Ippen’s Pure Land

IppenIppen (1239-1289) went off to study the Pure Land teachings at the age of 13. When he was about 24, his father died and he returned home, became a samurai and got married. However, he was always trying to find the gate to truth. One day when he was playing with some children with a spinning top, the top fell to the ground and lay still. This was a great event for Ippen. Later he said, ‘Going over this in my mind, I saw that if you spin a top, it will turn, and if you do not go about spinning it, it won’t. Our turning in transmigration is precisely so. With our activities of body, speech, and mind, there can be no end to transmigration in the six paths. But how would we transmigrate if our self-generated actions ceased? Here for the first time this struck my heart, and realising the nature of birth-and-death, I grasped the essence of the Buddha-dharma.’

Ippen left home and became a wanderer. He had no abode whatsoever. He spent his time teaching people how to say the nembutsu.

Pure Land Buddhism is one of the major schools in the East, yet has hardly made a dent here. I remember once hearing it being described as too ‘Christian’ for Westerners, yet almost all of the other schools encompass the notion of a Pure Land in some way or other. Even in Theravada the three Refuges can easily be interpreted in a Pure Land way. The very essence of it is that one is taking refuge.

The basis of the Pure Land teaching, as far as I understand it, is that one sees the total impossibility, in one’s present state, of attaining enlightenment — the ‘I’ is just not good enough to become a Buddha. Therefore, the Pure Land practice is to say namu-amida-butsu so as to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land where it is really easy to become enlightened.

The difficulty starts with interpretations of Amida’s power. Some believe you have to repeatedly say the nembutsu; others believe you only have to say it once. Ippen said you only have to say it once, but with a pure heart!

There are also differing interpretations of the Pure Land. Some say it is attainable after death, but others say it is attainable in this very moment. Ippen talks of attaining birth in the Pure Land in this very moment. It doesn’t mean that one leaves this world to be instan­taneously transported to the Pure Land. On the contrary, one stays here in samsara, while living in the compassionate activity of Amida. Ippen says about this, ‘The body may remain in this defiled world for a while, but the heart has already attained birth and is in the Pure Land.’

Ippen also said, ‘Birth-and-death is delusional thinking. Delusory attachments and blind passions have no reality. To seek, in spite of this, to free yourself from birth-and-death through discriminative reflections on good and evil, taking this mind of delusory attachments and invertedness as your basis, is utterly absurd. It is thinking that obstructs emancipation.’


First published in the February 1994 Buddhism Now.


Quotes from No Abode: The Record of Ippen, trans. Dennis Hirota, Ryukoku University, 1986.

Among all living things mountains and rivers, grasses and trees,
even the sounds of blowing winds and rising waves — there is nothing that is not the nembutsu.
Ippen (1239—1289) was a wandering hijiri (holy man) and religious leader whose movement developed into one of the major schools of medieval Japanese Buddhism. While leading an itinerant life, he spread the Pure Land path among people of all levels of society through dancing nembutsu and distribution of block-printed inscriptions of Amida’s Name. In his life and thought we find elements of folk practices and mountain austerities, the critical spirit of Zen, and the cosmic vision of esoteric traditions.

Categories: Biography, Book reviews, Buddhism, Encyclopedia, History

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1 reply

  1. Although not a member of a Pure Land denomination, I found “No Abode” – which I bought a number years ago – to be a quite wonderful book, and I have often gone back to reread it.


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