Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Mark Healsmith


I am especially grateful to be speaking on this special day of celebration, Gotan-e, Shinran Shonin's birthday. Every day as I think or read about the Dharma I feel gratitude toward Shinran Shonin, who lived and taught the Pure Land teachings in a way that opens the highest aspiration of the Buddhist teachings, Supreme Enlightenment, to ordinary people like us.

Although the teachings of Shinran Shonin have been preserved and transmitted by the institution of the Hongwanji, each of us must experience personally the teachings to truly benefit from them, and each of us to some degree will share Shinran Shonin's sense of having contemporary Teachers (in Shinran's case, Honen) and also his sense of a transhistorical transmission of the teachings.

As I read and reread Shinran's works, certain passages stay in mind and prompt repeated and deep reflexion. For many months it has been this Wasan to which I have kept returning.

Amida's self benefit and benefit of others have been perfectly fulfilled as the Pure Land,
The compassionate means skillfully adorned to lead us to take refuge.
It cannot be grasped by mind or by words.
So take refuge in the Honored-one beyond conceptual understanding.'
Shinran Shonin, Hymns of the Pure Land 37

The Buddhist path, whatever tradition is followed, is described and delineated by the Four Noble Truths. That our lives as limited beings are unsatisfactory and that our delusions cause and perpetuate our problems defines our dilemma; that the freedom of Nirvana is achievable by following the Noble Eightfold Path gives us the hope of escaping it. For me, though, there are two difficulties with trying to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Firstly, to follow it conscientiously requires enormous discipline and the ability and opportunity to live a life free of worldly distractions so as to be able to cultivate advanced meditative states. Secondly, there is the fundamental problem of how a limited human being could transcend his limitations and become something other - a fully enlightened Buddha.

There is a Ch'an teaching story of a Teacher who asks a monk why he is sitting in meditation.

'To become a Buddha,' the monk replies.

The monk later sees his teacher rubbing a tile and asks why the teacher is doing this.

'To make the tile into a mirror,' the teacher replies.

The point is that effort cannot produce the desired result. Realization is given, not earned. Likewise is shinjin, true entrusting, freely given by Amida Buddha to beings manifestly unworthy of it when we realize just how unworthy we are.

How can the gap between our limited selves and Supreme Enlightenment be bridged? When speaking of the Buddhist teachings the concept of 'two truths' is often used in an attempt to reconcile our imperfect perceptions with the true nature of reality so as to attempt to open students to an understanding of the true nature of reality. In Bodhisattva Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakarika he writes:

All Buddhas depend on two truths
In order to preach the Dharma to sentient beings.
The first is the worldly mundane truth.
The second is the truth of supreme meaning.

To me the whole point of these concepts is the attempt to span the gap between the limited, finite world of ordinary beings, and the realm of the absolute.

As a Tendai monk by training, Shinran would probably have been well aware of the 'two truths' teachings, and the sense of the passage quoted above resonates with the Wasan quoted above. However, the 'two truths' teachings are always part of the Path of the Sages, and while, like all Buddhist teachings, are of beauty and interest, the practices and insights implied and required to achieve realization based on these teachings are beyond the capabilities of most, and because of Amida's compassionate vows, unnecessary.

In this Wasan, while there is contrast between 'compassionate means skillfully adorned' and the 'Honored one beyond conceptual understanding,' this is not the teaching of the 'two truths'. Rather, Shinran Shonin, as he does in many places in his writings, is giving expression to T'an-luan's concept of the two aspects of the Dharmakaya.

In Buddhism we speak of the Trikaya, or the three bodies of the Buddhas. There is the Nirmanakaya or the physical body, the Sambhogakaya, the reward or subtle body and the Dharmakaya, the true nature of the Buddha, the supreme reality.

T'an-luan viewed the Dharmakaya (Amida) as existing in two senses: the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature (Wisdom) which is omnipresent, formless, timeless and transcendent existence (Infinite Life) and the Dharmakaya of Expediency (Compassion) which works in the realm of causes and conditions (Infinite Light). The two aspects are 'one but not the same.'

With all this as background, let us return to the Wasan.

'Amida's self-benefit and benefit of others have been perfectly fulfilled as the Pure Land.'

In the Pure Land we will be given the fulfillment of Supreme Enlightenment, but integral to this is the return to samsaric existence to benefit others. This is the embodiment of the Bodhisattva Vows and places Shinran's Pure Land teachings within the mainstream of Mahayana Buddhism. All has been 'perfectly fulfilled'. There is nothing for us to do; Amida has already done it all for us.

'The compassionate means skillfully adorned to lead us to take refuge.'

This is the Dharmakaya of Expediency. The compassionate means are, like Amida's Life and Light, infinite. The whole of the Buddhist teachings, teachings of depth and wonder, but largely beyond the true understanding of we ordinary beings in this materialistic age, lead us to the Pure Land teachings and the Nembutsu. Most Westerners will come to Jodo Shinshu in this manner. Those who have the Dharma before them as tradition would, I should think, need to break through the veil of habit to find the truth of the teachings. The compassionate means are whatever turns hearts and minds towards the dharma, all that opens us to hear Amida's call - encounters with teachers and the teachings, the beauty and wonder of nature, aesthetic emotion produced by art, but also the problems of daily life and encounters with difficult people. Importantly, simply being here gathered to hear the Dharma, even presented by one as inexperienced as I, the teachings of the sutras we chant, teachings which our hearts may hear even if our minds do not understand the words, are part of the means that lead us to take refuge.

'It cannot be grasped by mind or words.'

This is the Dharmakaya of Dharma-nature. It cannot be grasped because it is infinite and beyond our limited understanding. It cannot be grasped but Amida's call assures us that full understanding, intimacy with the infinite, Supreme Enlightenment will be ours in the next life. If it all seems too subtle, too complicated all we have to do is,

(..) take refuge in the Honored-one beyond conceptual understanding.

All we need to do is hear Amida's call and say the Nembutsu. In Tannisho 2, Shinran Shonin cuts through all difficulties when he says:

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, 'Just say the Nembutsu and be saved by Amida'; nothing else is involved.


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