Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 11

The light dispels the darkness of ignorance;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha of the Light of Wisdom.'
All Buddhas and sages of the three vehicles
Together offer their praise.

The Source of All Evil

Ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidya) is the fundamental cause of all suffering and error; it causes us to become trapped in samsara and to respond to events by simple, mindless reactions to stimuli, like attraction or aversion. Worse, it leads us to create a totally aberrant world-view which, most notably, distorts reality in a radical way by a powerful tendency to create unitary entities where, in fact there are none.

We do not need to plumb the depths of experience, or of our minds, to see the truth of ignorance. Ignorance is not a mere lack of knowledge, for there is only one thing we need to know and that is that we are steeped in it. One of the most striking examples of the way ignorance works occurs when we look at the sky. At this time of the year (late summer) it is still quite dark when I get up and go out to unlock the front gate. On my way back inside I invariably have a quick glance at the sky where one of the most prominent features is the constellation called the southern cross.

There is in fact no cross, just five stars. Each star is altogether unrelated to the other and each is of different dimensions. People have always made animals and events out of isolated points of light in the sky. Perspective is another simple and clear example of the illusory nature of our existence and yet, without it, survival would be impossible. We see distant things as relatively smaller than nearer things, which are the same size. Illusion, in other words is the way we perceive and make sense of our world; it is integral to the way we are.

In this feature of existence lies a stark clue of the truth of the Buddha Dharma - or, it is at least a starting point. The illusory nature of existence affords an occasion to question our assumptions. If what I see and if the way I naturally tend to organize ideas - the way I do those things which are essential for survival - is fundamentally illusory, then what can I trust? I certainly can not trust myself. Above all, I cannot trust the most insidious of illusions: the idea of my separateness!

The world as we perceive it is not real at all; it is evanescent (Sk. anutpattika-dharma-kshanti). Our certainty that it is real is just one mark, or symptom, of the elemental ignorance, which sets in motion the chain of causation (Sk. pratitya samutpada) that must be broken if we are to be free.

Even though the evanescence of the world is affirmed in the Mahayana, such an understanding is so profound and counter-intuitive, that it is not possible for us to sustain a rational and ordered life in the full knowledge of it. Only a Buddha can see it as it is. Ignorance, for us, is itself elusive, for we always think the best of ourselves, and that we are wise. It is ignorance of our own igorance that needs to be challenged before anything else. Because such knowledge is itself inherently disturbing, it is evident that, yet again, we cannot see or know this ignorance with a mind which is, itself, steeped in illusion.

Ignorance is such an integral part of our organism that the Buddha Dharma since its inception has been aware that some kind of external wedge often needs to be used so as to prise open the first cracks in the walls of illusion upon which our existence is built. Even the Abhidharma acknowledges that faith (which, in its arising, signals the first chinks in our ego-centric armour) needs to be awakened 'by another'. That famous saying, 'When the disciple is ready, the teacher appears,' refers to this profound need. According to the Acts of the Buddha (Sk. Buddhacarita) by Ashvaghosa1, even Shakyamuni needed the gods to organise a sick man, a dead man and an old man so that he could be snapped out of his illusion - and he, unlike us, was on the very cusp of enlightenment.

Shinran Shonin refers to the 'darkness of ignorance' (mumyo no yami) in several places, and, in so doing, strengthens its significance in religious terms. Ignorance is not just a matter of distorted vision; it is utter nescience. It is profound spiritual blindness that is integral to our being. It is an organic blackness of the heart, which only the intervention of the Buddha's light, his wisdom, can reveal in the context of the awakening of shinjin, and knowing that we are embraced in his undying compassion.


1: Ashvaghosa Bodhisattva probably compiled the Buddhacarita during the reign of the Kushan monarch Kanishka, who - during the first century of the common era - ruled the territory that now includes much of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and possibly also part of the Tarim Basin. Kanishka was an enthusiastic patron of the Buddha Dharma, and convened the fourth great Buddhist council in Kashmir, which marked the ascendency of the Mahayana.

Translations of the Buddhacarita include Life of the Buddha by Ashva-ghosha translated by Patrick Olivelle (NYUP, 2008) and The Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosa translated by E.B. Cowell, in Buddhist Mahayana Texts, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 49 (OUP 1894).

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