Description of the Pure Land

The first part of the main body of the sutra has two sections: the first describes the wonders of the Pure Land, and the second describes the wonders of Amitabha.

Now let us look at the first part.  [Buddha says to Shariputra:]

"Why is this land called Ultimate Bliss"?

Next comes the explanation, in two parts: an explanation of the beneficiaries of the Pure Land, and an explanation of what they receive.

It is called "Ultimate Bliss" because the sentient beings in this land are free from the myriad sufferings, and only know every kind of joy.

Sentient beings are the ones who receive [the benefits of the Pure Land]. All sentient beings can be said to have inherent enlightenment. But here we are talking in the language of everyday people, using the lowest to stand for the highest.

In this mundane world of ours, the world called "Endurance", suffering and happiness intermingle. We suffer when we suffer pain, because it harries the body and the mind. When we are happy we soon suffer the pain of disintegration, since happiness does not remain for long. When we are neither suffering nor happy, we still suffer the pain of transiency, since all things are transitory by nature.

The Pure Land is forever removed from these three kinds of suffering. The happiness in the Pure Land is not the same as the happiness in our world, which is only relative to suffering, so it is called ultimate bliss...

Next, Buddha explains what sentient beings experience in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss:

Furthermore, this  land  is  called "Ultimate Bliss" because it is surrounded by seven rings of railings, and seven layers of nets, and seven rows of trees, all made of the four precious jewels.

The seven rings, seven layers, and seven rows represent the seven categories of the components of the Path [the four mindfulnesses, the four right efforts, the four bases of miraculous power, the five roots, the five powers, the seven factors of Enlightenment, and the eightfold path]. The four precious jewels represent the four qualities of enlightenment: that it is eternal, blissful, personal, and pure.

The word "surrounded" stands for the innumerable abodes of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The fact that the surroundings are all made of the four precious jewels indicates that the sentient beings in the Pure Land have their own deep merit, and the fact that these precious things surround them stands for the holy ones who are everywhere in this Land of Ultimate Bliss...

[ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY (after Master Hsuan Hua): The railings represent the precepts (prohibiting evil and preventing error) the netting represents concentration (because one does not enter or emerge from true concentration) and the trees represent wisdom (it you have wisdom, you are said to be tall).]

Next the sutra gives two broad explanations: first, an explanation of what sentient beings receive in the Pure Land, and second a combined explanation of the recipients and what they receive.

The first explanation is also in two sections: a description of where sentient beings are born in the Pure Land, and a summary of the powers of Amitabha Buddha.

Moreover, the Land of Ultimate Bliss has many jewelled ponds filled with the waters of eight virtues. The bottom of each of the ponds is pure golden sand, and the stepped walkways that lead up from all four sides of each of the ponds are made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and crystal. Above the ponds there are towers which are adorned with silver and gold and lapis lazuli and crystal and mother of pearl and red agate. In the ponds there are lotus flowers as big as cart wheels: blue ones shining with blue light, yellow ones shining with yellow light, red ones shining with red light, and white ones shining with white light, each emitting a subtle pure fragrance.[14]

Earlier on the sutra described where sentient beings live in the Pure Land; now it describes where they are born.

The jewel ponds and the things made of gold and silver and so on in the Pure Land are not the same as the earth and stones in our mundane world.

The eight virtues of the water that fills the jewel ponds in the Pure Land are the following: it is pure and clear, unlike the turbid water of our world; it is clear and cool, unlike the water of our world, which is either too cold or too hot; it has a sweet pleasing taste, unlike the water of our world, which has an inferior taste, being either salty or alkaline; it is light and limpid, unlike the heavy water of our world; it is sparkling bright, unlike the murky water of our world; it is peaceful, unlike the turbulent water of our world; it eliminates hunger and thirst, unlike the water of our world which makes us shiver; it always nurtures the capacities of sentient beings, unlike the water of our world which damages their capacities, and can be stagnant and insalubrious, and drown people and so on.

The water in the Pure Land always keeps the jewel ponds perfectly full, unlike the water in our world, which can dry up or overflow. The bottom of the jewel ponds is pure golden sand, unlike the mud and muck on the bottom of ponds in our world. The walkways that lead up from all four sides of each of the ponds are made of precious things, unlike the brick and stone walkways in our world.

The pavilions above the ponds are adorned with silver and gold and crystal and mother of pearl and red agate, unlike the pavilions in our world. These pavilions are dwelling places, and they are also places where teaching assemblies are held.  As soon as a person is reborn in the Pure Land, and comes forth from one of the lotus-wombs in one of the jewel ponds, that person can enter a teaching assembly, see Amitabha Buddha, and hear the Dharma being preached.

The bodies that are born from these lotuses are shining with light, and the lotus-wombs themselves are also shining with light.

The colored lights of the Land of Ultimate Bliss are infinitely varied, and here the sutra just mentions them in brief.

