Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, another perspective

After recommendation by someone I know, I started reading the Buddhist book “Finding our True Home” by the famous Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I have to admit my feelings on TNH are somewhat ambiguous. I think he writes some really good books, and some that are not so good.

So, I was kind of skeptical about this book at first, but it has been a pretty interesting read. To begin with, TNH is interpreting the Pure Land and Amida Buddha from a more Zen-like, mind-only perspective, which is one of a few ways to look at it. I wrote before how the Zen monk, Hakuin, had a similar interpretation. He quotes from a famous Vietnamese King named Thái Tông, who founded the Trần Dynasty in Vietnam. King Thái Tông was a devout Buddhist, and wrote the Khóa Hư Lục which in English means “Instructions on Emptiness.

(note: I’ve added pronunciation notes below under the post script section)

King Thái Tông writes on the different kinds of Pure Land disciples, beginning with the most basic, or “lower-level” practitioner:

As far as the practice of the lower level is concerned, our lips should constantly recite the name of the Buddha [Amida], our mind should want to see signs of the Buddha, and we should aspire to be born in the land of the Buddha…After we die, on account of our mindfulness of what is wholesome, we shall be born in the land of the Buddha. [The Pure Land]

Of the middle-level:

The middle-level practitioner has not yet been able to see that Amitabha [Buddha] is his or her own mind and needs to practice recollecting the Buddha in order to return to the present moment.

The highest-level practitioners again are not mentioned, but TNH’s alludes to them being those who awaken to see Amida within and the Pure Land being here and now, again quoting from King Thái Tông:

The Dharma body and our own body are not two different bodies, they are silent and enduring, going beyond every thought, and therefore called the living Buddha.

Here, King Thái Tông is talking about the interdependency of all things, something found throughout all Buddhism, but strongly emphasized in Zen/Thiền. Instead of an external Buddha, Amida Buddha, there is a deep interdependency, an intertwined existence. This is also a theme that comes up a lot in Japanese Buddhism, but King Thái Tông does a nice job of summarizing the different approach of Pure Land and Zen Buddhism.

Anyways, I think what both TNH and King Thái Tông are getting at is a sense of convergence of the Zen and Pure Land schools, where people start out thinking they are very different and almost mutually exclusive. However as one deepens their practice, they begin to see one in the other.

I think there is a lot of truth in this, but my only concern is that if you start treating Pure Land Buddhism as a mind-exercise, then it loses its effect. If you recite the nembutsu thinking “I am practicing mindfulness” or “I am trying to see Amida in myself by saying the nembutsu”, then you are just asserting your ego and a sense of accomplishment. Instead, you should forget all notions of what you are doing and just trust Amida Buddha, recite the nembutsu, and work it all out. That’s what Honen, Shinran and others were trying to get at.

It’s tempting to fall into this trap of contriving some result from reciting the nembutsu, I do it sometimes, so just be aware. :)

I just try keep it simple, recite the nembutsu and strive to be born in the Pure Land. If the Pure Land is real, then hopefully I will be born there. If the Pure Land really is an expedient means toward enlightenment, then that will arise sooner or later. Either way, it’s a good practice.


P.S. In this post, you get to see me dust off 2-years of college-level Vietnamese (plus months spent studying in Hanoi). All pronunciations are given in official Northern Dialect, which is the dialect I learned. Others may pronounce slightly different and that’s fine. Just be aware of the differences.

In case you’re wondering, in Vietnamese Pure Land Buddhism Amida Buddha is called A di đà Phật, which sounds like “A zee da fut”. The nembutsu is called niệm phật, or “nee-em fut”. When recited in Vietnamese it is pronounced as “Nam mô A di đà Phật”. There is little information on the Internet about Vietnamese Budhism, so it’s good to get the word out. East Asian Buddhism is a lot more than what you see in Japan/China, though they’re all deeply related.

For Thái Tông the “Thai” is pronounced as you would expect. The “Tông” is harder. The “T” here is actually like a harder “D” sound. I had the worst time pronouncing this right in school, my strict, but wonderful teacher caught me on it many times. The “ô” is the English “o” sound as in “home”. So the king’s name is more like “Thai Dong”, where “dong” sounds more like “home”.

