Pure Land Buddhism is a specific interpretation of the Mahayana school, popular in eastern China, Korea, and Japan. It should be said, however, that with most Eastern faiths specific is a relative term; there are wide variations under the broad umbrella of Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land is focused on a single divine figure, an admission of personal inability, and a version of “salvation” grounded in a person’s belief in that divine figure, Amitābha. In this way, Pure Land Buddhism bears a superficial similarity to some aspects of the Christian gospel—though these particulars were added gradually through the twelfth century.
Buddhism can be generally divided into two schools: Mahayana and Theravada. Of these, Mahayana contains elements that seem more typically religious to a Western mind. These elements include a belief that certain Buddhas—Mahayana believes there have been many in history—are spiritual projections of an ultimate reality, itself called Buddha. With this belief, Mahayana Buddhism simultaneously “worships” Buddha while maintaining a worldview devoid of literal deities, as most religions would define them. Pure Land Buddhism takes a significantly more direct approach to both worship and divinity than other schools of Buddhism.
Pure Land Buddhism is also known as Amidism due to its emphasis on a single spiritual leader, a celestial Buddha named Amitābha. According to Pure Land beliefs, Amitābha exemplified the concept of bodhicitta, a desire to see all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. Part of this, for Amitābha, was realizing that most people lacked the spiritual strength or the intellectual ability to attain nirvana. As part of his personal path of the bodhisattva—his growth into enlightenment—Amitābha resolved to use his impending Buddha-hood to create a spiritual realm where it would be easier for people to attain their own enlightenment. This is the “Pure Land” where those who call on Amitābha will be reborn.
Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes that a person must do several things to attain nirvana: believe and trust in “deliverance” through Amitābha, recite his name according to a certain mantra, desire to be reborn into Amitābha’s Pure Land, and hope for the universal enlightenment of all sentient beings. This salvation by rebirth into the Pure Land is primarily accomplished by reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha.
Where, when, or even if Amitābha actually lived is unknown. However, the general outline of his teachings seems to have begun around the first and second centuries AD. Over time, the philosophy of a Pure Land where reborn people could more easily seek nirvana grew. It was not until the 1100s when Pure Land Buddhism developed the idea that simply chanting the name of Amitābha would bring a person to this paradise. This change did away with other mantras, chants, and complex rituals. The Shin sect of Pure Land Buddhism went a step further in claiming that faith in Amitābha, not the chant itself, is what “saves” people.
Christian scholars have sometimes facetiously claimed that, in order to be a good Buddhist, one needs a graduate degree in Eastern philosophy. To some extent, modern-day Pure Land Buddhism is a deliberate attempt to dispel that problem. Buddhist philosophy is not rejected, but, rather than bearing the burden of meditation, right action, right thinking, and such, the adherent is charged with placing faith in Amitābha to help him attain the unattainable. This makes Pure Land Buddhism extremely popular with those who seek enlightenment but who don’t feel led to become a monk or who feel they lack the sophistication required for deeper spiritual study.