QUESTION: I am confused about the location of the Pure Land in time. In some things I read, it seems to be located in the future, after death, when one "goes to" the Pure Land to become fully enlightened (and then returns to serve all sentient beings). It is an afterlife, be it ever so temporary. This is not to deny encounters and foretastes of the ultimate Pure Land here in this life, but it is to say that in its fullness the Pure Land is decidedly future. But in other things I read, the Pure Land seems to have been "demythologized" until it is (only) a state of consciousness here and now. These readings seem to be, at best, agnostic about any form of life after death. Can someone help me sort this out?
SHORT ANSWER: Even physicists do not really understand time.
LONG ANSWER: Yes, you will find different interpretations in different schools of Buddhism and even within schools. The literalist take is that the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha was established ten kalpas ago and is and will continue to be in existence for a long time yet. As Buddhists we hope for a good rebirth and the best rebirth is one in the presence of a Buddha. If we are Amida Buddhists, we hope that that will be Amitabha Buddha. However, all Buddhas have or are in process of creating Pure Lands. Some people - sravakas - are happy to get to a Pure Land and stay there. Others - bodhisattvas - go there for a time but have made vows to return to realms that are not (or not yet) Pure Lands in order to help the salvational work of the Buddhas in those domains of delusion.
There are approaches to Buddhism that take it that the Pure Land is not a domain but rather a state of mind. Imaginary, but imagination that is powerfully effective in one's life, either here in this life or/and in future lives. Of course, from a subjective perspective it might be rather difficult to tell whether a Pure Land that one experiences oneself as being in was real or imaginary and even philosophically it might be difficult to define what these terms mean when what one is talking about are bardo transitions. There are, of course, also plenty of Buddhists who will tell you that this world is just imagination, too.It is possible that the question of whether experience is inside or outside of something called imagination is a complete red herring.
From a modern physics point of view, time seems to be being regarded as a dimension of the universe and, apparently, the best fit idea with current scientific observations is the theory that we live in a cosmos that has eleven dimensions. I don't think any of us really understand what this means and based on the record so far best scientific opinion could still change many times before we get to a point of confidence. Anyway, death is a mystery, but if you take it that the momentum of one's life continues onward then the Buddhistic ideas do seem to me as satisfactory as any even if it is impossible sometimes to sort out how literally to take them, or even what "literally" would mean in this respect.
As we say in Summary of Faith and Practice, you do not need to know all the answers to have your life usefully shaped by the faith.
In my own life, the idea that I perhaps came from some kind of realm of light before birth fits well with childhood experience that I had. The idea that I might go back to such a realm fits well with a near death experience that i had in my twenties. I'm willing to take the stories and descriptions that one finds in the sutras in the manner in which one listens to travellers' tales - as a fair description that might not turn out to be exact in every detail.
As for Pure Land in this life, I think we are not going to make this world into anything close to the Pure Land that is described in the Pureland Sutras, but, that said, if one has confidence that one has been accepted by Amitabha then one feels oneself to already be a citizen of that Land of Bliss and that being so one can hardly avoid involving oneself in acts that tend in the direction of making wherever one is into some reflection of one's true home. Buddhists, therefore, are naturally involved in making this world into a better place in one way or another. This is a practical matter.
The Pureland... Is it the same as Nirwana? Can I compare it with the Christian concept 'heaven'? Or is the Pureland something like 'enlightenment'?
1. Is the Pure Land the same as Nirvana? SHORT ANSWER: No. LONGER ANSWER: Nirvana refers to the unconditioned whereas the Pure Land is a place of beneficent conditions. Nirvana is the ultimate and is the reference point of the enlightened mind, whereas persons who enter the Pure Land are not enlightened. Those in the Pure Land may enter nirvana in the future. Nirvana is timeless, beginningless and endless, whereas a Pure Land is created and has a beginning point.
2. Can I compare it with the Christian concept 'heaven'? SHORT ANSWER; Partly LONGER ANSWER: The Pure Land is a heaven, but the Christian concept is of heaven as a final destination of souls whereas the Pure Land is not a final destination. From the pure Land one either goes on to enter nirvana or one returns to a world of conditions in order to save other sentient beings.
