Shinran Shonin speaks of Amida Buddha as ‘Immeasurable Light’ far more often than he uses the phrase ‘Immeasurable Life’. It is as light that great sages also more often think of Amida Buddha. Bodhisattva Vasubandhu (c. 4th-5th century C.E.) was one of these.
Vasubandhu wrote a treatise, which outlines the practice that a sage may follow to attain birth in the Pure Land and become a Buddha for the sake of others. According to Shinran, Vasubandhu’s treatise is a description of the path taken by Bodhisattva Dharmakara on his way to becoming Amida Buddha (CWS, pp. 623-626.)
Vasubandhu opens his treatise with a clear declaration of the Name of Amida Buddha:
O World-honoured one, with the mind that is single,
I take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light
Filling the ten quarters
And aspire to be born in the Land of Peace and Happiness.
(The Pure Land Writings, Vol 1, p. 45)
The Light is not blocked by any physical, mental or personal characteristics. Shinran also says that ‘there is no one who is untouched by the light’:
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)
Without doubt, one of my favourite passages in the Larger Sutra is the list of Amida Buddha’s twelve lights. You can tell, as you read the sutra, that Shakyamuni Buddha’s joy is also unbounded as he contemplates these twelve lights:
The Buddha of Immeasurable Life is called Buddha of Immeasurable Light, Buddha of Boundless Light, Buddha of Unhindered Light, Buddha of Incomparable Light, Buddha that is Lord of Blazing Light, Buddha of the Light of Purity, Buddha of the Light of Joy, Buddha of the Light of Wisdom, Buddha of Uninterrupted Light, Buddha of Inconceivable Light, Buddha of Inexpressible Light, and Buddha of Light Surpassing the Sun and the Moon. (Larger Sutra (Hongwanji) p. 36)
Master Tan-luan (476-542) composed hymns praising the twelve lights. Shinran included Tan-luan’s hymns in the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho (CWS, p. 194-196), and also wrote hymns that are based on them. We sing of the twelve lights whenever we chant the Hymn of True Entrusting Heart and the Nembutsu (Shoshin Nembutsu-ge – CWS, pp. 69-74).
If anyone should doubt Shakyamuni Buddha’s delight in praising Amida Buddha’s twelve lights, we only have to see what he said next:
Sentient beings who encounter this light have the three defilements swept away, and they become soft and gentle in body and mind. They leap and dance with joy, and the good mind arises in them. When those suffering pain and travail in the three evil realms see this light, they all find respite and become free of afflictions. After their lives have ended, they will attain emancipation. (Larger Sutra, p. 37)
Remember that one of the twelve lights is ‘Buddha of Inconceivable Light’. Light is known by its function – showing us things as they are. To say that we ‘see the light’ in common speech is to say ‘I see the truth’.
The Inconceivable Light that is Amida Buddha shows us the truth about ourselves, demonstrating the incontrovertible fact that we have no alternative but to have absolute trust in the Name – Namo Amida Butsu – the manifestation of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.