A True Vision of Pure Land
Sometimes, in other Buddhist traditions, the term ‘Pure Land’ is used generally to represent this very world of ours being wonderful when experienced occasionally and momentarily with heightened mindfulness, which renders even the ordinary or that taken for granted special and splendid. This idea of ‘Pureland’ should not be mistaken as the actual Pure Lands created by Buddhas. A true vision of Pure Land, say, of Amitabha Buddha’s, would be very specific, with features as stated bold below (in part), in the Infinite Life Sutra (which is the most detailed Pure Land sutra). Note that Shakyamuni Buddha also spoke of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land as ‘that land’ (彼国), as in it being another land; not this land of ours:
The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘Rise to your feet, rearrange your robes, put your palms together, and respectfully revere and worship Amitayus [Amitabha]. Buddhas and Tathagatas in the lands of the ten quarters always praise with one accord that Buddha’s virtues of non-attachment and unimpeded activity.’
Ananda stood up, rearranged his robes, assumed the correct posture, faced westward, and, demonstrating his sincere reverence, joined his palms together, prostrated himself on the ground and worshipped Amitayus. Then he said to the Buddha Shakyamuni, ‘World-Honored One, I wish to see that Buddha, his Land of Peace and Bliss, and its hosts of bodhisattvas and shravakas.’
As soon as he had said this, Amitayus emitted a great light, which illuminated all the Buddha-lands. The Encircling Adamantine Mountains, Mount Sumeru, together with large and small mountains, and everything else shone with the same (golden) color. That light was like the flood at the end of the period of cosmic change that fills the whole world, when myriads of things are submerged, and as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but a vast expanse of water. Even so was the flood of light emanating from Amitayus. All the lights of shravakas and bodhisattvas were outshone and surpassed, and only the Buddha’s light remained shining bright and glorious. At that time Ananda saw the splendor and majesty of Amitayus resembling Mount Sumeru, which rises above the whole world. There was no place which was not illuminated by the light emanating from his body of glory. The four groups of followers of the Buddha in the assembly saw all this at the same time. Likewise, those of the Pure Land saw everything in this world.
Then the Buddha said to Ananda and the Bodhisattva Maitreya, ‘Have you seen that land filled with excellent and glorious manifestations, all spontaneously produced, from the ground to the Heaven of Pure Abode?’ Ananda replied, ‘Yes, I have.’ The Buddha asked, ‘Have you also heard the great voice of Amitayus expound the Dharma to all the worlds, guiding sentient beings to the Way of the Buddha?’ Ananda replied, ‘Yes, I have.’ The Buddha further asked, ‘Have you also seen the inhabitants of that land move freely, riding in seven-jewelled airborne palaces as large as a hundred thousand yojanas, to worship the Buddhas of the lands in the ten quarters?’ ‘Yes, I have,’ replied Ananda. ‘Have you also seen that some of the inhabitants are in the embryonic state?’ ‘Yes, I have. Those in the embryonic state dwell in palaces as high as a hundred yojanas or five hundred yojanas, where they spontaneously enjoy pleasures as do those in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods.’ – http://www.fodian.net/world/360.html
Analysis of Talk Excerpts
There was a talk titled ‘The Art of Living Happily in the Here and Now’ by Master Thich Nhat Hanh (on 11.09.10 in Singapore), who used the terms ‘Pure Land’ and ‘Amita[bha] Buddha’ to present the Dharma. The below, which has the relevant (self-contained and continuous) excerpts followed by comments, hopes to clarify the differences between wholly Zen concepts of Pure Land and the actual Pure Land teachings, as taught by the Buddha and the Pure Land Patriarchs, with regards to Amitabha Buddha.
Excerpt: ‘In the practice of mindful walking, your energy of mindfulness and concentration helps you to see that the Pure Land is not something belonging to the future but something that you can get in touch in the here and the now.’
