If any of these are of any use...
I've read the story about Dharmakara before he became Amitabha Buddha. My question is how really likely is it for some ordinary human to be able to go through five aeons (that's five big bangs) of nothing but sheer practice without retrogressing on the path in order to become a Buddha and create this pure land?
Firstly, unlike other systems of belief, one is not required or mandated to believe anything over here under the pain of hell or excommunication.
Secondly, on the issue of transhistorical past & future Buddhas mentioned throughout all of Buddhism of whatever stripe. Note the term 'transhistorical' and find out its meaning and you may get what idea I am hinting at. What is a Buddha? What is Amitabha? what do all these mean? The answers are in the scriptures and treatises.
Pls do check out the resources corner in this subforum for more info.
Thirdly, kalpa/aeon. There isn't really a standard definitive measure of what is a kalpa from various scriptural and commentarial sources other than various contexts of time periods: short, middling, long and extensive. And then, there's also talk about the formation and dissolution of world systems in four stages and so forth. By the way, the second of the Threefold Pure Land Sutras, the 'Infinite Life Sutra' mentions that it took Dharmakara 10 aeons. A standard Mahayana presentation in scriptures and commentarial works would posit the typical 3 Great Aeons for a Bodhisattva's journey towards Buddhahood. Indian texts have a reputation for inflating time periods.
Fourthly, reading of texts require more study and insight than just reading it off the cuff. There are many dimensions and contexts to understand other than a literalistic one which the latter would oft result in undesirable interpretations. Many people would have read scenes from the Sukhavati and its various adornments as no more an exercise of a vain mind. True. But that's expected from one who hasn't been trained to read various scriptural expositions and commentaries to understand a fuller and deeper context of both conventional and ultimate. The Sutras are not meant to give a detailed account of Dharmakara's journey per se but to illustrate how a Bodhisattva should be indefatiguable and non-retrogressive in taking on the resolve and career of a Fully Enlightened One. So, what appears to be a glorified biography is just an expedient way of showing the indomitable spirit of a precious human opportunity. Just like how traditional biographies on King Asoka would concentrate on his valor and great deeds instead of showing his more human side but the point is, it caters for a segment who perhaps need that kind of impetus to be as courageous and magnanimous as he is whilst others who read more realistic bios of him would be able to see the balance and a more wholistic panorama.
I really don't mean to be offensive in any way, but how can anyone with a sane mind believe in something that sounds so irrational and fairy tale like?
Well, many people have also wondered where do we get those ancient wonders of the world back then when much is lacking and yet great feats were made possible? Aliens? Won't it be a fairy tale back then in the medieval days for instance, to even think of abolishing slavery, giving equal rights to women, empowering the physically and mentally challenged, that humans can travel in the air and space or for that matter internet as we have it today?
Another instance, when the Buddha back then experienced the threefold knowledges unfolding before Him? A normal 'sane' mind wouldn't have that experience now would it? But given the same kind of training and time, one would eventually experience it. So, we're not saying that one CANNOT experience and know the same but a matter of training and time as gradual factors VS other systems who posit stuff that is exclusive to the 'big boys' only and everyone else must become subservient.
A challenge with today's McReligion mentality is that one demands for total unrestricted, unobstructed and instant access to understanding, awakening and enlightenment but forgetting totally that the restrictions and obstructions lies from our own side.
Not to mention the anti woman sentiments in one of the vows? Is a perfectly enlightened Buddha really supposed to have a discriminatory mind like that? Just doesn't make sense. I do not wish to offend anyone, if I did then I apologize.
Honen Shonin (1133-1212), the Patriarch of the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan, expressed the very essence of Pure Land teaching when he wrote:
There shall be no distinction, no regard to male or female, good or bad, exalted or lowly; none shall fail to be in his Land of Purity after having called, with complete faith, on Amida. (Quoted by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis in Joji Okazaki, Pure Land Buddhist Painting, p. 14.)
And if the pure land path is such an easy one there is still the question why Shakyamuni did not teach it.
Easy in difficult, difficult in easy. Who teaches it, matters not as much as who practices it.
Have you read on kammaṭṭhāna/karmasthana?
Buddhanusmrti or buddhanusati is the first on the totem pole, which Pure Land has its basis upon.
Secondly, being a pathway within Mahayana, it has its roots in the Bodhisattva Path leading to Buddhahood.
