Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

John Paraskevopoulos


Paper delivered at the Twelfth Biennial Conference of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies

Quote from Nagarjuna

These celebrated verses from Nagarjuna have resonated throughout the history of Mahayana Buddhism, establishing one of the most salient features by which it has distinguished itself from the unambiguous dualism of the Theravadin tradition. While Nagarjuna's provocative and paradoxical doctrine is renowned, fierce debate continues to this day as to the meaning and implications of asserting the identity of Nirvana and Samsara. In the face of our everyday experience of the world, how are we to understand this baffling statement? Are these important Buddhist notions capable of retaining any kind of intelligible meaning when Nagarjuna insists that there is no discernible difference between them? These difficulties became more acute with the arising of the Pure Land school which recognised Sukhavati (the land 'adorned with bliss') as a transcendent realm, separate from the world of Samsara with its endless rounds of meaningless suffering. However, the influence of Nagarjuna's implacable doctrine was such that it brought pressure to bear on some exponents of the Pure Land doctrine who felt the need to reconcile the insights of the Madhyamika with their own tradition. This inevitably lead to the view, still prevalent today, that this very world, when viewed correctly from the enlightened perspective, is none other than the Pure Land itself considered as tantamount to Nirvana.

This paper will argue that the idea that Samsara is fundamentally indistinguishable from Nirvana has no place in Pure Land Buddhism; that it is a distortion of its true message as well as being pernicious from the pastoral perspective of the ordinary believer. However, it will also be argued that there is a 'middle way' that envisages a non-dual ontological relationship between these two realms, i.e. that Samsara should be seen as a manifestation or emanation of Nirvana or, more accurately, the Dharmakaya (ultimate reality) such that a rigid dualism between them is avoided while, at the same time, recognising the presence of Sukhavati in Samsara without having to be committed to their strict identity.

In his seminal work on Buddhism[1], Edward Conze faithfully presents the Buddhist understanding of Nirvana as follows:

We are told that Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality; that it is the Good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden and incomprehensible Peace.

In light of this, it is easy to appreciate the acute paradox presented by Nagarjuna's provocative declaration. For the world, most assuredly, does not present itself as a place of unalloyed bliss, peace and happiness. The prevalence of suffering in this realm of birth-and-death is evident enough. The attributes of our existence in this Saha world as the Buddha described it (i.e. a world in which pain and suffering must be 'endured') are, indeed, the complete antithesis to the above description of Nirvana. Our world is fraught with uncertainty, impermanence, danger, anxiety and sorrow. The experience that life, essentially, is profoundly unsatisfactory is common to all people, even those who are wealthy, healthy and who seemingly want for nothing. After all, suffering can take many subtle forms such as boredom, ennui, melancholy and a general sense of emptiness.

Even if one's own life is perceived as being comfortable and without care, the realization that the circumstances of many others in this world are nothing short of horrific should distress those with even a modicum of sensitivity and empathy. If nothing else, self-interest and an awareness of impermanence should lead to the conclusion that no one is immune from the cruel vicissitudes of changing fortune and unexpected calamity.

In view of these considerations, are we committed to accepting some kind of irreducible dualism between the realms of bliss and suffering as taught in the early Buddhist tradition? In other words, are they completely separate orders of reality that have nothing to do with each other? Nagarjuna, of course, flies in the face of this bifurcation and identifies them thus signalling a major break with the earlier tradition. To be sure, Nagarjuna attempts to provide a number of philosophical arguments to justify his position, many of which may strike the modern reader as rather abstruse and impenetrable. Nevertheless, none of these arguments appear to help assuage the strong impression that what Nagarjuna is claiming is deeply counterintuitive. Indeed, one could even ask whether the terms of this identity are capable of retaining any sense if there is no meaningful distinction to be made between them. To the struggling and confused man in the street, the very idea that Samsara is Nirvana and that there is not a jot of difference between them must strike him as egregious nonsense which flies in the face of all his experience. This is not to say that there is no joy or satisfaction in such experience; just that the extent of suffering in the world appears to strongly preclude its total identification with Nirvana - if indeed this term is understood in a conventional sense.

