The Light - Buddhism
Buddhist schools and texts that refer to a Divine Light do so in reference to a cosmic, God-like Buddha.
"God Almighty (Brahman) resides within all humans as Light, a fact that is supported by all scriptures. Thus we can meditate on Him within and that long search for the Creator is at last over, ending within ourselves. That is why Jesus kept telling the ignorant masses two millennia ago that the Kingdom of God is within.
A few months ago i asked my daughter Lalita what is that Light above Shri Mataji in her Sahasrara (Kingdom of God). She replied 'God!'
i remained silent for a long time to absorb the immensity of that single word answer."
The experience under investigation is described quite plainly in certain Zen texts. After a series of Zen exercises, one disciple found that he was "'astonished that unnoticeably the Zen hall and myself were radiant in an absolute light.' All this time he experienced an unspeakable feeling of happiness."1 Another Zen text describes the experience poetically, hinting that the inward self, fully realized, reaches cosmic proportions:
The mind mirror illumines all ingenuously.
Its penetrating, limitless rays reach
everywhere in the universe.
Without exception everything is reflected
in this mirror
The whole universe is a gem of light
beyond the terms of in and out.2
Zen and like-minded schools of Buddhism do not recognize the concept of God as such, so the examples above are attempts to describe pure experience. However, most other Buddhist schools and texts that refer to a Divine Light do so in reference to a cosmic, God-like Buddha. The Dammapada, dating as far back as the 6th century BC, tells us that "the sun shines by day, the moon shines by night; continually, day and night, does the luminous Buddha shine."3 Other texts tell us that "the brilliance of Buddha's light is measureless."4 Buddha, "the Great Enlightened," is "brilliant... highly bright."5 The "Enlightened Teacher Buddha" has "illuminated all nations with the bright light of the doctrine... thinking in the brightness."6 Buddha, the "World Honoured One," is "Light Brightness."7 In a very famous passage from the Lotus Sutra, written around the 3rd century CE, we read that
The Buddha emitted a light from
between his eyebrows,
manifesting signs that are rarely seen.
This light illumined the eastern direction,
eighteen thousand Buddha lands...
One could see how these Buddha lands
adorned with numerous jewels,
shone with hues of lapis lazuli and crystals,
was due to the illumination of Buddha's light.8
The brilliance of the Buddha's light is often said to be indescribable. In the Sutra of the Contemplation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, written in various versions between the 5th and 13th centuries CE, we read that "no words can fully describe [the brilliance] of this light." That having been said, the author(s) go on to say that "the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is a billion times as [bright as] the jambunada gold of the Yama heavens." Further,
The Buddha of Immeasurable Life
has eighty-four thousand features;
each feature has eighty-four thousand
each secondary attribute sends forth
eighty-four thousand rays of light;
each ray of light shines out over
the world of the ten quarters;
and those sentient beings
who are mindful of the Buddha
are embraced [by that light],
never to be abandoned.9
In the 8th century texts of the Mahayana -- a branch of Buddhism meaning the "Greater Vehicle" -- the light of Buddha is said to be "beautiful," "extremely powerful," "incomparable," of "infinite splendour" and "infinite brilliance."10 The body of Buddha issues forth "brilliant rays," and is called the "King of Light."11 These images were applied to a mythological account of the Buddha's birth. When the newborn Buddha was first "gazed at, though of such surpassing brightness, he attracted all eyes like the moon. With the radiant splendour of his limbs, he extinguished like the sun the splendour of the lamps; with his beautiful hue as of precious gold he illumined all the quarters of space."12
The Flower Ornament Scripture, written between 359 and 710 CE, contains an overwhelming number of references to the Buddha as a Divine Light. Most of the references are in verse. To quote just a few examples:
The Buddha's great light of knowledge
Illumines all lands in ten directions...
The Buddha-body is peerless, it has no compare;
Its light shines throughout ten directions...
Traversing all realms of existence for countless ages,
His light is everywhere as pure as space...
Emanating inconceivable nets of lights,
Everywhere purifying all conscious beings...
