Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Gregg Heathcote


It is with great trepidation that I here venture into this subject area, for it is truly a vast domain and I fear the necessarily brief excursion will fail to do justice to the scenery, or will go miserably astray in the self-conscious attempt. Still, I feel the grandeur of Jodo Shin in aesthetic perspective makes it worth taking the risk, for this field of inquiry is potentially so fruitful, yet to my knowledge no Shin scholar has hitherto attempted to cultivate understanding therein.

A possible reason for this neglect is that aesthetics, as a realm of speculative philosophy, is alien to traditional Japanese thought. Although the love of natural beauty and of refined artistry has long been a pre-eminent characteristic of Japanese culture (1), the disciplined study of aesthetics as a branch of Western-style philosophy was only introduced into scholarly Japanese circles in the late 19th century. Soetsu Yanagi, the revered founder of the great modern Craft Movement in Japan, has been alone ( i.e. once again to the best of my knowledge ) in speaking eloquently of the primal role Other-Power plays in the unselfconscious creative process whereby beautiful artifacts etc. are produced which are "objects born, not made". He has uttered the seminal statement that "Faith and beauty are but different aspects of the Absolute Reality." (2) In light of this, with truly good work freedom takes form, and in so doing cogently exhibits the reality that tariki is engaged in constant aesthetic action. I only wish that some profound expositor of the Amida's Buddha-Dharma would pick up where Yanagi left off.

However, to avoid misrepresentation of the Dharma I must at the outset be careful to stress the fact that the aesthetic action under discussion is finally the Amida's. The Absolute Reality of which Yanagi indicates faith and beauty to be but different aspects is tariki as Enlightened Mind at superbly natural play in and through the world. Many of the difficulties which arise with such a picture of immanent splendour are of myopic manufacture, blinkered by the unsympathetically dim and narrow view many people have of 'aesthetics'. This is quite understandable when 'aesthetics' is erroneously associated exclusively with art, and art is associated stereotypically with egotistical self-indulgence, decadent or effete elitism, and sophistical pretence. No privileged clique may lay claim to exclusive access to the Pure Land on the basis of being identifiable as skilled/self-powered aesthetes or artists. Such jiriki artifice would certainly contradict the Word of the Primal Vow as well as its spirit, expressive through jinen honi. No, it is rather the inclusive aesthetic action of tariki that renders all sentient beings identifiable as aesthetes and artists in Name only, and for whom the Pure Land is in spontaneous consequence everywhere accessible. Like Buddha and bombu, art and life itself are in their mutual essence identical.

Two stories of the Buddha Shakyamuni's teaching are instructive regarding the role of beauty in Buddhist life:-

It is told that once Ananda, the beloved disciple of Buddha, saluted his master and said: Half the holy life, O master, is friendship with the beautiful, association with the beautiful, communion with the beautiful.

Say not so, Ananda, say not so! the master replied. It is not half of the holy life. It is the whole of the holy life.

Some people, said Buddha, the master, have accused me of uttering these words:

When one attains the release called the Beautiful, and abides therein, at such a time he considers the whole universe as ugly.

But I never said these words. This is what I do say:

When one attains the release called the Beautiful, at such a time he knows in truth what Beauty is (3)

For those Buddhists who interpret 'what Beauty is' in a trenchantly dualistic way, these teachings are troublesome. Self-power practitioners may be inclined to see beauty as selfish sense gratification and samsaric enticement to desire which distracts the mind and binds one in ignorance. Other-Power practitioners may decline to see the imperfection and endemic ugliness of bombu life as anything more than stark contrast to the 'Beauty' of Buddhahood, rendering the latter a dismally distant prospect and one not calling for our most immediate gratitude. Being so aesthetically insensible both groups miss the point - what I like to call ( i.e. on Amida San's vocational behalf ) the whole-pointedness of being. Beauty's transparency asserts that the transcendent reality of the Land of Enlightenment is breaking through here and now, everywhere and everywhen. Reflective aesthetics on the Amida Buddha's behalf simply prepares chronically closed eyelids for such a perfectly surgical cutting edge in its 'good taste' globally biting.

