Question: In the Immeasurable Life Sūtra《无量寿经》, many of Āmítuófó’s (阿弥陀佛) vows as Dharma Treasury (Dharmakara) Bodhisattva (法藏菩萨) state the phrase ‘heavenly and human beings’ (国中天人) when relating to the beings in his Pure Land (净土). Being a Pure Land, and not a heavenly or human realm, why are the beings there called so? Are there only these two kinds of beings there?
Answer: In the same sūtra, the following was taught by Śākyamuni Buddha (释迦牟尼佛) – ‘All its Voice-Hearers, Bodhisattvas, heavenly and human beings, have wisdom lofty and bright, with supernormal powers thoroughly understanding, all the same as one kind, with appearances without different forms. However, for the cause of according with other directions’ worlds, thus having the name of “heavenly and human beings”. With countenances upright, surpassing the world in rarity. With countenances subtle and wonderful, neither heavenly nor human. They all receive natural bodies of pure emptiness that are unconditioned, the forms of boundlessness.’ (其诸声闻菩萨天人，智慧高明，神通洞达，咸同一类，形无异状。但因顺余方，故有天人之名。颜貌端正，超世希有。容色微妙，非天非人。皆受自然虚无之身，无极之体。)
Therefore, the heavenly beings (or gods: 神) and human beings in the Pure Land are only conventionally called so, for us to easier relate to them, named after their various other worlds’ previous identities. Having reached Pure Land, they have superior forms and functions that transcend those of both heavenly and human beings.
This does not mean that only heavenly and human beings can reach the Pure Land, as all ordinary beings (凡夫), even hell-beings (地狱众生), hungry ghosts (饿鬼) and animals (畜生), can reach Pure Land if they have the Three Provisions (三资粮). However as these three evil paths (三恶道) do not exist in Pure Land physically (in body and speech), and mentally (in mind), they are not mentioned in the vows. This is reflected in Āmítuófó’s vows below.
[First Vow (Of) Land Without Three Evil Paths]: If I attain Buddhahood, [should my] land have those [as] hell-beings, hungry ghosts [and] animals, [I shall] not obtain right awakening.
[Sixteenth Vow (Of) Land Without Names (Of The) Unvirtuous]: If I attain Buddhahood, [should] heavenly [and] human [beings] within [my] land, even have those [who] hear [the] names [of the] unvirtuous, [I shall] not obtain right awakening.
In terms of spiritual status, beings of the entire spectrum of possibilities can reach Pure Land – from thoroughly unenlightened ordinary beings, (including those once hellbound beings to heavenly beings), to noble beings (圣者), (including those from Stream-Enterers (入流) to Equally Awakened Bodhisattvas (等觉菩萨) on the brink of Buddhahood). The below verses summarise the special status of beings in the Pure Land.
Verses [On] Ordinary [And] Noble Heavenly [And] Human [Beings]
Ordinary [beings as] gods [and] humans,
once born [in the Pure Land Of] Ultimate Bliss,
[are] neither gods nor humans,
transcending gods [and] humans.
Neither [as] ordinary nor noble [beings],
[they] are ordinary [and] are noble,
[with] all together not,
[and] all together being.
If ordinary heavenly and human beings who have reached Pure Land continue to function limitedly as before, there would be little value in reaching it. Thus, their new forms and abilities do transcend their previous ones greatly, with which they progress most swiftly to become ‘Teachers Of Human And Heavenly Beings’ (人天教主), that is, Buddhas.
Paradoxically, upon reaching Pure Land, ordinary heavenly and human beings are no longer ordinary beings, as they have transcended all ordinary beings’ realms forever, in this sense being noble. Yet, for the newly arrived ones, they are not noble beings, in this sense being ordinary. However, as above, their spiritual transformation will be most speedy and efficient.
(Perhaps, for convenience, the beings in the Pure Land can be collectively called ‘Purelanders’? However, this could be confused with those who are Pure Land practitioners, who have yet to reach Pure Land.)
Related Sūtra & Treatise:
Eighteenth Chapter On Countenances’ Uprightness (Of Immeasurable Life Sūtra)
Fifth Chapter On Giving Rise To Great Vows (Of Immeasurable Life Sūtra)
Amitābha Sūtra’s Essential Explanation: What Is The Spiritual Status Of Those Who Reach Pure Land?
Immeasurable Life Sūtra’s Ninth Chapter’s Summary & Explanation
Amitābha Sūtra’s Essential Explanation: What Is The Nature Of All Born In Pure Land?