All the lights in the world
Cannot match the light of a single pore of the Buddha --
This is how inconceivable the Buddha's light is...13
The great ocean of worlds has no bounds;
Its circumference of jewels
is pure and multicolored...
Made of masses of diamonds,
Also raining beautiful jewels,
Their jewel atmospheres
are unique and different,
Radiating pure light beautifying everywhere.14
Buddha emanates a great light...
That light touches all with its glow,
Pervading the whole cosmos.15
The Buddha sits on the site of enlightenment
Pure and clear is his great radiant light,
Like a thousand suns emerging
Illumining all over space...
Illuminating the world
With light that has no end.
Behold the Buddha's body
With webs of light so pure...
Filling the ten directions.16
I see the great pure light
Of Buddha's ocean of worlds
Calmly realizing enlightenment
Pervading the whole cosmos.
The Buddha's body emanates great light
With physical forms boundless and totally pure,
Filling all lands like clouds...
From each hair pore appear clouds of light
Filling all space, emitting great sound:
All dark places are illumined,
Causing the pains of hells to disappear.17
One light illumines boundlessly
Filling all lands in the ten directions,
Causing all worlds
to gain great brightness...18
The scripture goes on to say that the "Buddha is a boundless treasury of light." A great assembly "all saw the Buddha's body emit a hundred trillion infinities of inconceivable great lights."19
Many other Buddhist texts also identify the Buddha as a super- brilliant being of light. In the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, we find that the "Buddha's radiance none shall be able to succeed."20 The Buddha's body is said to be of a "wonderful brightness."21 The "brilliance of a trillion suns, moons and pearls" are "outshone by the pure lights emanating from the mouth of Sakyamuni Buddha."22 Similarly,
The lights of the World-Honoured One
Illuminate all the countless Buddha-lands
Throughout the ten directions.
The brilliance of the sun, [and] the moon...
Cannot bear comparison
With the brilliance of the Tathagata (Buddha).23
Very interesting in the context of near-death experiences is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, written sometime in the 8th century CE. After we die, we are told, we can expect to encounter the "Clear Light of Reality." When we do, we are advised to "try to abide in that state." The "radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality" is "naturally void... the All-Good."24 The Tibetan text tells us that "in that state... being experienced by thee,"
in an unbearable intensity,
Voidness and Brightness inseparable, --
The Voidness bright by nature
and the Brightness by nature void...
The Brightness [is] inseparable
from the Voidness.25
Further, we are told that
Thine own consciousness,
shining, void and inseparable
from the Great Body of Radiance,
hath no birth, nor death,
and is the Immutable Light
-- Amitabha Buddha...
Recognizing the voidness of thine
own intellect to be Buddhahood,
and looking upon it as being thine
own consciousness, is to keep thyself
in the divine mind of the Buddha.26
There is not much doubt that supreme happiness is felt when one encounters this "Buddha-light." The Lotus Sutra asks, "why from the white tuft between his eyebrows of our leader and teacher does this great light shine all around?" The same work answers that this was done in order to "adorn and purify" the world, and to fill believers with "joy and delight."27 The Book of the Dead tells us that the Clear Light is "blissful."28 A Mahayana text says that "His light, pure and immense, makes all sentient beings feel joyful in body and mind."29
The Flower Ornament Scripture details this theme extensively. Seeing the "Pure Light... gives rise to joy." The appearance of the Buddha causes "all to give up suffering and attain peace and bliss." The exceptional joy and happiness of those who encounter the Buddha is told throughout this sutra:
The Buddha in vast eons past
Amassed an ocean of joy, endlessly deep;
Therefore all who see him are glad...
The Buddha showers the rain of truth without bound,
Able to make the witnesses greatly rejoice;
Supreme roots of goodness are born from this.
Such is the realization of Exquisite Light...
All who see or hear receive benefit,
Causing them all to dance for joy...
In the past Buddha cultivated an ocean of joy --
Vast, boundless, beyond all measure;
Therefore those who see are all delighted...
To save all beings in all the worlds:
This is the liberation of Blissful Happiness.
