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A Guaranteed Method for Entering the Buddhist Pureland

One thing that always struck me about Buddhist cosmology was how the gods are treated in various texts.  In some schools, the god realms are seen as literal places where people go based on the karma they accumulate before dying.  In other schools, they are seen more as archetypes that convey symbolic truths and act as teaching tools.  In any event, every school seems to think that we as humans should pity the gods.

This seems strange on the surface.  Why would we pity beings with perfect teeth, perfect health, and perfect lives?  The Buddhist answer is that being a god is undesirable because gods don't suffer.  And without suffering, they have no opportunities to practice the dharma.  In fact, I've often heard it said that suffering is the mother of the Buddha.  And I believe this is both literally and figuratively true. 

Buddha, Shinran, Dogen and a host of other Buddhist patriarchs all had some sort of tragedy in their past that drove them to the cushion.  Could they have attained their great realizations without that push; without that suffering? I don't think so. 

So the gods with their perfect lives are to be pitied.  And we mere mortals are left here on earth to practice the dharma as best we can.  But this is interesting because the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism teaches that if we practice hard enough, we'll eventually live in the Pure Land.  But that begs the question, "What is the Pure Land?" and more importantly, "Where is it?"  This question perplexed me for a long time until I read Rev. Gyomay Kubose's translation of Tan Butsu Ge which translates to A Song In Praise of Buddha.

The text is a poem written by one of Buddha's students, Hozo, in order to describe both the radiance of his teacher, and the great motivation he has to practice as a result of Buddha's example.  In my favorite verse from the poem, Hozo states:

When I become Buddha, I will make my country the first.  All the beings in my country will be unique and beautiful.  That place will transcend all.  My country will be like Nirvana -- nothing to equal it.  Now, I am filled with compassion.  I will enlighten all.

To me, this passage suggests that the Pure Land isn't somewhere we go.  Rather, it implies that the world we live in currently is the Pure Land; not because it's perfect, but because it gives us the opportunity to practice. 

Case in point, Hozo doesn't state that he will realize Buddhahood and ride off into a god realm.  Instead, he vows that he will make his country (e.g. the country that he is currently living in) like Nirvana.  But he wouldn't be able to make all the beings of his country unique and beautiful unless there was some ugliness there to work with.  Similarly, none of us can become Buddhas unless we have the requisite amounts of suffering in our lives that will allow us to practice the dharma 

In typical Buddhist fashion, the passage gives us an impossible vow.  However, it also gives us a ray of hope; that the suffering and disappointment we endure is not meaningless.  Rather, it's a gift that helps us to become Buddhas, and realize that our world is a Pure Land.  In this way, we can continue working to enlighten both ourselves and each other.


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