Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Koso Wasan 47

The Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light
And the light that is the embodiment of wisdom
Dispel the darkness of the long night of ignorance
And fulfill the aspirations of sentient beings.

Adoring the Light

In both English and Japanese there is a tendency to see the word 'light' as a property of Amida Buddha but it is actually a noun which is qualified by the word Buddha. Amida Buddha is not the Buddha 'of' (no) light but he is light. That is why graphic portayals of him almost always include a nimbus of rays emanating from the point at the back of his head, which is on the same plane as the centre of his forehead, between his eyes. This is a wonderful and effective piece of religious art and it is precious to followers of the nembutsu.

This image is, of course, a representation. It is neither the Buddha himself nor an icon. Of all religious traditions, Pure Land Buddhism is the most iconclastic. Representative images have no power in and of themselves. They do not guarantee anything of the reality, which they represent.

In contrast, the infinite light (Sk. amitabha) itself is a real entity and no mere sign or symbol. Shinran Shonin's favourite epithet for him is Namo fukashigiko nyorai - 'Taking refuge in the inconceivable light Buddha'. As T'an-luan says, he is not a light like the sun, moon or jewels; he is not a light like the light from the newly discovered supernova that comes to us from just a few million years after the creation of the cosmos. Amitabha is absolutely inconceivable to beings which originate from the 'long night of ignorance' (mumyo, Sk. avidya) as we do.

In this verse Shinran takes up T'an-luan's commentary and points out that the light is wisdom. It is, as we read in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, 'the wisdom that pervades all things'. We need to remember that 'all things' means 'all dharmas'. The dharmas are the constituent particles, delineated in the Abhidharma, that make up everything in our experience and knowledge. When we speak of buddha-nature, and shunyata, we are not talking about some kind of super-self - for in the Buddhist analysis there is no self - but the true characteristic of each of these dharmas.

In Namu-amida-butsu you acknowledge and accept the reality of the inconceivable light. It becomes a real and living presence for you, this wisdom. It becomes a guide and you sense its embrace. It shows you - ever more clearly - your utter dependence on it and that it is ultimately the only reality. You lose your concern for your destiny and you become firm in your trust by learning that it is always trustworthy. You start to see the Four Noble Truths as an incontrovertible, lustrous gem of truth: a priceless pearl of wisdom.

In the embrace of the wisdom that pervades all things, you see the world with luminous and joyous eyes; it has a life and light that you did not see before. Your greatest joy is to hear the dharma. You cannot wait to praise the light every morning and evening by offering incense and chanting the wonderful, joyful and glorious Name of the Buddha. You love to adore and savour the treasured words of the Buddha: words from the Shinran and the Buddha. The chores of daily life are coloured by the light in your Namu-amida-butsu. You cannot eat, or sleep, or breathe without knowing that your heart bursts with thanksgiving for the life you have and the love that surrounds you.

In the embrace of the wisdom that pervades all things, your opinions and views are seen as terrible things: as selfish, petty and cruel and you are forever repenting of them. Your heart, is dross; your mind, a seething pit of snakes and scorpions. And you wish - oh! how you wish! - that others will turn to see the joy of the dharma, too. You want to tell them of it even if they think you are stupid, or mad, or both. They may revile you but you do not care.

It is in this vein that Shinran would probably address us if he encountered our sad, petty, cynical and conceited attitudes these days. For, as far as he is concerned, the ignorance that is the cause of our suffering existence can only be overwhelmed and redeemed by the light.

We will remain steeped in our ignorance, and never able to break free from its thrall, as long as we reject the Name - Namu-amida-butsu.

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