When I hear descriptions of incredibly majestic pure lands, I have doubt that such places could actually exist. Hui-neng said in the The Platform Sutra that if we don't know our nature then Amitabha's pure land is thousands of miles away. Are these lands to be taken literally or are they simply a matter of perception of a highly realized being?
They aren’t one or the other. Certainly Hui-neng isn't going to lie to us, so if we realize our nature then we will know what the pure land is and not have doubt. We may have doubt about the pure land because of our bad karma. Perhaps we were born into a family that didn't believe in heaven and only believed in the here and now. People say it's deep to believe in the here and now, but it isn't necessarily deep. The "here and now" isn't really the here and now. The here and now is just our thinking: what I think now, what I think now, what I think now. That thinking is conceptual formations based on our karma, which may not be that favorable.
What we should do is learn to think properly like a spiritual practitioner. Then we learn to think like a disciple, then like an initiate, then like a bodhisattva. Then we learn to think like a buddha, which is nonthought: not clinging to thoughts at all. If we don't cling to thoughts at all, we will experience a direct awareness of whatever appears, unlike anything we have ever experienced previously. We will automatically enjoy nature a thousand times more than we do now, so it will be the same as a pure land for us. As we are awakening we will more keenly notice the things around us, which are like an outer nature, and we will also be more aware of our mind, including thoughts, inner worlds, astral planes. Plants, rocks and all the objects around us will be much more interesting and amazing. It doesn't matter whether an awakened being is in his pure body in a soul realm or whether he is in his human body in a human realm, just as Shakyamuni is probably in both as he teaches The Larger Sutra on Amitayus.
Are the pure lands real? Yes, but we don't use the word "real" in Buddhism much. It implies there is a "not real." Things are neither real nor not real. There is a sense of things being more or less real. The Buddha recommends the sense of things not being so real, the key word being the sense of realness. Sometimes things seem very real, other times less so. A well done movie seems more real; a poorly done movie seems campy and less convincing.
If we have bad karma from past lives we may have been born in a situation where our parents said, "That's just a bunch of religious crap. Now go to school and make a lot of money. And marry a rich guy, would ya?" Maybe they were nihilists. Nihilism isn't true, however, so even if your parents were highly flawed you can inherit a new family and thus become from a good family. You need to leave your old family and go to your new sangha family. Then how difficult will it be to believe in the pure land?
"Amitabha" is Sanskrit for Buddha Infinite Light. Why do some buddhas emit more light than others?
They do it to create the energy of awakening, as a skillful means for beings who are unawakened. No one said, "This other buddha is no good because he doesn't emit as much light." The Pure Land teachings were created to captivate certain people. They are especially popular in China. You could say, “Don't all buddhas have infinite light? All buddhas should be equal because there is some sort of ultimate equality." Ultimate equality does not negate relative inequality, however.
Do certain buddhas excel at using particular types of skillful means whereas other buddhas excel at other types?
They don't excel; they just do whatever is most expedient. They don’t all have to do everything in exactly the same manner. Is creativity not varied? If buddhas were all identical, then they would become a sign of some sort of automatism. Couldn’t they have a style? Even if one buddha's light only goes ten feet, maybe he's an expert at bowling and can score 300. Maybe he's a buddha of no big deal. Perhaps he's just an ugly, old guy who sits around and eats rice. Why would it matter either way?
The idea of infinity and creating infinite things is to inspire people and help them to realize their capacity.
A buddha could be a swindler, a beggar, a derelict. If beings are too materialistic, they may have a hard time comprehending that. They merely think, "You have to make money. You need a handsome husband. You should live in a fancy neighborhood." When you teach them spirituality their mind can't go that far. They might be able to fathom being less greedy or performing a metaphysical act such as shooting light throughout the universe. A scientist could shoot a rocket up into space. Amitabha Buddha could shoot a beam of light up into space. Isn’t that a start? It's a skillful means, giving people baby steps.
In the Vajrayana and Zen traditions, people don't worry about Amitabha's infinite power, yet they like it. They believe in it, but they don't cling to it.