Quang Minh Thich | FSU Library: Vietnamese Buddhism in America | 3-CHAPTER 1: The Transmission of Buddhism to Vietnam | Part 4

The Pure Land Tradition of Vietnam.

In general, Pure Land Buddhism focuses on gaining a better rebirth in order to advance in Buddhist practice, not in this realm of suffering, but in another Buddha realm which is without defilement and without suffering caused by physical harm or afflictive emotion. According to Buddhist cosmology, there are other realms of Pure Land (sukhavatī) established by other Buddhas beyond this mundane realm of existence. Popular among those are the Land of Bliss in the West of Amitābha (Infinite Life or Boundless Light) Buddha, the Universe of Abhirati (Wonderful Joy) in the East of Ashobhya (Undisturbed) Buddha, and the World of vaiḍūrya-prabhā-rāja (Bright Beryl) of Bhaiṣajyaguru (Medicine King) Buddha.  Many sutras devoted to each of those popular Pure Lands are still in practice. However, only Amitabha Buddha and his Western Pure Land manifested themselves as an independent tradition for practice, namely the Pure Land tradition. The Indian origin of Amitābha Buddha had long been shrouded in mystery and, consequently, speculations because of the lack of records. Toward the twelfth century, as the Muslim invaders, including Ikhtiyar-ud-din Muhammad, who invaded Bihar and put to death the Buddhist monks dwelling at Nalanda Monasteries, pushed eastward into the heartland of the Buddhists from western India, they “swooped down on them with Khalif Omar’s famous slogan at the siege of Alexandria ringing in their ears: ‘Burn all the libraries, for their value is in one book.’”[1]  At a result, Indian Buddhism had been wiped out of India, together with its textual records. All of the prominent traces of Indian Buddhism, including monasteries, like Nalanda, with their well-stocked libraries treasuring sutras and various manuscripts, had been burnt to ashes, while monks were slaughtered, and Buddhist temples, including their Buddhist statues, were destroyed beyond recognition. It seemed impossible to find ancient evidence of Amitābha Buddha in India. Fortunately, in the late twentieth century, after decades of making tremendous efforts, the archeologists together with Buddhist scholars from India and around the world brought to light the Indian origin of Amitābha Buddha. In 1977, a pedestal of Amitābha Buddha’s statue recovered from Govindnagar, on the western edge of Mathura city, India, confirmed the existence of Amitabha Buddha statue there in 104 C.E., with the following four Sanskrit lines:

  1. Maharajasya huvipaksya sam 20 (6) va di 20 = 6
  2. Etasyapūveya satvakasya sathevahasya pautro bala ka (i) tesay srepṭhisya nattikena
  3. Buddha balena putre)a nagaraksitena bhagavato buddhasya amitabhasya pratima pratipṭhapi (ta)
  4. (Save) Buddha pūjaye imena kusalamūlena save (satva)anuttara Buddha jhanam (sravitam).[2]

or in English, as follows:

The 26th years of the Great King Huveṣka, the second month, the 26th day.  On this day by Nagarakṣita, the (father) of the trader Satvaka, the grandson of the merchant Balakatta, the son of Buddhapila, an image of the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitabha was set up for the worship of all Buddhas. Through this good root of merits (may) all living things (obtain) the unexcelled knowledge of a Buddha.[3]

Thus, during the early second century, in 104 CE, or the 26th years of King Huveṣka, Amitabha Buddha was known in Buddhist practices in India.


Figure 12.  The Kuṣan Amitabha inscription, Mathura, India.  Photo J. C. Huntington.


Figure 13.  Another photo of the Kuṣan Amitabha inscription and the image of Amitabha
on the headdress of Avalokiteśvara, Mathura, India. Photos R. C. Sharma.

