When is the Pure Land?

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      QUESTION: I am confused about the location of the Pure Land in time.  In some things I read, it seems to be located in the future, after death, when one “goes to” the Pure Land to become fully enlightened (and then returns to serve all sentient beings).  It is an afterlife, be it ever so temporary.  This is not to deny encounters and foretastes of the ultimate Pure Land here in this life, but it is to say that in its fullness the Pure Land is decidedly future.  But in other things I read, the Pure Land seems to have been “demythologized” until it is (only) a state of consciousness here and now.  These readings seem to be, at best, agnostic about any form of life after death.  Can someone help me sort this out?

      SHORT ANSWER: Even physicists do not really understand time.

      LONG ANSWER: Yes, you will find different interpretations in different schools of Buddhism and even within schools. The literalist take is that the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha was established ten kalpas ago and is and will continue to be in existence for a long time yet. As Buddhists we hope for a good rebirth and the best rebirth is one in the presence of a Buddha. If we are Amida Buddhists, we hope that that will be Amitabha Buddha. However, all Buddhas have or are in process of creating Pure Lands. Some people – sravakas – are happy to get to a Pure Land and stay there. Others – bodhisattvas – go there for a time but have made vows to return to realms that are not (or not yet) Pure Lands in order to help the salvational work of the Buddhas in those domains of delusion.

      There are approaches to Buddhism that take it that the Pure Land is not a domain but rather a state of mind. Imaginary, but imagination that is powerfully effective in one’s life, either here in this life or/and in future lives. Of course, from a subjective perspective it might be rather difficult to tell whether a Pure Land that one experiences oneself as being in was real or imaginary and even philosophically it might be difficult to define what these terms mean when what one is talking about are bardo transitions. There are, of course, also plenty of Buddhists who will tell you that this world is just imagination, too. It is possible that the question of whether experience is inside or outside of something called imagination is a complete red herring.

      From a modern physics point of view, time seems to be being regarded as a dimension of the universe and, apparently, the best fit idea with current scientific observations is the theory that we live in a cosmos that has eleven dimensions. I don’t think any of us really understand what this means and based on the record so far best scientific opinion could still change many times before we get to a point of confidence. Anyway, death is a mystery, but if you take it that the momentum of one’s life continues onward then the Buddhistic ideas do seem to me as satisfactory as any even if it is impossible sometimes to sort out how literally to take them, or even what “literally” would mean in this respect.

      As we say in Summary of Faith and Practice, you do not need to know all the answers to have your life usefully shaped by the faith.

      In my own life, the idea that I perhaps came from some kind of realm of light before birth fits well with childhood experience that I had. The idea that I might go back to such a realm fits well with a near death experience that I had in my twenties. I’m willing to take the stories and descriptions that one finds in the sutras in the manner in which one listens to travellers’ tales – as a fair description that might not turn out to be exact in every detail.

      As for Pure Land in this life, I think we are not going to make this world into anything close to the Pure Land that is described in the Pureland Sutras, but, that said, if one has confidence that one has been accepted by Amitabha then one feels oneself to already be a citizen of that Land of Bliss and that being so one can hardly avoid involving oneself in acts that tend in the direction of making wherever one is into some reflection of one’s true home. Buddhists, therefore, are naturally involved in making this world into a better place in one way or another. This is a practical matter.

      ~ Dharmavidya, February 27, 2016

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