The Pure Land: Its Spiritual Meaning Today
The sacred story spoke about a Pure Land. What is its role in Jodo-Shinshu doctrine?
First of all, what is most important for Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists is to realize Shinjin awareness, which is gained in the present life. A person of Shinjin is not yet fully enlightened or a Buddha in this life, but is assured of enlightenment. Upon death, one is born in the Pure Land where one immediately becomes enlightened. Hence, birth in the Pure Land is equal to enlightenment, nirvana, or Buddhahood.
Then, as an enlightened being one immediately returns to the deluded world to take part in the ongoing activity of Oneness which is directed to leading all beings to enlightenment. Oneness is a moving cycle of compassionate caring like the river water that flows into the ocean and then returns as rain to nourish all living things.
Isn’t Pure Land the same as Paradise as we know it in the West?
Physically the two might be described similarly but there are important differences in what is meant by the different teachings. For example, the Pure Land is the realm of enlightenment where the ultimate goal of all Buddhists, to become a Buddha is fulfilled. On the other hand, Paradise is a realm of leisure and eternal bliss. Upon realizing Buddhahood in the Pure Land, Buddhists move back out to liberate others in the deluded world. Those who go to Paradise do no seem to have that aspiration.
How about when comparing Pure Land with heaven in Christianity?
Christians have a wide range of understanding of what heaven means to them. So, I hesitate to make any quick judgment. I can, however, say that in Christianity there is no doctrine of returning to the deluded world as in the case of Pure Land.
Is there really a Pure Land?
According to our teachers, yes.76 Of course, this is a matter of belief since we can only experience the Pure Land after death. The Pure Land, however, is real for people who have been touched by Amida’s Name in this life. For example, Shinran Shonin wrote:
[Master Shan-tao of China] explains that the heart of the person of Shinjin[-awareness] already and always resides in the Buddha Land (=Pure Land). “Resides” means that the heart of the person of Shinjin is always in the Buddha Land.
(Letters, p 27)
I believe the Pure Land and the Name (as experienced as our deep appreciation of Namo Amida Butsu) are one and the same. They are the two parts of the dynamic Oneness. Pure Land is the transcendent (yonder) part and the Name is the immanent (here and now) part. So, realizing one (Name) builds confidence in the other (Pure Land).
Is the Pure Land a place or a state?
It’s described as a place, but it is really a state.
How is it described as a place?
The Larger Sutra has some wonderful descriptions by Shakyamuni Buddha. Let me cite some:
The Bodhisattva Dharmakara has already attained Buddhahood and is now dwelling in a western Buddha-land, called “Peace and Bliss,” a hundred thousand kotis (billions) of lands away from here… In that Buddha-land, the earth is composed of seven jewels—namely, gold, silver, beryl, coral, amber, agate and ruby which have spontaneously appeared. The land is so vast, spreading boundlessly to the farthest extent, that it is impossible to know its limit. All the rays of light from those jewels intermingle and create manifold reflections, producing a dazzling illumination…
In that land there is no hell; neither are there realms of hungry spirits and animals nor other adverse conditions. Neither do the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter exist. It is always moderate and pleasant, never cold or hot… Again, through its branches and leaves, innumerable exquisite Dharma sounds arise, which spread far and wide, pervading all the other Buddha-lands in the ten directions. Those who hear the sounds attain penetrating insight into dharmas and dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression. Until they attain Buddhahood, their sense of hearing will remain clear and sharp, and they will not suffer from any pain or sickness.77
(Pure Land Sutras, pp. 253-259)
But it’s hard for me to believe in such a fairy tale-like place!
The form (jeweled land, trees, etc.) is not what is important in Buddhism. What is most important is that in the Pure Land, one attains nirvana or Buddhahood, which frees seekers from the cycle of suffering.
Though this nirvana cannot be captured by one single description, our teachers of the past tried to speak of it in ways that would make sense to the audience. The first teachers were talking to people in India over two thousand years ago. They talked about the Pure Land in ways that appealed to the people in that time and place. So, this is only one among many ways to describe nirvana.
If so, what are some other types of descriptions?
Our Shinran Shonin speaks of the Pure Land as the “Land of Immeasurable Light” or the “Land of All-Knowing Wisdom” or that “it is infinite, like space, vast and boundless.” These descriptions are more rational than mythological.
Yes, I feel comfortable with the more rational description.
I am sure that many people would agree with you. We must not, however, feel that the more rational description is truer or better than the mythological.
We tend to look down on myth as primitive and even false; don’t we often use the common phrase “a myth or a fact.” Myths are not false, but are sometimes the best way to talk about important things in life that we cannot make clear by using other forms of language.
If there is no soul in the Buddhist teaching, what goes to the Pure Land?
Of the four traditional forms of birth (womb, egg, moisture, and spontaneous), birth in the Pure Land was explained by past Pure Land masters as one of spontaneous birth (upapaduka-ja). This is another way of saying that birth in the Pure Land is beyond ordinary thought, or lies in the area of mystery. In Jodo-Shinshu, what is most primary is Shinjin awareness that is experienced in this life. A person with that awareness is no longer overly concerned about how one gets to the Pure Land. She is now able to live with the mystery of the “spontaneous birth.”
