Q&A

Will Those Back From Pure Land Remember Their Past Lives?

Question: Can those who return from Amituofo’s (Amitabha Buddha) Pure Land recall their past lives, including the fact that they are from Pure Land?

Answer: All who have came back from there CAN recall their past lives. This can be known by these lines taught by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Immeasurable Life Sutra (佛说无量寿经), as translated by Master Sanghavarman (康僧铠):

‘又彼菩萨,乃至成佛,不受恶趣。神通自在,常识宿命。除生他方五浊恶世,示现同彼,如我国也。’

‘Moreover, those Bodhisattvas [1], even until [they] accomplish Buddhahood, [will] not receive [birth in the] evil realms [2]. [With] supernormal powers [3] [and] ease, constantly knowing past lives [4]. Other than [those] born [in] other directions’ worlds [of] five defilements [5], [who] manifest [to be] similar to [beings] there, such as [in] my land [6].’

Notes:

[1] … from Amituofo’s Pure Land. All who are born in Amituofo’s Pure Land will be Avaivartikas (Bodhisattvas in the Stage Of Non-Retrogression, with non-backsliding progress assured of Buddhahood), as taught by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀经):

‘又舍利弗,极乐国土,众生生者,皆是阿鞞跋致。’

‘Moreover, Sariputra, in that Land Of Ultimate Bliss, beings born there are all Avaivartikas.’

This means all who depart from Amituofo’s Pure Land are Bodhisattvas, as all would have give rise to non-retrogressible Bodhicitta there before departure. (If otherwise, they would be leaving Pure Land for samsaric reasons as non-Bodhisattvas, instead of the noble aspiration of delivering beings from suffering. This is of course not possible.)

[2] … of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals. This is aligned with Amituofo’s Second Vow in the same sutra:

第二不复更生恶道愿:“设我得佛,国中天人,寿终之后,复更三恶道者,不取正觉。”‘

Second Vow Of Not Yet Again Born In Evil Realms: “If I [Dharmakara Bodhisattva] attain Buddhahood [as Amituofo], should gods and humans in my land, after the end of their lives, yet again be born in the three evil realms, I shall not attain right awakening.”‘

[3] … of being able to recall all past lives (according to Amituofo’s Fifth Vow), have the heavenly eye for supernormal vision (according to Amituofo’s Sixth Vow), have the heavenly ear for supernormal hearing (according to Amituofo’s Seventh Vow), know others’ thoughts (according to Amituofo’s Eighth Vow), have divine ‘feet’ for supernormal travel (according to Amituofo’s Ninth Vow), and not give rise to thoughts of attachment to self (according to Amituofo’s Tenth Vow).

[4] … of themselves and others. This is aligned with Amituofo’s Fifth Vow in the same sutra:

第五生者皆得宿命愿:“设我得佛,国中天人,不识宿命,下至知百千亿那由他诸劫事者,不取正觉。”’

Fifth Vow Of All Attaining Past Lives’ Knowledge: “If I [Dharmakara Bodhisattva] attain Buddhahood [as Amituofo], should gods and humans in my land, not know of past lives, at least knowing all matters of a hundred thousand kotis [1 koti: 10 million or billion] of nayutas [1 nayuta: 100 billion] of kalpas [1 kalpa: 1.28 trillion years], I shall not attain right awakening.”‘

[5] … of the kalpa (this period when all kinds of corrupted phenomena increasingly gather), views (which are wrong and harmful), afflictions (which cause suffering due to attachment, aversion, delusion, pride and doubt), sentient beings (who arise from defilements of views and afflictions mixing together) and their lifespans (being short, which makes spiritual progress to Buddhahood without the Pure Land path difficult).

[6] … which is this Saha World, where there is ‘Endurance’ of suffering. This line from the sutra means Pure Land’s Bodhisattvas who manifest in heavily defiled lands such as ours will be ABLE to recall their past lives, yet deliberately exhibit ignorance of their past lives. This is to blend in more skilfully to teach the Dharma, while not possibly confusing beings here. Attention will be directed to the Dharma and not to any claimed status, unless during last moments before departure, so as to inspire survivors to better practise the Dharma. This is in strict accordance with Sakyamuni Buddha’s instructions in the Surangama Sutra’s ‘Section On Clear Instructions For Purity’ (楞严经: 清净明诲章):

‘我灭度后,敕诸菩萨及阿罗汉,应身生彼末法之中,作种种形,度诸轮转。或作沙门、白衣居士、人王宰官、童男童女,如是乃至淫女寡妇、奸偷屠贩,与其同事,称赞佛乘,令其身心入三摩地。终不自言: “我真菩萨、真阿罗汉,” 泄佛密因,轻言未学。唯除命终,阴有遗付。云何是人,惑乱众生,成大妄语?… 譬如穷人,妄号帝王,自取诛灭。况复法王,如何妄窃?… 如我所说,名为佛说。不如此说,即波旬说。’

