Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 113

'Thereafter Tathagatas succeeded each other,
Twelve in all, over a duration of twelve kalpas;
The last Tathagata was named
Light that surpasses Sun and Moon.'

Twelve Lights

The Pure Land Way and the Perfection of Wisdom

In the Surangama Sutra Mahasthamaprapta lists twelve Buddhas. Each Buddha has a life-span of a single kalpa. The names of each of these Buddhas carries an attribute of light and these attributes are exactly the same as the 'twelve lights' which characterise Amida Budda and are listed in the Larger Sutra. When Shinran Shonin - following Mahasthamaprapta, Shakyamuni, Vasubandhu and T'an-luan - speaks of 'Amida Buddha', his chief meaning is that of 'Buddha of Infinite Light' - Amitabha.

Light is wisdom (Sk. prajna). This wisdom is the insight - the awareness - of an awakened one and is the 'Perfection of Wisdom' (Sk. prajnaparamita); knowing that 'all conditioned things are empty' (Sk. shunya,) and that all conditioned things have the same character (Sk. lakshana) - suchness (Sk. tathata ta). Since all things have essentially the same quality of emptiness - and are, therefore, inter-connected - a Buddha's perfection of wisdom is 'one-ness' (ichinyo), or compassion (karuna).

The Pure Land way, from Shinran's point of view, is a 'path of wisdom', prajna vada. Amida Buddha's light, pervading all things, illuminates our inner darkness, ultimately driving it out and revealing oneness. In the initial illumination of our darkness, the way of nembutsu brings us to the threshold of saving truth. This is the instant at which we realise to the very core of our being that our own efforts at seeking the light are useless. We know that we have no option but to bathe in its incandescent compassion.

When we think about this, it is sad that the Pure Land way is usually said to emphasise compassion (Sk. karuna) above all else. When this occurs, the fundamental quality of wisdom tends to be forgotten and the Pure Land way is taken for a teaching of sentimentality. In the Buddha Dharma, compassion is synonymous with wisdom and is redolent with insight and truth. The truth is often a source of dismay and even bitterness for us bombu - people enmeshed in desire and delusion - for it is completely non-discriminatory; understanding oneness as the truth, the reality that underlies all things.

If there is one thing that characterises our deluded condition, it is that we are discriminatory and limited in our scope. We have likes and dislikes, fears and favours; we judge 'good' and 'evil' in ways that suit our own prejudices. The compassion that is a Buddha's wisdom, a Buddha's light, is not prey to such limitations.

When we are tempted to make judgements that are based on a bombu's idea of compassion we can be too readily influenced by current movements of thought and fashion, and by a preference for those things which our natural, human emotions elicit in us. When a bombu speaks of compassion, it is always at risk of being compromised by ignorance (Sk. avidya). Thus, it is sometimes taught that Amida's Primal Vow saves all people 'as they are', without qualification. But this is only partly true.

The Primal Vow certainly 'takes in and embraces all'; for it sees oneness. But unless we freely, openly and honestly respond in Other Power shinjin, which at once sees our inability to save ourselves and turns heart and mind to face the light, there is no likelihood of liberation for us at all. Being embraced is not enough. Although thinking that this is the case is a start, turning and facing the light is essential. We cannot expect to attain Amida's enlightenment unless we also face the truth - the truth about ourselves - in sufficient degree to free us from the delusion that we can save ourselves. And, bombu that we are, we are never likely - nor could we - plumb the real depths of our being. It is sufficient to turn away from our own efforts and rely unconditionally on the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha in Namu-amida-butsu.

The Twelve Lights

In the Ojo Raisan, T'an-luan lists thirty-seven characteristics of Amida Buddha, which include the twelve lights. These epithets of Amida Buddha are extremely ancient and, of course, the Buddha-shasana understands them to have been praised by Shakymuni himself. Indeed, the extant Sanskrit recension of the Larger Sutra (the Sukhavati-vyuha-sutra) includes these 'twelve lights' in a list of twenty epithets based on the suffix 'bha' (light), the fourth syllable of the Sanskrit version of Amida Buddha's Name.

The twelve lights are:

This is why the Buddha of Measureless Life is called the Buddha of Measureless Light, the Buddha of Boundless Light, the Buddha of Unimpeded Light, the Buddha of Unopposed Light, the Buddha Monarch of Flaming Lights, the Buddha of Pure Light, the Buddha of Light of Joy, the Buddha of Light of Wisdom, the Buddha of Uninterrupted Light, the Buddha of Inconceivable Light, the Buddha of Ineffable Light, the Buddha of Light that surpasses Sun and Moon.1

As we shall see in the next verse, it was Amida Buddha as 'Buddha of light outshining sun and moon' who became Mahasthamaprapta's teacher. This last epithet sums up the final three in this list of twelve. Inconceivable, ineffable and outshining sun and moon remind us of a vast and profund truth. The light which we see with our eyes and which sustains the plants and life of this planet is not the ultimate light. It is, in fact, a metaphor for the true light.

Modern, materialistic people like us and people of our generation are in the habit of assuming that the physical is real and that the religious and spiritual is 'mythic', 'mystic' and 'metaphor'. In fact it is the other way round. The world of the senses may be used as a metaphor but in the context of eternity our experience is as nothing. The light is inconceivable not because of its limitations but due to ours. The sun and the moon are encompassed in the eternal, but they too are short term players on the stage of eternity.


1: The Land of Bliss, Luis O. Gómez, 1996, Higashi Honganji Shinshu Otani-ha.

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