Comments: The physical Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha does indeed belong to the present moment, as it has already been created 10 kalpas ago, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra, and still exists now. However, it is not ‘here’. As Shakyamuni Buddha clearly taught in the Pure Land sutras, it is to the West of our world system, a hundred thousand kotis [1 koti is 10 million; a hundred thousand kotis is one trillion; 1012] of Buddha-lands away – which is why Ananda bowed westwards to pay respect to Amitabha Buddha, and to have a vision of his Pure Land. As such, his Pure Land is not only not here (even when experienced now), it is there too.
And since one has to relinquish life in Samsara to be born there, the full experience of Pure Land is in the future and not now. Of course, it is possible to have brief, partial yet repeatable visions of Pureland like Ananda’s, if one practises mindfulness of Buddha well. Also from the Infinite Life Sutra, the Buddha spoke explicitly about actual birth in Pure Land:
The Buddha said to Ananda, ‘Sentient beings who are born in that Buddha-land all reside among those assured of Nirvana. The reason is that in that land there are neither beings who are destined to adverse conditions nor those whose destinies are uncertain. All Buddhas, Tathagatas, in the ten quarters, as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges, together praise the inconceivable, supernal virtue of Amitayus. All sentient beings who, having heard his Name, rejoice in faith, remember him even once and sincerely transfer the merit of virtuous practices to that land, aspiring to be born there, will attain birth and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. But excluded are those who have committed the five gravest offenses and abused the right Dharma.’ [Unless one repents and practises accordingly in time. This section fulfills the 11th, 17th and 18th vows of Amitabha Buddha]
Excerpt: ‘If you are able to go back to the present moment with concentration, you can get in touch with Amita[bha] Buddha in yourself right in this moment, and you can get in touch with the Pure Land right in this moment.’
Comments: The practice of mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha in the Pure Land tradition to develop concentration is always done in the present moment. (Even when one practises this later, one practises in the present moment then, and possibly experiences Pure Land in the present moment then.) Getting in touch with Amitabha Buddha can refer to experiencing connection with Amitabha Buddha or one’s own Buddha-nature, which is ultimately not different from Amitabha Buddha’s Buddha-nature if experienced in full. However, it is not easy to be totally in touch with the actual Amitabha Buddha or one’s Buddha-nature all the time, in every moment. If one is able to do so, one would already be in Pure Land, or a Buddha, because only a Buddha can be perfectly mindful of another Buddha or one’s Buddha-nature. ‘Getting in touch’ is thus more of the practice of trying to align our unenlightened natures to be in line with our Buddha-nature. As above, when this is perfected, we become Buddhas. It is worth noting that even great Bodhisattvas on the brink of Buddhahood need to practise mindfulness of Buddha.
Excerpt: ‘Many times I have told my Christian friends that they don’t have to die in order to get to the kingdom of God. It might be too late. In order to go to the kingdom of God, you have to be very alive. And if you know how to practise mindful breathing, mindful walking, you become alive in a few moments. And when you are truly alive, truly present, you make only one step and you enter the kingdom of God. And I told my friends the kingdom of God is now or never.’
Comments: Mindfulness is indeed the key to being truly alive. Death however is an illusion in the sense that life does not really dissipates, but merely takes on new forms in rebirth. It is a core Christian teaching that the full experience of their concept of heaven is in the afterlife. In this aspect, this is similar to the Pure Land teachings, though the Buddha never taught the existence of an eternal or perfect heaven created by any unenlightened god with limited merits, compassion and wisdom; while the Buddha taught about the existence of immeasurably long-lasting Pure Lands created by fully enlightened Buddhas with perfect merits, compassion and wisdom. (The Buddha also taught that there is no omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator god because if there is one, there would be no trace of suffering at all.) In case it is mistaken that Pure Land is exactly the same as, or even comparable to the Christian concept of heaven, the Buddha says this in the Infinite Life Sutra to highlight the supremacy of Pure Land in contrasts to general heavenly planes:
‘Even though a king is the noblest of all men and has a regal countenance, if he is compared with a wheel-turning monarch, he will appear as base and inferior as a beggar beside a king. Likewise, however excellent and unrivaled the majestic appearance of such a monarch may be, if he is compared with the lord of the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, he will also appear incomparably inferior, even ten thousands kotis of times more so. Again, if this heavenly lord is compared with the lord of the Sixth Heaven, he will appear a hundred thousand kotis of times inferior. If the lord of the Sixth Heaven is compared with a bodhisattva or a shravaka dwelling in the land of Amitayus, his countenance and appearance will be far from matching those of the bodhisattva or shravaka, being a thousand million kotis of times or even incalculable times inferior.’
