Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 7

The light of purity is without compare.
When a person encounters this light,
All bonds of karma fall away;
So take refuge in Amida, the ultimate shelter.

The Last Resort

According to a marginal note, which Shinran Shonin added to this wasan, ultimate resort (hikkyoe) is the dharma-body's perfect fulfilment of enlightenment. In other words, Amida Buddha is our ultimate shelter because he has realised enlightenment, which is a synonym for dharma-body.

It is striking that Amida Buddha is the ultimate shelter or last resort for many seekers for truth and liberation. Many us turn to Namu-amida-butsu after a life of struggle, profound failure and suffering; or after a long journey along many blind alleys. Turning to the ultimate resort is not our choice. For when all pretension and self-deception has been stripped away in the turbulent waters of our deluded lives, there is nothing left - except Namu-amida-butsu, the last resort, the ultimate shelter.

There are many places in Shinran's writing, where he makes clear that he experiences Amida Buddha as the ultimate reality itself, in the way, for example, that the famous Zen teacher Daisetz Suzuki experienced the dharma-body in the awakening he described, when he knew that he was one with the pine-trees along the stairs at the temple where he was training. Hence, in Jodo Shinshu, at least, Amida Buddha is the ultimate reality itself, the teacher of all buddhas, whose light breaks into our hearts and settles us on the way to liberation.

The term 'amida' is a melding of two terms, which negate measurement, and therefore means 'immeasurable'. These two terms are the Sanskrit words amitayus (immeasurable life) and amitabha (immeasurable light). It is in the latter sense that Shinran mostly understands Amida. That is why this verse links the working of the 'pure, clean light' and the 'ultimate shelter.'

It is all very well to speak of Amida Buddha in this theoretical, doctrinal way but we must remember always, that the Buddha Dharma is never dogmatic; its ethos is empirical. When Shinran discusses Amida Buddha as light, which actively brings him to the realisation that is shinjin in the Pure Land way, he is talking about something that he knows and has experienced.

It is something that we can know and experience, too.

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