The "subtle pure fragrance" of the lotus flowers is emblematic of their special virtues: they are ethereal, unobstructed, formless, and not sense-objects. Since the lotus-wombs are like this, we can understand what the bodies born from them must be like.

In the next sentence, the sutra sums up the powers of Amitabha Buddha.

The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these merits and adornments.

All the adornments of the dwellings in the Pure Land and the settings in which sentient beings are reborn in the Pure Land are created by the inherently real merits of the great vows and great deeds of Amitabha Buddha. That's why he can adorn all the Four Pure Lands, and embrace all the ordinary people and saints of all the worlds of the past, present, and future, and enable them to be reborn in the Pure Land.

With his great vows, Amitabha creates the causal basis for sentient beings to multiply their good roots, and with his great deeds he creates the conditions for sentient beings to increase their merits. Amitabha enables us to develop faith and vows and to recite the Buddha-name, and from moment to moment achieve these merits. All this is already accomplished: it is not just happening now, nor is it yet to happen.  All the adornments of Amitabha act as an augmenting substance that stimulates the development of all the adornments within the minds of sentient beings. Amitabha in toto merges with sentient beings: all his powers merge with ours. Thus the sutra says that the Pure Land "is complete with all these merits and adornments."

Next the sutra explains the sentient beings in the Pure Land, and what they receive. This section has two parts. First it explains what sentient beings in the Pure Land experience in terms of the five sense-faculties and five sense-objects.  Next it explains this in terms of hearing and sounds.

Again, the first part can be divided in two: the explanation itself, and the summary.  Here is the first passage:

And there is more -- celestial music is constantly playing in this Buddha-land, and the ground is made of tawny gold. Flowers in the shape of heavenly orbs rain down at all hours of the day and night. Every morning the sentient beings of this land decorate their garments with multitudes of wondrous flowers and make offerings to hundreds of billions of Buddhas in other worlds. When it is meal time, they return to their own lands, to eat and circumambulate [the teaching assembly].

Music represents the sense-object sound, the ground represents the sense-object form, the flowers represent the two sense-objects form and scent, food represents the sense-object flavor, decorating garments and making offerings represent the sense-object touch. It is obvious that the sense-faculties of sentient beings [here in the Pure Land] are paired with sense-objects.

The music is "constantly playing", twenty-four hours a day. The ground is made of tawny gold, because Amitabha's Pure Land is a world adorned with precious things, whose basic substance is gold.

The sutra says that flowers rain down at all hours of the day and night. But since both the Pure Land and its inhabitants shine with light, and do not depend on sun and moon for illumination, how can there be a division of day and night? This is just said provisionally to accord with the distinctions we make in our mundane world.

The Sanskrit name for the flowers that rain down in the Pure Land means both "as we wish" and "white flowers". The clothes people in the Pure Land wear are decorated with wondrous flowers.

Making offerings to Buddhas in other worlds symbolizes that through having a true causal basis, we can attain the ultimate fruit, and that the virtues of this ultimate attainment extend everywhere.  Using the language of our mundane world, the sutra speaks of hundreds of billions of Buddhas. The idea is that after we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, it will not be hard for us still to make offerings to Sakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha.  If we are strengthened by the supernatural power of Amitabha, there is no place too far for us to reach.

The time for eating is the morning, so the sutra says the inhabitants of the Pure Land return to their own land when it is time to eat to show their supernatural power of travel. They go to all the worlds in the ten directions without leaving their own land...

This passage shows that in the Pure Land every sound, every sense-object, every moment, and even every step and every snap of the fingers, interpenetrate without obstruction, and are in accord with the three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha] of all the worlds of the ten directions. It also shows that in our mundane world, the defilements and obstructions are so serious that our world is separated off from the Land of Ultimate Bliss, even though it is not really separated from it. When we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, our merit and virtues will be so great that we will be separated from this mundane world called "Endurance", without really being separated from it.

Again, the sutra sums things up:

The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these merits and adornments.

Next the sutra explains what is experienced in the Pure Land in terms of hearing sound. In fact, the Land of Ultimate Bliss encompasses the potential of the Dharmadhatu, (cosmos). All the sense-objects are perfect and wondrous there, and produce all the teachings.

This passage in the sutra is also divided into two parts: a particular explanation, and a general summation. The particular explanation discusses the sounds that transform sentient beings, and the sounds that transform inanimate things.  It tells of the sounds of the birds bringing the benefits of the Dharma, and then briefly answers a question.

Here is the first part:

And there is more still - in this land there are birds of all sorts of wondrous variegated colors: white cranes, peacocks, orioles, myna birds, cuckoos. All these birds bring forth harmonious songs day and night. Their songs communicate such Buddhist teachings as the five roots, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, the eightfold path, as well as other teachings.[15]

When the sentient beings in this land hear the voices of the birds, they are mindful of the Buddhas, mindful of the Dharma  [Buddha's  teachings],  and mindful of the Sangha [Community of Seekers of Enlightenment].

