Ching-t'u, or Pure Land, is the devotional School of Chinese Buddhism. Its name translates the Sanskrit word sukhavati,from the Sukhavativyuha Sutra, which means “happy or pure land”.
Ching-t'u beliefs centre around the Buddha Amitabha or Buddha of Infinite Light (also called Amitayus, or Infinite Life) and his Pure Land. The Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra tells how Dharmakara, the Bodhisattva who was to eventually become the Buddha Amitabha, resolved to one day create a Pure Land more blissful and more beautiful than the lands created by other Buddhas, vowing that anyone wishing to reborn there need only to earnestly repeat his name ten times and he would come, at the moment of their death, to convey them to his blissful realm. There they, the faithful, would be reborn on lotus flowers to sit in his (now Amitabha Buddha’s) enlightening presence. The Pure Land itself is described as a verdant paradise, ornamented with jewels, populated by gods as well as men, and free from pain, suffering, and anything in the slightest unpleasant. The Buddhist Dharma is constantly taught there, and being free from the obstacles and distractions of life in the world, it is the perfect place to achieve enlightenment.
Inspired by Dharmakara/Amitabha’s vow to save all those that recited his name, Ching-t'u takes nien-fo,“or invoking (Amitabha) Buddha” as its primary devotional practice: thus Ching-t'u Buddhists chant, “Na-mo O-mi-t’o-fo”, meaning “Homage to Amitabha Buddha”. Ideally, this is to be done wholeheartedly, with unquestioning faith, and with the mind still and concentrated on Amitabha. To enhance this practice it may be combined with the visualisation, in ever increasing detail, of Amitabha and his Pure Land. Along with such visualisation, other secondary Ching-t'u practices include singing praises to Amitabha, worshipping images of Amitabha and other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, especially Kuan-yin, and chanting the Pure Land Scriptures.
Other than the attraction of Amitabha’s vow, a second reason why the Ching-t'u School teaches the path of devotion is its belief that the spiritual condition of humanity is so degraded that to rely purely on one’s own efforts, or “own power”, to reach enlightenment, is to invite failure. It therefore calls upon the “other power” of Amitabha as the most logical, simple, and direct, method of achieving enlightenment. Moreover in doing so it remains fully within the doctrinal domain of Mahayana Buddhism, for it is merely taking seriously those Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who vow to do their utmost to lead all beings to enlightenment.
The three most important texts of the Ching-t'u School all appeared in China relatively early. The Larger and Smaller versions of the Sukhavativyuha Sutra, or Pure Land Scripture, were translated in 252 and 402 respectively, followed by the Kuan-wu-liang-shou-fo ching, or Scripture on Meditation Concerning Amitayus, a few decades after the later date.
Devotional activity centred on Amitabha began almost immediately the first texts became available. However it was not until the beginning of the fifth century that the first organisation of any note appeared, when in 402 Hui-yuan (334-416) founded a Pure Land devotional group called the White Lotus Society, at Lu-shan in southern China. Although Hui-yuan’s Society was not populist in orientation like the later Ching-t'u, and had no direct connection with the latter’s development, Hui-yuan is nonetheless sometimes regarded as the first patriarch of the School.
Hui-yuan’s group was short-lived, and a century passed before organised devotion to Amitabha next appeared, this time in north China in Shansi Province. T’an-luan (475-542) pursued immortality in the Taoist tradition for much of his life, before reading Pure Land texts and being converted. He actively advocated his new belief to the populace as, given the extreme difficulty of achieving liberation, the only viable way to do so, and soon gained hundreds of followers. In his writings he laid the theoretical foundations of the School, and outlined five kinds of devotional practice, including chanting the name of Amitabha.
The next Ching-t'u patriarch, Tao-ch’o (562-645), lived during a time when the belief was prevalent that the world had entered a period of spiritual and moral degeneracy in which Buddhist teaching was ignored and in decline. In these dark times Tao-ch’o offered Pure Land practices as the only way to salvation. For several decades the Ching-t'u was in conflict with the San-chieh School, which was making similar claims for its own teachings, until the latter was suppressed. Under Tao-ch’o the Ching-t'u gained considerable popular support, and this growth increased with his pupil and successor, Shan-tao (613-681), who was particularly zealous in his promotion of the faith. Shan-tao had thousands of copies of Ching-t'u texts made for distribution, wrote works of his own on Ching-t'u, and painted hundreds of pictures of the Pure Land to help convert the illiterate. Following Ta-ch’o, he also emphasised nien-fo as the primary Ching-t'u practice, and organised large gatherings where Pure Land believers would chant Amitabha’s name together.
With Shan-tao the Ching-t'u School came to full maturity as a defined religious path with scriptures, commentaries, practices, organised worship, an iconography, and, most important of all, a huge following. It was this widespread popular support that enabled the Ching-t'u, unlike the majority of the monastic schools, to survive the persecution of 845. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) the School’s following continued to grow as hundreds of Pure Land societies sprang up throughout the empire, some of them, such as the White Lotus Society, having thousands of members. At the same time, efforts were being made to reconcile the theoretical and practical differences between the Ching-t'u, and the other main survivor of the persecution, the Ch'an School. The Ch'an monk Yen-shou (905-975) became a master of both Schools, and taught that since all is the One Mind, the search for the Buddha, whether directed outside oneself as in the Ching-t'u, or inside oneself as in the Ch'an, was essentially the same. His efforts, along with those which made similar recommendations after him, were successful, and in Chinese Buddhist monasteries today Pure Land devotional practices are used in conjunction with Ch'an meditation.
From the Sung Dynasty down to the present the Ching-t'u has retained its position as, in terms of numbers of adherents, the most successful School of Chinese Buddhism; its compassionate deities, simple practices, and promises of rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, ensuring its continued popular appeal. There have, however, been attempts to reinvigorate and raise the level of the spiritual life of the movement, most recently by the monk Yin-kuang (1861-1940).
Depictions of Amitabha Buddha most often show him seated serenely on a large lotus blossom in his Pure Land, typically shown as a beautiful Chinese palace and garden with lotus ponds, and flanked by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and those fortunate enough to have been reborn in his domain. Two Bodhisattvas in particular are associated with Amitabha as his helpers, Ta-shih Chih (Skt. Mahasthamaprapta) and Kuan-yin (Skt. Avalokitesvara), who represent Amitabha’s wisdom and compassion respectively. Of these two, Kuan-yin became by far the most popular, with the numbers of images created of the Bodhisattva more than equalling those of Amitabha himself. In India, and up until the tenth century in China, Kuan-yin was depicted as a man, until, probably by way of a tantric influence, “he” became female. Her name translates as “one who hears the sounds (of the world)”, indicating her alertness and readiness to answer human prayers and requests. She is often shown carrying a vase containing the heavenly elixir in one hand, and in the other, a lotus flower, both items being symbolic of Amitabha’s Pure Land and its boons. In her tiara sits a meditating Buddha, indicating her connection with Amitabha. In her most popular manifestation as Sung-tze, the Giver of Children, Kuan-yin appears with a child and a dove, the latter being symbolic of fertility.
Statues of the triad of Amitabha, Ta-shih Chih, and Kuan-yin, are found in Buddhist temples throughout China, usually in the western hall, as Amitabha is the Buddha of the West, and his Pure Land often called the Western Paradise. Ching-t'u temples often contain Buddhas and Bodhisattvas other than the three mentioned, as well as images of the devout who have been successful in being reborn in the Pure Land.