The ordinary man who repeats the vicious cycle of delusion, karma and pain because of his spiritual darkness, tries to cling to things with the delusory thought that they exist firmly and that they are worth striving for. When the Buddha said, ‘All things are transient’ (sabbe sankhara anicca), He meant that all exisiting things, including ourselves, are in constant flux and that things and persons dear to us soon pass away. It follows then that things which constantly change are devoid of a fixed self-nature (sabbe sankhara anatta). Things are, in themselves, void and substanceless but, when they are grasped by evil passions and clung to with delusory notions, they take on the aspects of pain. Hence we have the Buddha’s next dictum, ‘All things are painful’ (sabbe dhamma dukkha). By thus disclosing the painful aspects of life and the world, the Buddha leads us to aspire for the state of ultimate tranquility (nibbana or nirvana) in which no passions arise and no delusion gives rise to further karmic commotions which entail pain. Since the cause of our suffering is ignorance and passions which are inherent in ourselves, to get rid of the cause of suffering means to put an end to our own existence, together with all the karmic tendencies which continue to work even after our physical death and produce a new life. Nirvana is the realm beyond this world of experience. It is not a mere spiritual realm, for the Nikayas repeatedly state that Nirvana is beyond the Three Worlds, namely, the world of desire, the pure material world and the pure spiritual world. In other words, Nirvana stands aloof from all physical and spiritual experiences, and it is simply negatively expressed as ‘extinction’ or ‘tranquility’.
This negative approach to Truth, however, is reversed in Mahayana Buddhism. When the Buddha expounded the transient and painful aspects of life and the world, and diverted men’s attention from the empirical world to the world of non-experience, ie. Nirvana, he employed the best expedient for leading men to the more abstruse truth of the Mahayana. While the Buddha’s earlier exposition (called Hinayana, ‘Little’ or ‘Inferior Vehicle’ by Mahayanists) touched on the individual’s deliverance from Samsara, the practical method for it being simply negativistic, his hidden intention, revealed as Mahayana (‘Great’ od ‘Superior Vehicle’), lay in clarifying the way for the universal deliverance of all sentient beings. This Mahayanistic way, known also as the path of the Bodhisattva (bodhisattva-marga), distinguishes itself from Hinayana in that it goes a step beyond the negative state of Nirvana and develops its doctrine on the principle of non-dualism. It transcends all relative concepts and categorizations, such as Samsara and Nirvana, ignorance and wisdom, negative and affirmative. For instance, Voidness or Emptiness (sunyata) reiterated in Mahayana scriptures, especially the Prajnaparamita sutras, is not to be taken as a mere negation of existence but as the transcendental state attained after negating all concepts. Sunyata, in Mahayana, is not to be grasped by any positive statement. It negates and transcends all pairs of opposites and, at the same time, it encompasses and includes all relative, empirical spheres of thoughts and actions.
Mahayana, too, speaks of Nirvana but it is a different concept from the Hinayanistic Nirvana. According to the Nirvana Sutra, Nirvana is possessed of four qualities: eternity, bliss, freedom and purity. As synonyms of Nirvana, the Mahayana speaks of ‘Thusness’ (tathata or bhuta-tathata), ‘Dharma-nature’ (dharmata), ‘Ultimate End’ (bhuta-koti), ‘Thus-Come or Gone’ (tathagata), ‘Enlightenment’ (bodhi), ‘Dharma-body’ (dharmakaya), ‘Unconditioned’ (asamskrita), ‘Buddhahood’ (buddhata) etc. These terms are designed to describe the indescribable and transcendental reality or truth which can be grasped only by the undifferentiated and intuitive wisdom (prajna).
Though the Mahayana in India is divided into two main schools, the Madhyamika and Yogacara, and their doctrines appear to contradict each other, they have a common aim, ie. realization of this transcendental truth. Madhyamika, or ‘School of the Middle’, initiated by Nagarjuna (c. 2nd-3rd century) emphasizes the negative aspect of truth and refutes every positive statement regarding the truth. In the very beginning of his Madhyamika-karika, Nagarjuna states that things, as they are, are
Neither perishing nor produced, neither destructible nor constant, Neither one nor different, neither coming nor passing.
Since the truth is revealed by negating the above four pairs of contradictory statements, it is termed the ‘Middle Path Revealed through the Eight-fold Negation’. It is to be noted that the Buddha’s earliest sermon concerned the Eight-fold Noble Path based on the Principle of the Middle which consists in the avoidance of extreme views. When Nagarjuna propounded the truth of the middle, he restated the Buddha’s exposition of the Middle Path in a Mahayanistic frame of thought.
