Summary of Faith & Practice ~ Part Eight

Text: Deep wisdom is indeed there, for the nembutsu is a window through which the whole universe of Buddha’s teaching can be percieved in all its depth…


Although the nembutsu seems to be and is a very simple practice, we should not, for that reason, think that it negates any part of Buddha’s teaching. The Pureland teaching is one perspective on Buddha’s whole Dharma. Furthermore, it is not, as some say, a later modification, revision, departure or tangent to or from that Dharma. It is the whole original Dharma. Even further, we can claim that this is the original Dharma of Buddha presented in its pure and simple essence. How so?

Refuge First and Last
The first thing the Buddha taught was refuge. The last thing the Buddha taught was refuge. Everything that he taught in between was an amplification, an unpacking, of this teaching. Nembutsu is that refuge, nothing more nor less.

A Window from the Other Side
This means that all the standard Buddhist teachings can be appreciated from the perspective of, or, we could say, through the window of, nembutsu. However, when we do this we often find that the resulting interpretation is different from, even in some respects the opposite of, that which has elsewhere become standard. This window is often found to be on the opposite side from the other windows. This does not necessarily mean there is contradiction, different windows give different angles. However, the nembutsu interpretation is often more coherent and, I suggest, has a strong claim to being the original meaning intended by Shakyamuni Buddha.

Example: The Four Truths
Western Interpretation: Let us take the Four Truths as an example. There are two standard, conventional interpretations with many minor variations. The two are a Western version and an Eastern version. The Western version says that dukkha (1st truth)  is mental suffering. This is somehow distinguished from physical suffering. It is said that such suffering is caused by desire and craving (2nd truth), that desire and craving can be overcome (3rd truth) and that the eightfold path (4th truth) is the means whereby this is achieved. In this interpretation the 4th truth is the means toward the elimination of the 1st and 2nd. Buddhism is then said to be a way to eliminate suffering, or, more positively, a path to happiness. However, the idea of anybody attaining to a life that is totally devoid of suffering in this world of unreliable conditions is unconvincing, The distinction between mental and physical suffering is also unconvincing - if you drop a brick on your foot is the suffering mental or physical? - and in any case the idea of eliminating dukkha in this life cannot tally with the Buddha’s words in the text since within dukkha he includes getting sick and dying, as well as many of the kinds of mishap that can occur to anybody whether enlightened or not. The Western theory, while of some general use, falls apart when examined closely.

Eastern Interpretation: The Eastern theory is more coherent. It is similar in many respects. The fourth truth is taken as the means to eliminate the first and second, but this is not expected within this life. Within this life the effects of past karma still unfold, even for a Buddha, and this is what keeps such a person in a physical body. Freedom from suffering is attained in parinirvana after death. The Western theory has been derived from the Eastern one but modified to accommodate the fact that many Westerners do not believe in an afterlife. However, without this element the idea becomes incoherent. The problem with the Eastern idea is that it is annihilationist and it seems not really to fit with the spirit of the Buddha’s actual life. It is hard to imagine Shakyamuni as the sort of person who was afraid of a bit of suffering.

Simpler interpretation: So how else can one look at these four? It seems that the correct translation is Four Truths for Noble Ones, which suggests that noble ones do not eliminate truths one and two either in this life or the next. Also, in most Buddhist teachings that are formulated as lists, the last item is the final point, not a means to one of the earlier ones. So a simpler interpretation is that dukkha leads to samudaya and if that is followed by nirodha then it leads on to marga. Here the path is the outcome, not the means. What then is nirodha? In practical terms, nirodha is nembutsu. Nirodha is that which tames what flares up in the waks of dukkha and what is it that tames? Refuge. Refuge, in Pureland, is nembutsu. Therefore, from an Amidist perspective, dukkha leads to samudaya and if samudaya is followed by nembutsu one is naturally already upon the path.

Original Buddhism
Thus, when we use the nembutsu as a window through which to look at Buddha Dharma we get a more parsimonious, coherent, practical understanding that is also more in line with the rest of Buddha’s teaching and with the example of his life. This, therefore, is original Buddhism.

Another way in which this is in keeping with Gotama’s actual life is that he did not become enlightened by following the eightfold path, he found the eightfold path by being awakened. For him it was an outcome not a means. It was when he gave up trying to make things right for himself specially that things came right generally. This was the point when the Dharma became his refuge. This was the inspiration of his whole ministry. His final words were "Dharma light - abide therein; Dharma refuge - seek no other."

Use Nembutsu to Convert Everything into the Buddha Way
This had been his guiding star throughout and is what he passes on to us. We may, in our different forms and schools have different ways of expressing it, but this is nembutsu - to keep the Buddhadharma in one’s heart such that no matter what shows up in life - triumph, disaster, pleasure, pain, affirmation, disappointment - you treat those imposters all just the same by taking refuge and so converting all circumstance, favourable or adverse, into the Buddha Way.

