Afterlife and Salvation

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.

There are specialized funerary rituals for Zen monks, just as there are in other Buddhist sects, and for masters there are various pre-death rituals as well. In addition, Zen monks in all Buddhist countries, like those of all other Buddhist sects, spend a significant amount of time conducting funerals. They also conduct rituals at periodic intervals after death, which are believed to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife.

It is likely that the funeral rituals of all Japanese Buddhist sects are modeled after those of Chan rituals created initially for the spiritual heads of monasteries. These, in turn, were modeled after Confucian rites for parents, but important Buddhist elements were added. By the time this ritual structure reached Japan, performed originally for the nobility and then later for all, funerals included ordaining the deceased as a Buddhist monk, dressing the body in monk's clothing and shaving the head, providing the deceased with a Buddhist name, and adding that name to a lineage chart that begins with the Buddha.

Effectively, these rites provide the deceased with enlightenment, generated not by his or own efforts, but by virtue of the merit generated by the Buddhist monks who conduct the ritual. It is possible that this ritual structure evolved as a response to Pure Land, as both provided the means for a better situation after death based, not on one's actions, but on the actions of others.

In actual practice, it appears that there is no guarantee, as spirits of the deceased are believed to be able to cause problems for the living. To avoid this, periodic rituals are usually conducted at set times after death, and in China paper objects and money may be burned during these rituals. Burning is a means of sending these items to the deceased in order to assure their comfort and wellbeing in the afterlife. There are also "hell texts" that describe realms where evildoers may be punished. The money that is burned may be used by a deceased individual who has ended up in one of the Buddhist hells to bribe the officials there so that they might go easier on the deceased, or perhaps release them to a more comfortable realm. Rebirth as a sentient being, not necessarily a human, is also a possibility.

Zen, like other Buddhist schools, offers a range of possibilities for salvation and multiple concepts of the afterlife—ranging from enlightenment, to existence in the Pure Land without the fear of rebirth, to a good life in another realm after death, to punishment in hell, to rebirth.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Buddhist Pure Land? How does it differ from enlightenment?
2.     What is the relationship between the Pure Land and rebirth?
3.     Why is the funeral an important ritual to Zen and Buddhist practitioners?

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