This came up in today’s Dharma Talk at the ol’ Temple today, and I wanted to share some thoughts on this with folks. People who first encounter Pure Land Buddhism in general are often put off by the fantastic imagery used in describing the Pure Land. It sounds like a paradise realm for small-minded followers who don’t put in the effort to attain Enlightenment themselves. Take for example this excerpt from Rev. Inagaki’s excellent translation of the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life:
 Again, seven-jewelled trees completely fill that land. There are some made of gold, some of silver, and others made of beryl, crystal, coral, ruby or agate. There are also trees made of two to seven kinds of jewels.
The descriptions of jewelled trees, having any kind of food you want, and so on, all sound just too fantastic to be true. Even Pure Land Buddhists I know at the temple get discouraged when they see this, and wonder if it’s all fake or just someone’s fancy.
Having been doing a lot of reading lately, I noticed this excerpt from Chapter 6 of the Lotus Sutra, with Watson’s excellent translation. After the Buddha Shakyamuni bestows his prophecy to Mahakashyapa, he describes the “Buddha-realm” Mahakashyapa will have after attaining Buddha-hood:
His realm will be majestically adorned, free of defilement or evil, shards or rubble, thorns or briers, or the unclean refuse of latrines. The land will be level and smooth, without high places or sags, pits or knolls. The ground will be of lapis lazuli, with rows of jeweled trees and ropes of gold to mark the boundaries of the roads.
It’s interesting to note that these passages are very similar. It seems that this description of a Buddha-realm as being adorned with jewels and pleasant things is a common literary device for the composers of the Mahayana sutras.
Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that The Pali Canon often “recycles” certain stock phrases as well, so it’s not just a Mahayana thing.
I think part of this is that when sutras were first committed to memory by the early followers, they had to be heavily edited and rearranged for easier memorization. So, every sutra you ever read always sounds stilted and stylized; it’s probably the only way the early Buddhists could keep track of voluminous sutras in their minds.
In any case, having noticed this a while back, I have had to ask myself “what can I take away from this as a Buddhist?” A literary device, once you notice it, kind of loses it’s meaning. However, having had time to think about this, like Shinran, I believe that the Pure Land really is nothing but Nirvana itself. Not a geographic place, but Nirvana plain and simple.
Once, while listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 10-lecture series on Buddhism, his explanation of Nibbana in the Pali Canon sounded very much like another state of existence, not annihilation. He used terms like “deathless” and “blissful”, which if you carefully analyze, relate to Amida as the Buddha of “Infinite Life” (i.e. deathless) and the realm of the Pure Land which is also described as blissful.
Also, in the Larger Sutra, there are a lot of references to people hearing the Dharma in the breeze, in the singing of birds, etc. I think this is pretty noteworthy, and shows that the Pure Land is not a paradise in the Christian sense, but a state of profound understanding:
One can hear whatever sound one wishes. For example, some hear the sound ‘Buddha,’ some hear the sound ‘Dharma,’ some ‘Sangha,’ others hear ‘tranquillity,’ ’emptiness and non-self,’ ‘great compassion,’ ‘paramita,’ ‘ten powers,’ ‘fearlessness,’ ‘special qualities,’ ‘supernatural powers,’ ‘non-activity,’ ‘neither arising nor perishing,’ ‘insight into the non-arising of all dharmas,’ and so on until the various sounds of the wonderful Dharma, such as ‘the sprinkling of nectar upon the head of a bodhisattva,’ are heard. As one hears those sounds, one attains immeasurable joy and accords with the principles of purity, absence of desires, extinction, and reality.
So, when I ponder the Pure Land Sutras, I think they’re telling us something far more profound than that the Pure Land is some kind of paradise. I am also reminded of the words of Shinran in the Tannishō, section IV:
The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.
The Pure Land is not a terminal place to live out one’s pleasures; it’s a state of reality where we become something far greater, so that we can help others achieve peace and liberation.