Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

John Paraskevopoulos


A paramount theme in the thought of Shinran is his profound concern that our individual salvation not be considered separately from the aspiration to realize the salvation of all beings. Consonant with Amida's Primal Vow, where the Tathagata declares that he will not enter Nirvana unless he can similarly emancipate all suffering creatures, Shinran exhorts a comparable attitude in the follower of the Pure Land way. Any liberation divorced from that of all creatures is considered contrary to the spirit of great compassion which Amida himself extends to us all. Accordingly, Shinran does not view Nirvana as a blissfully self-absorbed state of repose where one remains oblivious to the harrowing plight of those left behind.

When one attains this enlightenment, one reaches the great compassion by returning to the ocean of samsara in order to save all sentient beings (Yuishin Sho Moni).

In stressing this attitude, Shinran is rehabilitating a theme first advocated by Vasubandhu and, after him, Tan-luan, but largely ignored by subsequent Pure Land masters. Shinran was concerned to bring out the ramifications of the 'bodhisattvic' idea that one's desire for personal enlightenment is tantamount with one's desire to liberate all beings from the woeful shackles of this saha world. Genso-eko then, is the 'phase-of-returning to this world of evil passions' in order to save all sentient beings after one has, oneself, been born in the Pure Land and attained Buddhahood.

A quandary, however, immediately presents itself: if Amida is all-sufficient for our salvation, what need of bodhisattvas and other buddhas to accomplish the same end ? To suggest that we need to return to this world in order to save others implies that the salvific power of Amida is somehow wanting or deficient; surely an untenable proposition in Shinran's eyes. Amida, Buddha of Unhindered Light, does all the work for our attainment of enlightenment; which is why, precisely, he is the sole object of reverence in the Pure Land tradition. Veneration and worship of other buddhas is firmly eschewed in this tradition and for good reason; Amida alone has unconditionally vowed to save all karma burdened creatures and no other support for enlightenment is required. Amida, as the supreme and merciful manifestation of the uncreated Dharmakaya, is the only true and absolute reality there is, and surely no other recourse than the very highest is necessary for our deliverance.

The other point to consider is this: Shinran often comments that when we enter the Pure Land at death, we become one with Amida. In other words, in attaining the same Buddhahood as Amida, we become Amida. Nirvana is, pre-eminently, the realm of non-duality where distinctions, divisions and separateness of any kind no longer prevail. Absolute reality, the Dharmakaya, is the unified realm of Suchness itself; it harbours none of the multiplicity and flux that is part and parcel of this samsaric world. If we can accept this, then it becomes difficult to envisage, literally, the traditional notion of the Pure Land as a place populated by compassionate bodhisattvas who are constantly returning to the 'garden of birth-and-death' in order to save ignorant and suffering beings. Absolute reality is a dynamic entity. It emerges from its own formless essence (Dharmakaya-as-Suchness) in order assume 'name and form' (Dharmakaya-as-Compassion) for the sake of afflicted beings. This, of course, is who we know as Amida.

How then, do we reconcile the traditional point of view regarding genso-eko with these considerations? To say that 'we' - as individuals - return should not be taken at face value; after complete union with the Dharmakaya at death, 'we' return as Amida; or rather, in our 'capacity' as Amida. After all, Shinran often reminds us that Amida constitutes our true self; our latent buddha-nature which is only fully realized in the Pure Land and the real source of all 'personality'. During our sojourn in this defiled world, this wonderful treasure we harbour deep within us remains veiled not only by our skandhas which determine our individual constitution, particularity and karma but also our klesha, the myriad of blind passions that obscure our dharma-nature and keep us firmly bound to the wearisome wheel of Samsara. At death, the person of shinjin, through the inconceivable working of Amida, is caused to sever all the bonds that separate them from their divine essence; which is none other than absolute reality itself - Nirvana. In the Jodo Wasan, we read:

Buddha-nature is tathagata .... tathagata is nirvana .... nirvana is called buddha-nature.

On entering the Pure Land we can say, as Shinran does with reference to shinjin, that we 'are like river waters that, on entering the ocean, become one in taste with it' (Songo Shinzo Meimon). There can no longer be any room for individual personality here. Non-duality can only properly admit of one reality: namely Amida with whom in our deepest essence we are identical, despite the defilements that constitute our wretched condition. If not for this essential identity, there would be no means of communion between ourselves and the Buddha.

