Questions on Pure Land

by Dr Shi Zhen Jue


Venerable Dr Shi Zhen Jue (See Mui Yian) is a Singaporean and was born in 1969. She has a diploma in Buddhism from Yuan Kuang  Buddhist College, Taiwan, and a diploma in Buddhist Dhamma and B.A. from the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University, Burma. She also studied at the University of Hong Kong where she graduated with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. Her doctoral thesis is on “Preparation for Enlightenment: Understanding Derived from Listening, Reflection and Meditation — A Study of the Śrutamayī, Cintāmayī and Bhāvanāmayī bhūmayaḥ of the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra” Ven Zhen Jue has also taught at the University of Hong Kong and was a recipient of the Glorious Sun Group Postgraduate Scholarship in Buddhist Studies.


1. Can we bring our karma to Pure Land to be purified there?

According to Master Yin Guang1 (印光大师1861-1940), “carrying karma” (带业) denotes remaining defilements that have not been severed while in the human realm. Regardless of the level of practice, if one has true conviction and deep aspiration (for rebirth in  Pure Land) and wholeheartedly recites the name of Amitābha Buddha, one can be rebornin Pure Land without exception.

According to the Contemplation sūtra (观无量寿经)2, those who “carry karma” will be reborn as the lowest grade lotus (下品下生) and after dwelling there for 12 great world-periods (kalpa), that lotus where they have been encapsulated will unfold and blossom and they will be seated in the meditation posture and both Avalokitesvara and Mahāsthāmaprapta bodhisattvas will expound the fundamental reality to them in great detail and henceforth all of their afflictions will be dispelled.

We need to bear in mind that steadfast conviction to seek rebirth in Pure Land is the key to rebirth in Sukhāvatī or Pure Land.

To foster a deeper understanding of the law of karma, Zen Master Tien Ru (天如) in his Doubts and Questions about Pure Land (净土或问) quoted the sūtra The Questions of Kind Milinda as follows: “For example, if you put a huge block of stone on a boat, because of the ‘strength’ of the boat, the stone does not sink and can be carried to the other shore. Without the boat, even if you place a single grain of sand on the surface of the water, it will sink to the bottom of the river.”

2. If a person is born in Pure Land, does he escape from the 6 realms? If so, how does the law of karma function in Pure Land?

A person born in the Amitābha Pure Land called Sukhāvatī is no longer subject to rebirth in the 6 realms. Why? It is because in Sukhāvatī there are no conditions for retrogression, in fact, no conditions that will ever lead to rebirth in samsara. This point is clearly stated in the Amitābha Buddha’s 11th vow: “… humans and devas in my land should not dwell in the Definitely Assured State and
unfailingly reach Nirvaṇa, …” and 22nd vow: “… who visit my land should not ultimately and unfailingly reach the Stage of Becoming a Buddha after one more life, …”

With regards to how karma operates in Pure Land, at the outset, the law of karma is universal law and intrinsically empty. Explanations from Questions about Pure Land (净土或问) authored by Zen Master Tian Ru (天如) who quoted Master Yong Ming will best elucidate this:

“Since the nature of causes and conditions is intrinsically empty, good or bad karma is not fixed. In determining the path of salvation or perdition, we should consider whether the state of the Mind is lowly or transcendental [at the time of death]. This is analogous to an ounce of pure gold which is worth much more than a hundred times its weight in cotton wool, or a small isolated flame, which can
reduce a pile of straw, enormous beyond reckoning, to ashes.”

3. Is it true that if a person upkeeps his vow to enlighten others and hence this is done because of the vow, then he will return to Saṃsāra to deliver others after he graduates from Pure Land?

Actually the vow to enlighten others is called Bodhicitta; that is the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the sake of ferrying sentient beings out of saṃsāra. After graduation from Pure Land, his task is still not complete; since his aspiration (Bodhi-citta) is to deliver others out of saṃsāra, he will return to saṃsāra to help countless sentient beings who are still drowning in the ocean of birth and death.

4. Can you please explain the 8 hours practice where Pure Land practitioners emphasize that we should not touch a dead body? Is this just a traditional Chinese belief or taught by the Buddha in the sutras? And is there scientific explanation for this today?

