Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 3

Amida has passed through ten kalpas now;
Since realising Buddhahood;
Dharma-body's wheel of light is without bound,
Shining on the blind and ignorant of the world.

The Dharma-body

The dharma-body is referred to in many ways and by many names. It is especially used as a synonym for nirvana. When the dharma-body takes an intelligible form it is referred to as the 'dharma-body of compassionate means'. The essential dharma-body is called the dharma-body of dharma-nature or the dharma-body of suchness. It is said that the dharma-body of dharma-nature is without form or colour, and altogether beyond cognition. It is itself the dharma, or truth of things.

According to the Lotus Sutra the dharma-body appears in any form that can reach into our hearts so that we can hear the dharma and respond to it. The dharma-body breaks through human suffering in order to alleviate it, taking a form that can reach through pain and darkness. A typical example is Shakyamuni Buddha, who is the founder of Buddhism as we know it.

In the Pure Land tradition, Shakyamuni is counted as one of the innumerable Buddhas of the universe who encourage all beings to take refuge in Amida Buddha. However, it is Amida Buddha in the form of his Name (Namu-amida-butsu) who is the living teacher in our tradition. As dharma-body of compassionate means he is accessible to ordinary beings; as dharma-body of dharma nature he is the ultimate reality.

Shinran defines Amida Buddha more precisely as fukashigi ko nyorai - inconceivable light Tathagata (Buddha). The inconceivable light is immeasurable life (muryoju); Amida's light pervades all existing things throughout both space and time.

When used to define Amida Buddha, the term 'light' is wisdom and compassion. Physical light cannot be encompassed by the mind either and its significance lies not so much in the fact of its presence but in its function: to make things visible. It is only because of the existence of light that things can be seen; we do not see the light but the things which it illuminates. The effect of light is illumination; it is meaningless if it does not enable things to be seen. Amida Buddha is inconceivable light and identical with it. In other words he is the wisdom-compassion, which characterizes the dharma-body and exposes reality as it is.

The 5th century Pure Land Master, T'an-luan (476 - 542 CE) was a teacher within the Madhyamika School, which was a school of the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita). It is with him that the focus on the 'wisdom' and 'compassion', the light, of Amida Buddha begins to gain greater prominence in the Pure Land School. In his turn T'an-luan took up the writings of Vasubandhu. The Madhyamika School, to which T'an-luan belonged, grew as a theoretical basis for Buddhist practice based on the corpus of the Perfection of Wisdom literature of earlier Buddhism. It was T'an-luan who first explained that Amida Buddha was the 'dharma-body of compassionate means', about which we can talk, and to whom we can relate.

The following 48 poems of Shinran's wasan develop T'an-luan's song in praise of Amida as light. Indeed all of Shinran's wasan are poems which are concerned with the illumination of the world of the dharma, and the world of our experience. Thus, Shinran's interpretation of Pure Land Buddhism owes much to T'an luan's influence; it is a religion of light, lucidity, wisdom, joy and power.

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Jodo Wasan

Koso Wasan

Shozomatsu Wasan

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