Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 9

The radiance of enlightenment, in its brilliance, transcends all limits;
Thus Amida is called 'Buddha of the Light of Purity.'
Once illuminated by this light,
We are freed of karmic defilements and attain emancipation.

On Being Human

We have now come to the sixth wasan which was composed in praise of the Buddha's 'twelve lights'; and, obviously, the light of purity is the sixth epithet of the Buddha 'inconceivable light'. Here, Shinran (following T'an-luan) contrasts the purity of the mind of enlightenment with the dusts of our samsaric minds. There are many karmic taints which hold us in a feedback loop that keeps us bound to samsaric existence. The most persistent of these are blind passions (bonno; the Sanskrit term is kleshas). It is, indeed, because of the clarity of enlightenment, the inconceivable light, that we become acutely aware of our blind passions and other karmic taints. Our awareness of our bonno is the working of the wisdom of the Buddha of inconceivable light. Awareness of the Buddha and of our karmic taints are in synergy, whereby because of the existence of one, we become aware of the other.

Deliverance is a source of relief and joy, but the experience of coming face to face with our kleshas, which arise as the result of previous evil karma - and which, in turn, occurs because of our unknowing (mumyo, Sk. avidya) - can be a bitter and painful experience. Only the clear light of the Buddha can reveal them to us. Without knowing his compassionate embrace, any deliberate introspection to uncover them is dangerous and inadvisable. That is to invite unnecessary pain and difficulty. Even upon the awakening of shinjin, a life lived in the light of the Buddha's compassion does not require a preoccupation with our bonno.

Blind passions are a source of suffering and so some schools of Buddha Dharma have traditionally sought to remove them by a process of excision. In the current age, which is the last age of the dharma (mappo), this is no longer possible. No matter how much effort we may put into religious exercises to that end, our blind passions inevitably return in due course. There are sixteen blind passions listed in Vasubandhu's classic work, the Abhidharma Kosha Basyam, and more in the developed Vijnanavada system. They include such painful emotions as envy, anger, enmity and conceitedness, and they can not be overcome by sheer force of will.

For ordinary people (bombu) the pain which is caused by mental dusts, the blind passions, is a fact of life, confronting them is the way to maturity and self-awareness; and controlling the impulses they imply is the way we develop as socially responsible and ethical beings. Far from absolving us from these realities, living in the light of Amida Buddha may lead to a more actute awareness of them. In conventional language we describe someone who comes to terms with their painful inner reality as people who 'confront their demons' and there can be no more important feature in the development of strength of character and moral courage.

Karma is self-perpetuating, since our actions are based on our inner reality and it, in turn, is tormented by blind passions. Our actions are therefore usually mistaken and lead to a continuation of our suffering in the future and the constant arising of bonno. We experience karma as 'drowning'; it seems to have us utterly in its thrall. Amida Buddha's pure karma, however, his enlightenment, is a primal, more profound reality and overwhelms our karmic taints. If we turn our eyes in Namu-amida-butsu to the light and entrust the problem of our karmic taints entirely to it, the seeming reality of our karmic taints is dissolved; we find relief and move along the path of ultimate deliverance.

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