Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Michio Tokunaga

Shunyata in Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism has long been considered a minor development apart from the mainstream of Mahayana. This view is based on the understanding that, in contrast to the fundamental Mahayana ideal of attaining the highest reality which is formless and which is known as 'emptiness' or shunyata, this reality in the Pure Land tradition is expressed as form, for example, as Amida Buddha, Pure Land and so forth.

Critics of the Pure Land tradition assert that in shunyata there is neither form nor human conception. Every form and all concepts are overcome or annihilated in the realization of the highest reality, while in the Pure Land tradition, the highest reality is grasped in forms and through concepts. According to Hisamatsu Shin'ichi, one of the best known Zen thinkers of modern Japan, Buddhism is defined as follows:

In my opinion, Buddha in Buddhism must have a fundamentally atheistic character. According to the essential Buddhist way of thinking, the theistic Buddha expounded in Buddhist scriptures must be a provisional one secondary in importance to the Buddha having ultimate significance.[1]

'Theistic Buddha' here refers to Amida Buddha in the Pure Land tradition. Hisamatsu suggests that Shin Buddhism descends to the plane of 'theism' deviating from the essential ideal of Buddhism.

Thus to Hisamatsu, Shin is not perfect as a school of Buddhism, especially in comparison with Zen, which is entirely 'atheistic'. He goes on:

If we consider Amida in Shin on the basis of theism, the agent of compassionate activities is restricted to Amida alone, and it goes without saying that we sentient beings cannot have compassion for others. In this case, Shin may be said to contradict the fundamental Buddhist ideal.[2]

Hisamatsu again compares Shin with Zen in his essay 'Zen as the Negation of Holiness':

Schleiermacher's absolute dependence also indicates the union between the sacred and man, and as such is suggestive of a disparate conjunction. Without a gap, a dependent relation cannot be established. For Schleiermacher, the feeling of freedom is absolutely negated.

In Buddhism, the Jodo-Shinshu sect has points of similarity with dialectical theology. It, too, is a religion of a disparate conjunction. It absolutely negates the self by extinguishing it and by uniting it with Amida Buddha. This union, however, does not dissolve one into Amida Buddha. Rather, by 'entrusting oneself' to Amida Buddha, one enters into a relation of absolute dependence, a relation in which there is an absolute gap between the base and evil self on the one hand and Amida Buddha on the other; and nevertheless there is a union of the two. This union, as an element essential to holiness, has the gap as its prerequisite. No order of holiness is possible without this separation. Precisely because it is transcendent and separate from us, holiness can be revered, worshiped, trusted, and believed in.

Zen, however, negates this transcendent and objective holiness which is so radically separated from us just as it denies a Buddha existing apart from human beings. As such it is radically non-holy. Retrieving the holy Buddha, so far removed and separate from human beings, it realizes the Buddha within these human beings, a 'nonholy', a human Buddha. [3]

Here Hisamatsu admits the position of Shin Buddhism as a school of Mahayana on the one hand, but on the other criticizes Shin for its dichotomous division of existence, beings and Amida, and the dialectic interchange of the two in 'faith'.

Here, however, a serious question arises concerning his understanding of Shin and also of Buddhism in general. He continues:

Searching neither for Buddhas or Gods outside of man, nor for paradise or Pure Lands in other dimensions, Zen advances man as Buddha and actual existence as the Pure Land. [4]

It may be true that in the final realization of Zen, there is only one reality in which 'I' and 'the other', 'good' and 'bad', 'purity' and 'impurity', and 'holy' and 'nonholy' are fused. But the fusion is possible only when there are such co-ordinate concepts. However strongly practicers may negate the dichotomy, it is a matter of course that they have to start with this dichotomy. They cannot help starting with this dichotomy because there is no non-dichotomous reality from the very beginning when viewed from the side of the practicer. If there were no dichotomy from the very beginning, there would be no need for Zen practice. In other words, it is this dichotomy which is the subject and the material of satori, the final goal of Zen. If satori is the negation of this dichotomy, Zen, too, should be called a dialectic religion, because negation is a kind of affirmation.


In Shinran's magnum opus Kyogyoshinsho, the view Hisamatsu puts forth is taken up and criticized:

The monks and laity of this latter age and the religious teachers of these times are floundering in concepts of 'self-nature' and 'mind-only', and they disparage the true realization of enlightenment in the Pure Land way.[5]

The meaning of the 'concepts of self-nature and mind-only' in this quotation is, in Hisamatsu's terminology, 'man as Buddha and actual existence as Pure Land'. Shinran's criticism of this way of thinking is based on the actual impossibility of overcoming the dichotomy as Zen insists.

Zen has been accepted widely in the West for its 'non-religious' character and 'atheistic'aspect in which all relative ways of thinking are criticized and discarded in order to go straight to the 'formless' reality with this present existence. 'The path of words has been cut out', 'Not establishing words' or 'Mind-to-mind transmission' which are frequently used by Zen practicers, all indicate the transcendence of this relative world and attainment of ultimate 'formless' reality. That is to say, they point to the futility of conceptual understanding, or 'silence'.

