Buddhist Beliefs, Practices and Experiences

Pure Land: A Buddhist Heaven?

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“…in that realm heavenly music is played continually. The ground is made of gold. Six times during the day and night mandarava flowers rain down from the sky.”


--Smaller Sutra, Chapter. 3


Many non-Buddhists think that the Pure Land is akin to Heaven or Paradise where one receives their wings and halo or where young virgins await the faithful. Ultimate reality in Buddhism has nothing to do with these fanciful notions. The Pure Land, which is called Sukhavati in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, means Land of Utmost Bliss; in most countries, it is most commonly referred to as the Pure Land. The prefix sukha means the highest bliss and is the opposite from the Sanskrit world dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha is well explained in our Buddha’s teaching of the First Noble Truth.


In Shin Buddhism, the Pure Land is the realm of supreme enlightenment and the ultimate dimension. In addition, it is synonymous with Nirvana which is defined as the formless realm of peace, devoid of ignorance, hatred and greed, beyond any conventional understanding. As for the location of the transcendent Pure Land, it is described as being everywhere, in everything, in everyone yet it can not be found in any specific place.


Nirvana and Pure Land


Referring to the same reality of Oneness, the difference between the terms, Nirvana and Pure Land is the following. The term Nirvana denotes the same transcendent realm but is unusually understood using negative words like unborn, uncreated, deathless, imperishable, formless, colorless, etc. On the other hand, the Pure Land is a more practical and concrete way to understand and explain that which is incomprehensible. It describes the same transcendent reality using tangible metaphors so that ordinary people can understand and appreciate it. Below is an example of a description of the Pure Land taken from the Smaller Sutra, Chapter 3.


“In the ponds are lotuses as large as chariot-wheels -- the blue ones radiating a blue light, the yellow a yellow light, the red a red light and the white ones a white light. They are marvelous and beautiful, fragrant and pure…”


Here, the sutra explains reality-as-it-is, using beautifully poetic words such as, “blue ones radiating a blue light, the yellow a yellow light…” This symbolic language gives a handle to what is the non-conceptual ultimate dimension, and also points to how the awakened mind sees the ultimate dimension shining through the forms of the ordinary world. A famous Zen master once answered a question on what is Zen by saying, ‘when I walk, I just walk, when I sit, I just sit, when I eat, I just eat.’ This answer is quite similar to the above description taken from the Smaller Sutra. Another Buddhist teacher, Ichitaro, also spiritualized everyday objects when he wrote, “The Land of Bliss is found everywhere. On a vegetable leaf. On a blade of grass, On a sardine. Without saying it is good or bad, if you sense the working of Amida in and on each thing, this is the truth…”


Inconceivable Light


The Pure Land is the realm of the living dharmakaya (ultimate dimension), expressed as Amida Buddha. The word Amida is derived from the Sanskrit term, Amitabha, which means “Immeasurable Light.  Dr. Taitetsu Unno in his modern classic book Shin Buddhism explains, “The principal characteristic of Immeasurable Light is that it takes in foolish beings of blind passions without judgment or hesitation and transforms them into awakened beings with wisdom.” It can be said that the Pure Land is the body or the natural environment while Amida is the personality or active agent helping deluded and suffering beings awaken to peace, love and compassion, which is their own endowed true nature (body). Shinran described it as such,


“The Buddha is the Tathagata of Inconceivable Light and the Pure Land is the realm of Inconceivable Light.”


Here the word “Inconceivable” refers to the incomprehensibility of this ultimate dimension for human beings to understand. Furthermore, the description of “Light” is important because it demonstrates that the transcendent reality is akin to pure awareness that emits its presence in the form of light. This awareness is synonymous with the Buddha’s wisdom. Not only do Amida and the Pure Land emit Light, they are literally the Light and are both one in the same. The environment of Pure Land and person of Amida merge into a boundless wisdom pervading everywhere. Hisao Inagaki in his Threefold Pure Land Sutra explains further,


“It is the wisdom that illumines everything and reveals its ultimate reality. It is also boundless Compassion, for it embraces all living beings and awakens them to Enlightenment.”


Pure Land is Here and Now


It was once thought that the Pure Land existed far off in the Western sky and still there might be some older Pure Land sects who believe in this error. This belief originated from the Pure Land sutras themselves. For instance, the Smaller Sutra states that it is located, “millions of Buddha-lands away from here to the west.” However, this is just a metaphor telling us that the Pure Land is a higher realm, more subtle and wonderful than we can imagine. Clearly explaining the location and nature of the Pure Land, the famous 20th century Zen master, D.T. Suzuki wrote,


“The Pure Land is not millions and millions of miles away in the west, it is right here and those who have eyes can see it around them. And Amida is not presiding over any ethereal paradise but his Pure Land is this dirty Earth itself. Being in the Pure Land is to discover the Pure Land within ourselves. Amida is our inmost self, and when that inmost self is revealed, we are born into the Pure Land. Nothing awakens us into religious consciousness like suffering.”


He further clarifies the location of the Pure Land by stating that, “We don’t go out of this world in order to be born into the Pure Land, but we carry the Pure Land. Being born in the Pure Land means discovering the Pure Land with ourselves…My conclusion is that Amida Infinite (wisdom and compassion) is our inner-self and when that inner-most self is found, we are born in the Pure Land.”


Pure Land and the After Life


It is said that shinjin, as the experience of awakening, is not full and complete enlightenment because while we are alive in our bodies we are still under the control of some  of its natural impulses, though diminished or hardly noticeable, that can cause suffering and anguish etc.  Nevertheless, the experience of shinjin, assures us of supreme enlightenment or Buddhahood at the moment of the death of our physical bodies. Upon death, one is reborn in the Pure Land where enlightenment is instantly realized. As mentioned above, the Pure Land is synonymous with Nirvana, the ultimate dimension. This is certainly not the end of the process, because the new enlightened being, thus immediately returns to this suffering world or dimension as part of the ongoing working of Great Compassion to lead all sentient beings to liberation. The 20th century Shin Buddhist pioneer, Rev. Hozen Seki eloquently wrote about death and the Pure Land by saying,


“Death is not destruction, annihilation or disappearance. Rather it is freedom we experience at death – perfect, total freedom, freedom to go on and it is liberation from suffering.


I am often reminded of the fact that the sutras put the Pure Land in the west. When the sun sets in the west, this is likened to death. But in the morning after its seemingly total disappearance, the sun appears again. So it always like that – it goes away and comes back.


And so it is with the Pure Land: all who go there keep coming back manifesting in every possible way for the benefit of others – so that really there is nobody in the Pure Land.”


Our Beliefs, Practices and Experiences

Copyright 2006. G.R. Lewis, All Rights Reserved

The author grants permission to copy this document for personal uses only.