Western Buddhist Review

Faith and Imagination in Pure Land Buddhism

On Tue, 28 June, 2016 - 12:05
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Dharmacārī Saccanāma reviews a ground-breaking new book on Pure Land Buddhism, with new translations of sūtras, and finds much to appreciate and enjoy:

Ratnaguna & Śraddhāpa

Great Faith, Great Wisdom: practice and awakening in the Pure Land sūtras of Mahāyāna Buddhism

Windhorse Publications, Cambridge 2016, £14 pback, also in ebook

Review by Saccanāma

There is a debate going on in Buddhist publishing at present: titles such as Buddhism Without Beliefs, After Buddhism and Buddhism is a Religion: You can Believe It indicate the nature of that debate. On one side of the debate is the ex-Gelug and -Son monk and now sometime guru of secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, author of the first two titles. On the other side is David Brazier, psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist as well as founder of the engaged Pure Land movement called the Amida Trust (and author of the third title mentioned). Batchelor’s secular Buddhism, with its emphasis on the practical, this-worldly aspects of the Buddha’s teaching stripped of its metaphysical and mythological context, applies the eighteenth century European Enlightenment’s rational and scientific critique of Christianity to Buddhism, stripping it of anything that might be called religious. Conversely, David Brazier, critical of the utilitarian emphasis of secular Buddhism and the mindfulness movement, upholds a vision of Buddhism with so-called religious values at its heart. 

Great Faith, Great Wisdom by Ratnaguna and Śraddhāpa enters into this debate but from a less polemical and indeed subtler perspective. A translation of, and extended introduction to, the Pure Land Sūtras, it immediately takes us into what you might call the more religious elements of the Buddhist tradition. Traditionally, the Pure Land texts and schools of Buddhism have emphasised the importance of faith more than that of wisdom. Indeed, at its fullest development, in the life and work of Shinran Shonin, Pure Land Buddhism claims that it is only the complete faith and trust (shinjin in Japanese) in the Other Power of Amida Buddha that can liberate us from our suffering. Ratnaguna, however, in his extended introduction to the world of the Pure Land Sūtras, takes a different approach to Shinran, suggesting, as the title of the book suggests, a more integrated approach to them. 

But, given their historical, doctrinal and spiritual primacy, let’s look at the translations first. There is already a significant history of translation of these sūtras into English, starting with Max Muller and Takakusu’s in the late Victorian period. These provided the main knowledge of these texts in the English-speaking world for almost a century (although Charles Luk did give us a literal translation of the Visualisation Sutra in the 1960’s). Those with a fondness for Victorian poetry or the authorized version of the Bible may still like the sonorities and grandiose language of these pioneering efforts but unsurprisingly, they have been surpassed in more recent times. The 1990’s brought two new translations of note. Firstly, those from Hisao Inagaki, the president of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies. These are translations from the Chinese and present a version of the sutras concordant with the developed Pure Land tradition found in Japan. At around the same time, Luis Gomez, in his The Land of Bliss, gave us a double translation of both the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the two Sukhāvatīvyuha Sūtras (but not the Visualisation Sutra which only exists in Chinese). Gomez is an American academic who brings not just his linguistic skills to bear on the comparative versions of the texts but also an awareness of them as literary texts, comparing their depiction of the after life with, amongst others, Dante’s vision of the Paradiso. For any serious English-speaking student of the Pure Land texts, Gomez’s book is essential, giving us a glimpse into how the sutras developed as they moved from India to China. Indeed, in the Long Sukhāvatīvyuha Sūtra there are two extended passages found in the principal Chinese version that are not present in the Sanskrit and Gomez’s excellent translations help to make us aware of this and give us a ready way to compare them. However, he does not translate what is referred to as the Visualisation Sūtra, a text that is now generally considered to be of Chinese origin as no Sanskrit original has been found. Given that this also deals with Amitābha and his Pure Land and that the three texts together provide the basis for the Sino-Japanese development of Pure Land Buddhism, it is a serious omission. Fortunately, Śraddhāpa, like Gomez, is blessed with the relatively rare ability to translate from both Sanskrit and Chinese and so has presented us with an up-to-date and eloquent translation of all three. His versions of the two Sukhāvatīvyuha Sutras are translated from Sanskrit and obviously the Visualisation Sutra is translated from Chinese. 

