Part III - Main Section of the Sutra
The main body of the sutra is divided into three parts. The first presents a full-scale description of the wonders of the Pure Land and of Amitabha in order to arouse our faith. The second makes a special point of urging sentient beings to seek rebirth in the Pure Land, in order to get them to vow to do so. The third teaches Pure Land practitioners to recite the Buddha-name in order to establish their practice.
The essential message of the sutra as a whole is to induce people to develop faith and vows and recite the Buddha-name. Vows and faith are the acts of wisdom, while reciting the Buddha-name is an act of practice. Whether we achieve rebirth in the Pure Land depends entirely on whether or not we have faith and vows. How high we rank in the Pure Land depends entirely on how deeply we recite the Buddha-name. Thus the act of wisdom is the guide and the act of practice is true cultivation: they go together like eyes and feet.
The first part of the main body of the sutra has two sections: the first describes the wonders of the Pure Land and the second describes the wonders of Amitabha.
Now let us look at the first part. Buddha asks Shariputra:
Why is this land called Ultimate Bliss?
Next comes the explanation, in two parts: an explanation of the beneficiaries of the Pure Land and an explanation of what they receive.
It is called "Ultimate Bliss" because the sentient beings in
this land are free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind,
and only know every kind of joy.
Sentient beings are the ones who receive the benefits of the Pure Land. All sentient beings can be said to have inherent enlightenment (Buddha Nature). But here we are talking in the language of everyday people, using the lowest to stand for the highest.
In this mundane world of ours, the world is called "Saha" (Endurance), suffering and happiness intermingle. We suffer when we suffer pain, because it harries the body and the mind. When we are happy we soon suffer the pain of disintegration, since happiness does not remain for long. When we are neither suffering nor happy, we still suffer the pain of transiency, since all things are transitory by nature.
The Pure Land is forever removed from these three kinds of suffering. The happiness in the Pure Land is not the same as the happiness in our world, which is only relative to suffering, so the former is called ultimate bliss...
Next, Buddha explains what sentient beings experience in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss:
Furthermore, this land is called "Ultimate Bliss" because it
is surrounded by seven rings of railings, and seven layers of netting,
and seven rows of trees, all made of the four precious jewels.
The number seven represents the seven categories of the Thirty-seven Limbs of Enlightenment (the four mindfulnesses, the four right efforts, the four bases of miraculous power, the five roots, the five powers, the seven factors of Enlightenment, and the eightfold path). The four precious jewels represent the four qualities of enlightenment: that it is eternal, blissful, personal, and pure.
The word "surrounded" stands for the innumerable abodes of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The fact that the surroundings are all made of the four precious jewels indicates that the sentient beings in the Pure Land have their own deep merit, and the fact that these precious things surround them stands for the holy ones who are everywhere in this Land of Ultimate Bliss...
Next the sutra gives two broad explanations: first, explanation of what sentient beings receive in the Pure Land and second, a combined explanation of the recipients and what they receive.
The first explanation is also in two sections: a description of where sentient beings are born in the Pure Land, and a summary of the powers of Amitabha Buddha.
Moreover, the Land of Ultimate Bliss has ponds of seven jewels
filled with the waters of eight virtues. The bottom of each of the
ponds is pure golden sand, and the stepped walkways that lead up
from all four sides of each of the ponds are made of gold, silver,
lapis lazuli and crystal. Above the ponds there are towers which
are adorned with silver and gold and lapis lazuli and crystal and
mother of pearl, red agate and carnelians. In the ponds there are
lotus flowers as big as cartwheels: blue ones shining with blue
light, yellow ones shining with yellow light, red ones shining with
red light, and white ones shining with white light, each emitting
a subtle pure fragrance.
Earlier on the sutra described where sentient being live in the Pure Land; now it describes where they are born.
The jewel ponds and the things made of gold and silver and so on in the Pure Land are not the same as the earth and stones in our mundane world.
