Aaron J. Powell, research student
Dept of Religious Studies, Lancaster University (UK)
Representations of the Pure Land
in the Three Periods of Mindfulness (Sanshi Xinian) ceremony
As a text, it was written by Zhongfeng Mingben, who lived from 1263-1323. He was a Chan monk of the Linchi sect, yet the ritual is classified as a Pure Land rite. Furthermore, as mentioned already, its declared purpose is that of enabling the deceased to cross over to the Pure Land, partly through a variety of performances akin to those of the esoteric school. It is the interaction between this Chan monk's thought, the ritual's Pure Land classification and emphasis and, to some extent, the esoteric practice, that is the subject of my paper. I shall also seek to set this within the context of some recent scholarly descriptions of the nature of the Pure Land in Chinese Buddhism and its relationship with the Chan school, as well as the understanding of the ritual among some of its participants.
The presentation of the Pure Land in the text of the ritual can be seen on the one hand as similar to the common Chan interpretation of the Pure Land. It emphasises that the Pure Land is not a literal place in which to be reborn after death and should not be understood as such. Rather, the text declares, one should open ones eyes to see the glory of this world and realise that indeed, this world is the Pure Land of the Buddha when perceived correctly.
At the same time, however, the text of the ritual states over and over again the purpose of the ceremony as enabling of the crossing over of the spirit of the deceased to the Pure Land. At various points the leader of the ritual speaks directly to the deceased, declaring how lucky he or she is to be able to benefit from this ceremony. In the midst of this, the Amitabha Sutra is chanted three times in full, with its graphical presentation of the Pure Land in what is most easily perceived as a literal place in which to strive for rebirth. It certainly does not seem that the Pure Land path is a lesser path than that of the Chan schools. Indeed, in some respects, the whole pattern of the ritual can be seen as a mystical journey to the Pure Land, via repentance and recitation - a visionary journey in which the deceased is invited to participate.
In that sense, I shall argue, it is hard to suggest that the version of the Pure Land which leads to the syncretism of Chan and Pure Land that has characterised Chinese Buddhism to this day is one which is simply 'Mind-Only'. Rather, certainly in terms of Chinese Buddhist practice and ritual, the situation is considerably more complex. There is a union of Chan, Pure Land and the esoteric forms of Buddhism at the heart of Chinese Buddhist ritual practice in which each struggles to maintain its more independent form.