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Tibetan Buddhism and the Pure Land

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There is a strong (and unfounded) belittling of Pure Land teachings and practice in the Western understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps this is due to the dominant position of academics and nihilists in ‘western’ Buddhist circles, although there has been connivance by some Tibetan teachers in this misrepresentation of the Dharma as elitist, complex, and ‘profound’ (in the misguided way that human minds think of obscurity as indicative of depth).

An overly-academic and somewhat tedious new publication by Georgios T. Halkias (Luminous Bliss, A Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet) should —but probably will not— put that false image to rest. In it, Prof. Halkias offers a catalog of the enormous body of Tibetan Pure Land literature: sutra translations, commentaries, practices, dharanis, mantras, and prayers of aspiration for birth in Dewachen (Sukhavati), authored by leading lamas of all Tibetan Buddhist lineages (Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, and Geluk).

Pure Land teachings have always been central to Tibetan Buddhism, but owing to Western academic prejudice, they have been downplayed in favor of the obscure, the difficult, and the exotic.

The Jonang Master Kunchen Dolpopa labored long and hard to establish other emptiness (zhentong) —the view of ultimate reality as empty of all that is insubstantial and impermanent, but full of all permanent Buddha qualities— not out of some quaint philosophical curiosity, but to dispel the doubts of fellow Buddhists regarding the Pure Land. He saw the growing dominance of nihilism as a threat to the excellent Pure Land practice that is the last remaining viable way to enlightenment in this Dharma-Ending Age.

Kunchen Dolpopa taught in The Supplication: “The relative three worlds are just an exaggerated, confusing appearance, while the absolute three worlds and the Buddha Essence are an indestructible, unimagined, unconfusing appearance.”

The relative three worlds are the three realms of desire, form, and formlessness, while the absolute three worlds are none other than the three aspects of the Pure Land: the dharmakaya-kshetra of the fully enlightened mind of Amideva, in which dwell the Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas; the sambhogakaya-kshetra of the unhindered power of Amideva, in which dwell the Bodhisattvas; and the nirmanakaya-kshetra of the compassion of Amideva, in which dwell aspiring ordinary beings, the non-retrogressing objects of the Buddha’s compassion. They are the three Pure Lands into which beings of various grades are reborn upon making the Definitive Aspiration for birth in the field of action (buddha kshetra) of Amideva.


Kunchen Dolpopa’s residence at Jomonang Monastery was called Dewachen (Land of Supreme Bliss), where he wrote extensive prayers for birth in the Pure Land and an extensive commentary on the Sukhavati Sutra. He gave us the solid understanding of other emptiness on the basis of which we can develop certainty (the ‘three minds’, faith, shinjin, anjin), and he also offered his personal example.

On the eve of his parinirvana, Kunchen Dolpopa told his disciples: “I am going to Dewachen.” While some of them thought he was merely retiring to his monastic quarters, his close disciples knew his true intention. As an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kunchen Dolpopa never leaves Dewachen. In one of his prayers, he exclaimed: “May all who hear my name be born in Dewachen!”

As instructed by Kunchen Dolpopa, we must study and understand “the Three Wheels of the Dharma in sequence”, so that when we encounter the Pure Land teachings, we do not reject or accept them superstitiously, but rather understand them and accept them in wisdom. First, we strive to generate renunciation of the illusion of material happiness; next, we cultivate the view of the emptiness of relative self and phenomena; and finally we can glimpse ultimate reality: true purity, true existence, true bliss, and true permanence.

Kunchen Dolpopa taught us to enter the Holy Path (the Bodhisattva Way) through the Gate of the Pure Land. That is his great gift and legacy. We rely exclusively on the parinamana (merit transfer) of Amideva, as expressed in His Vows, for our own birth in the Pure Land. Then, once our birth is assured, we recite the Holy Name (om amideva hrih), cultivate the four immeasurable thoughts, and practice the transcendent perfections (paramitas) for the benefit of others.

om amideva hrih