The eight virtues of the water that fills the jewel ponds in the Pure Land are the following: it is pure and clear, unlike the turbid water of our world; it is clear and cool, unlike the water of our world, which is either too cold or too hot; it has a sweet pleasing taste, unlike the water of our world, which has an inferior taste ... it is light and limpid, unlike the heavy water of our world; it is sparkling bright, unlike the murky water of our world; it is peaceful, unlike the turbulent water of our world; it eliminates hunger and thirst, unlike the water of our world which makes us shiver; it always nurtures the capacities of sentient beings, unlike the water of our world ... The water in the Pure Land always keeps the jewel ponds perfectly full, unlike the water in our world, which can dry up or overflow. The bottom of the jewel ponds is pure golden sand, unlike the mud and muck on the bottom of ponds in our world. The walkways ... are made of precious things, unlike the brick and stone walkways in our world.
The pavilions above the ponds are adorned with silver and gold and crystal and mother of pearl and red agate, unlike the pavilions in our world. These pavilions are dwelling places, and they are also places where teaching assemblies are held. As soon as a person is reborn in the Pure Land, and comes forth from one of the lotus-wombs in one of the jewel ponds, that person can enter a teaching assembly, see Amitabha Buddha, and hear the Dharma being preached. The bodies that are born from these lotuses are shining with light, and the lotus- wombs themselves are also shining with light. The colored lights of the Land of Ultimate Bliss are infinitely varied ... The "subtle pure fragrance" of the lotus flowers is emblematic of their special virtues: they are ethereal, unobstructed, formless, and not sense-objects ...
In the next sentence, the sutra sums up the powers of Amitabha Buddha.
The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments
All the adornments of the dwellings in the Pure Land and the settings in which sentient beings are reborn in the Pure Land are created by the inherently real virtues of the great vows and great deeds of Amitabha Buddha. That's why he can adorn all the Four Pure Lands, and embrace all the ordinary people and saints of all the worlds of the past, present, and future, and enable them to be reborn in the Pure Land.
With his great vows, Amitabha creates the causal basis for sentient beings to multiply their good roots, and with his great deeds he creates the conditions for sentient beings to increase their merits and virtues. Amitabha enables us to develop faith and vows and to recite the Buddha-name, and from moment to moment achieve these virtues. All this is already accomplished: it is not just happening now, nor is it yet to happen. All the adornments of Amitabha act as an augmenting substance that stimulates the development of all the adornments within the minds of sentient beings. Amitabha in toto merges with sentient beings: all his powers merge with ours. Thus the sutra says that the Pure Land "is complete with all these adornments and virtues."
Next the sutra explains the sentient beings in the Pure Land and what they receive. First it explains what they experience in terms of the five sense-faculties and five sense-objects. Next it explains this in terms of hearing and sounds. Again, the first part is divided into the explanation itself and the summary.
And there is more -- celestial music is constantly playing in
this Buddha-land, and the ground is made of pure gold. Heavenly
flowers rain down at all hours of the day and night. In the morning
the sentient beings of this land fill their robes with multitudes
of wondrous flowers and make offerings to hundreds of billions of
Buddhas in other worlds. When it is meal time, they return to their
own land, to eat and circumambulate the teaching assembly.
Music represents the sense-object sound, the ground represents the sense-object form, the flowers represent the two sense-objects form and scent, food represents the sense-object flavor, making offerings represents the sense-object touch. It is obvious that the sense-faculties of sentient beings in the Pure Land are paired with sense-objects to show that in the Pure Land there is only happiness.
The music is constantly playing, twenty-four hours a day. The ground is made of pure gold, because Amitabha's Pure Land is a world adorned with precious things, whose basic substance is gold.
The sutra says that flowers rain down at all hours of the day and night. But since both the Pure Land and its inhabitants shine with light, and do not depend on sun and moon for illumination, how can there be a division of day and night? This is just said provisionally to accord with the distinctions we make in our mundane world.
The Sanskrit name for the flowers that rain down in the Pure Land (Mandarava) means both ''as we wish" and "white flowers".
Making offerings to Buddhas in other worlds symbolizes that through having a true causal basis, we can attain the ultimate fruit (Buddhahood), and that the virtues of this ultimate attainment extend everywhere. Using the language of our mundane world, the sutra speaks of hundreds of billions of Buddhas. The idea is that after we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, we can make offerings to Sakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha and if we are strengthened by the supernatural power of Amitabha, there is no place too far for us to reach.
The time for eating is the morning, so the sutra says the inhabitants of the Pure Land return to their own land when it is time to eat to show their supernatural power of travel. They go to all the worlds in the Ten Directions without leaving their own land.
