Jérôme Ducor: on the way to enlightenment with Pure Land Buddhism

- through Henry Oudin

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Bonze of the Pure Land School, this Genevan orientalist strives to rehabilitate a tradition centered on faith and devotion to Amida Buddha, little known in the West.

What is Pure Land Buddhism?

It is one of the main constituent currents of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana). Its first traces date from 179 AD, simultaneously with the development of the tradition of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna-paramita). It makes it possible to realize the state of Buddha, by being born in what is called "the Pure Land" (Jôdo), that is to say the field of the radiation of the Awakening of the Amida Buddha. This is the only Buddha to bear two names: Amitabha which means "Infinite-Light", and Amitayus "Infinite-Life", "Amida" being the Japanese abbreviation of these two names. To accomplish this path, ordinary beings practice nembustu – the commemoration of Amida Buddha – sometimes in the form of contemplation, but mostly recitation of his name. Their purpose is altruistic, as their mission will be to return to Earth as Buddhas to deliver other beings from suffering. In the Buddhist religion, Amida is one of the three or four Buddhas who are the subject of a specific cult.

You speak of worship based on devotion. Isn't that close to monotheism?

Amida is an awakened one (Buddha), not a God who creates the world and cares about redeeming his creatures. For us Buddhists, there is no beginning, no first cause: just a natural sequence of causes and effects. Practice leads us to see things as they are, not as we would like them to be. Certainly, the Pure Land tradition is arguably the most “personalistic” Buddhist path in its presentation of enlightenment, since it embodies it in the person of Amida Buddha welcoming these ordinary beings into his compassion. It is also more about faith than devotion, like Buddhism in general, which starts from the observation of suffering. Like a doctor making a diagnosis, Buddhists then weigh cause and effect to finally arrive at a path to deliverance. This is the equivalent of the therapy prescribed by the doctor, which supposes having faith or confidence in the one who shows it in order to be able to commit to it. The starting point of any Buddhist path is taking refuge in the Three Jewels. The unique feature of Pure Land Buddhism is that of the object of faith: not an abstract ideal, but Enlightenment itself personified in Amida Buddha. Its two names of “Infinite-Life” and “Infinite-Light” refer respectively to its wishes of compassion and wisdom. In this case, the faith is in the qualities of this Buddha as recorded in the sermons of Buddha Shakyamuni. Ultimately, faith is letting go of the idea that the ease of the Pure Land path is too good to be true. Because that would amount to wanting to measure the wisdom of the Buddha. Faith is a simple abandonment of the temptation to want to control and calculate everything by oneself, in a way quite close to the letting go of Zen, but less abstract.

How did this school become so popular in Japan?

There are a dozen schools of Buddhism in Japan, the best known of which are Zen (three schools), Tantrism (two) and the Pure Land (four). When in the XNUMXth century, the country closed, prohibiting Christianity, the obligation was made for citizens to register in a Buddhist school. The majority at the time followed Pure Land Buddhism, while Zen seemed more elitist. Because what has made Pure Land Buddhism so popular is its accessibility. Basically, it is a practice without practice. One surrenders to the wishes of Amida Buddha, and this surrender can do without rituals. Amida takes you by the hand as you are. There are no stages of progression as in other forms of Buddhism, whether it be the initiations of Tantrism or the sitting meditation of Zen. No kôan to decipher either. This simplicity disconcerts as much as it seduces.

In the XNUMXth century, the master Hônen, founder of the Jôdo-shû, stipulated in his will: “You have to become an illiterate imbecile again”. Imbecile, in the sense of someone who does not claim to understand. This great scholar who rubbed shoulders with the most upscale and simplest circles was thus referring to the need to renounce all calculation, which is the essence of the Pure Land.

How was the Pure Land discovered and welcomed in the West?

At the end of the XNUMXth century, it was the Catholic missionaries who discovered this tradition. They called it a "Lutheran heresy" because of the apparent similarity of salvation by faith it advocates. Others would also call it "popular devotional Buddhism."

Then this Buddhism arrived in the West through emigrated Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese or Korean communities. The Japanese imported it to Hawaii in 1889 – where this tradition now has 36 temples – and ten years later to the American continent. When Americans of Japanese descent, interned during the Second World War, then tried to blend into the "American way of life", they adapted the Buddhist liturgy by drawing inspiration from that of the Protestant Churches, so that the Shinshû n Only a few followers were recruited there among the natives, who were more attracted by Tibetan tantrism or Zen.

“Master Hônen stipulated in his will: “You have to become an illiterate imbecile again”. Imbecile, in the sense of someone who does not claim to understand. This great scholar who rubbed shoulders with the most upscale and simplest circles was thus referring to the need to renounce all calculation, which is the essence of the Pure Land. »

The Pure Land is poorly known in our countries. It is both very simple and complicated at the same time. I endeavor to rehabilitate it. It has a bad press among Westerners who are interested in Buddhism, because they liken it to a monotheism from which they are precisely seeking to free themselves. And yet, according to Dennis Gira, a specialist in Buddhism at the Catholic Institute of Paris, the tradition of the Pure Land would be the most suitable for Westerners! Note, however, that Europe is an exception since there are small groups of practitioners native to their countries, in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Great Britain and Switzerland. In Geneva, for example, where there are approximately 3 Japanese nationals for a population of 000 inhabitants, the approximately 250 faithful of the Temple de la Foi Sereine, where I officiate, are almost all Westerners. Why don't the Japanese join us? Firstly because as expatriates, they stay in Geneva for a short time, on average two to three years. Then because, even in Japan, one does not practice at the temple every Sunday, but only two or three times a year, in particular during the Festival of the Dead and New Year or even on the occasion of funerals.

What are the rituals inherent in the Pure Land?

It is a Buddhism which offers you as an object of thought a specific Buddha: Amida. And from a Buddhist point of view, what better object of thought can one have than a Buddha? The Pure Land is not the only practice to center on faith and devotion. They are found in particular in the Guru Yoga of Tantrism. With us, the practice is concentrated in the nembutsu, that is to say the commemoration of the Amida Buddha. The recitation of his name, according to the Jôdo-shû school of Hônen, is the only necessary act. The Jôdo-Shinshû of his disciple Shinran insists more on the intention, that is to say the act of faith. We don't meditate like in Zen. We read the sutras specific to this tradition, which are mainly three: the Sutra of Infinite Life, Sutra of the Contemplations of the Life-Infinite Buddha and Amida Sutra. We will also recite the famous "Namo Amida butsu" (reverence to Amida Buddha), the idea being to pay homage to the Buddha and above all to keep him in mind. In ceremonies, offerings are added, including incense and the like. Our practice is basically quite basic, it aims to get away from our illusory personal efforts by surrendering to the wishes of the Buddha, in order to follow the path that leads from non-Enlightenment to Enlightenment. Such is the religious dimension of the practice. In absolute terms, we could do without a ritual. Do nothing except let go. Because as long as we try to "do", we deviate from the goal. And that is the hardest part to understand.

What can Pure Land Buddhism do for us today?

I will only talk about my personal case. The Pure Land brings me both nothing and everything. It's like breathing: at the moment, you don't pay attention to it, but, in reality, this function is vital. I am aware that Buddhism in its religious dimension is of less interest today to Westerners who are more passionate about well-being meditation, stripped of any act of faith and any transcendence.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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