What's "Faith" Based On?
Q: If there really is an Amitabha Buddha in a Pure Land, then I would very much like to take rebirth there to further my spiritual awakening, rather than coming back here. I'm not a Buddhist, but didn't Buddha say not to believe anything just because he said it, or because someone else said it, but to test things out in our own experience? How does a faith-based path accord with this? How is it possible to generate faith in something when I have no way of knowing if it is real or not? How did you acquire that faith and what is it based on? Is there any kind of "evidence" to support the idea that Pure Land practitioners actually take rebirth in a Pure Land? If going to the Pure Land really is a short-cut to becoming a bodhisattva, why are so many Buddhists choosing to take the longer route?
A: The Buddha definitely said to test out one's realization for one's self. This is the basis of all faith in Buddhism.
The thing to remember about the Pure Land path is that it is based on three things: 1) Sincere practice, 2) the aspiration for rebirth, and 3) faith in the compassion and wisdom of Buddhas. Let's take these things one at a time.
Sincere practice speaks for itself. If one engages in any of the Pure Land practices (rectiation, visualization, meditation, Sutra study, veneration) with a sincere mind and heart, the benefits are soon realized. One firmly establishes one's self on the Path of Awakening. This is true for all Buddhist practices.
Aspiring to be reborn in the Pure Land is the great motivating force in Pure Land practice. It keeps us going in the direction of liberation. However, what we must realize (and this is crucial) is that there are two aspects to what we call the "Pure Land," namely the literal realm and the essential realm. The essential realm which we call "Pure Land" is the Purified Mind itself, the Enlightened Mind if you will. One may be in the Pure Land here and now if one realizes the Enlightened Mind, even for a moment. The Pure Land and the Purified Mind are one and the same; one is a literal realm of rebirth while the other is the actualization of Enlightenment itself.
Faith in the compassion and wisdom of Buddhas means faith in compassion and wisdom itself. Remember that essentially we are all Buddhas since this is our original nature. And, just like the Pure Land, Amitabha Buddha has two aspects, namely literal and essential. The essential Amitabha is our True Nature while the literal Amitabha is an enlightened Buddha.
What makes these things a little easier to understand and accept is a Mahayana Buddhist teaching called the interpenetration of phenomena and principle. This teaching says that any phenomenon (such as a realm of rebirth and a Buddha whose influence is felt there) and its underlying principle (such as the Enlightened Mind and True Buddha-Nature) are interwoven. By realizing one we realize the other, regardless of which one we realize first. So if we take the course of faith, for instance, we venerate and honor the literal Buddha Amitabha and this Buddha's Pure Land. In this way we eventually come to realize the essential truth behind these forms, namely the Purified Mind and one's Essential Nature. If we take the course of practice, we develop what is called the Samadhi of Buddha-Remembrance which produces great, profound concentration. Having developed this great concentration over time, the literal Buddha Amitabha and the literal Pure Land are manifest.
Once we have seen these things directly, our faith is assured because we have verified the truth of it for ourselves. Just as Shakyamuni Buddha said, I would not ask you to believe these things just because I have told them to you. It is up to every individual to verify the veracity of these teachings/realities for one's self. Then one will have the "evidence" that one seeks. I have verified them for myself but that is my experience, not yours. I would not suggest to you that because I have seen it, you must see it too.
As to "so many Buddhists choosing to take the longer route," it is commonly known that more people in the world practice Pure Land Buddhism than any other form, so it would appear that at least a simple majority of Buddhists are actually choosing to take the "shorter route." Actually it isn't so much a matter of "longer" or "shorter" routes than it is a matter of a Path that leads to ilberation. After a while, distinctions such as "longer" or "shorter" cease to have any relevance since they are aspects of the relative point of view.