This passage shows that in the Pure Land every sound, every sense-object, every moment, and even every step and every snap of the fingers, interpenetrates without obstruction, and are in accord with the three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha] of all the worlds of the Ten Directions. It also shows that in our mundane world, the defilements and obstructions are so serious that our world is separated from the Land of Ultimate Bliss, even though it is not really separated from it. When we are reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, our virtues will be so great that we will be separated from this mundane world called "Endurance", without really being separated from it ...
The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments
Next the sutra explains what is experienced in the Pure Land in terms of hearing sound. In fact, the Land of Ultimate Bliss encompasses the potential of the Dharmadhatu, (cosmos). All the sense-objects are perfect and wondrous there, and produce all the teachings.
This passage in the sutra is also divided into two parts: a particular explanation and a general summation. The particular explanation discusses the sounds that transform sentient beings, and the sounds that transform inanimate things. It tells of the sounds of the birds bringing the benefits of the Dharma, and then briefly answers a question.
Here is the first part:
And there is more still - in this land there are birds of all
sorts of wondrous variegated colors: white cranes, peacocks, orioles,
egrets, kalavinkas and jivanjivas. 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 sentient beings in this land hear the singing of the birds,
they become mindful of the Buddhas, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful
of the Sangha [Community of monks and nuns].
Although all Buddhist methods are subsumed under the Thirty-Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the potentials and circumstances of sentient beings all differ, and so different forms of the Buddhist teaching have been devised, some open, some closed, using all sorts of terminology. The Teaching is expressed effectively to all sentient beings according to what they are ready to hear.
This enables those who hear the Teaching to become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It enables them to develop the Bodhi Mind (aspiration for enlightenment for the benefit of self and others), and to put an end to afflictions. They vividly see the inconceivable mercy and awe-inspiring character of the Buddha, so they become mindful of the enlightened ones. The joy of the Dharma enters their hearts and they are filled with the flavor of the Dharma, so they become mindful of the teaching of enlightenment. They listen to the teaching together, and accept it as a community, and wholeheartedly cultivate realization, so they become mindful of the community of seekers.
The three forms of contemplation (on emptiness, on relative reality, and on the mean) and the three objects of contemplation (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) have different aspects but the same essence.
You should use the foregoing brief analysis of the difference among the Thirty-Seven Limbs of Enlightenment to understand the four levels of the Buddhist Teaching (elementary, common, special, and complete) and the three levels of truth (absolute, relative, and the mean).
In the next passage the sutra briefly answers a question:
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 Buddhaland 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 sings
the sounds of the Dharma.
It is obvious that the sutra is answering possible objections that might be raised.
Question: Are birds (as animals) not creature belonging to one of the Evil Planes of existence?
Answer: The birds in the Pure Land are not birds as a result of karmic retribution for having committed evil. They are called birds, but they are all communicating the ultimate merits of the Tathagatas. They can be called "birds of the ultimate", and this is a beautiful appellation conveying their innate virtues, not some pejorative name [connoting creatures born in a low plane of existence].
Question: What does it mean that these birds are fashioned by Amitabha?
Answer: There are four reasons for this.
First, ordinary people take delight in these birds and can be taught by them, since this suits their feelings, and makes them happy. Second, when the birds express the Dharma, they enable their listeners to become virtuous. Third, by making us realize that we should not think of these birds in a pejorative way, it counteracts our tendency to make arbitrary distinctions. Fourth, the birds are emanations of Amitabha, which let us awaken to the everywhere - equal nature of the Dharma Body, which is inherent in everything and creates everything.
This passage shows us that all the sounds in the Pure Land, such as the sound of the breeze and the rustling of trees, as well as everything about the Pure Land environment and the Buddha who presides there, whether a provisional expedient or an absolute reality -- all these things are in their very essence identical to Amitabha Buddha with his Dharma Body, Reward Body, and Emanation Body. All these things are no different from Amitabha Buddha, who is eternal, blissful, personal, and pure.
