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Amitabha practice: Pure land rebirth

Amitabha practice: Pure land rebirth

Part of a series of short commentaries on the Amitabha sadhana given in preparation for the Amitabha Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2017-2018.

  • How the pure lands do not exist without causes, and exist within the emptiness of inherent existence
  • The unshakable resolves of Amitabha
  • How beings are reborn in the pure land
  • A description of Amitabha’s pure land

We’re continuing to talk about the Amitabha practice. I did two videos about it talking about refuge and bodhicitta last week and then day before yesterday just to comment a little bit on what Sukhāvatī and Amitabha are about. Now I want to continue that today. Then this whole thing is going to be a discussion that goes on for a while. It won’t necessarily be every day, because we have a retreat coming up. But hopefully if you have questions they’ll be answered as we go along.

One person did write in with a question already, asking if it’s necessary to have a jenang (commonly translated as permission or initiation) to do the Amitabha practice or to recite the mantra. No, it’s not necessary to have those.

It’s very important to realize that Sukhāvatī and Amitabha himself, it’s not like things that arise without causes—they just kind of appear magically. It’s not that Sukhāvatī arises out of nothing, it arises out of causes and conditions which are Amitabha’s collection of merit, collection of wisdom, and his unshakable resolve to set up this kind of pure land for regular sentient beings who have afflictions.

This pure land, like everything else, exists within the emptiness of inherent existence. This is important, otherwise we tend to think of Amitabha like God and the pure land as some inherently existent heaven, or something like that. All these things appear to the mind on the conventional level but they all lack inherent existence. It’s because they are empty of inherent existence that they can be produced and can come about. If things had some kind of immutable essence then there’s no way they could be affected by other factors, so there’s no way they could arise at all. It’s important to keep this in mind when we meditate on Amitabha and on Sukhāvatī.

Amitabha made many many unshakable resolves. They’ve been consolidated into 48, which at some point we’ll talk about. If you want to consolidate those 48 into a principle one then it would be his determination to establish this kind of pure land for ordinary beings.

There are different kinds of pure lands and different kinds of beings are born in them, so what I’m saying now is more specifically to Amitabha’s pure land. Don’t generalize this to every time you hear the word “pure land” or “buddha field” because there are many different types and different kinds.

In some pure lands when you’re born there then you will become enlightened fairly quickly. In Sukhāvatī that’s not the case, because you arrive there you still have defilements and you still have to practice the path and you have to work hard. It’s not an instant ticket to instant awakening. And because you’re born there it also doesn’t mean you can skip different levels of the path or skip over having some realizations. In other words, it’s like it’s a discount ticket, you don’t have to do as much as other people. No. You still have to gain all the realizations of a fully awakened buddha. You still have to purify all the defilements. You still have to develop all of the qualities of a fully awakened one. The thing that makes rebirth in Sukhāvatī advantageous is that the environment is very conducive there.

It was set up by Amitabha, so he’s going to do his best to according to his ability—which cannot override our karma—to set up a conducive environment. They always talk about a buddha’s ability and our karma being equal in strength. If a buddha’s ability was stronger than our karma then we would already be awakened because the buddhas would have enlightened us because they see absolutely no reason for us to continue suffering in samsara. But they are free from their side to benefit us in the most effective way, but we aren’t the most receptive vehicles. That’s what the problem is. We have to still increase our receptivity to the Dharma teachings, which involves challenging a lot of our old preconceptions, our old habits—emotional habits, ways of thinking habits—our whole view on the world. Everything has to be reexamined and challenged.

It’s not like to become a buddha there’s this one little corner of our personality that we just have to kind of change a little bit but keep everything else just as it is. I just change a little bit, I no longer grasp at inherent existence, but I still can get angry at all the people who I don’t like and who disagree with my ideas, and I can still crave things, and I can still feel sorry for myself because I’ve been doing that since beginningless time anyway….

It’s not like that. Everything gets brought up and looked at. It doesn’t mean that we all come out with cookie-cutter personalities when we’re enlightened. It’s not like that at all. That’s why there are so many different forms of buddhas. They express their enlightenment in different physical manifestations and they have different specialties, even though they all have the same realizations. We still have certain personalities. You still have to deal with whatever kind of body you manifest in for the benefit of sentient beings. We have to purify the whole kit and caboodle. Everything.

