Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Nirvanic features of the Pure Land and its inhabitants – commentary on sections 14-21 of the Larger Sutra (part 1)

Amida Buddha and His Pure Land

Why did Shakyamuni spend so much time and effort to describe the wonders of the Pure Land? Why did He offer so many detailed explanations of the jeweled trees and their fruits, the Bodhi tree, the bathing pounds, the monasteries, palaces, pavilions, the flowers with their exquisite aromas, the sounds, and so on? The reason is very simple. Because He wanted us to wish to go there! If you know about a nice resort, you would encourage your friends to visit it, wouldn’t you? It’s the same with the Pure Land! Shakyamuni wants us to go there and He makes a lot of publicity to it. Of course, no one ever makes publicity to something which does not exist, and especially Shakyamuni would never praise and describe in so much detail the Pure Land if that place was not real. Please bear this in mind as it is of extreme importance. By making the efforts to describe the Pure Land, Shakyamuni transmits us a double message:

1) the Pure Land exists; it is a real enlightened place, and
2) you should go there.

The wish to be born in the Pure Land is part of the three requirements of thePrimal Vow, the other two being faith and the Nembutsu of faith. No one can go to a place he thinks it does not exist, so Shakyamuni puts a lot of efforts into convincing us about the existence of the Pure Land.

The many wonders and enlightened manifestations of the Pure Land are explained with words and concepts that are familiar to us here in samsara, like jewels, precious stones, trees, ponds, etc, so that we can have a clue about what awaits us there and which cannot be understood by our limited minds. 
If you are to describe a luxurious car or a plane to a tribesman living in isolation and who has never seen one in his entire life, you would say it is like a chariot or a big bird. Indeed, a car is like a chariot, and a plane is like a big bird, but this does not mean a car is a chariot and a plane is a bird. In the same way, Shakyamuni uses the names of the most beautiful jewels of this world and images of trees, ponds, flowers, etc, to describe the wonders of the Pure Land, but this does not mean that those manifestations are exactly like their samsaric counterparts. The fact that He makes a lot of reference to the wonders of the Pure Land, shows that they really exists, just like when you talk to a savage tribesman about cars and airplanes you are talking about real existing cars and planes, but because your interlocutor is somebody who cannot understand such advanced technology, you can only make comparisons and use images that he is familiar with.
Our minds cannot conceive, at the level we are now, the wonders of the Pure Land, as they are beyond all the things that we know and experienced as samsaric beings, but this does not mean they do not exist.

It is extremely important to realize that Shakyamuni does not speak about the Pure Land in terms of ultimate reality beyond forms, but in descriptive words, and by making a clear distinction between us/our samsaric world and the Pure Land of Enlightenment.  

The Larger Sutra does NOT use the language of the Heart Sutra or other difficult teachings on the self-power path in which the Buddha addresses to people who are already beyond words and forms, or very close to this state. The Larger Sutra is NOT a Dharma Gate of direct entering to ultimate Dharmakaya beyond form, but the Dharma Gate of faith in Amida as a clear individuated Buddha and in His Pure Land as a real enlightened place. On this Dharma Gate, form is used, words are important, the dualistic vision is accepted as normal and simple faith is needed. Practitioners of the Pure Land Dharma Gate (Amida Dharma) must be aware of Shakyamuni’s intent and embrace the dualistic vision of the One who saves (Amida) and those to be saved (us) or the Pure Land of Enlightenment vs Samsara with us wishing to escape the latter by being born into the former. Only after we arrive in the Pure Land where everything is conducive to Enlightenment, we will forever dwell in ultimate Dharmakaya while also manifesting a Sambhogakaya body in that realm, and multiples Nirmanakayas (accommodated/transformed bodies) all over the universe to save all beings.

Next, what do we see when we read the wonderful description of the Pure Land? We see order, beauty, harmony and symmetry:  

“These jewelled trees are in parallel rows, their trunks are evenly spaced, their branches are in level layers, their leaves are symmetrical, their flowers harmonize, and their fruits are well arranged. The brilliant colors of these trees are so luxuriant that it is impossible to see them all. When a fresh breeze wafts through them, exquisite sounds of the pentatonic scales, such as gong
and shang, spontaneously arise and make symphonic music.”

What do we have here in samsara? Chaos and disorder both inside and outside of us. This is because the inner world is karmically reflected in the outside world. Even if we enjoy days of beauty when we go out in the nature and the weather is calm, it can always turn into storm, thunder, flood, etc, and accidents or even death may occur. Today’s beauty can become a nightmare if the weather changes. Extreme cold or extreme heat can kill people, heavy rains with hailstone destroy crops and provoke famine, etc. Also, in other realms it’s even harder than here, especially in the hells where the environment is a constant enemy to those born there and the suffering never stops. Just as samsara with its various planes of existence is the effect or emanation of our personal and collective karma, the Pure Land is the effect of the Enlightenment and Vows of Amida Buddha. Our inner state of imbalance and chaos reflects into our outside world, while the inner state of Amida and the inhabitants of His Pure Land are reflected into the perfect beauty, symmetry, and harmony of that enlightened realm.

