Question: In the Diamond Sutra (金刚经), as below, the adornment of Pure Land is taught to be of ‘no adornment’. Does this mean that Pure Lands do not exist?
Answer: This is not so, as Pure Lands do exist, though not in the way we assume them to be, with our deluded perception. Let us look at the sutra excerpts and analyse their meanings.
From Chapter 10, Adornment of Pure Lands:
[The Buddha asked,] ‘Subhuti [the Buddha’s monastic disciple foremost in understanding the teachings of emptiness], what do you think [and say] of this? Do Bodhisattvas adorn Buddha Lands [Pure Lands] or not?’ ‘Likewise, not so, World-honoured One. Why is this so? One who adorns Buddha Lands, thus does not adorn [them], [which is why it] is called adorning.’ ‘Yes, Subhuti, this is because all Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas [who are on the brink of Buddhahood] should thus give rise to the pure mind [of Bodhicitta], [they] should not abide in forms to give rise to this mind, [they] should not abide in sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles [touchables] or dharmas [or thoughts] to give rise to this mind, [they] should, without abiding anywhere [in particular], give rise to this mind.’
From Chapter 17, Ultimate Selflessness:
[The Buddha asked,] ‘Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva makes this statement, “I undertake [the task of] adorning of Buddha Lands”, one is not called a Bodhisattva. Why is this so? The Tathagata teaches, “As one who adorns Buddha Lands, is not adorning, this is called adorning.” Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva is one who has realised the non-self [nature] of self and dharmas [phenomena of all mind and matter], the Tathagata says one is truly called a Bodhisattva.’
Both the Buddha and Subhuti did not say that Buddha Lands do not exist in the Diamond Sutra, or that adornment of them is not needed. If they meant to say they do not exist at all, they would have done so directly and clearly, both in this sutra or in other sutras. In the meantime, in hundreds of other sutras, the Buddha unequivocally and repeatedly taught of the existence of many Pure Lands and urge beings to be reborn there, with particular emphasis on Amituofo’s [Amitabha Buddha’s] Pure Land.
What is a Buddha Land? A Buddha Land refers to any world that a Buddha resides in or takes care of in terms of spirituality by preaching the Dharma there. They can be actual Pure Lands or ordinary worlds like ours. Wherever Buddhas go to are Pure Lands to them due to their universally purified perception. For ordinary beings like us, we need to be born in a Pure Land created and sustained by a Buddha’s merits and blessings to experience Pure Land in a sustainable way.
What is adornment of Buddha Lands? Adornment of Buddha Lands is done by dedication of merits from Dharma practice to be born in Pure Lands (e.g. Amituofo’s Pure Land, as recommended by all Buddhas, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra), and/or helping to make this and/or other worlds more spiritually excellent places to learn, practise, realise and share the Dharma. (In other words, to help create Pure Lands.) It is of course possible to both aspire to make this world a Pure Land, while aspiring to reach an actualised Pure Land. There is no conflict in these two aspirations if one does one’s best to better this world, while also going to train in a better world in the next life, so as to return to this world better equipped to continue bettering this world.
What the sutra passages above conveys is that when practising the Bodhisattva path, one should still adorn Buddha Lands out of the compassion and wisdom for all beings, as based on Bodhicitta (to guide one and all to Buddhahood), but to do so, without, or for beginners, with as little as possible, attachment to the thought that one is doing so. This is to be done by not abiding in whatever the six senses as listed, come across, even when the senses are utilised through practice to adorn Buddha Lands. To abide in any of the senses is to be attached, to cling to the illusion that what one does or experiences is rigid, fixed and substantial. (Even in the practice of reciting Amituofo’s name, there is only mindfulness of his name being intoned and heard – without clinging.)
Ultimately, the adorner (Bodhisattvas), the adorning (the effort and dedication of merits) and the adorned (Buddha Lands) are of emptiness, as they are empty of any fixed unchanging self-nature. All three are of non-self as they undergo change. (If any of them cannot change, they would not be able to interact with one another.) This is why true Bodhisattvas are not attached to the thought that they are being Bodhisattvas when they adorn Buddha Lands. As they do so without clinging to the adorner, the adorning, and the adorned, their adornment is truly meritorious. In this sense, true adornment is as if ‘no adornment’. If any of the three is clung to, the adornment becomes less true (less aligned to reality), or less pure in motivation (as one hankers on the amount of goodness one has done), and the meritoriousness of the adornment thus becomes limited, instead of unbounded or immeasurable. Such adornment is imperfect adornment, though it is still meritorious adornment to some extent.
As such, when we aspire to be born in Pure Land by dedicating our merits to adorn it, we should do with as little attachment as possible to the adorning itself. Why not simply not adorn Pure Land and not aspire to be born there then? This is so as we are still not Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas. Being thoroughly unenlightened and still attached to self and forms, it is most wise to aspire to be born in Amituofo’s Pure Land, where we can steadily train to be Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas, where enlightenment is guaranteed. As even great Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas like Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (whose practice is the model for all Bodhisattvas) exemplifies the aspiration to be born there, and continually guides beings to reach Amituofo’s Pure Land, who are we ordinary beings to imagine it is pointless to be born in Pure Land?
As Guanyin Bodhisattva taught in the Heart [of Perfection of Wisdom] Sutra, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form.’ Amituofo’s Pure Land is indeed of form, but it is the most spiritual and refined of forms, instead of the gross mundane forms that make up our world of distractions and afflictions. Though the forms in Pure Land are also of emptiness, they are the most skilful of forms, that can guide us to enlightenment. Forms are still crucial as they are needed as means for conveying the Dharma – for experiencing it through the six senses. Though that experienced by the senses should not be clung to, since they are empty in nature, we still need to experience using the senses to learn. The Heart Sutra reminds us to walk the Middle Path, to have a balanced view of form and emptiness. Since ‘emptiness is not different from form’, we should also use forms skilfully, instead of being skewed to abide in emptiness, which does not lead to true enlightenment.
It is impossible for any Buddha to teach the Dharma without any forms at all. This is why the Buddhas cannot propagate the Dharma to the beings residing in the Formless Heavens, as there is no medium of form to communicate with them, while they abide in deep meditative concentration. Since it is near impossible to realise that form and emptiness are exactly the same in this lifetime, it makes great sense to aspire to be born in the safest world of forms, Amituofo’s Pure Land, so as to better realise the Perfection of Wisdom there. As Guanyin Bodhisattva is ‘stationed’ there too, to assist Amituofo, we can learn directly from her on how to do so! (The Diamond Sutra is a Perfection of Wisdom teaching too.) Thus perfecting our wisdom with compassion, this is the most skilful ‘shortcut’ to eventual Buddhahood! This is why all Buddhas praise Amituofo and urge beings to be born in his Pure Land.