Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

John Paraskevopoulos


During the festival of Hanamatsuri, we celebrate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha was remembered, most famously, for having attained enlightenment. What was the significance of this attainment ? What does it mean to be enlightened ?

Through his experience, Shakyamuni came to understand the cause and solution to the problem of human suffering and thus gained a profound insight into the human condition. He also prescribed a way of life through which we could also share the same insight and be delivered from the fetters of spiritual pain and delusion. Its attainment essentially meant the perfection of our humanity and the consummation of our deepest well-being.

The great awakening attained by Shakyamuni under the Bodhi Tree over two thousand years ago has formed the basis of many different schools of Buddhism since that time. They all trace their origins to the realization he attained and seek to have their adherents reach the same realization through different practices and beliefs. More significantly, these various schools of Buddhism began to develop different views about the nature of enlightenment and on how it could be realized.

Before the advent of the Pure Land tradition, it was commonly held that enlightenment was something that one worked towards through constant practice and assiduous application. In a sense, it was an object of attainment to which one aspired but one which remained a remote and quiescent reality with no relation to the struggle required to reach it. For some, this goal was thought to be attainable in this very lifetime; for others, it could only be the result of many lifetimes of spiritual practice.

Shinran heralded a radical approach to our understanding of enlightenment by going to the heart of what it means to be human and unravelling the implications of this for our ultimate destiny. He firmly believed that as long as we remain in our human state, we are bound by chains of ignorance, desire and egoism. To be sure, not everyone suffers from these afflictions to the same extent but there can be no escaping the fact that to be human means to be a finite creature subject to countless infirmities and limitations. For Shinran, this meant that no amount of effort on our part could suffice to bridge the gap between our intrinsic shortcomings and the realm of infinite perfection and bliss represented by enlightenment. Ordinarily, such a conclusion could only lead to acute despair for how else are we to transcend our pitiable condition ?

Shinran delved into the heart of the Pure Land tradition (as taught by Shakyamuni in the Larger Sutra on Eternal Life) and brought to the fore a feature of its teaching which provided an answer to his spiritual anguish. Shinran points out that in our time, which is far removed from the beneficial presence of the Buddha, human nature has degenerated to the point that self-induced efforts to become enlightened are futile. However, in response to this situation, enlightened reality reaches out to ordinary people in suffering and despair in the form of Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. In other words, enlightenment is not simply a passive or inert reality unconcerned with the plight of those ensnared in delusion. It is an active and compassionate reality that takes the initiative in response to our need for liberation and assumes a form by which it is able to reach out to us and give us assurance that our ultimate destiny is secure. That is, by entrusting ourselves to the enlightened reality of Amida Buddha - which lies at the heart of all things - and by surrendering our fractured will to its power and influence, we are able to partake of its Light and Life in our everyday lives despite all the difficulties and sorrows that we face. Eventually, when we pass away and leave our troubled human state, we shall attain the same enlightenment realized by Shakyamuni but without any of the limitations and restrictions that currently beset us.

This is what Buddhism refers to as Nirvana (also known as the 'Pure Land') - this is the highest goal of human life and one which should no longer be considered only a remote possibility. When we reflect deeply on this matter, we soon realize that we can only attain enlightenment through the action and support of enlightenment itself. This reality is personal and compassionate. It is the highest wisdom itself, personified in the form of Amida Buddha. In fact, Shinran considered Shakyamuni a manifestation of this eternal Buddha whose sole purpose in appearing in our world was to preach this great truth regarding Amida's vow to save all beings from darkness and despair.

During this Hanamatsuri festival, let us recall with gratitude the precious Pure Land teachings bequeathed to us by Shakyamuni through which we receive illumination and joy in the knowledge that the enlightenment of the Buddha is with us at all times - guiding us both here and now as well as in our journey towards Amida's Pure Land.

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