In theistic traditions, where there is more of a pronounced difference between the everyday world and, say, 'Heaven' or heavenly realms, the latter are capable of remaining intelligible objects of hope and aspiration albeit posthumous ones. However, these traditions have also been bedevilled by what is known as 'the problem of evil'; namely reconciling the goodness and omnipotence of God with the evil and suffering prevalent in a world that is considered a willed creation of such a being. Buddhism has never had to formulate any kind of theodicy as it has never subscribed to a creation as strictly envisaged by conventional theism, or to a divine reality considered as existing independently of the world. Nevertheless, is there any way in which one can, from the Buddhist perspective, form a satisfying view of the relationship between Nirvana and Samsara if one is reluctant to accept Nagarjuna's formulation of their identity as being the final word? At this stage, one should be clear as to whether one is speaking of Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism in addressing this question as the two vehicles differ markedly in their respective conceptions. The former appears to be strictly dualistic whereas the latter has traditionally been regarded as largely non-dualistic (that is, when considered as a whole and not just in its Madhyamikan variety). Given that the focus of this paper is Pure Land Buddhism, we will confine ourselves to considering the implications of non-dualism as the basis for gaining a better understanding of the Mahayana perspective on this matter.

Let it be said, at the outset, that Mahayana Buddhism embraces a vast array of different philosophies, world-views and practices. It is not the intention here to discuss how each school sees things differently but to attempt to furnish an understanding of non-duality that might serve as a foundation for the Mahayana as a whole. Accordingly, the aim will be to suggest an approach that departs from Nagarjuna's strict identification of Samsara and Nirvana but which may do greater justice to the sensibilities of ordinary people who might consider his resolution too extreme and unintelligible in view of their experience of the world.

To the retort that I am ignoring among the most authoritative of statements regarding this question, my reply must be: (a) to the extent that Nagarjuna is correct, his insight must reflect an enlightened consciousness of which most Buddhists in the world today are altogether bereft; (b) Nagarjuna, although holding a venerable position in the Mahayana tradition, does not speak for that tradition as a whole; and (c) one cannot ignore later developments in Mahayana thinking in both China and Japan which, arguably, provide a more satisfactory and tenable account of non-duality. Nagarjuna never intended to furnish a fully comprehensive philosophical system. His principal aim was to jolt us out of certain ingrained and uncritical patterns of thought which lead to confusion, and to reveal the limits of language in trying to describe the highest reality which is, ultimately, elusive, formless and ineffable. In this respect, he was highly effective and helped to dispel much muddled thinking. Nevertheless, these are only foundations on which later thinkers proceeded to build more positive, comprehensive and far-reaching accounts of reality.

One occasionally comes across self-satisfied Buddhists who are convinced of the superiority of their own position simply because they do not subscribe to a spiritual doctrine which requires them to believe in God or creation as if such belief was prima facie inferior or defective. Indeed, Buddhism has never considered being in need of such concepts and sees certain irresolvable contradictions inherent in them. Nevertheless, it is important to note that even Buddhist notions such as karma or pratitya-samutpada, in which so much store is held, are not without their own philosophical difficulties and paradoxes. One is sometimes tempted to think that the spiritual choices we make may have less to do with considerations of logic and rationality and more to do with mental temperament, life experience, and particular cultural, emotional and psychological needs. In any event, we need to unravel the meaning of terms such as 'God' and 'creation' with a view to better understanding the sense in which Buddhism can or cannot accept them.

Firstly, we need to recognise that Mahayana Buddhism openly acknowledges the existence of a supreme reality which, as we have seen, is not only known as Nirvana (being the state of complete liberation from ignorance and suffering) but also the Dharmakaya as the Absolute or ultimate divine reality characterised by the attributes of 'eternity, bliss, Self and purity'.[2] The Dharmakaya is transcendent in the sense that it cannot be identified with the world of the senses or the human intellect; that is, it lies beyond anything we can conceive or perceive. However, it is also immanent in that it lies at the heart of all things of which it is also the ultimate source. The immanence of this reality is also what allows us to have experiential knowledge of it, in that we become aware of its existence through that part of us which shares in its nature. To put in another way, we gradually come to know it as the very act of this reality knowing itself through us. The Hua-yen school, which arose in China and was founded on the famous Avatamsaka Sutra, provides one of the most explicit understandings of the highest reality in Buddhism:

Hua-yen thought sees all phenomena as expressions of an originally pure and undifferentiated one mind.[3]

According to Hua-yen:

The full diversity of sentient experience and the experienced world - the subjective and the objective, the true and the false, the pure and the defiled, the latent and the manifest - is seen to rest upon, or to grow from, a common noetic source.[4]

