None of the sentient beings who are born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss ever fall back into a lower realm.
This sentence assures us that all the beings in the Pure Land have reached the level of non-retrogression and so are always improving. The swiftness of their unceasing improvement is possible thanks to the support of Amitabha Buddha and the excellent learning conditions in the Pure Land.
In comparison to those conditions, ours here in samsara are woefully inadequate. How so? Being reborn as a human is incredibly rare; and when we do finally obtain a human rebirth, we might not live in a place where we can hear the teachings. Or, upon our hearing and even wanting to practice the teachings, we find that friends and family members oppose our practice. Perhaps our surroundings are so comfortable that we are too distracted to practice. Alternatively, our surroundings may be so harsh that all we can think of is surviving for one more day.
What if we are indeed fortunate enough to hear the teachings, have time to practice, our friends and family members are supportive, and our surroundings are favorable for practice? Arrogant and self-absorbed, we may squander our good fortune on personal enjoyments. Or lazy and complacent, we may dismiss the urgency of practice saying there will be time another day.
For these and so many other reasons, we all too often regress in our practice to attain Buddhahood.
The quickest way to attain Buddhahood is to make continuous progress—to reach the level of non-retrogression. For beings like ourselves, this is best accomplished in a land that is tailored to accommodate our needs and shortcomings. And so Sakyamuni told us that of all the pure lands, we should seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land, a land so ideal that all Buddhas teach the Pure Land method and encourage all beings to seek rebirth there.
We can further appreciate the importance of this sutra passage assuring us of non-retrogression when we consider five fundamental reasons why we will never fall back in that land.
First, Amitabha Buddha said in his twentieth vow that of beings who sincerely practice and chant his name, “At the end of their lives, along with an assembly of bodhisattvas, I will appear before them and welcome them. In an instant, they will be born in my land and become non-retrogressive bodhisattvas.”
Furthermore, Amitabha concluded all forty-eight of his vows in the same manner: stating that if he did not fulfill that vow he would not attain perfect enlightenment. Sakyamuni’s telling us that Amitabha became a Buddha ten kalpas ago assures us that all of Amitabha’s forty-eight vows—including this vow of non-retrogression for all those reborn in his land—have, indeed, been fulfilled.
Second, Amitabha supports all beings who sincerely chant his name. Due to this support, all those in the Pure Land will never again regress. But one does not even have to wait to be reborn in the Pure Land to receive Amitabha’s help. Those who sincerely practice and vow to be reborn in the Pure Land will receive his support even now, even here in samsara.
We can see how this works upon reading Amitabha’s thirteenth and fourteenth vows in which he pledged that when he became a Buddha, his light would be infinite. Universally illuminating the ten directions, it would be unsurpassed by any other Buddha’s light and would exceed by a quadrillion times that of the sun and the moon. All beings who saw his light, who were illuminated by it, and who felt it touch their bodies, would be peaceful and joyous. They would do good deeds with a compassionate mind and would be reborn in his land. If this was not so, he would not attain perfect enlightenment.
And so, with this light, Amitabha found a way to help and support us even while we are still in samsara. But if Amitabha’s light is illuminating the ten directions, why do we not see it? We are not yet truly sincere in our chanting. It is as if, on a cloudless day, the sun shines brightly all around us, but we stand gripping an open umbrella directly overhead. Ignorantly we block the very light that is always streaming towards us.
Third, even the trees, railings, birds, and celestial breezes in the Pure Land teach the Dharma. In our world, none of these teach it. Without such teachings, it is much easier for us to regress in our learning. And even when we do listen to teachers or read their books, it is still very easy to be lazy and to have wandering thoughts. In the Pure Land, however, we will be immersed continuously in the teachings. With Amitabha’s support, our mind will naturally be pure and proper.
Fourth, in our world, one teacher instructs many students. In the Pure Land, each being has a manifestation of Amitabha for a teacher. Furthermore, beings in the Land Where Sages and Ordinary Beings Dwell Together who wish to learn from other Buddhas can go to the lands of those Buddhas to learn from them. Beings in the Land of Real Reward who want to learn from other Buddhas will see a manifestation of that Buddha right in front of them. Thus the beings in the Pure Land can effortlessly learn from countless Buddhas! How could anyone possibly regress with such extraordinary conditions and such excellent teachers?
Fifth, depending on the level of attainment in the Pure Land, afflictions will either be held at bay or eliminated. Amitabha has created a world in which afflictions—which are serious obstacles to our progress—have no cause to arise and trigger our regression.
For example, in accordance with his fifth vow, everyone has the same appearance. In our world, some people are very attractive, which can lead to arrogance. Others may be decidedly unattractive and suffer from feelings of low esteem. Both arrogance and a sense of inferiority are afflictions. The perfect equality of appearance in the Pure Land gives no rise to such afflictions, leading to their elimination.
These are five fundamental reasons why we will always improve in our practice in the Pure Land. Thanks to such reasons, we will attain the three stages of non-retrogression. Those who have perfectly reached all three levels are Bodhisattvas of the Seventh Ground or above.
The first stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s level. One eliminates the Affliction of Views and, in so doing, attains the level of a sage, a being who has accomplished his goal. Beings at this level include stream-enterers of Theravada Buddhism.
The second stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s practice. One continuously progresses on the bodhisattva path and perseveres to fulfill the vow of “Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to help them all.” These beings do not fall back into seeking only their individual attainment. Now observant of others, these beings voluntarily go to them when their conditions have matured and they are ready to learn.
The third stage of non-retrogression is no falling back from one’s mindfulness. One will never again fall back because every thought accords with prajna wisdom, the wisdom innate in the true nature.
These are the three stages of non-retrogression we attain by being reborn in the Pure Land. This wonderful attainment is due to Amitabha Buddha’s support.