This article was published in PLN issue 54. Just a few weeks earlier the owners of the property told us that they had decided to sale the edifice that we had called home for the proceeding eighteen years. We survived the Covid19 pandemic, but became a casualty of the economic crisis that followed in its wake.
Enrique Galvan-Alvarez (who writes under the PLN name of Shaku Kakai) had come to stay for a few days at Chomon House and I gave him this news a few days earlier. This worried the two of us, but we reacted in different ways. In many ways, my relationship with Enrique personifies the spirit of the SBFUK- and the presentation style of Pure Land Notes, the journal of the SBFUK. Enrique's style is scholarly. Mine is more prosaic.
I met Gary Robinson and most of the Southampton Sangha, a little bit over 10 years ago. It was in Dusseldorf, just as Gary was about to become Rev. Daichi. Not long after, I came to Chomon House, and to Southampton, for the first time. And I have been coming a few times a year eversince. Chomon House HAD BECOME has become a refuge for me. It has been such a fortune to be able to visit and explore and share the dharma in a very relaxed and comfortable way. My stays have always felt like a welcome break from daily life, thanks to Gary’s hospitality and generosity. I always look forward to our conversations, to long walks in the Common and to time spent in the garden during the summer months.
In the spirit of gratitude, I would like to share a couple of little stories with Dharma significance that have taken place while staying at Chomon House. For a while now, the Myogo scroll has been hanging upstairs, perfectly positioned where, in most houses, a TV would be, facing the comfy sofa and chairs. Gary has told me that he sometimes spends the evening looking at it, while he relaxes in his front room. So I have started doing the same when I am visiting.
When I last went to Chomon House to give a talk, in February 2022, I spent the night on the sofa in front of the scroll, and I spent a few hours relaxing and slowly easing into sleep looking at the six characters: Na Mu A Mi Da Butsu. Lying there I was reminded of how Shinran Shonin mentions in one of his letters that not only it is not wrong but excellent to recite other forms of nenbutsu as well as Namandabu. Formulas such as Kimyo jinjippo mugeko nyorai or Namu fukashigiko, to mention but a few, recur through his writings and he also inscribed them in Myogo scrolls for his followers. This led me to think about the 12 lights of Amida, which Shinran Shonin mentions in the Shoshinge and which also appear listed in the Larger Sutra. Roughly translated into English these are: Immeasurable Light, Boundless Light, Unhindered Light, Incomparable Light (or the Light that does not compare -more on that later), Lord of Flaming Light, Purifying Light, Joyful Light, Wisdom Light, Uninterrupted Light, Inconceivable Light, Inexpressible Light and Light that Surpasses Sun and Moon.
This evening reverie took me on a journey to explore and translate a text by Tanluan called Junikosan, which we are currently exploring on our online Tuesday sessions. It also inspired me to start chanting the nenbutsu associated with each light (e.g. Immeasurable Light, Muryoko, Namo Muryoko Butsu), which I quickly discovered fitted very well with the tune of the nenbutsu wasan. The journey continues and I am very grateful that it started here, on that couch in Chomon House.
On my last visit, in August 2022, Gary told me that, as he stared at the scroll, he had a strong sense of its true message: ‘don’t worry’. It struck me how the same activity (i.e. looking at the scroll) inspired in me a long, convoluted journey involving translation, lists, readings, chanting, but for him it just delivered the simplicity of the teaching: ‘don’t worry’. After this exchange I decided to think of the significance of both our interactions with the Myogo scroll together, and to see my complex list of lights and different forms of nenbutsu as an expression of Gary’s simple and profound message: don’t worry.
So I will briefly discuss the significance of each of the different lights and what they are telling us not to worry about. These lights, that represent the activity of the Buddha in the world, are liberating and transforming us in a myriad ways.
The first one is Muryoko, the immeasurable light that negates our measuring, our calculation. Measuring and calculating are an important part of our lives. For instance, for buying a house or budgeting it is essential to calculate, to measure, but we do not need to worry about it. It is natural and even necessary that we calculate, but we do not need to worry about these calculations.
The second one is Muhenko, the boundless light, without beginning or end or limit. Again, we need limits in order to function in the world. We like to mark beginnings and endings, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays, the beginning and end of the year, the seasons… but we do not need to worry about any of those limits. The light shines through all of them, birth and death, beginning and end.
The third one is Mugeko, the unhindered light. This is Shinran’s favourite and he devotes a lot of pages to explain its significance to his readers. It is the light that sees through barriers, that is not blocked by our obstacles and hindrances. Obstacles, difficulties, hindrances are an unavoidable part of life, but if we awaken to this unhindered light we do not need to worry too much about them.
The fourth is Mutaiko, literally the incomparable light, but which could also be read as the light that does not compare, that doesn’t judge. Comparisons, and even a certain degree of discernment, or even judgment, are important in our daily existence, but the light of Amida does not care about such things. We need not worry too much about comparing ourselves to others or about judging ourselves and others. The light takes us all in, and every aspect of us, just as it is.
