Buddhism of the Heart - Selections

Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness


264 pages, 6 x 9 inches


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Amida’s Birth, Our Birth

Long ago—so long ago that we might say it was before the beginning of time as we know it—Amida became the buddha of boundless light and infinite life. These things, boundless light and infinite life, are, among other things, symbols of perfect wisdom and compassion. For eons before Amida became enlightened, this buddha-to-be was a bodhisattva named Dharma Storehouse, who spent his life accumulating enough merit that he would be able to share it with all living creatures and thus bring about the awakening of every single creature in the universe.

When Dharma Storehouse became Amida Buddha, the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss sprang into being, powered by the force of the profound vows the bodhisattva made when he began his career. This Pure Land is the ultimate nature of reality, and stepping into that realm is entering nirvana and being freed of all suffering and delusion. Although we are all foolish, self-centered people, full of unwarranted pride and prone to harmful ways, Amida’s boundless light embraces us all and never abandons us, no matter what we do.

It is always pursuing us, working to jolt us out of our egocentricity and wake us up to the wonder of this world that is ultimately “empty” of unchanging nature and yet minutely interconnected on every level.

When we finally stop relying on the leaky vessel of the false self and float instead on the warm ocean of Amida’s compassion, we are liberated, just as we are, from the foibles of mortal existence. We are filled up with joy, and with a heart bursting with thankfulness, we proclaim our gratitude by saying “Namu Amida Butsu,” intoning the name of that power beyond the ego-self which has opened us to true and real life. While our circumstances may be difficult, there is a touchstone of underlying peace and assurance that remains with us through the good and bad times, and when this life finishes and we leave our karmic attachments behind, we are welcomed fully into the Pure Land of Bliss.

This is the sacred story, recorded as a tale told by the Buddha in one of the first Mahayana Sutras, at the center of Pure Land Buddhism. It is a story of how we achieve our freedom and are awakened in this life, and how awakening is perfected when our life is over and we go beyond form and dualistic, ego-centered thinking. It is a promise of escape from our woes, of peace for our loved ones, and of reconciliation with strangers, enemies, and all forms of life. It is a restatement of the fundamental Buddhist truths in a mythopoetic form, one that puts in positive terms the things that the earliest Buddhist tradition described negatively, in terms of absence, such as “emptiness” and “extinction.”

The Pure Land tradition goes back to India, to the earliest days of the Mahayana tradition, and it has spread from there to many parts of Asia and on to the West. Millions of people alive today experience their lives within the symbolic universe of this story, seeking to embody humility, trustingness, benevolence, simplicity, and pure happiness—even amid suffering.

This story has had a profound impact not only on the spiritual lives of such people, but also on the art, literature, politics, social structure, and many other aspects of Asian culture, especially in the eastern part of the continent. Far more than smaller monastic traditions like Zen or Tendai, it is the Pure Land tradition, shared by commoners and royalty alike, that has formed the basic Buddhist backbone of cultures like Japan and China for centuries.

It is amazing really, when you think about it.

A story, just a story, has so much power to move individual hearts and entire nations. It is just a tale told over and again, ancient and yet still alive today, continuing the work of liberation that the Buddha put into motion in ancient India. The story goes on and on, inviting new generations to take it up and discover its riches.

            And every time someone hears the story and feels his or her heart respond with awe, Amida is born once more and the Pure Land is reopened to welcome home a long-wandering friend.

Amida’s Nembutsu

There are many Shin temples in North America and Hawaii, as well as some in South America, Europe, and elsewhere— to say nothing of Japan, of course. Each is its own unique community of people, and Shin in different regions tends to be influenced by language, culture, and so on. But one thing you will find everywhere, regardless of where you go, is people saying the nembutsu: “Namu Amida Butsu.” It may be a formal chant conducted during services, or a mumbling under the breath as one reflects on the Shin teachings. Yet however it is performed, the nembutsu is close to the heart of every Pure Land Buddhist.

This shared practice is what holds Shin practitioners together all over the world as a single body—it is said in the tradition that all people who say nembutsu are part of the same family. And in fact nembutsu is practiced in most forms of Buddhism, not just the officially Pure Land-based schools, so that is a large family indeed. The words are simple to understand—“Namu Amida Butsu” more or less translates as “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”—but there are many interpretations of what those words mean in relation to ourselves.

In Shin Buddhism, we don’t think of nembutsu as a mantra, a prayer, or a formal practice designed to generate enlightenment. Shinran, the founder of Shin, had a deep understanding of human nature, an understanding that arose from awareness of his own limitations as a person bound by karmic circumstances beyond the possibility of full comprehension. He realized that any practice that strives for individual attainment, individual buddhahood—even practicing the nembutsu—is a possible avenue for further ego attachment. The problem is that we can begin to congratulate ourselves over how many times we’ve said nembutsu, or obsess over whether we should be saying it more, or feel pride that our chanting is so beautiful, and so on. Really, there are an infinite number of ways that the ego can spin traps, and spiritual practice is a fertile area for such foolishness. This applies not only to nembutsu but also to meditation, precepts, and virtually any aspect of religious life that we can imagine.