Unlike Zen, Shin is a form of Buddhism in which conceptual understanding is not only admitted but advanced, for it is not for elite monks but for ordinary people bound by a relative way of thinking in this secular world. The most important requirement for the devotees of Shin is to listen to the teaching in which the highest reality is described in forms like Amida, Amida's Vow, and the Pure Land. In other words, Shin is full of mythological descriptions. But the purpose of listening to the teaching is not to believe in such myths but to overcome conceptual understanding through making use of conceptual understanding.


The above difference between Zen and Shin seems to be mainly due to the difference of the understanding of the highest reality of Mahayana, shunyata. Is it appropriate to grasp shunyata in such a one-sided way as Hisamatsu does? Is shunyata simply an annihilation of form, the negation of all concepts?

Nagao Gadjin's presentation of shunyata is quite different from Hisamatsu's:

Shunyata is not a mere nihilism which engulfs all entities in its universal darkness, abolishing all differences and particularities. On the contrary, shunyata is the fountainhead from which the Buddha's compassionate activity flows out. Shunyata, the summit, is reached, but in the next moment, differentiation and discrimination occur again, notwithstanding the identity accomplished by shunyata.[6]

In this passage, Nagao puts more emphasis on the aspect of shunyata as the manifestation of itself in form in the region of conception than that of shunyata as a mere negation of conception. The positive aspect of shunyata, expressed by Nagao as 'differentiation and discrimination' and 'all differences and particularities', is indispensable for understanding shunyata in its negative aspect as well. Both make up shunyata and neither of the two can be omitted.

Of the two, the positive aspect, which could be called the 'revival' of form in the realm of human conception, is the basis for locating Pure Land Buddhism within Mahayana. Thus, Amida Buddha, Pure Land and so forth can be found in this revival of form in the realm of human conception.

The true meaning of shunyata is completely revealed only when we take the 'revival' of form or of human conception into account. But it does not necessarily mean that any form or any concept is admissible. The 'revival' here means nothing other than the literal sense of the word, that is, a coming back to life. In shunyata, form dies and it comes back to life; this is what is meant here by 'revival'. Form maintains its significance as shunyata only in that it has once died.


There is in Mahayana a noteworthy analysis of the highest truth in two divisions - the 'mundane' truth and the 'supramundane' truth - usually termed 'two truths'. The relationship between the two has been given in diverse ways but, in order to avoid confusion, the 'two truths' doctrine is discussed here only as two aspects of shunyata. One is the highest truth, which is formless and beyond conceptual understanding, and the other, the manifestation of the formless in the realm of human conception, that is, form.

It was Nagarjuna who first presented the notion of 'two truths' as an analysis of shunyata. The highest truth (paramarthasatya) is beyond words or description, i.e. beyond the reach of conceptual understanding and yet it was presented by the Buddha Shakyamuni as his teaching so that our conceptual understanding could grasp it. It is in this sense that the teaching is regarded as an 'expedient means' (upaya), often likened to a finger pointing to the moon. What is crucial about this metaphor is that the finger and the moon are mutually reflexive. Without the finger, the moon would not be known. Without the moon, there would be no need for the finger pointing to it. The one is involved in the other. The finger and the moon are inseparable. In this sense, the 'two truths' may be called the 'twofold truth'.

Kumarajiva, in his treatment of shunyata philosophy in translating Nagarjuna into Chinese, used the term chia-ming ("name only for a temporary use") for the mundane aspect of the truth. 'Temporary' in this compound represents the negative aspect of the highest truth. 'Negative' in this case means the non-substantial nature of beings from the viewpoint of the truth of shunyata. 'Name' represents the positive aspect in which conceptual understanding 'revives' only after it is once negated. Even shunyata is a 'name only for a temporary use' so long as it is expressed in order for our conceptual understanding to grasp it. It is chia-ming which is the very ground of Pure Land Buddhism and which refers to the 'positive' phase of shunyata expressed in 'forms'.


In the history of Pure Land Buddhism, it was T'an-luan (476-542 C.E.) in the Wei dynasty who developed the chia-ming aspect of shunyata to its fullest as a means of clarifying the significance of the various features of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land. As noted above, such a conceptualized presentation is criticized for its attachment to 'form' by those who grasp shunyata in a one-sided way.

Trained in the San-lun school, a Chinese Madhyamika tradition, T'an-luan investigated the meaning of shunyata in Pure Land literature. His writing, Ojoronchu (Chin-t'u-lun-chu), a commentary on The Discourse on the Pure Land attributed to Vasubandhu, is a presentation of his view of shunyata on the basis of its chia-ming aspect.

The Discourse on the Pure Land is noted for Vasubandhu's worship of Amida and also for the analysis of Amida and the Pure Land as objects of contemplative practice, which finally leads the practicer to acquire prajna or non-discriminating wisdom. This means that through contemplation on the features of Amida and the Pure Land through conceptualized presentation of the highest reality in 'forms', the practicer reaches the realization of the 'formless' reality. That is, he acquires prajna.