The history and practice concerning Amitabha Buddha can be drawn from the available texts in the Chinese Tripitaka, the collection of Buddhist scriptures brought from India, including those from Nalanda Monastery, by Indian Buddhist monks and also by Chinese pilgrim monks, including Hsuan Tsang and I-Tsing. Even though many sutras were dedicated solely to Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land, only the Amitabha Sūtra, the Sukhavatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Sūtra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life became the foundational sutras of the tradition. The first two sutras still have extant Sanskrit versions. The Amitabha Sūtra explains briefly the excellent features of Amitabha Buddha himself, the marvelously blissful qualities offered by his land, and the most succinct instructions for obtaining rebirth there. According to the instructions, making a vow to be born into his Western Pure Land and the recitation focused on the name “Amitabha Buddha” are two essential components of the practice. First, one should make a vow to be born into Amitabha’s Pure Land in order to continue practicing until reaching Buddhahood and then return to this suffering world to assist other sentient beings to reach enlightenment. This is a bodhisattva vow and should be made with firm resolution. Secondly, in practice, Amitabha Buddha is the name used for recitation. As a standard, this recitation can be performed from one day to seven days, until reaching the single-pointedness of mind, without deviant thoughts. Similar to the samadhi stage in other Buddhist traditions, this is a highly concentrative stage of mind known as Buddha-recitation samadhi (Buddhanusmrti-samadhi).[4] The sutra also emphasizes that as a result of the practices, anyone can be conscious at death and that even Amitabha Buddha himself and the noble beings of his pure land will manifest themselves at that time in order to help lead the rebirth of that individual. The most popular version of the text is the Amitabha Sūtra, translated by Kumarajfva around 402 CE and entered in the Taisho under number 366. Because of its eloquent translation and moderate length, the text became the main scripture for chanting in the evening session in most temples associated with Pure Land practices. In 650, as an effort to support Pure Land Buddhism, Hsuan-Tsang (612-664) again translated a version of the Amitabha Sutra (Taisho 367) after returning to China. During the seventh century, I-Tsing (635-713), in the concluding section of his famous pilgrim records concerning India and the Malay Archipelago, made a dedication to his kind Upadhyaya (Master in Reading) Shan-Yu by revoking the devotion to Pure Land practices of the Master. According to I-Tsing, Master Shan-Yu was an “Ocean of Wisdom” with deep insight into Tripitaka and expansive knowledge of Chinese classics and literature. However, within his last year the Master discarded his scholarly texts and concentrated on Pure Land practices. Consequently, Master Shan-Yu obtained conscious dying, foretelling exactly his death three days in advance.[5] In addition in Chinese Monks in India, I-Tsing reported that Ch’ang-Min, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) master and a pilgrim monk, and a contemporary, also practiced Pure Land Buddhism. When the boat was sinking in the open sea, the captain entreated master Ch’ang-Min to get on a small junk so that he could be rescued. However, the small junk was already crowded with people who scrambled to get on in order to survive. Regardless of the offer by the Buddhist captain, master Ch’ang-Min told him to take somebody else in his place and calmly focused on reciting “Namo Amitabha Buddha” willing to accept death on the sinking ship. His disciple also recited the name of Amitabha while invoking Ch’ang-Min.[6] These accounts illuminate the popularity of the Amitabha Sutra in East Asia, especially in China, during the seventh century.