To illustrate the differences in these major translations, I quote below the same sentence from the Short Sukhāvatīvyuha Sūtra from each of them - 

Therefore, then, O Śaripūtra, mental prayer is to be made for that Buddha country by faithful sons and daughters of a family. (Cowell p.102)

Hence, Śaripūtra, good men and women of faith should aspire to birth there. (Inagaki p.359)

Therefore, Shariputra, sons or daughters of good families who have faith should actively direct their thoughts towards rebirth in that buddha-field.(Gomez p.21)

Therefore, Śaripūtra, children of good family who possess faith should cultivate a heartfelt desire for that buddha-field. (Śraddhāpa p.246)

The key word here is praṇidhāna (yuan in Chinese), translated as ‘mental prayer’ by Max Muller; as ‘aspire’ by Inagaki; as ‘direct their thoughts’ by Gomez; and as ‘heartfelt desire’ by Śraddhāpa (although he does use ‘vow’ to translate praṇidhāna elsewhere, depending on context). It is perhaps not fanciful to suggest that the move from ‘mental prayer’ to ‘aspiration’ to ‘directed thought’ to ‘heartfelt desire’ represents a shift from the more intellectual interest in Buddhism of Victorian times to a more emotionally alive practitioner’s engagement with the Buddhist tradition that is now present in the West. Indeed, this touches on our opening theme of whether Buddhism is just a rational teaching with a pragmatic this-worldly emphasis or whether it is more an affair of the heart.

Before we return to that theme though, a few more words about Śraddhāpa’s translations. He has aimed at a translation that reads well and indeed they are intended to be read aloud, as would traditionally have been the case. If you don’t wish to read them aloud yourself, there is a free audio download of Ratnaguna reading all three of them available on the internet. I have been reading them aloud myself and can vouch for them as auditory texts (although Gomez is also very good in two of the three sūtras). There is a kind of understanding that comes, albeit more slowly, from hearing the text read out in a ritual context than that which comes from a silent, individual perusing of it in an armchair. 

In terms of contextual material, aside from Ratnaguna’s extensive introduction, Śraddhāpa provides a glossary of key words (e.g. praṇidhāna) which allows us to easily refer to the meanings of the original words in Sanskrit and Chinese. However, the text is not burdened with excessive scholarly notes or academic references. For me, this is a good middle way between translators such as Thomas Cleary – who gives you no idea of the key terms he is translating and by so doing draws too much attention to himself – and more academic translations that can end up reducing the significance of the actual sūtra because they overburden it with modern textual scholarship.

For many people though, the main attraction of this book will be Ratnaguna’s collection of eight introductory essays. By introductory, I don’t mean short (they take up over two-thirds of the book) or slight – rather that they introduce many of the key themes of the sūtras prior to a reading of the sūtras themselves. Ratnaguna’s approach is itself unusual and illuminating. As a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, he sees the sūtras from an ecumenical viewpoint i.e. he does not read them backwards (as it were) from the perspective of later Pure Land tradition, as Inagaki does in his translations and studies of the Sūtras. This ecumenical approach allows him to see many connections with the Pāli texts particularly that would normally be overlooked by Pure Land writers. One example of this is the connection he makes between the setting of the Short Sūtra in Anāthapiṇḍada’s Park at Śrāvasti with the Pāli story of Anāthapiṇḍada’s first encounter with the Buddha. As recounted in the Pāli Vinaya, Anāthapiṇḍada was visiting a relative at Rājagṛha when he first heard the name ‘Buddha’ and this simple mention of the name ‘Buddha’ electrified him, leaving him sleepless that very night as he paced up and down waiting to go and see the Buddha the next morning. This emphasis in the Pāli story on the name of the Buddha becomes significant when later on in the Sūtra, we encounter the following:

If a child of good family hears the name of the Blessed One, the Tathāgata Amitāyus, and if their minds become absorbed by it – for one night, two nights, three nights, four nights, five nights, six nights, or seven nights – if their minds become undistractedly absorbed by it, then when they die the Tathāgata Amitāyus … will appear before them, and they will die with an undistorted mind. (Śraddhāpa p.244)

The whole notion of the name of the Buddha having some salvific effect is central to Pure Land Buddhism yet the connection with Anārthapiṇḍada’s story is not, as far as I am aware, made in Pure Land texts. True, it is an imaginative or suggestive connection that Ratnaguna is making, based on his knowledge and awareness of the Pāli traditions of Buddhism, and it is not historically verifiable. But what it does do is suggest continuities between earlier and later Buddhist tradition that are often overlooked by those with a Pure Land sectarian bias.

Another such example is his referencing of the stories of Vakkali and Piṅgiya, the two best known faith-followers in the Pali texts. Usually faith is considered as important but preliminary to the development of wisdom in the Pāli texts and it is later relegated to a practice for lay people and not for the monastics and meditators. But in the story of Piṅgiya (as well as in a short sutta in the Aṅguttara Nikāya that Gombrich draws attention to in his essay ‘How Insight Worsted Concentration in the Pali Canon’), faith is seen not just as a preliminary but as a complete spiritual faculty. As the Buddha says to Piṅgiya:

Just as Vakkali was released through faith,

And Bhadravudha, along with Alavi-Gotama,

In just the same way you can be set free through faith.

