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Religion Library: Zen

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Julia Hardy

Salvation is, ideally, enlightenment, but for the many who will not achieve enlightenment in their lifetimes, Zen shares with the rest of Buddhism a variety of ideas about what happens after death. Concepts of the afterlife vary within Zen and Chan, as they do within Buddhism in general.

There has been, for many centuries, a close relationship between Zen (and Chan) and Pure Land Buddhism. The existence of this relationship could indicate that, while some Zen monks may aspire only to enlightenment, others, and most of the lay population Zen and Chan has served, may aspire to a less mysterious goal such as rebirth in the Pure Land.

According to Pure Land Buddhism, anyone who faithfully calls on the Buddha of the Pure Land, Amitabha, regardless of actions in life or previous karma, can be reborn in the Pure Land. While the Pure Land has many heavenly attributes, and those who arrive there need not fear further rebirths into samsara, it is not technically a final destination. Under Amitabha's tutelage, one can continue to practice and study toward the eventual goal of nirvana, or the dissolution of self.

There is evidence that, throughout the history of Chan, monks have chanted Amitabha's name, but early Chan scholars followed Indian Buddhist philosophers in arguing that the Pure Land is simply this world, perceived in a different way, just as samsara and nirvana are the same. Thus, the Chan practice of chanting Amitabha's name may not always have been based on a literal interpretation of the Pure Land, but instead may have been a kind of koan, a way of coming to a realization of the true nature of the everyday world.

Scholars and teachers also argued against the misunderstanding of the nature of the practice, warning against literal or dualistic interpretations, and expressed concerns that some might become attached to the idea of the Pure Land. They expressed fears that some might surrender responsibility for their actions, since rebirth in the Pure Land is possible for all regardless of their deeds in life. Those objections, however, were not intended to stop the practices, only to make sure that they were properly understood.

According to some scholars, distinct Pure Land Buddhist schools did not emerge until Japanese founders Honen (1133-1212) and Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) established the Jodo Shu (Pure Land School) and Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) respectively, in the 12th and 13th centuries. Objections to the practices of Pure Land within the Zen tradition, especially the chanting of Amitabha's name, arose only after these Japanese Pure Land Schools were established. The connection between Chan and Pure Land in China continued, and is also evident in Japan in Obaku Zen, which was brought from China in the 17th century.


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