The Most Ven. Prof. Tue Sy: The Buddha-land as Presented in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra


I. THE NOTION OF A BUDDHA-LAND

Rarely does genesis have significance in the teachings of the Buddha, although it was challenged more than once by His disciples. Buddha refused to reveal the problem since it is of no use for leading to the ultimate goal, and partly because of the shortness of human knowledge, which is unable to cover the infinity of time and space. Nevertheless, whenever the question of the origin of castes and social inequity arose, the revelation of Buddha is unambiguous. Variety in the world is caused by the very deeds of sentient beings. Human life is but a stage in the endless evolutions and revolutions of living. Up to a definite point of time, individuals come to recognize the presence of others not only in their physical existence but also with their emotions and thoughts. This gives rise to the consciousness of rivalry. A struggle for life took place among members of the primordial community who accidentally lived together in a limited geographic area, sharing a common identity, facing the scarcity of external materials on which the satisfaction of their wants and needs depended. People were then aware of the fact that one man’s gain is the loss of others. The fight to gather natural resources was getting more and more intense as the population grew thicker and thicker. Social conflict had to be dealt with and the primitive government was constituted under the arbitration of a Mahāsammato. Land was then distributed by hypothetical social contract or taken by force. New classes gradually emerged, firstly with land-owners or kṣatriya, and eventually with the oppressed ones.

Conflict within and without communities in the struggle for life, fighting for the possession of lands, is the premise of the notion of nation. Conventionally, the term nation denotes a large community of people, usually sharing a common history, culture, and language, and living in a particular territory under a single sovereign government. Substantially it also implies the notion of social harmony which developed into the idea of a prosperous Kingdom ruled over by a Cakkavattin, in which people live in accordance with Dhamma and ten categories of good deeds are universally practiced.

Overall, the highest ideal nation is the one that is presided by an Enlightened One, not as a Monarch who is the absolute sovereign ruling over and served by its people, but as a Supreme Leader who guides people to lofty aspirations of wisdom and liberation. The notion of a Buddhakṣetra, or Buddha-land, was thus conceived.

It is, however, with this conception, Buddha-land can be by no means visualized in common sense. That means it is unessential to suggest that the notion of Buddha-land should imply the principles of territory, people, and government, in spite of the fact that such a land is generally believed by Buddhist followers to be reigned by a Buddha. According to traditions in Buddhism, especially in its later development, there have been existing numerous Buddha-lands in infinite space. This gives rise to the idea that a Buddha-land must be confined in a boundary so as to be differentiate it from the others.

It is quite arguable that Buddha very often refused to reply the question of whether the world is finite or infinite. Yet, in their philosophical treatments of the Buddha’s teachings, Buddhist scholars did not hesitate to work it out as a speculative manipulation to discard the only universe that was ever created and reigned over by a Supreme God or Absolute Brahma. In the infinity of time and space – there existed, will exist, and is existing – a countless number of Enlightened Ones. Notwithstanding that there would never be the appearance of two Buddhas in the world, i.e. in the same space at the same time.

What is, then, the formation of the world implied in the conception of the Buddha-land?

The Sanskrit/Pali equivalent of the word world is loka, which in Buddhist cosmology means both the world of living beings (Skt. sattvaloka) and the receptacle-world (bhājanaloka), or a sphere comprised of air, sun, moon, stars, oceans, continents, and so on, in summary, a world system, in which sentient beings are born, grow up, dissolve, and are reborn, in accordance with levels of consciousness and karmic retributions. A thousand worlds as such form a small chiliocosm; and a thousand small chiliocosms form a medium chiliocosm; and a thousand medium chiliocosms form a great chiliocosm, or trisahasra-mahāsahasra-lokadhātu, which consists of 1,000,000,000 small worlds or world systems. A great chiliocosm is a Buddha-world in which the physical world is governed by a universal law and sentient beings can be led to wisdom and liberation under a universal doctrine of a Buddha. Each Buddha-world has its own principles of origination and operation. In our present world, namely Sahā-lokadhātu enlightened by Buddha Śākyamuni, for instance, all of his teachings have been spread and practiced by means of sound; whereas in the Buddha-world of Fragrance, as taught in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, the way of spreading Buddha Gandhottamakūṭa’s teachings is by fragrance. Moreover, all sentient beings in the Sahā-lokadhātu live on four kinds of food, of which the first one is digested in the stomach; but fragrance is the only “food” for sentient beings in the Fragrance-world.

In this connection, a Buddha-world should be considered a land with its own attributes in regards to physical conditions, even a territory with its boundaries, forms of beings, various states of suffering and happiness, and so on.

