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
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
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
|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
|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