Journal of Chinese Religions upcoming issue 49.1- May 2021 sneak peek: Kendall Marchman

Kendall Marchman

Bird’s the Word: Birds and Pure Land Practice

 

A recent popular Reddit post featured a video of a goose walking in formation with Buddhist nuns as they perform nianfo, recitation of the name of Amitābha. In another video released by Dharma Drum Mountain, a nun explains how a baby bird she rescued began to recite the name of Amitābha.

While at first glance these cases might just seem like humorous demonstrations of playful Buddhists, there is actually a significant history of birds and Pure Land practice. This connection begins with the Buddha’s description of Amitābha’s Pure Land in the Smaller Sukhāvātīvyūha Sūtra:

 

Again, Śāriputra, in that land there are always many kids of rare and beautiful birds of various colors, such as white geese, peacocks, parrots, śaris, kalaviṅkas, jīvaṃjīvakas. Six times during the day and night birds sing with melodious and delicate sounds, which proclaim such teachings as the five roots of good, the five powers, the seven practices leading to enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. On hearing them, all the people of that land become mindful of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Śāriputra, you should not assume that these birds are born as retribution for evil karma. The reason is that none of the three evil realms exists in that Buddha land. Śāriputra, even the names of the three evil realms do not exist there; how much less the realms themselves! These birds are manifested by Amitāyus so that their singing can proclaim and spread the Dharma. (T.366 347a16-24).[1]

 

The birds are the only non-human residents of the Pure Land, and since the popularization of Pure Land practice in medieval China, they have continually captured the attention of Pure Land practitioners.

 

Kalavinka

Kalavinka in the Amitayurdhyana Sutra Cave 172, Mogao Caves

Tang Dynasty (650-820). Recreated by SHI Dunyu 史敦宇. Collected by NCPA

 

The birds frequently appeared in illustrations of the Pure Land, like this portion of a recreated mural in a Dunhuang cave. Early advocates for Pure Land practice in China, including Daochuo, Shandao, Huaigan, and others also highlighted the Pure Land birds to demonstrate that it was superior to all other options for rebirth. And, like today, accounts began to pop up that suggested that the birds are not exclusive to the Pure Land, but occasionally appear here on earth!

In my article, I take a closer look at how scriptures, commentarial literature, liturgical texts, and popular accounts all feature the birds of the Pure Land. I suggest that there’s more to their popularity than the ornamental beauty they add to the Pure Land. They help Buddhists imagine the Pure Land as they await and hope for their rebirth there, but also allow them to experience a glimpse of the Pure Land through interactions with birds and their songs. In other words, the birds aren’t just skillful tools in the Pure Land, they allow reflection and experience of the Pure Land in each present moment.


[1] Translation from The Three Pure Land Sutras, trans. Hisao Inagaki and Harold Stewart (Moraga, CA: BDK America, Inc., 2003), 92.