This part of the sutra can difficult to understand, so let’s explore carefully:
 “Shariputra, why is that land called ‘Utmost Bliss’? The beings in that land suffer no pain but only enjoy pleasures of various kinds. For this reason, that land is called ‘Utmost Bliss.’ Again, Shariputra, in that Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven rows of balustrades, seven rows of decorative nets, and seven rows of trees. They are all made of four kinds of jewels and extend over the whole land, encompassing everything. For this reason, that land is called ‘Utmost Bliss.’ Again, Shariputra, in the Land of Utmost Bliss there are seven-jewelled ponds, filled with water of the eight excellent qualities. The beds of the ponds are covered solely with gold sand, and from the four sides of each pond rise stairs of gold, silver, beryl and crystal. Above these stand pavilions adorned with gold, silver, beryl, crystal, sapphire, rosy pearls, and carnelian. In the ponds are lotuses as large as chariot-wheels — the blue ones radiating a blue light, the yellow a yellow light, the red a red light and the white ones a white light. They are marvelous and beautiful, fragrant and pure. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.
This passage often confuses people into thinking the Pure Land is a heaven-like realm of sensual pleasures and retreat from the real world. This is where Pure Land Buddhism gets criticized most. But there’s two ways to look at the Pure Land here:
1) The Pure Land is this existence of ours, seen through eyes of Dharma, mindfulness and an awakened mind. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha Shakyamuni speaks of his own Pure Land in chapter 16, stating that he is always on Vulture Peak, and even when all around him is in great chaos, all is peaceful and tranquil in his Pure Land. In the same way, one can see the Pure Land of Amida Buddha right here when one knows how to look for it.
2) The Pure Land’s descriptions are similar to those found in the Lotus Sutra’s descriptions of other Pure Lands (when the Buddha predicts enlightenment for some of his disciples). So, a lot of these descriptions could be just commonly used literary devices intended for audiences who could not conceive of a world without so much hatred, greed and ignornance. They may not be intended to be literal.
“Again, Shariputra, in that Buddha-land heavenly music is played continually. The ground is made of gold. Six times during the day and night mandarava flowers rain down from the sky. Every day, in the serenity of the early morning, the people of that land fill the hem of their robes with exquisite flowers and go to make offerings to a hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas dwelling in the worlds of other quarters. Then they return for their morning meal. After the meal they enjoy a stroll. Shariputra, the Land of Utmost Bliss is filled with such splendid adornments.
Here too, we can see that although at first glance this looks like just another sensual paradise, notice how people in the Pure Land use the flowers to make offerings to other Buddhas. People do not indulge in the splendors of the Pure Land for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all.
The line after the meal they enjoy a stroll, is translated differently by Thich Nhat Hanh as they enjoy walking meditation, and I can’t say which one is correct. This may speak more to the interpreter, both being excellent scholars, than interpretation.
“Again, Shariputra, in that land there are always many kinds of rare and beautiful birds of various colors, such as swans, peacocks, parrots, sharis, kalavinkas and jivamjivakas. Six times during the day and night birds sing with melodious and delicate sounds, which proclaim such teachings as the five roots of goodness, the five powers, the seven practices leading to Enlightenment, and the Eightfold Noble Path. On hearing them, the people of that land become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Another example where the Pure Land is a place very conducive to Buddhist practice. When hearing the music of these birds, one recalls the Buddha’s teachings, and becomes mindful. The Pure Land is a refuge from the distractions and difficulties of this existence, and allows one to advance in Buddhist practice very quickly, because everything is gentle, pleasant and geared toward the Dharma. In the Immeasurable Life Sutra, the Buddha states that doing good deeds in our world is much greater merit than in the Pure Land, because in the Pure Land it is almost too easy. This is not a criticism of the Pure Land, but a sign of how easily one can become a bodhisattva or buddha there.
But, Shariputra, you should not assume that these birds are born as retribution of their evil karma. The reason is that none of the three evil realms exists in that Buddha-land. Shariputra, even the names of the three evil realms do not exist there; how much less the realms themselves? These birds are manifested by Amida Buddha so that their singing can proclaim and spread the Dharma.
This one is interesting. How can the Buddha manifest himself as birds, preaching the Dharma? I think this is another clever literary device that shows that Amida Buddha is not just a person but embodies the Dharma itself. We’ll cover that in another commentary when we cover Amida Buddha’s light. Like the Brahma Net Sutra, where Vairocana Buddha states that all the Buddhas have him as original nature, in the same way Amida’s nature is the Dharma itself.
“In that Buddha-land, Shariputra, when soft breezes waft through the rows of jewelled trees and jewelled nets, they produce subtle, wonderful sounds. It is as if a hundred thousand musical instruments were playing together. Everyone who hears the sounds spontaneously becomes mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha. Shariputra, that Buddha-land is filled with such splendid adornments.
Same as above. In the Pure Land, everything there naturally brings the Buddha’s teachings to mind. One can’t help but succeed in their practice there.
Let’s continue in part 3.