And when vision is restored what cannot be seen in the one thought-moment of shinjin's clarity? Space is limitless embrace when timelessness is most timely. Beauty-come-calling causes the hard-hearted sense of self-in-time to soften and fall aside, letting drop if only momentarily all its attached drives. The distinguished mythologist Joseph Campbell, drawing on both Joycean and Buddhist philosophy, addressed this essential experience in the following terms:

The esthetic emotion ... is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raiseda bove desire and loathing. Compare the state of the Buddha at the time of his awakening on the 'Immovable (i.e. Static) Spot, moved neither by desire nor by fear.

I call this parallel important...( At such a moment, Suchness ) or Thing-in-Itselfness' of an object is perceived by an unselfconscious subject.(4)

Yanagi says likewise that any work of art, is not an expression of the maker alone, but of a degree of enlightenment wherein infinity, however briefly, obliterates the minor self. (5) Beauty, by the very nature of its action, is Other-Powered.

Philosophers,artists, sages etc. thinking about aesthetics over the centuries have struggled to define, in so many different ways, this natural verity which is simultaneously so evident and yet so mysteriously elusive. My own working definition is that beauty is the intrinsic quality of conscious relationship; the singular sensibility of what inheres between subject and object, self and other, in oneness apprehending both. The life of nembutsu is all about this wholeness of conscious relationship; this togetherness of what IS. It turns on the communicability of Compassion by Beauty borne in Mind. Its creative genius is a gift whose very openness calculation cannot fathom. Wonder lends itself then, as the carrier of such universal spiritual significance, to mean so much to so many, myself included. The invitation to wonder which it delivers requires only acceptance.

'Well, this is all very well,' some might say, 'but even with shinjin, living amidst samsara is not all sweetness and light! Our powers of perception are thoroughly besmirched. In all honesty, how can Beauty find us here?' To such misgivings I would respond with reminders on two fronts. Firstly, the Amida's aesthetic is active, not passive. Oyasan makes good on his vows to endow beings with the 'divine eye of seeing' and the 'divine ear of hearing' (6), and finds for us awe even amidst the ordinarily awful. To paraphrase the poet William Blake's famous maxim (7), it appears the Infinite cleanses the doors of perception by spontaneously burning them to the Ground. In the process then of our living out, as bombu, the Buddha's natural work of art, suffering is not eliminated thereby, it is Illuminated.

Secondly, the action of this aesthetic of Amida's is ultimately non-dualistic ( hence the "singular sensibility " etc. in my working definition ). Like the Vow Power it expressly serves, Beauty indiscriminately embraces and includes its seeming opposite.

Yanagi puts it in this apposite way:-

... from the Buddhists' point of view, the 'beauty' that simply stands opposed to ugliness is not true beauty... In the Muryoju-kyo ( 'Sutra of Eternal Life' ), the following statement is attributed to the Buddha: (8)

...If in the land of the Buddha there remains the distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, I do not desire to be a Buddha of such a land...

Beyond dualism, every object - by whomever or in whatever manner it is made - finds salvation. (9)

Needless to say (but I am still going to say it), beyond dualism every subject also -irrespective of what we have made of our lives - finds salvation. Such is the Buddha's land come calling, upon which just beautiful is the hospitable ugliness of our open hell-fire flowering. Namo Amida Butsu.

It really shouldn't surprise us to find Beauty working at the poignant heart of human existence. Pathos is, after all, Beauty's steadfast and loving companion. (10) To be alive is to suffer. Life truly is tragic, but it is the beauty of the tragedy which brings home the whole-pointedness of being truly alive. As the working of tariki it calls forth the essence of Life itself. The anaesthetic of abortive experience deadens and relieves us of the painful perception born of authentic existence. The aesthetic conversely awakens us to the pathetic pain of being who and where we are - dying and coming to birth alone amidst the sublime wholeness of life's process - struck at shinjin's settlement yet indwelling in hearts shot through and through. Stephen Nachmanovitch coins a telling name for the triumphs of seminal suffering. (11) He calls them 'heartbreakthroughs. The life of shinjin is one such heartbreakthrough. Other-Power is its creative source. Its outcome is quite ordinary, but then what is the true value of the ordinary? In his human imperfection the person of shinjin is simply perfect. The myokonin are clear exemplars of this. They are darkling bombu, but their lives are limpid. The plainly piquant naturalness of their humble life-stories strongly appeals to traditional Japanese taste (12), and exerts a potently inspiring aesthetic influence over any and everyone susceptible to it.