In this instance, like how Sakyamuni Buddha saw that our existing Saha World system could use His help and mission, hence, it was chosen to manifest his last birth and Buddha mission. So, our Saha World is none other than His own 'Pure Land'. That's why in the Amitabha Sutra, the various Buddhas of the different quarters praised Him that despite the Five Turbidities in our Saha World, he could still manifest the career and reward of Buddhahood, inconceivable. From a Lotus Sutra POV, He's actually been around for ages and the last manifestation nearly 2.6k years ago was just another one of his many expedients when you read the 'Lifespan of the Tathagata Chapter'. So, in Amitabha's case, Sukhavati, the great training ground for Buddhahood was made manifest through His accomplished vows and extends to all and sundry who are willing to be trained there. Later development one says? Look into the Agamas and Nikayas, when the aspirants of the Four Stages of Arhatship undergo their training, those above the Stream Entry level would normally choose either a human or divine birth, in the latter, preferring the highest pure abode known as Akanistha in the realm of form in our Saha World to continue their training uninterrupted. Buddha kshetras? Buddha fields? These ideas were already present in early texts...
And there are some who would vow to make connections with the future Maitreya who is in Tusita, located within the realm of desire to be in his teaching assembly in the future when he is the Fifth Buddha of our Fortunate Aeon.
Thirdly, 'Pure Land' is a later term used by the East Asian Tradition that caught on to reflect the above practice of buddha mindfulness/contemplation along with its Bodhisattva ideal for Buddhahood. It's not necessarily with reference to Amitabha and Sukhavati. It can be any other Buddha/Bodhisattva along the same lines of teaching and practice.
Hearing that the Pure Land method is easy to practice but the results are speedy and lofty, some people develop this doubt: How can there be such an easy method leading to Buddhahood? The usual way of Buddhist cultivation centers around concentration and contemplation. When we start cultivating, we practice first concentration (samatha) then contemplation (vipasyana), or we can begin first with contemplation and follow up with concentration. We then progress to the stage where "in contemplation there is concentration, in concentration there is contemplation." Upon reaching the level of "non-dual concentration and contemplation, still-but-illuminating samadhi and wisdom," we have stepped into the realm of the Self-Nature. From then on, if we vigorously keep up with our cultivation life after life, it will take ten thousand eons before we reach the level of non-retrogression, according to the sutras and commentaries. How is it that after only a few singleminded utterances of the Buddha's name, we can be reborn in the Pure Land in this very lifetime, at the stage of non-retrogression? Is it not really too easy?
When responding to this doubt, we should realize that most other methods involve complete reliance on "self-power," and are therefore bound to be difficult. The Pure Land method characteristically involves two factors, the power of one's own mind and Amitabha Buddha's power of "welcoming and escorting." Therefore, obtaining results is extremely easy. For example, if someone with weak, hobbled feet wanted to climb a mountain unaided, it would be difficult indeed! However, if he were assisted by a great athlete who took him by the arm and climbed the mountain along with him, head held high, the result would not be that difficult to achieve.
The same is true of Pure Land. As we earnestly recite the Buddha's name, our mind-power keeps developing. When one-pointedness of mind is achieved, the mind-power manifests itself perfectly. At that point the power of our karma is subdued and is no longer a hindrance. If we add to that Amitabha Buddha's power to "welcome and escort," we will achieve rebirth in the Pure Land in spite of the fact that not all of our bad karma is extinguished. Once reborn, our lifespan extends over innumerable eons. Non-retrogression until complete Enlightenment and Buddhahood are attained is therefore an easily understandable occurrence.
In studies I've read, it stated that people in deep meditation can have dmt naturally released in their brains causing them to experience hallucinations like hippies who take psychedelic drugs. Can it also be the case that the monks who wrote the pure land sutras experienced this in their meditation and had mistaken it for something actually real?
Let me try to look it at this angle.
Firstly, within the Noble Eightfold Path, Right View stands on top of its totem pole. Within Right View is a two pronged apparoach: conventional/mundane right view and ultimate/supramundane Right View. Any intoxicated hippy would not have met the standards of the mundane right view much less reconcile it with the supramundane. But those serious practitioners would have via the three higher trainings for instance. When the latter has established a pure mind via Right View in its two aspects, can one even begin to move on to its other limbs of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Secondly, if one wants to talk about dream thinking states or hallucination, would not a Buddha be the only one to have stood out from those?
So, if He taught on methods like buddhanusmrti and the Bodhisattva Path which are linked to liberation, would not the results show one out of delusion rather than sinking further into it? Is it not fair to say that cause resembles results in this case? Unless, I have not been paying attention like a hippy...
Isn't that why zen monks are taught that if they see the Buddha in deep meditation they are told to "kill it" because it is just a hallucinatory experience? That's something to think about.
Real Mark [Self-Nature] Buddha Recitation
This entails penetrating the Mind's foremost meaning -- reciting our own original Buddha Nature. It is to contemplate the Real Mark Dharma Body of the Buddhas, resulting in attainment of True Thusness Samadhi.
This method is really a Zen practice; however, since the realm revealed by the meditational mind is the Pure Land, it also qualifies as a Pure Land practice. This method is not for those of limited or moderate capacities -- if the practitioner is not of the highest capacity, he cannot "become enlightened and enter" into it. For this reason, few Pure Land teachers promote it and the proponents of the method are found chiefly within the Zen tradition.