This view of reality became very influential in the development of doctrines that subsequently flourished in China, Korea and Japan. One can see the genesis of this doctrine in the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha of Infinite Light (Skt. Amitabha; Jp. Amida) of the popular Pure Land sutras and the cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana ('Great Sun') prominent in the esoteric school of Shingon which views all reality as a manifestation of this Buddha which it equates with the Dharmakaya itself:

Shingon posits a kind of pantheism in which the whole universe is a manifestation, an emanation of the central solar divinity, Mahavairocana ... .(which is) the centre of the cosmos... . the point toward which all integration moves and from which the multiplicity of the phenomenal world comes into form.[5]

So how is the Dharmakaya different to theistic conceptions of God? Without wishing to be comprehensive, it would be fair to say that, according to the Mahayana, the world is a spontaneous manifestation or expression of this reality in the way, for example, that the sun emanates light and heat or a flower exudes its fragrance. There is no conscious design or willed creation ex nihilo. This manifestation is an eternal and cyclical process and does not have an origin in time. Similarly, Samsara, which is ultimately grounded in the Dharmakaya, is also without beginning. Some might argue that the two realms should not be linked in this way but if one is committed to non-dualism (which I think one must be as far as the Mahayana is concerned) then, logically, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Samsara as an impermanent realm must, in some way, be dependent on the Dharmakaya as an eternal reality. There is really no other option. Short of considering Samsara as a completely separate reality (which I think only a Theravadin can do) or as somehow identical as Nagarjuna states (but in a way that is, arguably, incomprehensible), one is compelled to acknowledge this dependence. Furthermore, it is this very non-duality that renders intelligible the central Mahayana notion of the interdependence of all things, for beneath the deceptive and dream-like world of appearances, we find that there is nothing substantial that truly separates one being from another.

At this point, one could ask: If Buddhism goes down this path, is it not also in need of a theodicy or an explanation of how a world riddled with unfathomable suffering has arisen from a realm of purity and bliss?[6] If the Hua-yen formulation can be allowed to serve as our standard, it would appear that the world is, in some sense, a reflection or expression of the Dharmakaya itself. It is as if this reality is manifesting itself in a mode that is limited and incomplete and yet this mode is none other than a dimension of itself. The Absolute, as a consequence of its infinite nature, assumes countless finite forms to express itself as the world. D.T. Suzuki has stated:

Dharmakaya, being 'emptiness' itself and having no tangible bodily existence, has to embody itself in a form and is manifested as bamboo, as a mass of foliage, as a fish, as a man, as a Bodhisattva, as a mind etc. But these manifestations themselves are not the Dharmakaya, which is something more than forms or ideas or modes of existence.[7]

However, this comes at a cost. By 'condescending' itself in this way, the Dharmakaya also assumes the forms of imperfection and evanescence as the price to be paid for this manifestation.[8] On one level, therefore, the need for a theodicy is avoided because this process is seen as spontaneous and not as a deliberate and consciously-willed divine act creating something other than itself. The reality of evil and suffering is a direct consequence of living in an imperfect and finite world where things are flawed, incomplete, not fully realized and 'empty' as Nagarjuna would say; that is, not possessed of 'own-being' (svabhava), always dependent on other causes and conditions for their existence and thus in a constant state of flux.

Furthermore, as the Dharmakaya is not omnipotent (as God must be in theistic religions), the conditions of Samsara as we experience them cannot be other than what they are; neither can they be changed arbitrarily by some divine fiat. Samsara, by definition, is restless, fugitive, insatiable and unsatisfactory - it can never become an earthly paradise for it does not possess the attributes of Nirvana, namely eternity, bliss, purity and true self which are reserved solely for that which is unconditioned. The real question for Buddhists, therefore, is not 'Why is there evil?' but 'Why is there manifestation?' Why did the immutably serene state of Nirvana, this realm of pure being, become this vale of tears? Beyond replying that it is in its nature to spontaneously express itself as the infinitely varied and complex world of Samsara with all its joys, horrors and perplexities, there is no answer that can be readily given, for how does one account for natural spontaneity? How can the sun not illuminate? How can a rose withhold its scent? The implication, of course, is that this unwilled 'creation', for want of a better word, is a necessary corollary of this 'Infinite Life' (Amitayus, one of the names of the Buddha in the Pure Land tradition) and not the outcome of a planned decision. One could say, then, that this is the ultimate mystery that Buddhism leaves unresolved rather than the problem of evil which has so troubled theologians in the theistic religions.