II. THE CONSTITUTION OF A BUDDHA-LAND

In its earlier development, when Buddhism was essentially impressed with the monastic life, the Buddhist ideal world was embodied in the image of a vast Kingdom, reigned over by the Cakkavattin, extending from end to end of the earth, conquered not by sword but by righteousness. Later, as the Mahāyāna developed, the Cakkavattin’s Kingdom was replaced by the ideal of Buddha-land. The replacement can be conceived as the transition from the ideal of a good monarchism, to a democracy at a time when lay Buddhists claimed their attainment of the highest goal in their very worldly life. The term democracy used in this context should not be understood to mean a form of government ruled by people. In its broadest sense, it implies a non-state nation, a Buddha-land, presided over but not ruled by a Buddha, the Enlightened One, in the sense that every sentient being, or more substantially, all its citizens, are blessed with favorable conditions to practice the Way that leads to the final deliverance, and endowed with the possibility of attaining enlightenment.

However, Buddha-land is not taken for granted as an act of providence or a wonderful world wrought out by the grace of Buddha. It is the perfection of the great resolute vows devoting oneself to the happiness and welfare of others, after a long process through myriads of aeons of the purification of mind.

1. Purification of Sentient Beings and Their Environment

As stated in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra, when entreated by Ratnākara to elucidate the constitution of a Buddha-land, the Buddha is supposed to give a definitive answer that “The sentient beings’ world is the Buddha-land of a Bodhisattva” (Skt. sattvakṣetraṃ kulaputra bodhisattvasya). As has been said, a world is treated by Buddhist scholars to be composed of two spheres: sattvaloka and bhajanaloka, or the world of living beings and their environment. It is from this view that commentators on the Sūtra have presented the significance of a Buddha-land.

In his commentary, K’uei-chi, a Chinese scholar, describes two types of Buddha-lands: (a) Secular Land, consisting of sattvas and bhājanaloka; and (b) Sacred Land, consisting of Bodhisattvas and their Prodigious Realm. In his words, “No separated land exists apart from sentient beings. As sentient beings come into existence their environment is present. As sentient beings become Bodhisattvas, their land is transformed into a Prodigious Realm. A Bodhisattva’s original vow is to lead sentient beings to the transcendental world. It is not that the receptacle-world is directly converted into the pure land” (Taishō 38n1782, p.1023b1).

Thus, a Bodhisattva’s pure land is, in its essence, the very land of sentient beings. Yet, whether the land is pure or impure depends totally on the characteristics of the sentient beings living in it. As a corollary, the object of realization is the concrete world consisting of sentient beings and their environment. For the sake of their welfare, a Bodhisattva needs to purify their environment. That is to say, they must try their best to provide them with any possible conditions for practicing Buddha-dharma and developing their good qualities (kuśala-mūla) into a firm foundation of true happiness. In reality, unless a Bodhisattva can help sentient beings to purify their minds, the Bodhisattva fails to purify their environment; and unless they improve their living conditions, they cannot help the beings to purify their minds. This mutual relation is essentially beyond the reach of thinking. For this cannot exist without that, and vice-versa.

In order to help sentient beings transform their minds so that they can attain a pure Buddha-land, a Bodhisattva carries out their vow in two ways, based upon the development and benefit of sentient beings, and the arising of their pure qualities.

In a Chinese translation of the Sūtra by Hsuan-tsang, these ways are determined; but they are combined into one in Kumārajīva’s translation: “The Buddha-land that a Bodhisattva vows to establish depends on the type of sentient beings instructed” (Taishō 38n1782, p.1023b7).

In order to improve sentient beings’ environment, a Bodhisattva establishes a Buddha-land according to three standards: (1) land suitable for sentient beings to control themselves, that is, training their minds easily; (2) land suitable for them to penetrate Buddha-wisdom; and (3) land suitable for them either to develop their Bodhisattva qualities, as in Kumārajīva’s translation, or to perform their noble conducts, as in Hsuan-tsang’s translation.

2. Qualities of a Buddha-land

Compassion and wisdom, vows and practices are the virtues of a Bodhisattva in the course of cultivating and spreading their ideal. With wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) they can penetrate into the essence of Being, source of suffering and happiness, so that they can easily sympathize with sentient beings’ various states of mind. With compassion (karuṇā) they make their greatest efforts to bring about the benefit and happiness for sentient beings. Accordingly, the Bodhisattva’s resolute vow (praṇidhāna) is to set forth a form of Buddha-land suitable for various capabilities and tendencies of different types of sentient beings. And from this very vow, they plan out their conducts (caryā) elaborately. Thus, vows and behaviors may be regarded as causal conditions, taken to be the guiding principle of a Bodhisattva’s noble mission.