According to the Yogacarabhumisastra (《瑜伽师地 论》) compiled by Asanga (300-370 AD), “When the consciousness-principle get outside [the body, it sayeth to itself], ‘Am I dead, or am I not dead ?’ It cannot determine. It seeth its relatives and connexions as it had been used to seeing them before.

It even heareth the wailings. The terrifying karmic illusions have not yet dawned. Nor have the frightful apparitions or experiences caused by the Lords of Death yet come.”

The famous Tibetan Book of the Dead5 traditionally attributed to Padma-Sambhava, an Indian mystic who was said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century also supplies the same explanation.

According to the Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses (八识规矩颂) authored by Master Xuan Zang (602-664 AD), the 8th consciousness or ālayavijñāna is the last to leave the corpse, and the first to begin operating at birth, “It is the one who comes first and leaves last, being truly a master of the house!” (“去后来先作主公”)

Other signs of the consciousness leaving the body are 1) when all heat has left the area of the heart centre (in the centre of the chest), 2) the body starts to smell or decompose, 3) a subtle awareness that the consciousness has left and the body has become like ‘an empty shell’, 4) a slumping of the body in a practitioner who has been sitting in meditation after the stopping of the breath. The body should not be removed for disposal before one or more of these signs occur.

The above Mahāyāna scriptural sources evince that even after death, consciousness still lingers with the dead body. Even when the breathing has stopped, but warmth can still be felt radiating from the body, that means the 8th consciousness has not left the
body yet, and thus the corpse should not be moved during this period of time, lest the deceased person become upset or confused and as a result be reborn in woeful states.

As far as bioethical questions are concerned, it is mainly a matter of the attitude of the different traditions or schools of Buddhism. According to the Theravādin tradition, rebirth occurs immediately upon death. The body of the deceased is no longer considered as a part of the former being, thus autopsies, organ transplants are allowable. In contrast, the Mahāyāna tradition believes that there is an intermediate state between rebirths, known as antarabhava. Most people following the Mahāyāna tradition would avoid touching or moving the body for, at least eight hours after death.

According to Ven. Pende Hawter, “Actually, there is a scientific basis to this Buddhist custom. After the lungs have stopped breathing and the heart has stopped beating, the nervous system may still continue to function. Also, some awareness may still be left in the person’s sub-consciousness. Though the person may be clinically dead, the person is not yet completely dead. Therefore, when someone passes away, we should not move the person regardless if the person is lying down, sitting, or half-reclining on the bed. If we try to move the body, we may be causing the deceased discomfort and he who may in turn become resentful and angry. Since the state of mind of the deceased can influence his or her rebirth, it is advisable that we do not move the body for eight hours after death. … There is another reason why we should wait eight hours before moving the body of the dead. It is possible that when one does sitting meditation, one may enter a state of meditative concentration in which the pulse becomes almost undetectable. To others who are not familiar with the practice of meditation, the person in meditative concentration may appear dead.”

5. Is it not good karma that leads us to the next rebirth rather than just the recitation of Amitābha Buddha mantra which takes us to Sukhāvatī ?

At the moment when the mind is immersed in the recitation of Amitābha Buddha, it is a state of mind that is pure, wholesome, concentrated and free from worldly attachment. Thus, evidently it is the so called “good karma”. This is not merely worldly “good karma” but are actions that are free from outflows (无漏业) that conduce liberation from saṃsāra.

As concisely listed in the Amitābha sūtra, the three prerequisites for rebirth in Sukhāvatī include skillful roots善根, merits & virtues 福德 (beneficial practices), and lastly all forms of conducive practices因缘that culminates at the same goal.

Skillful roots (Skt. kuśala-mūla善根) denotes positive potentiality. Morally positive habits that bring good retribution which include cultivation of Bodhi-citta and renunciation of worldly attachments, etc.

Amitābha Buddha’s 20th vow best illustrates the above: “… concentrate their thoughts on my land, do various meritorious deeds and sincerely transfer the merits towards my land with a desire to be born there, …”

Finally, we need to bear in mind the following key factors:

1.) Firm conviction to seek rebirth in Pure Land is the key factor that determines rebirth in Sukhāvatī ;

2.) Quality of recitation of Amitābha Buddha is the key factor which determines the level of accomplishments (total of 9 grades) in Sukhāvatī ;

6. For a long time, I could not accept Christianity because it requires me to have “blind faith” in Jesus and God. Then, I found Buddhism which taught me a way of life where I could question and investigate its teachings and not accept everything out of faith. But then, I came across Pure Land Buddhism which talked about rebirth in a Pure Land. How then is Pure Land different from the Christian concept of Heaven? To practice Pure Land Buddhism, must I have faith in the existence of Pure Land?