Yogacara, or the school of meditative practice, advocated by Maitreyanatha, Asanga and Vasubandhu in the third to fourth centuries, presents the truth more or less affirmitively. It proposes the Alayavijnana as the basic consciousness of each individual and seeks to explain that all phenomena, whether mental or material, are reduced to, and originate in, this cosmic mind. If the Madhyamika aimed at attaining the truth by negating all mental functions by which one clings to objects or projects delusory images, the Yogacarins provided various stages of meditation and contemplation through which the aspirant could gradually rise up to the absolute state.
These two diametrically opposed approaches, however, do not contradict each other. They are simply derived from two aspects of the Truth, ie. negative and positive, undifferentiated and differentiated.
Now, how are the Buddha and the Pure Land related to the transcendental truth of the Mahayana ? Simply stated, the Buddha and the Pure Land are, in themselves, the Truth itself. The Buddha is the personal expression of the Truth and, the Pure Land, its impersonal or environmental expression. The personal aspect is again of two phases, negative and positive, or unmanifested and manifested. The unmanifested, formless and personal embodiment of the Truth is ‘Dharma-body’ (dharmakaya), and the manifested embodiment is the ‘Recompensed or Reward Body’ (sambhogakaya; also known as the ‘Enjoyment Body’) and the ‘Transformed Body’ (nirmanakaya). As the Buddha is thus distinguished, so is the Buddha’s Pure Land. The essential characteristic of the Pure Land is Dharma-nature itself (the Land of Dharma-nature), but it is often described in the sutras as a land glorified with various meritorious adornments. This phenomenal aspect of the Pure Land is, in reality, the manifested emodiment of Dharma-nature. We call this aspect of the Pure Land the ‘Rewarded or Recompensed Land’. Again, we have the secondary manifestation of the Land from Dharma-nature called the ‘Transformed Land’ corresponding to the Transformed Buddha.
This is the common division of the Buddha and the Pure Land in Mahayana Buddhism. T’an-luan’s theory of the Two-fold Dharma Body, which appears in his commentary on Vasubandhu’s Discourse on the Pure Land, may add more light on the subject. He states:
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas possess two kinds of Dharma Body: one is a Dharma Body of Dharma-nature and the other is a Dharma Body of Expediency. Depending on the Dharma Body of Dharma-nature, the Dharma Body of Expediency is manifested. Depending on the Dharma Body of Expediency, the Dharma Body of Dharma-nature is revealed. These two Dharma Bodies are different but inseparable, one but distinguishable. (cf. CWS. I, 165)
According to this exposition, the Dharma Body which the Buddhas and the enlightened Bodhisattvas attain has both manifested and unmanifested aspects. Similarly, Tao-cho (562-645), the Fourth Patriarch of Shin Buddhism, distinguished the Pure Land into two: Land with Phenomenal Aspect and Land without Phenomenal Aspect.
As shown above, the Buddha’s Pure Land is the same as Thusness or Dharma-nature in essence. But the dynamic aspect of its existence as the sphere of the Buddha’s activity is of greater significance for us. Because the Pure Land is a transcendental realm standing aloof from all relative, empirical limitations, and delusory discriminations, it is described as ‘inconceivable’. It is beyond the reach of human conception and practice, and it almost appears as a ‘utopia’ far removed from our actual world of experience. From the Buddha’s side, however, the Pure Land is the sphere of His pure activity – the natural and spontaneous activity flowing out from the Supreme Wisdom of Enlightenment. The Buddha’s transcendental, pure activity is in harmony with Thusness. When His activity occurs, His Will, which is also harmonious with Thusness and not arbitrary in its functioning, is responsible for its motivation. As such, this Will is manifested as a ‘Vow’ (pranidhana). If the Budha’s activity is understood as the ‘effect’ or ‘fruition’, its ’cause’ is the Vow. In this causal relationship, Mahayana Buddhism attributes the Vow to the Bodhisattava, or Buddha-to-be, who is said to perform various practices to fulfill the Vow. According to the Larger Sutra, Dharmakara was the Bodhisattava who made the Vow and practiced the Way for a long time and became the Buddha called ‘Amida’. Since, in later Mahayana, a Bodhisattva is a transcendental being who is manifested from Thusness and differs from a Buddha only insofar as he is a causal manifestation, Dharmakara and Amida are essentially the same in their relationship to Thusness.
When the Larger Sutra states that Dharmakara made the Forty-eight Vows and attained Buddhahood some ten kalpas ago, it describes the transcendental activity of Thusness in terms of causality. On the other hand, when Shinran states in his Wasan,
Since Amida became a Buddha
Ten kalpas have passed.