So far, our discussion may have seemed a little one-sided or even negative. We have focussed more on the features of transcendence and little, it seems, on the perspective of immanence. Both, of course, are required in order to maintain a balanced and orthodox view despite the challenges that this might present, so what are we to say about immanence? This concept was largely absent from Theravadin doctrine but the Mahayana insisted on the presence of the Buddha-nature in each sentient being as the means through which enlightenment was possible. According to this view, one cannot become a Buddha except through the agency of the Buddha within - if the infinite did not dwell in the heart of the finite, then the latter cannot be liberated and attain realization of its true self experienced as Nirvana. However, there are some other dimensions to immanence that need to be addressed and they concern our experience of love and beauty.

Limitations of space preclude an extended discussion of these dimensions suffice it to say that, from the perspective of non-dualism, the Mahasukha ('Great Bliss') of Nirvana cannot but permeate the realm of Samsara. In the Awakening of Faith, we find an important distinction made between the 'essence' of Suchness which is immutable, inconceivable and eternal, and the 'attributes' of Suchness which serve to infuse the opaqueness of Samsara with the radiant influences and qualities of Buddha-nature. In this context, the text speaks of 'permeation' (vasana) in the sense of Suchness 'permeating' or 'perfuming' Samsara.[9 Accordingly, it is possible to consider all those instances when we are confronted with an experience of profound love, joy or beauty in life as ephemeral traces or 'echoes' of the supernal bliss of Nirvana in our everyday world:

For Kukai (founder of the Shingon school), what is beautiful partakes of the Buddha.[10]

Such experiences are also 'unitive' in the sense that they compel us to transcend our fragmented individuality and seek union with a higher reality at the heart of existence, as well as serving to remind us of the extent to which we are also often alienated from this reality.

In summary, the doctrine of non-duality enables the reconciliation of two seemingly contradictory notions in that it preserves the ultimate transcendence and inconceivability of the highest reality while, at the same time, stressing - not so much the strict identity as Nagarjuna claimed - but the 'non-difference' (to use an awkward expression) of Nirvana and Samsara.

Just as pieces of various kinds of pottery are of the same nature in that they are made of clay, so the various magic-like manifestations (maya) of both enlightenment and non-enlightenment are aspects of the same essence, Suchness.[11]

In other words, the world is 'not other' than Suchness or the Dharmakaya by virtue of it being an extension of this very same reality yet it is not the same as this reality by virtue of its impermanence, imperfection and manifold limitations.

We now need to address, albeit belatedly, the connection of the foregoing discussion to Pure Land Buddhism. The rise of this school of Buddhism was in response to a number of factors that would have weighed heavily on people during the time of its inception, namely (a) the need to make the Buddhist Absolute as accessible as possible to ordinary people through the use of a wealth of rich and positive symbolism designed to heighten the aspiration for enlightenment; and (b) an acute recognition of the difficulty of attaining full enlightenment in the present life during the Decadent Age of the Dharma.

More than any other tradition of the Buddha-Dharma, the Pure Land school has been the most sensitive to the implications of suffering and samsaric life for sincere individuals who are struggling with personal weakness and the seemingly insurmountable barriers of anger, greed and ignorance in the pursuit of enlightenment. In the face of the ineradicable shortcomings and paradoxes of the human condition, the Pure Land teachings offer hope to those for whom spiritual perfection is hopelessly elusive, through the assurance of ultimate liberation and enlightenment via the agency of Amida Buddha as the personal and active dimension of Nirvana.

Therefore, the suggestion that Nirvana and this world of suffering are identical can only serve to compound the anxiety and despair that may already be felt by those who believe that the conditions which prevail in this world are the very antithesis of what Nirvana should be. Accordingly, the world as such cannot be considered a proper object of spiritual aspiration and trying to convince people that 'this saha world is identical with the Pure Land in essence, if we can only deepen our faith enough to perceive it'[12] only does violence to those who are simply incapable of realising this identity and who cannot come to terms with the notion that all the suffering and misery of our world is, somehow, essentially 'nirvanic' in nature. Even an enlightened Buddha would surely be incapable of seeing, for example, the torture or cruel abuse of a little child as being 'blissful', as if the revulsion and heartbreak that we would naturally feel in such a case could somehow be dismissed as a consequence of not seeing the world through enlightened eyes!

