Chinul on Pure Land


Chinul found the Pure Land practice of his time to be embraceable, provided that it was based upon one’s “own Buddha-mind”. Chinul followed Sŏn Master Yen-shou’s admonition, “If the mind is known, then one is born in the mind-only pure land.”

Pure Land practice is altered such that the recitation of “namo Amitabha Buddha” is simply calling one’s own name, and meditation on Pure Land is seeing into one’s own clear and brilliant True Mind, whereas supplicating Amitabha’s primal vow of universal compassion is only the realization of one ’s own “original enlightenment” or “primordial attainment of Buddhahood.” However, in its Hua-yen context, Pure Land recitation must be practiced with the wisdom that Amitabha Buddha, i.e., li or universal-principie, is completely interfused with and identical to all sentient beings, i.e., shih or particular-phenomena, such that the practitioner of Pure Land can adopt the inward attitude: “I am Amitabha Buddha.” Since according to the Hua-yen doctrinal formula of li-shihwu-ai, all sentient beings throughout space are identical to Amitabha Buddha, they are fully qualified for the attainment of sudden enlightenment and instantaneous rebirth in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. Moreover, due to the Hua-yen doctrine of chung-chung-wu-chin or realms-embracing-realms ad infinitum, which is itself a restatement of the Hua-yen formula concerning shih-shih-wu-ai, Amitabha’s Pure Land as well as hundreds of thousands of millions of other infinitely spacious Buddhalands are all completely interfused and mutually contained within the world of sentient beings, and as such, are easily accessible without any obstruction or hindrance whatsoever. Therefore, Chinul fully advocates the practice of yŏmbul or Pure Land recitation, especially to those who are still impeded by various mental obscurations, although once again, only within the context of Ch’an contemplation of True Mind and Hua-yen doctrinal wisdom concerning realms embracing-realms and unhindered interpenetration between universal principle and particular-phenomena. (Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism, Odin, pg. 57)

Hence, one can see that Chinul took a most particular stance on Pure Land, one that was in league with his own infusion with Hwaŏm (Hua-yen) Buddhism:

Beginning with simple verbal recitation, the practice eventually leads to recollection of the Buddha in thoughtlessness and finally in suchness. Hence it is a self-contained method which leads to realization of the one true dharmadhātu, the goal of both Son and Hwaŏm practice, in this very life. The fact that he was willing to espouse it at all shows again his concern that people of all abilities and interests be able to find a method of practice suited to their own unique needs. By receiving proper direction in the use of that method, they should be able to achieve the same results as are forthcoming from all other types of Buddhist practice. (The Collected Works of Chinul, Buswell, pg.71)

Yet it also needs to be noted that, for Chinul, Pure Land teachings were not without its dangers:

[There are those who] visualize Amitabha Buddha’s appearance or invoke that Buddha’s name with feelings that arise from views and craving. After days or years, they often end up being possessed by māras and demons. In their madness, they wander aimlessly; their practice comes to naught and they waste their entire lives. I frequently see and hear of such people nowadays. All this happens because they do not know that the primary and attendant karmic results of the ten realms, as well as good and evil causes and effects, are only produced by the mind and that these things have no essence which can be ascertained.

Others, although they are not disturbed by anything external, follow after māras in their own minds-their wrong impressions and passionate views cannot all be listed. At such times, they are dull, confused, and caught unawares; having no wisdom with which to save themselves, they will remain entangled in Mara’s net. This is really a pity! Does it not say in the Awakening of Faith, “When a person recollects mind-only, the sense-realms are then extinguished and never bother him again”?”

Nowadays many cultivators say, “We will merely invoke the Buddha’s name and try for rebirth in the pure land. After that, what does it matter what happens?” They do not realize that rising and falling among the nine tiers [of the pure land] depend on the clarity or obscurity of one’s faith and understanding. The sūtras explain that one who understands the absolute truth and practices diligently is at the highest tier. How could we dare to assume that a person with an intelligent, numinous, and sharp mind is actually dull and, not understanding the absolute truth, merely calls out a name?

*** Therefore, we know that although accomplished men both past and present sought rebirth in the pure land, because of their deep faith in true suchness and their devotion to samādhi and prajñā they learned that things like [Amitabha’s] form and regalia did not come or go, were beyond all limitations, manifested only through the mind, and were not separate from true suchness. This is not the same as ordinary men or two-vehicle adherents who are unaware that these phenomena all manifest through the evolving consciousness. They believe that these phenomena come from outside because they cling to the distinctiveness of these various forms. Hence, although it is said that rebirth in the pure land is the same for everyone, the actions of the ignorant and the wise are as different from one another as heaven is from earth. How does this inferior practice in any way resemble the present Mahayana mind-only approach to dharma-which is devoted to samādhi and prajñā and manages to avoid falling into the views of ordinary men and Hīnayanists who cling to the distinctions in forms which are outside the mind? (ibid, pgs. 122-124)

Of course, Chinul would insist that those engaged in Amitabha worship who ignore the fact that they are innately endowed with the enlightened seed of Buddha-nature, need only to awaken and recollect it within themselves in order to achieve liberation; it is in this sense that no one else’s help is required. Yet, due to his own syncretic nature, Chinul also found a place for Pure Land practices along-side his other techniques, such as samādhi and prajñā, Hwaŏm teachings and hwadu. In a treatise, The Essentials of Pure Land Practice, he incorporates it under the “ten kinds of recollections of the Buddha.”

Eighth is recollection of the Buddha while contemplating Amitabha’s appearance. You should visualize Amitabha’s body filling the dharmadhātu, the sublime light of his golden form appearing before all sentient beings everywhere. Imagine that you sense the light of the Buddha shining on your own body and mind. Whatever you see or hear when looking either up or down, you must recognize that it is nothing other than Amitabha’s light. Earnestly, in all sincerity, single-mindedly recollect to the utmost Praise to Amitabha Buddha. Repeat the recollection innumerable times without breaking the continuity. Throughout the twelve hours and the four postures, continue the recollection constantly and reverentially without allowing it to become obscured. This is called recollection of the Buddha while contemplating Amitabha’s appearance…

Then, every day and at all times, whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, the true essence of Amitabha Buddha will secretly appear before you. He will rub your head in prediction of your future Buddhahood. At the time of your death, he will personally welcome you to the land of ultimate bliss into a lotus flower on the ninth tier. You will then dwell facing him on that highest of tiers. (ibid, pgs.194-196)

This concludes our series on Korean Sŏn Buddhism and Chinul. Hopefully one comes away from this with an appreciation for the “syncretic-spirit” that inspired Chinul in his own teaching-style of Sŏn. He was always attuned and sensitive to the various spiritual capabilities of his adepts. After a foundation was laid with the three-fold training of sila, samādhi and prajñā, one was then free to explore other paths, like Hwaŏm and Pure Land that was best suited to one’s own temperament; in light of this Chinul’s Sŏn is Buddhist eclecticism at its best.

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