Nirvana = Pure Land?

Posted by:

K. Ken Fujimoto

As I have mentioned before, many people seem to confuse Nirvana with enlightenment or as being the same birth in the Pure Land.  Nirvana, literally means extinction and is properly used in reference to the death of the Sakyamuni Buddha, where his body and all the inherent passions that accompany life were extinguished.  However, the term is sometimes used to refer to the extinguishing of the worldly passions during his life as a part of his attainment of enlightenment.  This leads to part of the confusion.

Adding further to the confusion is the fact that in the pantheon of Buddhas in the literature, each Buddha has a Buddha Land or Pure Land, if you will.  The most famous of these is Amida Buddha’s Sukhavhati (Sanskrit) or Goku Raku Jodo (Japanese), the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.  Maitreya, the future Buddha’s Tusita is another well-known Buddha Land.  The importance of these Buddha Lands, particularly Sukhavhati, is that in traditional Pure Land thought, those who cannot attain enlightenment in this realm due to various limitations that they may face in the course of life, can attain life in that Buddha land where the conditions are conducive to attaining enlightenment.  Simply put, those of us who cannot attain Buddhahood in this realm can do so in the Pure Land.

Causing still further confusion to all of this is the fact that Shinran Shonin does not really stress attaining life in the Pure Land.  He shows that due to the compassion of Amida Buddha, all who so desire are guaranteed life in the Pure Land so there is no need to worry about that aspect.  We simply need to focus on living a life expressing our gratitude for the causes and conditions and all the life that makes each of our lives possible.  The rest is already assured.

This all leads to the question of what is the Pure Land.  As part of the Pure Land tradition, there must be a Pure Land, but how one understands its existence can differ.  Amida Buddha’s Pure Land is properly known as the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.  This means that because of the interconnected nature of all life, everyone’s bliss or happiness is shared by all.  This makes for a great selling point in getting people to want to go there, but careful thought should lead us to see that everyone’s suffering is also shared.  It can then be inferred that the name, Ultimate Bliss can also be understood as Ultimate Suffering.  Who wants that?  Yet, most people have experienced that happiness or bliss shared multiplies that happiness or bliss.  At the same time, we have also experienced that sharing suffering or sorrow can diminish it.  This reality points to an aspect of the nature of true happiness.

Again, it can be a great selling point, but is the real importance in the ultimate bliss/sorrow?  Is it not in the purity aspect?  The Pure Land is pure in contrast to the defiled and impure nature of this realm.  It shows us what is impure, defiled and inequitable in this world in order to get us to see that which needs to be addressed and changed.  Not only that, but Amida Buddha, in the vows established and perfected in his causal state as Dharmakara Bodhisattva established that all sentient beings, all of us, will be accepted in that land with our imperfections and defilements, as we are.  The purity is so great and extensive that we can be accepted without any fear of polluting that vast land of compassion.

Whether we understand that purity as coming from the extinguishing of our passions or through the workings of Amida’s compassionate vow or promise, we need to see the impurity and inequity in our world and lives.  To see it will enable us to address the issues or to see how it is being addressed in our lives.  This is part of the reason that the Eightfold Path begins with Right View.  The capability to see clearly is made possible through that compassionate light of wisdom that we know as Amida.

© January 22, 2016