Normally when we talk about the Pure Land of a Buddha, we usually refer to Amida Buddha and his Western Pure Land, or perhaps the Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land to the East, or even the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s Pure Land to the south at Mount Potalaka. But while reading Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, it is revealed that Shakyamuni Buddha has a Pure Land as well, and you may be surprised to see where it is.
Chapter 16 is one of the most important, but also controversial teachings of the Lotus Sutra, because in this chapter the Buddha states that he had in fact been born and enlightened countless, almost infinite eons ago, probably before our Universe even existed, and has been striving endlessly to teach and liberate beings. The audience is almost incredulous because they knew the Buddha as Siddhartha the prince in India, but now he states that he only appeared to be born as a prince and live for 80 years. How can this be?
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s excellent commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, he states that this chapter deals with the Buddha on the ultimate level, the archetypal Buddha. This is not the physical, historical Buddha we know, but the Dharma itself, which has always existed and will continue to exist, educating and liberating all beings.
This timeless, eternal Buddha exists at all times even when we cannot see it, but its existence means that we need not depend on the physical, historical Buddha so much. This is a great teaching of reassurance in other words. In Chapter 17, the Buddha states:
If any good son or good daughter, hearing of my declaration of the duration of my lifetime, believes and discerns it in his inmost heart, such a one will see the Buddha always on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa (Vulture Peak) surrounded by a host of great bodhisattvas and śravakas [disciples], and preaching the Law [the Dharma].
So the Buddha is telling everyone to have no fear after the Buddha is gone. If one takes this teaching to heart, then they can always see the Buddha on Vulture Peak, a place where the Buddha had frequently dwelt, because where one sees the truth, they see the Buddha. In the Pali Canon, in the Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87), the Buddha assures a disciple who is very ill and may not be able to see the Buddha again saying:
“Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body [of mine]? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.”
So this teaching is not unique to the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha is the Dharma, the Dharma is the Buddha. So when one takes refuge in the Dharma and has confidence in the Buddha, it is as if the Buddha is right there with you as teacher and friend.
The next lines in Chapter 17 of the Lotus Sutra continue:
…and he will see this sahā-world [our world of defilement] whose land is lapis lazuli, plain and level, its eight roads marked off with jambūnada gold, lined with jewel trees…
It sounds like a description of the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, but Shakyamuni is speaking of this world of ours here and now. When one has such confidence in the Dharma, through mindfulness and joy, this world, in spite of its suffering becomes a Pure Land to us.
Back in chapter 16, the Buddha speaks again in verse:
…I am always on the Divine Vulture Peak
And in every other dwelling place.
Tranquil is this realm of mine,
Ever filled with heavenly beings,
parks, and many palaces
with every kind of gem adorned,
Precious trees full of blossoms and fruits,
Where all creatures take their pleasure;
My Pure Land will never be destroyed,
yet all view it as being burned up,
and grief and horror and distress
fill them all like this.
All those sinful creatures,
by reason of evil karma,
throughout the asaṃkhyeya kalpas [many eons]
hear not the name of the Precious Three [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha].
So fear not in your practice as a Buddhist, however great or small. The Dharma will never die, and all beings will become great bodhisattvas and Buddhas in time. 🙂