Buddhafields as described in Mahayana activity are displays of wisdom spontaneously created by buddhas. Texts offer detailed descriptions of the inconceivable beauty and ornamental qualities while simultaneously underlining the primary activity as the teaching and study of the Buddhadharma.
Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art




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Buddhafields are the manifested places of activity of a particular buddha or very advanced bodhisattva. They are said to be created by the wisdom of a Buddha. Some of these are also known as Pure Lands (Tib. དག་པའི་ཞིང་ dag pa’i shing). According to tradition, only one buddha arises to teach in a particular field at one time. However, it is possible (and frequently mentioned in sutras) for buddhas and bodhisattvas to travel from one to another.

Early sutras such as the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra contain detailed instructions for the recollection and visualization of buddhas (Skt. Buddhānusmṛti)  as a means toward spiritual attainment. This sutra also contains some of the earliest references to the Buddha Amitābha and his pure land. Moreover, Prajñāpāramitā literature, renowned for teachings on emptiness, also feature references to the buddhafields. Within these texts, great bodhisattvas are described as traveling between buddhafields to receive teachings and to always be in the presence of a buddha.

The 4th-century Indian master Asaṅga explained in the final chapter of his treatise, the Mahāyānasaṃgraha that pure lands “have arisen from supreme, supramundane, wholesome roots. It has the characteristics of a cognition that is eminently pure. It is the abode of the Tathāgata.”1Bayer, A. Emptiness and Liberation in the Pure Land: A Reconsideration of the Views of Asaṅga and Wonhyo Modern scholars have not found much commentarial literature offering insight into the actual practice of meditation on buddhafields.

Both Asaṅga and his brother Vasubandhu mention that the teaching on buddhafields was suited for those who wished to attain buddhahood “at a later time”. However, it should be noted that the sutras focused on buddhafields do not exclusively assume that this goal is only for lay practitioners or for those with less experience. The Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, for example specifically mentions that the ordained sangha is one group of people who can attain rebirth in the buddhafield of Amitābha.

Modern scholars have observed that although these realms are often described with lavish ornamentation and unfathomable riches, these are often literary tropes that offer idealized characteristics. As Jan Nattier observed in her study of the sutras, “The essential feature of a Pure Land is thus not its physical attributes, lovely as they may be, but the opportunity to live in the presence of a Buddha”.2Nattier, Jan, “The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism” JIABS, 23.1, 2000, pp. 71-102 Scholars also note that “there has always been flexibility, variety, and even inconsistency in the concept of ‘pure land’ within Mahāyāna Buddhism as a whole”.3Amstutz, G. Editor’s Introduction: Pure Lands in Japanese Religion Thus, the particular geographic direction or the attributes of buddha fields and pure lands may vary according to different texts or specific contexts.

Buddhafields Defying Comprehension

In Mahayana sutras, buddhafields or buddha realms are often “displayed” to followers by the Buddha and are described as environments beyond the imagination. For example, in The Stem Array (Buddhāvataṃsaka­) sutra, the Buddha reveals the inconceivable number of buddha realms to his audience. This passage is representative of the emphasis on the inability of ordinary cognition to apprehend what is described. Masters throughout history stressed the importance of familiarization with the attributes of the buddhafields. The details of the descriptive passages allow the listener to create a mental image of the perfect environment, thereby allowing easier access. In addition, the text underscores the non-comprehensibility of the merit that brings about such experiences:

Through the power of the Buddha, there were present buddha realms, to the number of the atoms in countless buddha realms, that were immense and vast in length and breadth, possessed various adornments made of all jewels, had grounds made of an indescribable variety of precious jewels, were encircled by walls of countless precious jewels, and were adorned by lines of palm trees made of various jewels.

Those buddha realms were adorned by immeasurable rivers of scented water that were filled with an unceasing volume of scented water that was mixed with many flowers made of a variety of jewels, flowing and turning to the right, and resounding with descriptions of all the qualities of buddhahood.

There were rows of precious white lotus flowers, precious trees beautifully adorned by the blossoms of superior lotuses made from all jewels, rows of countless kūṭāgāras made of various jewels covered in shining networks of every kind of precious jewel, countless aerial palaces made of precious jewels adorned with all precious jewels, the aroma of countless incenses spread everywhere, and the adornment of clouds of incense, countless banners of jewels, banners of cloth, banners that were flags, banners with streamers of jewels, banners with flowers, banners with adornments, banners with garlands, banners with bells of various jewels, banners that were parasols of kings of jewels, banners of precious jewels with pervading radiance, banners of kings of precious jewels that resounded with the wheel of the names of all the tathāgatas, banners of delightful lions made of the kings of precious jewels, banners of the kings of precious jewels that proclaimed the past practices of all the tathāgatas, and banners of the kings of precious jewels that illuminated the entire realm of phenomena, and all directions were adorned with every kind of adorning banner.