The second Pure Land text, the Sukhavatīvyūha Sūtra (Taisho 360), was first translated by the Sogdian Venerable K’an Seng K’ai (Saṃghavarman) during the Wei Dynasty (220-265). It also appears in the fifth chapter, sections 17 and 18, of the Ratnakūṭa Sūtra, or A Treasury on Mahayana Sutras (Taisho 310). The scripture narrates the past life of Amitabha Buddha as Bhikṣu Dharmakara, his former practices, his forty-eight original Bodhisattva vows, and various benefits connected to the practices, all in elaborate descriptions. In addition to the simple method of Buddha recitation, the nineteenth vow of Amitabha Buddha allows even another manageable venue to perform Pure Land practice by including anyone who “resolves to seek enlightenment, cultivates all the virtues and single-mindedly aspires to be born in my land.”[7] In other words, a practitioner can dedicate his or her accumulative merits toward the Western Pure Land as a method of obtaining rebirth there. Also, the sutra explains the establishment of the Pure Land through the samadhi power of Bhikṣu Dharmakara for extended kalpas (expansive comic ages) and the reasons for the marvelous appearance of the Pure Land in connection to his Bodhisattva vows. Together, those remarkably favorable conditions aim to help sentient beings advance their Buddhist practices without backsliding. The text functions well as an elaboration on the Amitabha Sūtra. It is an indispensable resource for understanding Pure Land Buddhism. The third sutra, the Sūtra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life (Taisho 365), was first translated by Kalayasas between 424 and 442. However, at present, no Sanskrit version of the text exists.[8] The text provides special instructions from the Buddha to Queen Vaidehf who was in low spirits. The queen wished for a better realm of living after witnessing that her own son, Ajatasatru, usurped the royal throne and even attempted to kill his own father, King Biṃbisara. After viewing the various pure realms shown by visions of the Buddha, Queen Vaidehf expressed her wish to be reborn in the Western Pure Land of Amitabha, the most appealing realm according to her own perception. In order to fulfill her wish, the Buddha instructed the queen sixteen contemplations, visualizing the marvelous scenes concerning Amitabha and his Pure Land in elaborate descriptions. From the simplest to the most complicated, the instructions star with the setting sun, the crystal-clear water, the beryl land, the rows of jeweled trees, the miraculous lotus pond lined with fine golden sand, light-radiating fragrant lotus flowers, and pure water, whose temperature and level change according to individual wishes, and so on. The list of contemplations ends with the visualizations of the magnificent forms of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Mahasathamaprapta Bodhisattva, as the two main attendants of the Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha, together with their respective precious jeweled thrones. These intensive visualizations, especially the sixteenth and seventeenth visualizations focusing on the physical characteristics of Amitabha, aim to generate Buddhanusmrti-samadhi and bring instant visions of the Pure Land while being alive on earth and to ensure definite and direct rebirth there immediately after passing away. Altogether, these practices are open to all who can manage them according to their own circumstance and ability. People can perform the practices under various conditions when time is permitted. The portability of the Pure Land practices makes the tradition highly accessible. Neither preliminary practices or intellectual requirements are needed. Also, the practice can be performed safely by an individual without the constant prodding of a master. Altogether, these practices have made Pure Land Buddhism popular even to the commoners.

Furthermore, Pure Land Buddhism also focused on conscious dying and on gaining the rebirth of the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha in order to continue Buddhist practices. The Pure Land tradition was recorded in ancient Vietnam during the fifth century, around 425 CE, when Đàm-Hoằng (d.455) of North China came to practice Pure Land Buddhism at Tiên- Son Temple, Bắc-Ninh, Vietnam. Originally, Đàm-Hoằng (T’an Hung) practiced the Vinaya, the Buddhist disciplinary rules. However, after arriving in Giao-Châu, he focused primarily on Pure Land practice, concentrating on the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra and the Sutra of Sixteen Contemplations, and vowed to be reborn in the Sukhavatī only.[9] Later on, Amitabha Buddha was further introduced to the Vietnamese through the Vaipulyadharani Sutra translated by Vinītaruci (d. 594), the Indian founder of the Vietnamese Zen School. Though being tantric in principle, the sutra prominently featured a story of Amitabha Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha in one of their past lives together. Since then, Pure Land Buddhism has continued to be practiced and promoted in Vietnam. The tradition became widely popular during the eleventh century, under the Lý Dynasty (1010-1225), when the Master Thảo Đường, the founder of the Thảo Đường Zen School, publicly promoted it in his Warning Statement.[10] Master Thảo Đường highlighted Pure Land Buddhism for offering the precise, quick, and easy method that can be practiced by all regardless of intellectual capacity or gender. He even pointed out that practitioners could embark on reciting Amitabha Buddha individually, without the constant need of a teacher as in other Buddhist practices. It is the most practical and safest path according to his view:

