The answer to the question of whether life in Pure Land is eternal can be known by studying the below vows of Amituofo (among his 48 great vows) together.
Vow #13: If, when I [Dharmakara Bodhisattva, who has become Amituofo] attain Buddhahood, my life span should be limited, even to at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of kalpas [an immeasurably long time], may I not attain perfect awakening.
What this implies is that Amituofo’s life span will be unlimited, so as to be able to benefit beings, including those in his Pure Land for similarly unlimited time with unlimited benefits. Merely reading this vow, one might think that this equates to saying there is eternal life in Pure Land. However, we need to look further…
Vow #15: If, when I attain Buddhahood, gods and humans in my land should not have unlimited life spans, except when they wish to shorten them freely according to their original vows, may I not attain perfect awakening.
What this implies is that although the life spans of the beings in Pure Land are unlimited, they can also be limited as they please, by leaving Pure Land to accomplish other (e.g. time-pressed) vows of benefiting other beings. Merely reading this vow, one might think still think that this equates to saying there is eternal life in Pure Land, other than when one wishes to end it. However, we need to look further…
Vow #2: If, when I attain Buddhahood, gods and humans in my land should still be reborn into the three evil realms [of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals] after the end of their lives, may I not attain perfect awakening.
What this implies is that beings in Pure Land can still be reborn elsewhere, that is, life in Pure Land need not be ‘eternal’. This corresponds with vow #15. However, beings who leave Pure Land will remain connected to Amituofo’s blessings, and never have spiritual retrogression, such as falling reluctantly into the lower realms; they will only progress towards Buddhahood. (It is possible to enter the lower realms to guides beings when one is ready.) Merely reading this vow #2 with vow #15 and vow #13, one might think still think that this equates to saying eternal life in Pure Land is possible, other than when one wishes to end it. However, we need to look further…
Vow #22: If, when I attain Buddhahood, Bodhisattvas in the Buddha Lands of other directions who are born in my land should not ultimately and unfailingly reach the Stage of Becoming Buddhas after One More Life, may I not attain perfect awakening. Excepted are those who wish to manifest freely for [helping] beings according to their original vows. Wearing the armour of great vows, they accumulate roots of merits, deliver all, visit all Buddha Lands to cultivate the Bodhisattva practices, make offerings to all Buddhas Tathagatas throughout the ten directions, awaken and transform immeasurable beings as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges, and establish them on the unsurpassable, right and true path. They transcend the ordinary practices of Bodhisattvas of all grounds, manifest the practices of all the Bodhisattva stages, and cultivate the merits of Samantabhadra [Bodhisattva – whose practices and merits represent all Bodhisattvas’ as an ideal model].
What this implies is that beings in Pure Land will, if they choose to stay there and continue training all the way, they will definitely attain the Stage of Becoming Buddhas After One More Life. Those who choose to leave earlier to benefit other beings, however, will be able continue practising the Bodhisattva path smoothly with the continual protective blessings of Amituofo’s vows, till they attain Buddhahood. (This is linked to vow #15 and vow #2.) This vow means that though life in Pure Land is unlimited in nature, there are two possible ways it will and must end:
(1) Life in Pure Land will end when the Stage of Becoming Buddhas After One More Life is attained, whereupon one will leave Pure Land, to choose a suitable place in the human realm to manifest walking the last portion of the Bodhisattva path towards Buddhahood. Buddhahood is not manifested in Pure Land, as it is always manifested where there are unenlightened beings to whom great compassion and wisdom can be expressed to inspire and guide them to enlightenment.
Since the ultimate or most thorough purpose of Pure Land is to lead to the goal of Buddhahood, the life span of beings in Pure Land cannot be eternal, although an immeasurably but productively long period of time is possible – for as long as required to complete training. In this sense, the life span of the beings in Pure Land is as if inconceivably eternal, though not truly so. This should not be confused with the fact that the life span of Pure Land itself, as a purified environment, is eternal, since Amituofo who created and sustains it has eternal life. Pure Land is meant to be a major stepping stone, a bridge across, towards Buddhahood. As such, no stepping stone or bridge is meant to be dwelt upon forever, as it is but a temporal skilful means to the timeless end of Buddhahood.
