Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 33

Bodhisattvas of the Buddha lands in the nine other quarters
Likewise go to pay homage to Amida;
Sakyamuni Tathagata has taught in verse
The praise of the Buddha's immeasurable virtues.

Why is Amida Buddha's Pure Land in the West?

The Buddha said to Ananda, 'The majestic radiance of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is exalted and supreme; the radiance of other Buddhas cannot compare with it. Some Buddhas' light shines upon a hundred Buddha-lands, and other Buddhas' light shines upon a thousand Buddha-lands. Briefly stated, the light of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life illuminates all the Buddha-lands in the eastern quarter, which are as many as the sands of the Ganges. In like manner, it reaches those in the southern, western, northern, and four intermediate quarters, as well as above or below.'1

Sukhavati, Land of Happiness, Amida Buddha's Pure Land, is always spoken of as being in the western quarter of the compass. Is this a primitive view of the cosmos based on the naïve ideas of pre-scientific peoples? While it is true that the Abhidharma Kosha Bhasyam describes a static stage-like world, it makes no sense on that count to suggest that Amida Tathagata's Pure Land is located in the 'west' when the Pure Land, as the realm of nirvana, completely transcends the realm of birth-and-death, of samsara.

Contemplating the features of that world,
I see that it transcends the three realms.2.
It is infinite, like space,
Vast and boundless.3

The Pure Land is not a heaven of any kind as it transcends the world of desire (Sk. kama-dhatu) where the heavens are found. It does not belong to anything the unenlightened can know, except to the extent that it is described in visual terms, which exhibit its deathless values. The graphic descriptions of the 'transformed Buddha-lands' in the Three Pure Land Sutras, are intended to dismantle our prejudices and lead us to truth by way of attraction. This is simply the obverse of the negative methodology, which is used in other schools of the dharma.

Monks and laypeople of this latter age and the masters of these days, drowned in the concepts of 'one's self-nature [being identical with Buddha]' and '[all that exists is in] one's mind,' despise true enlightenment in the Pure Land.4

Why then is the Pure Land of Amida Buddha repeatedly decribed so specifically as being in the west?

Shakymuni exhorted his disciples to begin each day by paying reverence to the four directions of the compass, and the zenith and nadir. Each of these directions, it is said, represents one kind or another of human relationship. North, for example, is 'the way of a man and his friend'. The west, however, is the direction which reminds us of domestic, conjugal relationships. Does Amida Buddha stand in the west because his way is the way for householders? It is doubtful, since the Larger Sutra itself is addressed to sthaviras (elders - senior monks) as well as bodhisattvas.

If we had the time, we would find our answer by standing outside and looking at the sky for twenty-four hours. Assuming the sky is clear and we started watching in the morning, we would see the sun rise and then move towards the west. Then the great and glorious procession of stars, galaxies, planets, and the moon also move westwards.

Amida's Pure Land is in the west. This wasan celebrates the Larger Sutra's description of all enlightened beings - and those on the path - moving like the sun, the stars and the moon, inexorably to the west. Likewise, the ultimate destination of the entire uncountable mass of beings, is Amida Buddha's Pure Land, and, with that, nirvana.

The idea that nirvana is the inexorable, inevitable, natural and ultimate destiny of all beings - has its antecedents in the ancient ultra-orthodox school of Buddha Dharma known as the 'Completion of Truth' (Sk. satyasiddhi). Although extinct now, this school is considered to have been deeply faithful to the very earliest teaching of the Buddha.

Like the planets ('wanderers' - samsara also means 'wandering') we may go on being lost for eternity but sooner or later we will arrive at the Pure Land. If - in this life - Amida Buddha's shinjin becomes settled for us, this event is only be a heartbeat away.

1: TPLS II p. 36.

2: The three realms are 1) arupya-dhatu (the realm of no form), which includes boundless space; 2) rupa-dhatu (the realm of subtle form), which includes the dhyanas, or meditative states; 3) kama-dhatu (the realm of desire), which includes human beings, heavens, gods, fighting spirits and the hells.

3: Vasubandhu Bodhisattva, CWS, p. 191.

4: Kyogyoshinsho: On Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment by Shinran, tr. Hisao Inagaki, BDK English Tripitaka 105-I, p. 83.

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