In the Discourse, the attributes of Amida and the Pure Land are expressed as the 'twenty-nine adornments' which appear to be derived from the three Pure Land sutras. What is noteworthy in the description of the twenty-nine adornments is that a single characteristic is extracted from among them and spoken of as the 'virtue of purity'. This 'purity', the basis of the twenty-nine adornments, is, according to Mahayana terminology, none other than the formless highest reality. Thus, 'purity' as the basic attribute of the highest reality covers all the attributes of Amida and the Pure Land.

The Discourse also states:

The adornments of the Land of the Buddha of immeasurable life are expressions of the wondrous state in which the highest reality manifests itself (SSZ 1, 273).

Needless to say, this statement signifies that the twenty-nine adornments are not an arbitrary mythological description of Amida and the Pure Land but expressions of the highest reality manifesting itself in form. In other words, only Buddhas can express their enlightenment in form.

T'an-luan's intention in writing the Commentary on the Discourse is clearly known to be an extension of this movement from formless to form; this is the basic thought presented in the following passage:

Because dharmata is stilled of attachments, dharmakaya is formless. Because it is formless, it can express itself in any form. Hence, the feature of the Buddha and the adornments of the Pure Land, which are precisely dharmakaya (SSZ 1, 337).

T'an-luan's usage of dharmakaya extends into the two aspects of dharmata, the formless reality. In one aspect, it is nothing but the formless dharmata, and in the other, it is an inevitable and spontaneous manifestation of the formless in form, the adornments of the Pure Land. This view is also seen clearly in T'an-luan's interpretation of the twofold dharmakaya:

Among Buddhas and bodhisattvas there are two aspects of dharmakaya: dharmakaya as suchness and dharmakaya as compassionate means. Dharmakayaas compassionate means arises out of dharmakaya as suchness, and dharmakaya as suchness emerges [into the realm of human comprehension] through dharmakaya as compassionate means. These two aspects of dharmakaya differs but are not separable; they are one but not identical (SSZ 1, 336-37).

It goes without saying that Amida Buddha and the Pure Land are a manifestation of dharmakayaas suchness in the realm of human comprehension as dharmakaya as compassionate means. The adornments of the Pure Land are, therefore, one with the formless dharmata. In T'an-luan's terminology, the twofold dharmakaya is a synonym of the twofold reality, the 'two truths'.

In this context, upaya, which was originally 'the teaching' in the sense of finger pointing to the moon, greatly changes its meaning. The original Chinese for 'dharmakaya as compassionate means' is fang-pien fa-shien (Jap. hoben-hosshin), of which fan-pien is upaya. Upaya is here used to refer to the emergence of the formless reality in human comprehension as form; this is the work of dharmata as compassionate means. Dharmata does not remain inactive in the realm beyond human conception.

Further, T'an-luan carefully developed the chia-ming aspect of dharmata. In line with 'dharmakaya as compassionate means', an outflow of the highest reality as various features of Amida and the Pure Land, he also discusses the issue of man's 'birth' in the Pure Land. This 'birth' is apt to be considered substantial and contradictory to the Buddhist idea of anatman, or 'no-self':

The 'birth' to which Bodhisattva Vasubandhu aspires refers to being born through causal conditions. Hence it is provisionally termed 'birth'. This does not mean that there are real beings or that being born or dying is real, as ordinary people imagine (SSZ 1, 283).

The 'provisionally termed "birth"' in this translation is, needless to say, the 'birth' under 'name only for temporary use' because it is involved in the realm of dharmakaya. T'an-luan uses this concept of chia-ming to refer also to aspirants for 'birth' in the Pure Land, calling them 'persons of "name only for a temporary use"'. What evokes our attention concerning the aspirants of 'birth' in the Pure Land is that he uses the concept of chia-ming for beings both in this world and in the Pure Land, i.e. 'a person in name only for temporary use in the Pure Land'. This means that he presented the concept of chia-ming as something which covers the two worlds - the human and the Buddha's - and that in becoming a person of chia-ming in this world, one becomes a person of the Pure Land.

Here we find that the crucial point of T'an-luan's presentation is how to become a person of chia-ming. T'an-luan's Commentary does not talk about it apart from the 'five contemplative practices' as developed in the Discourse. But for ordinary illusion-filled persons in this world, it is still extremely difficult to become a bodhisattva performing the contemplative practices.

In this respect, we have to wait for Shinran's presentation of the true significance of the attainment of 'birth' in the Pure Land which includes the notion of chia-ming of 'dharmakaya as compassionate means' in its most profound sense of shunyata.


1 Hisamatsu Shin'ichi, 'Mushinron' (Atheism) in Hisamatsu Shin'ichi Chosakushu (Tokyo 1972)Volume II, pp.78-79.
2 Hisamatsu, 'Mushinron', p.83
3 Hisamatsu Shin'ichi, 'Zen as the Negation of Holiness' in Franck ed., The Buddha Eye (New York 1982), p.173.
4 Hisamatsu, 'Zen as the Negation of Holiness' p.174.
5 Yoshifumi Ueda, ed. The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way, Vol.II (Kyoto 1985), p.201.
6 Gadjin Nagao, 'Ascent and Descent: Two Directional Activity in Buddhist Thought', Presidential Address for the 6th Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Tokyo, 1983.

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