Moonlight: A Buddhist Poem

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on

The founder of the Jodo-Shu sect of Buddhism, a 12th-century Buddhist monk named Honen, once composed a poem titled tsukikagé (月かげ, “Moonlight”). What follows is a rough translation on my part:

月かげのTsuki-kagé-noThere is no village
いたらぬ里はitaranu sato wathat the light of moon
なけれどもnakeredomodoes not shine,
眺むる人のnagamuru hito nobut it dwells in the hearts
心にぞすむkokoro ni zosumuof those who see it.

The “light of the moon” here is meant to symbolize the light of the Buddha, namely Amida Buddha. Light is a common motif in Buddhist art, depicting both wisdom to banish away the darkness of ignorance, and also goodwill to all living beings.

Amida Buddha and his attendant bodhisattvas welcoming Chūjōhime, Taima Temple Mandala,
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Artist Unknown, Japan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea is that Amida Buddha’s light shines upon all beings and all places, as explained in the Buddhist text, the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life:

“The radiant light of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life is dazzling brilliant, illuminating all the buddha lands of the ten directions, and there is nowhere it is not heard of.”

From The Three Pure Land Sutras published by the Jodo Shu Research Institute, translation by Karen J. Mack

Further, the sutra explains in the previous section:

“Those sentient beings who encounter this light will have the three hindrances1 eliminated, become amenable in body and mind, leap with joy and their hearts will give rise to good. Should they suffer hardship in the three realms of defilement,2 when they see this radiant light, they will all attain relief and not again suffer this pain.”

Thus, the light of Amida Buddha shines everywhere, but people may not necessarily know it. Those who do encounter the light experience a transformation within. It may not be obvious at first, but it as one of Honen’s disciples once taught, it melts ice to become warm water.

Thus, Honen’s poem is about how Amida’s goodwill and wisdom reaches out to all beings and all places, and even if people do not see it, it is still there. Further, those who do see it are changed by it, even if they are not aware of it at first.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 The three hinrances in Buddhism are greed, hatred and ignroance.

2 The three realms of defilement is another term for lower states of rebirth that one might fall into: animals, hungry ghosts, and the hell realms.

Published by Doug

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