Clouds of countless aerial palaces of devas adorned the entire expanse of the sky above Jetavana. Jetavana was adorned and covered by a cloud of countless trees of various kinds of incense. It was adorned and encircled by Sumeru Mountains that possessed indescribable adornments. It was adorned by the beautiful voices and sounds of the praises of all tathāgatas that came from indescribable clouds of musical instruments being played and beaten. It was adorned by a covering of clouds of indescribable precious lotuses. There were indescribable precious lion thrones on which were precious cushions made of divine materials, on which the bodhisattvas were seated, and which were adorned by clouds that emitted beautiful voices that praised the tathāgatas. It was adorned by clouds of grains that were precious jewels that formed indescribable images of lords of the worlds. It was adorned by indescribable clouds of networks of white pearls. It was adorned by a covering of indescribable clouds of kūṭāgāras made of red pearls. It was adorned by an indescribable rainfall from clouds of pearls that were as hard as vajras.

Why was this? It was because of the inconceivable roots of merit of a tathāgata. It was because of the inconceivable good qualities of a tathāgata. It was because of the inconceivable sovereign power and blessing of a tathāgata. It was because of a tathāgata’s inconceivable miraculous manifestations whereby his one body could pervade all world realms. It was because of the inconceivable display of the spiritual power through which all the tathāgatas could enter one body that appears throughout the entire array of buddha realms. It was because of the inconceivable manifestations of the tathāgatas through which they can show the perceivable image of the entire realm of phenomena within a single atom. It was because of the inconceivable manifestations of the tathāgatas through which they can show the entire succession of tathāgatas of the past within a single pore. It was because of the tathāgatas’ inconceivable ability to illuminate infinite world realms with a single ray of light. It was because of the tathāgatas’ inconceivable ability to pervade all buddha realms, which are as numerous as the atoms that comprise all world realms, with a cloud of emanations from a single body hair. It was because of the tathāgatas’ inconceivable ability to reveal the kalpas of the creation and destruction of world realms from a single body hair.

“The Stem Array” Chapter from the Mahāvaipulya Sūtra “A Multitude of Buddhas”, Buddhāvataṃsaka­nāma­mahā­vaipulya­sūtrāt gaṇḍa­vyūha­sūtraḥ paṭalaḥ

Buddhafields and the Theravada tradition

Buddhafields or Pure Lands come about due to the vows made by bodhisattvas on their path to awakening. Although buddhafields are more prevalent in the Mahayana texts, these wondrous environments where the presiding buddha proclaims the Dharma also appear in the Theravada tradition. The Buddhāpadāna of the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali canon contains a lengthy poetic description of the beauty and qualities of Gotama Buddha’s own Buddhakhetta (Pali) or buddhafield. The text mentions innumerable buddhafields pervading the ten directions. This development seems to represent a stage in the concept of locus of activities of buddhas somewhere between the early suttas of the Theravada tradition and the Mahayana sutras.4Heinz Bechertt has suggested a date of circa 1st-2nd century CE for the Buddhāpadāna. See Bechert, Heinz. “Buddha-Field and Transfer of Merit in a Theravāda Source”, Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 35, no. 2/3, 1992, pp. 95–108.

Multiple Buddhafields in the Mahayana Tradition

The best-known buddhafield is that of Sukhāvatī, the pure realm of the Buddha Amitābha. However, Mahayana Sutras describe numerous buddhafields. Scriptures such as the Akṣobhyavyūha were also crucial in creating interest in rebirth in Abhirati buddhafield, presided over by Buddha Akṣobhya.4Nattier, Jan (2000). “The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23 (1), 71–102. Also Strauch, I. More Missing Pieces of Early Pure Land Buddhism: New Evidence for Akṣobhya and Abhirati in an Early Mahayana Sutra from Gandhāra By the 3rd century CE, sutras describing the buddhafields of Sukhāvatī and Abhirati had been translated into Chinese. The pure land of Abhirati is mentioned in a number of influential sutras such as the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā).

The “Medicine Buddha” Bhaiṣajyaguru resides in the eastern pure land of Vaiḍūryanirbhāsa “Pure Blue Beryl”. Avalokiteshvara, the great embodiment of compassion resides in the celestial pure realm of Mount Potalaka. The female buddha Tara, the great savior, presides over her pure land of Yulokod, The Turquoise Leaf Land.