In Sukhāvatī what makes it very conducive is it’s a beautiful environment. No smog, no pollution, no wildfires, no floods, no earthquakes. Except they say that when somebody generates bodhicitta the earth shakes, but I don’t think those are the earthquakes that kill people. I think it must be another kind of earthquake. The ground is smooth, it’s not rough. There are no stones, no thorns, there’s not hot asphalt that burns your feet when you walk barefoot on it. There’s a very expansive view. No smoke in the air from forest fires. No forest fires.

There are all these lotuses and different flowers. There’s Amitabha sitting there and Amitabha’s teaching all the time. They say Nagarjuna was born in Sukhāvatī. That’s one of the reasons I want to go there because I want to study directly with Nagarjuna. From Amitabha there’s an all-pervasive light that radiates and fills the land. The entire realm is infused with the luminosity that comes from his body. You don’t have to worry about the sun and these kinds of things. The ground is soft. You can’t stub your toe. You don’t have concussions if you fall there. Of course, I don’t think they’re playing football. You’re not going to get injured in that kind of environment.

There are wish-fulfilling trees that give you whatever you need. Whenever you need food, food appears. You need clothes, clothes appear. All these things appear from the wish-fulfilling trees. You don’t need government assistance. Our government isn’t going to give it to you anyway, so better to be born in the pure land. And I don’t think you will need Medicare and Medicaid there either. And it’s not, again, because the government is cutting the policies. It’s because we won’t need those.

The birds in Sukhāvatī are emanations of Amitabha. They sing melodious Dharma songs which make the mind delightful. There’s not this rap talk about who you’re going to rape, and there’s not the deep bass vibe. There are streams, brooks, rivers. There’s a pool where you can rest and take a dip in perfumed water (with no chlorine). The land is filled with gloriously scented lotus blossoms (and nobody’s allergic to the scent, so it doesn’t make you have a headache or anything). When the lotus blossoms open they emit this whole abundance of light rays. On the tip of each light ray there’s a buddha who teaches the Dharma according to the mentality of each and every sentient being that is there to listen to the teachings.

This is one of the great qualities of a buddha’s speech and why we need to become buddhas. First of all, the buddhas know, through their super-knowledge, what the disposition and interests are of different sentient beings. What their karma is. What vehicle, what way of approach is most suitable for them, so they teach accordingly that way. In addition, when a buddha teaches everybody hears what they need to hear. The teachings fulfill the needs of the different sentient beings. Nobody walks away from a teaching by the Buddha scratching their head, “What in the world was going on, I have no clue.” But somehow, they may not understand everything, but they’re getting something out of it and they continue to investigate and probe deeper the meaning of what they’re hearing.

There is no sickness, poverty, old age, or death. You’re not liberated yet, but you no longer revert to samsara either. Everyone is equally beautiful. There is no Miss Universe contest because they’re not objectifying women. There’s no sexual harassment. (What a relief.) Everybody is endowed with positive qualities. There are no faults, stains, or suffering of any kind. Not even the word “suffering” can appear in Sukhāvatī.

Like I said before, people are not born from the womb, they’re born magically in the heart of a lotus flower. Like I said, according to your receptivity, the level of your purification, accumulation of merit, understanding of Dharma you’re born in one of nine stages of lotuses that go from being completely closed to totally open.

At Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan they have… It’s kind of like a Disneyland, it’s a ride that you go into, except you walk, of going into Amitabha’s pure land. You go down a tunnel, then you come through in another place. You step on a lotus and there are gods and goddesses in the air and there’s this beautiful song. It’s quite something. That kind of pure land you have to leave. Once you’re born in Amitabha’s you’re not going to come back here.

Another boon from being born there is you can go from Amitabha’s pure land to other pure lands to learn from the different buddhas there. You can travel to other pure lands and make offerings to the buddhas, take different teachings that these buddhas are giving. You’re not limited in any way in terms of where you can go.

Also, of course, once you attain awakening you can manifest…. I think even before, once you get to high levels of bodhisattvahood, then of course you can manifest in our world and in other worlds of ordinary, confused living beings. When you have certain levels of realizations then of course, out of bodhicitta, you want to manifest in these places and be of service to all the beings there.