(2) Life in Pure Land can also end when one wishes to leave before attaining the Stage of Becoming Buddhas After One More Life. However, one will nevertheless lead to Buddhahood in the human realm later. Even if one reaches and leaves Pure Land in a touch-and-go way, one’s connection to Amituofo will be strong and everlasting. Even if one swiftly returns to Samsara as a Bodhisattva to actively benefit other beings before attaining the Stage of Becoming Buddhas After One More Life, not only will one not spiritually retrogress and only progress, one is also surely able to more easily return to Pure Land again to continue training when needed.
This is a good reason why all aspiring Bodhisattvas should aspire to be swiftly born in Pure Land at least once, even if there is no intention to stay there for long, for the time being. Aligned to this, it is noteworthy that Samantabhadra Bodhisattva too aspires to go to Pure Land, even while he actively guides beings to Pure Land, as stated in his great vow #10. This vow encourages all Bodhisattvas to likewise do the same. Along this line, the following two vows of Amituofo show how beings in Pure Land are able to leave Pure Land at will and return – without their life spans in Pure Land ending.
Vow #9: If, when I attain Buddhahood, gods and humans in my land should not attain divine feet [supernormal power of teleportation or flight] to travel in one instant of thought to beyond at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas [an immeasurable number] of Buddha Lands, may I not attain perfect awakening.
What this implies is that beings in Pure Land are able to swiftly travel to many worlds beyond Pure Land, and be able to return to Pure Land just as swiftly.
Vow #23: If, when I attain Buddhahood, Bodhisattvas in my land, through Buddha’s transcendent power, should not be able to make offerings to all Buddhas pervading immeasurable and innumerable kotis of nayutas of Buddha Lands in as short a time as it takes for a meal, may I not attain perfect awakening.
What this implies is that beings in Pure Land are able to swiftly visit immeasurable Buddhas in person, make offerings to cultivate immeasurable merits, and learn from them to cultivate immeasurable wisdom. Again, this is without loss of life in Pure Land, as they are able to return to Pure Land at will. With this ability to accumulate merits and wisdom so efficiently, it is no wonder that birth in Pure Land is the fastest path to Buddhahood. In the case that there are those who fret of their spiritual roots being in lack, who thus hesitate to be born in Pure Land, there is the great assurance of immeasurable life being available there to practise towards Buddhahood. The very ones who fret much about their spiritual progress should thus all the more aspire to be born in Pure Land!
The life spans of the beings in Amituofo’s Pure Land is immeasurable due to Amituofo’s immeasurable blessings latched with their aspiration (which is sustained by the pure environment) to continue practising the Dharma. Though this greatest of spiritual schools does not offer eternal life, what it offers is not something any less practical – immeasurable life – as much time and opportunities as needed for graduation into perfect enlightenment. True eternal life is attained, similar to what Amituofo did, when one becomes a Buddha upon the attainment of Buddhahood!
Being the best Dharma school in the universe, graduation from Pure Land with flying colours is thus guaranteed, even for the slowest student, since the best qualified teachers (Amituofo and other Bodhisattvas) are in Pure Land – so long as one stays there to complete training. This is in contrast to the worst or lesser worldly schools in Samsara, which cannot guarantee proper training, much less actual graduation, even if one stays in them forever.
We have to remember that Pure Land is not meant to be a holiday resort. Wonderful as the environment is, it is a supremely skilful manifestation of Amituofo’s perfect compassion and wisdom, and thus only able to inspire Dharma practice, instead of distracting its inhabitants, as in the case of many worldly heavens. Pure Land is thus also not meant to be a retirement home, as it is a training ground, for preparation to re-enter Samsara better equipped to guide other beings to supreme enlightenment – Buddhahood.
The Differences Between Heaven(s) & Pure Land(s)
The Middle Path Between Nihilism & Eternalism
The Fastest Way to Buddhahood is Via Birth in Pure Land
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Connection to Amitabha Buddha
The Infinite Light & Life of Amitabha Buddha
The 48 Vows of Amitabha Buddha (in the Infinite Life Sutra)