What and where is the Pure Land and when do we go there?


I am often asked how I understand Shinran Shonin‘s language describing the location of the ‘Pure Land’ and the time of our arrival therein. This question, though often asked reflexively, goes straight to the heart of BuddhaDharma: the goal, means and end of Dharmic realization.

After humble contemplation on Amida‘s Light and Life (Wisdom and Compassion), and sincere reflection upon the words of the Shonin, of itself the conclusion arises that the goal, means and end of Dharmic realization is One, that only the ‘Great Practice’ that is ‘given’ to us by Amida (i.e. not the result of calculative design) is the cause for the realization of this One thing, that said, realization occurs beyond notions of temporal or atemporal, and though our entrance into the ‘Pure Land’ is indeed dependent upon and consequent to our ‘death’, this is not to say that such ‘death’ is necessarily that of our physical body.

Shinran was quite clear regarding the fundamental Shin realization that ‘Great Practice’ is ‘given’ by Amida and is not dependent upon our calculative designs or acts. This ‘given’ aspect of ‘practice’ is precisely what makes it ‘Great’. It is this One Vehicle (Ekayana – a.k.a. the Buddha Vehicle), this Great Vehicle (Mahayana – the term is not here used in the sense of being opposed to the disingenuously so-called Hinayana) of Compassion that ferries us across the ocean of birth and death (samsara) despite the weight of our karmic fetters. He is also quite clear that ‘Great Mind’, which is both the source and end of ‘Great Practice’ is the ‘Mind’ of Amida (which is to say Dharmakaya-Tathata). He also states with great clarity that the ‘Mind’ of Amida is the source of the virtues adorning the Pure Land (i.e. Sukhavati, the ‘Land of Bliss’).

When foolish beings possessed of blind passions, the multitudes caught in birth-and-death and defiled by evil karma, realize the mind and practice that Amida directs to them for their going forth, they immediately join the truly settled of the Mahayana. Because they dwell among the truly settled, they necessarily attain Nirvana. To necessarily attain Nirvana is Eternal Bliss. Eternal Bliss is ultimate tranquility. Tranquility is supreme Nirvana. Supreme Nirvana is the Uncreated Dharma-Body. The Uncreated Dharma-Body is True Reality. True Reality is Dharma-Nature. Dharma-Nature is Suchness. Suchness is Oneness. Amida Tathagata comes forth from Suchness and manifests various bodies—fulfilled, accommodated, and transformed.

Shinran was equally precise in stating that the ‘Pure Land’ is not to be understood as merely one location among others in space or time but rather that it transcends any and all characteristics applied to it by the calculative mind.

Contemplating the features of that (Pure) Land, I see that it transcends the three realms.

These ‘three realms’ (of form, formlessness, and desire) constitute the totality of everything with or without form, within or without time, within finite or infinite space. That which transcends the ‘three realms’ is thus inconceivable and indescribable. The ‘Pure Land’—as sphere of ultimate truth or reality—signifies the realization of the virtues of Amida (as Dharmakaya).

So, when does Shinran indicate that we attain rebirth in the ‘Pure Land’? In several places the Shonin indicates that it is after ‘death’. But it is not clear what the nature of this death may be: that is, whether it is the death of the physical body, or the death of our illusory sense of being a unique, discrete, autonomous ‘self’ with all the karmic fetters such an illusion entails.

Banduprabha, at the close of his text, Buddhabhumiupadesa or “Interpretation of the Buddha Land” – being a commentary on the Buddhabumi-Sutra) or “Scripture on the Buddha Land”, states, in regard to the concluding passage of the Sutra:

This (the concluding passage of the “Scripture on the Buddha Land”) explains that, upon hearing the teaching (as recorded in the sutra), the multitudinous assembly relied upon its teaching and received it in faith. Drawn on by the compassionate vow of the Buddha’s pure consciousness and tranformed by the enabling power of the Buddha’s words, the good roots in their minds matured and became manifest as described in the sutra. This means that upon hearing the Buddha’s words, they all ‘elicited great joy, received it in faith, and upheld it in practice.’ All those word-hearers…heard these words while each remained in their own place either in the land of enjoyment, or in the land of transformation. Although what was heard was the same in each case, what was seen was different. There is no incompatibility in this. Those above saw (that which) those below (saw), while those below did not see (that which) those above (saw) – yet each realized benefit and happiness.

So, we realize or receive the true and real benefit of the inconceivable merit and virtues of Amida (as Dharmakaya) whenever and wherever we are and whatever our state may be, when through hearing the Word/Name of the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life we receive the name, respond to it with joyful faith and thus attain Shinjin (the ‘Mind of True Entrusting’).

In the Sukhavativyuha Sutra (i.e. the “Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life”) it is declared:

All sentient beings, as they hear the Name, realize even one thought moment of shinjin and joy, which is directed to them from Amida‘s sincere mind, and aspiring to be reborn in that land, they then attain birth and dwell in the stage of non-retrogression.

Only with this realization can Shinran Shonin with such conviction and grace interpret the key terms from his reading of the penultimate clause in this manner:

…then (soku) means immediately, without any time elapsing, without a day passing. Soku also means to ascend to and become established in a certain rank.

So, ‘death’ and ‘birth’ are not only and necessarily the death of our physical body and subsequent birth in a post-mortem Pure Land, but may also be understood to refer to the ‘death’ of our illusory sense of being a unique, discrete, autonomous ‘self’ capable of doing ‘good’ through our own calculative designs and feeble efforts, and subsequent ‘birth’ of our becoming established in a new rank or order of consciousness and being which is no longer a life lived for and from our self-nature.

[There is also an extant anecdote regarding a debate which occurred between Zenshin (Shinran) and Zenne-Bo with Genku (Honen Shonin) presiding and interpreting. The entire debate was over whether “birth is achieved without bodily loss” (Shinran‘s position), or whether “it is only through bodily loss that birth is possible,” Zenne-Bo‘s Position. This is a clear indication about Shinran’s position on the matter. – from The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting, pg 26.]

NOTE – Attainment of birth without bodily loss should not be confused with attainment of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi (complete perfect enlightenment) or buddhatva (Buddhahood). Learn More.

Namu Amida Butsu

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