Sometimes people wonder: “If I’m with somebody who’s dying, can I aspire for them to go to the pure land and will they then go?” No. Having the aspiration to be reborn in the pure land is like eating and drinking and sleeping. It’s something we have to do ourselves. Somebody else can’t do it for us. But if we’re with somebody who is passing away and they’re receptive. If they’re somebody who’s Buddhist who’s heard about Amitabha and Sukhāvatī, then we can suggest to them that they get reborn there.

Some teachers say you can also do powa for other living beings so that they’ll be reborn there. His Holiness says that for you to transfer somebody else’s consciousness to the pure land you have to have very high realizations. Right now we can’t even transfer our own mind to Sukhāvatī, let alone somebody else’s. It helps other people, if you know that practice, for you to do it and for you to make prayers for everybody, but really it’s only somebody with great realizations who can actually transfer other beings’ consciousness to Sukhāvatī. Again, it’s something we have to do ourselves. But of course, people doing the practice for us and praying for us and so on, it helps It sets up a good kind of energy field so that our own good karma can ripen.

When you’re born there you have a resplendent golden body. If you’re reborn in an open lotus you still are yet to be awakened. You may have eliminated many negativities and generated many virtuous qualities that resemble those of Amitabha, but you still need to work.

Here you can really see that although sometimes it’s taught, and also, not only in Japan but also in China and in Tibet, some people teach it like all you need to do is have the aspiration to be born in Sukhāvatī and there you go. If you have that aspiration all day and all night. Of course, we don’t usually have that, first of all, so it’s not an easy thing to have. But also, because there are these different stages of lotuses that you’re born into, and because everybody’s born there, of course taking our karma and whatever level of Dharma understanding we’ve had before with us, it makes sense to really practice good ethical conduct in this life, to learn the Dharma well, to generate bodhicitta, to develop an understanding of emptiness, to practice the six perfections, the three higher trainings, to do all these other things here, because that not only makes it easier for us to be born in Sukhāvatī, but once we’re born there then we have all of that under our belt already.

I’m saying this because sometimes we just tend to think…. You hear sometimes all you need to do is say Amitabha’s name ten times and you’ll be born there. If it were that easy why did the Buddha teach 84,000 teachings if all you needed to do was recite “Amitabha” ten time? The Buddha would have been wasting his time teaching everything else.

It’s very clear that we need to do all the rest of the path, and the more we do this life the easier it’s going to be to be reborn there, and the more we’ll already be on our way once we’re born in Sukhāvatī. The point is don’t just think that this is an easy way out. You can mess around and create a lot of nonvirtue in samsara, and then at the time and then when you’re dying say, “May I be born in Sukhāvatī. Namo āmítuófó (10 times). Okay that’s it.” We shouldn’t have that kind of simplistic understanding .

On the other hand Buddha Shakyamuni said to pray to be reborn in Sukhāvatī creates as much merit as if you were to offer the seven types of jewels and other precious substances filling the 3,000 world systems. Now, we read statements like that—3,000 world systems means 10 to the 8th power—and to fill all those world systems with the seven kinds of jewels and other precious substances and offer those to the Buddha, and you might think, “Wow, that would create so much good karma.” And here aspiring to be reborn in Sukhāvatī is even greater virtue.

These kinds of statements are said to encourage us, but of course, they all depend on many other causes and conditions. There are many ways to aspire to be reborn in Sukhāvatī. There’s the say that I just said, you accumulate nonvirtue and then before you die you just aspire. Then there’s the person who really devotes their life to the Dharma and generates spontaneous bodhicitta and realizes emptiness and also has the aspiration to be born in Sukhāvatī. Big difference between those two people. When we hear statements like this it’s not saying which kind of person is developing the aspiration to be reborn in Sukhāvatī. It’s just saying that aspiration is more meritorious than offering these jewels.

Similarly, when it talks about offering these jewels to so many world systems it’s not saying who is offering the jewels and what their mental state is. You can offer jewels to the whole universe and think, “I’m doing it so that I’ll be rich in my next life.” Or you can offer the jewels and think, “I’m doing this with the bodhicitta motivation in order to attain full awakening and be of benefit to sentient beings, and I’m seeing myself, the gift, and the act of giving, and the recipients all as empty of inherent existence and dependent arising.” There are two big differences between those kinds of people making the offering.

