Thank you, dear friends, for your practice. It is so nice to be able to meditate with you again. So usually when we talk about these cosmic Buddha and bodhisattva archetypes, it is good to have some background in basic Buddhism, too. So if you are very new, you might want to study a little bit on the Four Noble Truths, Eight-Fold Path, the basic teachings of the Buddha, because that will help you understand the other levels of dharma.
So, there is so much to cover, and I only have a few minutes, so I am just going to share just a little bit of some experience I have had with this practice as well as go over what Amitabha and what Pure Land are all about, at least from one perspective. I'm going to write this down. I may not cover all of these. I probably won't, but I will at least let you know some of my thoughts on it.
So Amitabha means infinite light. In the mythological interpretation of Amitabha, there is a Buddha in a cosmic realm called the Pure Land, Sukhavati. Sukhavati. Sukha means happiness, and vati is like a loving place of happiness, a realm of happiness, a manifestation of happiness. So that is the name of this particular Buddha's Pure Land, Sukhavati.
But there's also another Buddha named Amitayus, which means infinite life. And sometimes in the presentation of these Buddhas, they can be thought of as separate, two different Buddhas. Most practitioners over the centuries now, especially now, consider them two aspects of the same Buddha. A more popular name is Amitabha, but you can also use Amitayus.
And as I was mentioning, a few years ago, I realized that together, infinite light, infinite wisdom, and infinite life of our existence implies infinite love. Because the light of wisdom and the light of service to all beings, that of course is centered in infinite love.
So you can think of Amitabha as not only meaning infinite light, but also infinite love and infinite life. You know, the dharma is said to be like an ocean, where the very edge of the beach is shallow and even little children can just splash there and play. Or someone can go a little bit deeper, or someone can go even deeper, and it is very vast. The ocean is quite deep.
In the same way, the dharma is like that. There are many levels of understanding and interpreting dharma. And so, some people, when they interpret Amitabha Buddha, there is a mythological reality for Amitabha. There is a universal collective reality. And there is a here and now reality that I like to say, the unfolding reality, future reality, cosmic reality, and—well, I added this one, but I have no idea what it means because I have to be enlightened first. But I will put it there, ultimate reality. Okay?
This is just my way of outlining and looking at different interpretations of Amitabha. You won't find this in any textbook. It is just my understanding through practice. You will find pieces of it here and there. I just put it together like this. So the mythological reality of Amitabha Buddha—and the reason why Mahayana Buddhism arose in the first place, you see, is you have your basic Buddhism, and then 500 years later you have this development of another level of interpretation of Buddhism, of dharma.
We call it Mahayana, Great Vehicle. And it is Mahayana Buddhism that started to get more popular around the first century of this era. So you know, when we practice, sometimes people just don't respond to scientific, logical, mathematical kind of formulas. Since we have both a right and left brain, we do have a part of us that likes to think scientifically.
In fact, Buddhism was one of the very first spiritual traditions that was very much more scientifically oriented. But, you can't ignore the right brain. So the right brain responds better to dreams and visions and poetry and stories—basically mythology. But mythology doesn't mean that it is not pointing to something real.
It is just that mythology is simply a way of creating a story to help people experience that reality, you see? Whether or not that story is literally true isn't the point. The point is to practice with that story so that it opens up certain depths of your subconscious mind and your right brain and all these other deeper levels of your being beyond just the left brain, logical mind. It helps you to manifest that and touch and experience that reality through the story.
So, there were stories that developed around Amitabha during the first century, and that story is of a practitioner many eons ago in some other realm who was a servant Buddha, and he wanted to understand about the function of the Buddhas. You know, when you become fully enlightened as a Buddha, what do you do? Well, in early Buddhism, there was this kind of attitude that a Buddha has finished its work in the physical realm, and then they just kind of enjoy their bliss forever. In that way, they think of Nirvana as a sort of extinction into the bliss of nothingness.
But as practitioners kept practicing over these few centuries of time, they started to have other understandings and interpretations of what it means to be Buddha, and so for them the emphasis was on what the Buddha does. And every Buddha, according to Mahayana Buddhism, always creates a Pure Land. It just sort of automatically radiates from their being, and so wherever there is a Buddha, there is a Pure Land also.
