Pure land BUDDHISM > introduction
The Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism is widely practiced in Asia. Though still in its formative years in the West, its roots extend all the way to ancient India.
We generally think in terms of only one Buddha: Sakyamuni, who lived over 2500 years ago. But, since any sentient being can awaken, and countless numbers have, there are innumerable Buddhas. Sakyamuni Buddha, after his enlightenment, explained that he saw not only his past lifetimes but also how the future would unfold.
Sakyamuni saw people in our time having more afflictions, worries, and wandering thoughts. Our deep-seated bad habits, having become entrenched over thousands of lifetimes, would make liberating ourselves solely by our own efforts almost impossible. He knew that to end one’s problems and to attain lasting happiness, many people would need the help of another Buddha: Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life. Almost all of the teachings by Sakyamuni were the result of his being asked a question. In a departure from the norm, and when the time was right, Sakyamuni initiated the teaching that introduced Amitabha and his pure land. This spontaneous teaching by Sakyamuni is what makes this teaching so special.
In this teaching, Sakyamuni recounted how the bodhisattva Dharmakara, having witnessed the suffering of sentient beings, spent five eons studying all the Buddha-lands. Dharmakara then made forty-eight vows, the fulfillment of which would create the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. He declared that he would not attain Buddhahood unless his vows for a perfect pure land, where all beings would advance along the Buddhist path and never again fall back into suffering, were accomplished. Once these vows were accomplished, Dharmakara Bodhisattva became Amitabha Buddha. He is now speaking the Dharma in his pure land and helping all who are truly sincere in their vows to be born there.
With help from Amitabha, we do not have to rely solely on ourselves to attain enlightenment as we would with other methods. In Pure Land Buddhism, we rely on the compassionate Buddhas and bodhisattvas to help us. Thus, reliance on self and on another are combined as we request by way of our mindful chanting that Amitabha Buddha, through the strength of his vows, helps us to be born in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss as we breathe our last breath in our present body.
Amitabha also vowed that once we attain this rebirth, we will always progress in our practice and learning. We will be able to continue our practice in the Pure Land, or, when we choose, return to this and other worlds to help others, without being affected by unfavorable environments or our former bad habits. If we wish, we will be able to do this even before we attain supreme enlightenment.
Due to Amitabha Buddha’s merits and virtues, and the goodness of all the beings there, the Pure Land has innumerable wonders and advantages, all of which arise from the great vows, deeds, and purity of all the beings there. Through his vows, Amitabha helps all beings create the causes to plant the roots of goodness. With his deeds, he creates the conditions for beings to accumulate merits. With his purity, he has created a perfect land—one that is free from pollution, anger, and intolerance. It is a land of peace and serenity. It is a world of equality, joy, and beauty. In comparison, our world is one of delusion and suffering, filled with worry and anxiety.
For countless people, Pure Land practice is the most suitable for several reasons. First, it is relatively easy to practice in almost any environment: alone, with other practitioners, or even amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Second, there are no difficult entry-level criteria. Even if one’s abilities and knowledge are modest, with belief, vows, and practice, we will be born in the Pure Land. Belief means that we need to believe in the Buddhas and their teachings, and in causality. We need to believe in ourselves and that we have the same true nature as a Buddha. We need to believe that by living a moral life and being mindful of Amitabha Buddha, we will be born into the Western Pure Land and become a Buddha in one lifetime.
And third, due to the vows of Amitabha, achievement through this method can be attained more quickly, and more easily, than with other practices. We can understand this better through an analogy. We come to a river that we wish to cross. We can swim across but our baggage is very heavy, and the water is treacherously deep.
Alternatively, we can get on a boat that will quickly and safely take us and our baggage to the other shore. Symbolically, the “other shore” is the achievement of enlightenment. The baggage we carry is our deep-seated bad habits and negative karmas accumulated over uncountable lifetimes, and the boat is Amitabha Buddha’s compassionate will. The ticket to board the boat is belief, the sincere vow to be born in the Pure Land, and practice, which includes leading a moral life and mindfully chanting “Amituofo.”