While widely practiced in Asia, Pure Land roots are only starting to form in the West.
It’s historical roots, of course, extend all the way to ancient India.
We generally think in terms of one Buddha, Shakyamuni. But, since any sentient being can become enlightened—and innumerable numbers have—there are innumerable Buddhas. Our Buddha, Sakyamuni, explained after his enlightenment, that he had seen not only his past lifetimes but that he had also seen how the future will unfold. In that future, he saw that people in our time would have more afflictions, worries, and wandering thoughts in our agitated minds. Our deep-seated bad habits will become even more entrenched over thousands of lifetimes, and will make liberating ourselves solely by our own efforts almost impossible. Sakyamuni Buddha knew that we would need help.
Sakyamuni Buddha saw that the most suitable way for us to be liberated will be through the compassion and the vows of another Buddha, and he intended to introduce him in a teaching. When he knew the time was right, and in a departure from the norm, he initiated this particular teaching himself. You know this teaching was special because almost all of his others teachings were the result of his being asked a question, but this time he needed no such prompting.
In this teaching, Sakyamuni recounted how Dharmakara Bodhisattva, after witnessing the suffering of sentient beings, spent five eons to study all the Buddha lands. Dharmakara then made forty-eight vows, the completion of which would create the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Joy. He declared that he would not attain Buddhahood unless his vows for a perfect pure land, where all beings could progress on the path, were accomplished. Once these vows were accomplished, Dharmakara Bodhisattva became Amitabha Buddha. He is now teaching in his Pure Land and helping all who are truly sincere in their vows to be reborn there.
With help from Amitabha, we do not have to rely solely on ourselves to attain enlightenment, as we would with other methods. In Pure Land, we rely on the compassionate Buddha and Bodhisattvas to help us. In our practice, reliance on self and on another are combined, as we request, by way of our chanting, that Amitabha Buddha, through the strength of his vows, help us to be reborn in his Pure Land as soon as our current life ends.
Amitabha also vowed that once we attain this rebirth, we will always progress in our practice and learning, and never again regress. We will be able to continue our practice in his Pure Land, or, when we chose to, return to this and other worlds to help others, without being affected by unfavorable environments or our old bad habits. If we wish, we will be able to do this even before we attain supreme enlightenment.
Due to Amitabha Buddha’s merits and virtues, and the goodness of all the beings there, his Pure Land has all sorts of wonders and advantages, all of which arise from the great vows, deeds, and purity of all the beings there. Through his vows, Amitabha helps all beings create the causes to accumulate the roots of goodness. With his deeds, he creates the conditions for beings to accumulate merits. With his purity, he has created a perfect land: one that has no pollutants, no anger or intolerance. It is a land of peace and serenity. It is a world of equality and joy, wonder and beauty. In comparison, our world is one of delusion and suffering, filled with worry and anxiety.
For countless people, Pure Land practice is the most suitable for several reasons. First, it is relatively easy to practice in almost any environment: alone; with other practitioners; even in the midst of everyday life. Second, there are no difficult entry-level criteria. Even if one’s abilities and knowledge are modest, with sincere vows to be reborn in the Pure Land, genuine sincerity in chanting, and, of course, unwavering belief, the ultimate goal can still be achieved. We need to believe in the Buddhas and their teachings, and in causality. We need to believe in ourselves and that we have the same true nature as the Buddha. We need to believe that in mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha we will be born into the Western Pure Land and become Buddhas.
And third, due to the vows of Amitabha, achievement in this method can be attained more quickly and more easily, relatively speaking. We can understand this better through an analogy. We come to a river that we wish to cross. We can swim across but our baggage is very heavy and the water is treacherously deep. Alternatively, we can get on a boat that will quickly and safely take our baggage and us to the other shore. Symbolically, the "other shore" is the achievement of enlightenment: The bags we carry are our deep-seated bad habits and negative karmas accumulated over uncountable lifetimes, and the boat is Amitabha Buddha's compassionate will. The ticket to board the boat is Pure Land practice, which includes moral daily living, mindful chanting of “Amituofo,” the sincere vows to be reborn in the Pure Land, and belief.
The easiest way of practicing Pure Land is by chanting “Amituofo.” Amituofo primarily means “the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life.” While Amituofo is the name of the Buddha in Chinese, in Sanskrit it is Amitabha Buddha. We can chant in any language; however, it needs to be done properly. When we chant, the sound of Amituofo arises in our minds. And as we utter "Amituofo," our minds focus on and embrace that sound. While chanting, we do so whole-heartedly and continuously.
This chanting is very powerful, for as the mind concentrates on the sound of Amituofo—effectively replacing wandering thoughts with this single pure thought of Amituofo—we will create less new negative karma. Negative thoughts are prevented from arising with a single thought of goodness: that of the name of a Buddha—of Amituofo. After Amituofo has been in our mind continuously for a long time, it will naturally replace our attachments, just as a “purifying pearl” dropped into impure water will gradually cleanse that water. In the same way, our true nature, our Buddha nature, will gradually be uncovered.
It is similar to a child remembering a dearly loved one: a mother, father, or someone equally close. The dearly loved one is always with him—always in his heart. Likewise, he is always in the dearly loved one's heart: and never forgotten. In a similar way, Amitabha is always thinking of us, waiting for us to reach out to him so that he may respond to us.
Amitabha Buddha is the wise and compassionate teacher who understands everything, and who is always thinking of us lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. We are the students who are trying to learn and to practice. Just as a good teacher listens to the calls for help from a student looking for the right answer, if we sincerely practice, make the vow for rebirth, and have unwavering belief, Amitabha will respond. All we have to do is ask.
When, in our chanting, we reach the level of single-mindedness with the sole thought of Amituofo, we form a connection with him—in fact, we become one with him. In that instant we are in his land. If, as we breathe our last breath in this world, we can form this connection, this oneness with Amituofo, and thus, his Pure Land, we will attain our next rebirth in the Western Pure Land, and leave suffering behind. And once there, we will have all the time we need to continue our practice and learning, for we will be in the company of Bodhisattvas and Amitabha Buddha. They will help us learn all the ways to wisely help other beings.