28 December 2023
Resident Priest and Managing Director
Going into and coming out of the Winter Solstice is an annual experience which human beings have endured from the beginning of our time on this planet, and one which we have endowed with special meaning from that beginning. It is said that fear of the unpredictability of the natural world, along with the mystery of death, is the origin of religion. Of course the solstices are predictable, but there must have been an underlying fear that the sun just might not come back.
Certainly here in British Columbia this is a dark time of year. The days get darker and darker, while grey skies and abundant rain plunge us deeper into a state of light depravation. Thankfully, we have seasonal displays of lights and decorations to help keep our spirits from sinking too low. It is no wonder that Christmas occurs at this time and that the metaphor of Christ as the light of the world is used. Prayers and hope for the return of the light at this time have been part of the Zeitgeist of every era.
Pure Land Buddhism focuses on one particular Buddha who has two different names in Sanskrit. No one really knows why there are two names. One of the names is Amitāyus, which means immeasurable life; the other is Amitābha, meaning immeasurable light.
Light as a representation of spirituality has been used by religions and cultures throughout history. In Buddhism light is a metaphor for the dispelling of ignorance, ignorance (avidya: without light) being the fundamental root of all confusion and suffering in our lives. Our vision, or the way we see the world, is clouded by ignorance and its accompanying “poisons,” craving and anger. The light is there, but because it is obscured by these “klesha,” we are not even aware of it.
Buddhism travelled from India to China and then on to Korea and Japan. But first it went west, to the area of modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan. This area has always been a crossroads of cultures and civilizations, a major hub that connected the various “silk roads.” It was an area where East really did meet West, where Greeks, Persians, Romans, Kushans and numerous other groups met and, more often than not, fought each other for dominance. Religion was also caught up in the political struggles, but it was inevitable that some degree of mutual influencing would occur among Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Zoroastrians.
There were Greek settlers in the area long before Alexander invaded and made it a part of his empire, and when the Kushans, a group with its origins in the nomadic tribes of the northeast, took control of Bactria, they adopted the Greek religious cults along with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. The Kushan emperor Kanishka in particular was instrumental in aiding the spread of Mahayana Buddhism across the silk road. This is when statues of buddhas appeared draped in clothing similar to what is seen in Greek sculpture. This is a far cry from the early days of Buddhism, when it was felt that it was useless to create an image of one who had passed into the final great nirvana. But times had change and Buddhism was transitioning into a world religion, one for which the people of Bactria, under the influence of Greek sculpture, created a physical form of religious expression which was then carried on to the Far East.
Along with sculpted images of buddhas, scriptures were formulated in which the visualization of idealized buddhas in their lands became the focus. And it was the light radiating from these buddha figures and from the various adornments of their lands that took a prominent place in the visualizations. Light is everywhere in the sutras that deal with Amida and his Pure Land.
There has long been speculation about where the idea of a Buddha of Immeasurable Light came from, or how/if it was influenced by, say, the Persians. We may never know for sure. But today, we of the Japanese Pure Land traditions are the inheritors of a Buddhism with roots in India, but which spent time developing in the city centers and monasteries of the Silk Road. In order to become a world religion, Buddhism had to not only leave its homeland but to evolve in a way that was meaningful to all. So it is not surprising that such a buddha would become the universal symbol of the wisdom and compassion of the Mahayana.
There is no village which is not reached by the light of the moon
But it dwells within the heart of the one who gazes upon it Hōnen