And Pure Land, like I said earlier, Buddha-kshetra, it means Buddha field or field of enlightenment, a field of positive energy of wisdom and compassion and skillfulness to help serve all beings. So, in this story, Dharmakara, I believe his name was, he vowed several vows—I think like 48 vows or something—and there are different versions, 42 vows or whatever. But he made all these different vows saying how he wants to create this Pure Land where all beings can benefit from his practice and his energy so that they can also be enlightened.
So the Buddha that he was attendant to basically helped him have—I don't know, call it astral projection maybe—and he was able to visit in his spirit all the different Buddha lands, all the different Pure Lands in the universe to check them out and to see how each Buddha made their Pure Land so wonderful and beautiful and attractive to all beings.
So Dharmakara then decided he was going to make a Pure Land based on all the other Pure Lands. His Pure Land would have even more beauty and be more attractive, and also his Pure Land would be easiest to access. And so, in this story, let's look at the story of someone who is practicing to become a Buddha, to create a Pure Land. That is somebody we call a bodhisattva.
So the reason why this is one of the most popular stories in early Mahayana Buddhism is because this story was a template, if you will, to understanding our practice. So the ideal here is the bodhisattva, a being who is on the path of enlightenment to full Buddha-hood and who develops vows and practices and skillful means along the way so that by the time they are a fully enlightened Buddha, they have all of these amazing ways to help people of varying different mindsets.
So I like this story because it is a reminder that our practice is not just for my own sake. It's not like it didn't exist in early Buddhism, but it is re-emphasized more in Mahayana Buddhism to remind us that our practice should be like this story, that as we practice mindfulness and meditation, it is not just for our own bliss and peace. This is to remind us to keep in mind that the greater reality of our practice is cosmic and is interconnected with others, so this story can serve as a right brain inspiring story to remind us of our bodhisattva intentions.
So then I am not going to go over all of these, but to me Amitabha is the universal reality of life and love that is infinite as existence itself. Different religious traditions call it different names, but it is this universal reality that is this source of our every breath. But not only is it just universal, but it is very personal right here and now. So Amitabha is referring to that light and love and mindfulness right here and now in our own true nature.
So not only is it that true nature of light and love and life here and now in our individual self as the great potential of who we are, but it also is the love and light that keeps unfolding in our lives. You know, it is like saying yes, you are all manifestations of Buddha nature, but is that it? Is that the end of the story? No. You have to think about Buddha nature and let it manifest. And so that is the unfolding reality of allowing wisdom and compassion and willfulness to permeate our lives. It is not just meant to be a seed potential within us. It is meant to grow through us all.
So not only is it our personal wisdom and compassion that are growing. We are here building something collective. We are here to create the Pure Land on Earth, and so our vision, the Mahayana vision was to just remind all of us that it is not just about the afterlife. Even though of course mythologically, that is part of the story, this is the funny thing. Even though many people want to be reborn in the Pure Land when they die, this is a little bit different, because in this story, if you go to the Pure Land, you get to become a Buddha, and you get to practice. It is easier to become a Buddha, and what do you do when you become a Buddha in the Pure Land? You don't stay there. You always come back or go to different realms to serve and to help other beings.
So it is not the same story as heaven. In this story, it's maneuvered in such a way so that it does not let you just sit on your butt. It is like a little Buddha push to remind you that enlightenment is not just about personal awakening, but it has to be a collective awakening that reflects the future. We can't just destroy the planet Earth by our unmindful actions and forget about our children and grandchildren and their children and the future generations. That is not true with the dharma.
True dharma must have that vision of the future in mind to create the Pure Land on Earth, as well as of course the Pure Land everywhere. And then that leads us to the cosmic understanding. It is not just the Pure Land on earth, but in every realm in every world in all the universes. This is the great movement of dharma. And not only is it just for our planet or just for our species, but for all species and all planets, all realms of existence.
And as we all become fully awakened Buddhas in the universe, what will happen once we are all enlightened? I have no idea, but I think it is going to be awesome. I think that this is our ultimate destination, full Buddha-hood, and not only individual Buddhas, but collective Buddhas.
