Long Read Part 1: What is a Pure Land? And Why pray to be reborn there?

What is a pure land? And why pray to be reborn there after we die?

First of all we need to know what a Pure Land is and what it means. Eventually we learn that the pure land is nothing other than our true nature. The pure land manifests in the heart when we realise that our true nature is our Buddha nature. So why call this a pure land? Why a place? We are Buddha nature. We are expressions of Buddha nature so why talk about it as if it were a Pure Land? Eventually it’s a matter of seeing this world we are in now as being the Pure Land. Again this would be recognising we are already Buddhas in a Buddha Realm so why pray to be reborn in a Buddha Realm like the Pure Land of Amitabha?  Is this world already Amitabha’s Pure Land – if so it would no longer be this world or would it? What does it mean to say that we are already buddhas or we already have Buddha Nature.

The point is that our personal mandala consists of a world as well as our body. What’s the true nature of our body, speech, mind, heart and world?  When we pray to be born in a Pure Land we’re making a strong aspiration for our personal mandala to be transformed into a Pure Land so that this will happen at the time of death.

We need to think in terms the buddhas who are already enlightened and that it is through the power of their adhistana that our personal mandala can appear as integral to the Mandala of Awakening, the mandala of the buddhas who have already realised the true nature of their body, speech and mind. Their adhistana can draw us to that realisation as if being drawn into a place. In some ways  it’s easier to think that you might be born in a Pure Land than to think you could actually go straight from where you are now to being a Buddha.  People seem to find it quite natural to think that they go somewhere when they die, like heaven or something. In the same way we could go to a pure land when we die. It is as if we go somewhere but of course nothing ever goes anywhere really. But it’s an easier way to think and that’s probably why it’s a popular idea.

Pure Lands and Pranidhanas

As a result of their pranidhanas  [aspirational prayers] bodhisattvas reach a certain stage of the path, they make a strong dedication of all their punya to be born in the land of bodhichitta vajra and then they receive  the prophesy (vyakarana) from the buddhas of when they will become a Buddha and  what their pure land will be like. It corresponds to the strong wishes that the bodhisattvas have made previously. So there’s a whole story involved in what it means to create a Pure Land. When a bodhisattva becomes a fully enlightened buddha they can actually draw beings directly into their pure land, in other words their mandala.  This world is referred to sometimes as being Shakyamuni’s world, but it’s an impure pure land because beings like ourselves who don’t have pure vision are born into it. Then from here we can be drawn into enlightenment from just being here in Shakyamuni’s world or mandala.

So what does it mean to be born in a pure land? In the Tibetan tradition these days most of the time people pray to be born in Amitabha’s pure land, but actually all the bodhisattvas make the same kind of vow as Amitabha made that when beings think of them at the time of death they will be born in their presence, in the mandala of awakening.  They can proceed from there on their path to awakening and emanate back into this world in order to help others.

Does this mean that we can also make pranidhanas to meet people again in Amitabha’s pure land so that once we get there we can look around and find them? I don’t think that’s impossible. But I don’t think you can assume that is actually what is going to happen.  Nonetheless if you made a strong pranidhana that you would meet in the pure land, there’s a good chance that something like that would happen because pranidhanas are accomplished as wished for if they are a pure pranidhana made in the presence of the Buddha. So by making a strong prayer to meet again and again, whether it’s in the pure land or on the path to awakening in some shape or form, this is definitely going to happen at some point. There may be obstructions to it happening quickly but something has been set in motion that will happen. We can make very strong wishes that we will be reunited in order to work together to bring all beings to enlightenment.  We should do this especially in connection with those beings that we have a strong connection with because making wishes like this strengthens the connection and enables us to meet again and again. Often when I’m talking to Tibetans, and they notice we have a strong connection or they notice I have a strong connection with somebody, or something happens where we meet unexpectedly or some auspicious connection happens, they will say, ‘Oh it must be the result of the pranidhanas we’ve made in the past.’ It’s something that comes quickly to their mind. So the way to meet again and again,  is to simply make pranidhanas in that direction making sure that we make good connections that keep us on the path to awakening and help each other to enlightenment in order to bring all beings to enlightenment.

If Buddhism is about realising liberation from samsara for oneself and others through realising the true nature of mind through ethics, understanding and meditation (shila, prajna and samadhi), in other words through making good karma, purifying bad karma, shamatha meditation and vipassana meditation how does this idea of being born in a pure land come into that? Well it may seem a different idea but it’s not really.  As a Buddhist one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in order to be born and maintain one’s existence in the mandala of Awakening.  So its the same idea really –  a pure land is a mandala of Awakening.  It is all the connections that we have with the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and the lineage and dharma companions and teachers and with the dharma itself. Every time we take refuge and make the aspiration to be able to reach Enlightenment for the sake of all beings, we are actually praying to be born in the pure land.

A pure land is a way of speaking that relates to the refuge  in the sense that taking refuge is like going to a place. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition encourages us to not only take refuge in general but particularly to pray to Amitabha to be born in his pure land of Sukavati. The reason given is that it is particularly easy to get there because of the power of his pranidhana. I can’t answer for that. Maybe there’s a special connection there that makes it easier to be born in Amitabha’s pure land but my sense is that where your faith is strongest, that’s where your strongest connection will be.