Whenever we hear these kinds of general statements we have to realize that they’re said to encourage us and we shouldn’t just reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. His Holiness says many times, “If that’s all you needed to do—say this mantra one time and you’ll never be reborn in the lower realms again—why do we have the whole kangyur and tengyur?” It doesn’t make any sense.

Audience: Do you have to have a bodhicitta motivation to be reborn there? I think if you were just concerned with personal liberation you would get there and just bliss out. It sounds like a heaven.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It sounds like you don’t need bodhicitta to be reborn there, also because there are some śrāvaka arhats who are born there.

Audience: They’re already liberated, though. People who are not yet liberated?

VTC: People can have the selfish idea, “I want to be born in Sukhāvatī because I don’t want to go to the lower realms, and it sounds like a good place to hang out.” And saying “namo āmítuófó” and generate that aspiration. And they can probably be reborn there, depending on many other conditions. But they’re not going to be born in an open lotus, seeing Amitabha, being able to do everything right away because they still have to do a lot of purification.

Audience: I’m just thinking that what motivates me to practice many times is the suffering I experience. So if there’s no suffering I don’t know what would motivate me, unless it was bodhicitta. To keep heading towards enlightenment.

VTC: That’s the thing. You’re born there. What’s Amitabha going to do. He’s not going to say, “Yes, just keep your selfish motivation and hang out here because there are birds that sing songs you like. Amitabha is going to push you to generate renunciation and bodhicitta. Of course. He’s not saying, “I created this place so everybody can come there and eat chocolate cake and drink tea and relax.” He worked hard to generate it. And he generated that place, he constructed that place, so that we can become awakened. So he’s going to be doing everything he can to do that.

If you’re a flunky in Amitabha’s pure land you’re going to be in a closed lotus for a long time. You’re going to have that motivation to benefit sentient beings. You can’t pull the wool over Amitabha’s eyes.

Audience: Thank you for sharing the beautiful description of Sukhāvatī. In Japan there are several pure land schools. The two main sects are Jōdo-shū and Jōdo Shinshū. Jōdo Shinshū Shin pure land is probably the most radical and innovative of all the pure land sects because it developed this concept of a other power. But even in the Jōdo Shinshū Shin pure land tradition, even they speak…. They do not specify how many times you need to recite the mantra of Guru Amitabha Buddha, but they do say that you have to develop shinjin, which is like a pure, complete faith and entrusting in guru Amitabha Buddha’s vow. So even then you have to have like a bodhicitta. Despite it being based in other power, they still specify you have to develop that true shinjin first, and then you will be reborn in the pure land. So even their school does have this attitude to chanting. They don’t have meditation, but they do the chanting and some rituals despite being based on the other powers.

Audience: So when you say that there’s no suffering there, does that mean that people don’t have any afflictions manifesting? So there’s no anger, no attachments.

VTC: Well, I think that because the environment is so good you’re not going to have a lot of afflictions manifesting. Now, maybe you get jealous because somebody else has a different lotus than you do. If you have that kind of jealousy you’re going to be stuck in your closed lotus for a while.

The beings still have afflictions. They haven’t eliminated them. But I would think that the afflictions don’t come raging out the way they do in our world. And probably if you generate some afflictions in Amitabha’s pure land Amitabha’s going to say something to you right away. You can’t mess off here. Here’s the teaching for you. You prayed to be reborn here so that you can practice, so keep your side of the deal.

Of course, I’m putting words in Amitabha’s mouth, but this is the way I imagine it to be.

I don’t think Amitabha’s going to be, “Oh, poor baby, you’re craving chocolate. We only have pure Amitabha Sukhāvatī chocolate here and you’re wanting Hershey’s.” I hope nobody goes into that. And I think if they do there’s probably going to be a lot of community pressure to drop that idea.

Audience: I think it’s already answered, but you can be taught while your lotus is closed?

VTC: That I’m not clear on. They say that Amitabha’s radiance permeates the lotus, so maybe that will wake you up in some way and get you to eliminate your doubt or eliminate your wrong views. I haven’t heard exactly how it works with those in the closed lotuses.

Audience: So maybe in the closed lotuses that’s where you let your afflictions play out. And once it opens you’ve got nothing to be afflicted with.

VTC: Maybe you get tired of being in the closed lotus and you resolve your doubt. Or in the case of the sravaka arhats they would generate bodhicitta. I think the sravaka arhats, they say that the Buddha’s wake them up. Probably Amitabha does something.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.