The Amitabha Sutra - A Land of Joy without Suffering
Why is this land called Ultimate Bliss?
It is called “Ultimate Bliss” because the sentient beings in this land are free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind, and only know every kind of joy.
Although Sakyamuni Buddha was talking to Sariputra, he was addressing all those in the assembly and those of us to come. Throughout the Amitabha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha asked several questions and then proceeded to answer every one himself while Sariputra remained silent. For him, the wisest of the arhats, to not even attempt an answer to any of Sakyamuni’s questions indicates how profound this sutra is.
“Why is this land called Ultimate Bliss?” is the first question Sakyamuni Buddha posed.
When Sariputra respectfully did not respond, Sakyamuni began to describe the myriad wonders in the Pure Land, starting with its name. The name of the land is Ultimate Bliss because the sentient beings there have overcome their afflictions through mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha. No longer acting from greed, anger, and ignorance or from a mind that has wandering thoughts, discriminations, and attachments, the beings are always blissful. The name of the land reflects this great joy. Thus, the beings in that land are “free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind.”
Buddhism summarizes these as eight types of suffering.
The first suffering is birth. An unborn baby not only has form but also feelings and consciousness. Sakyamuni explained that due to feelings and consciousness, the baby feels pain while in the womb. At birth, the baby finds itself being expelled from the womb and pushed through the narrow birth canal. Thrust from the only environment that it knows, it suddenly encounters one that is very different: air instead of fluid, light instead of darkness, coolness instead of warmth. First pain, then shock. Little wonder babies cry at birth.
The second suffering is old age. As we age, we find that our energy is not what it used to be. Experiencing aches and pains, we are more sensitive to heat and cold. Wanting to remember a name, we cannot. Wanting to see or hear something, we realize that these senses have weakened with time. Wishing to move hurriedly, we fail to do so for our legs are not as strong nor our reflexes as quick as they once were. Suffering from the deterioration of these and other faculties, we fear they will worsen even more in the future.
The third suffering is sickness, both mental and physical. We may cry out for help, but no one comes. Given our favourite food, we may find that we have no appetite. We may be in pain and need medicine, but be unable to obtain it. When we do get the medication, we may become dependent upon it or find that it no longer helps us. Severely troubled mentally and emotionally, we find that others, unable to relate to our pain, are not always sympathetic. Their inability to empathize just adds to our suffering.
The fourth suffering is death. When we are dying, our body is weak, and we are unable to control it. We want to sleep, but our sleep is erratic. Or we want to stay awake, but invariably find ourself drifting off. We may slip into unconsciousness and be unable to chant. At that point, even if others are chanting for us, it will be hard for us to be born in the Western Pure Land. If we are still conscious, we may want to die because our pain is unbearable or we are utterly exhausted. But still, we live. Fearful of what will happen to us when we die, we do not know which suffering is greater: life or death. So we cling to the former in fear of the latter.
The fifth suffering is separation from loved ones. A person we love no longer returns our love and leaves us. Our children grow up and, having busy lives, no longer come to visit. We want to care for our parents, but find ourselves forced to leave them when our work takes us elsewhere. When we are dying, we have to leave all those we love. Worried about their futures, we realize there is nothing we can do, and we suffer even more.
The sixth suffering is association with those that one dislikes. This suffering also includes things and situations we dislike. We no longer love the person we once did, but find ourselves trapped in the relationship. Required to work with people who always speak ill of us and who we mistrust, we are fearful and ill at ease. Feeling trapped in lives we cannot control, in families whose members are our karmic enemies, in situations with people who hold very different views and goals, we see no end to our suffering.
The seventh suffering is unfulfilled desires. We strain against our fate. Those without power crave it, the childless yearn for children, the impoverished dream of wealth. Rarely are our hopes fulfilled and our expectations realized. When we do attain what we want, things change, and we lose what we have. The suffering seems interminable.
The eighth suffering is due to the five aggregates of form, feeling, conception, impulse, and consciousness. Simply put, the suffering due to the five aggregates is the absence of both physical and mental well-being.
Form, the first aggregate, refers to matter, our physical body.
Feeling, the second aggregate, while usually associated with our body, is actually mental phenomena. Feeling includes pain, happiness, and so on.
Conception, the third aggregate, refers to the sixth, or mental awareness, consciousness.
Impulse, the fourth aggregate, refers to the seventh, or thinking mind, consciousness. Impulse describes the continuous, uninterrupted flow of thoughts that examines and considers. As soon as one such thought ceases, the next arises immediately, streaming through our mind at an incredible rate. The vast majority of these thoughts are too subtle for us to notice, but we are nonetheless affected by their vibrations. And no matter how subtle the thoughts may be, they are mental karmas and, as such, will bring about their related karmic effects.
Consciousness, the fifth aggregate, refers to the eighth, or store, consciousness. Consciousness means “storing” and is indestructible. Our actions are karmic. They all sow their own seeds and these accumulate in our store consciousness. When certain seeds in this store consciousness encounter the right conditions, they mature. This maturation leads to the next rebirth and its ensuing life, which with few exceptions will be subject to the eight types of suffering. At the end of this new life, again, some seeds in the store consciousness encounter the right conditions and mature. Once more we are reborn. And once more we suffer. The suffering thus continues like a never-ending spiral.
Hoping to help us end our suffering, Sakyamuni Buddha encouraged us to seek birth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Once there, we will break out of this cycle of death and rebirth, and “only know every kind of joy.” How so?
There is no suffering from the process of birth because beings in the Pure Land are born from lotuses, not from the womb. There is no suffering from old age or sickness because the body is not composed of flesh, blood, and bones. There is no suffering from death for the lifetime in the Pure Land is infinite and concludes in buddhahood. Neither is there suffering of separation from loved ones because beings in that land have no attachments. There is no association with those that one dislikes because everyone is awakened. And there is no suffering from unfulfilled desires because should a being have the thought of something, it will appear naturally.
As we now know, when seeds in our store consciousness encounter the right conditions, they mature. This process of the seeds ripening causes us to undergo endless rebirths and suffering in samsara because, far too often, it is our bad seeds that will develop.
In the Pure Land, however, the bad seeds in the beings’ store consciousnesses do not have the conditions to mature. Why? Because everything the beings see and hear helps them to give rise to pure thoughts, to chant Amitabha Buddha’s name. With only the seeds for goodness and for attaining buddhahood maturing, the beings no longer give rise to form, feeling, conception, impulse, and consciousness, the five aggregates that had previously kept them trapped in the cycle of rebirth.
All these are just some of the reasons why Sakyamuni Buddha assured us that the beings in that land “are free from the myriad sufferings common to mankind, and only know every kind of joy.”
— Chapter 8, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling