Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 36

The directing of virtue for our return to this world is such that
We attain the resultant state of benefiting and guiding others;
Immediately reentering the world of beings,
We engage in the compassionate activity that is the virtue of
    Samantabhadra.

Realms of Illusion

The phrase translated as 'all these realms' (sho u) literally means 'all illusionary existence'. In the course of our discussion about the Jodo Wasan we encountered 'the virtue of Fugen'. This is the fulfilment of a bodhisattva's vocation, in which one leaves the world of 'illusion' but determines to return to this realm for the sake of bringing others to enlightenment and transcendence. Samantabhadra (fugen) is the great example of this enlightened impulse. Shakyamuni himself is also a great exemplar. You will remember, that - after his enlightenment - he sat enjoying the bliss of nirvana until the Great Brahma came to him and asked him to return to the world of illusion for the purpose of teaching the Dharma.

The world of illusion is the world of birth-and-death - of wandering (Sk. samsara) - and it consists of many realms: heavens, earthly existence, hells, the realm of demons, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, warring spirits - and so on. These realms are described in the Vajra Cc-hedika Prajñaparamita Sutra in a famous verse:

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.1

This is a theme that was very strongly supported in the practice of Vasubandhu's Yogacara School. As a sage, T'an-luan was also keenly aware of the illusory nature of the 'world of the senses'. Indeed, the illusory character of the 'world as we know it' is a profound source of hope but it is also - to my mind at any rate - something that can only be genuinely affirmed at a rational - but not an intuitive - level.

Sometimes 'illusion' is misunderstood. For example, it sounds like 'delusion' and these terms are often confused. But our experience of the world of illusion is in no way deluded: it is real enough in the conventional sense. Most of us are not in a state of delerium. An ordinary person who had a strong and visceral conviction of the illusory nature of life would probably be approaching psychosis.

As far as the dharma is concerned, 'illusion' principally refers to the fact that our interpretation of visual, sensate, auditory, olfactory and conceptual experience is distorted by our essential ignorance (mumyo, Sk. avidaya). One clear illustration of this is our inherent assumption that the things we see are permanent. The truth in fact is that nothing is permanent.

Needless to say, it would probably be well-nigh impossible to actually live in the world and respond to it in anything but a self-destructive way if we 'really believed' that it was illusory. As unenlightened people we are unable to escape our ignorance, without first surmounting the hindrances that thwart our progress towards Enlightenment, and it would be futile to try to pretend that we could.

We also cannot let an artificial acceptance of the illusory nature of existence cause us to sink into cynical nihilism. To do this is the become morose; and enlightenment does not equate with a depressed state of mind. On the other hand, if we get stung by nettles it is futile to remember that all this is illusory because we are absolutely, inextricably enmeshed in our illusion. An unenligtened person does not have the luxury of being able to claim to be at ease with the knowledge of life's illusory nature. Yet, we know rationally that perspective does distort our vision; and that happiness or misery distorts our perception of time, that distance delays sound and light... and so on.

The Prajñaparamita Sutra suggests that our world is like the stars. The allusion in the sutra is to the fact that the stars disappear when the sun comes up, but we also know now, in the twenty-first century, that what we see in the sky is truly illusory - a record of events which occurred in a cacophony of time-lines.

Because the world of illusion cannot be experienced as illusory, it is the source of suffering. To an enlightened person, however, it is a source of delight and any sadness or compassion is addressed - not to the illusory nature of existence - but to the fact that it cannot be seen as such by the suffering beings; that its illusory nature is a source of suffering for them. If we look at the language that is used by the Prajñaparamita Sutra, the metaphors all refer to things that are frequently delightful: a mock show, dewdrops, stars, dreams, lightning and clouds.

Because illusion fuels our experience of life as 'suffering' (Sk. dhukkha) it is threatenning and oppressive, yet it need not be so. When we see and know something for what it is, then it loses a certain power over us by being de-mystified. Bodisattvas actually return to illusion itself, absorbing themselves in it thoroughly; but, rather than it having them in its thrall, they have power over it and can use it for the benefit of others.


1: Buddhist Wisdom Books, tr. Conze 1958, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, p. 68.

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