Urthona - A Journal of Buddhism and the Arts

Where are all the dark paths now?

On Wed, 3 February, 2021 - 12:26
Ratnagarbha's picture

‘Where are all the dark paths now? The Pure Land itself is near’

Hakuin’s Song of Zazen

Painting shown above: Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Pure Land (Sukhavati). C. 1700  Central Tibet;  Distemper with gold on cloth,. Dimensions: 56 1/4 × 39 1/2 in. (142.9 × 100.3 cm). Public domain – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchased: Barbara and William Karatz Gift and funds from various donors, 2004

High Resolution image and further details at MMA site: 

I would like to include more traditional Buddhist artwork on this site as this is an area we have not covered properly up to now.

Where better to start than a marvellous painting of Amitabha’s Western Paradise from old Tibet?

Amitabha, one of the five Cosmic Buddhas of Esoteric Buddhism, is shown in his paradise, Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land, enthroned beneath a flowering tree festooned with strands of jewels and auspicious symbols.

The sky is filled with throngs of ecstatic demigods who bear offerings and scatter flowers. Seated below are the eight great bodhisattvas, and between them are two large, low tables covered with offerings. To either side are the vast assembled audiences who receive Amitayus’s message. At the bottom, set within a vast panoramic landscape, are courtyards, giant lotus flowers, and pools from which the purified are being reborn.

As we contemplate this painting it is worth thinking a bit more deeply about the whole notion of a pure lands, one that has been highly influential over the millennia all over the Buddhist East.

To begin with it should be said that notions of a heavenly place of rest and reward, post mortem, were not highlighted in early Buddhism. At this stage Heavenly ‘deva realms’ were merely a reward for mundane virtues, a temporary resting place, with no particular religious significance attached. The notion of heaven as a properly religious goal emerged later, in the first few centuries CE, quite early in that wonderful, complex cultural and religious flowering in India we know as ‘the arising of the Mahayana’. From the very earliest Mahayana texts devotees were urged to renounce the more limited goal of Arahantship, mere personal liberation, in favour of an aspiration to become oneself a perfect Buddha. This meant the aspiration to eventually bring the Dharma, the means to end suffering, to each and everyone; and furthermore while on the path to immediately transfer any personal merit (the power and goodness accumulated by virtuous acts) over to the rest of the universe. The Pure Land tradition took this idea of transferring merits away from being a personal action accomplished by the practitioner, and transformed it into a cosmic act by another, on which the practitioner could rely. This is a complete reversal of the original emphasis. All one needed to do was utter in faith the name of Amitabha Buddha, the sage of infinite light, and one would after death be reborn in the paradise that he himself had created by his unlimited virtuous power. In this luminous paradise the conditions for further dharma practice would be ideal, and swift progress to Buddhahood assured. All this is promised in the longer and shorter Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutras, which apparently date back to the 1st century CE and may well have been compiled in Gandhara, just below the western end of the Himalayas, at the northern tip of what is now Pakistan. Some Persian influence on Pure Land Buddhism is therefore possible, as the Persian heartlands are just over the mountains from Gandhara, and certainly colourful, flower strewn, paradiscal realms, richly described, are very much part of Persian culture. 

It is in the longer Sukhavati-Vyuha that we find listed Amitabha’s many great vows. For the Pure Land sects, by far the most significant vow is the eighteenth, in which Amtabha vows to establish his Pure Land Sukhavati for the benefit of all, and to give sanctuary there should one but utter his name sincerely ten times. 

In both the longer and shorter sutras the Pure Land of Amitabha is described in prolix detail. There are interlacing nets of scintillating jewels, rivers ten miles wide with banks of jewels and other precious substances, and trees all made out of gold, jewels, pearls and so forth.  And the land we are told is completely flat, like a polished dance floor, or chequer board. Now, this may not seem so attractive to modern sensibilities, lovers of rugged wilderness as we are. However, in common with most ancient peoples I would presume, the ancient Indians were much more excited by the beauty of verdantly productive agricultural land. Naturally, if hunger and famine remain as a stalking danger in the background, it is land that can produce food to which your heart goes out, not the rocky slopes of high mountains where dangerous bandits or wild beasts may live. So Amitabha’s Pure Land has flowers and fruits and fruit bearing trees in great abundance, but they are all made of jewels. They feed the heart, rather than the body. And of course, as the sutra says in passing, Sukhavati is the joyful land of the fulfillment of every wholesome wish, and if you want there to be hills and mountains there will be. But naturally the most important aspect of Sukhavati is the fact that it provides ideal conditions for making progress towards Awakening. Indeed, not only is Amitabha present at its centre, teaching and radiating light, but the jewel trees, the clear waters, the marvellous birds are all constantly giving forth melodious dharma teachings which, as a Romantic poet might say, ‘steal away the heart’ and turn the mind towards unconditioned truth. 

It should be understood however, that this bright vision was seen all the more brightly because of the shadow beneath it. To faithful Buddhists of all schools in the East the possibility of making mistakes in this life and going to Hell for a very long time was ever present. Hakuin, for example, as a child was terrified of the sight of the candles put under his mother’s bath to warm it, because they reminded him of the visions of hell promised to wicked minds that a local Buddhist preacher had expounded to the local villagers. I’m not trying to argue here that modern Buddhists need to make much of the terrible (if ultimately temporary) hell realms of traditional Buddhism. What I am saying is that one won’t fully appreciate the luminous glory of a Pure Land if one does not appreciate imaginatively the dark background on which it was revealed.  

