Does It Really Work?

Q: I was puzzled by your combination of Pure Land and Chan.  How can pure land's salvation orientation mix with Chan's down-to-earth do-it-yourself orientation? Aren't the two opposites?

A: Actually, the two are complements: Ch'an develops wisdom in order to open the compassionate heart, Pure Land develops the compassionate heart in order for us to develop transcendent wisdom (actually it's not "my" combination of Ch'an and Pure Land....this has been going on since the 8th century C.E.)  Practicing one helps to strengthen the other; the concentration developed in Ch'an assists one in the varied practices of traditional Pure Land, which range from simple recitation to complex visualization.....the heartfelt practice of traditional Pure Land helps one to sustain one's very difficult Ch'an practice through opening the heart, developing confidence and giving one a bedrock of faith in all Dharmas and teachers.

Please do not confuse Japanese Pure Land (which many westerers think is the only kind of Pure Land practice around) with the traditional Chinese Pure Land that we practice.  In Japanese Pure Land, the emphasis is on faith alone and Amida Buddha's transcendent powers of salvation; in traditional Chinese Pure Land, the vow for rebirth along with practice (a very do-it-yourself sort of thing) are added to faith, making a "tripod" of sorts...also, the vows of Amitabha Buddha are seen as a massive transference of merit which sentient beings can take advantage of.  Also, besides being a literal realm of rebirth, the Pure Land has the aspect of being the Realm of the Purified Mind, something which meshes perfectly with Ch'an practice. 

Put more simply: externally, Japanese Pure Land is very salvific in nature while traditional Chinese Pure Land is what one may call cooperative in nature. Whenever we as human beings transfer merit to others, something actually happens, whether we realize it or not; we simply cannot comprehend the effects of the transfer of eons and eons of merit accumulated by a fully realized Buddha during that Buddha's career as a Bodhisattva.  If we as limited human beings wish to tap into this store of merit, we are able to do so through the infinite compassion of all Buddhas in general and Amitabha Buddha in particular. 

The dynamic in traditional Pure Land is very similar to that of Ch'an, actually.  In traditional Pure Land, one uses the "self-power" of practice, vows and the mind of faith to develop concentration until one becomes unified with the Purified Mind, or the "other-power" which is a power not subject to the limitations imposed by the attached, limited mind.  In Ch'an, one uses the "self-power" of meditative practice, the Bodhisattva Vows to save all sentient beings and the mind of faith in the Buddhas, Patriarchs and the practice itself until one is united with Big Mind, which is enlightenment itself.

And anyway, isn't the object of Ch'an to see your own true nature so that you may end suffering for yourself and others?  That sounds pretty salvation-oriented to me, no matter how you slice or dice it.  The beautiful thing is that there are so many Dharma doors for us to enter.  Superficially, Ch'an is not Pure Land and Pure Land is not Ch'an...but when one looks at these two paths from the point of view of essence, there is no difference whatsoever.

Thank you for a well thought-out question.