While some accounts of Pure Land experience might seem fantastical, requiring a leap of faith to believe in, below is a Buddhist friend’s (Song) experience, as gathered from an interview, which did not require faith on his part at all, suggestive of how the experience of Pure Land can be universal.
In great desperation upon being besieged by trouble in mind at about the age of 18, Song (now 40) resolved to meditate to discover the answers to his problems. Mimicking the Buddha, the rather new Buddhist sat under a tree, vowing to never rise from his seat till solutions come to mind. However, not being properly trained in meditation, what he did was to mull over his problems, instead of calming and focusing his mind for ‘enlightening’ insights.
The more he thought about his problems unsystematically, the more confused he became. At one point, he got so frustrated that he gave up his quest. At that very moment, he stood up from his pseudo ‘diamond seat’. This relinquishing of attachment to his problems however, was so literal and complete in that moment that there was a refreshing wave of liberation, as his troubles were suddenly swept clean without a trace. Replaced was a deep sense of peaceful oneness with the world.
He was shocked by this accidental yet powerful ‘Zennish’ insight – the crux of his problems was being attached to them being substantially real and thus solutionless in the first place. They being in reality non-problems, no solutions were needed – other than to let them go. Still in his state of relatively though briefly heightened and purified awareness, he walked towards a bus-stop to head home.
While waiting to cross a road, he saw, to his great surprise, that the crowd of pedestrians across the road at the traffic light junction had the same facial appearance. They had the classically [and thus archetypal] majestic features of the Buddhas – as portrayed in traditional Buddhist culture. This vision lasted only for a few moments.
Upon reaching the bus terminal near home, he looked into the faces of now ordinary and diverse-looking commuters waiting for their buses. Tears rolled from his eyes automatically, as overwhelming compassion welled up. It was as if he could sense the underlying dukkha in their lives, thus naturally empathising deeply with them.
The above experience left him deeply puzzled about why it occurred and what it meant. That night was spent sleeplessly, as he tossed and turned – physically and mentally, trying his best to figure out what was going on. He spent the next day recounting the incident to his best friend, leaving him more confused than he already was. He tried so hard to describe what happened, that he lost his voice from speaking too much.
Prior to this experience, Song was never particularly fascinated by Buddha images. Also, he had neither read nor heard about similar experiences. He did not even know about the existence of the Pure Land teachings. Only after learning about the Pure Land teachings more than ten years later, did the ‘random’ pieces of his ‘mystical’ experience fall into place. Today, he is a faithful Pure Land practitioner.
Despite not understanding it back then, it was nevertheless a life-altering experience. Looking back on hindsight, it was the most important turning point in both his spiritual and worldly life. It was his awakening to greater sustained mindfulness of life itself. Before, he had lived his life in a mostly aimless daze. In a subtle way, it was perhaps the awakening of Bodhicitta too, if not a crucial prelude to it. Perhaps most valuable was the eventual sprouting of irreversible faith in the Pure Land teachings.
How does the above relate to Pure Land Buddhism? Song’s vision of a crowd with alike countenances happens to reflect a feature of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land (and probably of all other Pure Lands too), which is stated in one of his vows.
If I attain Buddhahood, [should] heavenly [and] human [beings] within [my] land, [have] bodies [and] countenances not [the] same, having those beautiful [and] ugly, [I shall] not obtain Right Awakening.
Because Song was experiencing a strong sense of equanimity (i.e. lack of attachment or aversion), he probably had a corresponding equanimous vision of the universal ‘underlying’ Buddha-nature of karmically unequal beings. In other words, he was tuning in to a mind-state similar to those of beings in Pure Land, even if only for a short while. On the immediacy of ‘meeting’ Buddhas, the Surangama Sutra says –
If sentient beings’ minds, recollect [Amitābha] Buddha, [or are] mindful [of the] Buddha[‘s name: “Āmítuófó” (阿弥陀佛)], manifesting [in the] present [or in the] future, [they] will definitely see [the] Buddha, [with the] Buddha not far away. Not needing skilful means, [by] themselves attaining awakening [of their] minds.
What is particularly amazing about Song’s experience is that it was ‘accidental’ (though karmic affinity would be needed too) – which makes it all the more unforced and thus objective, implying that Pure Land can be experienced by anyone under the right conditions in our world. The steadier one’s sustenance of a pure state of mind is, the longer can this experience be stretched. Intermittent experiences are thus possible.
A Buddha may manifest in a Pure Land or a defiled land. Although the perfect reward land [of all Buddhas] is universally everywhere, only when sentient beings’ wisdom [which includes equanimity] increases do they perceive that any place can be a perfect Pure Land in an instant.
If one can, as in Song’s case, have an ‘accidental’ vision of Pure Land – in the absence of the provisions of faith and aspiration of Pure Land practice, how much more of the fruits of Pure Land practice can be experienced in this life if one diligently exerts the right efforts in increasing the three provisions? That said, one just needs to have a single ‘accidental’ experience, to inspire great faith in the validity of the Pure Land teachings. With this growth in faith, the aspiration to further practise naturally grows in correspondence. That Song’s experience is contemporary is heartening to Pure Land practitioners because it emphasizes the timeless relevance of Pure Land principles.