Question: As an unenlightened being, when born in Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛) Pure Land (净土), what will one’s spiritual level be? Is one immediately with the level equivalent to the Path of Seeing (Darśanamārga: 见道), even if not a Bodhisattva (菩萨) yet? Or will one transcend this?
Answer: It should be noted that the Path of Seeing marks the point one becomes an Ārya (Noble One: 圣者), ascending on the First Ground (Bhūmi) (初地) of Joy (欢喜), as taught in the Mahāyāna (i.e. Great Vehicle: 大乘) teachings. This is while even ordinary beings (凡夫) can reach Pure Land with the Three Provisions (三资粮).
According to the Amitābha Sūtra《阿弥陀经》, as taught by Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) unequivocally, ‘[In the] Land [Of] Ultimate Bliss, those sentient beings BORN, are ALL Avaivartikas (i.e. those with non-retrogression [不退转] for Buddhahood [佛果]).’ (极乐国土，众生生者，皆是阿鞞跋致。)
As the Buddha did not teach that SOME born there will be Avaivartikas LATER, but that ALL born there are Avaivartikas DIRECTLY, this means they already transcend the Path of Seeing. This is so as the state of non-retrogression is a key characteristic of the Eighth Ground (八地) of Immovability (不动), which is way above the First Ground.
There must be immediate non-retrogression once the safest refuge of Pure Land is reached, or there will be some danger of spiritual backsliding there. Non-retrogression in Pure Land is directly available upon birth due to its splendid conditions summarised by Great Master Zhìzhě (智者大师) in his ‘Treatise On Ten Doubts About Pure Land’《净土十疑论》, that can be studied at https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2014/04/6-how-is-there-non-retrogression-in-pure-land.
All who reach Pure Land are simply born into conditions that do not allow retrogression, while they can, with the most skilful teachers, empowerment and pure environment available, most swiftly attain self-sustained non-retrogression. This is based on the principle of ‘first attaining [that] later cultivated [towards]’ (先得后修). Beyond mere labels of this or that spiritual level, having such ultimate expediting of advancement towards the ultimate spiritual goal is much more important.
An analogy of how this works is that of a young prince who is bound for worldly kingship, as he is born into a royal environment that will definitely nurture him to become a king. Even before utilising the full powers of a king, he is already able to partake of kingly benefits with borrowed powers according to his readiness, all while personally growing towards becoming completely capable. The prince virtually lives like a king while working towards becoming an actual king. As the spiritual parallel, all born in Pure Land will become Dharma Princes (法王子) who are Great Bodhisattvas (大菩萨), destined to be Dharma Kings (法王) who are Buddhas.
This is somewhat like Tantric (怛特罗) Yidam correspondence practice (本尊相应法), of identifying with an enlightened being. One virtually becomes the being, while actually working towards becoming like that being too. The difference in Pure Land is that this is the fastest possible.
As Great Master Ǒuyì (蕅益大师) taught on the paradox in his ‘Essential Explanation Of The Amitābha Sūtra’《弥陀要解》, ‘If saying [the beings who have reached Pure Land] are ordinary beings, yet not passing through [a] different life, [they will] definitely replace Buddhas’ posts, with Contemplator [Of] Sounds, [and Great] Power Arrived [Bodhisattvas] without difference. If saying [they] are [at] One Life [To] Replace [Buddhas’] Position, yet [they] can [be] named [as] “ordinary beings”, [and] cannot [be] named [as] “Equally Awakened Bodhisattvas” [yet].’ (若谓是凡夫，却不历异生，必补佛职，与观音、势至无别；若谓是一生补处，却可名凡夫，不可名等觉菩萨。)
Thus, ordinary beings who have just reached Pure Land are ordinary yet kind of noble, noble yet kind of ordinary. This remarkable state cannot be comprehended fully by the unenlightened.
As taught by the Buddha in the Contemplation Sūtra《观经》, even for those of the Low Grade’s Low Birth (下品下生: lowest grade of birth in Pure Land), once their lotus flowers as vehicles of birth blossom, ‘Contemplator [Of The] World’s Sounds [and] Great Power Arrived, with great compassionate voices, for them extensively speak [of] all dharmas’ true nature, eradicating transgressive dharmas. [Having] heard [this] already, [with] joy, immediately then giving rise [to the] Bodhi Mind [i.e. become Bodhisattvas].’ (观世音、大势至，以大悲音声，为其广说诸法实相，除灭罪法。闻已欢喜，应时即发菩提之心。)
Thus, all born in Pure Land will most swiftly become Bodhisattvas formally, if not already so. And as above, even if not yet, all are still able to attain non-retrogression first. The starting point for ordinary beings who reach Pure Land is with the benefits of the 8th ground, while their nine grades’ initial capacities’ gaping differences quickly close up as they progress together. The key benefit is having non-retrogression, while having only swift progression. This is perhaps the best reason to reach Pure Land, for its efficiency in facilitating Buddhahood for one and all.
Related Sūtras & Treatise:
Treatise On Ten Doubts About Pure Land