Question: The Diamond Sutra (金刚经) says, ‘All that has form, are all false and illusory’ (凡所有相, 皆是虚妄.) As Pure Land has forms, how does this apply?
Answer: This is often asked from the wrong view that no forms should ever be attached to, assuming that emptiness is as if ‘purer’ than form. However, as the Heart Sutra (心经) says, ‘Emptiness is form’ (空即是色) too, since ‘Emptiness is not different from form’ (空不异色). Clinging to emptiness is thus not only unskilful, it is actually less skilful than clinging to form. Also taught in the Diamond Sutra, forms should not be done away with entirely, as they are needed to learn, practise and teach the Dharma. The Middle Path of not being attached to form or emptiness, while being at ease with both has to be realised eventually, for Buddhahood to be attained.
The forms (相) of defiled lands (秽土), such as Samsara, where we are in, are false and illusory (虚妄), as they are impermanent (无常) and without self (无我). Yet, they are also true, as they do reveal these truths of impermanence and non-self. However, as the average being in a defiled land is too spiritually defiled, it is difficult to see these truths directly. They instead grasp at them as permanent and with self, including in terms of one’s own body and mind. In this sense, these forms function as false forms. When perceived with delusion, they thus feed upon and grow our delusion. This is the key attachment to forms that the Diamond Sutra warn us of.
The forms in Pure lands (净土), such as Sukhavati, are however true forms (实相). Manifesting from Amituofo’s perfect enlightenment to help us attain it too, they embody and express the Four Virtues (四德) of permanence, bliss, (true) self and purity (常乐我净). Perception of these qualities as increasingly directly as possible is enabled by Amituofo’s great skilful means. He ensures the pure forms do not spur delusional attachment or aversion, that give rise to suffering (苦), while only swiftly guiding all to the Middle Path of wisdom with equanimity. These forms are permanent as they do not deteriorate in essential quality, though they can change in form of sensory inputs (sight, sound, smell, touch…) to interact with Pure Land beings, to dispense the pure Dharma for blissful reception.
The forms in Pure Land are of (true) self in the sense of being totally controllable by Amituofo, in contrast to even the forms of the bodies we have now, that we call our ‘selves’, that cannot be fully controlled (to not be old, sick and die). Being true forms, the forms in Pure Land are the most skilful means to reveal both relative truths (of all forms) and the absolute truth (of emptiness), one after another, before most efficiently guiding beings to the Middle Path, to realise the Great Perfection Of Wisdom (摩诃般若波罗蜜多), which is the true spirit of the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra. Thus, the false forms in defiled lands neither function nor are experienced similarly as the true forms in Pure Lands, which is why there is immeasurable value in reaching Pure Land.
Although we contrasted false (defiled) from true (pure) forms, the Diamond Sutra’s statement that ‘All that has form, are all false and illusory’ is still true of both kinds of forms, as even the true forms in Pure Land are but provisional means, though the most skilful of means, to guide us to the unsurpassable Great Perfection Of Wisdom, the greatest and most complete truth that all Buddhas realised. Therefore, the next line in the Diamond Sutra is this – ‘If seeing all forms as not forms, this is to see the (Buddhas) Tathagata(s).’ (若见诸相非相，即见如来.) This is not about the seeing of forms as emptiness only, but to see both forms AND non-forms (emptiness) as one at the same time and at all times, which is the Middle Path of perfect perception that all Buddhas have.
Extra Note: “‘How are beings able to realise enlightenment through grasping at forms of Pure Land, which strikes as being antithetical to the fundamental Buddhist practice?’ Great Master Daozhuo (道绰大师) replies, ‘Although this is grasping onto form, such grasping does not constitute binding attachment. In addition, the form of the Pure Land being discussed here is identical to form without defilements, form that is true form… It is like lighting fire on top of ice. As the fire intensifies, the ice melts. When the ice melts, then the fire goes out…’ According to this explanation, an ordinary being is able to engage the ultimate realm without that person fully understanding the ultimate nature. This process skilfully uses the form (rooted in truth) to transcend form in order to enter the formless. When the formless is attained, the previous attachment to form disappears… [and the Middle Path is realised].” – Kenneth K. Tanaka