Pure Lands of Buddhas
The English term Pure Land is used as a handy equivalent for the East Asian notion of a purified Buddha-field, a large extent of space made pure and beautiful by the presence of a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
In its specific usage the phrase “the Pure Land” is one such purified world, the Buddha-field of the Buddha Amitābha.
The English term has no Indian antecedent and is a direct translation of Chinese jingtu (pure field, Pure Land), or its Japanese equivalent jodo.
Buddhist cosmology depicts a Universe formed of multiple worlds (loka-dhātu) of varying sizes and characteristics:
Some of these worlds have never had a Buddha, but others are the special fields of practice (kṣetra) of individual Bodhisattvas,
who, upon attaining awakening, will make this territory the field within which they exert their saving power and share their immeasurable merit in their role as perfect Buddhas.
Called Buddha-fields (Buddhakṣetra), these worlds are made beautiful and perfect by the meritorious power of the Buddhas that inhabit them and by the power of that Buddha’s solemn Bodhisattva vows.
However, Buddha-fields may have varying spiritual climates or degrees of perfection, and they are accordingly classified as pure or mixed.
Worlds where the saving action of a Buddha has not yet had its effect, or those that lack a Buddha and are therefore technically not yet Buddha-fields, are sometimes known as impure worlds.
The world we inhabit, known as the Saha World, is considered one such imperfect world, despite the effects of Śākyamuni’s awakening and ministry.
Other worlds have been completely “purified” by various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and are held as models of what a fully purified world, a Pure Land, would be.
As long as a Bodhisattva is still seeking full awakening, his “field” is not a “Pure Land”;
thus, pure or purified denote the result of a long process by which the Bodhisattva transforms a common world into a Paradise or an ideal and marvel-filled world.
This realm is “pure” in the sense that evil, disease, and suffering have been eliminated by the Bodhisattva’s vows and actions;
but it is also said that the field is “adorned” because it is made rich and beautiful with extraordinary marvels and treasures (jewel trees, charming ponds, spiritually uplifting music, etc.).
Such a perfect world is a paradise-like place in which believers hope to be reborn after they die at the end of their present life of suffering.
Those Pure Lands are places of maximum bliss, paradisiacal lands, but they must be distinguished from other Indian notions of heavenly and earthly paradises:
The imagery used to describe Pure Lands is indeed similar to the language used to describe the Heavenly blissful realms of the gods (deva-loka), the royal cities of universal monarchs, and the carefree life in the mythical land of Uttarakuru:
However, unlike a Pure Land, these other paradisiacal realms are not completely free from the pains of Rebirth, nor are they places favourable to the attainment of the final rest of Nirvāṇa.
The conception of a Pure Land is also different from Western notions of paradise:
A Pure Land is not technically a place of pristine innocence before “the Fall,” nor is it the place or time for the souls or resurrected bodies of the blessed to dwell with a creator after death or after the restoration of the original paradise at the end of time.
Pure Lands are worlds parallel to ours, existing at the same time as our world, but perfected for the express purpose of allowing living beings the opportunity to pursue liberation in a favourable environment.
They are places where one can escape from (in fact one will dwell outside of) the 6 Realms of Existence described in Buddhist Cosmology.
Perhaps one point of similarity to some Western conceptions of Heavenly glory is the idea that Pure Lands are communities of Saints,
and that their inhabitants may influence the course of life in our world –
- primarily through the saving power of the Buddha presiding over the Pure Land,
- but also because, as Bodhisattvas, the inhabitants of a Pure Land may descend upon our lowly world or travel outside the Pure Land to worship Buddhas and save Sentient Beings in many faraway universes.
Although the purification of a world system is the work of only one Bodhisattva, and there can be only one Buddha presiding over a Pure Land, the number of Pure Lands in the universe is as great as many times the grains of sand in the Ganges River.
Scriptural texts, however, usually mention only 10 Pure Lands by name, one for each of the main and intermediate points of the compass, and at the zenith and the nadir.
But a more common number of Pure Lands is 4, one for each of the main directions of the compass.
Only a few of these lands seem to have a clear mythology associated with a system of worship and belief:
Among the purified fields associated with specific myths and texts or connected to special practices one must mention above all the Western Pure Land of Buddha Amitābha, called Sukhāvatī (Blissful).