In this Buddha-land, there is a slight breeze that stirs the
rows of jewel trees and jewel netting, so that they emit subtle
wondrous sounds, like hundreds and thousands of melodies playing
all at once. All those who hear these sounds spontaneously become
mindful of the Buddha, mindful of the Dharma, and mindful of the
In the Pure Land, both sentient beings and inanimate things manifest the wondrous Dharma together, and simultaneously expound the innumerable methods of the elementary, common, special and complete teachings. They offer explanations to all beings according to their kind, enabling their audiences to become mindful of the Three Jewels -- Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching of Enlightenment), and Sangha (the Community of Seekers).
By becoming mindful of the Three Jewels, sentient beings receive four benefits. When ordinary people first hear the teaching, their bodies experience delight: this is the benefit of joy. When their vital energy makes contact with the Three Jewels, they are sure to be able to develop the Bodhi Mind: this is the benefit of becoming virtuous. Using this virtue to conquer afflictions is the benefit of destroying evil. Awakening to the Three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma, Sangha] as one single essence is the benefit of understanding the Supreme Truth.
At this point the sutra sums up the foregoing presentation with the line:
This Buddha-land is complete with all these adornments and virtues.
The sutra sums things up again and again so that we can believe with profound faith that all the adornments of the Pure Land are brought into being by the vows and actions of our guide Amitabha, and manifested by his wisdom, and that they are also brought about by our own pure karma, as manifestations of consciousness. The Buddha-mind and the minds of sentient beings are reflections of each other, just as the lights of many lamps both individually reach everywhere and seem to merge into one. Inner truth as a whole forms phenomena, and phenomena as a whole are merged with inner truth. Our entire True Nature gives rise to genuine religious practice, and genuine religious practice in its entirety lies within our True Nature. This is something we should constantly ponder deeply.
How can anyone talk as if there is another "Pure Land that is Mind Alone" apart from this Pure Land? If you do this you are indulging in empty babbling.
This is the end of the section in the sutra describing the wonders of the Pure Land.
Next the sutra takes up the wonders of Amitabha Buddha himself. First Buddha poses a question, and then proceeds to explain Amitabha's name:
What do you think: why is this Buddha called Amitabha?
This sutra teaches the wondrous practice of reciting the name of Amitabha, so it makes a special point of explaining the name. The intent of the sutra is that people should develop deep faith in the inconceivable powers of this great name and its myriad virtues, and singlemindedly recite the Buddha-name without any further doubts or diversions.
The next passage gives two explanations of the name" Amitabha" -- as "infinite light" and as "infinite life". The literal translation of "Amitabha" is "infinite", and infinity is actually unexplainable. Here in the sutra, our teacher Sakyamuni Buddha uses the meanings" infinite light" and "infinite life" to encompass all sorts of infinity.
Infinite light extends through space in all directions; infinite life extends through time and reaches through past, present, and future. The dimensions of space and time interpenetrating are the body of the universe. This body as a whole is the body and land of Amitabha, and this body as a whole is the name of Amitabha.
Thus, Amitabha is the inherently enlightened True Nature of sentient beings, and reciting the name of Amitabha reveals this enlightenment. Inherent enlightenment and the enlightenment as it is revealed through cultivation and realization are fundamentally not two different aspects, just as sentient beings and Buddhas are not two different things. Thus, if we are in accord with our inherently enlightened true nature for a moment, we are Buddhas for a moment, and if we are in accord with our inherently enlightened true nature moment after moment, we are Buddhas moment after moment.
First, the sutra gives the definition of the name of Amitabha as "Infinite Light":
The light of this Buddha is infinite, and shines on all lands
throughout the universe without obstruction. Thus this Buddha is
The true nature of mind is still but always shining with awareness; hence it is a light. The idea here is that Amitabha Buddha penetrates to the infinite essence of the true nature of mind, so his light is infinite. All the Buddhas penetrate to the true nature of mind, and they all shine through all the worlds in the Ten Directions, so they all could be called "Infinite Light".
But the Buddhas in the causal stages (i.e., as Bodhisattvas) differ in the power of their vows, and they are named differently according to their circumstances. When Amitabha (in a previous incarnation in the distant past) was the monk Dharmakara, he made forty-eight vows, among them the vow that his light would forever shine through all the worlds in the Ten Directions. Now that he has achieved Buddhahood, what he vowed has been accomplished.
