复次舍利弗！彼国常有种种奇妙杂色之鸟，白鹤、孔雀、鹦鹉、舍利、迦陵频伽、共命之鸟。是诸众鸟，昼夜六时，出和雅音，其音演畅五根、五力、七菩提分、八圣道分，如是等法。其土众生，闻是音已，皆悉念佛、念法、念僧。[Shariputra, furthermore – 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. When the sentient beings in this land hear the voices of the birds, they are mindful of the Buddhas, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the Sangha.
This verse describes the presence of magical birds in Sukhavati (Amitabha’s Pureland) These beautiful birds are wonderful to behold and their calls also expound the Dharma to the listeners. Again, the sutra quoted examples from the 37 limbs of enlightenment.
This is very important because it provides us the framework for the practice. Personally, the chanting of Amitabha’s name is just like chanting a mantra. It is important for us to internalize this practice; just like the various instructions inside 37 limbs of enlightenment.
Our Buddhist practice is unlike other religions. We do not worship a God-like figure to obtain entrance into heaven. Likewise, chanting Amitabha’s name is not a form of worship. It is a form of meditation for us to develop “Stillness of mind” or “Jhana”. Then in accordance with the 37 limbs of Enlightenment, we proceed with Vipassana to develop wisdom. Wisdom means realizing emptiness.
Once we understand this underlying message in the sutra, Pureland practice no longer contradicts Zen Buddhism. Nor does it contradicts Theravada Buddhism.
Another message that is being embedded in this verse is Refuge in the Triple Gems. This topic had been discussed in many of my previous posts. If our understanding of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is incomplete or inaccurate, then we cannot really call ourselves Buddhists.
For a beginner, the Triple Gems are “external” subjects of refuge. As we progress in our practice, we start developing qualities of the Triple Gems ourselves. This can only come about when we internalize our practice and become enlightened.
In another word, we practice Buddhism to become the Triple Gems. Therefore, if we misunderstood what Triple Gems are; then we will be practicing to become fake gems.
舍利弗！汝勿谓此鸟实是罪报所生。所以者何？彼佛国土无三恶道。舍利弗！其佛国土，尚无恶道之名，何况有实。是诸众鸟，皆是阿弥陀佛欲令法音宣流变化所作。[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.
According to Buddhist teachings, there are 3 types of unfortunate realms. The lowest is the Hell Realm, followed by the Hungry Ghost Realm and the Animal Realm. Collectively, they are known as the 3 lower realms. Since birds are animals, it contradicts the description of Sukhavati (Amitabha’s Pure land) as being free from all sufferings.
The next verse is important because it provides a glimpse of enlightened reality. It states that those birds are created by Amitabha Buddha. In that manner, it is fair to extrapolate that the entire Sukhavati is also a creation of Amitabha. It is not a “real” world like ours. It is beyond Samsara.
This is where we witness the skillfulness of Mahayana teachings.
If we can only appreciate or look upon Amitabha as a God-like figure, then the entire Sukhavati thingy is just like another heaven in the pantheon of religions. Although not a Buddhist approach, it nevertheless opens the door of Buddhist practice to many beginners.
If we examine how the respected Theravada monk (Acharn Mun) taught meditation to an isolated mountainous tribe, it becomes apparent that the same technique was being employed. (Skillful means) Since they only understood animalistic shamanism and had mistaken Acharn Mun to be a Tiger Spirit, Acharn Mun played along with and convinced them to practice mantra recitation to “still their mind”. Some of them attained enlightenment subsequently.
Mahayana Buddhism is a compassionate way of bringing Buddhist education to close-minded people. Vajrayana Buddhism (which is a subset of Mahayana Buddhism) brings it a notch higher.
In this case, the concept of Sukhavati as similar to the heavens of a god-like figure has its usefulness in encouraging people to practice. The only catch is that a good teacher is needed to slowly chaperon these beginners into developing the right views and understanding.
On the other hand, if one is steep in Buddhist knowledge, then this sutra has many “hints” embedded inside. For example, the name of Amitabha itself seems to be the description of Dhammakaya (to me). Thus, this verse about Amitabha Buddha magically creating birds to entertain the unenlightened beings can be interpreted as follows: In short, the mind is the forerunner of existence. An unenlightened mind creates Samsara whereas an enlightened one is Nirvana.
If you are enlightened, would you still crave beautiful birds chirping in the air? Similarly for all those previous attractive descriptions of flowers falling from the sky, ponds with golden steps, buildings encrusted with jewels, etc? Surely, we are not practicing to develop a craving for such fine enjoyments right?
I think a wonderful Mahayana Sutra such as this is like a children-friendly picture book. It grabs our attention and teaches us the skills for enlightenment in a very subtle manner. For example, after chanting the following verse in the sutra multiple times, wouldn’t one be curious about its meaning?
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
When a student starts asking about it, that means he is ready to see more meaning to the sutra, other than just some mumbo-jumbo to please Amitabha Buddha for an entrance to Paradise.
May all be well and happy.