In the early 1980s, I made the acquaintance of the late Dr. Roger Corless, a professor of Buddhist Studies at Duke University.
We took to meeting at the East Campus Coffeehouse after each weekly rehearsal of a university choral group to which we both belonged. Over the course of several years, he gave me a good foundation in Buddhist teachings and history, and it was in the course of one of these meetings that I first heard of Pure Land Buddhism.
It struck me as very different from any other kind of Buddhism we had discussed, and it made a deep impression on me. A few years later, I decided to pursue Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Corless helped introduce me to the faculty there.
During this training, I learned more about Pure Land. At the time, there were limited English-language resources for studying Pure Land, and many of my peers were unfamiliar with the particulars of the tradition.
When I moved to Taipei to research my dissertation on the history of Buddhism in Taiwan, I began going regularly to a temple outside the town of San-hsia called the “Pure Garden of the Western Lotus” (Xilian jingyuan), which took the teaching and practice of Pure Land as its mission. While there, I made another discovery: Almost everything I had learned about Pure Land in my graduate program did not apply here. Chinese Pure Land differed significantly from its Japanese counterpart, but no one in the West seemed aware of this.
As a result, I was determined to make a study of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, which culminated 20 years later in a book on that subject aimed primarily at other academics. After this book launched, a few scholars and publishers expressed a desire for an introduction to Pure Land aimed at a general audience. The time seemed propitious for such an undertaking. More people in the West were adopting Pure Land and popular Buddhist media seemed more open to discussing it, so I agreed to take the project on. The result, released this year, is the book “Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice” published by Shambhala Publications.
It is my hope that this book will be of use to both practitioners and people who want to know more about global Buddhism. I also hope that it will dispel many of the misconceptions and stereotypes that have accumulated around it (it is not a legitimate form of Buddhism; it is only for the ignorant, and so on).
It is a path that has grown over the centuries on solid Buddhist foundations, and it provides hope to millions of people around the world for whom other practices are out of reach. It deserves to take its place among other Buddhist transmissions in the English-speaking world, and I hope that this little book will help bring that about.
Charles B. Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 1996, and specializes in Pure Land Buddhism in China.