Though you might practice Buddhism in many ways, in summary there are three main methods: meditation, contemplation, and Buddha recitation. The method of meditation has no definite way to follow and is therefore a difficult practice. If you do not have an enlightened master or a capable mind, you may stop midway in your progress or remain mistaken for your entire life. Contemplation is a very subtle method; without a good teacher or prajna wisdom, complete enlightenment is hard to attain. Buddha recitation is a quick and easy method. In all the ages past, both intelligent and dull, both men and women have been able to practice Buddha recitation. Nobody makes a mistake with this method because of the applicability of the four types of outlook.[11] Putting worries aside, you may therefore proceed with a decisive heart.[12]

As a result, the Pure Land method of Buddha recitation spread widely as a common practice in many Zen temples.  Moreover, the practice of Buddha recitation also produces samadhi, just as in Zen and other types of Buddhist practices. Thus, even the Zen masters would commonly greet others saying “Namo Amitabha Buddha.”

The accumulated popularity of Amitabha Buddha during the early twelfth century was shown during Hội Đèn Quang Chiếu or the Glorious Illuminating Lanterns Festival under the patronage of King Lý Nhân Tông (1072-1127). The stone stele Sùng Thiện Diên Linh, which was erected in 1112 at the Đội Pagoda, Hà Nam Ninh, highlighted the festival with glowing descriptions as follows:

The lofty Glorious Illuminating tower is constructed in front of Đoan Môn [the main gate of Thăng Long, the capital]. It has a central column, sectioned into seven floors. Each was supported by rolling dragons holding the golden lotus. Silk is sewn into the lantern screens to shade the candlelight. A small machine, concealed on the ground, helps to spin into motion the whole tower which illuminates the sky like a radiating glorious sun. Also, it is spectacularly adorned with precious jewels. There, the golden temples and jeweled palaces are devotedly crafted, adorned with lofty statues of the Buddhas in sitting poses and dignified composure, a marvel of artistic expression.

Also, inside the two floors, adorned with flowers and hanging bells, the forms of Buddhist monks, clothed in meritorious monastic robes, can strike a bell with a handle as the machine is activated, and can stand still looking out as the signaling of clapping on the sheath of the sword, or can nod their heads as the coming of the light radiance.

Also, it has seven spectacular jeweled pagodas arranged in line. The middle one has Prahūtaratna Tathagata situated on a golden mount, displaying the Dharma Wheel on top of the multiple roofs and gleaming with light reflection as from the morning sun, while the tile roof flickers with light as if being reflected from bluish clouds at dusk.

Next, the two silver thrones, situating Amitabha Buddha on the left and Surūpa Buddha on the right, are both at imposingly valorous heights, with their beauty illuminated by the curving roofs twinkling with lights like the sparkling melting snow. Their glorious composure eclipses the glowing full moon of Autumn. The farther two are the [garuda] bird thrones, situated on the left with the compassionate form of the Vipulakaya Tathagata and on the right with the wondrous form of Abhayaṃ Kara Tathagata, and housed in a big compartment which is adorned by dragon bas-reliefs on the wall and towered by precious tiles on the roof. The next farther are two elephant thrones, with Amrtaraja Buddha on the left and Ratnasikhin Buddha on the right, carved and polished out of precious stones, installed on tall columns, with jewels adorning the corners of compartments and rhinoceros horns filling the gaps. Also, beautiful gāthā [verses] are inscribed on the lotus petals of the throne in order to shine the bright path of diligence for future generations.

