Buddhism 102: What is a Pure Land?

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“In that Buddha-land, Shariputra, when soft breezes waft through the rows of jeweled trees and jeweled nets, they produce subtle, wonderful sounds. It is as if a hundred thousand musical instruments were playing together. Everyone who hears the sounds spontaneously becomes mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha…”

–The Amitabha Sutra,
(Translation by Hisao Inagaki for the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research)

In ancient Indian cosmology, the world was an infinite string of continents stretching in all directions, while a massive mountain named Sumeru was the axis in the middle. Some continents were vile and filled with much suffering, while others where a living Bodhisattva dwelt became realms called pure lands, sometimes called “buddha-lands”. The sheer accumulation of countless eons of good virtue and noble efforts by a bodhisattva would gradually transform such lands into a kind of refuge for all beings, devoid of suffering, and peaceful compared to the strife in our world. In many ways, the pure lands came to symbolize Nirvana itself in contrast to the mundane life of conflict, grasping and unease.

However, the emphasis was on pure lands as a refuge for beings on the path toward Enlightenment. Thus, a pure land fundamentally differs from the Western notion of “heaven” both in terms of how it is created, but also for what purpose. A person who was reborn in such a world would be surrounded by a peaceful, safe, and conducive environment that naturally allowed one progress on the path without fear of backsliding or falling into a suffering state. In addition, in a pure land, one could dwell in the presence of a living Buddha as opposed to one that passed away long ago.

The greatest of all pure lands, and the most popular in Mahayana Buddhism is the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, mentioned earlier. It was thought to dwell far, far to the west, out of reach save for the vows of the Buddha himself. However, other Buddhas have pure lands as well. The Medicine Buddha had a pure land far to the east called Lapis [Lazuli] Jewel Land, and even Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva had a Pure Land of his/her own on Mount Potalaka in the seas to the south of India. In Mahayana literature, even Shakyamuni Buddha in his eternal form had a Pure Land on Vulture Peak in India, though it would appear only to those who believed in the Lotus Sutra.

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