You, Piṅgiya, will go to the far shore of the realm of death. 

(Ratnaguna p.58)

Through his faith, Piṅgiya’s mind becomes ‘joined’ with that of the Buddha (the Pāli term is yutta) and he is, as a result, liberated. If Pure Land Buddhism has a source in the early traditions of Buddhism, then Piṅgiya is surely that source. 

Such connections with Pāli texts, arrived at through this ecumenical approach, should no doubt be of great interest to Pure Land Buddhists, giving them an anchor to other parts of the tradition of which they might not otherwise be aware. 

However, alongside illumination from this ecumenical approach, Ratnaguna is also not afraid to critique certain ideas that later became very important to Pure Land tradition. One such example is his claim that the theory of the three ages of Dharma – where people could understand and practice the Dharma as well as gain Enlightenment; where they could understand and practice it but Enlightenment was no longer possible in this life; and where they are unable to either understand or practice it – is a form of determinism and hence not genuinely Buddhist. Such a view was, however, widely accepted by Pure Land tradition and may even, as Ratnaguna points out in relation to Tan Luan, have given rise to what he calls a creative mistake – the expounding of the importance of Other Power in the third age of decline of the Dharma because it was no longer possible to make progress through one’s own efforts.

To return to our opening theme though, that of the secular or religious nature of Buddhism, Ratnaguna has an important contribution to make. Basing his exposition on a stock phrase from the Pāli Canon, he draws our attention to four qualities that suggest a listener’s mind is ready for the truth: mudu, ninivaraṇa, udagga and pasanna in Pāli; variously meaning tender, malleable; open-minded; exalted, clear; bright, trusting, faithful in English translation. These qualities combine to form a state of mind that Ratnaguna calls the ‘imaginative faculty’, the ‘imaginal faculty’, the ‘imaginal realm’ or simply the ‘imagination’. Here he is combining a theme from his own teacher Sangharakshita (who has talked of the importance of the Imaginal Faculty for perceiving the truth) with his knowledge of the Pāli texts in a unique way. It is this imaginal faculty that can allow us to engage with texts like the Pure Land Sutras in a way that is neither credulous and literal minded nor sceptical and reductive. The images of Sukhāvatī and of Amitābha/Amitāyus are what he calls illumined images – neither escapist fantasy nor literal truth but a higher, imaginative truth. This way of exploring and understanding the sūtras creates a Buddhism that is intellectually credible (in that it doesn’t ask you to believe things too literally) but that can also satisfy the depths of the human heart. We need much more of this kind of exploration of Buddhist texts, based as it is on a hermeneutics that is neither narrowly academic nor intellectually naive. 

I have hardly touched on the actual themes that Ratnaguna draws out of the Sūtras – they are many and wonderful. He is particularly good in drawing out the implications for friendship and Sangha that are present in the depiction of Sukhāvatī whilst his exploration of time and eternity is a wonderful meditation on the theme of amita – the infinite. In a chapter entitled ‘Tears Falling like Rain’, he evokes the plight of Queen Vaidehi – who becomes a kind of ‘Everyman’ for later Pure Land tradition – in very moving terms. 

One word of caution though. If you come to this book looking for an exposition of the other power teaching of Shinran, you will be disappointed. Ratnaguna, as the title of the book suggests, takes the mainstream approach to the influence of Amitābha – both self-power and other power are needed – Great Faith and Great Wisdom. For a fuller exploration of Shinran’s radical denial of the efficacy of self-power and complete reliance on the blessings and grace of Amitībha, I recommend Great Living by Kemmyo Taira Sato, an eloquent translation of, and commentary on, the Tannisho.

But I hope I have written enough to encourage you to buy and read this wonderful book. It is not written for those with internet-length attention spans and fortunately it makes no attempt to dumb down the message of the Sūtras with exercises for the reader. But it is a book to learn from and re-read over many years, particularly as it has the original texts in such fluent translations from Śraddhāpa. 

Saccanāma lives at Adhiṣṭhāna in Herefordshire, UK, and is Assistant to the College of Public Preceptors of the Triratna Buddhist Order.


E.B. Cowell, ed., Buddhist Mahayana Texts, Dover, 1969.

Hisao Inagaki, The Three Pure Land Sutras, A Study and Translation, Nagata Bunshodo, Kyoto, 1995.

Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, Athlone, 1996.

Luis O. Gomez, The Land of Bliss, University of Hawai’i, 1996.

Great Faith, Great Wisdom is available in paperback and ebook formats direct from the Windhorse Publications website.

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dharmabandhu's picture

Thank you Saccanama for this thoughtful and insightful overview and introduction to the Pure Land tradition and especially to Ratnaguna’s book Dharmabandhu