Also it portrays the nine levels of heaven in five colors, forming the four pillars by pairs of hanging banners, together with a thousand lamps flickering on either side and with golden crimson illuminating the four directions. This can be called an advancement surpassing past dynasties and beyond creation. Devoted to the happiness of all people, night turns into day. Satisfying hearts and eyes on earth, the old become young. That is your [Majesty’s] effort of cultivating meritorious roots.[13]

This festival was repeated four times under the patronage of King Lý Nhân Tôn, during the years 1110, 1116, 1120, and 1126.  Among those, the last one was organized as a welcoming festival to the ambassador envoy from Champa. In addition to the excitement and the marvel of the festivity displayed in public in medieval Vietnam, the inscriptions also reflect popular Buddhist activities at the time. The seven Buddhas, as a particular group, especially Amitabha Buddha, have significance in Pure Land Buddhism. First, the dedication is to those seven Buddhas associated with the yogic practices instructed by the Du Già Tập Yếu Diệm Khẩu Thí Thực Nghi, (The Essential Yogic Manual for the Feeding of the Hungry Ghosts) (Taisho 1320) and closely linked to the Cứu Bạt Diệm Khdu Đà La Ni Kinh (The Sutra on the Dharani for Liberating the Hungry Ghosts) (Taiso 1314). According to those tantric texts, performing the practices help to liberate those unfortunate sentient beings in the lower realms of animals, hungry ghosts, and Hell beings. Also, it promotes peace, prosperity, and general heath. However, the ultimate aim is to lead the followers to be born in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha after compassionately liberating them from those lower realms. Thus, gaining rebirth in the Western Pure Land of Amitabha had already become popular by then. This popularity could be traced back to the tenth century, when the names of the Buddhas Prahūtaratna, Surupakaya, and Vipulakaya, a part of the group of seven Buddhas, appeared on the stone pillars concerning the Uṣṇīsavijayadhāranī, which was discussed previously. As a result, the Amitābha Sutra was also added to the tantric manual and eventually became the evening chanting session in most Buddhist temples.[14]

In an effort to popularize Buddhism, several lineage holders of the Vietnamese Zen schools continued to promote Pure Land Buddhism in conjunction with Zen. They constructed statues of Amitabha Buddha, including the stone statue of Amitabha carving in 1057 which remains intact at Phật Tích Temple, in Bắc Ninh Province. Those Zen masters also taught Pure Land practices through their writings, even in those concerned primarily with meditation. The inscriptions on the stele at Viên Quang Temple, constructed in 1122, portrayed the central statue of Amitabha Buddha with Bodhidharma on his side. Bodhidharma was not a figure of the Pure Land tradition. Rather, he was the Indian Patriarch who introduced Ch’an (Zen) to China. Thus, having Bohdidharma on the side of Amitabha Buddha indicated an acceptable union between the Pure Land and Zen Buddhism. In addition, the Zen Master Trì-Bát (1049-1117), the generation after Đạo Hạnh of the Vinǁtaruci Zen School, had a statue of Amitabha Buddha installed at Hoàng-Kim Temple. The temple was also locally known as Temple of the Single Roof, in what is now the Qu6c-Oai District, Hà-Tây Province.[15] Furthermore, the Zen Master Tịnh Lực (1112- 1175) attained the Buddha-recitation samadhi while entering a solitary retreat. As an intensive practice, he made prostrations during the twelve hours in order to pay homage to Amitabha Buddha and to purify his past misdeeds. As recognized in Thuyền Uyển Tập Anh, the succinct instructions of Master Tịnh Lực continue to be invaluable for Pure Land practices in Vietnam, proposing: “All of you who study the Dharma, in striving as offering to the Buddha, should have no better means besides eradicating and eliminating misdeeds. While reciting with your minds and chanting by your mouths you should generate faith, strive to understand, listen, and comprehend.”[16] King Trần-Thái-Tông (1218-1277), the initial king of the Trần Dynasty who had abdicated the throne to seek Buddhist practices, composed Khóa Hư Lục, a famous text concerning meditation. Nevertheless, he also devoted a full section of the text to the recitation of Amitabha Buddha. The Khóa Hư Lục clarifies the elimination of misdeeds as follows: “During Buddha recitation, while the body sits properly and straight, without doing negative actions, misdeeds of the body are eliminated. While reciting[17] the mantra [Amitabha Buddha], without negative speech, misdeeds of the mouth are extinguished. While the mind focuses on striving, without negative thinkings, misdeeds of the mind are terminated.” In addition, the Zen Master Huyền Quang, the Third Patriarch of the Trúc Lâm Zen Lineage, constructed the Cửu Phẩm Liên Hoa Đài, for the purposes of Buddha recitations and mantras. The structure was a nine-grade lotus tower, which was set on a wheel like a massive Tibetan praying wheel, depicting the nine levels of rebirth mentioned in the Pure Land sūtras.[18]  Despite these efforts, Pure Land Buddhism, being limited to the Pure Land sūtras, never stood out as a single school of Buddhism in Vietnam. Rather, it functioned as a complementary practice to Zen – to help spread the popularity of Buddhism. This tradition of popularizing Pure Land Buddhism as complementary to Zen Buddhism has been passed on down through the ages until the present day by the majority of the leading Vietnamese Buddhist masters.