So instead, Shinran taught that we should think of nembutsu as the practice of Amida Buddha, not as our own. When we say nembutsu, we are allowing Amida’s practice to flow through us. Nembutsu is therefore something in which we participate, not something that we produce—it is something we receive from beyond the ego-self. When we understand that our saying of the nembutsu is actually the call of reality itself reaching out to us, then there is nothing on which to base pride or shame. However many nembutsus we say or however we say them, they arise from beyond the self. This identification of Amida and nembutsu is so deep in the Shin tradition that I have even heard Shin ministers say that there is no Amida apart from the nembutsu.

Namu Amida Butsu.

Once Upon a Time

Let me tell you a story about a great man who lived about 2,500 years ago. This man was born to a loving mother and father in a family of considerable power and wealth, who named him Siddhartha. His mother passed away soon after his birth, but his stepmother continued to care for him as if he were her own son. He grew up with all his needs taken care of: people fed him, clothed him, stimulated his mind, encouraged him to seek righteousness and truth (as they understood it, of course), and gave him lots of love. Eventually, a marriage was arranged for him to a beautiful and loving woman, and she bore him a son. As a member of the royal family, he existed literally on the work and generosity and love of the entire nation. Everything he had and was, he received from others.

As an adult, he wished to understand life beyond the simple fulfillment of his own desires. Venturing forth from the rarefied environment of palace life, he learned from the life of commoners the truths of old age, sickness, and death, and from a wandering holy man he learned of the age-old path of spiritual pursuit. Siddhartha’s mind was opened to the suffering of other people, and suddenly all he could think of was his wish to end this suffering, for himself and all others. He left the palace, and was borne away by his faithful steed and horseman, till he crossed the Anoma River and left the world he knew behind.

For six years he wandered from place to place, learning from others. He learned how to fast, how to meditate, how to mortify the flesh. Siddhartha strove mightily to achieve his own enlightenment for himself, to understand the Self, which was the highest spiritual pursuit in ancient India and believed by many to be the path to release. Finally, as his body wasted away nearly to nothing and his efforts to quell suffering once and for all proved fruitless, he gave up his attachment to asceticism and the idea that his own efforts alone could free him.

Siddhartha went down to the stream and bathed. Its flowing waters cleansed and supported him, and as he bathed, a young outcaste girl offered him a meal. The food nourished and restored him, and with a mind of gratitude he walked through the forest. A young outcaste boy appeared and offered him fresh grass for a meditation seat, and sitting down beneath the sheltering branches of a tree, he relaxed back into an easy and natural state of reflection. Now that he had stopped trying to win enlightenment through his own extreme effort, his mind was clear and he began to see into the nature of all things.

He saw how in innumerable past existences he had traveled toward this moment, supported by the work and kindness of others, and learned to perfect the virtues by helping them in turn. He saw into the emptiness of all things, their interdependent and mutual co-arising, and saw that there was in fact no essential Self after all. A rainstorm arose, and the giant Serpent King spread his cobra’s hood to protect the seated man. The evil god Mara appeared to frighten and tempt Siddhartha. When this failed, he challenged the young man’s right to liberation. Siddhartha simply bent and touched the earth with his hand. Mother Earth trembled and sprang up, wringing the ocean from her hair and washing Mara away. Siddhartha sat serenely, his eye on the rising morning star, and he came ever after to be known as the Buddha, the One Who Awakened.

The Buddha became the Buddha because of his father and mother, because of his courtiers and the peasants in the fields, because of the horse that he rode to the forest, the sages who encouraged his pursuits, the ascetics who taught him mortification and also ultimately let him see that mortification isn’t the answer, the stream that bathed him, the girl who fed him and the food, the boy and the grass, the tree, the Serpent King, and the earth, because of the star that rose and shone just-as-it-was, because of the air that Siddhartha breathed in as he sat, because of the sun that provided him heat and nourished the plants he ate—everything everywhere came together to produce the Buddha. And most of all, the Buddha became the Buddha because he was already held by the liberated nature of reality to begin with—he only discovered what had been the true state of himself and all things, all beings all along: vast emptiness, nothing set aside and holy, nothing outside of the interconnected embrace of reality.

The Buddha did not discover something unique and special about himself. He did not become something different from other things or people. He awakened to the true nature of all things (himself included) as liberated suchness. This awakening came after he had been supported in innumerable ways by countless beings and conditions, and after he had ceased to strive after enlightenment and relaxed back into his natural state. As a much later Japanese Zen thinker named Dogen said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the ‘self.’ To forget the ‘self ’ is to be enlightened by all things.”

I’m not saying that the Buddha put out no effort. But effort too is empty of independent-nature and arises interdependently from the contingency of all things. Siddhartha could only put out “his” effort after and while being supported by the entire universe. Likewise, our own efforts toward deeper insight and understanding can only take place within an infinite matrix of supportive actions by others.

How lucky we are to live in such an open-ended universe, where we can receive what we need from others and contribute toward the happiness and awakening of one another.


How to cite this document:
© Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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