Once, the Buddha was asked if he was a god. The Buddha replied that no, he was not a god. Then was he an angel? No. A spirit? No. Then what was he? The Buddha replied that he was awakened. Since the Buddha, by his own assertion, is not a god, we do not worship him. We respect and are grateful to him for teaching us many different methods to help us find the way to be liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and like him, to become perfectly enlightened.
One of the methods the Buddha taught is Pure Land Buddhism. Though still in its formative years in the West, Pure Land Buddhism is widely practiced in Asia and its roots extend all the way to ancient India.
We generally think in terms of only one Buddha: Sakyamuni, who lived about 2500 years ago. But, since any sentient being can awaken and innumerable numbers have, there are innumerable Buddhas. Sakyamuni Buddha, after his enlightenment, explained that he saw not only his past lifetimes but also how the future would unfold.
Sakyamuni saw people in our time having more aflictions, worries, and wandering thoughts. Our deep-seated bad habits having become even more entrenched over thousands of lifetimes would make liberating ourselves solely by our own efforts almost impossible. He knew that to end one’s problems and attain lasting happiness many people would need the help of another Buddha: Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life.
Almost all of the teachings by Sakyamuni were the result of his being asked a question. In a departure from the norm, and knowing when the time was right, Sakyamuni initiated the teaching that introduced Amitabha and his pure land. This spontaneous teaching by Sakyamuni is what makes this teaching so special.
In this teaching, Sakyamuni recounted how the bodhisattva Dharmakara, after witnessing the suffering of sentient beings, spent five eons (an incredibly long period of time) studying all the Buddha lands. Dharmakara then made forty-eight vows, the fulfillment of which would create the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. He declared that he would not attain Buddhahood unless his vows for a perfect pure land, where all beings would advance along the Buddhist path and never again fall back on into samsara, were accomplished. Once these vows were accomplished, Dharmakara Bodhisattva became Amitabha Buddha. He is now speaking the Dharma in his pure land and helping all who are truly sincere in their vows to be reborn there.
With help from Amitabha, we do not have to rely solely on ourselves to attain enlightenment as we would with other methods. In Pure Land Buddhism, we rely on the compassionate Buddhas and bodhisattvas to help us. Thus, reliance on self and on another are combined as we request by way of our mindful chanting that Amitabha Buddha, through the strength
of his vows, help us to be reborn in his Pure Land as we breathe our last breath in our present body.
Amitabha also vowed that once we attain this rebirth, we will always progress in our practice and learning. We will be able to continue our practice in his Pure Land, or, when we choose, return to this and other worlds to help others, without being affected by unfavorable environments or our former bad habits. If we wish, we will be able to do this before we attain
Due to Amitabha Buddha’s merits and virtues, and the goodness of all the beings there, his Pure Land has innumerable wonders and advantages, all of which arise from the great vows, deeds, and purity of all the beings there. Through his vows, Amitabha helps all beings create the causes to plant the roots of goodness. With his deeds, he creates the conditions for beings to accumulate merits. With his purity, he has created a perfect land—one that is free from anger, and intolerance. It is a land of peace, serenity, and equality. In comparison, our world is one of delusion and suffering, filled with worry.
For countless people, Pure Land practice is the most suitable for several reasons. First, it is relatively easy to practice in almost any environment: alone, with other practitioners, or even amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Second, there are no difficult entry-level criteria. Even if one’s abilities and knowledge are modest, with belief, vows, and practice, we will be reborn in the Pure Land. Belief means that we need to believe in the Buddhas and their teachings, and in causality. We need to believe in ourselves and that we have the same true nature as the Buddha. We need to believe that by living a moral life and being mindful of Amitabha Buddha we will be born into the Western Pure Land and become a Buddha in one lifetime.
And third, due to the vows of Amitabha, achievement through this method can be attained more quickly and more easily than with other practices. We can understand this better through an analogy. We come to a river that we wish to cross. We can swim across but our baggage is very heavy and the water is treacherously deep.
Alternatively, we can get on a boat that will quickly and safely take us and our baggage to the other shore. Symbolically, the “other shore” is the achievement of enlightenment. The baggage we carry is our deep-seated bad habits and negative karmas accumulated
over uncountable lifetimes, and the boat is Amitabha Buddha's compassionate will.
The ticket to board the boat is belief, the sincere vow to be reborn in the Pure Land, and practice, which includes leading a moral life and mindfully chanting “Amituofo.”
— Chapter 1, "In One Lifetime: Pure Land Buddhism", Venerable Wuling