In any case after these sutras had been written down, the Pure Land tradition went through many centuries of evolution and adaptation, and became in China and beyond a stand-alone school of Buddhism with its own temples, and various schools and lineages, not to mention large numbers of followers among both the educated elites and the common people. In China and nearby countries such as Japan and Korea, the Pure Land tradition became for many the embodiment of authentic Buddhism. 

Among the most significant developments over these centuries was the Pure Land Buddhism of Shinran (1173 - 1263) founder of the Japanese Jodo Shin Shu sect. Shinran inherited the popular devotional Pure Land practice of his master Honen, centred around recitation of the nembutsu, the name of Amitabha. He revered and worked with this inheritance, but also transformed it into something quite different. Hence the Shu (more traditional Pure Land) and Shinran’s Shin Shu remain to this day separate schools in Japan. For Shinran the goal was not only rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land after death, but to experience a profound spiritual rebirth here and now. At the moment within this life that you fully entrust yourself to Amitabha you enter the ‘stage of the fully settled’ and Nirvana is clear before you. The emptiness of all things, the world, the vow, even of Nirvana, in true Mahayana fashion, is also clear before you. You now have the shinjin, the steadfast faith which comes about through the renunciation of effort in attaining enlightenment through tariki (self power). Shinjin arises from jinen (naturalness, spontaneous working of the Vow) and has nothing to do with conscious self willed effort on the practitioners’ part. Furthermore, Nirvana and the Pure Land are in fact the same thing. For Shinran the Pure Land is simply an image for Nirvana. To rest in, or aspire to an apparently objective paradise that you leave this world to arrive at, while admirable in its way, is to fall short of the true purpose of Buddhist practice.

Radical though Shinran was in his view of the Pure Land it is not without precedence in Indian Buddhism. Three strands can be mentioned briefly. Firstly the Buddha Nature sutras had always maintained that the seed of Buddhahood is to be found here and now in every individual, simply needing to be uncovered and revealed. Shinran picked up on this ancient tradition and declared that through shinjin unconditional faith in Amitabha and his Vow, the practitioner’s mind is united with Amitabha and the uncovering of one’s innate Buddha nature is Amitabha’s gift to the devotee. Secondly in the Avatamsaka Sutra which was widely influential in the Far East although not so much in Pure Land circles this very world of Jambudvipa (Middle Earth in the the European sense) is revealed as a pure visionary realm of interlacing beams of light and nets of jewels. This world is under the all encompassing spiritual influence and protection of the cosmic Buddha Maha-Vairocana – the great illuminator, who is simply the true or visionary form of the historical Buddha. Thirdly, in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, a Mahayana Sutra that was much studied in the far East, it is revealed that this apparently impure world, is in fact a Pure Land as glorious as any other, it only appears impure to the beings within it in order to educate and mature them. We would only get complacent if we saw Shakyamuni’s Pure Land as it really is and thought that we had already arrived at the goal…! 

Speaking personally I particularly respond to the subtle dialectic of purity and impurity found in the Vimalakirti. I appreciate the idea that we are already in the Pure Land, but not quite ready to see it yet. Presumably, to take on board Shinran’s central insight, recitation of the Nembutsu, in ardent faith, is a means whereby one could become ‘tuned in’ to the transcendental beauty that is already there, right in front of one’s eyes. I don’t know if Shinran had read and studied the Vimalakirti, but it is likely that he did – given the general popularity of this text in the far East. Certainly the Kyōgyōshinshō Shinran’s magnum opus contains discussion of the relationship between Pure Land practice and the Avatamsaka. 

To conclude I would like to warmly recommend the aspiration to birth in the Pure Land Paradise here and now, as a powerful image that might inspire contemporary practice. The Zen schools, of course, already have this sense of Pure Land orientation, as the opening quotation from Hakuin amply demonstrates. But I feel that this is something relevant to all Buddhists in the modern world. The modern world is one in which war, hunger and famine as not so omnipresent as they were in the ancient world (not yet anyway) but confusion, mental suffering, distraction and general emotional pain seem to be on the rise if anything, as witnessed in the sobering statistics on the increase in mental illness all over the world. So we need now as never before faith in something like a Pure Land to give us cheerful serenity and a vision of wonder and Beauty to console and inspire. Such consolation is not escapism but a transformative act of the imagination. It concerns realities which are neither literally true, nor literally false. They have their own imaginative reality. In the same way that we suspend disbelief, and while we are reading believe imaginatively in the Orcs and Elves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, while we are chanting Amitabha’s name, or reading his sutras, we can suspend disbelief, and read or chant, as if it were all true. And then, who knows, in the profound sense elucidated by Hakuin, Shinran and many others, perhaps the Pure Land really will be clear before us! 

Note: for a much deeper and more extended exploration of the way of Pure Land, the place of imagination in the Buddhist life, and the Sukhavati Vyuha Sutras, including new translations, see the wonderful book from Wisdom Publications, Great Faith, Great Wisdom, by Ratnaguna and Shradhapa. 



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