One of the great stumbling blocks for newcomers to Shin Buddhism is the concept of the Pure Land. Especially for those who come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Pure Land can be a concept that turns them away from Shin Buddhism on first encounter. Many of the “convert” Buddhists who have left their previous religion, come to Buddhism because it is so strikingly different from Christianity. These newcomers to Buddhism have left Christianity because they could not believe in a divine being like God, and could not believe in a realm in the afterlife like a heaven. What then, is this thing called the Pure Land? To a newcomer, it sounds like heaven, and Amida sounds like God. It is my opinion that if Shin Buddhism is to truly become a major religious tradition in the west, it will have to redefine and even reinterpret the meaning of the Pure Land in Shin Buddhism.
Shin Buddhism is based on three sutras which were selected by Honen Shonin, Shinran Shonin’s teacher, who is said to have read all the sutras 5 times! This is an enormous undertaking, no less than reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica maybe 20 times over. Of all those hundreds and hundreds of sutras, Honen selected three sutras and called them the “Three Pure Land Sutras.” Obviously, the Pure Land is an integral part of all three sutras. Honen Shonin selected these three sutras because they teach the Nembutsu and a path to enlightenment for anyone. Shinran Shonin came to receive the heart of the Buddha’s teachings through these three sutras and through his encounter with Honen Shonin.
What do these three sutras teach about the Pure Land? The sutras have detailed descriptions of the Pure Land. First of all, it is in the west, billions and billions of miles away. It is a land of beautiful trees, ponds, and wondrous flowers. It “sounds” like a land, but it is a land far beyond anything we have seen in our world. The question that we have to ask is how we should interpret the description of the Pure Land in the sutras. Are the descriptions meant to be taken literally, that such a land exists that far away in the west, or are the descriptions more of a metaphor? I have learned that the sutras are speaking in metaphor, that they are not meant to be taken literally. For example, if you head west, and you go billions of miles, where would you end up? You would end up right where you started, wouldn’t you?
But when we say that we don’t take the sutras literally, it does not mean that we don’t take seriously what is being expressed in the sutras. The sutras are expressing the innermost heart of Shakyamuni Buddha and also the enlightened hearts of those disciples who compiled the sutras many years after his passing. Even for us who now live over 2500 years after the passing of the Buddha, we can read and receive the teachings expressed in the Three Pure Land Sutras.
If we don’t take the Pure Land “literally” as it is described in the sutras, then what does it mean “metaphorically” for us today?
My understanding of the Pure Land comes primarily from what I learned from the late Professor Takamaro Shigaraki. In one of his essays, titled simply, Jodo (The Pure Land), he explains that the Pure Land has the following meanings for us today.
- It is a symbol for the world of enlightenment.
- It is a manifestation of the world of enlightenment.
- It is established in the “now.”
- It exists “here.”
- The Pure Land is a symbol for the world of enlightenment
When we read the sutras, we begin to get a sense for what the sutras are trying to say, metaphorically and spiritually. We begin to get a glimpse into that world of truth or enlightenment, and at the same time, we are taught what is our world of samsara, or delusion. The Pure Land opens up our hearts and minds to what is the world of enlightenment, and at the same time, it opens up our hearts and minds to the world of ignorance, delusion, and our ego self. Without the Pure Land, without the teachings from the sutras, how could we ever come to see the world of delusion or samsara? It is like being in darkness and never knowing that you are in darkness until you see light for the first time.
Through metaphors and poetic, religious expression, the description of the Pure Land in the sutras points to the world of enlightenment. For example, it is a world in which all beings “are of one golden color.” This does not mean that we all have to go to a tanning salon and get the same golden brown tan. It is a metaphor for saying that in the world of truth or enlightenment, there are no distinctions of color or race. In the eyes of an enlightened being, all people radiate one “golden” color. Which means to say that all beings, human, animal, birds and fish, even mountains and trees, all manifest their innate “Buddha” nature? Isn’t this a beautiful expression, especially as we consider the racial tensions and even ethnic genocide that occurs in world today? The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, show us how a tragic incident can raise racial tensions to a volatile level.
The Pure Land is a symbol for the world of enlightenment, put in concrete expressions that we unenlightened can relate to. Through the metaphor of the Pure Land, we begin to see what is our world of samsara, the world of delusion, and we come to open our eyes and even aspire for the world of truth, the world of enlightenment, the Pure Land.
(To be continued).
Rev. Marvin Harada