The fifth is Koenno, the lord of blazing or flaming light. This is a less obvious image, but it is connected to the Buddha appearing in the most desperate of situations and rescuing us from the flames of our own hells. The flaming light of this Buddha is a symbol of transformation, it turns the blazing heat of hell into the cool and soft breeze of the Pure Land. It also turns our negative karma into the cause of awakening. No matter how desperate our suffering gets, we can trust in this Koenno, in the fact that as we open ourselves up to the Buddha’s light our suffering is also transformed and we understand that it won’t last forever. So we do not need to worry too much about suffering either.
The sixth is Shojoko, the light that purifies. Even if in our modern day we might not be attached to ideas about ritual purity and ideas of impurity might not cause us anxiety, but we still worry about things being less than perfect, or not what we wanted or expected. People and situations constantly disappoint us, because we expect them to be ‘pure’. The light of purity tells us to not worry about purity and impurity, they are both embraced in the dynamic of the Primal Vow. There is no need to worry or discriminate. Of course I would want this written piece to be pure, but it is great to know that even if it isn’t I am still embraced by the Buddha’s light and hopefully also embraced by you, the reader. Nonetheless, we always try our best.
The seventh is Kangiko, the joyful light, which brings us the spontaneous bliss of encountering the Dharma. It is natural to experience both joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, but we do not need to worry about it. Sometimes in our world -perhaps I am getting old- I feel like there is a pressure to appear always happy, always ‘pure’, always perfect. There is no need to worry about being sad, it is also part of life. As we dance to the tune of the joyful light we discover that sadness does not last, it is like a passing cloud in a radiant, blue sky.
The eighth is Chieko, the light of wisdom. Again, knowledge and wisdom are an important part of Buddhism, and of life in general. But there is no need to worry about ignorance (both as lack of knowledge and lack of wisdom). Indeed, the Primal Vow is for foolish beings of no wisdom, that is why we rely on the light of wisdom. As we receive this light, paradoxically, we do not become wiser but more aware of our foolishness, which is in itself a form of wisdom. This echoes what Honen and Shinran used to say: in the Path of Sages the aim is to become wise, but in the Pure Land Path we become our foolish, ordinary self. This means that we come to know that we know nothing.
The ninth is Fudanko, the uninterrupted light. This light reassures us that even if our practice or our devotion is seemingly interrupted, disrupted, there is an underlying uninterrupted flow that always embraces us. I often forget to say the nenbutsu for many hours and yet the nenbutsu is always with me. Even if we make small mistakes while chanting the sutras or cannot find the page and remain silent, the flow of the Dharma, of the nenbutsu, continues uninterrupted, a bit like our heartbeat or our breath. So do not worry about the interruptions and disruptions of your practice and awareness, the uninterrupted light never goes out.
The tenth is Nanjiko, the inconceivable light. Concepts are important and we could not exist and interact with each other without them. And yet they can also become a hindrance, a source of worry. If we are too concerned about this or that doctrine we can lose track of this light, the light of no-concepts which is always at work behind our conceptual activity. Do not worry about ideas, entertain them by all means, but do not worry.
The eleventh is Mushoko, the inexpressible light. Words are all we have in many ways. Without words we couldn’t think and, well, this article, among many other things, couldn’t exist. And yet words can also become a source of fixation, anxiety and worry. “She said” and “he said”. “It says so in the sutra!” The Mushoko liberates us from such worries. The light cannot be described in words, so I shall say no more.
The twelfth is Chonichigakko, the light that surpasses the sun and moon. This is the light that embraces and overcomes all duality. Day and night, samsara and nirvana, relative and ultimate, it moves us away from all of our conventional and ordinary points of reference. And, of course, it is good to work with those conventions, a parent is not a child, day is not the same as night, but at the same time they do not need to become a source of worry. The light embraces and, in a sense, dissolves them, or at least puts them into a larger perspective, in which they are shown to be interdependent, so we do not need to worry too much about them.
Now, I would like to finish by sharing with you another insightful moment that took place at Chomon House. When I visited in the summer of 2021, I came up with a short poem that explored the worries I was experiencing at the time. I will share it with you
The gates of worry and regret show us
The true nature of time
The past is already living
The future is still alive
And yet there is no I
To endure the waves of worry and regret.
Future and past are constantly changing
And so are we, made out of dancing time
The past lives us, every day, without a trace of regret
The future dreams us, every night, without a hint of concern
Always present, never gone or yet to arrive
And yet the self fixates on this and that;
trying to tidy up the days that seemingly slipped away,
hoping to order the hours that we imagine will come
Our future worries are very real and yet we are not there
Our past regrets are truly heavy and yet they are never ours
And although this stubborn self battles the waves of worry and regret
When Amida-sama comes, there is nothing but time
Regret becomes the living past dancing with my obstinate self
Worry becomes the living future dancing with my clinging and angst
When Amida-sama comes, I become the spiraling waves of futures and pasts unbound
Already present, still changing, forever intertwined
I don’t think the poem is particularly insightful (or good, for that matter) but I had to share it so I could tell you that I sent it to Ishida Hoyu sensei while staying at Chomon House and, almost immediately, I received a truly enlightening reply. I feel like putting my hands together when I read his words, which will conclude this piece:
Good to hear from you.
Thank you for your reflection on time.
It seems that you "worry" and "regret" a lot.
Me too, Enrique, and all the time.
Worry does not cease.
Regret does not cease.
If they come to a halt, we are not around here any more, Amida-sama.