Excerpt: ‘For my Buddhist friends, I would like to say the same things. Don’t wait until you die to get to the Pure Land. It may be too late. Listen to the Buddha’s teaching – practise mindfulness and concentration, release your afflictions and Amita[bha] Buddha and the Pure Land will be available to you in the here and now.’
Comments: Good Pure Land practitioners do not have to wait for death to come before being born in Pure Land, as they can practise well enough to leave any time they aspire. However, this is being born in Amitabha Buddha’s actual Pure Land; not just having momentary experience of this world as being vaguely ‘similar’ to Pure Land. Good practitioners also do not wait till the last minute on their deathbeds to practise mindfulness of Buddha, but do so regularly in everyday life, even to the extent of being able to experience glimpses of Pure Land at will while alive in this life.
When mindfulness of Buddha is practised well, afflictions are released in the moment too. Mindfulness of Buddha requires the mind being very much alive, which is why it is also taught that good Pure Land practitioners depart for Pure Land (mindful and) alive. Unless we experience Pure Land properly like Ananda in the here and now above with the Buddha’s blessings, Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land is not really in the here and now. What experienceable instead are glimpses of this world with heightened mindfulness and purity of mind, which makes it loosely resemble the characteristics of Pure Land.
Excerpt: ‘There is not one day that I do not enjoy walking in the Pure Land. Practising mindful walking in the woods, by the river, at the airport, I always get in touch with the Pure Land of the Buddha. My Pure Land is portable. Where I go, the Pure Land is with me. And my deepest desire is that my friends also make their Pureland in their daily lives. And if you know how to practise mindful walking, mindful breathing, living in the present moment, you get in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now. You make Amita[bha] Buddha and the Pure Land available to you every moment of your life.’
Comments: It is important to note that the key practice of Pure Land practitioners is mindfulness of Buddha; and not general mindfulness of pleasant surroundings in this world. Only when connecting to the blessings of Amitabha Buddha by sincere mindfulness of him can we experience his Pure Land. It is relatively not very difficult to visit pleasing woods and riversides to enjoy mindful walking, but to equate these nice experiences as being exactly the same as being in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, which is meticulously created with his perfect merits, compassion and wisdom to most efficiently facilitate enlightenment is surely a mistake.
It is also difficult for most to make our own Pure Lands wherever we go. For example, how can one make a land at constant war a Pure Land? It is surely no walk in the park. And how can we urge victims caught in a war to enjoy their situation, as if being in a Pure Land? Though possible, this samsaric world has many negative conditions like collective and individual karmic obscurations, which makes it very hard to be seen or transformed as a perfect Pure Land all the time.
This is why Pure Land practitioners aspire to be born in an actual Buddha Pure Land. This is why Amitabha Buddha created an actual Pure Land. This is why all Buddhas of the six directions clearly urge all beings to seek birth in his Pure Land. It is true that when the mind is pure, the land is perceived to be pure. However, a Buddha’s Pure Land is the most efficient place to help thoroughly purify the mind, to help the mind to perceive purely, as it is created for that very purpose. What is more, true mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha connects to him, such that his bountiful blessings enable us to experience the immeasurable spiritual wonders of his Pure Land missing in Samsara.