So (the sutra) says.
But He seems to be an old Buddha
Older than the immeasurable mote-dot kalpas (Jodo Wasan 55).
and also, when he states that Amida is the ‘Buddha from the eternal past’ (ibid. 88), he shows us the eternal presence of Amida Buddha.
The manifestation of the transcendental as Amida and His Pure Land, in compliance with the causal law, originates in the Vow. Of the Forty-eight Vows which Dharmakara made at the outset of His career as a Bodhisattva, the Twelth and Thirteenth Vows are the primordial cause of the Buddha’s Body and Land. These two Vows reveal His resolution to attain universal resplendence (light) and eternal presence (life). Universal resplendence and eternal presence are the two basic attributes of Amida Buddha. [The appellation Amida is derived from the Sanskrit words amitabha (immeasurable light) and amitayus (immeasurable life)]. In the Pure Land sutras and discourses, therefore, Amida is mentioned as the Buddha of Immeasurable Light or the Buddha of Immeasurable Life. The Larger Sutra, in particular, presents twelve epithets of Amida Buddha according to the distinct functions and characteristics of His Light:
The Buddha (Sakyamuni) said to Ananda: ‘The glorious light of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is noblest and supreme. No other Buddha’s light can match His… . Hence, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is also called the Buddha of Immeasurable Light, the Buddha of Boundless Light, the Buddha of Unhindered Light, the Buddha of Unequalled Light, the Buddha of Majestically-Flaming Light, the Buddha of Wisdom Light, the Buddha of Joyful Light, the Buddha of Unceasing Light, the Buddha of Inconceivable Light, the Buddha of Ineffable Light, and the Buddha of Light Outshining the Sun and the Moon’ (SSZ. I,16; The Three Pure Land Sutras, 255).
Based on this statement of the sutra, T’an-luan composed adoratory verses on Amida Buddha, namely the San Amida Butsu Ge (‘Gatha Praising Amida Buddha’), and Shinran reproduced these verses in Japanese hymns.
When Vasubandhu, a renowned exponent of the Yogacara school and, also, the Second Patriarch of Shin Buddhism, professed his faith in Amida Buddha in his Jodo Ron (‘Discourse on the Pure Land’), he says:
O World-Honoured One, with singleness of mind, I
Take refuge in the Tathagata of Unhindered Light
Shining throughout the Ten Quarters,
And aspire to be born in the Land of Peace and Bliss. (Ojoronchu, 127)
It seems that Shinran had a particular preference for the names indicating Amida’s Light. In the ‘Chapter on True Practice’ from his Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, for instance, he refers to Amida’s Name as the ‘Name of the Tathagata of Unhindered Light’ (SSZ. II, 5; CWS. I, 13). Again, in the ‘Chapter on the True Buddha and Land’, he calls the Pure land the ‘Land of Immeasurable Light’ (ibid. 177). Light represents the Buddha’s Wisdom – the wisdom of self-enlightenment and of enlightening others. In expalining the aforementioned gatha of the Jodo Ron, Shinran says in the Songo Shinzo Meimon:
Kimyo Jinjippo Mugeko Nyorai (‘Take refuge in the Tathagata of Light Unhindered in the Ten Quarters’) has the following meaning: Kimyo is namas in Sanskrit; again, kimyo means ‘to follow the Tathagata’s command’. Jinjippo Mugeko Nyorai refers to Amida Tathagata. This Tathagata is (the Tathagata of) light. Jin of Jinjippo means ‘to exhaust’ or ‘exhaustively’. He fills the worlds of the ten quarters thoroughly and exhaustively. Muge means ‘unhindered’. ‘Unhindered’ means ‘unhindered by the evil passions and actions of sentient beings’. Ko Nyorai refers to Amida Buddha. This Tathagata is called ‘ Buddha of Inconceivable Light’. This Tathagata is the embodiment of Wisdom. We should know that He fills the worlds of the ten quarters as numerous as dust-motes (SSZ. II, 584-5; cf. CWS.I, 501).
Amida Buddha, as Shinran conceived and perceived Him, is thus universally resplendent, of the nature of Wisdom, omnipresent and active. But Amida having these characteristics is not merely an object of awe, worship and reverence, but His Light of Wisdom and Compassion embraces and encompasses us, pierces through the hard core of self-attachment and ignorance, and gives us the meaning of life and the world. Shinran’s reverence and gratitude to Amida are expressed throughout his writings, especially in his hymns:
Far-reaching is the Light of Compassion. Wheresoever the Light may reach, Will joy of Dharma arise, says the Buddha. Take refuge in the Great Consoler (Jodo Wasan 10).