Comparative Studies Sutra

The Two Popular Pure Lands : How East Meets West

Despite there being as many countless Pure Lands as there are Buddhas, the historical Buddha most famously taught us about one in the West (Amituofo; Amitabha Buddha’s) and another in the East (Medicine Buddha’s) of our world system. This can be seen as a skilful means to urge us to seek birth in either Pure Land. If the Buddha were to teach about more Pure Lands, we might become confused as to which to aspire birth in. Even the speak of these two Pure Lands alone might cause ambivalence to those new to Buddhism. Also, there is no practical need for the Buddha to speak at length about many other Pure Lands – as they are all basically of the same nature (physically magnificent) and purpose (training beings for enlightenment).

The eastern direction has the psychological feel of giving life (as the sun rises in the East, signifying birth of a new day). This relates to Medicine Buddha’s vows to heal the ailing in this life. The western direction has the psychological feel of refuge and return (as the sun sets in the West, signifying the time to go home) at the end of this life. This relates to Amitabha Buddha’s vows to guide beings to return ‘home’ to their Buddha-nature. That said, all Buddhas, having the same perfect compassion and wisdom, will most gladly and skilfully help all beings in whatever ways possible – as according to their karmic conditions. E.g. Mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha can have healing effects too, while mindfulness of Medicine Buddha can lead to birth in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land too (as we shall see later).

If we study the ‘Sutra of the Merit and Virtue of the Past Vows of Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata’ (药师琉璃光如来本愿功德经) or simply ‘Medicine Master Sutra’ (药师经), as introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha (some time after teaching Amitabha Sutra), we will realise that there is mention of Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land (Sukhavati: Land of Ultimate Bliss) in it. The importance of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land is thus emphasised by being ‘cross-marketed (or publicised)’ – even in this relatively short sutra, which focuses mainly on Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land. Let us look at such excerpts from the sutra.)

Excerpt: ‘Moreover, Manjusri, if I [Shakyamuni Buddha] were to speak for an eon or more about the great vows made by the World Honored One, Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata [Medicine Buddha], when he practiced the Bodhisattva Way, and about the merit, virtue, and adornments of his Buddhaland, I could not finish. That Buddhaland [Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land] has always been completely pure; there are no women [i.e. no gender differences or sexism], no evil destinies [no three lower realms], and no sounds of suffering. The ground is made of vaidurya, with golden cords lining the roads. The city walls, towers, palace pavilions, studios, windows, and latticework are all made of the seven treasures. The merit, virtue, and adornments of this land are identical to those of the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss [Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land].’ (‘复次、曼殊室利!彼世尊药师琉璃光如来行菩萨道时,所发大愿,及彼佛土功德庄严,我若一劫、若一劫余,说不能尽。然彼佛土,一向清净,无有女人,亦无恶趣,及苦音声;琉璃为地,金绳界道,城、阙、宫、阁,轩、窗、罗网,皆七宝成;亦如西方极乐世界,功德庄严,等无差别。)’

Comments: The Buddha listed some physical attributes of Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land, which parallel that of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land. He emphasises that both Pure Lands are essentially pure and identical (other than some unique characteristics, as according to particular causal ‘architectural’ visions). This is so as all Pure Lands co-exist ‘collectively’ on the same ‘plane’ or ‘dimension’, based upon the same equanimous state of mind. In other words, all Pure Lands are equally pure as they are shaped and experienced by the same state of mind – without attachment and aversion (for unenlightened beings), or without any of the three poisons (the duo plus delusion) at all (for enlightened beings). In this sense, there is only ‘one’ universal Pure Land (everywhere), as perceived by the completely purified mind.

It is worth noting that Manjusri Bodhisattva, who personifies perfect wisdom, was also present in the assemblies which the Buddha taught the three main Pure Land Sutras (Amitabha Sutra, Immeasurable Life Sutra and Contemplation Sutra), hinting that knowledge of the Pure Land teachings is required for great wisdom (or for perfecting wisdom), that it takes great wisdom (or is greatly wise) to pay attention to the profoundly skilful Pure Land teachings. As such, the Pure Land teachings are not just based upon faith and compassion, or merely for those lacking in wisdom or intelligence. They are suitable for those of all mental capacities.