Secondly, the teaching of no-soul (anatman, which we have earlier translated as non-ego or interdependence) is certainly one of the main Buddhist principles. This, however, should not be taken as an absolute truth for all situations. The Buddha spoke of no-soul or non-ego for people who are poisoned by attachment to themselves and to their opinion because of their belief in a permanent soul. The no-soul doctrine is, thus, an antidote!78
The Buddha also warned that the belief in no-soul or non-ego can become another source of attachment and prevent us from realizing enlightenment. Thus, the doctrine of no-soul is like aspirin given to persons suffering from an acute headache, but the same aspirin will not help, and might even harm, people suffering from severe coughing. Or, it is like corrective eye glasses to help people who are nearsighted, but the same glasses on those with 20-20 eyesight will make their vision worse. This does not, however, mean that Buddha encouraged a belief in a soul doctrine. He ultimately rejected any absolute position.
So, the no-soul doctrine does not contradict the idea that “something” does continue on to Pure Land?
That’s right. We need to see that both teachings (the no-soul and the birth in the Pure Land) share a common Buddhist objective: reducing ego-centeredness and, thereby, suffering. The two teachings are separate path to the same goal. Because we cannot walk on two paths at the same time, each of us needs to choose the path that is most suited to us. In the past, the monks and nuns generally selected the no-soul path, while many lay Buddhists chose the Pure Land path. Whichever path we choose, we must walk that path with total commitment and sincerity. When we do, we will all be less ego-centered and more genuinely happy.
But I still want to know what it is that continues on to Pure Land. If I were a Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist, I would want to know.
Based on our scriptures and masters, I can only repeat what I said before. Matters related to the Pure Land are in the realm of the Buddhas; so ordinary human beings cannot fully understand the details. It is one of spontaneous birth. Most people in our tradition in the past were able to live with that answer.
They did so due, in part, to their ability to accept “mystery,” unlike many of us in the modern period who need to know intellectually. You and I are products of the modern age. In my reading of scriptures and commentaries that go back two thousand years, I am always amazed that I have never seen your particular question asked until we get to the late 19th century. In some sense, we in the modern period have lost the ability to live with the wonder of the unknown. The unknown need not always be tampered with, for there is joy and freedom to be realized in letting go of our need to know the details.
Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists, compared to the earlier Pure Land Buddhists, place much more focus on the experiences of this life and not on the Pure Land. Whereas the earlier Pure Land followers needed the Pure Land as an actual place in order to complete their cultivation, Jodo-Shinshu teaching seeks to realize Shinjin awareness in the present life. The realization of Shinjin awareness, then, assures us full enlightenment immediately upon death. So, we need not undergo training in the Pure Land, which thus plays far less of an important role than in the earlier Pure Land teachings. In Jodo-Shinshu, the Pure Land is non other than nirvana or Oneness. After becoming one with nirvana, we then participate in our efforts to work to enlighten other sentient beings.
Thank you for that. But we do live in the modern period, don’t we?
Yes, we do. So if we must know, we need to realize that whatever answer we give about the afterlife will be a matter of belief. Belief, in my use of the term, cannot be proven and confirmed by what we can all see, hear, smell, taste or touch.
The one answer that I like is the view put forth by a respected contemporary Jodo-Shinshu teacher, Jitsuen Kakehashi. He speaks of inochi, which is best translated “life-flow.”79 This life-flow pervades all things and all beings, including our loved ones and ourselves. This inochi is not only a subjective emotion that we feel, but a reality that constitutes the foundation of all existence. The implication that I draw from Rev. Kakehasi’s insights is that it is this life-flow that transcends the physical body at death or, in the context of our discussion, that which “goes to the Pure Land.”80 I see this process, however, not so much as “going” but more of “joining,” just as the struggling swimmer became one with the immense ocean that all along had existed right beneath him. It is also like a seed connecting its roots with the “ground of being.”
What is most important for us to bear in mind is not to fall into the belief that there is nothing after death. The Buddha rejected such extreme opinion as nihilistic or negativistic. Instead, the teaching about the Pure Land offers a way for us laypersons to realize oneness with true reality without feeling hopeless or fearful about the life after death. In this regard, I am reminded of Keiko Hirano who died of cancer at the age of 39, leaving a mentally and physically disabled daughter named Yukino. Through her long and painful struggle, Mrs. Hirano found solace in the Jodo-Shinshu teachings. The young mother left a letter to her daughter soon before her death:
Yukino-chan, I’ll be waiting for you in the Pure Land. When at the end of your precious life as you become freed from your body, you and I will together become the wind to freely run around the fields and mountains. We shall also be able to shake the tree branches and sing together with the birds. I have a request of you, Yukino-chan; when my death arrives, I want you to smile tenderly as you have always.81
It would behoove all of us to arrive at the same kind of simple but firm conviction about the life to come. Our conviction need not take the same form of a wind; our individual differences will surely lead to other expressions. Some may scoff at her beliefs as fairy tale, but I would rather have her outlook than that of her critic. I would rather be a breeze from the Pure Land than to have no other image than simply becoming ashes or being buried six feet under!