Purification of Buddhafields 

Chapter One (“Purification of the Buddhafield”) of the Mahayana sutra,  “The Teaching of Vimalakīrti”, features a long explanation of buddhafields. In this text, a young bodhisattva from the Licchavi tribe attended a gathering in the city of Vaiśālī and asked Shakyamuni Buddha to explain to 500 young followers how such fields are purified. The Buddha answered:

“Noble son, a buddhafield of bodhisattvas is a field of living beings. Why so? A bodhisattva embraces a buddhafield to the same extent that he causes the development of living beings. He embraces a buddhafield to the same extent that living beings become disciplined. He embraces a buddhafield to the same extent that, through entrance into a buddhafield, living beings are introduced to the buddha-gnosis. He embraces a buddhafield to the same extent that, through entrance into that buddhafield, living beings increase their noble spiritual faculties. Why so? ‌Noble son, a buddhafield of bodhisattvas springs from the aims of living beings.

The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, trans. by Robert Thurman

After a lengthy description of the unimaginable qualities of buddhafields, the disciple Śāriputra is moved to ask a question. He asks the question that would occur to most people. Why, if buddhafields are such sublime places, does the world of the the Tathāgata  Śākyamuni Buddha appear to be impure? The Buddha explains that purity is in the mind of the perceiver. The sutra continues with a demonstration:

Thereupon the Lord touched the ground of this billion-world galactic universe with his big toe, and suddenly it was transformed into a huge mass of precious jewels, a magnificent array of many hundreds of thousands of clusters of precious gems, until it resembled the universe of the Tathāgata Ratnavyūha, called Ananta­guṇa­ratna­vyūha. Everyone in the entire assembly was filled with wonder, each perceiving himself seated on a throne of jeweled lotuses.

Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Śāriputra, “Śāriputra, do you see this splendor of the virtues of the buddhafield?”

Śāriputra replied, “I see it, Lord! Here before me is a display of splendor such as I never before heard of or beheld!”

The Buddha said, “Śāriputra, this buddhafield is always thus pure, but the Tathāgata makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of inferior living beings. For example, Śāriputra, the gods of the Trayastriṃśa heaven all take their food from a single precious vessel, yet the nectar that nourishes each one differs according to the differences of the merits each has accumulated. Just so, Śāriputra, living beings born in the same buddhafield see the splendor of the virtues of the buddhafields of the buddhas according to their own degrees of purity.”

When this splendor of the beauty of the virtues of the buddhafield shone forth, eighty-four thousand beings conceived the spirit of unexcelled perfect enlightenment, and the five hundred Licchavi youths who had accompanied the young Licchavi Ratnākara all attained the conformative tolerance of ultimate birthlessness.

Then, the Lord withdrew his miraculous power and at once the buddhafield was restored to its usual appearance. Then, both men and gods who subscribed to the Disciple Vehicle thought, “Alas! All constructed things are impermanent.

The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, trans. by Robert Thurman

Buddhafields and Pure Land Buddhism 

The term “Pure Land Buddhism”5Amstutz, Galen, and Mark L. Blum. Editor’s Introduction: Pure Lands in Japanese Religion. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2006, pp. 217–21 is used to describe the East Asian schools that developed around the cult of Buddha Amitābha. (Japanese: Amida Buddha.) Beginning in China, these reached their most fully developed form in Japan. There, the term “Pure Land Buddhism”6Amstutz, Galen, and Mark L. Blum. Editor’s Introduction: Pure Lands in Japanese Religion. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2006, pp. 217–21 is used to describe the Japanese schools that developed around the cult of Buddha Amitābha.

The great scholar-practitioners, Hōnen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1263) were the primary exponents of the uniquely Japanese schools of Pure Land Buddhism. In this tradition, the heroic compassion of Buddha Amitābha/Amida and his vast aspirations to benefit all sentient beings were the conditions that allow practitioners with strong faith to attain rebirth in his pure land. Once there, they will have the perfect situation in which to practice the Buddhadharma and achieve awakening.

Tibetan Buddhism and the Unique Pure Land of Guru Rinpoche

Zangdok Palri, the Glorious Copper Colored Mountain, is the pure land of Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche.  This is the first example of a buddhafield described only in Tibetan sources. The primary sources of descriptions of Zangdok Palri come from the visionary descriptions of realized Tibetan masters. One of the most famous among them is the 18th century master, Rigdzin Jikmé Lingpa’s Secret Path to the Mountain of Glory: Prayer of Aspiration for the Copper-Coloured Mountain of Glory. Within this text, the prominent Nyingma master describes the outer, inner, and secret understanding of a pure land.

Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

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