‘After my [pari]nirvana, I command all Bodhisattvas and Arhats, to manifest bodies to be born within that Dharma Ending [Age], to become various forms, to deliver all from rebirth. Perhaps becoming Sramanas [monastics], white-robed laypersons, kings, officials, young males, young females, as such, and even “licentious” women, widows, “outlaws”, “thieves”, “butchers”, “peddlers” [“traffickers”, who do not truly break precepts], with them working together, praising the Buddha vehicle [to Buddhahood], to enable their bodies and minds to enter samadhi [meditative concentration]. To the end, [they do] NOT say, “I am a true Bodhisattva, [or] a true Arhat,” which is to divulge the Buddha’s secret cause, to carelessly say so to those yet to learn [the Dharma well]. Only except when approaching the end of life, secretly as last words, [can they be said]. Why would these persons, confuse and disturb sentient beings, by accomplishing great false speech? … For example, a poor person, who falsely names oneself an emperor, personally incurs death [sentence]. Furthermore as a Dharma king [Buddha], how can this [title] be falsified and stolen? … Such as I have spoken, is named Buddhas’ speech. Not such as spoken, is Papiyan’s [Mara: the evil demon king] speech.’

This means any person who claims to be an Arhat, Bodhisattva or Buddha in our world’s present era is straightaway a liar, out to trick others for gathering especially fame and/or fortune. If one cannot recall oneself to be from Pure Land, all the more should there NOT be claim that one is or might be from there. This is so as once one cannot recall oneself to be from Pure Land, one is definitely not from there.

Question: Are there any further dangers of imagining oneself or anyone else to be from Pure Land?

Answer: Yes, there are many grave dangers. If one egoistically imagines one was from Pure Land, one might become spiritually complacent, thinking there is no more need for spiritual training to go there for further spiritual training, when one had never trained sufficiently to reach there in the first place. One thus continues to be reborn endlessly without reaching Pure Land to end samsaric rebirth, or to better help others do so. To ‘romanticise’ oneself to be from Pure Land is thus arrogant and delusional.

Other than already historically recognised great practitioners who revealed their true identities as being from Pure Land near the end of their manifested lives, it is just as foolish to promote the idea that someone else is from Pure Land, as imagining this can lead oneself or others to follow a faulty teacher or practitioner, to learn faulty teachings, that do not lead to Pure Land at all.

Question: Why is it very important to make it to Pure Land, if one wishes to deliver all beings most efficiently?

Answer: If we take our time to wander in the rounds of rebirth while trying to cultivate the path to Buddhahood, it would be extremely difficult to deliver beings from suffering efficiently. In contrast, if we wish to swiftly train to be able to function as the greatest of Bodhisattvas, it is invaluable to reach Pure Land, for reasons that can be seen in Amituofo’s Twenty-Second Vow:

第二十二菩萨一生补处愿: “设我得佛,他方佛土诸菩萨众,来生我国,究竟必至一生补处。除其本愿自在所化,为众生故,披弘誓铠,积累德本,度脱一切。游诸佛国,修菩萨行,供养十方诸佛如来,开化恒沙无量众生,使立无上正真之道。超出常伦诸地之行,现前修习普贤之德。若不尔者,不取正觉。”

Twenty-Second Vow Of Bodhisattvas Attaining Stage Of One Life To Replacement [Of Other Buddhas; Eka-jati-prati-baddhas]: “If I [Dharmakara Bodhisattva] attain Buddhahood [as Amituofo], all other directions’ Buddha lands’ Bodhisattva assemblies, who come to be born in my land, will ultimately and definitely reach the Stage Of One Life To Replacement [of other Buddhas]. Excluded are those with original vows to, with ease manifest, for sentient beings thus, wear the armour of great vows, accumulate and amass virtuous roots, deliver and liberate all. They will travel to all Buddha lands, cultivate Bodhisattva practices, and make offerings to all the ten directions’ Buddha Thus Come Ones [Tathagatas]. They will guide and transform immeasurable sentient beings, as numerous as the Ganges [River’s] sands, enabling them to be established on the unsurpassable, right and true path [to Buddhahood], going beyond ordinary peers’ all grounds of practices, manifesting before them, cultivation of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s virtues. If not so, I shall not attain right awakening.”‘

This vow clearly states that all Bodhisattvas, even if they are not yet the greatest of Bodhisattvas (Eka-jati-prati-baddhas) like Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, they will be able to, with ease manifest in all lands (including lands with the five defilements) like him. With this vow’s protection for delivering beings from suffering, such ease must of course be with memory of all past lives, as no proficient Bodhisattva forgets a single crucial lesson learnt from the past, especially that learnt in Pure Land! If one forgets one’s entire life with spiritual training in Pure Land, there might be problems in delivering even one single being. Although this vow is stated to be for those already Bodhisattvas, even if one is not a Bodhisattva now yet, as above in Note [1], all will become Bodhisattvas in Pure Land and be able to benefit from this vow.

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!