Dark Night of the Sentient Being

Raymond Lam


A while ago I read a post on Facebook, titled Dark Night, which was sharing a passage written by the pristine Pure Land master Ven. Jingzong. “In the silent wilds of the mountains, where there is a light from a window, there is vitality, even if the place is surrounded by abandoned graves. In our benighted world, if someone recites Namo Amitabha Buddha, the lamp in her heart lights up and glistens through its own window,” he wrote.

I like the almost Gothic image that the English translation of Master Jingzong’s words provides. The mountains of the “silent wilds” conjure up a lonely, uninhabited wilderness reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, in a literary age when Romanticism and fear of the Industrial Revolution prompted writers to turn to nature and the fantastic. Then there is the protagonist in her little cottage in this remote land, shivering into the dark hours. Worse yet, these abandoned graves, reminders of solitude and death, surround her abode. Do the tombstones mark the names of past generations in her family? Has she lived in the mountains all her life, or is she a just a recent tenant? And what for? Hypothetical questions, to be sure, but I feel they surely have some symbolic weight. You can imagine her huddled alone in this little cottage, desperately hoping for some warmth and light. It’s not until she actually lights that lamp or ignites that candle that we, the observers, breathe a sigh of relief: ah, so there’s the firelight by her window. So it’s just a cold, miserable night like it always is in the Scottish mountains. It will pass and dawn will come.

The darkness the woman surely must have felt mired in before invoking the name of Amitabha reminds me of a Carmelite expression. “The dark night of the soul” was first coined by Christian mystics like Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila. It refers to a spiritual crisis; unlike a literal evening, it can last for weeks, months, or years. In the secular sense, it is a great crisis of faith concerning anything: one’s family, one’s best friend, one’s community—often, stimulated by one or more devastating events, or a creeping yet unshakeable feeling that life has gone (or always has been) horribly wrong. Personal experiences of a dark night are diverse. It is a time of trial and affliction that can strike in unpredictable ways. It could be connected to a personal loss or betrayal but it can come to people who have no reason to be unhappy. It might involve struggling with very dark thoughts about unskillful actions. It is a very difficult time that challenges everything you believe in.

How many of us have experienced such dark nights of the soul? I suspect a good deal have. There are occasions when we wonder where it all went wrong, why we have so many dark thoughts in our head, or hatred for the world or directed against ourselves. The dark night renders us helpless because we can’t simply remove it by addressing this or that problem. There is no medicine or solution for it. Worse yet, our meditations or prayers don’t help much either. Our rescue must come from a universe not of this impure one: a Pure Land. The dark night is also an apt metaphor for the fact that Amitabha Buddha is the lord of Infinite Light, within which there can be no darkness or night at all. I’ve saved Master Jingzong’s concluding sentence for last because I think it’s the most powerful: “‘A living being is in the cottage,’ vows Amitabha Buddha. ‘I shall go see her, fortify her and safeguard her until daybreak.'”

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