In Kumārajīva’s translation, the 17 conducts a Bodhisattva should perform are three minds (citta), six perfections (pāramitās), four boundless states of mind (apramāṇa-citta), and four principles of harmonization (saṁgraha-vastu).

In Hsuan-tsang’s translation, there are 18 conducts. The difference is in that the three minds mentioned in the former translation are replaced by the four categories of land.

A. Three Minds and Four Categories of Land

Regarding the three minds, Kumārajīva’s translation says, “(1) ‘Righteous mind’ is a Bodhisattva’s pure land. When a Bodhisattva gets perfectly enlightened, those sentient beings who have abandoned flattery will be born there. (2) ‘Profound mind’ is a Bodhisattva’s pure land. When a Bodhisattva gets perfectly enlightened, those beings who are possessed of virtues will be born there. (3) Bodhi-mind is a Bodhisattva’s pure land. When a Bodhisattva gets perfectly enlightened, those beings that are practicing Mahāyāna teaching will be born there.”

The implications and mutual relations of these minds are explained by Ji-zang as follows: “Sentient beings are attached to being (bhava); Śrāvakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayāna incline towards non-being (abhava). All of their minds are ‘crooked’. Bodhisattvas, who concentrate their mind on right insight, are called ‘righteous’… To arouse bodhi-mind is the starting-point; that is, beginning with right insight. When right insight becomes much more penetrating, it is called ‘profound mind’; that is to say, it is too deep and firm to be moved… In order to set foot on a large way it is necessary for a Bodhisattva to keep his mind righteous. Then he can carry out his conducts. Once he is capable of performing his conducts perfectly, he can move everything towards the site of enlightenment, which is the very meaning of Bodhi-mind” (Taishō 38n1781, p.928b19).

In Hsuan-tsang’s translation, the minds just cited are presented in terms of the four lands: (1) Land of Bodhi-mind: the one in which all beings arouse the mind towards enlightenment. (2) Land of Noble Intention: the one formed by the pure noble intention of a Bodhisattva. When they realized the perfect enlightenment, those beings that are honest and innocent will be born in this land. This corresponds with “Righteous mind” above. (3) Land of Good Application: the one formed due to the efforts to cultivate good qualities that have never been known or possessed before (this is not mentioned in the former translation). (4) Land of Transcendent Intention: corresponding with the “Profound mind” mentioned above. When a Bodhisattva gets perfectly awakened, sentient beings possessed of good virtues will be born there.

B. Six Perfections (Pāramitās): charity or generosity (dāna), morality (śīla), endurance (kṣānti), energy (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna), wisdom (prajñā). According to K’uei-chi, the function of all six pāramitās is to help a Bodhisattva develop their “dwelling in tranquility” or calming the mind (śamatha), and abandoning all hindrances to attain perfection.

C. Four Boundless States of Mind (apramāṇcitta): boundless loving-kindness (maitrī), boundless compassion (karuṇā), boundless joy (muditā), boundless equanimity (upekṣā).

D. Four Principles of Harmonization (saṅgraha-vastu): (1) dāna or generosity; (2) priyavādita or kind speech; (3) arthacaryā or conduct for the benefit of others; (4) samānārthatā, equality with themselves or impartiality.

E. Other Conducts: skillful means (upāya), 37 members leading to the attainment of enlightenment (bodhipākṣika-dharma), four boundless states of mind, and four principles of harmonization, all belong to the same category, called “the statement of starting points” (according to K’uei-chi’s commentary).

F. Three Conducts: preaching the release from eight unfavorable conditions in which it is difficult to practice the Buddha-dharma (aṣṭāv akṣaṇāḥ), observing disciplinary rules, and the ten good deeds (daśa-kuśalakarmapatha), all belong to the category called “Tranquility” (also by K’uei-chi).

It should be noticed that all the conducts mentioned in Hsuan-tsang’s translation point to varied forms of Buddha-land established by the above-mentioned conducts of a Bodhisattva, not to those in the ordinary sense of the term.

May 15, 2007

Most Ven. Prof. Tue Sy, former editor of Thought, a renowned Buddhist magazine published by Van Hanh University, now known as Vietnam Buddhist University. He is a Buddhist philosopher, the most well-known among Vietnamese community worldwide. He has translated The Agamas into Vietnamese and authored more than 20 scholarly books on Mahayana philosophy and Vinaya.
Source: Selected papers on Buddhist Contributions to Good Governance and Development. The 4th International Buddhist Conference on the United Nations. The Buddha-land as Presented in the Vimalakirtinirdesa-sutra
Most Ven. Prof. Tue Sy. Pg. 101-109

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