The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 8: Rebirth in the Land of Bliss

Rebirth in an auspicious realm is a ubiquitous concern in the Buddhist traditions, with practice directed towards avoiding a sorrowful rebirth and assuring a happy rebirth, whether for oneself or for others. Among the six realms of rebirth, those of humans and gods are considered happy; one is reborn there as a result of a virtuous deed performed in the past. But neither realm is without its shortcomings. The problems of the human realm are well known, and the various heavens of the gods, although replete with sublime pleasures, are temporary; one must die there and be reborn elsewhere. Thus, the Buddha advised his followers to seek the ultimate peace of nirvana, beyond the vicissitudes of deeds and their consequences. However, nirvana was considered a difficult goal and, throughout the history of Buddhism, various alternatives to it have been set forth, none perhaps more famous than the so-called ‘pure land

The Mahayana sutras described a universe filled with numerous world-systems, generally similar to our own. These worlds differed largely in terms of the degree of happiness and suffering to be found there. This was, in turn, dependent on two factors: the karma of the inhabitants and whether or not the world was considered ‘fortunate’, that is, whether or not a buddha was present in the world during a given aeon. In such a fortunate time and fortunate place, the world became a “buddha-field’, a site for the deeds of a buddha. The purpose of the buddha was to purify the world, both by teaching the dharma and through miraculous deeds. Worlds existed in various degrees of purification, with the most pure having no realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts, or animals. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Mahayana sutras envisioned the simultaneous presence of many buddhas in many worlds, throughout the universe. It was considered possible to gain rebirth in one of these worlds, under the care of one of these buddhas, and rebirth in a buddhafield became a popular goal of Buddhist practice in the Mahayana.

The most famous of those buddhafields was called Sukhdavati, the ‘Land of Bliss’; its existence and the means to gain rebirth in it were set forth in two sutras, both known as the Wonderful Panoply of the Land of Bliss; (Sukhavativyuha), one long and one short. The shorter sutra appears in its entirety here. The Land of Bliss is presided over by a buddha named Amitayus (Measureless Life) in the short sutra, Amitabha (Measureless Light) in the long sutra. The long sutra explains how he became a buddha. The shorter sutra is devoted largely to describing his land and its many wonders, including the fact that even the names for the realms of animals and the realms of hell are not known; all of the beings born there will achieve enlightenment in their next lifetime. In order to be reborn there, one should dedicate one’s merit to that goal and bear in mind the name of Amitayus. Those who are successful in doing so will see Amitayus and a host of bodhisattvas before them at the moment of death, ready to escort them to the Land of Bliss. The recitation of the buddha’s name became one of the most popular practices of East Asian Buddhism (see chapters 42 and 58), and a central element of death rituals (see the following chapter).

In order to demonstrate the efficacy of this practice, the Buddha goes on to list the names of many other buddhas abiding in the four cardinal directions, the nadir and the zenith, who also praise the buddha-field of Amitayus. Furthermore, those who hear the names of the buddhas he has just recited will be embraced by those buddhas. Perhaps to indicate how his own buddha-field (that is, our world) differs from that of Amitayus, the Buddha concludes by conceding that it has been difficult to teach the dharma in a world as degenerate as ours.

The two sutras entitled Wonderful Panoply of the Land of Bliss would become among the most famous in the Buddhist world, with the shorter version being widely memorized and copied by those who sought rebirth in the Land of Bliss.

The Wonderful Panoply of the Land of Bliss

This I once heard. The Blessed One was staying in Sravasti, in Jeta’s grove, in Anathapindada’s garden, with a large gathering of monks – one thousand two hundred and fifty monks.

And they were true elders, great disciples, arhats: for instance, the elder Sariputra, and Maha-Maudgalyayana, Maha-Kasyapa, Maha-Katyayana, Maha-Kapphina, Maha-Kausthila, Revata, Suddhipanthaka, Nanda, Ananda, Rahula, Gavampati, Bhara-dvaja,

Kalodayin, Vakkula and Aniruddha, and many other great disciples.

And he was also accompanied by many bodhisattvas mahasattvas: for instance, Manjusri the true prince, Ajita the bodhisattva mahasattva, Gandhahastin the bodhisattva mahasattva, Nityodyukta the bodhisattva mahasattva, and Aniksiptadhura the bodhisattva mahasattva, and many other bodhisattvas mahasattvas.

And he was also accompanied by Sakra, lord of the gods, and by Brahma, lord of the Saha world, and by many other hundreds of thousands of trillions of gods.

Then, the Blessed One addressed the reverend Sariputra: ‘In the western quarter, Sariputra, crossing hundreds of thousands of millions of buddha-fields beyond this buddha-field, there is a world- system called “Blissful”. There, a tathagata, arhat, perfect and full buddha called Amitayus at this moment stays, remains, lives on and teaches the dharma.

