The Amitabha Sutra - Trees of Precious Gems
Updated: Jan 2
Furthermore, this land is called “Ultimate Bliss” because it is surrounded by seven rings of railings, and seven layers of netting, and seven rows of trees, all made of the four precious jewels.
Each of the seven rows of trees is neatly and methodically arranged. The beautiful branches, leaves, fruits, and flowers on the trees are made of precious gems. There is one line of railing, then one layer of netting, and then one row of trees. Beyond that is a second line of railing, a second layer of netting, and a second row of trees, and so on, until there are seven rows of railing, netting, and trees.
People may wonder why everything is in sevens: the railings, the netting, the trees. It all seems so rigid. There are reasons for such a specific number. In addition to the number seven representing the seven major components of the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment,
the number seven also stands for perfection in Mahayana Buddhism. Everything in the Pure Land—buildings, clothing, food, and more—reflect the preferences of the beings there. Everything accords with the beings’ wishes. Everything is therefore perfect. This excellence, this perfection, abounds in the Pure Land.
For example, no effort is required to build a house, to produce clothes, or to prepare food. The Infinite Life Sutra explains this phenomenon. If a being wants to live in a big house, the house will be big. If a small dwelling is preferred, it will be small. Prefer it to be in the air instead of on the ground? So be it. Everything is as one wishes. This sounds like all the beings in the Pure Land still have desires and wandering thoughts. Not at all. Only those who are newly arrived still do. Those who are more advanced have eliminated their residual habits and wandering thoughts.
In the Amitabha Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha described the lowest land, the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together. He did so because this is where we will most likely be born. After being born in this land, our residual habits and wandering thoughts will
be kept under control. But since they are not yet eliminated, these habits and thoughts can still arise. How?
Consider food. In the Pure Land, sustenance is unnecessary. But a being who has not yet eliminated all wandering thoughts may suddenly think of a particular dish. With that thought, the dish will appear. The being, seeing it suddenly materialize and inhaling its aromas, will remember that in the Pure Land sustenance is not required. With that realization, the food
will disappear. Gradually, due to the supportive power of Amitabha’s vows, help from their fellow practitioners, and the being’s own continued learning and practice, thoughts of things like food and houses will fade. In time, such thoughts will cease.
The amazing living environment in the Pure Land where all this happens is symbolized by the “four precious jewels” of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. These gems represent the four attributes of nirvana.
The first attribute of nirvana is permanence, which means constancy. In this passage, Sakyamuni Buddha described the unchanging, permanent environment in
the Western Pure Land. Except for those newly born in the Pure Land, the vast majority of beings there have eliminated their discriminations, attachments, and wandering thoughts. This results in permanence.
In marked contrast, our world is impermanent. We have yet to reduce our wandering thoughts, much less eliminate them. Indeed, we still immerse ourselves in them. Rising and falling at an incredible rate, these thoughts are constantly moving, ceaselessly changing.
Sakyamuni Buddha often spoke of the nine Dharma realms, which consist of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, asuras, the heavens, sound-hearers,
pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Which of these nine realms we find ourselves in depends on the levels we achieve in our cultivation of the ten virtuous karmas.
Sakyamuni further explained that all phenomena in these realms are “created by the mind and altered by the consciousness.” “The mind” refers to the true mind, and “the consciousness” refers to the false mind. Actually, the true mind and the false mind are the same mind. When one is completely awakened and is no longer
deluded, one’s mind is the true mind. When one is not yet awakened and is still deluded, one’s mind is the false mind.
In the Western Pure Land, as well, phenomena are created by the mind. But they are “not altered by the consciousness.” Beings in the Pure Land do not use the consciousness, the false mind. They use the true mind. The true mind is unchanging. The true mind explains
why there is permanence in the Pure Land, and the false mind explains why there is impermanence in the nine Dharma realms. In other words, permanence occurs when beings use the true mind, which is wisdom. In contrast, impermanence occurs when beings use the
false mind, which is the consciousness.
Consciousness has eight components, each with its respective function, or activity. The first five sub-consciousnesses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body consciousnesses see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, respectively. The sixth sub-consciousness, mental awareness,
discriminates. The seventh sub-consciousness, the thinking mind, attaches. The eighth sub-consciousness stores the seeds of our past physical, verbal, and mental karmas. These residual karmas include our wandering thoughts—all our impressions from countless lifetimes over innumerable kalpas. The eight sub-consciousnesses, all together, comprise the “consciousness.” The consciousness is the false mind that we beings in the nine Dharma realms use.
Beings who use the true mind still see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, but these sense consciousnesses do not plant any new seeds in the store consciousness. In other
words, with the true mind, these beings have no wandering thoughts, no discriminations, and no attachments.
The second attribute of nirvana is joy, which is pure and lasting. In our world, people do not have joy. At best, they can experience happiness, but it is neither pure nor enduring. Joy, on the other hand, is pure and enduring. It comes from progressing in one’s cultivation of precept observation, meditative concentration, and wisdom; from advancing on the bodhi path; and from learning every day. Doing all these, the beings in the Western Pure Land have great joy.
The third attribute of nirvana is true self. True self means to be in control, to have freedom. In the cycle of rebirth, we are not in control, not of others, not of the environment. Not even of ourself. After all, we do not wish to get caught up in thoughts of regret or resentment or worry, but we do. We do not desire to be separated from loved ones or to be around those we dislike, but we are. We do not want to get sick or become frail, and yet we will. We are not in control.
When we go to the Western Pure Land, however, we will be in control. We will not become sick or frail. We will not age. We will master our bad habits and our wandering thoughts. All these things happen even in the lowest of the four lands, the Land Where Sages
and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together.