As for the Trần Dynasty this is one of these examples of differences between Northern and Southern Vietnamese. The Northern dialect pronounces “tr” as “ch”. But the Southern Dialect stays true to the “tr” sound. The “â” is pronounced like “uh”, not “a”. So, the Dynasty’s name is more like “chun” or “trun” depending on which dialect.

Meanwhile, the book Khóa Hư Lục sounds like “Kwa hoo look”, but the “ư” sound is definitely not found in English. It’s said like “oo” but while smiling with your teeth clenched. Try it. :D

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10 Comments on “Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, another perspective”

  1. dougrogers says:

    As I have mentioned before, the temple where I sit is a south Vietnamese temple in that mixed tradition. My Dharma name is Thien Tham, which i am told means “Good Heart” . I discovered the meaning of Thien isn’t so fixed, but also means “Zen”. Chan, Zen Thien… all the same really. I guess, “Zen” doesn’t also fixedly mean “Zen” :-)

    Yes, one practice we do is with the nembutsu, which we are told, is properly, in the Vietnamese tradition said, “na mo ami da foot” :-)

    I get the sense that there are a few subtle levels of practice in this tradition, that the nembutsu works for lay practitioners, but that some monk practices involve more Chan.

    And I am more of the second school, you talk about above, that the Pure Land is here and now. It appeals more to my Thien mind.

  2. Gerald Ford says:

    Doug: I thought of you as I wrote this. :) Not just because we share the same name in real life, either. ;)

    I admit I am not comfortable with the “Pure Land is here, now” doctrine. I can see why someone would teach it, but I just don’t agree with it. I did in the past, but when I started to view the Pure Land as a genuine refuge, and a place to practice the Dharma more readily, I found it more appealing, and easier to grapple with. Honen’s story of the prostitute or of the ex-thief are both examples where someone benefits from a teaching of a real-Pure Land as opposed to the “mind-only” style of teaching. I think King Thai Tong’s writings are very good, but I am leery of his term “lower-level” practitioner. There’s a hierarchy there that makes me uneasy.

    Still, I know that TNH and King Thai Tong aren’t denigrating anyone: they’re trying to reconcile the different views, and that’s a great approach. :)

    BTW, the pronounciation of the nembutsu may vary depending on dialects. My teacher was North Vietnamese (she left Vietnam before the War, not after), and said “fuht”, not “foot”, but I also know a lot of overseas Vietnamese who definitely sound different when they talk. I can still vaguely tell the difference when I hear it, though my Vietnamese is all but forgotten.

  3. Marcus says:

    Namu Amitabul!

    I feel much the same about that TNH book, it has some great passages and is very beautiful and I appreciate that throughout the book, he makes the point that no matter how you see the Pure Land, as really existing or as mind-only the most vital thing is to make life in the Pure Land a reality in the here and now.

    “We do not have to go to the Pure Land, it can come to us. Although we are standing right in the world of afflictions, we only have to remember the Buddha and the Pure Land and we have a sense of well-being”. (p.107) So there is convergence there I guess.

    And if believing in a real Pure Land and a real re-birth there really is a ‘lower level’ practice, then I’m happy to be at that level and look forward to joining Amida Buddha there.

    Kwan Seum Bosal


  4. arunlikhati says:

    Doug, I think your Dharma name is actually Thiện Tâm, which by the way is a very nice Dharma name :) The thiện in your name is a different word from the thiền that means “meditation”. Thiện (good) has a slightly different (lower?) tone than thiền (meditation/zen). Also, be careful to not confuse tâm (heart, emotion) and tham (greed). In fact, the Pali term lobha (greed) is often translated as tâm tham.

    This is a great post, Gerald! I don’t read much TNH, although he is very popular in the Vietnamese community (also very controversial). I think your comments hit on both the reasons why he’s popular and why he’s controversial. And I appreciate your promotion of Vietnamese culture!

  5. michael says:

    I agree that one must be careful with this, but I really did enjoy this book. One should also be careful in how they interpret Shinran’s views. Although I agree completely with Shinran, his teachings can come across the wrong way. Since we’re sharing Dharma names, I through mine out there too. Shinyo.

  6. dougrogers says:

    Yes, arunlikhati, you are correct. Thanks for clarifying the subtleties of it. We Canadians flatten out our vowels so much, eh?

