Mercy of the True Law / Douglas Penick

Prince Shotoku Taishi (572-622) was the legendary hero who, at the beginning of literacy in Japan, made Buddhism and Confucian governmental principals two of the foundation stones of Japanese culture. He wrote the earliest commentaries on Buddhist Sutras and commissioned the first histories in Japanese. He is also credited with beginning the traditions of Noh theater, archery, tea Ceremony, sculpture and architecture, among other cultural forms


It is afternoon. The sky is pale, glowing slightly with a half covered watery sun. It is early spring and the few trees still alive look like pale green fans. Mist drifts across the air.

Exhausted, I am lying on a rumpled bed beside a wall. I want to fall asleep but something holds me back. Suddenly I am convinced that there is a book in the next room that I need to read. I can see it.

It is very clear to me. This book is old, bound in leather but not ostentatious. It is a book that combines poems, calculations and schematic drawings. It works differently from any other book I know, and yet it seems I understand. Though it is unfamiliar, somehow I know what to expect.

As I look at the text from line to line, a picture will form in my eye, and I will enter an alien world of senses. A new understanding will open in my mind, and a feeling I’ve never experiences will fill my heart. I will inhabit an unfamiliar world. The numbers and drawing are keys to understanding the world as it rises from the page.

Even lying on the bed, I can see the book open of its own accord. What the book is doing is strange. It is from somewhere else. It conveys a pattern, an order I do not know. It is so enticing, so disorienting. I… fall asleep.



In the winter of his thirty-ninth year, Prince Shōtoku Taishi moves into his palace and begins construction of a shrine hall to be called, The Hall of Dreams.

He and Empress Suiko decide to celebrate the arrival of Buddhadharma in Japan in the next spring. Shōtoku Taishi says:

“It is said in the Srīmala Devi sutra: the Buddha may appear as a man or a woman depending on the needs of sentient beings. It is said in the same sutra that the law will flourish if the ruler is a Queen. Thus, with Empress Suiko, the dharma will flourish.”

The Empress replies:

“I have vowed that no one will be denied the mercy of the true law.”

On that day, the Empress takes the refuge and Bodhisattva vows. The earth trembles as she took these vows, thunder shakes the sky and a great rain washed the realm.



It is a cold spring day. We rise early and make our way through darkness as mist rises from the grass. We pass through the wooden gates and climb the stairs that lead to the new temple. The high carved doors are open, and the gilded shrine glows with oil lamps. Monks show us to our assigned places in the shrine hall. The hall still smells of cedar. Moving between its rows of tall unpainted pillars towering into the shadows above, we feel we are in a forest. We wait. Young monks place offerings of fruit and tea on the shrine. A priest enters, makes prostrations to the Buddha, lights lamps and incense. We wait for a long time until the sun has risen, and it is morning.



A small bell, then a drum sound rhythmically. Slowly the procession enters amid clouds of sandalwood incense. The abbot in orange and gold robes, the senior monks, then the younger ones, all with shiny, freshly shaven heads, all wearing new black robes walk in slowly, hands folded, heads bowed. Then preceded by a young monk carrying a text comes Prince Shōtoku Taishi. He too has shaved his head. He wears a yellow silk monastic robe. He seems deep in contemplation. Behind him come all the high officials of the court. They stand at their places as does the Prince before a gilded to throne to the shrine’s left.

A flurry of movement, the scent of orchid perfume, and we know that the Empress and her attendants have taken their places behind the white silk screen to the right of the shrine.

The Prince lights more incense on the shrine, prostrates to the Buddha, sits and the rest all sit. The Prince, puts his hands together, bows to the Empress, then to the others, arrangrs his robes, and opens the text on the lectern before him. For some time, he is unmoving, silent. He looks up and clears his throat.

He speaks in his high clear voice. At first, we feel awkward. He reads part of the text then makes short comments. It is not easy to understand. The discourse lasts until sunset.



The Prince says:

“Queen Srīmala coursed through innumerable dimensions of time and countless forms of being. This was a mind stream flowing endlessly to the awakened state. Queen Srīmala then found herself in India with this name by which we know her. She came into the presence of Gautama Buddha, the Awakened One.”

“Queen Srīmala praised the Awakened one with these words:

‘The awakened ones do not dwell in the limits of time: the awakened ones dwell beyond any limit because there is no limit to their compassion. This is beyond understanding, knowledge or comprehension. Because the actions of the awakened ones are as infinite as the number of beings, for them there is no cause, no effect nor any limitation whatsoever’

Prince Shōtoku Taishi says:

“Queen Srīmala had no uncertainty or doubt. She took ten vows renouncing all reliance on the distinction between self and other. She made three vows to realize, expand and purify the awakened state in all times and circumstances. Queen Srīmala cut through all the preoccupations life and death. Her vows penetrated all realms and times like a sword cutting through a paper wall.