But also of historical significance are the Eastern Pure Land of Akṣobhya, Abhirati (Enchantment), and the Eastern land of Bhaiṣajyaguru, Vaiḍūryanirbhāsa (Shining like Beryl).
Still, the most famous is unquestionably Amitābha’s Sukhāvatī; it is the most common referent of the phrase “the Pure Land” (Chinese, jingtu; Japanese, jodo). Thus, the hope of being reborn in Amitābha’s Pure Land is often synonymous with “Pure Land belief.”
The Buddha Amitābha (Japanese, Amida) obtained this Pure Land as the result of the solemn Vows (in East Asia traditionally counted as 48) he made
when, as the Bodhisattva Dharmakāra, he promised to seek Enlightenment in order to create a paradise where those who heard his name and believed in him could be reborn.
The hope of rebirth in Sukhāvatī and faith in Amitābha’s saving grace, like beliefs and practices associated with other Pure Lands, is firmly grounded in generalized Mahāyāna beliefs:
- such as the Bodhisattva vows, the saving powers of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the theme of Bodhisattvas traveling to visit distant Buddha-fields where they worship myriad Buddhas, and the power of the transfer of merit.
Sukhāvatī is depicted as a paradise, that is, a gardenlike enclosure, the inhabitants of which know nothing but beauty and bliss.
In marvellous gardens and groves, birds and plants preach the Dharma, and the presence of the Buddha Amitābha is accessible to living beings in varying degrees and guarantees the effortless attainment of Nirvāṇa.
Living beings from Impure Lands who hear the name of the Buddha Amitābha and have faith in his Vows will be reborn in his Pure Land immediately after they die in their own world.
In some cases the mythology allows for Pure Lands that are not technically purified worlds –
- thus, Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, transforms the place he inhabits into a Pure Land by virtue of his presence.
Yet his place of dwelling forms part of our world, for it is the heaven of the deities known as Tuṣita, located among the heavenly planes that rise above Mount Meru;
once reborn in this world Maitreya will inhabit a royal city, Ketumatī, that also shares some features with conceptions of the Pure Lands.
East Asian Buddhists have identified other locations in our world as technically Pure Lands:
this is the case, for instance, of the Vulture Peak near Rājagriha, where it is said that Śākyamuni preached the Mahāyāna sūtras, or of Avalokiteśvara mythic island dwelling called Potalaka.
Additionally, the literature mentions many more abstract notions of purified worlds, such as Vairocana’s Lotus Pure Land.
Of course, even Pure Lands presumed to be outside our world are given a concrete, if mythical, location (Sukhāvatī is trillions of worlds away), and they have very concrete topographic and material characteristics (Sukhāvatī is completely flat, Abhirati has mountains).
Yet, this does not preclude metaphoric or atopic understandings of the reality of the Pure Land:
Many Buddhists have rejected or qualified the notion of a distant Pure Land, or at the very least have emphasized the importance of “purifying” or transforming our own world.
Some equate the purification of one’s own mind with the purification of society at large, so that this, our world of suffering and conflict, can or should become the Pure Land.
These views were particularly important in the development of traditions fusing meditation with faith in the Pure Land, but the idea of the Pure Land as a state in this life rather than, or in addition to, being a distant place recurs throughout the history of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Buddhists have argued at times that our world can be a Pure Land, either by virtue of the power of a pure mind (a key concept in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa),
or because the practice of the Dharma can transform a human society into a holy land (a common theme in the mythology of Buddhism generally):
The first of these ideas is not only an analogic understanding of the concept, but also a psychological or epistemological understanding of the ideals of purity, beauty, and perfection.
The second conception has social implications and may overlap with millenarian hopes that have appeared throughout the history of Buddhism.
The idea of a “Pure Land of the mind” pervades the Chan School tradition even among those who do not adopt Pure Land practices.
In his Zazen wasan (Hymn in Praise of Zazen) the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768) states that “the Pure Land is near at hand” for one who practices dhyāna, and that for one who experiences no-mind, “this very world is the Pure Lotus Land.”