Incidentally, I would venture to say here that while we are still treading the path of Practice, not having reached the stage of Perfect Enlightenment, all Dharma methods are expedients; Buddha Recitation is an expedient and so is Zen. According to the Three Pure Land sutras, Buddha Sakyamuni provided the expedient teaching of the Western Pure Land, and urged sentient beings to recite Amitabha Buddha's name seeking rebirth there. With this method, they can escape Birth and Death, avail themselves of that wonderful, lofty realm to pursue cultivation, and swiftly attain Buddhahood. Diligent Buddha Recitation also leads to Awakening, as in Zen; however, the principal goal of the Pure Land School is rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, while the degree of Awakening achieved is a secondary consideration.
Thus, the goal of Real Mark Buddha Recitation falls within Pure Land teachings. However, from the standpoint of an expedient leading to rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, it does not truly qualify as a Pure Land method within the meaning of the Three Pure Land sutras taught by Buddha Sakyamuni. This is, perhaps, the reason why Pure Land Patriarchs merely referred to it to broaden the meaning of Buddha Recitation, but did not expound it widely.
Some might ask, "To see Buddhas and lotus blossoms -- is it not to see demonic apparitions?"
Answer: If cause and effect coincide, these are not "demonic realms." This is because the Pure Land method belongs to the Dharma Door of Existence; when Pure Land practitioners first set out to cultivate, they enter the Way through forms and marks and seek to view the celestial scenes of the Western Pure Land. When they actually witness these auspicious scenes, it is only a matter of effects corresponding to causes. If cause and effect are in accord, how can these be "demonic realms"?
In the Zen School, on the other hand, the practitioner enters the Way through the Dharma Door of Emptiness. Right from the beginning of his cultivation he wipes out all marks -- even the marks of the Buddhas or the Dharma are destroyed. The Zen practitioner does not seek to view the Buddhas or the lotus blossoms, yet the marks of the Buddhas or the lotus blossoms appear to him. Therefore, cause and effect do not correspond. For something to appear without a corresponding cause is indeed the realm of the demons. Thus, the Zen practitioner always holds the sword of wisdom aloft. If the demons come, he kills the demons, if the Buddha comes, he kills the Buddha -- to enter the realm of True Emptiness is not to tolerate a single mark.
A caveat: we are only talking here about novice cultivators. High-level Zen practitioners do sometimes see various marks which are not demonic realms. When their minds become enlightened, Zen Masters who have practiced meditation for many eons can see evil as well as transcendental realms, including the pure and defiled lands of the ten directions. This is because all worlds are within the light of the True Mind. On the other hand, despite what we have said earlier, Buddha Recitation practitioners sometimes see various marks which are "demonic realms," as will be explained later.
In short, when we refer to "internal" and "external" realms, we are speaking at the level of beginning cultivators. For those who have attained the Way, Mind is realm, realm is Mind, the ten thousand dharmas and ourselves have but one common Nature. There is no inside or outside at all.
Pure Land is often mixed with other traditions (usually Ch'an) because of a lingering doubt about complete reliance on 'other power'.
On the contrary, it's the opposite, in East Asian Trads of Pure Land, except Japan. Why?
As far as the question of "self-power" vs. "other power" is concerned, it is wrong to understand the Pure Land method as exclusive reliance on Buddha Amitabha's power. The Pure Land practitioner should use all his own power to rid himself of afflictions, while reciting to the point where his mind and the Mind of Amitabha Buddha are in unison. At that moment, in this very life, the Buddha will emit rays to silently gather him in and at his death, he will be welcomed and guided back to the Pure Land. The "welcoming and escorting" feature is really the principal manifestation of the "other-power."
As an analogy, for a student to exert his own efforts to the utmost is, of course, a laudable thing. If, in addition, he has the benefit of an excellent teacher who follows his progress and assists him, his level of achievement will be higher, resulting in assured success in his final examinations.
Adding other-power to self-power is similar. Therefore, how can it be considered weak or mistaken to exert all of our own efforts to cultivate and then seek additional help to achieve rapid success?
The great and lofty Pure Land method is lauded by such great Bodhisattvas and Patriarchs as Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna as well as eminent Masters of various schools and traditions. To belittle Buddha Recitation is to belittle these very Bodhisattvas, Patriarchs and high-ranking Masters. To claim that Buddha Recitation is low-level, relying only on other-power, is to lack a real understanding of the Pure Land method.
In places like China, one have to look back into how religious factors, politics and social conditions paved way for development of exclusive and dual practice, hence today, we have the legacy of the exclusive practice according to Master Shan Dao's Tradition during the Tang and the dual practice by names like Master Cimin Huiri from the Tang and consolidated by Master Yongming Yanshou during the Song. Korea and Vietnam followed suit. Japan however managed to maintain the clear separation between Zen and Jodo. So, it's not just a pure doctrinal issue.