Question: Why is Pure Land adorned with so much bling (precious gems and such), when the Dharma alone is enough?
Answer: There are many reasons why Pure Land is adorned so. A major reason is to create a great contrast from Samsara. Imagine a Pure Land that has nothing special, or that is exactly the same as Samsara. The motivation to go there will reduce significantly.
The precious items in Pure Land are not blings in the sense of being gaudy, glaring or over-the-top in a mundane materialistic sense. Manifested and shaped by Amituofo’s compassion and wisdom, they are spiritually pleasing instead. To describe Pure Land physically, forms are needed. And since Pure Land is magnificent in nature, majestic forms in terms of gems, which are timelessly precious in our world are used as means to describe it.
It is true that the Dharma in Pure Land would be enough which is why the gems in Pure Land DO stand for nothing but the Dharma in all its various aspects. All the gems (and other items) in Pure Land are actually teaching aids, which radiate the Dharma for intake via the senses. This is maximised skilful means at work, to pervade the environment with the Dharma.
If the Pure Land sutras describe Pure Land only in terms of conceptual Dharma, without any physical attributes, Pure Land would sound as bookish and unattractive as any voluminous and complex Dharma book! There would be no skilful ‘marketing’ edge. It is a skilful means to use pure forms to attract beings to seek birth there, to reach there to master the otherwise seemingly (to some) dry Dharma. Here is an interesting experiment – try defining how your preferred Pure Land will be like physically with archetypal (classically timeless) contents that all beings find attractive. You will find it impossible to top the Pure Land sutras.
Experience of the gems in Pure Land can represent the state of mind one has. With an impure mind, defiled beings elsewhere are unable to experience any gem-filled Pure Land. When born in Pure Land, we are suffused with Amitabha Buddha’s immeasurable merits, and because everything in Pure Land projects the Dharma as well, the pure mind is easily realised.
Venerable Sariputra in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra wondered why Sakyamuni Buddha’s world (this one) was so ugly, but little did he know that it was his impure mind that obstructed his possible pure perception. With the Buddha’s help, he was able to catch a glimpse of this world being magnificent and filled with beautiful gems. With a pure mind, even a grain of sand sparkles like a diamond, or is seen as perfectly equivalent.
Q: Does that mean the gems just metaphorical representations of states of mind?
A: The gems stand for qualities of the Triple Gem (the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha – qualities of awakening, uprightness and purity respectively). We know this is so because the Pure Land sutras emphasise that elements in Pure Land’s environment sing of the Buddha(s), Dharma and Sangha. Purelanders are thus immersed in the Threefold Refuge all the time, which readily aligns them to perfecting qualities of the Triple Gem. The gems are thus both physical and metaphorical. In other words, they are physically manifested metaphors of the Triple Gem.
Worldly gems in Samsara arouse one’s three poisons greed (attachment), hatred (aversion) and delusion (ignorance), to make them thrive. However, in Pure Land, the gems remind us to be mindful of the Buddha(s), Dharma and Sangha. They are thus physical, but linked to the spiritual optimally. It is worth noting that if one does not like the physical aspects of Pure Land, it is due to one being dominated by the three poisons (e.g. aversion) now, while in Pure Land, one’s mind is conditioned to be without likes or dislikes (attachment or aversion), being in equanimity and harmony with the environment.
Q: Are the physical aspects of Pure Land supposed to urge us, who still have the three poisons, to go there?
A: Yes, the physical aspects of Pure Land are supposed to entice us to go there. However, due to limited imagination, you do not have to like all of the physical aspects of Pure Land now, to want to go there. In fact, few Pure Land aspirants want to go to Pure Land just for its gems. Most are attracted by the Dharma represented by the gems (and other elements there).
Many aspire to go to Pure Land to learn from various Buddhas directly, as Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land allows access to all of them. The physical aspects of Pure Land do make it more conducive for better practice. Pure Land is not only a place for severely poisoned beings like us, but also for beings like Arhats and Bodhisattvas who aspire to become fully enlightened like the Buddhas too.
That said, there are also those who want to go Pure Land partly because they are attracted by its gems. They might be less learned in the Dharma, who thus relate better to the picture of a wonderful place. In truth, Pure Land’s description in the sutras is an intricately balanced interweaving of both material and spiritual elements (which are really synonymously two-in-one) such that anyone who is more enticed by either will be urged to seek birth there.
It is due to our lack of enlightened vision that makes us unable to picture the true magnificence of Pure Land, which is a physical embodiment and expression of Amituofo’s perfect compassion and wisdom. In fact, we are so lacking in vision in terms of the pure Dharma, that forms such as precious and beautiful gems have to be described to represent the precious beauty of the Dharma. Unfortunately, even this is not enough when we lack imagination to be inspired by how these gems can skilfully adorn the perfect place for perfecting spiritual cultivation.
Perhaps, if so, it is easier to imagine the best Buddhist retreat centre we have ever come across, with the most pleasing scenery and facilities, teachers and classmates (all of whom are good virtuous friends), and tell ourselves that Pure Land is immeasurably much more excellent than that, because it is simply the ideal retreat centre created and sustained with immeasurable merits and ultimate thoughtfulness, as universally praised and endorsed by the Buddhas of all directions (as stated in the Amitabha Sutra). While Pure Land’s environment (which includes gems) provides the Dharma, Pure Land’s beings, as the Buddha and Sangha provide Dharma friendship. All are important!