In a more systematic way the idea appears in Tiantai theological writings, and even among the Chinese founders of Pure Land theology and practice:
Thus, Shandao (613-681) explains that even while still in this world one is reborn in the Pure Land the moment one recites the nianfo (Japanese, nenbutsu).
Such conceptions may resurface under favourable social conditions,
as may have been the case among the reformers of Buddhism during the Chinese Republican period, or some of the Meiji and Taisho Japanese Pure Land thinkers, and perhaps some others of the same period of rapid modernization and rising nationalistic fervour.
The East Asian concept of the Pure Land does not have an exact equivalent in the Buddhist literatures of Tibet and Southeast Asia:
However, one may speak of a pan-Asian Buddhist belief in a purified and beautified paradise that offers ease of life, freedom from suffering, and the opportunity for a long life dedicated to spiritual pursuits in the presence of a Buddha.
In Tibet this belief is generally firmly set in the scholastic edifice of Mahāyāna and tantric ritual practice, and does not take the independent life that it took in East Asia:
The Pure Land figures prominently in appeals to Amitāyus (Amitābha’s alter ego) for long life, and for a sojourn in the Pure Land as a respite from the sorrows of this world.
Graphic representations of different Pure Lands played an important role in East Asian iconography and religious architecture, such as on the murals at Dunhuang.
Similar motifs appear as Maṇḍalas (Japanese, mandara) or schematic representations of the Pure Land, be it Amitābha’s land, as in the Taima Mandara (based on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Limitless Life Sūtra), or one of the representations of mythic geographies, as in the Kumano Mandara.
The practice of using images of Amitābha for making believers at the moment of their death mindful of their hope of being reborn in his Pure Land also resulted in a variety of representations:
The most famous among these are depictions of Amitābha’s descent with his retinue of Bodhisattvas “coming to meet” and welcome believers who are on their deathbeds.
The idea of a Pure Land plays a symbolic and iconic role that goes well beyond the technical theological sense of the concept.
The concept has a more general manifestation:
a paradisiacal or utopic place in which bliss and Enlightenment are possible through the beneficent agency of a supremely Enlightened and virtuous being, namely a Buddha.
In this broader sense, earthly locations and religious monuments may be seen as equivalents or embodiments of Pure Lands:
For instance, the temple of Byōdō-in in Uji, Japan, represents a pavilion in Amitābha’s Pure Land.
The Potala in Lhasa represents the pure abode of Chenrezig (Avalokiteśvara); the Potala is itself reproduced in the summer palace of the Manchu emperors in Jehol.
A combination of several of these themes is seen in the temple complex of Jōruri-ji, near Nara, Japan, a Shingon temple named after Bhaiṣajyaguru’s Pure Land:
In this complex, 2 buildings arranged around a pond represent the Pure Lands of Amida (Amitābha - to the west) and Yakushi (Bhaiṣajyaguru - to the east);
believers position themselves on the eastern bank of the pond, which represents our impure world, and look across to the Amida temple (iconically representing the Pure Land).
Additionally, specific topographic configurations may be understood as Pure Lands:
This is the case in Japan where, for instance, the peak of Tateyama Mount and the 3 mountains of the Kumano shrine are regarded as literal and ritual Pure Lands.
The great variety of conceptions and representations of the concept need not be interpreted as an overflowing of the narrow boundaries of the more technical conception of a purified Buddha-field.
In earthly or iconic representations the idea of a Pure Land retains its mythic and metaphoric sense of a place made pure and beautiful
by the saving presence of extraordinary holiness, especially the marvellous effects of the sacred presence - in person, icon, or memory - of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.
One may nevertheless summarize the above themes within 5 categories of Pure Land:
(1) Extra-terrestrial Pure Lands of the future, objects of faith and goals of hope for rebirth - today the most common conception of the Pure Land;
(2) Cosmographic Pure Lands, that is, adorned extra-terrestrial fields of the many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the universe;
(3) Topographic Pure Lands, which form part of concrete locations within mythic geographies;
(4) Millenarian, utopic, or ideal Pure Lands requiring a radical transformation of the present world in which we live; and
(5) Metaphoric or psychological Pure Lands, which are summarized by the phrase “a pure mind is the Pure Land.”