Well might we ask how, in the end, consideration of all this aesthetic activity of tariki might in practical ways actually advance the teaching of the Dharma. This leads into another extensive area of tariki's aesthetic action which invites exploration. However such exploration will have to be undertaken in a future article which will carry on the discussion where this one leaves off. Regrettably restrictions of time and space preclude us from going farther here. I can nevertheless foreshadow that in the discussion to come we will address the way we Shin Buddhists approach the central issue of faith in Jodo Shinshu. The experiencing of shinjin will hopefully then be cogently shown to relate to the aesthetic experience of hearing the Dharma as "Pure Music " (13); to the experience of play; and to the experience of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow'.

We seem to be breaking fresh ground by venturing into Jodo Shin aesthetics. I trust you will now agree with me that the terrain is beautiful in its own right. I further trust we can establish the fertility of this fresh ground by cultivating the deepened understanding which it suggests. That is the reflective task before us - one bearing the promise of wonder at, and joyous gratitude for, tariki's gracious aesthetic action.

Namo Amida Butsu.


1. Charles Moore goes so far as to write: " Tagore has called aesthetics Japan's unique Dharma ... So important is the aesthetic in Japanese culture that it has been accepted by many students of Japan as the outstanding positive characteristic of Japanese culture as a whole ... the essentially unique expression of spirituality in Japan ... Their love of beauty; their extreme and seemingly universal love of Nature; their attempt to express beauty in all aspects of life ... - these are all well known and accepted as characteristic. " Charles A. Moore (Ed.),'The Japanese Mind: Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture', University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1987 (1st published 1967). pp. 296-297.

2. Soetsu Yanagi (Adapted by Bernard Leach), 'The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty', Kodansha International, Tokyo. 1989 (1st published 1972). p. 215.

3. From the Samyuta and the Digha Nikaya. Quoted in the Introduction to 'The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection', translated by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. 1983 (1st published 1973). pp. 20-21.

4. Joseph Campbell, 'The Masks of God: Creative Mythology', Penguin Arkana, New York. 1991 (First published 1968). p.351.

5. Soetsu Yanagi, op. cit.. p. 90.

6. Dharmakara's 6th and 7th vows respectively. 'The Larger Sutra on Amitayus' (Muryoju-kyo).

7. " If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. " William Blake, 'A Memorable Fancy' from 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'. c. 1793.

8. Of course this is another of Dharmakara's vows, fulfilled upon his becoming the Amida Buddha.

9. Soetsu Yanagi, op. cit.. p. 130.

10. For an excellent article on the intimacy, and intimations, of beauty and sadness read 'Burnished Gold: Beauty, Love, and Sadness in the Play of Light and Dark', by Christopher Bamford, in 'Parabola Magazine', Vol. XXII, No. 2, Summer 1997. In fact this whole issue of Parabola is of pertinent interest as it addresses 'The Shadow'.

11. Stephen Nachmanovitch, 'Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art', G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 1990. In this inspiring book Nachmanovitch has written a masterpiece on spirituality, spontaneity, and their love-child the creative process. Its aesthetic relevance is global.

12. The ingenuously earthy ideal of the life of nembutsu is in natural sympathy with the aesthetic principles of wabi, sabi, and shibui which have dominated Japanese taste since the medieval Kamakura period, i.e. when Shinran himself was teaching.

13. The description of the Amida and his Other-Power as "Pure Music" appears in Shinran Shonin's 'Jodo Wasan # 39'. It is in keeping with the numerous references in the sutras to the spontaneously sounding music which fills the Pure Land, and through which everything to the Dharma naturally resonates.

Reflections on the Dharma - Harold Stewart

Return to Muryoko Contents Page