A pure land is a land where a buddha lives
A pure land (also known as a buddha-land) is a land where a buddha lives. Only a buddha-land is absolutely pure since a buddha is perfect and complete in wisdom and virtue. All other planes of existence and the living beings inhabiting them are relatively impure, like this Saha world and we who dwell within it.
People may have different purposes for practicing the Buddhist teachings. However, Shakyamuni Buddha, who expounded and disseminated the Buddhadharma, had only one purpose: to thoroughly liberate all sentient beings from suffering and guide them to the state of ultimate purity and absolute freedom. This is buddhahood. This purpose is also known as his original intent.
In the context of Buddhism, to become a buddha is the goal of life. As all buddhas live in pure lands, it would not be overstating the matter to say that attaining rebirth in a pure land is the purpose of existence. In other words, if our aim is to attain rebirth in a pure land, then this is the same as aiming to become a buddha.
However, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra, it is impossible for an ordinary being with few roots of virtue (mind-life) and blessings (body-life) to be reborn in a splendid land like Amitabha’s Land of Bliss, no matter how long and hard they practice and cultivate within the Six Realms in the Saha World.
Mind, body, and land are one reality
In Buddhism, it is said that all phenomena, including the human body and our plane of existence (land), are manifestations of mind. Mind, body, and land are three aspects of one reality and are inseparable.
In this Saha World, our body refers to the internal and receptive sense organs (the Six Roots), which respond to external and objective environmental stimuli (the Six Dusts). This physical body is subject to change: birth, death, and reincarnation within the Six Realms.
Apart from our bodily life, which suffers reincarnation in the Saha World, we have a spiritual life (mind-life), which accompanies our changing physical forms within the Six Realms, life after life.
If one’s mind is filled with impure karma in a specific realm, one’s body (being the direct reward of said karma) is impure, and the land in which one lives (being the circumstantial reward of the same) is also impure or defiled. The two rewards are interdependent and interrelated for a specific realm, such as hell, the animal realm, the human realm, the heavenly realm, and so on.
Conversely, if one’s mind is filled with pure karma, one’s body is also pure, and the land where one lives is pure. Some Buddhist practitioners attempt to purify themselves through intensive practice in meditative virtues and strict observance of the precepts, reasoning that if their minds and bodies are purified, they can “dwell” in a pure land.
Simply speaking, if a bodhisattva wishes to dwell in a pure land, she will purify her mind. Because of her pure mind, the land in which she dwells becomes automatically pure, as stated in the Vimalakirti Sutra.
On the other hand, if a living being dwells in a pure land, her mind and body are automatically pure, as taught in the Infinite Life Sutra. Again, this is because mind, body, and land are three aspects of one reality, which are inseparable. Think of how the X and Y axes on a graph automatically create a field in which points can be plotted. Such is the interdependent relationship between mind, body, and land.
The difficult path and the easy path
The way to dwell in a pure land through purification of the mind is regarded as the Difficult Path as it is the path of self-powered cultivation. But there is another way: through rebirth in a pure land, one’s mind is automatically made pure. This is regarded as the Easy Path, as told by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva.
In the “Chapter of Easy Practice,” Bodhisattva Nagarjuna points out there are two ways to become a bodhisattva in the State of Non-retrogression:
There are infinite gates by which to access to the Buddhist teachings. Just like journeys in this world, some are difficult and some easy. If we take a land trip by walking, it is painful; but if we take a sea trip by boat, it is joyful. It is similar in the paths of bodhisattvas. Some choose diligent practice and hardship, but some choose easy practice with faith as an expedient means, and thus reach the state of Non-retrogression. (Avinivartaniya)
Obviously, the first path is the conventional one that requires the practitioner’s own vigorous effort in the practices of meditative and non-meditative virtues. On the path of diligent practice, this is how one attains the necessary wisdom and virtue to be liberated from reincarnation in the Three Domains and the Six Realms and become a bodhisattva in the State of Non-retrogression.
The alternative path is known as the Easy Path or the path of other-powered deliverance, which at first glance seems to be a heterodox teaching in Buddhism. The practitioner simply believes and accepts the teaching of Amitabha’s deliverance as stated in his 18th Vow and recites the Buddha’s Name until the end of his life, and thus receives the supreme merits and virtues dedicated by Amitabha Buddha.
Amitabha’s Name enables all sentient beings to attain rebirth in the Pure Land
In the Amitabha Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha advises all sentient beings to hold fast to Amitabha’s Name of a myriad of virtues for rebirth in the Pure Land, the Land of Bliss. Why is it so important to hold fast to Amitabha’s Name? Amitabha’s Name is actually Amitabha Buddha himself.
Master Shandao says that the Land of Bliss is a realm of unconditioned Nirvana. So by rebirth in the Land of Bliss, one will naturally possess buddha-like qualities of wisdom and virtue, including the six supernatural powers, and will enjoy the same infinite lifespan as Amitabha Buddha.
This means that the inhabitants of the Land of Bliss will never retrogress and will unfailingly reach Nirvana, as stated in Amitabha’s 11th Vow. So it is that rebirth in the Pure Land is virtually synonymous with becoming a buddha.
Those who in their present lives realize faith in the power of Amitabha’s vows and recite his name exclusively with the aspiration to be reborn in his Land of Bliss are, in a sense, already denizens of the Pure Land. Hence, Master Shandao taught that such persons already dwell in the state of assurance and non-retrogression.