QUESTION: What is the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha?
SHORT ANSWER: Being in the presence of that Buddha.
LONGER ANSWER: A Buddha land or Buddha field (buddha-kshetra) can be thought of somewhat like the field around a magnet. A Buddha has influence. Buddhism is transmitted. The popular idea these days is do-it-yourself by your own power, but Buddhism traditionally does not really work like that. It passes from person to person. It is by being in the presence that one absorbs wisdom and compassion. It rubs off. It is like Scotch mist - if you walk in it you gradually get soaked. So the best thing one can do is to be in the presence of the most enlightened person you can find or know about as intensely as possible for as much time as possible. Enlightenment is born of proximity and openness. Hence the ideal is to be as close as possible to Buddha. So Buddhists seek teachers and hope and pray that, when they die and are reborn they will be born in the presence of a Buddha. There is nowhere better.
Thus, all Buddhas have Pure Lands. Amitabha has become popular because he is characterised as the Buddha who is all accepting. According to his vows, all you need to do is cry out to him. So choosing Amitabha is an act of modesty. It is to accept that this is not a matter of one’s personal merit, but purely the grace of the enlightened one. Even I am accepted - how wonderful! Thus Queen Vaidehi had a vision of all the pure lands of thousands of Buddhas and chose that of Amitabha. As a queen she had not always led the most virtuous life, so Amitabha’s was definitely the door to knock at.
It is said that Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha is festooned with jewels. In other words, it is radiant. People who are spiritually advanced shine. There is a kind of radiance. Everything seems clearer, crisper, brighter. When you die there is a light. It is love. It is life stripped of dross. The pure light of love comes to meet us. If we plunge into it directly we go straight to Amitabha. This is the admonition one gives to the dying.
It is also said that in that land everything happens according to one’s wish. Beware what you wish for! In Buddhism, intention is all-important. Heaven and hell are created by the mind. Amitabha accepts us just as we are, but how are we?! In the presence of a Buddha one gets enlightened faster. This is because one confronts oneself quicker and unavoidably.
Some ask can there be a pure land in this life and others say that pure land is a state of mind. These ideas have some appeal but are not exact. If we have faith in the pure land then here in this saha world we are refugees. All who have taken refuge in Buddha are refugees. As refugees it is natural that we make our life here as much like our true home as we can, so it is natural that pureland Buddhists are socially aware and active in society and also that in their private space they try to create something that reflects the world of Buddha and inspires the visitor. The state of mind that matters is the deep and sincere mind that longs for that land and turns all merit toward it.
Materialistically minded people ask where is Amitabha’s land? Is it in this cosmic system? Is it in this dimension of reality? What does it mean to say it is in the West? These questions highlight that some things are beyond our grasp. We do not understand the full nature of reality. The west was important to oriental Buddhists because they thought of Shakyamuni Buddha as having lived to the west of them, so “the West” signified the origin of Buddhism. Buddhism was a saigyo - a westward journey. West, therefore, means toward the source. To say the whole matter is in the mind and metaphorical is going too far in one direction and to think that the Pure Land is a planet somewhere beyond the Andromeda galaxy is to go too far in the other direction. A degree of mystery remains, thank goodness.
Buddhism is dynamic. It does not indicate a static spiritual state where one could be complacent. There is this bombu being and there is Amitabha Buddha and all the other Buddhas. Between here and there there is a dynamic tension where all existential joy and anguish can be enveloped in rainbow light of love and compassion or can overwhelm us in gloom and despair. When we call out to Amitabha - Namo Amida Bu - we admit our despair and pray for assistance, and we do so with complete confidence that even here, enmeshed in conditions as we are, a saving grace will guide us toward that land. We do not need to fully understand. We do not need to be supremely virtuous. We do not need achievement. We can entrust and all shall be well. This is religious consciousness.