The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

Jodo Wasan 10

The light of compassion illuminates us from afar;
Those beings it reaches, it is taught,
Attain joy of dharma,
So take refuge in Amida, the great consolation.

The Light of Compassion

The Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (hereinafter referred to as the Larger Sutra) is the principal repository of the teaching of the Buddha upon which the Pure Land tradition is based. It describes the 'twelve lights' of Amida Buddha. The light here called by Shinran Shonin 'the light of compassion' is not included in the list of twelve lights. But Shinran is, in fact, following T'an-luan who calls the joyful light (kangiko) 'merciful light'.

The primary focus in the Larger Sutra is wisdom, (Sk. prajna), which is light. Hence, the enlightened one, Amida Buddha, is the Buddha of unhindered light.

The perfection of wisdom (Sk. prajna-paramita) is to realise that all dharmas - in this case, meaning the constituent elements of thought and personality - are empty. And here we enter the sublime world of the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana. It is because Amida Buddha is the perfection of wisdom, which is the form of light, that he is also truly compassionate. In the Mahayana wisdom and commpassion are the same thing.1

Emptiness (Sk. shunyata) is not a mere nihilism which engulfs all entities in its universal darkness, abolishing all differences and particularities. On the contrary, shunyata is the fountainhead from which the Buddha's compassionate activity flows out.2

Compassion is the inevitable fact of the perfection of wisdom, which knows all things to be empty (shunya). It is this compassion which responds to our inner need like the way that our heart leaps when we fall in love or our faces blush if we are embarrassed. Compassion is not possible unless emptiness is the common underlying reality of things. When we hear and accept its call, our response is joy in the dharma.

Now we can see why the Mahayana is a path of joy. It is because the unhindered light of compassion embraces and liberates all beings, without any discrimination. What could be more wonderful than that? What could bring us greater joy?


1: An in-depth outline of the Mahayana is included in Shinran, An Introduction to His Thought by Yoshifumi Ueda and Dennis Hirota, Hongwanji International Centre, Kyoto, 1989. It is also still in print and readily available.

2: Gadjin M.Nagao, Ascent and Descent: Two Directional Activity in Buddhist Thought, the Presidential Address for the 6th Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Tokyo, 1983.

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