By Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih
When Amitabha Buddha was a cultivator of the Way he made a vow that when he realized Buddhahood his Buddha-land would be adorned and pure and the inhabitants of that land would gain entry into it simply by reciting his name, "Namo Amitabha Buddha." When you read the text of The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra, which describes this pure land, you may be inclined to jump to the conclusion that the Pure Land is the Buddhist version of heaven.
If you study the Venerable Master Hua's commentary on the Sutra carefully, however, you will learn that the Pure Land is one of the most unique places in the entire Dharma-realm. Unlike the heavens, which are rewards for holding the five precepts, doing good, and amassing blessings, the Pure Land is accessible to anyone who sincerely recites the name of Amitabha Buddha. Even though someone might have committed many offenses and be destined for a rebirth in the lower realms, if he can recite the name of Amitabha Buddha sincerely, when he dies he will go to rebirth in the Pure Land and pack his karmic obstacles along with him. No path of rebirth, including the heavens, can be attained by those whose karma is too heavy to merit rebirth there. How can the Pure Land be so unique? The power of Amitabha Buddha's vows makes it so.
Heaven in many religious traditions is considered the ultimate resting-place, when in fact heaven is still within the realm of desire. When inhabitants of heaven have exhausted their merit and virtue, they will once again descend to rebirth in the lower paths where their karma will continue to mount up. The Pure Land is an abode where living beings have the opportunity to dissolve their karmic burden by accruing blessings and wisdom, which result from being in the constant presence of the Triple Jewel. The transformation of offenses to blessings occurs because of the unspeakably pure and powerful vows of Amitabha Buddha. But the final goal is not to rest easy in the Pure Land. Instead, beings born there use the opportunity to gain the power of precepts, samadhi, and wisdom so they may themselves accomplish Buddhahood and return to walk the Bodhisattva Way and rescue other living beings from the suffering Saha world. Buddhas, "enlightened beings," realize that every sentient being has the seed of Buddhahood within him and they not only inform people that everyone can become Buddhas, but also teach the methods for doing so. That is what you will find in the General Explanation of the Amitabha Sutra, a new English translation of the Sutra with an explanation by the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hua. This work is available now at the Sino-American Buddhist Association, 1731 15th Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, U.S.A.