The more pleasant world we experience with some increased mindfulness is not Pure Land; but just a reflection of a relatively, and not absolutely more purified state of mind. It is noteworthy that monasteries, retreat centres/villages are usually built a considerable distance away from relatively less pleasant bustling cities. Knowingly or not, this is to simulate the peacefulness of Pure Land, to facilitate spiritual training. However, even if a retreat centre is pleasing, it is still not perfect like an actual Buddha’s Pure Land if it is not created by a Buddha. No matter where we are, as long as we are not Buddhas, it is impossible to experience every moment as being in Pure Land by our limited mindfulness and merits alone. However, in Pure Land, our self-power coupled with Amitabha Buddha’s other-power enables us to experience Pure Land for indefinite time – till we become enlightened.
Excerpt: ‘There was a reporter from the Guardian, the most important daily paper in London. He attended the whole retreat – six days. And after that, he talked to me about God and the kingdom of God. And because he had practised during the whole retreat, his article published in the Guardian is a very good article. In that article he quoted me and he said that if Westerners put God in the right place, everything will be fine again.’
Comments: If there is an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent creator god, he would instantly put everything in the right place to make everything fine again. However, this does not happen, which means that such a deity does not exist.
Excerpt: ‘I think for beginners in the practice, Amita[bha] Buddha and Pure Land is in the direction of the West. Amita[bha] Buddha and Pure Land is outside of us. But with good practice, slowly, you go deeper and you realise that to say that the Pure Land is in the direction of the West is only a way of saying. If we continue to practise well, we will soon realise Amita[bha] Buddha and the Pure Land are here and now, and inside of us.’
Comments: As mentioned above, Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land was repeatedly revealed to us by the Buddha to be to the West of our world system. However, like all other Buddhas, while the Reward Body (Sambhogakaya) of Amitabha Buddha is in his Pure Land, he is capable of manifesting in countless worlds (as Nirmanakayas) to guide beings to his Pure Land. While doing so, his universal body (Dharmakaya) pervades all space. It is inappropriate to say that Pure Land being in the West is just ‘a way of saying’, as the Buddha is very clear when he teaches – and differentiates between what he really means, and when he is just using analogies or metaphors. In no sutra did the Buddha say the location of Pure Land to be arbitrary or a figure of speech.
Importance of Three Provisions
It is semi-erroneous to assume Pure Land is only inside us, because Pure Land can be both within and without. And as long as one is not yet a Buddha, Pure Land is always outside too – even when one is in a Buddha’s Pure Land. One who does not have Faith in a Pure Land out there will not be able to be reborn there, as Faith is the first of the Three Provisions for Pure Land births. It is often mistaken that inner ‘Pure Land’, or at least its equivalent, must be experienced fully first, in everyday life, before an outer Pure Land can be experienced. While this is ideal, there are many who are able to have enough conditions to practise mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha well at the last minute, before they die, leading to birth in Pure Land. (Note that being able to be born in the actual Pure Land in an instant still means it is elsewhere despite distance.)
It is spiritually dangerous to be attached to the idea that Pure Land is only in the here and now, because it can lead to attachment to Samsara and being reborn back here, thinking this world is already the perfect place to practise the Dharma. If this was so, all Buddhas would not urge beings of their worlds to aspire for birth in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land, especially in the Dharma-ending Age, where the quality of conditions for Dharma practice are believed to generally decline. The lack of Aspiration to be born in the actual Pure Land also prevents birth in Pure Land, as Aspiration is the second of the Three Provisions. Also missed out was the key Practice of the Pure Land tradition – mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha’s name, which is the third of the Three Provisions, essential in leading to birth in Pure Land, the attainment of which is the swiftest means to advance towards Buddhahood as one will be directly taught by a Buddha.
The ideal practice of Pure Land teachings has a double-pronged approach. It seeks to do one’s best to create and experience a Pure Land on Earth, even as one aspires to be reborn in an actual Pure Land elsewhere. In fact, the merits of helping to make this world a better place facilitate rebirth in Pure Land too. Upon attaining enlightenment in Pure Land, one then returns better spiritually equipped to continue purifying Samsara, to guide beings to Buddhahood.