And that is what I really think of it when I think of Amitabha. I do believe that there could be an individual man Amitabha, but more than that I believe that Amitabha is a word that is a collective reality, so I like to use the word Amitabha to refer to my Buddha nature, to the collective love and wisdom of all Buddhas and bodhisattvas, kind of condensed into one word, a word that evokes in my heart a remembering of the support, the Pure Land support that I have.
So as I'm practicing mindfulness, I am walking in the Pure Land of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Amitabha. I am walking in their light. I am walking in the energy of their practice. And of course, this is not just about Buddhas, but also the bodhisattvas throughout history, including our spiritual teachers that are alive today, like Thich Nhat Hanh. I consider him a major bodhisattva because he makes it easier for me to practice. He brings the dharma to me in a way that is relevant and practical. And so whenever I experience peace and love and joy and all of that, I am walking in a Pure Land, in that Buddha field, that they have contributed to over the centuries.
So I think of the Pure Land as a collective reality. It is almost like every single time someone practices mindfulness, it just kind of adds a little ray of light into the Pure Land. And then as we all practice and not just receive the energy of the Pure Land, we are actually contributing energy to the Pure Land, too. So it's like in every mindful moment, we just shine a ray of light into the Pure Land, so the Pure Land keeps growing as a manifest reality on earth.
To me, that is what the word sangha means. Sangha is the Pure Land. Communities of mindfulness, these are what the Pure Land is. And of course there is also the Pure Land after you die, too, but a more important interpretation while we are here on earth before we die is the Pure Land here and now.
So I think you have to have both teachings, because it depends on where you are in your life journey. If you're earlier on in your life journey, you really need to focus all lot on the Pure Land of the here and now on earth. But of course, those who are in the process of transitioning into the afterlife, it is very, very, very comforting and helpful to focus on the Pure Land of the hereafter, that is the reality here and the reality there, they are not separate. The reality is one.
So as soon as we divide things into light and dark and good and bad and masculine and feminine or whatever, before death, after death, physical life, spiritual life—reality does not divide things up like that. It is just one reality. I did kind of cover all of these. To me, Amitabha is not different from it Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha of 2,600 years ago. To me, I think of Amitabha as the cosmic reality which Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to and embodied and shared.
So I don't think of them as two different Buddhas. I think there's only one Buddha or one Buddha nature, that it was embodied in Shakyamuni Buddha, but just because he has passed away physically, it isn't gone, because Amitabha, the Amitabha story is just to remind us that the infinite light of our true nature is not bound by birth and death.
And it is said that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is also known as Quan Yin, the motherly aspect of enlightenment, is basically the attendant to Amitabha, or there is a story even where she came out of the tears of Amitabha, who was compassionately weeping for all beings. So that can be an aspect of our Buddha nature, but are these literal?
Well, yes and no. So maybe it is not literal. Maybe there was never a historical person named Quan Yin or Avalokiteshvara on the earth. Maybe there was. But the more important thing is it is a story to remind us of the reality of our true nature, which is compassion. And as each person practices compassion in their lives, aren't they connecting to that Quan Yin energy, and aren't they becoming a channel of that Quan Yin energy? So in that sense, Quan Yin is real because it's reality is and all of us, and when we practice, we collectively create and manifest that reality even more strongly on the earth.
So there are many people who can embody the qualities of Quan Yin. So you can become Quan Yin for someone else. You can be a vessel of channeling that Quan Yin energy. And of course, there is also the Medicine Buddha of healing, another favorite Buddha of mine. Now, is Medicine Buddha a different Buddha? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. To me, Medicine Buddha is simply a reminder of Shakyamuni Buddha's mission, which is not only mental enlightenment but also practical enlightenment in service to others, that enlightenment in our practice and our spiritual lives should also manifest in the way we care for each other and heal each other and become medicine for each other, not only in original ways, but also in very physical, practical ways.
So you can think of Shakyamuni Buddha, Quan Yin, Amitabha, Medicine Buddha, all these Buddhas and bodhisattvas as separate beings, or like me, you can also see them as just different qualities and manifestations of the one Buddha nature, one true nature. So in that sense, it is very real. I haven't really found a lot of textbook information on Amitabha and Pure Land Buddhism as I'm explaining it to you. It is here and there, but I am still waiting for some Pure Land Buddhist master to write something that is just perfect for our times, and I haven't found that yet.
