In part 1, this sutra started with an Introduction of where it was taught and who was present in the assembly. Besides human beings, there were also celestial beings. That means the teaching is beneficial to all those supernatural beings as well. Thus, recitation of this sutra can also be directed at unseen beings. (both earth bound and the celestial)
Since this sutra introduced the Paradise (Pure Land) of Amitabha Buddha, it also means that Amitabha’s Paradise is more beneficial than the heavens of those celestial beings.
This series of posts will contain some of my personal interpretations; in addition to interpretations by mainstream Buddhist teachers. Some of my views may be rooted in Theravadin Buddhism. Whereas some views are based on personal understanding and thus, might be wrong. You have to decide if they makes sense to you.
At that time, Buddha said to the Elder Shariputra: “West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called “Ultimate Bliss”.
Buddha started his teachings by informing Shariputra (foremost in wisdom – very familiar with Dharma) about the existence of a world in the west.
The direction West requires a fair bit of explanation; But before we even go into that, we need to recall the spirit of Mahayana Scriptures through the lens of Lotus Sutra.
In Lotus Sutra – parables of the burning house, a father lied to his child in order to trick that child into leaving a burning house. He promised a cartload of non-existing toys outside the house if the child come out of that burning house.
This is known as skillfulness in teaching; whereby a skilled teacher utilizes different method and approach to benefit their students. (The traditional “elders” would flip upon reading such a verse in a sutra because how could it be man? The Buddha prescribed the precept of non-lying to EVERBODY and here you are saying Buddha said, it is okay to lie? Then the modern “Mahayanist” yawned and said, “Yah, if it can save a life, why not?”)
In Theravada teachings, personal karma takes center stage. We have to create our karma for salvation, without much help from Buddha. There is an absence of claims in sutta that promises practitioners (chanters) certain rewards for chanting and propagating the sutta. There is no claim of Buddha appearing to help us fulfill our mundane wishes.
Whereas in the Mahayana teachings, we witness a dramatic departure in approach. The sutra promises their devotees with tangible benefits. For example, good health, beauty, long life, wealth, birthing a son, being born a man, never encountering danger and many other such benefits. It is almost similar to an advertisement that encourages devotional spiritual consumerism (Devoted chanting and propagation of that particular sutra) It seems like “the author” wanted people to spread that particular sutra far and wide? (That is from a scholastic perspective.)
From a practitioners perspective, spreading the sutra far and wide means that we spread wisdom to more people. Bringing happiness to the world. Just a flip of perspective will result in different opinion rating, right?
I think it is healthy to keep the above perspectives at the back of our mind as we explore Mahayana Sutra(s).
Back to the word West.
West of here, past a hundred billion Buddha-lands, there exists a world called “Ultimate Bliss”.
For amateur Buddhist or beginner Buddhist, explanation of this sutta is best done via a literal approach. Without much elaboration. Thus, West is the directional West. We want to practice like Suddhipanthaka (see part 1). Just do it without more thoughts into it.
But modern people with education like to ask why?
If we look at the social context of ancient India and even today. The superstition associated with West is “Death, destruction, failure, inauspiciousness.” If you read Buddha’s biography, He too, decided to meditate facing East (prior to His enlightenment)!
From a cultural context of ancient India, West is so inauspicious because it is associated with death. The setting Sun and Moon. (light in the sky) East is auspicious because it relates to the rising sun and moon. Thus representing birth and creation.
By stating that Amitabha’s Paradise is in the WEST, this sutra actually turn cultural context upside down. In short, one is immediately asked to re-examine one’s greatest fear. DEATH.
The Sutra states that there is a world to the west. “What world?” A magical world? Because the Earth is round, isn’t it? If we continue west, we will simply go one big round and come back to where we start. It is almost like a nasty prank if we were to search for that magical world of Amitabha. We will end up where we started. For those who gets it. The pure land is right here, right now.