[1] See Sukuma Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, pp. 293 & 357.
[2] See R. C. Sharma, Buddhist Art: Mathura School, p. 215.
[3] Gregory Schopen, Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India, p. 258.
[4] The term buddhānusmrti or buddhamanasikāra means recollection or mindfulness of the Buddha. They appear in the Smaller Sukhavativyūha Sūtra and also in the sixteenth and seventeenth visualizations of the Sūtra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life. See Hisao Inagaki, The Three Pure Land Sutras, pp. 17, 204, 332- 333.
[5] See I-Tsing, A Record of Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelag, pp. 199, 204.
[6] See I-Tsing, Chinese Monks in India , p. 26.
[7] See Luis O. Gómez, The Land of Bliss, p. 168.
[8] For the translators, the dates of these three sutras, the extant Sanskrit versions, and their first translations, see Hisao Inagaki, The Three Pure Land Sutras, pp. 55-57; Kenneth K. Tanaka, The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine, p. 16; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, pp. 760-762; Luis O. Gomez, The Land of Bliss, pp. 126-127; and Victor H. Mair, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, p. 163.
[9] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 1, p. 752; Kenneth K. Tanaka, The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine, p. 41.
[10] Some Vietnamese sources are still uncertain about Thao Đuong as the author of the Warning Statement. See Minh Chi et al., Buddhism in Vietnam, from Its Origins to the 19th Century, p. 51; and Nguyễn Tài Thu, History of Buddhism in Vietnam, p. 157.
[11] The four outlooks are I-Hsuan’s methodology of eliminating attachments and gaining self-realization, namely (1) eliminating subject, leaving object; (2) eliminating object, leaving subject; (3) eliminating both, leaving neither; and (4) eliminating neither, leaving both. (Thich Thien An 1971: 19, Thích Minh Canh 7177)
[12] See Thich Thien An, Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam in Relation to The Development of Buddhism in Asia, p. 89; and also The Zen-Pure Land Union and Modern Vietnamese Buddhism, pp. 16-17.
[13] See Hà Văn Tấn, Chữ Trên Đá Chữ Trên Đồng Minh Văn và Lịch Sử, pp. 134-138; Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, pp. 319-321; and Nguyễn Tài Thu, History of Buddhism in Vietnam, p. 163.
[14] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, p. 327.
[15] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Lịch Sử Phật Giáo Việt Nam, vol. 3, p. 139.
[16] See Lê Mạnh Thát, Nghiên Cứu về Thuyền Uyển Tập Anh, pp. 224,781; Nguyễn Tú C􀑭􀓡ng, Zen in Medieval Vietnam, p. 145; and Thích Thanh Từ, Thiền Sư Việt Nam, p. 199.
[17] See Thích Thanh Kiểm, Khóa Hư Lục, p. 47.
[18] See Nguyễn Lang, Việt Nam Phật Giao Sử Luận, vol. 1, p. 184; and Nguyễn Tài Thu, History of Buddhism in Vietnam, pp. 162-163.

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