I will just say this, that a lot of people's understanding in America of Pure Land Buddhism is in regards to a Japanese form of Pure Land called Jodo or Jodo shin, two different schools in Japan. But the thing about these forms of Pure Land Buddhism is that I feel that at least for a lot of centuries, they overemphasized the more mythological and moral meaning.
Of course, nowadays, they are trying to come up with the deeper meanings as well, but in Japan, Pure Land Buddhism and all the other forms of Buddhism were sometimes antagonistic to each other, very separated, and there are different reasons why that developed in Japan. Part of it is the government trying to control everything by keeping everything separate.
But the rest of the majority of Buddhists in Asia, in China, Korea, Vietnam, Pure Land practice is not a separate practice it is not a separate school, as opposed to Zen or mindfulness or esoteric mantra practice. It is more like it's just one of the tools that you can use. So it is kind of like in Japan's culture, when you eat, you have everything in little dishes and boxes, and it is very nice and separate and dainty. And then in some Chinese circles, the cuisine, they just throw it all in the wok and stir-fry it just all together. It's similar to that.
So in Japan, the schools are very separate and sometimes antagonistic, but in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese Buddhism, there is much more of a sense that it is just one Dharma and that certain people gravitate toward Zen practice. Some people gravitate toward chanting practice. Some people gravitate toward esoteric and Pure Land practices, etcetera. And it's all good. It's all fine. That is sort of my attitude, too.
So, as Buddhism is spreading in America, most people know about Zen, Vipassana, and the Tibetan-type of Buddhist practice, but there isn't as much education on Amitabha and Pure Land. But it is all part of it. They can be part of your practice. You don't have to, but I personally have found it very helpful.
I guess I will close by sharing a personal story, and that is a few years ago, as I was practicing just breathing in and out with Amitabha, just feeling my breath and feeling my heart filled with the infinite light of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, all of a sudden, I felt as if it was like a wind or a breeze from the Pure Land wafted all over and through me, and every muscle—not just physical muscles, but also mental muscles—everything relaxed into a deep peace.
And in my internal, deeper aspect of myself, I knew what this was. I glimpsed the reality of Amitabha and the Pure Land, because as I sat there I realized, oh, everything is a gift. Past, present, future, that is gift. Existence is a gift. Enlightenment is a gift. And even though I have to practice and I have to open myself up to it and allow it to manifest, etcetera, yet who's doing that? It is this self that is also a gift.
And when I breathe in and breathe out mindfully, where does this breath come from? That is also a gift. And when I sit here so comfortable on these nice, modern cushions, yes, where do these mats and cushions come from? They also are a gift.
And the motivation to practice meditation and mindfulness and spirituality and enlightenment, where did that come from? Not from my ego. It comes from the universe as a gift. It comes from a collective gift of reality. All those spiritual teachers who kept the practice going no matter what, because of them, I can practice. Because of others, I can practice. Because of the trees giving oxygen, I can practice. Because of the sun shining its light, I can practice and be alive.
And so, it was a realization in that moment just for a few minutes of just pure bliss and trust. Because before that, there is always this little edge of worry. Am I doing it right? Am I doing enough? How long is it going to take before I get enlightened? All of that kind of stuff. But at least in those few minutes of practice, all of that just melted away, because I realize that everything is a gift.
So my practice is just simply to sit in it and to allow it to flow through me and manifest. And it doesn't mean I don't do anything. Even what I do, it stems from that place of deep knowing that I am always embraced, that I am always supported, and my enlightenment is guaranteed. Nothing is going to be able to stop that. Nothing is able to stop the wisdom and the compassion that flows to me from so many beings and so many Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
In the Christian tradition, there is a verse in one of the letters of Paul: Nothing can separate me from the love of God. Not persecution, famine, government powers, spiritual entities. None of that, no circumstances can separate us from the real reality of wisdom, compassion, and spiritual power that is within and around all of us.
So, that is what I mean by Amitabha.