Nembutsu, Nembutsu, Nembutsu Everywhere!
When people attend our services the one thing that stands out is the repeated recitation of “ namo amida butsu.”  Sometimes those visiting for the first time feel awkward reciting the nembutsu in public. Or if there are new members, it often takes time for them to feel comfortable doing so. Is it a mantra? Is it a magical phrase? Is it a prayer that gets you whatever you want? Does it forgive sins? It is in Japanese, so maybe only Japanese people are privileged to say it? 
Recently, someone from China visited our temple. They said “nomo omita fat” with a special intonation I did not manage to master. (By the way the word ‘fat’ in Chinese dose not mean the same as a similar word in English. In Chinese ‘fat’ too has a special intonation that lends it the meaning ‘Buddha’.)  

At that point one of the newer members asked which one, the Japanese or the Chinese, was the ‘real’ nembutsu? 

It is important to remember that in the early history of Shin Buddhism there were many forms of the Nembustu. Shinran himself, at my reading, had at least three forms, maybe more. When he lay dying, he was reciting a longer form. These longer forms involved taking refuge in the Buddhas of the ten directions—as we chant in the Sanbujo. There were forms where the name Amida was spoken in its full form as Buddha of Infinite Light and Buddha of Infinite Life. Amida is a special word that contains these two aspects-Infinite Light and Infinite Life. These were in at one time considered to be two separate Buddhas, so the word Amida is a kind of two-for-one word.  

The word nama also has multiple meanings—reverence, refuge, reliance, praise, mindful or even mind-full. The word Buddha originally meant awake. So the whole phrase namo amida butsu could have many variations. So, which is the real nembutsu? 

Mindful of Amida Buddha, Mindful of Infinite Life and Light Buddha, Mindful of Infinite Life and Light Awake, Reverence for Amida Buddha, Reverence for Life and Light Awake, Refuge in Amida Buddha and so forth. It is actually fun to play with the words to see how many forms we can come up with, just like a musician playing variations on a theme. This is important, because Rennyo reminded us in the 1400’s that if we recite the nembutsu, but don’t understand what we are doing, we are just moving our lips, nothing more.  

Remember, too, that the Infinite Life part of the word Amida is not an abstract philosophical concept. It means the blood-food-fur of everyday life as we live it.  The Infinite Light of the word Amida includes the warmth of the light as loving compassion, and the brightness of the light as insight. So the deep psychology of the nembutsu experience combines reverence for the awakening of life combined with infinite caring and infinite insight. 

The nembutsu is an experience where boundless compassion and insight embrace life as we actually live it. It is the crossroads where the infinite and the finite meet and embrace. This is the shinjin experience from which the nembutsu arises. All further nembutsu is the nembutsu of gratitude for the grace of this embrace. This is the Other Power Way.  

One time during a Sunday service, I wrote down about 10 different forms of the nembutsu, including the long and difficult Sanskrit version, the Chinese Version and about 8 English versions. Naturally, our tradition Shin version of namo amida butsu was included as well. Each version was recited by 5 people sitting together in a group. When I rang the gong we all recited the various forms together for 5 minutes. It was a beautiful chorus of nembutsu.  

So, just what is the real nembutsu anyway?  In my understanding it originates in a deep experience that is beyond words, beyond thought and non-thought, beyond form and non-form. Then the first word that emerges is the primal word spoken when returning back to the world of concepts and discursive thought. It is the joy of speaking Your First Word in a spiritual re-birth. This similar to the joy both parents and children have when the very first word had been uttered. It can have many forms across languages and cultures, but the deep inner experience is the same.  It is the experience of being embraced by a warm, nurturing light that embraces us all without prejudice or discrimination, without judgment or criticism. This is the Other Power! 

Such is my understanding at the present time in my life. Please reflect on this in your own way. It is of great importance for your spiritual welfare.

Sensei Ulrich
March 11, 2010