Pure Land has us questioning our life’s goals
Every religious tradition offers a paradigm of its orientation to life and inspires followers to realize its values and ideals. In the Buddhist Pure Land tradition, we find this in the foundation story of the Treasury of Truth Bodhisattva. It is found in the Sutra on Eternal Life.
The story tells of the origin of the Pure Land, into which the faithful are believed to be born upon their death, according to the popular tradition. It is the optimum spiritual environment for becoming Buddha and attaining enlightenment.
According to the account, Treasury of Truth Bodhisattva was a king in a far-off mythic land in the universe. He desired to liberate all beings from the afflictions of finitude, suffering, births and deaths. Abdicating his throne, he began his quest for enlightenment under World Sovereign Buddha, the Buddha of his world. World Sovereign Buddha showed him a myriad of lands, each with good and bad features.
Treasury of Truth Bodhisattva selected all the good features from these lands to create his own. He promised that he would create this world through his 48 vows. The Bodhisattva practiced for eons of inconceivable time, finally reaching his goal. He became Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light who resides in his Pure Land. He is the object of devotion in the popular tradition in East Asia.
The story has been regarded by many skeptics as a virtual fairy tale. However, it offers several important insights that are required for the fulfillment of any spiritual ideal and has contemporary relevance.
In the first place, the resignation of the king from his throne suggests that politics alone cannot resolve the many issues and problems of society. A spiritual perspective and understanding is needed to deal with the conflicts, struggles, hatreds and violence that characterize contemporary life. More and more we are becoming a vast fortress seeking to wall off our enemies. Yet our efforts are limited when only material and political means are employed.
Secondly, we need the dedication and commitment of the ancient king who was willing to give up his worldly power to seek a deeper and truer resolution of suffering. He was determined to develop his life spiritually to find the way for others. He realized that he needed enlightenment and that his status as king did not automatically make him wiser. How often today do we see leaders, who are alumni of major schools, with great worldly knowledge and holding high positions, making the poorest and most destructive decisions?
Thirdly, a principle of selection and decision are implicit in the story. The Bodhisattva critically chose the best features from the many alternatives that would offer the most fruitful environment for enlightenment and end suffering. It is important that we develop our understanding and perspective to embrace the most inclusive and adequate approaches to life, leaving aside self-serving and superficial solutions.
In traditional religious history, the Pure Land that was realized in the story simply became an object of belief concerning the afterlife. However, it presents a challenge to our modern life by questioning what we are striving for. If we are not working toward the universal resolution of suffering or trying to settle the conflicts between people, individual or worldwide, what is the worth and purpose of our modern life? The issue is spiritual, challenging our values, commitments and breadth of view.
Alfred Bloom is an emeritus professor of religion at the University of Hawaii.