If one does not go to the Pure Land, where does one go?
Such a person will fall into one of two groups. According to the sutras, the first group goes to provisional Pure Lands, such as “Border Land,” “Land of Sloth and Torpor,” and “Womb Palace.” They will all, however, eventually go to the true Pure Land of Amida. These provisional Pure Lands are reserved for those who gain some level of spiritual realization yet still harbor some doubt about the teachings. The second group is comprised of those who have not attained even the realization of the first group. They, therefore, continue to transmigrate in the cycle of births and deaths (samsara)82 until such time as they are transformed by the Dharma. All beings have the potential for liberation through birth in the true Pure Land. Toward this end, Amida’s compassionate activities are tirelessly at work to liberate all beings from samsara.
If one is not a Buddhist, where does one go upon death?
The tradition does not give definite answers to this question.
And I am not capable of speaking about others. I believe, however, that all sincere and dedicated seekers of whatever religious or spiritual paths will realize the goals set forth by their respective traditions.
I heard from my Jodo-Shinshu friend that at her grandmother’s funeral, the priest said she is now in the Pure Land. How would you explain to the family what that means?
I would tell her this: Having become a Buddha, she does not stay there, simply to enjoy eternal peace for herself. She now becomes part of the dynamic Oneness that we can appreciate as the caring force or energy that we experience daily in so many ways.
For many Jodo-Shinshu followers, these caring forces are shown in the many events of their lives: the true concern of friends when we need kind words and a helping hand; the enjoyable and meaningful work that gets us up ready to go every morning; the beauty of the trees cast against a magnificent fall sunset over the distant hills; or the amazement of watching babies whose diapers we once changed grow up into caring, productive adults.
This does not mean that your grandmother literally transforms into your best friends or the tree. It means, instead, that she is part of the unseen embracing Oneness (or Dharma or Life or Truth or Reality) that makes such events and experiences possible at all. So your grandmother is not as far away as you might think.
The Pure Land does not exist out there in the same way that Mars or Jupiter exist somewhere in a specific location in the universe. Instead, it exists on quite a different plane. For Shinran Shonin, while he had faith in the reality which we call the Pure Land, the true nature of the Pure Land could not be fully expressed in words or concepts. This is because the Pure Land is an “existence” that can only be fully appreciated by sharpening our spiritual awareness.
And this awareness can be sharpened by those who take an intuitive and sensitive note of the workings of Amida’s everyday compassion in their lives and of their foolish nature. This realization is a little like falling in love with someone. When one is in love, her life and the world hold greater meaning; she feels more optimistic and happy. For those with such an experience, no words are needed nor are words adequate to do full justice. But this is where the similarities end; for such love is limited and insecure because it hinges on feelings of and for a single human being.
For you to fully appreciate the Pure Land and to feel the connection with your grandmother, you must yourself become a serious seeker. If you do not, the caring forces that nourish and support our lives will be shut out from you.
In Buddhism, what our deceased loved ones are doing or where they have gone is of less importance. What is most important is the question of your own enlightenment (gosho no ichidaiji – “the most important matter which encompasses yet transcends this life”). Without some answers to the questions of your own life and death, no assurances by the priest will satisfy you. There is a lot of truth to the often repeated statement that when you understand yourself, you’ll find true answers about your grandmother.
76 The existence of Pure Land derives from the meditative calm (samadhi) of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. According to the Larger Pure Land Sutra Shakyamuni Buddha entered samadhi before giving the discourse on Amida. The Pure Land is, thus, not a mere concoction of the human mind but rooted in the long and rich Buddhist tradition of samadhi. For further discussion see Pure Land Sutras, pp 13-16.
77 In the earlier Pure Land traditions and most Pure Land schools in the rest of Asia today, those born in the Pure Land generally do not attain enlightenment immediately. They undergo further cultivation. The Jodo-Shinshu doctrine of immediate enlightenment (or Pure Land itself = nirvana) upon death is unique especially to Shinran.
78 For a discussion on the issue of anatman doctrine, see Rahula. What the Buddha Taught, pp. 51-66.
79 Jitsuen Kakehashi, “Bukkyo no seimei-kan” (Buddhist Outlook on Life), in Viharakatsudo (Activities in the Area of Vihara Social Work), (Kyoto: Hongwanji Shuppan, 1993), p. 87. His idea is consistent with classical Indian concepts of bija (seed), santana (stream) and jiva (live-force), all of which were attempts to account for “continuity.”
80 In the Tibetan Phowa practice, a practitioner meditates with the goal of shooting his consciousness up through the top of his head to reach Dewa-chen or Sukhavati Pure Land.
81 Hirano Keiko. My Dear Children, Than You (Kyoto: Hozokan, 1990).
82 Samsara contains three realms: formless, form and desire. The realm of desire is further divided into six realms or destinies: heavenly beings, humans, Asuras (fighting spirits), animals, hungry ghosts, and hellish beings. Pure Lands (including the provisional) are not part of samsara, for birth in the Pure Lands represents liberation that culminates in Buddhahood.