QUESTION: I am new to Pure Land Buddhism and would be grateful for information and references on the place within those traditions of The Three (or Four) Marks of Buddhism:

  • Impermanence (anicca)
  • Suffering (dukkha)
  • No-self (anattā)
  • Liberation (nirvāṇa)

SHORT ANSWER: I'm not aware of a distinctively Pureland treatment in the tradition, but I can offer one.

LONG ANSWER: I think it is a mistake to take the original three, anitya, anatma and dukkha as equivalents. I'm using the Sanskrit forms here. The original text says

sarva samskara anitya
sarva samskara dukkha
sarva dharma anatma

Now it must be apparent that there is an intended contrast between the first two sentences and the third one. All samskaras are impermanent and are dukkha, but dharmas are anatma. This is not, therefore, a list of things to be taken as all descriptive of the same thing. In fact, samskaras are readily identified in the Buddha's teaching as a sourse of trouble and Dharma as a source of salvation. So, I submit, the virtually universal normal interpretation is wrong.

What are samskaras? D.T.Suzuki translates the words a "confection", most other commentators as "mental formation" or something similar. Confection is closest etymologically. They are the things we cook up in our head, the stories we tell ourselves, the complexes of our mind. What is Dharma? Dharma is the truth, what is fundamentally so. I suggest that this text tells us that the stories we tell ourselves - which are redolent with self reference - are ephemeral and cause trouble and that the truth has nothing to do with self.

Liberation and nirvana are the result of deeply realising this and having faith in it.

Is there anything Pureland about this interpretation? Pureland is, in many ways, a very practical application of the non-self teaching. All Dharma is non-self makes sense. Different Buddhist schools try to bring us to it by different routes, Pureland simply by having us accept hat salvation is not self-generated, but is an Other Power. This statement of Buddhist central doctrine is wholly Other Power in its main import.

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  • Well, John Paraskevopoulos & George Gatenby are Western apologists for Shin Buddhism (nothing wrong with that) so, like many of us, they are building bridges. I think your observation that "Pure Land accepts the Three/Four Marks, but they do not figure prominently in practice or study" is essentially correct. A Pureland writer might take the marks as a starting point if he or she were talking to an audience for whom they were already important. They might also use them as one way of saying "The situation is dire, that's why you have to rely upon Amida", or something like that. But i'm not aware of them having much prominence. The logic of PL is an approach from another direction. Of course, there is a distinct difference also between the modern Western use of the marks as a means of saying that Buddhism says some things that sound vaguely like the philosophy of science and the Mahayana approach of saying that impermanence and affliction are a kind of hell on earth, which would not be such a popular message in modern context. However, for myself, I, of course, prefer my own interpretation - which will probably not please any established school but does seem to tally rather well with what i take to be the Buddha's purpose.

  • Hi, David:

    Thanks once more! Yes, that is exactly what I was wondering about -- is it that Pure Land accepts the Three/Four Marks, but they do not figure prominently in practice or study. Is that why I had such trouble finding references in scriptures and commentaries? Or is is simply that relatively few Pure Land texts are available online, by contrast with the other major schools?

    BTW, one of the references I found is to Shin -- But how reliable and/or definitive is that site?

    Thanks. --David

    Muryoko: Journal of Shin Buddhism
    Shin Buddhist resources
  • The references that you have got appear to be from Chinese Pureland. there is quite a difference between Chinese and Japanese. Chinese is closer to other schools of Mahayana Buddhism. I have dropped a line to a friend in Japan to see if he can help. Generally speaking we can say that Pureland in Japan, both jodo Shu and Shin Shu tend to take the view that the doctrines of all the other schools are true but maybe not relevant. If I get a reply I'll let you know. Thanks for the enquiry.

  • Thanks! 

    I have a further question. Do you consider the three marks to be a teaching or belief common to all Buddhist schools, though with variation in interpretation? If so, how does that relate to refuge, which you said in response to another question, is the one thing all schools of Buddhism share?

    Just to lay my cards on the table, I am quite interested in knowing more about Pure Land in general. But I also have a specific need at the moment. I'd like to assert, in a paper I am writing, that the three marks are indeed common to all Buddhist schools, at least the major ones in the world today. I know they are prominent in Theravada, Tibetan Mahayana and Zen, but I am less sure for Pure Land and how particularly they are interpreted. Your answer is very helpful on the latter, and helped me understand more about Pure Land.

    It would also be useful to have references to significant Pure Land scriptures and/or commentaries that discuss one or more (or all) of the three marks. I found the ones that I listed in the stackexchange question ( but I don't know how definitive or important they are.

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