The Nembutsu is Useless
The nembutsu is completely useless. This sounds like blasphemy, but please pick yourself up off the ground and take time to consider the following:

When we have a service together we recite the nembutsu rather often. There are many ways to explain it in English, this namo amida butsu. One is Refuge in Amida Buddha. But Amida means infinite and is the combination of amitayus and amitabha, that is to say infinite life and infinite light. Buddha literally means awake. Thus we have ‘refuge in infinite life and infinite light awake”.

Namo can also have the meaning of ‘reverence, or revere’, hence reverence for infinite life and infinite light awake.” I often shorten this to simply, ‘reverence for life and light awake.” The word ‘light’ here refers to the mind of the Buddha. It is full of loving compassion (warmth) and penetrating wisdom (brightness). Thus the way of the nembutsu offers us a life full of loving compassion and all-embracing wisdom.

The word “namo” is often thought of as our action. The words “amida buddha” are often thought of as Buddha’s activity on our behalf. The two hands in Gassho are, in this case, seen as a symbol of this relationship. In this way we can use the nembutsu to attain the spiritual goals of the Buddha Dharma. In this way the nembutsu is often used as a mantra. Here this mantra was recited 50,000 times a day by Shinran himself, especially when he was a Tendai monk.

But Shinran brought to the nembutsu another, deeper understanding:

“I, Shinran, have never once pronounced the nembutsu for the sake of my father or mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth-and-death. Each and every one will be saved as we become Buddhas in the next birth.” (Tannisho, Unno).

The problem here is that if the nembutsu takes us beyond the ego-laden self-powered mind, then the namo as a mantra gets in the way because it is “our” namo. In this way the nembutsu becomes something useless to the contrivances of the self-centred mind set.

But the nembutsu belongs to no one. It cannot be owned or controlled by anyone, or used to anyone’s selfish advantage. Shinran is telling us that the namo is also a gift of grace to us so that we can become Buddhas in our own right in the next rebirth. Thus the whole nembutsu, including the namo part, is the working of the Buddha Amida, the working of Buddha’s wish for the world.

“….. in the nembutsu no self-working is true working; it is beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond understanding.” (Tannisho, part 10)

So, we may start our reciting the nembutsu as a mantra but as we mature in the nembutsu we realize that this approach is limited. Then we abandon self-power altogether. This is when the whole recitation is caused by something beyond the ego-laden mind. We have been caused to recite the nembutsu-the whole nembutsu. On one hand it is something quite marvellous, on the other it is something quite natural and ordinary. After this experience, the nembutsu we recite is an expression of gratitude to that force beyond the self-conscious mind that has caused us to recite the nembutsu in the first place.

“The saying of the nembutsu is neither a religious practice nor a good act. Since it is practiced without my calculation, it is non-practice. Since it is also not a good created by my calculations, is it a non-good. Since it is nothing but Other Power, completely detached from self-power, it is neither a religious practice nor a good act on our part.” (Tannisho, part 8)

I am glad the word ‘useless’ above caught your attention. However you reacted, please reflect deeply on Shinran’s words.

Sensei Ulrich
November 28, 2010