Strictly-speaking, it would probably be incorrect to say Buddhism is atheistic; it is non-theistic, and there is a difference. Shakyamuni Buddha did not deny the existence of gods, but attached no creative or salvific significance to them. Rather, he understood that they are irrelevant to our salvation since the gods are themselves in need of saving, and the heavenly and deva realms are just other houses on the Samsaric estate.
What then of the Pure Land doctrine? Do we make a ‘god’ of Amitabha? Or of Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha? Or Tara? No. They are enlightened mortals who have, through achieving enlightenment, supramundane wisdom and virtue that actually eclipses anything we imagine as godlike. In fact, this supramundanity is simply the Original Blessing, for want of a better word, of which we are all receptacles, but have been blinded to by our ignorance. It is our original state. The Pure Lands of these and other buddhas are not heaven. They are staging posts to help us realise the same Enlightenment, and our experience of them starts here, for they cannot be separated from the mind. And once we get to the Pure Land, there’s work to do. It’s not the end of the journey. Amitabha Buddha has simply created a realm conducive for all who are reborn there to achieve enlightenment in just one lifetime, and we have his eighteenth and primal vow on that. The Pure Land is not our ultimate destination; and after realising Enlightenment, we look to returning to this or other Saha worlds to help others reach the other shore. It must also be noted that The Buddhas and bodhisattvas who have attained the supreme enlightenment have been liberated from that Mara spirit which would have them holler commandments and condemnation from the tops of mountains wreathed in smoke and fire. Instead they are embodiments of perfect compassion (mahakaruna), and radiate supreme lovingkindness (metta) towards all sentient beings. There is no threat of eternal judgment, for the Buddhas express a supreme empathy for all lost in delusion, and know that it is this ignorance that condemns any individual to rebirth in the hell realms. And these realms, too, are not everlasting places of residence for those unfortunate to land there. Though extremely difficult, even in hell realms it is not impossible to accrue sufficient merit to escape. The Buddhas are furthermore in a unique relationship with all beings, dwelling within all and being inseparable from the Buddha nature in all. Theistic religion necessarily operates on a dualistic basis — that of worshipper to Worshipped. But to remember the Buddhas is to be brought into a realisation of the unity of these Tathāgatas with the Buddha within each of us. It is only the discriminating mind that makes an issue of ‘other’ and ‘self’ and which cannot accept that it is not a case of either/or but both at once. There is no Buddha except the Buddha within, and there is no Buddha within that is not united with the Buddhas without.
On a final note, what then of the dharma and its practice? If faith in Amitabha’s how is enough to have us reborn in his Western Pure Land, why practice? Two reasons: firstly, how can we not practice? Meditation on the Nembutsu, the Name of Amitabha itself yields a joy, peace and compassion that it is impossible for it not to affect our behaviour and interactions with the world. Spiritual growth is a natural result of bathing in Amitabha’s infinite light. Just as a plant yields a harvest of fruit by the light of the sun, so we too produce fruits of virtue by the light of Amitabha Buddha. And secondly, we practice dharma here because here we begin our groundwork. The Pure Land is not separate from the mind remember? It is a state of bodhicitta, and if it is not realised then our rebirth will be in jeopardy. It may not be perfectly realised here, but upon death, the transition will only be from glory to glory, as our Christian friends might say! As Saichi wrote:
‘How grateful I feel!
Everything I do in this world–
My daily work for livelihood–
This is all transferred into building up the Pure Land.’
NAMU AMIDA BUTSU! __/|\__🌷