Inconceivable Light

Kimyo Muryoju Nyorai!
Namo Fukashigiko!

I take refuge in the Tathagata of Immeasurable Life!
I entrust myself to the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!
(Shinran, Shoshin Nembutsu Ge; CWS, p. 69)

Photo by Nicholas Rundle

These are the opening words of Shinran Shonin’s  Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu, which many Shin Buddhists chant every morning and evening. They often follow it with a set of Shinran’s Hymns of the Pure Land, interspersed with recitation of the nembutsu. These six hymns are translations into Japanese from T’an-luan’s hymns in Chinese, which praise the Twelve Lights of Amida Buddha. Shinran includes T’an-luan’s hymns in The True Teaching, Practice, and Realisation.

So, Gongyo – the daily formal recollection of Amida Buddha’s great compassion – is resplendent with light. It is not at all surprising that this chant is so popular among Shin Buddhists and that people truly delight in chanting it as often as they can. Light is, after all, joyful.

Shinran defines Amida Buddha as the ‘Tathagata of Inconceivable Light’.  That is the most perfect and straightforward description of our Buddha. Indeed, it is for this reason, among others, that Shinran preferred not to use statues or painted images of the Buddha. How can one draw a picture of Inconceivable Light?

As Shinran says in Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling:

This Tathagata is light. Light is none other than wisdom; wisdom is the form of light. Wisdom is, in addition, formless; hence this Tathagata is the Buddha of inconceivable light. (CWS, p. 486)

Amida Buddha is the teacher of all Buddhas because he is wisdom that is without form. Anyone who opens his or her heart to the Buddha can hear this light for themselves. We cannot see or imagine it. Unlike Shakyamuni Buddha we, foolish beings, know it only by its working.

Ignorance was dispelled, and knowledge arose. Darkness was dispelled, and light arose. This is how it should be for those who are ardent in their endeavour. (Shakyamuni Buddha; Bhayabhedra-sutta)

Nembutsu followers attain Buddhahood at the end of life when they are born in the Pure Land. During this life, in ordinary times, being embraced in the light assures foolish beings of their ultimate destiny. All Buddhas invite us to accept the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow. But how do we ‘hear’ and respond to light that is inconceivable?

It is through the Name – Namo Amida Butsu. The seventh century Pure Land master, Shan-tao tells us that

Amida takes in and saves all beings throughout the ten quarters with light and Name; Amida brings sentient beings to realise the entrusting heart and aspire for birth. (Shan-tao; CWS, p. 54)

And the seventh dharma master, Genshin:

Although I too am within Amida’s grasp. Blind passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see the light; nevertheless, great compassion untiringly and constantly illumines me. (Genshin; CWS, p. 93)

Through the working of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, the Name, the entire universe, all religious striving, all great teachers, and all Buddhas lead us to see ourselves as we are and to accept the Name. When — without a shred of doubt — we do so, this is what happens:

‘Saved by the inconceivable working of Amida’s Vow, I shall realise birth in the Pure Land’: the moment you entrust yourself thus to the Vow, so that the mind set upon saying he nembutsu arises within you, you are immediately brought to share in the benefit of being embraced by Amida, never to be abandoned. (Tannisho 1, CWS, p. 661)

Thus, Yuien begins his task of conveying the message that we encountered in the Preface of the Tannisho:

Let there be not the slightest distortion of the teaching of Other Power with words of an understanding based only on personal views. (CWS, p. 661)