I see the independent power of Buddha,
His light filling the universe...
Causing delusions to vanish and joy to abound:
This is what's seen by Immutable Light.30
Illumined by the Buddha's light,
All beings are peacefully happy;
All pains of existence cleared away,
Their minds are full of joy...
Everyone's paying reverent respect,
All greatly joyful at heart...
Gazing at the King of Truth.31
Those people who are "doing all sorts of bad things and suffering all sorts of misery and pain" are "being hindered by this from seeing the Buddha." Therefore the enlightened should help others "attain ultimate bliss... immeasurable bliss... undying bliss, and the bliss of universal knowledge."32 This achievement ends suffering -- the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The end of suffering, as one can imagine, is ultimate joy. This final liberation from pain goes hand-in-hand with the point at which we encounter the divine light:
There is a supreme concentration
called peace and bliss
Which can universally save
and liberate all sentient beings,
Radiating a great light, inconceivable,
Causing those who see it to all be pacified.33
1. Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning (N.Y.: Weatherhill, 1979), 145.
2. Shin-jen-mei, trans. and ed. by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth S. McCandless, in Buddhism and Zen (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1953), 55.
3. In W. Woodville Rockhill, Udanavarga: A Collection of Verses from the Buddhist Canon (London: Trubner & Co., 1883), 199.
4. Hsuan Hua, Amitabha Sutra (San Francisco: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1974), 31.
5. "Innumerable Meanings Sutra," in The Three Fold Lotus Sutra, trans. by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tamura, and Kojiro Miyasaka (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1986), 6-7.
6. The Diamond Sutra, trans. by Nicholas Poppe (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1971), 145.
7. The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra, vol. 6, trans. by Kumarajiva of Yao Ch'in (San Francisco: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1980), 1116.
8. Lotus Sutra, trans. by Burton Watson (NY: Columbia University Press, 1993), 18.
9. Trans. by Ryukoku University Translation Centre, under the direction of Meiji Yamada (Kyoto: Ryukoku University, 1984), 35, 57 & 59).
10. "The Land of Bliss," in The Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosha, trans. by E.B. Cowell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 28-29.
11. "Amitayur-Dyana Sutra: Meditation on Buddha-Amitayus," in Cowell, 180-185.
12. Cowell, 6.
13. "The Wonderful Adornments of the Leaders of the World," in The Flower Ornament Scripture, vol. 1, trans. by Thomas Cleary (Boulder, Col.: Shambala, 1984), 82-83.
14. "The Flower Bank World," Creary, 204.
15. "The Flower Bank World," Creary, 251.
16. "Vairocana," Creary, 257.
17. "Vairocana," Creary, 262-264.
18. "Ten Practices," Creary, 483.
19. "Ascent to the Palace of the Tushita Heaven," Creary, 510-511.
20. Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, trans. by Leon Hurvitz (NY: Columbia University Press, 1976), 127.
21. W.E. Soothill, The Lotus of the Wonderful Law (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1930), 242.
22. "On Emptiness," in Garma C.C. Chang (ed.), A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections form the Maharatnakuta Sutra (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983), 92.
23. Chang, 18.
24. W.Y. Evans-Wentz (ed.), The Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 92-95.
25. Evans-Wentz, 167.
26. Evans-Wentz, 96.
27. Watson, 7.
28. Evans-Wentz, 150.
29. "On Pure Land," in Chang, 348.
30. Cleary, 84-128.
31. Cleary, 258.
32. Cleary, 534-535.
33. Cleary, 346.
34. Chang, 18-19.
35. Chang, 192-193.
36. Chang, 203.
37. Chang, 346-347.
38. Shurangama Sutra, vol. 5, trans. by Bhikshuni Heng Ch'ih (Talmage, Ca.: Dharma Realm Buddhist University, 1981), 60.
39. Cleary, 75.
40. Cleary, 354-355.
41. Evans-Wentz, 90-91.
42. Evans-Wentz, 125; see also 125n.
43. Evans-Wentz, 135.
44. Evans-Wentz, 176.
45. Evans-Wentz, 199.
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