The type of Buddhism known in the Far East as Pure Land began in India, sometime around the end of the first century C.E., with the appearance of a genre of Mahāyāna sūtras that described realms of great happiness located in various quarters of the universe. The most famous of these realms of bliss was described in a sūtra known as the Sukhāvatī-vyūha (Detailed description of the Land of Happiness.) According to this sūtra, there once lived, many eons ago, a monk by the name of Dharmākara, who had reached a very advanced stage of virtue, wisdom, and self-discipline through many eons of rigorous practices. So advanced had his practice become that he had taken all the steps that must be taken to become a Buddha. But before entering into Buddhahood, Dharmākara took a vow that he would not enter into final nirvāṇa unless several conditions were fulfilled. Only after these conditions were fulfilled did Dharmākara become a Buddha, taking the name Amitābha (Light beyond measure).
The principal condition was that all the merit that he had accumulated during the past many eons of practice would all be used to generate a land of great happiness, which would contain all the greatest joys and none of the sufferings of the rest of the universe.
- In this land of bliss, there would be none of the lower forms of birth: there would be, in other words, no hells, no hungry ghosts and no animals. Therefore, once a person was born into this land of happiness, then that person would no longer have to worry about falling from that state into one of the lower forms of birth.
- In this land of bliss, there would be no distinction between human beings and the gods. Everyone in the land of bliss, in other words, would be as happy as the gods in paradise.
- All the beings born into the land of bliss would be automatically endowed with enormous wisdom and energy. They would also have the ability to see great distances, hear voices from very far away and directly perceive the thoughts of other beings.
- No one born into the land of bliss would have even the slightest craving for personal property or ownership of anything, even their own bodies.
- The length of life of beings born in the land of perfect bliss would be unlimited; beings would leave the paradise only if they chose to leave; and no one would choose to leave except to enter final nirvana or to return to the world of mortals in order to give aid and encouragement to all the beings suffering there.
Admission to this land of bliss in the Western quarter of the universe would be automatically granted to anyone who had done the following things:
- heard the name of the Buddha who had founded the Western land of bliss;
- died with a serene mind (which could be secured by repeating the name of the Buddha just before dying);
- formed a sincere desire to be reborn in the land of bliss;
- not committed the five unforgivable actions: killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhant, causing a schism in the Buddhist Sangha, or injuring the body of a Buddha.
Once born in the land of bliss, the beings would have no hardships to endure, and nothing else that could possibly distract their minds from the task of listening to the teachings of all the buddhas and cultivating wisdom.
The implication of this story is that it is possible for someone to accumulate a great store house of merit and then use that merit to create ideal conditions for people to dedicate themselves to the quest for final nirvāṇa. Moreover, people do not need to earn their way into the realm in which those conditions exist; it is sufficient for them simply to call with sincerity upon Amitābha, the being whose store of accumulated merit was used to create those conditions. In effect, Amitābha’s vow has the ability to relieve people of the normal consequences of their bad karma, the only exception being the five grave deeds that invariably lead to rebirth in hell in the next life.
Many scholars in the West have been struck by the resemblance of this doctrine to accounts of divine grace in Christian writings. According to the doctrine of grace, God can absolve people of the wages of their own sinfulness and provide them a salvation that they have not earned through their own actions. To put it into Buddhist language, God can give his creatures the benefits of his good karma. In some forms of Christianity, of course, this ability was not restricted to God but could also be achieved through the intercession of saints.
If the doctrine of the transference of merit has a resemblance to the doctrine of grace in Christianity, and if grace as discussed in Christianity resembles prasāda as discussed in some Indian theistic literature, then there is a possibility that the Buddhist doctrine of the transfer of merit would be liable to the same criticisms as Buddhists leveled at those who talked of divine grace. That is the problem of what in the West has been called the problem of theodicy, or divine justice.