In Christianity, one’s salvage is solely dependent on God, but in Buddhism there is neither a savior nor some higher divine force that determines our destiny or fate, we are masters of our own destiny as well as our own salvage; we are the ones that shape our own future.

The Pureland of Amitābha Buddha is called Sukhāvatī, it is not heaven, and it is not a place for escapism or pleasures. It is a place conducive for spiritual practice.

To practice Pure Land Buddhism, the following key factors are important:

1.) Firm conviction to seek rebirth in Pure Land is the key factor that determines rebirth in Sukhāvatī ;

2.) Quality of recitation of Amitābha Buddha is the key factor which determines the level of accomplishments (total of 9 grades) in Sukhāvatī.

7. How do I decide which type of Buddhism to practice – is it based on my karmic conditions or based on whom I choose as my  teacher, or my mental level of understanding?

The type of Buddhism you choose depends on what is suitable for one’s temperaments and spiritual inclinations. If you refer to the paradigm of three types of persons elucidated by Tsongkhapa in Lam Rim Chen Mo (Steps on the Path to Enlightenment), you may be able to find what you seek:

Three types of persons and their corresponding capabilities and spiritual goals are as follows:

1.) Persons of Small Spiritual Scope Highest worldly goal is the primary aim of persons with small spiritual scope. They strive for human rebirth or to be reborn as a god endowed with four qualities (good physical form, sufficient wealth, longevity, favorable conditions). They fear rebirth in the lower realms and aspire in ensuring a good rebirth. The motivation is the determination to be free from the fear of rebirth in lower realms in the next life.

Contemplates on the leisure and opportunities of this precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, the six realms – particularly the cause and suffering of lower rebirths. Develops deep conviction in the law of karma-causality. Focuses on keeping ethical conduct by practising the ten virtuous actions for rebirth in human or higher realms.

2.) Persons of Intermediate Spiritual Scope

Persons of middling spiritual capacity seek personal emancipation from the cycle of birth and death. They seek more than just mere
freedom from lower realms and they have revulsion towards saṃsāra in its entirety. The goal of the person of intermediate scope is called mere emancipation because it does not involve liberation of sentient beings. This emancipation is definite, but not the highest liberation.

Takes up the practice of the three trainings of morality, meditation and wisdom. Meditations include contemplation on the Four Noble Truths, the faults and sufferings of saṃsāric existence and mental afflictions as the source of suffering.

3.) Persons of Great Spiritual Scope

Buddhahood is the primary goal of persons of great spiritual scope, they seek the emancipation of sentient beings and not one’s emancipation alone.

Includes the practices of the above two types of persons. In addition to that, he practices meditation on Bodhi-citta, cultivates the six
perfections, concentration and insight.

As for the spiritual teacher, according to the Lam Rim Chen Mo, a qualified spiritual teacher should possess 10 qualities. When choosing a spiritual teacher, look for these 10 qualities in the person in whom you would entrust your spiritual development, examine the person you have in mind to see if he/she possesses these qualities:

The Lam Rim Chen Mo (Steps on the Path to Enlightenment) authored by Tsongkhapa, enumerates the 10 qualities that Mahāyāna
teachers need to have in order to lead students on the Path as follows:

Pure ethical conduct;

1. Stable concentration;

2. Analytical wisdom that thoroughly pacifies self-grasping;

3. The Spiritual Teacher’s inner qualities and level of knowledge should be superior to the student;

4. Great scriptural knowledge;

5. Understand suchness;

6. Diligence;

7. Is skilful at teaching;

8. Have compassion;

9. Great patience.

However, in the degenerated times it may be difficult to find spiritual teachers endowed with all 10 qualities. The alternative is to seek a teacher with at least 5 qualities (numbers 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9) or possessing a minimum of three qualities which include:

(a) having mainly good qualities rather than faults;

(b) placing one’s focus on future lives rather than on the present life; and

(c) puts others before oneself. EH