The adherents of the Pure Land school built their foundation upon the Pure Land sutras. This is among the most successful East Asian schools of Buddhism. In Japan, there are two strains of Pure Land followers: one, the Jodo-Shin-Shu (“True School of the Pure Land”) and the Jodo-Shu (“School of the Pure Land”); the difference between the two schools is that the “True” followers do not have a monastic order while the other followers emphasize the monastic life. Similar to the message of the “Great Vehicle” of Mahayana, there is a divide within the school relating to the importance of renunciation to the attainment of Nirvana. Even the Mahayana/Non-Mahayana split did not settle this question.
The importance of faith and devotion for Pure Land followers cannot be understated. By simply chanting the name of Amitabha, Nirvana will become more attainable. The implication of this chanting is something that distinguishes the Pure Land schools from other Mahayana schools: relying on a Buddha’s power, rather than endeavoring for self-enlightenment.1 Further, the Amitabha Buddha is the Buddha central to Pure Land, while the historical Shakyamuni, born Siddhartha Gautama, is central to all other schools. Indeed, to the Old Wisdom school, the Shakyamuni Buddha is not just the central Buddha; he is the only Buddha.
The Pure Land of Jodo-shu exists outside of the “triple-world”2 of sense-desire, form, and formlessness. In this “unblemished” ideal realm, all beings are reborn as men. No women, animals, hungry ghosts, or demons allowed.
Amitabha Buddha is an idealized version of the historical (Sakyamuni) Buddha. “If the Buddha is purely idealized he will then be identical with Thusness. The Infinite, if depicted in reference to space, will be the Infinite Light, and if depicted in reference to time, the Infinite Life. This is Dharma-kaya (ideal). This Dharma-kaya is the Sambhoga-kaya (the ‘Reward-body’ or ‘body of enjoyment’), if the Buddha is viewed as a Buddha ‘coming down to the world.’ If he is viewed as a Bodhisattva going up to the Buddhahood, he is a would-be Buddha like the toiling Bodhisattva (Sakyamuni). It is Sakyamuni himself who describes in the Sukhavati-vyuha the activities of the would-be Buddha, Dharmakara, as if it had been his former existence.”3
Amita-pietism is of four aspects: 1. That of Tendai and Shingon, in which Amita is one of the five Wisdom Buddhas (Dhyani-Buddhas) governing the Western Quarters, having Mahavairocana (the Great Sun Buddha) at the center. 2. That of Yuzunembutsu in which the value of one’s faith in Amita is transferable to another or vice versa, i.e., religion of mutual help with faith. 3. That of Jodo in which Amita’s faith is taugh exclusively in accordance with the three Sukhavati texts of the school, especially based on the Buddha’s vows. 4. That if Shin in which the faith is strictly taught in accordance with with the eighteenth vow of the Buddha as described in the larger Sukhavati text.4
To summarize, a Buddha in this tradition is somewhat of an architect. As a Buddha, there comes the power to create the Land of Bliss, in which all adherents can more easily attain nirvana. In doing so, the Buddha makes several vows to its would-be residents, including the vow to bring his believers into a favorable rebirth into his Land of Bliss.