So if it’s Vajrasattva or if it’s Shakyamuni, or if it’s your own teacher of if it’s actually the dharmakaya itself, I think if that’s what brings your faith into focus most strongly then, to my mind, that’s going to be your best option, rather than trying to develop a sense of connection to something that perhaps isn’t very strong. The important point here whether you are praying to Amitabha or Vajrasattva or whoever, is to not think that they’re different or separate from each other.  Your own teachers, the Buddha Shakyamuni, Amitabha  or whoever all interpenetrate. They’re all intrinsic to each other so it doesn’t really matter which one you call on.

When our loved ones die we would like to think we know they have gone somewhere safe where they are happy and at peace and we hope we can join them there some day.  Is this realistic from a Buddhist point of view?  As Buddhists we can’t really say what’s happened to them except that generally speaking, if they’ve made good karma, connections and pranidhanas themselves and/or we have done so on their behalf then they will actually be able to maintain their connection with the dharma and continue on their path and we will meet again and again and be able to help each other. We have become part of the same mandala or sub-mandala within the Mandala of Awakening so we can work together to bring all beings to awakening.  It is those close connections that are going to be the most powerful, enabling us to carry out our Bodhisattva vow.

Basically we are always going to need a good team around us to help and to work together. So making strong connections in this life and then making strong pranidhanas that that they continue in future lives is a very effective way of being able to help ourselves and others.

Not only do we pray to be born in Sukhavati ourselves but we also pray for other people to be born there too, even if it’s animals or people who have never heard of Amitabha or have no aspiration to be born in his pure land.  Amitabha’s pranidhana was that a person could be be born there even if they’d committed terrible crimes.  Knowing this might give people  more confidence to pray to be born there because people often think they haven’t lead a good enough life to deserve being born there. The point is that in any case, if you took refuge at the time of death, you would be safely on the path to awakening regardless of how much negative karma that you’d made.  So even though we don’t know what specifically happens as a result of praying for someone when they die, we do know that our prayers are sending them in the right direction and making a good connection for them.

You might wonder, how is the whole idea different from the Christian idea that even a sinner can go to heaven if they repent and pray to God on their deathbed.  Christians don’t think that you have to be a realised person or to have practised intensive meditation all your life in order to go to heaven.  It seems that in Buddhism it is the same. You don’t really need to do much more than live a good life and make strong aspirations to be born in a pure land for that to result in a good rebirth. This might seem like more or less the same idea in both cases although the Buddhist pure land idea doesn’t have some of the problems that perhaps the Christian idea of heaven might have. I won’t go into that more here because Christian ideas of heaven vary a lot.  Nonetheless there may be Christians who have an idea of heaven which is exactly like our idea of a pure land.  The point about a Pure Land though is that it links us to the Mandala of Awakening and so enables us to continue our Bodhisattva Path for the sake of all beings.

Pure Lands and Meditation

You might ask the question, if all we need to do is have faith in Amitabha and pray to go to his pure land when we die, why are shamatha and vipashyana stressed so much? Why are we encouraged to spend many hours in meditation in a retreat when we could be spending our time trying to help people in the world more in practical ways?

This again is a valid question and I think that the assumption that the only way to practise Dharma is to be in meditation retreat all the time, is a wrong assumption. I don’t think it necessarily is for some people. Or put it the other way, I think that way of life (meditation and retreat) is maybe only for people who are already karmically primed for it. They’ve really got the right spirit and they’ve reached that point in their path where they can really benefit from spending their whole time in retreat.

Other people can follow the path by working in the world to benefit others and create a situation where people can practise dharma and do retreats and Dharma will pass to the next generation and so on. So I think it’s something that different people are drawn to different ways of following the path. And I think one has to learn to trust that a bit and not to think, one size fits all.

And you might ask, well what’s the difference between bringing the Buddha to mind in the Shakyamuni puja that we do each day, and praying to be born in Amitabha’s pure land? And again I think, as I think I’ve already said, it seems to me that it doesn’t make any difference. It depends on which one you feel most inspired by really.

You might say, well who is Amitabha? We know who Shakyamuni is to us. He brought the Dharma into the world. He’s a historical figure. A tradition has grown out of his teachings. We know what he taught and so on. We belong to a living tradition that stems from him. So in that sense, who is Amitabha? When was he Enlightened? Where did we form a connection with him? Was he a person like Shakyamuni? Does it matter that we don’t know anything about him or is hearing his name enough of a connection? If so what does it mean to just hear someone’s name and for it to form a connection? What is a name? What is the connection between a name and a person?

These are very interesting things to wonder about. There is something quite magical going on about names. Maybe relates to what you get in St John’s gospel, ‘In the beginning was the word.’ What does that mean? I don’t know anything about that text or the implications of the original before it was translated but [in Buddhism] we talk about speech being a very key element in what it is to be a person. In terms of how the pure land teachings go together with the teachings about how it’s important to meditate and to realise the true nature of mind and so on, I think the connection is that meditation and understanding help us develop the right kind of faith.  Our faith right now is quite vague and unstable. We might for a moment think, ‘Oh, I’d like to be born in a pure land,’ but we quickly forget and our faith is not very strong. Whereas if through our meditation we can come to really understand the true nature of our being, mind, heart or reality, then we will have more conviction that it’s possible to be born in a pure land and a better sense of what that actually means and involves.  Aiming to be born in a Pure Land isn’t so different from aiming at mastering shamata and vipashyana.  That’s what you would be linking into by being born into the pure land. So they’re not separate teachings although they may sound very different.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

[You can read part 2 of this feature here]

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