Analysis of Book Excerpts
Here are some excerpts from the book ‘Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now’ by the speaker, followed by comments on them:
Book: ‘The Pure Land Sutra [Amitabha Sutra] is not about a world other than the world we live in.’ (p.61)
Comments: The Pure Land sutras are clearly about the existence of an external Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.
Book: ‘I think that however beautiful the Pure Land is, it is no more beautiful than the Saha World [this world of endurance]. Everything we see in the Pure Land we are also able to see over here. We have heard the ancestral teachers say the Pure Land is in our mind and in our heart.’ (p.75)
Comments: It is highly inaccurate to equate the enlightened splendours of a Pure Land created by Amitabha Buddha to be no different from this grossly physically and spiritually imperfect world. Ancestral teachers in terms of the Pure Land Patriarchs of the actual Pure Land tradition all teach that real Pure Lands exist beyond our unenlightened and thus severely limited minds.
Book: ‘When people are born in the Pure Land they still have some of the afflictions. They still feel anger and jealousy, and want special treatment from Amitabha Buddha. It is possible that once we have been born in the Pure Land, Buddha Amitabha does not seem as sweet as we thought he was. He is always looking at someone else and does not give much attention to us. Apart from the time when he is giving a Dharma talk, eating, or practicing walking meditation with the Sangha, he only converses with the great bodhisattvas. The great bodhisattvas are the same. They pay so little attention to us because all day they have to give guidance to those who have just been born in the Pure Land. Many people are born in the Pure Land every day and the bodhisattvas have to look after them, so they do not have any more time to be attentive to us. Since we do not receive special treatment we are jealous, we grow tired of the Pure Land, and we feel we do not enjoy living there. We want to go somewhere else.’ (p.77)
Comments: Though unenlightened beings in Pure Land still have some delusion that need working at to fully eliminate, it is impossible for them to give rise to anger and jealousy as these are attributes of attachment and aversion, which the environment of Pure Land, as blessed by Amitabha Buddha, does not allow to arise. With their perfect all-encompassing compassion and mastery of boundless supernormal powers, Amitabha Buddha and the great Bodhisattvas in his Pure Land readily manifest at will to teach the many beings in Pure Land. If they are not able to do so, there would be little value in being born there, as one of the key factors that make Pure Land the best school in the universe is that it offers the company of many great teachers. It is impossible to not enjoy living in Pure Land, as it is the Land of Ultimate [spiritual and physical] Bliss. The above excerpt is a very erroneous depiction of Pure Land. It is best to learn the genuine Pure Land teachings from teachers who specialise in them, lest what learnt is a ‘creative rendering’ of the original teachings meant by the Buddha. It is also best for teachers who do not specialise in the genuine Pure Land teachings to learn them well first, before sharing them. To conclude is this poem to summarise the above:
Is Pureland Only in the Here & Now?
Some think Pure Land is mind-only,
only in the here and now,
when the purified mind sees this world as Pure Land.
But wouldn’t this mean there is no need to ‘go’ to Pure Land later?
Some think Pure Land is ‘matter-only’,
only in the West and in the next life,
when the well-practised take rebirth there.
But wouldn’t this mean there is no way to experience it now?
The truth is,
Pure Land is both ‘mind and matter’,
Pure Land is both ‘here and there’,
Pure Land is both ‘now and later’.
To fall to any extremes above,
is to miss the Middle Path,
of seeing how the more purified one is now,
the easier it is to experience ‘Pure Land’ now and reach the actual Pure Land later.
Mind-Only Pure Land & Self-Nature Amitabha = Western Pure Land & Amitabha Buddha?
Master Zhuhong: Is Pureland Practice Inferior to Zen Practice?
Master Shengyan: A Zen Master’s Nianfo Advice
Master Yongming: Chan With/out Pure Land Practice
Beyond the ‘Pure Land’ Here and Now (Is Pure Land Formless or Mind-Only?)
Experience of This World as ‘Pure Land’
(This article, which does not represent any particular organisation’s views, was respectfully sent to the speaker for his review.)