“When she had made her vows and clarified her aspirations, when she proclaimed her understanding, suddenly flowers poured down from the sky and covered the earth like banks of snow. With that, the Buddha gave her permission to teach as she wished.”



The shrine room is still. People are waiting. Their minds are drifting, some on the verge of sleep. But there is something else. Something faintly disturbing.

A monk strikes the gong. It is like a stone throne into a pond. The ripples of sound expand. They take our thoughts with them, away from any center, on and outward as they dissolve. “Look,” says the Prince, “This is the Buddha’s face.”

The Prince now speaks according to the teachings of Queen Srīmala. The space around us seems to change. It is somehow more vast, and our lives seem somehow less solid.




We listen and wonder: what are these sounds?

We listen and feel oppressed, straining to understand foreign words.

“Tathatagatagharbha. This is what Queen Srīmala received from the Buddha. It is what she expounds”

We sit still and we listen.

Shōtoku Taishi explains:

“Concepts are a veil that conceals, limits, shapes what you think is reality.

The Buddha has gone past the veil of conceptualization.

“Emotions are a veil coloring each passing thought, making it seem real.

The Buddha has gone past the veil of conflicting emotions.

“The Buddha, the Tathagata is one who has gone beyond illusions,

The Tathagata is the mind that is continuously present and irreversibly awake.”


We feel half- asleep but slowly waking. It is as if we are in a dark room and see, moving silently under the door sill from the corridor beyond, the diffuse glow of lantern light.

Shōtoku Taishi continues:

“Garba means womb or embryo or seed,

Tathagatagarba is the womb, embryo or seed of the Awakened One.

“As the womb of the Buddhas:

Tathagatagarba is the totality of space.

As the embryo of the Buddhas:

Tathagatagarba is complete, fully endowed with the characteristics and powers of the Awakened One.

As seed of the Buddhas

Thathagatagarba is the path that begins in every instant, pure or impure.”



We listen carefully.

We feel as if someone is placing a warm stone into each of our hands.

Shōtoku Taishi explains:

“Tathagatagarba pervades birth and death,

But is not born, does not die,

It is the permanent, stable, the changeless.

“It is the sphere of experience of the all Tathagatas, all the Awakened Ones.

“Tathagatagarba is the reality of all experience.

“It is the mirror of mind.

It is the face, your face before you were born.

It is the restlessness of searching and its end.

When you gaze into the mirror,

Tathagatagarba shows itself.


We are silent. It is not the words. The Prince holds up his hand, palm out. We recognize this moment. We cannot hold it. Our minds falter. We cannot follow.


At the request of the Empress, Suiko, Prince Shōtoku Taishi lectures for ten days on the Sutra of Queen Srīmala. The entire court and government have assembled to listen. The Prince has studied and meditated on this, among many other Buddhist texts. This is the fruition of many years commitment.

He says:

“Here is the mirror you hold before you. It is unbiased, unchanging. It has no notions of beauty or wisdom or time.

It is uncontaminated by grasping. You hold up the mirror: you see a face and a background. You cannot hold them. They change again even though the mirror has never changed or known change.

“The mirror is the Buddha’s face.”



The mirror, the image within move as our attention shifts. We look at our eyes, left then right, our ears, our cheeks, our hair, then chin, then back to our nose, turning our heads a bit to catch a glimpse of our profile. We can’t catch it. It does not stay.

Behind, part is light, part in shadow. There is the blue tinge of morning, and through the window, a red maple tree, a wisp of cloud, a gray rock. We hear a trickle of water in a brook but we can’t see it. We hear voices far off.

“You want to know what you are. Moment by moment, the face in the mirror is so quickly replaced by another. It cannot be stopped.”

Prince Shōtoku Taishi offers incense. A gong rings. The Empress departs. The Prince leaves the hall. A gong rings again. We leave the shrine hall and walk into the warm evening.

The red and gold and yellow of the setting sun, the turquoise and lavender in the sky coalesce as thousands of lotus flowers and flower petals filling the sky. Like a blizzard, they fall to earth covering the ground and floating on the surface of lakes and streams, speechless.



Prince Shōtoku Taishi writes down this discourse. It is the first book written in Japan.

We read it still, these words he spoke, and follow them, still seeking.

Douglas Penick has written, opera libretti (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (NFB/Canada: Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rdMing Emperor (Journey of the North Star),and about spiritual searchers (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant for the Witter Bynner Foundation.. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’sA Terrace In Rome. Shorter works appeared in Agni, Chicago Quarterly, Cahiers de L’Herne, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Tricycle, Utne Reader, etc.






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  1. Nathan AM Smith

    Amazing!!! I really love this!


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