Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 10

The light of compassion illuminates us from afar;
Those beings it reaches, it is taught,
Attain joy of dharma,
So take refuge in Amida, the great consolation.

The Form of Emptiness

As we read through the first few wasan, which are based on T'an-luan's San Amida Butsu Ge, a nagging question begins to develop; at least it did for me when I first encountred these wasan. It is: 'How does the Buddha of inconceivable light (Amida Buddha) come to have characteristics, like "pure light" and, in this wasan,"light of compassion"?' By what authority are these claims made for Amida Buddha?

The first thing that can be said is that the teaching attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha known as The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (the Larger Sutra) - upon which the Pure Land tradition is based - itself describes the 'twelve lights' of Amida Buddha. The light here called by Shinran Shonin 'the light of compassion' is not one of the list of twelve lights but Shinran is, in fact, following T'an-luan who calls the joyful light (kangiko) 'merciful light'. How can T'an-luan make this assumption?

The primary interest and focus in the Larger Sutra is in fact wisdom, (Sk. prajna), which is light. The perfection of wisdom is to realize that all dharmas (constituent elements of thought and personality) are empty.

In its negative aspect, the dharma-body, the underlying formless reality, which we have already discussed, is emptiness (Sk. shunyata). In the Ojoronchu, his Commentary on Vasubandhu Bodhisattva's Discourse on the Pure Land, T'an-luan draws on his Madhyamika insight to explain how the formless takes on form; a form based on the needs and assumptions of those who will benefit from its teaching. But this in itself raises only more questions, most importantly, 'How does it know what is the most appropriate form to take?'

The answer is because it is emptiness.

Emptiness (Sk. shunyata) is not a mere nihilism which engulfs all entities in its universal darkness, abolishing all differences and particularities. On the contrary, shunyata is the fountainhead from which the Buddha's compassionate activity flows out.1

Compassion is, by definition, only possible for that which is not self; only emptiness identifies thoroughly with the things (dharmas) of which it is the ultimate characteristic, and dharmas in turn make up our personailty. Compassion (literally suffering with) is the inevitable fact of shunyata. It is this compassion which responds to our inner need like the way that our heart leaps when we fall in love or our faces blush if we are embarassed. Compassion is not possible unless emptiness is the underlying fact of things. When we hear its call, our response is joy in the dharma.


1: Gadjin M.Nagao, Ascent and Descent: Two Directional Activity in Buddhist Thought, the Presidential Address for the 6th Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Tokyo, 1983.

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