Although all Buddhist methods are subsumed under the thirty-seven Limbs of enlightenment, the potentials and circumstances of sentient beings all differ, and so all different forms of the Buddhist teaching have been devised, some open, some closed, using all sorts of terminology. The Teaching is expressed effectively to all sentient beings according to what they are ready to hear.

This enables those who hear the Teaching to become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It enables them to develop the Bodhi Mind [aspiration for enlightenment for the benefit of self and others], and to put an end to afflictions. They vividly see the inconceivable mercy and the awe-inspiring character of the Buddha, and so they become mindful of the enlightened ones. The joy of the Dharma enters their hearts, and they are filled with the flavor of the Dharma, and so they become mindful of the teaching of enlightenment. They listen to the teaching together, and accept it as a community, and wholeheartedly cultivate realization, and so they become mindful of the community of seekers. [See glossary, "Mindfulness of the Buddhas".]

The three forms of contemplation (on emptiness, on relative reality, and on the mean) and the three objects of contemplation (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) have different aspects but the same essence.

You should use the foregoing brief analysis of the difference among the [thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment] to understand the four levels of the teaching (elementary, common, special, and complete) and the three levels of truth (absolute, relative, and the mean).

In the next passage the sutra briefly answers a question:

Do not think that these birds were born as birds due to karmic retribution for past misdeeds. Why not? In this Buddha-land, the three evil planes of existence (as animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings) do not exist. In this Buddha-land even the names of the evil planes of existence do not exist, much less the realities. All these birds are the creations of Amitabha Buddha, fashioned in order to broadcast the sounds of the Dharma.

It is obvious that the sutra is answering possible objections that might be raised.

Question:  Are birds [as animals] not creatures belonging to one of the evil planes of existence?

The answer is: These birds in the Pure Land are not birds as a result of karmic retribution for having committed evil. They are called birds, but they are all communicating the ultimate merits of the Tathagatas. They can be called "birds of the ultimate", and this is a beautiful appellation conveying their innate virtues, not some pejorative name [connoting creatures born in a low plane of existence].

Question: What does it mean that these birds are fashioned by Amitabha?

The answer is: There are four reasons for this.

[First], ordinary people take delight in these birds and can be taught by them, since this suits their feelings, and makes them happy. [Second], when the birds express the Dharma, they enable their listeners to become virtuous. [Third], by making us realize that we should not think of these birds in a pejorative way, it counteracts our tendency to make arbitrary distinctions. [Fourth], the birds are Amitabha, which lets us awaken to the everywhere-equal nature of the Dharmakaya, which is inherent in everything, and creates everything.

This passage shows us that all the sounds [in the Pure Land], such as the sound of the breeze and the rustling of the trees, as well as everything about the Pure Land environment and the Buddha who presides there, whether a provisional expedient or an absolute reality -- all these things are in their very essence identical to Amitabha Buddha with his Dharma Body, Reward Body, and Emanation Body -- all these things are no different from Amitabha Buddha, who is eternal, blissful, personal, and pure.

In this Buddha-land, there is a slight breeze that stirs the rows of jewel trees and jewel nets, so that they emit subtle wondrous sounds, like hundreds and thousands of melodies playing all at once. All  those  who  hear  these  sounds spontaneously develop the intention to be mindful of the Buddha, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the Sangha.

 [In the Pure Land], both the sentient beings and the inanimate things communicate the wondrous Dharma together, and simultaneously expound the innumerable methods of the elementary, common, specialand complete teachings. They offer explanations to all beings according to their kind, enabling their audiences to become mindful of the Three Jewels -- Buddha [the Enlightened One], Dharma [the Teaching of Enlightenment], and Sangha [the Community of Seekers].

By becoming mindful of Three Jewels, sentient beings benefit from reliable truths. When ordinary people first hear the teaching, their bodies leap with delight: this is the benefit of joy.  When their vital energy makes contact with the Three Jewels, they are sure to be able to develop the Bodhi Mind: this is the benefit of becoming virtuous. Using this to conquer afflictions is the benefit of destroying evil.  Awakening to the Three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha] as one single essence is the benefit of understanding the Supreme Truth.

At this point the sutra sums up the foregoing presentation with the line:

This Buddha-land is complete with all these merits and adornments.

The sutra sums things up again and again so that we can believe with profound faith that all the adornments of the Pure Land are brought into being by the vows and actions of our guide Amitabha, and manifested by his wisdom, and that they are also brought about by our own pure karma, as manifestations of consciousness. The Buddha-mind and the minds of sentient beings are reflections of each other, just as the lights of many lamps both individually reach everywhere and seem to merge into one.  Inner truth as a whole forms phenomena, and phenomena as a whole are merged with inner truth.  Our entire true nature gives rise to genuine religious practice, and genuine religious practice in its entirety lies within our true nature.  This is something we should constantly ponder deeply.

How can anyone talk as if there is another "Pure Land that is Mind Alone" apart from this Pure Land? If you do this you are indulging in empty babbling.

This is the end of the section in the sutra describing the wonders of the Pure Land environment.