But since we are now in the so call space age; perhaps West of Earth? (But Earth is constantly spinning, where is the true west?) Perhaps West of our solar system (that is also spinning)? If we interpret in this manner, then Amitabha’s pure land would become a physical planet? That would not accord with Buddhism.
This is because Buddhism believe there is an end to the cosmos; when all physical formation will be destroyed in the end. However, there are planes of existence that are beyond physical destructions. This is because they are without physical form. Just like the heaven of Non-returner (Theravada system – 3rd stage of enlightenment); It is beyond physical destruction. To try and make some sense out of this, Amitabha’s world must belong to that formless realm too. (To reach the formless realm, we need mind training)
past a hundred billion Buddha-lands
For some people, the idea of death is terrifying and ironically, the idea of rebirth cause some assurance and comfort. Ironic because, with birth, there is death. Thus, the endless sufferings. But for most people; we are terrified of annihilation. Unfortunately, the description of Enlightenment, AKA end of rebirth; sounds exactly like annihilation? (Please note: Enlightenment is not nihilistic too) That is confusing for most people.
For a beginner who had never practiced meditation, that idea of stopping rebirth isn’t very attractive. The idea of being reborn in a Paradise after death is more attractive. And if you wish they would give meditation a chance, what do you do? (Lotus Sutra- Burning house parable) Tada! Buddha’s Pureland.
We all know about the great renunciation right? The first step towards enlightenment is to let go. All Buddha including Shakyamuni Buddha renounce family, social status and such, then ultimately enter Parinirvana. It is therefore illogical to say Buddha creates another world, a perfect world for unenlightened beings. This is because the perfection of a world depends on the perfection of the being.
To make sense of this verse, we will look at it from another perspective. And of course, remember the spirit of Mahayana skillful way of teaching.
For beginners, we teach it literally. This verse describe an infinite distance. It is so far and infinite that it is beyond the comprehension of an unenlightened mind. Thus, if you wish to know where Amitabha’s Pureland is; you need to be enlightened first (Act wise, give your best wise-looking expression and a mysterious smile)
But seriously speaking, the underlying message here is actually STOP ALL CONJECTURE THOUGHTS! It is beyond thought. That is actually a meditative state. Let go of thinking relatively.
From a practitioner’s perspective, our mind drives us towards countless rebirth. Upon enlightenment, rebirth ceases. Our unenlightened mind cause our endless existences in various states of rebirth. Thus, our experience of the various world. Therefore, our wandering thoughts create the “distance / billions of Buddha world” between us and pure land. Still back to the same message. Stop all conjecturing thoughts. Do not wander in past memory or fantasize the future.
Where do water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing? Where are long & short (Distance), coarse & fine, fair & foul, name & form brought to an end?
‘And the answer to that is: Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around: Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing. Here long & short coarse & fine fair & foul name & form are all brought to an end. With the cessation of [the activity of] consciousness each is here brought to an end.'”“Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta” (DN 11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html .
It is important that when we practice Pure Land recitation / mind training, we do not fix our mind chasing after an external physical world that is billions of galaxies away. Instead, we have to appreciate the idea of “beyond conjecture thoughts”. In another word, do not try to fathom the Buddha world with an unenlightened mind. We end up missing the point.
In the past, some teachers had explained Amitabha’s pureland as being in a far away distant galaxies. That was because such explanation appeals to modern people. By explaining in that manner, Buddhism appears scientifically advance because our thousand years old scriptures are talking about distant galaxies (as taught by modern science) Unfortunately, this has an adverse side-effect. If we practice mind training of Amitabha recitation and send our mind grasping at a distant galaxies or “place”, then we create obstacle for samandhi. (we end up fantasizing)
Ultimate Bliss is also another description for the state of enlightenment, But for beginners, we are good to give a fuzzy idea of a “place” of happiness.(Skillful method)
May all be well and happy.
Translated text in English is from http://www.buddhasutra.com/files/amidasutra.htm