None of the foregoing observations should come as any real surprise. They are entirely consistent with the Mahayana perspective of non-duality, and to take it seriously one is logically compelled to draw the above conclusions concerning our status in the after-life. If the highest spiritual state that is possible for us is union with the absolute and infinite - Amida - then there can be no room for anything else; all other ostensible realities (by comparison) being false and illusory products of Samsara. Similarly, then, it must completely suffice as both our sole object of faith and complete cause of enlightenment.

Why, then, do we get this strong insistence in the scriptures on genso-eko as traditionally understood ? I think we may be able to understand it in the following way. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the 'mythology' underlying genso-eko is integral to an upaya devoted to the cultivation of universal compassion towards all sentient beings coupled with the corresponding desire to save them from the lamentable bondage of this world. Rather than allow us to complacently fall into the belief that salvation is an end for ourselves alone, it promotes the idea of the unity and solidarity of all suffering creatures in Samsara. It also makes it meaningless to consider the liberation of oneself apart from the liberation of all, for, in the final analysis, we all partake of the same spiritual 'substance' - Amida's infinite light and life.

If 'samsara is nirvana', then the distressing plight of suffering and deluded beings must be, perforce, the profoundest concern of the Tathagata whose sole reason for assuming 'name-and-form' (i.e. the nembutsu) was precisely for the sake of such beings. Nevertheless, the fact that we attain union with Amida at death does not preclude us, as individuals here-and-now, from aspiring to save all beings once we are 'born' in the pure land. It is inherent in the nature of compassion that one is impelled to deeply harbour such an attitude. But rather than returning as individual bodhisattvas, we 'return' as Amida, for we are none other than Amida in our pure state of nirvana. There is no need for a continual genso-eko as if to somehow 'supplement' the perfect saving power of Amida - because the dharma-nature, in its oneness, accomplishes everything. In any case, the manifestations that one may assume (in our capacity of having realized enlightenment) for the benefit of sentient beings in Samsara are, of course, endless. These manifestations, although giving the appearance of individual forms, are simply the myriad facets of Amida 'engaging' with the world of birth-and-death.

In the Yuishin Sho Moni, Shinran states:

Nirvana is called extinction of passions, the uncreated, peaceful happiness. eternal bliss, true reality, dharmakaya, suchness, oneness, dharma-nature.... We will unfailingly reach the pure land of happiness, whereupon we will be brought to realise the same enlightenment of great nirvana as Amida Tathagata.

This is, unarguably, the final goal of all beings: not this endless process of returning. Genso-eko is surely not an end in itself. It is a means of bringing us all to the 'Great Nirvana' without exception; and this is, precisely, what we attain in the Pure Land. In reality, however, it is Amida himself who perfectly fulfils genso-eko. In the Pure Land, any distinction between Amida and those born there disappears because, in gaining birth, we shed our status as illusion-clad and passion-ridden creatures; we enter and become one with Amida's Infinite Light. In fact, we could say, figuratively speaking, that it is Amida's genso-eko that is continuous and unceasing, manifesting itself in shinjin and the saving power of the nembutsu. If Amida did not 'return' (in other words, become Dharmakaya-as-Compassion), he would remain merely Dharmakaya-as-Suchness: unknown and unknowable.

It should be clear from what has already been said that, far from being an ineffectual allegory, the traditional notion of genso-eko possesses great spiritual and moral efficacy in its own right. It helps us to cultivate the correct attitude to our fellow creatures in conformity with the spirit of compassion, as well as acting as a salutary corrective to individualistic and narrow-minded tendencies in our spiritual aspirations. It is, indeed, a very vivid and moving way of reminding us of our profound spiritual link with all beings, while helping to disseminate the much-needed spirit of Amida's compassion in our deeply troubled saha world. Although we may be unable to completely liberate others as we would wish - as we are only limited and fragmented bombu ourselves - we can, at least, maintain this compassionate and merciful attitude to all those in misery, anguish and distress. This, in itself, is a very fundamental way of sharing in Amida's compassionate embrace of the world. Genso-eko is a way of emphasising that our spiritual unity and solidarity with others is never sundered - not even when we leave this world: and this in virtue of the all-pervasive and unhindered light of Amida that does not fail to penetrate and illumine even our darkest recesses.

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