Throwing Ourselves into the Nenbutsu
by Rev. Ryoko Osa
In the conference room at the Los Angeles Betsuin, there is displayed an artwork of Japanese calligraphy handwritten by the Rev. Ryōjin Soga. Rev. Soga was a priest of the Shinshū Ōtani-ha (Higashi Honganji) denomination who was active during much of the 20th Century. He was a priest who made many important contributions in making the transition from a traditional understanding of Jōdo Shinshū and Buddhism in general to a more modernized interpretation.
When Rev. Soga was invited to come to the Los Angeles Betsuin as a speaker back in the mid-1950s, he wrote this calligraphy for the late Mrs. Kazuko Ito, wife of then Rinban Horyu Ito in response to questions she presented to him before his return to Japan.
The first question was, “What kind of person is the Buddha?” The second was, “Where can that Buddha be found?” The third question was, “How are we to be mindful of the Buddha?”
This particular artwork has become quite famous in Japan. A reproduction of the calligraphy was made by a company in Japan, and it seems many have been sold. I mentioned to Rinban that it would be nice if the profits from such a project could be donated to the Betsuin to support the educational activities here. But Betsuin has not received any profit from that company. At any rate, it was through these simple questions asked by Mrs. Ito that many people have benefitted from reading those words of Rev. Soga of the scroll that now hangs at temples throughout Japan in deepening their understanding of the teachings.
What is Buddha?
- What kind of person is the Buddha?
The Buddha is he who appears as Namu Amida Butsu to us who recite it.
- Where can that Buddha be found?
He appears before us who reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu.
- If that is the case, then how are we to be mindful of that Buddha?
With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self laden with deep evil be saved. This thinking of the Buddha can be done freely by anyone anywhere at anytime, regardless of whether we are sad or happy. When this thought is realized, even if we are burdened with evil passions and delusions, one’s inner peace will never be broken.
This is what we call true salvation (awakening).
Content of scroll written at the Los Angeles Betsuin by Soga Ryōjin to Kazuko Ito on January 21, 1956
“The Buddha is he who appears as Namu Amida Butsu.”
The world of enlightenment is the world that has no form nor color. It is an energy (working) that has no substance. It is the Buddha who works to awaken us by becoming the words, Namu Amida Butsu. What does it mean to be awakened? Is it that we are not awake right now? It is said that we are languishing in pitch darkness because of our ignorance. It is that ignorance that makes us suffer in life. Through encountering the wisdom (light) of the Buddha, we realize that we are living in darkness and understand why we are suffering. We are thus enabled to walk on the path to liberation. To suffer means to live constantly feeling frustrated that things don’t go the way we want them to go. To awaken is to realize that things will not always go our way. It is to realize that “it is not that I am living my life, but that I am given the opportunity to live this life.”
Our “lives” are the compounds of myriads of karmic causes and conditions. It is those causes and conditions that give each of us the opportunity to live. It is not that I am here and that I am living this life. Rather, I exist in the relationship I have with others, a temporal kind of harmony of elements that give me the chance to live here and now. One’s life ends, therefore, when those causes and conditions expire. It is the process in which we return to the so-called “emptiness of nirvana.” It isn’t that we are reborn to live in a different world. We return to the source of life, and so there is nothing to fear about death. However, we think that our bodies and our consciousness belong to us, and so we cannot help but be attached to our lives. And even though we understand this truth, we keep making the same mistake, thinking this I is mine.
It’s the same with the karmic causes and conditions that steer our lives. We have the tendency to want only good and favorable conditions to come to us. When things don’t go our way, can we quickly accept the situation and say, this is OK, this is how it should be? Generally speaking, we suffer in life. We experience sadness…we experience pain. So even though we receive the Buddha’s wisdom and think we’ve awakened, the blind passions that arise from our ego keeps returning us to disillusionment.
However, even then, we are being told by the Buddha that everything is all right. If we truly entrust ourselves to Namu Amida Butsu, which encourages us that everything is all right, we can be liberated from a life of suffering. And we can realize and remenber we have been making the same mistake over and over, and understand that things by nature do not always go our way.
For us to become mindful of the Buddha, Rev. Soga encouraged the following: “With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self laden with deep evil be saved.”
It is to come to the realization that this “life” is not mine, to request guidance for this self that even though I continue to listen to the Buddhadharma, that I am a being who continues to create suffering for myself. We can come to receive that guidance by entrusting ourselves to the workings of the Dharma. The primal vow is the means by which we, who are unable to awaken through our own powers and live in the midst of delusion, are led to nirvana. To entrust oneself in the primal vow, and to wish for birth in the world of enlightenment is to be on path of the Nenbutsu. The Buddha “appears before us who reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu.”
We are able to receive the workings of the Buddha when we entrust ourselves to the primal vow and recite the Nenbutsu. Rev. Soga said, “When this thought is realized, even if we are burdened with evil passions and delusions, one’s inner peace will never be broken. This is what we call true salvation (awakening).” He says that “one’s inner peace will never be broken,” but upon reflection, I feel as though my inner peace is being broken all the time. However, it is those times when we “reflect on and recite Namu Amida Butsu” with a quiet and serene heart, thinking of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion that we can entrust ourselves to, and ask that this being burdened with evil passions be rescued, we do find that our heart is at peace.
Conversely, at times that we forget the Nenbutsu, our hearts are darkened, our self-centered desires never fulfilled. The path of Buddhism is, perhaps, the repetition over-and-over of that cycle. So it is not that we are awakened for good once we recite the Nenbutsu, but rather that we continue to recite time and time again that we finally begin to feel that inner peace coming about. When we come face to face with our ignorance, we become conscious of the darkness that pervades us. Because of that, we come to the realization that I am but a shallow being. In spite of that, however, I will continue to listen to the calling, and continue the in the process of reciting the Nenbutsu. I continue to err over and over due to my ignorance, but because of that, I do the Nenbutsu over and over as well.
We might think that if our Nenbutsu is not said without sincerity, we might be scolded. Upon reflection, I realize that my recitations are not sincere. My heart is not moved by my recitation. My Nenbutsu is said with the same feeling I have when I say thank you or how are you? When I do Nenbutsu with such feelings as, “I truly want to be rescued,” or “I want to become a person who can live accepting all of the karmic conditions of my life,” when I say Nenbutsu as if my life depended on it, I find myself moved to the point of having tears falling from my eyes. This inspiration is the guidance of the Buddha working inside of us. My body and mind are not mine, and when I come to that realization, it becomes natural that we throw ourselves into the Nenbutsu.
True Nenbutsu, therefore, is not to something to recite as some kind of ritual. Rather, it is to sincerely vow from the bottom of our hearts, “With an attitude of complete trust, discarding all self-calculations, and with a serene heart, with the one thought of Namu Amida Butsu, to raise the wish upon the Buddha that this self burdened with deep evil be saved.”