Words of the Nembutsu
Some time ago I wrote about the Address of the Addressless. At this time I would like to entertain the reflection that the underlying deep spiritual truths (dharmas) of our lives are not entirely captured in words, printed or spoken. This statement is not as harmless as it might seem at first glance.

We live embedded in words. With the invention of printing those who control the printed word controlled the flow of events. It also created a special group of people who were word crafters. This began thousands of years ago with the invention of writing. It continues today in our modern world full of media based on the use of words that control information - and hence our thoughts, feeling and loyalties. They even determine who gets elected to office as we saw in our own election, and in the one in process in the US. Everyone seems caught in a mountain of words that entrap people in a web of ideas and feelings from which there is no escape. We become word-weary, tired of having our thoughts and feelings being manipulated---even sometimes for good causes.

Words have become like the bit in a horse's mouth that determines the direction and speed of our lives. Yet this is not a new problem. Shinran saw this happening in his world of the 1200‟s too. His answer is the nembutsu—namo amida buddha. These are the true and real words that can be trusted. They are not a tool of control but a key to freedom, a way to reclaim our humanity while at the same time
experiencing a truth beyond words.

These words are called the nembutsu. Namo can be "praise‟, "refuge‟, "honour‟, "sanctuary‟, "calling on‟. Amida is a combination of amitabha and amitayus-infinite light and infinite life. The warmth of the light represents love and empathy. The brightness of the light represents insight. The word Buddha means "awake.‟ So the nembutsu calls us to have confidence in the force which combines life, insight and empathy into one powerful package in our spiritual and psychological lives. These words are called true and real exactly because they point to something that is beyond words. This is what was behind Shinran‟s teacher‟s advice when he said: “Just recite the nembutsu and be saved, that all there is to it.” Both teachers were directing us to an experience beyond words using words that were true and real— words that could be trusted and to which we could entrust ourselves.

Both Shinran and his teacher lived in turbulent times. There were plagues and famines. Then the occasional earthquake in Japan, yes even in the 1200‟s. They lived in a military dictatorship where people were expected to obey with no objections or qualms. Some of their friends were executed for reciting the nembutsu. There was a time in Japan when the nembutsu was explicitly forbidden on threat
of the death penalty. Yet, people still recited these true and real words, simply because they were true and real words for which they felt a desperate need.

Just imagine what these early followers of the nembutsu way must have with this opportunity to sit quietly in silence together with other human beings without needing to say anything in an atmosphere of trust where the room was simple, clean and beautiful. Then they began to recite true and real words together in harmony. It connected their daily life full of hard work and confusing demands to the world beyond worlds---these three words of the nembutsu.

We will close with two quotes from Shinran:

From the Tannisho:

“When the thought of wanting to say the nembutsu arises in us from deep within, having entrusting ourselves to the inconceivable power of Amida‟s vow, then at that very moment weare grasped never to be abandoned…..”


From Shinran‟s letters:

“Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth can be seenin the change of heart which has been wrongly directed and in the deep warmth for friends and fellowtravelers of the way. This is a sign of rejecting the world. You should understand this fully.”


These are my reflections as we celebrate the memorial of Shinran in this January of 2012. Please join us at temple when you can, so that we can recite together these true, real words.

In deepest gratitude.

Sensei Ulrich

January 22, 2012
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