The dharma body’s light

Amida has passed through ten kalpas now
Since realising Buddhahood;
Dharma-body’s wheel of light is without bound,
Shining on the blind and ignorant of the world.
(Hymns of the Pure Land)

Autumn leaves, 19 June 2016
Autumn leaves, 19 June 2016

Shinran Shonin always thought of himself as someone who was like the rest of us. Of course, in his shared humanity, he was; but as an example to us, he was always thoroughly true to himself and never wavered from that course.

Shinran discovered that the Buddha, and the path he taught, is not something that we pursue so much as a gift that we can choose to accept. For him the Buddha is light that fills the universe, and which tirelessly works to liberate us from the bondage of birth-and-death.

Shinran says that this spiritual light is wisdom. He also said that this light is inconceivable, unhindered by anything – and as we see from the verse above – ‘shines on the blind and ignorant of the world’.

The light is the true body of the Buddha, his dharma body. What is the dharma body whose light shines on the ‘blind and ignorant of the world’? If this light – the dharma body’s light – is inconceivable and we can’t even imagine what it is like, how do we know its presence in our lives?

Well, first of all, it is the dharma, the teaching of the Buddha. You can draw close to it in revering, reading and hearing the great books that have come down through the ages; and have been cherished and preserved by monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. But dharma is also the calm, limpid, unspoken thought that underlies the words in the books. Dharma is the silent core from which the words emerge.

We don’t need to read Buddhist books for the light of the dharma body to shine in our hearts. Any moment of wisdom, however fleeting, is the light of the dharma body seeking to awaken us.

Most people can probably remember the time, when they were very young, that they first posed the questions, ‘Who am I? Why am I alive? What is the purpose of life? Why did I have to have my particular parents?’ This may be the first glimmer of the dharma body’s light inviting us to ‘come and see’ the dharma, as the old Buddhist saying goes.

Shinran experienced a moment like that when he was just nine years old. His young life, however, was full of heartbreak and stress; something that no child should experience. He had lost his mother and lived at a time of terrible violence and conflict.

Most of us accept the answers that most readily come to hand, when we ask those childhood questions about why I am alive: ‘Study to get a job and contribute to the community, and for most people, marry and raise a family.’ Some people are not satisfied with that answer and withdraw entirely from society.

Shinran was initially just such a person. He became a monk at the age of nine but after about twenty years he was to discover that it is also possible to live a busy, committed and ordinary life, and hear the dharma well at the same time.

Well, most of us hear the light of the dharma body, so to speak, when we are children, and those tantalising questions come up, but everyone gets busy and life follows its course. We fall in love, maybe raise a family, work away day and night, and perhaps buy a house. The childhood questions fade away, more-or-less unanswered – and we forget the bidding of that first glimpse of the dharma body’s light.

Nevertheless, we may encounter another glimpse of the dharma body’s light in middle age: the so-called ‘mid-life crisis’.

Life is speeding onwards and we seem to be marking time, getting nowhere, with many of our social obligations fulfilled. But along comes the dharma body’s light again to nudge the course of our life in a different direction but instead we head off for a ‘sea change’.

Some people move to live somewhere new, take up a new challenge or even start a new relationship. On the other hand, Shakyamuni Buddha is the classic example of a man experiencing a mid-life crisis; but he took note of the dharma body’s light, when he left his beloved family behind and left home for ‘the great renunciation’, and the quest for truth.

The third opportunity for the dharma body’s light to work on us is usually towards the end of our lives. Final decline is looming, life is drawing to a close. Nearly everything we wanted to do has been unattainable.

The most wonderful thing in these chinks of light in our lives occurs if a ‘good teacher of the dharma’ turns up. Perhaps we stumble on a web site, or pick up a book that intrigues us, or meet someone who sees things in a refreshing way.

Most importantly, such a person must live what he or she teaches. Such a person can be anyone – even a child – but they are a good teacher of the dharma by being who they are. For my part, Shinran is a teacher like that. When we start to listen, reflect and watch, the dharma body’s light shines in our hearts with growing strength. Shinran’s teaching is quite extraordinary: it opens our lives to astonishing possibilities, breadth of insight and understanding, and makes life truly worth living. What a find it is!

Shinran reached his mid-life crisis early because he had heeded the promptings of the dharma body’s light as a boy. But the path he followed had led nowhere. Then, guided by an inspiration, he visited Honen Shonin. Honen’s message answered every question that had troubled Shinran. Honen taught that true living and dying was to trust in – and to know – the embrace of the Buddha, saying the nembutsu.

Shinran’s joy in this discovery was so profound and compelling that it spread to thousands of people in his time, and then continued down through the ages and across the oceans to us. One-by-one, people who truly hear this teaching understand and accept it, saying Namo Amida Butsu; live life to the full, having let the dharma body’s light shine in their hearts.

For most of us the dharma body’s light, its wisdom, approaches us in troubling questions and a sense of unease as we bumble on our way through life. The light breaks through from time to time in those niggling questions; but we don’t respond – unless we meet someone who has already responded and chosen to live the nembutsu way – in their own context and with a sincere heart like Shinran’s. The glimmer of the dharma body’s light begins to shine out and fills our hearts as we allow ourselves to trust to Namo Amida Butsu without any qualms.

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.