For example, what we experience here with the five senses leads to delusion and attachment, and our momentary happiness always ends in dissatisfaction and suffering. We hear, see, touch, taste or smell things, and we want them - our own state of mind depends on having or not having the objects of our desire. However, when the inhabitants of the Pure Land see, hear, touch, smell or taste things belonging to that realm, enlightened states of mind arise. Shakyamuni said:

“When humans and devas of that land see the Bodhi tree, they will attain three insights: first, insight into reality through hearing the sacred sounds; second, insight into reality by being in accord with it; and third, insight into the non-arising of all dharmas.”

The reality mentioned here is the ultimate reality of Dharmakaya or Buddha nature. Those born in the Pure Land have access to this ultimate reality which, in fact, is the essence of the Pure Land. So, beings born there are in accord with this ultimate reality, as the Pure Land and Amida himself accords with ultimate reality. All the forms and manifestations of the Pure Land were produced in accord with ultimate reality and are the effects of Amida’s Vows, while the manifestations of our samsaric state of existence appeared as effects of our own delusions and unenlightened karma. The sacred sounds are first of all the Name of Amida Buddha said in various ways, including and not limited to His Twelve Lights, and are mentioned in order to show that Amida’s Name too, corresponds with ultimate reality and leads beings to it.

“Insight into the non-arising of all dharmas (phenomena)[1] is the spiritual awakening in which one deeply understands that from the perspective of ultimate reality, nothing really arises or perishes. This insight together with the benefit of entering the stage of non-retrogression and other benefits mentioned below can also be achieved by practitioners who are not yet born in the Pure Land on the condition that they hear the Dharma sounds produced by the breeze which wafts through the branches of the Bodhi tree and pervade “all other Buddha-lands in the ten directions” or if they perceive it by other senses:

“When a gentle breeze wafts 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 senses of hearing will remain
clear and sharp and they will not suffer from any pain or sickness. Whether they hear the sounds of the Bodhi tree, see its colors, smell its perfume, taste its flavours, perceive its lights, or conceive of the Dharma in their minds, they all attain profoundly penetrating insight into dharmas and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression. Until they attain Buddhahood, their six sense organs will remain sharp and clear and they will not suffer from any pain or sickness.”

All samsaric worlds and universes are called Buddha-lands in the sense that there is a Buddha there who appeared and taught the Dharma, and so He takes care of that land. Our universe is actually the Land of Shakyamuni Buddha[2], because He appeared here and turned the Wheel of Dharma, so whenever you hear words like “Buddha-lands in the ten directions” you should know it does not refer only to Pure Lands, but also to samsaric universes.

Some practitioners living in the Buddha lands of the ten directions, and who are very close to Enlightenment attain all benefits mentioned above, while we, ordinary beings filled with blind passions, only enter the stage of non-retrogression by entrusting ourselves to the salvific Power of Amida Buddha [3]. In our case, to hear the sounds produced by the breeze which wafts through the branches of the Bodhi tree spreading towards all the Buddha-lands of the ten directions means to receive faith and enter the stage of non-retrogression. We don’t actually hear with our limited ears, but those sacred sounds give rise to faith if we are open enough to Amida. In other advanced Bodhisattvas, still in training but close to Enlightenment, hearing these sacred sounds may give rise to various powers and spiritual achievements besides those mentioned above, but in us, the lowest of the low, it has only the effect of assuring us of birth in the Pure Land (the stage of non-retrogression).

The Bodhi tree of Amida is infinitely more splendid than that of Shakyamuni in this world. It could not be otherwise as the land of Shakyamuni is a samsaric realm, while that of Amida is an enlightened place:

“The Bodhi tree of Buddha Amitayus is four million li in height and five thousand yojanas in circumference at its base. Its branches spread two hundred thousand li in each of the four directions. It is a natural cluster of all kinds of precious stones and is adorned with the kings of jewels, namely, moonbright maṇi-gems and ocean-supporting wheel gems. Everywhere between its twigs hang jeweled ornaments with a thousand million different colors intermingling in various ways, and their innumerable beams shine with the utmost brilliance. The Bodhi tree itself is covered with nets of rare, excellent gems, and on it appear all kinds of ornaments in accordance with one’s wishes.”

[1] When the word “dharma” is used with small “d” it refers to all existence and phenomena in general.
[2] It’s like you are the king or leader of a country, so that country is called yours because you assumed the responsibility for beings living there. If you read chapter six of Shinran’s Kyogyoshinsho  you will see that he quotes extensively from various sutras on how Shakyamuni gave strict instructions like a spiritual ruler or king to various non-human beings to take care of different places and beings living there, especially those who practice the Dharma.
[3]We, ordinary beings who entrust to Amida Buddha also receive ten benefits in this life which I explained in my book The Meaning of Faith and Nembutsu in Jodo Shinsh Buddhism, p. 162 – 207, and which include entering the stage of non-retrogression. 

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