The notion of a “Pure Land” is quite pervasive in Chinese Buddhism. So much so that it is difficult not to encounter it in some fashion everyday. You can also find a wide range of meaning, understanding, and words that refer to, in some way, what a “Pure Land” is and how it relates to us and our practice as Buddhists.
This will not be anywhere close to an exhaustive post on this subject, as I am largely ignorant as to its meaning. Plus, there is no way I could spend the time needed to explore this fully; my next chinese class begins tomorrow morning bright and early, and I’m a little 著急 at the moment. So, this will largely be bits and bobs of what has been recently floating through the mind related to how to understand what a Pure Land is, and what our role is in its function.
As a refresher: by far the most common way a Pure Land is talked about and understood is related to the Buddha Amitabha who, according to ancient Indian sutras, made 48 Vows to help us sentient beings awaken to the truth. One of these vows, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is to create a “Pure Land” where sentient beings, who single-mindedly recite his name, can be reborn in conditions extremely favorable for practice and realization. Thus, many practitioners in Chinese Buddhism focus their contemplative life and meditation practice on the recitation of the Buddha’s name with the aspiration to be reborn in Amitabha’s Western Paradise.
It seems there are a number of terms in Chinese that refer to “Pure Land.” The most common is 淨土 jìngtǔ (also written 凈土), which literally means “pure/clean earth/soil.” This is the Chinese term for the Sanskrit sukhāvatī, meaning “Land of Ultimate Bliss,” which is the name of Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land.
Other terms that refer to a Pure Land translate the Sanskrit term buddhakṣetra: 佛剎 fóchà (which can also refer to a Buddhist temple); 佛國 fóguó – the country of the Buddha; and 佛土 fótǔ – Buddha Field – the name of this blog.
As an example of how common and important the teaching of a Pure Land is in Chinese Buddhism, every other evening at Dharma Drum Mountain, the monks chant the Shorter Sukhavati Sutra as part of Evening Service.
Here is a recording of it, and here is a .pdf file of the Chinese characters with pronunciation, an English translation, and Vietnamese pronunciation to follow along. The recording is about 12 minutes long, and picks up speed through the chant. It is very lovely.
Pure Land practice and teaching (verging on a type of Buddhist theology in many ways) has never really appealed to me, nor to many western Buddhists from what I understand (especially the Zen-types). There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the similarities to the mainstream Christian notion of heaven. Other reasons include what appears to be a potentially severe deviation from the basic teaching of the Buddha of relying upon our own practice and the efficacy of cause and effect for liberation, and instead relying on the saving grace of a transcendental Buddha as evidently stressed in Pure Land practice.
However, the teaching and meaning of a Pure Land goes far beyond the simple hope for a better place to live after we die. Far, far beyond, it seems. And, unbeknownst to us, we do have a vital and necessary role in the creation of a Pure Land.
Here is a quote from a relatively new, potent, and compact little book I recently read by Master Sheng-yen that helped open my eyes up to glimpse a bit of the importance of a Pure Land in our practice:
Dhyana, [the Sanskrit word for meditation] from which the term “chan” [zen in Japanese] originates, is a practice emphasized by all three vehicles of Buddhism (sravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva vehicles) of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana; and “pure land” can be said to be the final destination – the final goal – of all Mahayana Buddhists. Why? Because the construction of a pure land, or buddhaksetra, is the goal of all bodhisattvas and buddhas. If you want to deliver sentient beings, then you must establish a pure land. In the process of adorning a constructing a pure land – that is, a pure environment through which sentient beings live – a bodhisattva must deliver sentient beings; and the process of delivering sentient beings is the process of adorning and creating a pure land. In this sense, the place or world through which a bodhisattva carries out his or her bodhisattva work is his pure land.
– from “The Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism”
If you may notice, as I did, that key phrase: “if you want to deliver sentient beings, then you must establish a pure land.” It packs quite a punch, especially as the first of the Four Bodhisattva Vows is our wish to “deliver sentient beings.”
So, my first thought when reading the above was, “Hmmmmm….that’s not exactly what I signed up for…”
However, I’ve had many thoughts just like that before, so I know that they do not need to hinder a person. Besides, as Mahayana Buddhists, we seem to like the near impossible.
So, a Pure Land isn’t someplace we go to, but it is something we create, something we do, where we are – the “now or never” of this post’s title. Through our practice and, most importantly through our vows, we build, adorn, and purify our “pure land,” (a.k.a., our lives), thereby inviting other beings to find rest and respite from the sufferings of samsara.
Ideally, a pure land is free from the causes of suffering. However, since most of use are still only budding (or bumbling) bodhisattvas, the best we may be able to begin with is to not create more suffering for those in our lives. (Mind you, this is still quite a wondrous feat!)
We still have our own suffering to deal with, others have their suffering to deal with; and so we can do our part in building a Pure Land by, at the very least, minimizing the trouble we cause for others. This is one way we can begin to “save” others: saving them from more difficulties than what they already have. We do this through all the other modes of practice: mindfulness, ethical living, careful attention, meditation, development of wisdom, exercise of compassion, the paramitas, etc. Whether we know it our not (and whether we like it or not), we are creating a Pure Land for others as we practice.
Sometimes I think of our attempts at Buddhist practice in a way similar to what is told in the 1984 movie, “The NeverEnding Story.” For those who aren’t familiar with this film, it is about a boy who finds a tantalizingly old and interesting book, hides away in his school attic to read it, only to find out late in the adventure that the story is really about him reading the book. He is creating the story as he reads it; and it is up to him to see it to completion.
In a similar way, with each step, we are creating our own Pure Land, our own awakening, our own liberation, and the awakening of others, as we fumble and grope our way through life.
So, maybe we can think of our Pure Land as “under construction,” which is both more realistic and more reasonable than thinking in grand and near-impossible scales; especially when we often barely know what is going on anyway (I speak for myself only, of course.)
Given this state of being “under construction”, we should then probably have our own version of the ubiquitous “flag man” seen throughout Taipei, letting folks know to slow down when approaching for both our benefit as well as and their’s:
Much more can and should be said about what a Pure Land is (especially what is means to “establish a Pure Land on Earth“), but it is all ready a bit late tonight, and I should really get back to being anxious about class tomorrow.
Thanks for reading.
As always, please take good care.