3. Is the Pureland something like 'enlightment'? SHORT ANSWER: No LONGER ANSWER: The Pure Land exists only for the unenlightened. It is deluded beings such as ourselves who are invited to the Pure Land. In the Pure Land we are in proximity to a Buddha. This circumstance might or might not enlighten us.
So the Pureland is not the ultimate destination and Nirwana is. But when I reach the Pure Land, when I finally find this heaven like paradise, why would I, with my foolish bombu nature ever leave the Pure Land to reach Nirwana? (When i am completely happy in the Pureland I have problably no motivation at all to go on.... or to become enlightened.)
Why would I, with my foolish bombu nature ever leave the Pure Land to reach Nirvana?
SHORT ANSWER: Each case might be different
LONGER ANSWER: Some people might find their bombu nature changed by being close to the Buddha. The question seems to assume that one will enter nirvana by one's own choice or effort, but this is not how it works. Under the effect of being close to the Buddha one might enter nirvana, or one might find the impetus to become a bodhisattva and return to the world of tears. Or, one might indeed be content to remain in the Pure land a long time listening to the Dharma and making offerings to other Buddhas. In the Pure Land there are shravakas. This word means listeners - those who enjoy hearing the Dharma. Then there are also bodhisattvas - those inspired to help others. But there are no pratyeka-buddhas - no people who attain nirvana by their own effort. Pratyaka-buddhas do not go to the Pure land.
Thank you for your explanation. It makes also the concept "Pure Land" more clear for me. I understand that the Pureland can help me to finally enter Nirwana. In the Pureland I get help from others (who?) because by my own effort I never will reach Nirwana.
Was Shakyamuni Buddha a pratyeke buddha? Or has he ever been in the Pure Land?
Who helps me in the Pure Land?
ANSWER: The Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the gods, and also the other beings in the Pure Land.
Was Shakyamuni a pratyekabuddha?
ANSWER: No. he was a samyak-sambuddha. These are very rare. Shakyamuni did not become enlightened by his own effort. He made a great effort at ascetic practice but it was when this failed that he became enlightened.
Has he ever been in the Pure Land?
ANSWER: I do not know if he ever was - there is no record of it in the jataka stories. What i said is that before he was born into this world the time when he became Buddha he had been immediately previously in the Tushita Heaven. The Tushita is a heaven of the gods, not a Pure Land of a Buddha.
Namo Amida Bu _/\_
Do you not believe that this world may be a Pure Land in the making? I like to think that we help the Buddhas to establish a presence here and gradually their influence becomes more powerful in inspiring the population. As the merit is accumulated and spreads, the seductions of Samsara become less and the incentive to practice and change becomes more for everyone. In my fantasies this is how a Pure Land is born. Obviously I don't know, and am more likely to believe Dharmavidya's answer but in my experience the Buddha's presence keeps getting stronger which suggests to me that he's already here in a way, which would make it a sort of Pure Land already???!
There is a lot of sense in what you say, Adam, and as Buddhists we are certainly all involved in the work of the Buddhas which is always tending to bring Pure Lands into being, so, in terms of direction, I'm sure you are right. It is just that the time spans and scale we are talking about here are vast and it makes much more spiritual sense not to be too much influenced by the prospect of results. For practical purposes, it is more a matter of virtue being its own reward. As soon as one is siezed y Amida one become part of a huge cosmic process that tends in the direction you are describing and we can have faith in that.
Dear Carol, yes, good thinking. I have tried to throw a bit of light on this in today's daily teaching. It is like the idea that you have to make mistakes in order to learn but you cannot plan to make mistakes, yet you need to be willing to have them happen or you will never do anything and so not learn. But then there is no point in deliberately copying somebody else's mistakes - you have to make your own. At a deep deep level the mistake is always self-conceit but that can take innumerable forms. The form it took for Gotama and the form it took for Nagarjuna were different. Rather than, "Maybe other power is needed to bring us to the door, yet we still choose to walk through it" it is probably more a case of us stumbling upon the door, having been given a shove by some (to us seemingly) adventitious encounter that knocked us off balance. Bumping against the door, other power swings it open and we fall through. The Western debate about free will and determinism assumes that those are the only two options, but most things in life happen in ways that are not fully accounted for by one plus the other.