According to the Buddhist teachings, there are 10 kinds of living beings in the world (or Dharma Realm), namely: hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, human beings, heavenly beings, arhats (sravakas), pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas.
The first three kinds of living beings live in the Three Wretched Realms. The first six kinds are “ordinary beings” that reincarnate within the Six Realms (also known as the Three Domains). The last four kinds of living beings are “sacred beings” that are not subject to samsara, the cycle of birth-and-death.
This classification is based on the mental state of the being in question, resulting from individual karma according to the Law of Cause and Effect. For instance, the primary causes of becoming a hell being, hungry ghost, or an animal are hatred, greed, and delusion, respectively. To be born as a human or celestial being, one must practice good karma of the Five Precepts (or the Five Human Virtues), and the Ten Wholesome Deeds, respectively.
The Sacred Domain is a realm for those who have already been liberated from the cycle of birth-and-death. Arhats and pratyekabuddhas have done this by practicing the Four Noble Truths, and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, respectively. Dwelling in the highest realms of the Sacred Domain, bodhisattvas cultivate the Six Paramitas and a myriad of practices.
Our world is known as the Land of Saha, which is a conditioned realm subjected to the endless cycle of birth and death. “Saha” means “endurance in suffering.”
Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha always advises and urges us to aspire to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, where Amitabha Buddha lives. How many kinds of living beings are there in the Land of Bliss?
Some Buddhists, on the basis of Amitabha’s First Vow—the Non-Existence of the Three Wretched Realms—and subtract three from the ten kinds of living beings in the Land of Saha. Thus, it is asserted that there are seven kinds of living beings in the Land of Bliss.
Four Kinds of Beings in the Fourfold Land
Most people examine Amitabha’s 48 vows, and they find that “four” kinds of living beings are mentioned, namely: (1) human and heavenly beings, (2) sravakas, (3) bodhisattvas, and (4) Amitabha Buddha.
Following the doctrinal teaching of the Tiantai School, the patriarchs set up a model of the Fourfold Land to accommodate the “four” kinds of living beings in the Land of Bliss:
1. Land for Both Ordinary and Sacred Beings—all four kinds living together there like in the Land of Saha.
2. Expedient Land of Non-Ultimacy—only Sravakas or above can get access to this tier of the Fourfold Land.
3. Land Adorned with Real Reward—restricted access for Bodhisattvas and Amitabha Buddha only.
4. Land of Constant Light in Stillness—solely for Amitabha Buddha for his own enjoyment.
This model is logical and commonly accepted by most Buddhists because its interpretation of the Land of Bliss is based on a conventional Bodhisattva teaching—namely, that a Dharma practitioner cultivates the mind in stages towards Buddhahood in the Dharma Realm.
Three Kinds of Beings mentioned in the Amitabha Sutra
Other Pure Land practitioners do not agree with the model referenced above, and support their position with these statements from the Amitabha Sutra:
1. “An immeasurable and unlimited number of sravaka disciples”;
2. “His assembly of Bodhisattvas is similarly vast and deep”;
3. “All sentient beings born in the Land of Bliss dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression (Bodhisattva of the 48th Stage). Many of them are in the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after One More Life (bodhisattva of the 51st stage).”
So, there should be no human and heavenly being in the Land of Bliss. Moreover, none of the three Pure Land Sutras mention the Fourfold Land model in reference to the Land of Bliss.
Since the sutra mentions “sravaka disciples,” it must refer to those who are disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, not of Amitabha Buddha. “Sravaka” designates their status in the Land of Saha before they are born in the Land of Bliss. Once reborn in the Land of Bliss, they become bodhisattvas in the Stage of Non-retrogression. This interpretation is also aligned with Nagarjuna Bodhisattva’s classification of the Pure Land teaching in his Chapter on the Easy Path.
But these points beg a serious question: if all sentient beings reborn in the Land of Bliss dwell in the Stage of Non-retrogression, are there two kinds of Bodhisattvas in the Land of Bliss, one being in the 48th stage, and the other being in the 51st stage?
The Land of Bliss is the Realm of Unconditioned Nirvana – Equal in One Form
Let’s refer to a paragraph in the Infinite Life Sutra:
That Buddha-land, like the realm of unconditioned Nirvana, is pure and serene, resplendent and blissful. The sravakas, bodhisattvas, heavenly beings and humans there have lofty and brilliant wisdom, and are masters of the supernatural powers. They are all of one form, without any differences, but are called “heavenly beings” and “humans” simply by analogy with the states of existence in other worlds. They are of noble and majestic countenance, unequaled in all the worlds, and their appearance is superb, unmatched by any being, heavenly or human. They are all endowed with bodies of Naturalness, Emptiness, and Infinity.
This quotation from the sutra explains clearly that the Land of Bliss is a realm where Buddhas dwell, so it is the Realm of Unconditioned Nirvana (that is, a realm of no-birth and no-death). It is absolute because the beings there naturally attain the same form, without any differences separating them.
So-called “human and heavenly beings” and “sravakas” and “bodhisattvas” simply are mentioned by analogy with the states of existence in other worlds before they are born in the Land of Bliss.
Thus, in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, a “reward land” adorned with Amitabha’s unsurpassed and splendid merit and virtues, the only kind of “living being” there exits in the form of light, the same as Amitabha Buddha!