Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 14

The majestic light, transcending form, is beyond description;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha of Inexpressible Light.'
All the Buddhas praise this light -
The cause by which Amida's Buddhahood was fulfilled.

Buddha of Ineffable Light

There are several magnificent declarations in this verse, and all of them attest to that quality of Amida Buddha, which Shinran Shonin thought was most appealing: light.

As we experience it, light is ineffable because we can not see it; it is impossible to comprehend. We only see the objects that obstruct the light. The light enables us to see the things that get in its way.

When we look at the stars in the sky it is true that they do seem to be points of light. In that sense we see these lights because their light originates at points that are so far away. Amida, the Buddha of light, is not such a light. Amida Buddha is light that does not travel because he is light that bathes everything that exists, everywhere, throughout the entire universe; nor is it darkened by anything; nor is it outshone by anything. This is the light that is dharma, it is prajna, wisdom that fills all things.

Shinran's dharma is sometimes spoken of as the 'Buddhism of compassion' but it is more awe-inspiring than this warm and gentle radiance. Its source is 'majestic light' (jinko, meaning ijin komyo). It is light that causes us to acknowlege its marvellous brilliance, which leaves us speechless in wonder and joy. Shinran's Buddha Dharma is this pure wisdom: ineffable light that is unquenchable, unstoppable, embracing every single being who accepts its bidding.

Obviously, Amida's light is quite different to electromagnetic radiation in the physical universe. Some wavelengths, like 'radio waves', can be hindered or deflected by obstructions. The wisdom of the Buddha 'pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings.'1 It is a living potential that describes the process of enlightenment. It is a metaphysical reality because it outshines every other conceivable or apparent light source.

Clearly, of all Amida Buddha's attributes, this is the one that Shinran loves the most. He almost invariably uses epithets of Amida Buddha as light. For him, the Buddha is immeasurale light (Sk. amitabha) above all things. Vasubandhu Bodhisattva inspired Shinran in this emphasis, in this love, in this exuberant reality.

The notes that Shinran made alongside this verse indicate that he was also moved by the ineffable nature of the light. He notes that this light is formless and altogether impossible to explain; that it is completely beyond verbal expression. This Buddha, then, is no ordinary Buddha. Amida Buddha is the esssential, unconditioned truth that pervades all things. He is the very dharma itself. He is the Buddha who is praised by all other buddhas, the teacher and leader of the wise.


1: CWS, p. 461.

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