The Reconciliation of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism

Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma


I am quite pleased to follow Rev. Thich Tam Tue after his beautiful lecture last Sunday on Amitabha Buddha. It seems so odd that Pure Land and Zen should be reconciled, since their philosophic basis and their view on life vary so much. But in China, Korea and Vietnam, these two schools did come to form a syncretic, holistic view of Buddhism. And this is the topic that I have chosen to speak on today.

First, I should mention a little about the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. Buddhism came to Vietnam from India by sea in the first century of the common era, during the time of King Asoka, India’s great Buddhist emperor. They brought, of course, Hinayana Buddhism, today known as Theravada Buddhism. Two hundred years later a Chinese community was well established. From a description of a Chinese convert, who wrote that the monks wore saffron robes, shaved their heads and ate only one meal a day, it is clear that Theravadan monks were serving their community.

As you know, Bodhidharma came from India to China in 520 C.E. and introduced Zen (or the meditation school) to them. In the latter part of the sixth century (580 C.E.) a monk came from India, bringing Zen to Vietnam. His name was Vinitaruci (Ty ni da lu chi in Vietnamese). Two hundred fifty years later a Chinese monk entered Vietnam to fulfill his Bodhisattva vows, to save all living beings. This school became known as Vo Ngon Thong school. The third Zen school arrived at the beginning of the eleventh century and was known by its founder’s name, Thao Duong. This school was a union of Zen and Pure Land.

It was the seventeenth century when Lam Te Buddhism reached Vietnam. The founding master of this school is the famous Lin Chi, better known by his Japanese name, Rinzai. This school became known by the Vietnamese master who popularized the school, Lieu Quan. It became the most important school in Central Vietnam, and all Buddhist monks ordained at this temple are in the Lieu-Quan lineage line. Now, the lineage line does not necessarily tell you what their practice is. For example, Rev. Thich Tam-Thien’s (Kusala) practice has a lot of Theravada elements in it. Rev. Thich Tam-An (Ruja) is totally a Theravada practice. Rev. Thich Tam-Tue (Rev. Tri Ratna Priya) practices more of the Zen-Pure Land tradition. Probably the only disciples here who practice primarily the Lieu-Quan form of Buddhism are myself, Thich Tam-Tri (Vajra) and Br. Jnana (Lynn). This mixed practice is typical of Vietnamese Buddhism itself where monks of different traditions practice together in the same temples: Theravada, Pure Land and Zen, with a little tantra mixed in for good measure. This is, I believe, also common in China and Korea.

At any rate, the lineage of this temple is Lieu-Quan, a totally Zen tradition, coming directly from Lin Chi of China. It was popularized by monks who felt that Zen had become too polluted by Pure Land, and who wanted to revert to pure Thien or Zen.

Ven. Thich Nhat-Hanh says of the Thien school in his book Lotus in a Sea of Fire:

“In the history of Vietnamese Buddhism, Thien is by far the most important sect. The practice of Thien is by no means easy. It requires a profound and powerful inner life, long and persistent training, and a strong firm will. The attitude of Thien toward the search for truth and its view of the problem of living in this world are extremely liberal. Thien does nor recognize any dogma or belief that would hold back man’s progress in acquiring knowledge or in his daily life. Thien differs from Orthodox religions in that it is not conditioned by any set of beliefs. In other words, Thien is an attitude or methodology for arriving at knowledge and action. For Thien the techniques of right eating and drinking, of right breathing and right concentration and meditation, are far more vital than mere beliefs. A person who practices Zen meditation does not have to rely on beliefs of hell, Nirvana, rebirth or causality; he has only to rely on the reality of his body, his psychology, biology, and his own past experiences of the instruction of Zen masters who have preceded him. His aim is to attain, to penetrate , to see. Once he has attained satori (insight) his action will conform by itself to reality.”

So, you see, this temple was founded by a man who identified himself as a Zen monk. In fact, I did not learn much of Pure Land until the refugees arrived from Vietnam. Dr. Thien-An, understanding Americans, taught us pure Zen, and that was his point of departure. To the Vietnamese, his point of departure was Amitabha Buddha and Pure Land thought. Now how could such divergent attitudes be found in one man and taught by him?

Since Zen is more a methodology than a system of thought, although it certainly does have a system of thought, the self-power of Zen, contains the other power of Pure Land. Once you have self power, you must have other power. After all, the Recitation of the Buddha’s name is used as a concentration exercise. This is where Chinese/ Vietnamese Pure Land differs from Japanese forms. The Vietnamese Pure Land adherents also meditate whenever they have the time to, whereas Jodosinshu says that meditation is a mere psychological trick, where you think you are capable of saving yourself. They say we must drop meditation and all thoughts of saving ourselves, and rely only upon Buddha Amitabha to save us. Their practice is to realize exactly who and what they are, without any rosy constructs placed upon their realization.

If your practice is to devoid everything in your mind, does it matter is you use a koan, shikentaza or recreating the Buddha in your mind? All of these techniques work if they are done with great diligence and bring the meditator to the same point, to the satori experience (that is to insight, which Theravadans praise so much.)

When you begin Pure Land practice, you think of the Buddha and his Pure Land as being apart from you. But as you practice it, slowly you come to realize that you and Amitabha are one and the same. You can experience the Pure Land right here and now.

For instance, the great Japanese Zen man, D. T. Suzuki was fascinated by Pure Land. He studied it and translated their writings in to English. He came to the conclusion that Zen and Pure Land Buddhism are the same. And Dr. Thien-An certainly believed it.



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