Excerpt: ‘Moreover, Manjusri, there may be those among the fourfold assembly of Bhikshus [monks], Bhikshunis [nuns], Upasakas [laymen] and Upasikas [laywomen], as well as other good men and women of pure faith, who accept and uphold the eight precepts either for one year or for three months, practicing and studying them. With these good roots, they may vow to be born in the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss where the Buddha of Limitless Life [Amitabha Buddha] dwells, to hear the Proper Dharma, but their resolve may not be firm. (‘复次、曼殊室利!若有四众:苾刍、苾刍尼、邬波索迦、邬波斯迦,及余净信善男子、善女人等,有能受持八分斋戒,或经一年、或复三月受持学处,以此善根, 愿生西方极乐世界无量寿佛所听闻正法而未定者,)

However, if they hear the name of the World Honored One, Medicine Master Vaidurya Light Tathagata [Medicine Buddha: Yaoshi Liuliguang Rulai], then as the end of their lives draws near, before them will appear eight great Bodhisattvas, whose names are: Manjusri Bodhisattva, The Bodhisattva Who Observes the Sounds of the World [Guanyin Bodhisattva], Great Strength Bodhisattva [Dashizhi Bodhisattva], Inexhaustible Intention Bodhisattva, Jewelled Udumbara Flower Bodhisattva, Medicine King Bodhisattva, Medicine Superior Bodhisattva, and Maitreya Bodhisattva. Those eight great Bodhisattvas will appear in space to show them the way, and they will naturally be born by transformation in that land [Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land], amid precious [lotus] flowers of a myriad colors [green, yellow, red and white].’ (若闻世尊药师琉璃光如来名号,临命终时,有八大菩萨,其名曰:南无文殊师利菩萨,南无观世音菩萨,南无得大势菩萨,南无无尽意菩萨,南无宝檀华菩萨,南无药王菩萨,南无药上菩萨,南无弥勒菩萨。是八大菩萨乘空而来,示其道路,即于彼界种种杂色众宝华中,自然化生’。)

Comments: If those who aspire to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land are lacking in strong resolution on the deathbed, even mindfulness of the (name of) Medicine Buddha (by sound, or thought; mental sound) would aid successful birth there, even though it is not Amitabha Buddha’s name that is heard! The assistance is possible as there are great Bodhisattvas (e.g. Guanyin and Dashizhi: Amitabha Buddha’s chief assistant Bodhisattvas) who are mindful of those who are mindful of either Amitabha or Medicine Buddha, who will safely redirect them to Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land. This hints of the great priority of aiding birth in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land – due to its excellence. It can be seen here that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas compassionately, skilfully and selflessly cooperate with one another to guide beings to be reborn in the Pure Lands they wish to go. Of course, if one is mindful of Medicine Buddha to be reborn in his Pure Land, there would be no redirection elsewhere. The ability to access other Pure Lands is clearly stated in the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀经) –

Excerpt: ‘The beings of that land [of Ultimate Bliss, of Amitabha Buddha] often, early in the morning, each with the hem of their clothes, fill many wonderful flowers, to make offerings to a hundred thousand kotis [1 koti: 10 million] of Buddhas in other directions. Promptly by mealtime, they return to the original land, to eat and practise walking meditation.’ (‘其土众生,常以清旦,各以衣祴,盛众妙华,供养他方十万亿佛。即以食时,还到本国,饭食经行。’)

Comments: This is possible because, as mentioned, all Pure Lands co-exist on the same ‘plane’ or ‘dimension’, while Buddhas can compassionately help their Pure Lands’ inhabitants reach one another. This inter-accessibility is especially clear when it comes to Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land.

The above passages on how Medicine Buddha connects us to Amitabha Buddha also reminds that, as mentioned in the Amitabha Sutra, the teachings related to Amitabha Buddha are universally protected and kept in mind (being mindful of) by all Buddhas of all directions, even though Medicine Buddha resides in the far East of our world system, which is even farther East from Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land!

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!