‘Now, Sariputra, what do you think? Why is this world-system called “Blissful”? Sariputra, the living beings in this world-system called Blissful suffer no bodily pain and no mental pain, rather they gain measureless causes for happiness. For this reason, this world-system is called “Blissful”.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, the world-system Blissful is adorned and enclosed on every side by seven railings, seven rows of palm trees, and nets of bells. It is colourful and charming. Sariputra, this buddha-field is made of the four precious substances: namely, gold, silver, chrysoberyl and crystal.

‘It is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, in the world-system Blissful, there are lotus ponds made of the seven precious substances. They are full of water that possesses the eight good qualities of water. They are completely covered by jewelled lotus blossoms. And they are so full that a crow could drink from the edge of the pond. Their bottoms are covered with golden sand. On the four sides of each of these ponds are four flights of steps, colourful, charming, each made of one of the four precious substances – namely, gold, silver, chrysoberyl and crystal. And on the banks of these ponds grow majestic gem trees, colourful and charming, made of the seven precious substances – namely, gold, silver, chrysoberyl, crystal, red pearl, agate and coral. And in all those ponds grow lotus flowers – golden, gold coloured, with a golden sheen, or with a tinge of gold; blue, blue coloured, with a blue sheen, with a tinge of blue; yellow, yellow coloured, with a yellow sheen, or with a tinge of yellow; red, red coloured, with a red sheen, with a tinge of red; white, white coloured, with a white sheen, with a tinge of white; variegated, of many colours, with the sheen of many colours, with a tinge of many colours. And they grow as large as a wagon wheel.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, in the world-system Blissful, heavenly musical instruments are constantly played.

‘The great earth is of a charming golden colour, enchanting.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, in the world-system Blissful, a shower of heavenly mandarava blossoms pours down three times a night and three times a day. And the living beings who have been reborn there, in the time before their one morning meal, go to other buddha-fields, worship a hundred thousand million buddhas, and return to that world-system in time for their afternoon nap, having showered each tathagata with a hundred thousand million downpours of blossoms.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, in that world-system Blissful there are wild geese, cranes and peacocks. Three times a night, three times a day they gather together and form a chorus; and each sings with its own voice. And as they sing, the voices they emit proclaim the spiritual faculties, the spiritual powers and the elements of awakening. When the sentient beings reborn there hear these voices, they bring to mind the Buddha, they bring to mind the dharma, they bring to mind the sangha.

‘Now, Sariputra, what do you think, were these living beings ever in an animal womb? You should not see it in this way. Why is this so? In that buddha-field, Sariputra, even the words for unfortunate rebirths are not known, words for the inhabitants of the hells, or the words for the various forms of rebirth in animal wombs, or for the beings from the realm of Yama. Rather, those flocks of birds were created magically by the tathagata Amitayus to sing with the voice of dharma.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-flelds.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, when the rows of palm trees and nets of bells in that buddha-field are swayed by the wind, a sweet and enrapturing sound proceeds from them. It is, Sariputra, like a heavenly musical instrument composed of a hundred thousand million playing parts – when it is played by skilled musicians, a sweet and enrapturing sound proceeds from it. When the human beings there hear this sound, remembrance of the Buddha pervades their bodies, remembrance of the dharma pervades their bodies, remembrance of the sangha pervades their bodies.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Now, what do you think, Sariputra, why is that tathagata called Amitayus? Sariputra, the lifespan of that tathagata is immeasurable. This is why that tathagata is called Amitayus.

‘Now, what do you think, Sariputra, why is that tathagata called Amitabha? Sariputra, the light of that tathagata is unhindered in all the buddha-fields. This is why that tathagata is called Amitabha.

‘Since the blessed one tathagata Amitabha completely awakened to full and perfect awakening, ten cosmic eras have elapsed.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, that tathagata has an immeasurable assembly of disciples who are all pure arhats, and the number of these disciples is not easy to count.

‘Furthermore, Sariputra, the sentient beings who are reborn in that buddha-field are all pure bodhisattvas, who will not fall back, who are separated from awakening by only one birth. Sariputra, the number of these bodhisattvas is not easy to count, other than to estimate their number as “immeasurable and countless”.

‘Sariputra, this buddha-field is adorned with arrays of such excellent qualities, qualities that are unique to buddha-fields.

‘Therefore, Sariputra, sons of a good family and daughters of a good family should devotedly dedicate their roots of good to rebirth in that buddha-field. Why? Because they will indeed meet there with good men like the above. Sariputra, living beings are not reborn in that buddha-field of the tathagata Amitayus as a result of an inferior root of merit.

‘Whichever son of a good family or daughter of a good family will hear the name of the blessed Amitayus, the tathagata, and having heard it, will bring it to mind, and without distractions keep it in mind for one night, two nights, three nights, four nights, five nights, six nights or seven nights, will be free from distorted views at the time of death. And Amitayus, the tathagata, surrounded by an assembly of disciples and preceded by a host of bodhisattvas, will stand before him or her at the hour of death. When this son or this daughter of a good family dies, he or she will be reborn in the world-system Sukhavati, the buddha-field of that same Amitayus, the tathagata.