The light of the Dharmakaya is boundless, and the light of the Sambhogakaya is in accord with True Nature -- in this the paths of all the Buddhas are the same. The light of the Nirmanakaya (Emanation Body such as Sakyamuni) differs in scope: in some Buddhas it shines for a hundred miles, in other Buddhas it shines a million times further: in some Buddhas it illuminates one world in others it illuminates a million worlds. Only Amitabha's light shines universally. Thus Amitabha in particular is named "Infinite Light".
Still, the three Buddha-bodies are neither one nor different. These distinctions are made only to benefit sentient beings. We must understand that there are no obstructions among the three Buddha-bodies. From the point of view of ordinary people, if their affinity with the Buddhas is deep, then the light of the Buddhas will reach them everywhere, and always appear to them in its complete fullness in all worlds.
Next the sutra gives the definition of the name Amitabha as "Infinite Life":
Also, the life-span of this Buddha and his people is an infinite
number of immeasurable eons, and so he is called Amitabha.
The true nature of Mind is shining with awareness yet ever still: hence it is life. The idea here is that Amitabha Buddha penetrates to the infinite essence of the true nature of Mind, so his life span is infinite.
When Amitabha was Dharmakara, the king of vows, he made a vow that the life spans of both Buddhas and humans in his realm would be infinite. Now what he vowed has been accomplished in the Pure Land, and he is given the special name "Infinite Life.
We must understand that the names "Infinite Light II and "Infinite Life" are both based on the equivalent potential inherent in sentient beings. Because sentient beings and Buddhas are inherently equal, those who invoke the name of Amitabha will be no different from him either in their light or in their life span.
Moreover, given the truth of infinite light, when sentient beings are born in Amitabha's Land of Ultimate Bliss, they are also born in all the lands of the Ten Directions, and when they see Amitabha Buddha, they are also seeing all the Buddhas of the Ten Directions. Thus they are saved themselves and they can bring benefits to all.
Given the truth of infinite life, the people in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are in the position that they are certain of attaining complete enlightenment in a single lifetime and will not be reborn in different forms.
We must realize that there is no name of Amitabha apart from the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment, and there is no way for us to penetrate the mind of infinite light and infinite life that is before us now at this moment apart from the name of Amitabha. I hope you will ponder this deeply!
Now comes the section of the sutra that describes Amitabha and his assembly:
Amitabha Buddha attained enlightenment ten eons ago.
The life span of Amitabha Buddha is infinite, and here when the sutra just speaks of ten eons, this is just a provisional way of teaching. In fact Amitabha's time has been endless, and he has urged, is urging, and will urge all the sentient beings of the past, present, and future to quickly seek birth in the Pure Land, share in the infinite life of the Buddhas, and accomplish this all in one lifetime.
The sutra goes on to speak of Amitabha's innumerable disciples who are Arhats, Bodhisattvas, and one-life Bodhisattvas. All of them achieved their status during the past ten eons. Here the sutra is really illustrating the fact that throughout all the worlds of the Ten Directions in the past, present, and future, many sentient beings achieve birth in the Pure Land with no falling back, and do so easily.
Moreover, this Buddha has innumerable disciples, all of whom
are Arhats, whose numbers are incalculable. Amitabha also has a
following of innumerable Bodhisattvas.
In other worlds, sentient beings who are set in their ways as followers of the Lesser Vehicles do not get to be born in Amitabha's Pure Land. But if those who have studied the practices of the Lesser Vehicles in their early lives develop the Bodhi Mind and turn toward enlightenment when they are facing death, and make great vows, they too will be reborn in the Pure Land.
Again, the sutra sums things up:
The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments
Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples, and the Bodhisattvas who follow him, are all within the causal ground of Amitabha, created by his vows and his actions. This is also the case at the level of results; when one [dharma] is formed, all [dharma] are formed. Thus Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples, and the Bodhisattvas who follow him, are neither identical to nor different from each other: self and others are not two. Thus, after describing Amitabha Buddha himself, his disciples and the Bodhisattvas who follow him, the sutra says, "The Land of Ultimate Bliss is complete with all these adornments and virtues." Amitabha can enable those who have faith and vows and recite his name to become complete with all these virtues too, from moment to moment.
This is the end of the first part of the sutra, which gives a broad account of the wondrous fruits of the Pure Land environment and Amitabha and his assembly, in order to arouse our faith.
In the next section of the sutra, Buddha urges all sentient beings to seek rebirth in the Pure Land and to make vows.