Two Kinds of Pure Land

By Rev. Ryoko Osa

In October, 2007, I was able to hear a lecture by Prof. Ichiro Ogawa of Otani University. I had heard him once before in Japan (Otani University is in Japan) and enjoyed his lecture, but I was surprised that I the same fresh feeling once again. Previously, I thought I had listened and understood but actually, I hadn’t understood him and had forgotten what he said, even though I had been moved by his words at the time.

Today I would like to introduce one of his lectures to you that I feel concerns an important topic. Have you ever heard that there are two levels or two kinds of Pure Land? One is a skillful but "tentative" Pure Land, while the other is the True Pure Land.

The tentative Pure Land is the way toward the True Pure Land. The Primal Vow*, Tathagata* and Paradise are also kinds of skillful means so as to let us go to the True Pure Land. The Amida sutra mentions a beautiful castle, beautiful music, and many kinds of jewels; there is a description of joy and peace as representing the Pure Land, but it is actually a story of skillful means, which draws us toward the True Pure Land. Similarly, riding in a car is the way to get to our destination. The purpose is not to ride in a car, but to go somewhere.

In the history of Pure Land Buddhism; Chinese Pure Land Buddhism emphasized the skillful tentative Pure Land, but not true Pure Land itself. And, because of the influence from China, Japanese Pure Land Buddhism also talks more about tentative Pure Land—that the Pure Land is like a "paradise." However, Shinran Shonin showed us that all of these stories are just skillful means, just methods to bring us go toward the True Pure Land. And, like the analogy to riding in a car, these stories are not our destination or goal. Our goal is to go to the True Pure Land. This is our destination. In a similar analogy, if moon is the True Pure Land, we often tend to look at the finger pointing to the moon—the skillful means—and miss the moon itself.

In Shinran Shonin’s teaching, our goal is not the Primal Vow or Amida*, our goal is the true Pure Land. So what is Amida? Amida is like a car ride, which takes us to our destination. So, in other words, Amida takes us to the true Pure Land. The True Pure Land is Nirvana. This is our goal. You may know basic Three Marks of Existence: The first is Impermanence, the second is Non-Self, and the third is Nirvana. Nirvana is a peace, and sometimes it is called "the other shore" as opposed to this world of suffering. Nirvana means perfect calmness and "zero."

"Zero" means "non-self." We all are originally non-self. We live in a world of causes and conditions. We live in the world of relation, which is like a web. We are not here by ourselves. We are here in a myrad of relationships.

Is a child born only because of its parents? Naturally, we would say "Yes." But if that is true, then those parents must have existed before the child was born. But in another sense, are there any parents without a child? Actually no; it is because of the child that the parents are there and vice versa. Both of them must be the cause of the other.

Likewise, because you are here, I am here as a speaker, Because of you, we are having this service today and because of the service, you are here.

We naturally think that “I am here”; “I exist.” However, we exist because of many conditions, and if those conditions are removed, what would remain? The answer is that nothing would remain as you think of yourself. This is the meaning of "non-self" and "zero." We are non-self and zero, but because of many causes and conditions, we are here. I am non-self, and I am temporary. We are here in this relationship. All things exist as they are, because of causes and conditions. This concept is known as dependent co-arising*.

Shakyamuni taught the concept of dependent co-arising in order to destroy the contemporary ideas of reincarnation, because people in India at that time were suffering and worried about being reborn in forms other than in human form. The concept of dependent co-arising demonstrated to them that there actually is no everlasting “soul” (atman) which is constantly being reborn. Nirvana is the consequence of this awakening to this concept. Nirvana saves people who are suffering and worried about reincarnation.

We know that we don’t live through our own energy. Many causes and conditions allow as to live. However, we normally think that “I am here” and “I exist” through my own power. We may listen to the Dharma and be content, but we soon forget and think that there is “I” and that "I live my life." This is not enlightenment, not Nirvana, but listening to the Dharma is in fact the starting-point for achieving Nirvana. We must listen to and be content with hearing the teaching. And then try to live the teaching of non-self, of "zero." However, it is so hard for us to live as we are, and therefore we always need to listen to the Dharma again and again to remind us that we all were zero originally. And that we will return to the zero when all of our conditions disappear.

However honestly, I am afraid of dying even though I know I will just return to the zero. I am afraid of death and wonder where we came from and where we are going. Even as I listen to the Dharma, and even as I am content with the Dharma, I can’t live as an enlightened person. Therefore, I can’t stop listening to the Dharma; I need to listen to it. The Dharma teaches me and tells me not to be too concerned about my limited and impermanent life. We were zero originally and we will naturally return to zero when all of our conditions have been completed. In this respect, the Dharma demonstrates to us not only how incredible our lives are, but also, how hard it is for us as humans to live completely in this moment. Unbelievable numbers of causes and conditions make us live in wonder.

Listening to the Dharma makes every moment bright, fresh, and important. I am amazed at every moment and every event. When the Dharma reminds me of this truth, I see everything is colorful and bright, and deeply appreciate my being here.

*Definitions from The Tannisho Glossary, by Dr. Taitetsu Unno
Primal Vow (hongan):
The transcendental wish and prayer of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light to bring all beings to supreme enlightenment, including the power to effect its successful realization in the midst of samsaric life.

Tathagata: Literally, "thus-come" from the world of enlightenment to effect the salvation of all beings. Synonym of the Buddha, used in compound form as Amida Tathagata (Amida Nyorai).

Amida: Amida Buddha - Literally, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (amitayus, symbolizing compassion) and Immeasurable Light (amitabha, symbolizing wisdom). Amida is not some kind of being but a dynamic salvific activity which leads a person to supreme enlightenment through Light, the radiance of true wisdom (prajña), illuminating the darkest recesses of self and the world to transform negative karma into positive karma by the power of compassion (karuna).

*Dependent co-arising (also known as the wisdom of non-origination): Wisdom that sees reality as-it-is, devoid of an abiding essence and frequently referred to as sunyata (emptiness). As such, it does not appear or disappear in the conventional sense as seen by a deluded mind. This reality as-it-is is summed up in the phrase, "non-origination."

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