure Land utopianism has yet to be exhausted.

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Tracing the Itinerant Path

Jishū Nuns of Medieval Japan

Caitilin J. Griffiths

Women have long been active supporters and promoters of Buddhist rituals and functions, but their importance in the operations of Buddhist schools has often been minimized. Chin’ichibō (?–1344), a nun who taught male and female disciples and lived in her own temple, is therefore considered an anomaly. In Tracing the Itinerant Path, Caitilin Griffiths’ meticulous research and translations of primary sources indicate that Chin’ichibō is in fact an example of her time—a learned female who was active in the teaching and spread of Buddhism—and not an exception.

Chin’ichibō and her disciples were jishū, members of a Pure Land Buddhist movement of which the famous charismatic holy man Ippen (1239–1289) was a founder. Jishū, distinguished by their practice of continuous nembutsu chanting, gained the support of a wide and diverse populace throughout Japan from the late thirteenth century. Male and female disciples rarely cloistered themselves behind monastic walls, preferring to conduct ceremonies and religious duties among the members of their communities. They offered memorial and other services to local lay believers and joined itinerant missions, traveling across provinces to reach as many people as possible. Female members were entrusted to run local practice halls that included male participants. Griffiths’ study introduces female jishū who were keenly involved—not as wives, daughters, or mothers, but as partners and leaders in the movement.

Filling the lacunae that exists in our understanding of women’s participation in Japanese religious history, Griffiths highlights the significant roles female jishū held and offers a more nuanced understanding of Japanese Buddhist history. Students of Buddhism, scholars of Japanese history, and those interested in women’s studies will find this volume a significant and compelling contribution.

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