Wisdom and compassion

Not long ago a friend told me that we should temper compassion with wisdom. But this is a vexed idea. It may have meaning in a mundane sense but there is no comparison between my so-called ‘wisdom’ and true wisdom, the wisdom of the Buddhas.

In the Pure Land tradition, the most significant characteristic of wisdom is that it is non-discriminating, and manifested through ‘compassionate means’, which is the true vehicle of universal deliverance from birth-and-death.

The perfect manifestation of the non-discriminating perfection of wisdom (prajna paramita) is the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who is the great master of the perfection of wisdom, clearly recognises the significance of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow precisely because it is true wisdom.

If persons think on me and say my Name, spontaneously taking refuge in me, immediately they enter the stage of the definitely settled and will realise supreme, perfect enlightenment. (CWS, p. 23)

The Primal Vow does not discriminate. It embraces all who take refuge and accept the Name. That is wisdom expressed as universal compassion.

The Contemplation Sutra also identifies the wisdom of the Buddha with universal compassion:

Each ray of light [wisdom] shines over the worlds of the ten quarters, embracing and never abandoning those who are mindful of the Buddha (Hongwanji, p. 39)

This same light, the mind of the Buddhas, is compassion.

The Buddhas’ mind is great compassion. It is with this unconditional compassion that they embrace all beings. (p. 40)

The form taken by light is wisdom. Hence, Shinran writes, in Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling:

‘Compassionate means’ refers to manifesting form, revealing a name, and making itself known to sentient beings. It refers to Amida Buddha. This Tathagata is light. Light is none other than wisdom; wisdom is the form of light. (CWS, p. 486)

In Shinran Shonin’s Hymns of the Pure Land we read:

The light of wisdom exceeds all measure,
And every finite living being
Receives this illumination that is like the dawn,
So take refuge in Amida, the true and real light (CWS, p. 325)

‘Every finite living being’! Here, again, we see that the ‘light of wisdom’ is also compassion; it does not discriminate. ‘Every finite living being receives the illumination of Amida Buddha.’ And here also we see how wisdom works in the heart of the nembutsu follower. It calls upon us to ‘take refuge in Amida, the true and real light.’ Why? Because we are not wise. The perfection of wisdom is an attribute of the Buddha. We can have no claim to it as our own characteristic. It is his wisdom alone that embraces us.

Such is the nature of the perfection of wisdom. This light – the wisdom of Amida Buddha — shows us as we truly are: entirely dependent on the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, Other Power. Such is the truth of foolish beings like me. The wisdom of the Buddha is the compassion that embraces us just as we are.

As a foolish being, any discriminating judgement is tainted by my own blind passions. It may have a place in the matter of survival in a delusional world. But it has no place equating itself with the perfection of wisdom that is the wisdom of Buddhas.

I most definitely do not have the wisdom to make decisions about compassion, or where it should be tempered. I only know that Amida Buddha is the refuge for a foolish being. I only know that Amida Buddha’s light, his wisdom and his compassion, embraces all, without exception, no matter who they are.

Namo Amida Butsu.