‘Therefore, then, Sariputra, understanding well the meaning of this, I declare: “A son of a good family, or a daughter of a good family should reverently vow to be reborn in that buddha-field.”

‘Sariputra, as I here now praise that world-system, in exactly the same manner, Sariputra, other buddhas in the eastern quarter, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Aksobhya, the tathagata named Merudhvaja, the tathagata named Meru, the tathagata named Mahameru, the tathagata named Mahameru-prabhasa, the tathagata named Manjughosa and the tathagata named Manjusvara, Sariputra, equal in number to the sands of all the Ganges rivers in the eastern quarter, each covers his own buddha-field with his tongue. Place your trust in this discourse on dharma, called “Embraced by AH Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘In the same manner, other buddhas in the southern quarter, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Candrasuryapradipa, the tathagata named Yasas, the tathagata named Yasamprabha, the tathagata named Maharciskandha, the tathagata named Merupradipa and the tathagata named Anantavirya, Sariputra, equal in number to the sands of all the Ganges rivers in the southern quarter, each covers his own buddha-field with his tongue. Place your trust in this discourse on dharma, called “Embraced by All Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘In the same manner, other buddhas in the western quarter, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Amitayus, the tathagata named Amitaskandha, the tathagata named Amitadhvaja, the tathagata named Mahaprabha, the tathagata named Rasmi-prabha, the tathagata named Maharatnaketu and the tathagata named Suddharasmiprabha, Sariputra, equal in number to the sands of all the Ganges rivers in the western quarter, each covers his own buddha-field with his tongue. Place your trust in this discourse on dharma, called “Embraced by All Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘In the same manner, other buddhas in the northern quarter, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Maharuciskandha, by the tathagata named Vaisvanaranirghosa, the tathagata named Duspradharsa, the tathagata named Adityasambhava, the tathagata named Jaliniprabha and the tathagata named Pra-bhakara,

“Embraced by All Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘In the same manner, other buddhas in the nadir, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Simha, by the tathagata named Yasas, the tathagata named Yasahprabhasa, the tathagata named Dharma, the tathagata named Dharmadhara and the tathagata named Dharmadhvaja, Sariputra, equal in number to the sands of all the Ganges rivers in the nadir, each covers his own buddha-field with his tongue. Place your trust in this discourse on dharma, called “Embraced by All Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘In the same manner, other buddhas in the zenith, blessed ones led by the tathagata named Brahmaghosa, by the tathagata named Naksatraraja, the tathagata named Gandhottama, the tathagata named Gandhaprabhasa, the tathagata named Gandhaskandha, the tathagata named Ratnakusumasampuspita-gatra, the tathagata named Salendraraja, the tathagata named Ratnotpalasri, the tathagata named Sarvarthadarsa and the tathagata named Sumerukalpa, Sariputra, equal in number to the sands of all the Ganges rivers in the quarter of the zenith, each covers his own buddha-field with his tongue. Place your trust in this discourse on dharma, called “Embraced by All Buddhas”, which extols inconceivable excellent qualities.

‘Now what do you think, Sariputra, what is the reason that this discourse on dharma is called “Embraced by All Buddhas”?

Sariputra, whichever sons of a good family or daughters of a good family hears, has heard or will hear the name of this discourse on dharma and the names of those buddhas, blessed ones, they all will be embraced by the buddhas, blessed ones.

‘Sariputra, all those who will set, have set, or are now setting their minds on rebirth in the buddha-field of that blessed one Amitayus the tathagata, none of them will ever fall back from unsurpassable, perfect and full awakening, they have never fallen back, they are not falling back.

‘Sariputra, as I at present here extol such inconceivable excellent qualities of those buddhas, blessed ones, in exactly the

same manner, Sariputra, those buddhas, blessed ones, also extol my own inconceivable excellent qualities which are just like theirs.’

Sariputra declared, ‘It is indeed a rare and wondrous event that the blessed one Sakyamuni, the monarch of the Sakyas, after he awakened to unsurpassable, perfect and full awakening in this Saha world-system, taught a dharma that the whole world was reluctant to accept, at the time of the decay of the cosmic age, when living beings had decayed, when views and opinions corrupted humans, when the length of human life had declined, when the afflictions corrupted humans.’

The Blessed One said, ‘This was even for me, Sariputra, a most difficult task to perform: that after I awakened to unsurpassable, perfect and full awakening in this Saha world-system, I taught a dharma that the whole world was reluctant to accept, during the time of the five corruptions of the cosmic age.’

When the Blessed One had spoken, the reverend Sariputra remained enraptured, and he, with the great disciples, and the bodhisattvas, and the world with its gods, humans, asuras and gandharvas, rejoiced at what the Blessed One had said.

Translated by Luis O. Gomez, from the Tibetan translation of Danasila and Ye-shes-sde, Derge edition (Sde-dge): Tohoku 115, Mdo-sde, ja, pp. 195b4-200a2.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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