The other three lands are the Land of Expedient Liberation, the Land of Real Reward, and the Land of Eternally Quiescent Light. Our natural assumption is to think the lands are separated with prescribed borders. In the Western Pure Land, however, such physical boundaries do not exist. The four lands actually overlap. As a result, we could be in the Land Where Sages
and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together while the being next to us is in the Land of Expedient Liberation.
Think of the lands as states of mind that we achieve due to our level of practice. The higher the level of attainment in practice, the higher the state of mind, the higher the land. For example, being born in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together
occurs through constant mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha. Constant mindfulness enables one to use the buddha-name to control afflictions, residual habits, and wandering thoughts. It is like placing a stone on some weeds. With the stone inhibiting the growth of the unwanted plants, they will wither. Continuing to keep the weeds in check will, in time, eliminate
In constant mindfulness, one is continuously aware of Amitabha Buddha. The degree of awareness can vary. When one is meditating on the name, one singlemindedly chants the name and is focused on it. Because one’s sole thought is of Amitabha Buddha, there
are no wandering thoughts. At other times, because one needs to concentrate on a task, focus will be divided. One will not be able to focus just on chanting. But
even though one is not single-mindedly concentrating on the name, one is continuously thinking of Amitabha. Here as well, wandering thoughts do not arise.
Understandably, lessened awareness of the name is not as powerful as single-minded focus. But even mindfulness that is not yet single-minded will enable the buddha-name to become more solidly established in our mind. Gradually, our focus will increase, and the chanting of the buddha-name will allow us to restrain our afflictions until we eradicate them.
When we attain constant mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha, our afflictions will not arise. Thus, we will neither be angry in adverse conditions nor be attached to those that are favorable. We will be in this state naturally—there will not be any intentional control.
In other words, we will focus on chanting Amitabha’s name, and will not have to think, “I need to chant Amitabha’s name to control my afflictions and attachments.” Exerting an effort to control these occurs when we are at the stage of learning and practice, at a point
when we have not yet achieved constant mindfulness. When we achieve it, we will not exert any effort to control our afflictions and attachments, but will react naturally.
There are nine levels of birth in constant mindfulness. Our achievement will determine which level we will be at. The levels also indicate how and when we pass away. If we are in one of the higher three levels, we will be able to pass away whenever we wish. At that time, we can go without any illness. We may be seated, or even standing. If we do not yet feel like leaving this world, we can stay longer. Everything can be achieved at will. If we are in the middle three levels, we will be able to know a few months in advance when we are going to pass away. Again, we may leave this world standing or seated. If we are in the lower three levels, we may know several days in advance of our death but can become ill before we die.
The Land of Expedient Liberation is where arhats, pratyekabuddhas, and lower-level bodhisattvas, after eradicating the affliction of views and thoughts, dwell. Beings born in this land have attained a lower level of one-mind undisturbed, that of one-mind undisturbed
at the level of phenomena.
The Land of Real Reward is where higher-level bodhisattvas dwell. Beings born in this land have attained a higher level of one-mind undisturbed, that of one-mind undisturbed at the level of noumenon. Through continuous chanting of the buddha-name, they have not only eradicated the affliction of views and thoughts but have also eradicated the affliction of
dust and sand, which is discrimination.
The Land of Eternally Quiescent Light is the land where Buddhas dwell.
Which of these four lands we are born in depends on the level of our practice. If we are born in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together, we will be able to visit Buddhas in the ten directions every day to learn from them.
If we are born in the Land of Real Reward, we will no longer need to go to other pure lands to learn from different Buddhas. When we want to see a particular Buddha, that Buddha will be right in front of us even though he is still teaching in his own land. In the Land of Real Reward we are no longer bound by time and space. There is no need to travel anywhere. The Buddhas in the three times of the past, present, and future, and of the ten directions will be right in front of us. This is an incredible state.
The fourth attribute of nirvana is purity, which refers to a mind free of attachments. Do the beings in the Western Pure Land go back to the cycle of rebirth? Yes, they most certainly do. But not because their respective karmic forces pull them back. They go back, and they do so willingly, because of their vows to help those still trapped in suffering. How do they help? By
With pure minds, the bodhisattvas in the Western Pure Land have no attachments, not even when they are in the heavens to help beings there. Neither do the bodhisattvas have afflictions, not even when they are in the hells, where suffering abounds, to help the beings
there. To the bodhisattvas, the ten Dharma realms are all the same. Thus, wherever they go in the realms, bodhisattvas have no afflictions and no attachments.
Although they do not feel happiness or suffering, when they return to the cycle of rebirth, they sometimes act like they do. Such skillful behavior facilitates teaching, for it helps people feel that awakened beings are not so very different from them. People are thus inspired to think, “if they can succeed in their cultivation, I, too, should be able to succeed.”
When they go to a world to teach the beings there, bodhisattvas manifest in the most suitable form for each being. They do so intuitively and naturally. And they do so in countless Dharma realms at the same moment in time. This is true joy. True purity. In our world, the four attributes of permanence, joy, true self, and purity do not exist. Everything here is
impermanent, and there is no real happiness. There is no true self. People are attached to their physical body, believing it to be the self. But the body is not in control. It has no freedom. Also, peoples’ minds are not pure here. Their thoughts are tainted with selfishness, greed, anger, ignorance, and arrogance. The reality is that this world is painfully different from the Western Pure Land, where there is permanence, joy, true self, and purity. Why remain here when we can go to that land instead!
— Chapter 9, "Pure Mind, Compassionate Heart: Lessons from the Amitabha Sutra", Venerable Wuling
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