Among the many varieties of Buddhism, the Pure Land teaching most deserves the epithet 'otherworldly', often erroneously applied to Buddhism as a whole. Pure Land doctrine teaches that this world is an arena of unavoidable suffering and frustration, and holds out the vivid prospect of rebirth in another, better world, where sickness, pain and death do not exist. This world is a hopeless trap, from which we can escape only by the power of Amitabha. Unless we attain rebirth in the Pure Land, peace and happiness, to say nothing of enlightenment, are beyond reach...[13]

In light of the stark realities of this Saha world as they are experienced by all of us, it beggars belief that the exhortation to accept Samsara as identical to Nirvana can seriously be considered any kind of help or comfort to those who are seeking liberation (moksha) from such a world and its debilitating passions and delusions. If anything, such a view can be positively harmful to one's mental and spiritual health. To suggest that this is, in fact, how a Buddha views the world is neither here nor there for the impossibility of an ordinary person attaining enlightenment (as properly understood) in this life precludes the likelihood of ever being able to verify this claim. Accordingly, this cannot serve as an appropriate framework for those wishing to make sense of the world in light of the Buddha-Dharma.

The world is, indeed, a reflection of the ultimate reality but it cannot, by virtue of this fact, be considered the same as this reality. This may very well be the key to unravelling the mystery of non-duality. Samsara is 'not other' than Nirvana for the Mahayana only recognises one reality which manifests itself through infinitely varied forms and possibilities but Samsara cannot be experienced as Nirvana because of the inherent limitations of everything that is other than the Infinite. However, direct experience of this reality in the midst of the turbidity of Samsara is possible while remaining bound to our status as ordinary unenlightened beings (Skt. prthagjana; Jap. bombu). This experience, known as shinjin, marks the entry into our deluded consciousness of the 'Infinite Light' (Amitabha) of the Buddha. Far from turning us into fully enlightened individuals, such an awakening reinforces the deep awareness of our own nescience and turpitude while permitting us to experience something of the joy and illumination of Nirvana in this very world of birth-and-death. Perhaps this is how we might understand Shinran when he says:

When Faith is awakened in the minds of deluded and defiled ordinary people, they are made aware that 'birth-and-death is Nirvana'.[14]

At this point, we find ourselves at an impasse as we approach the very limits of what language can express, where paradox is inevitable and where, perhaps, it is best to remain silent. If the foregoing metaphysical speculations have seemed too arcane and confounding, then one is invited to embrace a renewed but awakened naïveté by seeking solace in the following words:

The Buddha then said to the Elder Shariputra: If you travel westward from here, passing a hundred thousand kotis of Buddha-lands, you come to the land called 'Utmost Bliss', where there is a Buddha named 'Amida'. He is living there now, teaching the Dharma.

The Sutra on Amida Buddha

1 Edward Conze, Buddhism: its essence and development (Harper & Row 1975), p.40.
2 The Awakening of Faith: Attributed to Asvaghosha - translated, with commentary, by Yoshito S. Hakeda (Columbia University Press: New York 1967), p.65.
3 Jacqueline Stone, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (University of Hawaii Press, 1999), p.7.
4 Robert M. Gimello, Chih-yen (602-668) and the Foundation of Hua-yen Buddhism (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1976), p.411.
5 E. Dale Saunders, Buddhism in Japan (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1964), pp.161 & 168
6 See Peter N. Gregory The Problem of Theodicy in the Awakening of Faith in Religious Studies No.22.1 (1986), pp.63-78.
7 D.T.Suzuki The Buddhist Conception of Reality The Eastern Buddhist Vol. VII, No.2 (October 1974)
8 See Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Theosophical Publishing House, 1984), pp.52-53.
9 Hakeda, p.59.
10 Saunders, p.161.
11 Hakeda, pp.45-46.
12 Nikkyo Niwano, Buddhism for Today: A Modern Interpretation of the Threefold Lotus Sutra (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1990), Ch.17.
13 J.C.Cleary, in his introduction to Pure Land Pure Mind (Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, 1994).
14 The Shoshin Ge tr. Daien Fugen et al. (Ryukoku University: Kyoto 1961), p.36.

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