  7. Gerald Ford says:

    Doug: Yeah, at the height of my Vietnamese studies, I could remember the five meanings of tương, which depending which of the five tones used, meant something different. One meaning was wall, another was a general (in the military), another was garlic (or sauce, I forget), and so on.

    Tones really do matter in Vietnamese, though otherwise Vietnamese is pretty easy. :)

    Arun: glad to finally get the word out. There is a lot more to Vietnamese Buddhism than just Thich Nhat Hanh, and what little I can do to promote it is good. :D

    Michael: That’s a good point. Lately, I have to admit I’ve been rethinking how I understood Shirnan’s teachings, and have to admit that I kind of regret my own recent “parting” from Jodo Shinshu. Oddly, TNH’s book has helped me appreciate some of what Shinran taught, but from a more neutral (less dogmatic) viewpoint.

  8. clint says:

    I would have to agree that, though I’m a Pure Land practitioner, and TNH’s book is beautiful, I really get a sense that he’s kinda out of his element here, and that some of his assumptions about the way Pure Land practice ought to be come off condescending. He doesn’t have it in him to be intentionally condescending, of course, and there is much to enjoy here, and learn from as well. But to read it as a Pure Land book, instead of a Zen approach to the Shorter Infinite Life Sutra, is probably a mistake. TNH is no D.T. Suzuki, who definitely was a Pure Lander as well as a Zen Master.
    As a Pure Lander, it is frustrating that we have no big name teachers, or that we have no practice groups dotting the American landscape from coast to coast (I’m in Oklahoma City!). Alas, TNH isn’t one of those big name teachers we can call our own. I love my local TNH affiliated Sangha, and ally myself with them as a fellow Buddhist and as a dharma friend to some wonderful, warm and welcoming people. But I won’t take refuge in the Three Jewels until I meet a Pure Land teacher, monk or priest that I feel comfortable with, and with whom I can at least take up the Buddhist path lineaged as a Pure Lander. In the Ultimate, I know it doesn’t matter that much. But to me, “here and now”, it does, and I’ll practice patience until that day.

  9. Gerald Ford says:

    Hi Clint,

    Welcome to the L8B. I feel somehow your name is familiar, but I couldn’t find record of another comment, so if I welcomed you before, please forgive me. :)

    In any case, yes, I do feel TNH is a bit condescending at times, which is a bit disappointing, but I think also a product of being from a different lineage. Naturally he sees Buddhism through the eyes of his own lineage, so I don’t hold it against him. D.T. Suzuki was indeed a Pure Land Buddhist, and I enjoy reading his writings on the subject. I posted a few here in case you haven’t seen them before.

    Yeah, the lack of Pure Land schools in the Heartland is pretty frustrating. Even on the coasts, they’re trying to recover from declining membership as the Japanese-American population is aging, and younger generations are kind of at a cross-roads. How much more difficult for non-Japanese Americans like ourselves.

    As for me, I took refuge in the Three Treasures after I first recited the nembutsu. I found that the website http://www.jodo.org/ helped me quite a bit and was the first time I recited it. I hadn’t yet found a Pure Land school until weeks later, but I was already a Buddhist in spirit I suppose. One thing to know about Pure Land Buddhism is that there is much less emphasis on lineage than Zen or Tibetan Buddhism. Because it’s a kind of “Buddhism of the masses”, teachers are emphasized much less. What matters at the end of the day is that someone is reciting the nembutsu somewhere. If you can recite in a group, how much more extraordinary if you can do it alone in the Heartland. If you recite it in a Zen group, that’s great too. That doesn’t make you any less of a Pure Land Buddhist. :)

    Just some thoughts. Hope that helps, and hope to hear from you again soon.

  10. Marcus says:


    Can I just second that? I took formal refuge in a Korean Zen temple called Hanmaum in Anyang with my preceptor being Zen Master Daehaeng Sunim, it was completely the right place for me to do so and the right time too – but it doesn’t make me any less of a Pure Land Buddhist to have done so.

    Of course my temple embraces a variety of practices and there is no problem with me having a devotional approach to things and relying on Amida Buddha, so if you can’t find a Pure Land temple in which to take refuge, doing so in a good Zen temple or Zen centre might just be the way to go.

    All the best Clint – and Gerald!


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