Meditative Pure Land Buddhism: The 5 Elements School
The 5 Elements
The eminent Chinese Pure Land teacher Shan-Tao (613-681 CE) utilized the 5 Elements Contemplation (earth, water, fire, air, space) to prepare one's mind for the practice of visualizing the Pure Land. This elemental organization also applies to the overall practice of Pure Land Buddhism. The Pure Land path is one of the most versatile of all Buddhist paths because it can accommodate people of any capacity or life situation, making it ideal for people who are living in an increasingly complex technological world.
Practicing 5 Elements Pure Land can be as simple as choosing one Element as the main focus of one's practice, or one may combine the Elements into a wide variety of forms that are both accessible and deeply meaningful. 5 Elements Pure Land is ultimately supported by the Tripod of Practice, Aspiration and Faith, so whatever forms of practice are selected will be beneficial.
The Earth element refers to the mindful study of the Pure Land Sutras because Pure Land teachings are "grounded" in these texts. The principal Pure Land sutras are (1) The Visualization Sutra, a manual of visualization meditation which gives a detailed description of the features of the literal Pure Land, allowing the practitioner to develop high levels of meditative concentration through holding these images in the mind. The Sutra includes descriptions of the characteristics of Amitabha Buddha and the two attendant Bodhisattvas: Avalokitesvara, representing engaged compassion, and Mahasthamaprapta, representing wisdom; (2) The Smaller Sukhavati Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha speaks to his disciple Sariputra about the Realm of Bliss, giving a concise description of Amitabha's Buddha-realm; (3) The Larger Sukhavati Sutra, in which Shakyamuni Buddha gives his disciple Ananda a detailed description of the Realm of Bliss. He also recounts the history of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who eventually became Amitabha Buddha, and describes the 48 vows in detail. The reading of the Pure Land Sutras assists us in keeping the name of Amitabha Buddha firmly in mind and strengthens our resolve for rebirth.
The water element represents the practice of Buddha-Recitation. This vocalized meditative practice is the concentrated and heartfelt repetitive recitation of the Buddha Amitabha's name, which may be done in a normal voice, sub-vocally or silently. It may take the form of "Namo Amitabha Buddha" (Homage to the Buddha of Boundless Compassion and Wisdom), "Namo Amitabha" or simply "Amitabha!" Many people use a mala (Buddhist beads) to assist them with their Buddha-Recitation practice. A mala may be carried in one's hand or worn on the wrist.
Water is used to describe Buddha-Recitation because like water, recitation practice flows from our mind and heart like waves continually washing ashore. In this fashion, Buddha-Recitation ultimately "wears down" our illusions and defilements and enables us to become one with Boundless Compassion and Wisdom.
The air element represents the purifying aspect of the practices of Atonement and Veneration. Atonement helps us to "clear the air" through the self-acknowledgment of our harmful actions and through the vows we make in order to refine our behavior. Veneration (showing deep respect for the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Enlightened Beings) reminds us of the wide-open and spacious nature of the Boundless Compassion and Boundless Wisdom which is our True Self.
The element of fire represents the practice of Visualization Meditation. By using the power of one's mind, one can see clearly and in great detail whatever image or images one wishes to call up. In 5 Elements Pure Land this includes Amitabha Buddha, the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara (Regarder of the Cries of the World) and Mahasthamaprapta (The One Who Has Attained Great Strength), and the Pure Land of Bliss itself. Visualization Meditation is a most powerful practice that produces the deep, one-pointed of concentration known as Samadhi. The practice of Visualization in the Pure Land School is outlined in the Visualization Sutra. The method of Pure Land Visualization is outlined in the Visualization Meditation section.
The element of Space refers to the boundless nature of Mind itself, which is synonymous with Boundless Compassion and Wisdom. Through Ch'an-style Pure Land meditative practices we become one with Mind. Tecnhiques include the Hua-T'ou ("thought-head") question, "Who is reciting the Buddha's Name?" When this question is deeply asked in Ch'an fashion, the practitioner begins to see that the nature of the Mind and the Pure Land of Bliss are one and the same and that Amitabha Buddha is our True Nature.