Outcome not Means
Thus the nembutsu is a window through which the Buddha truth can be perceived. Similar considerations apply in other teachings. What is so often seen from a self-power point of view as means or technique is, from a Pureland point of view, seen as outcome. Mindfulness is a current topical example. Nembutsu is mindfulness in the sense that it is to have a mind full of Buddha. Nothing else is required. This might or might not be a way to relieve stress, depression or lumbago, but that is not the point. The point is that a mind full of Buddha is all that is required.

Same Consciousness, Different Languages
This can, of course, be transposed into the idiom of other schools. A mind full of Buddha could also be a mind full of the Lotus Sutra. Namo Amida Bu could be Buddham saranam gacchami. All the same - just different languages. The essential religious consciousness is the same and it is this that we call nembutsu. It needs to be expressed one way or another.

Key to Deeper Depth
When we take Buddhism in this nembutsu way, then we can study and be inspired by the whole of Buddha’s teaching. We can study all the sutras, not just a select few. We can even study the texts of other faith communities. We shall find the same essential truth, but we shall find it explained in a myriad different ways. We do not then see Pureland as a later add on, but as the central and original message and, furthermore, as a key that unlocks many of the parts of the Dharma literature that can otherwise seem more obscure. In this way we enter the Dharma in all its depth, not struggling with trying to fit it into moulds (like popular narcissism) into which it does not fit.

Even more important, nembutsu is an easy window. Anybody can come in this way. Children can do this and all the way through to great scholars. Anybody. So it is a key - a single item that unlocks the vast and wondrous storehouse. Namo Amida Bu.

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Replies to This Discussion

Dear Dharmavidya, How is your health? You're in my prayers daily. I very much like the way you've explained the Nembutsu here. I'm having trouble accepting your view of the Eightfold Path.Yes, it is true that Shakyamuni didn't become enlightened via the Eightfold Path; but, why can't it be a curriculum he created as a kind of map past the potholes and guide to nurturing Enlightenment in his disciples? Obviously the Pure Land take on Refuge makes perfect sense to me as an Amidist.
How do you feel about the statement "pain is mandatory, suffering is optional" as it relates to the 4 Noble Truths? Thank-you. Namo Amida Bu, Steve

Thanks, Stephen. It is quite difficult for me to really know about my health. The problem is blood clots in my leg and lungs and I have no way of knowing whether they are getting any better or not. The medical plan is to keep me on blood thinners for six months and then scan me in various ways to find out if it has got rid of them wholly, partially or not at all. At this stage I can only do my best with the treatment, trying to keep my blood thinning at the right level, getting as much exercise as i can take, and avoiding activities that tend toward blood pooling. Other than that there is keeping one's fingers crosses and saying Namo Amida Bu. :-)

Regarding the Eightfold Path, you can regard it as a syllabus if you like - that is what most people think - but I don't really buy it myself. The Eightfold Path is a description of the enlightened life. It is not a path to something better than itself because there is nothing better. Of course, you can say, well, one can try to do one's best, which means follow a watered down approximation, which can't be bad, but it still smacks strongly of self-power and carries all the old risks of inauthenticity and shadow building as one consciously tries to shape oneself into what one is not.

I personally think that the statement "pain is mandatory, suffering is not" is an abuse of the English language. Pain is a form of suffering. When Buddha got a septic foot, it does not say that he did not suffer, it says that he bore the suffering nobly with fortitude. That seems right. There is no way that a person can live and not suffer. Even if one could draw the kind of distinction that the phrase is suggesting, one would have to account for the Illness of Vimalakirti. V suffers because there is suffering in the world. Suffering can only be avoided by not paying any attention to those who are suffering around one. I suppose one can say that one has the option to close one's mind and have no empathy, perhaps - though even that I doubt is wholly possible - but to do so is certainly far from the dharma path. No I think it makes no sense at all. Sorry.

No need to be sorry. My experience of trying to live the Eightfold Path is exactly as you've described.Yet , that is the message that is transmitted in many books I've read and teachers I've spoken to. It left me feeling like a failure in my very sincere efforts.The idea that pain is mandatory, etc. is a direct quote from a book on the Eightfold Path.Your response is dead on. The quote always struck me as a little too facile! Thank-you for your wisdom.
Namo Amida Bu, Steve

Thank you. The notion of the eightfold path as a syllabus does not work in terms of the text either. The path is part of Shakyamuni's description of his own enlightenment. It is in his talk to the five ascetics. One of them is enlightened immediately - well, that was not by following a syllabus - and the other four a couple of weeks later, when Shakyamuni gives his talk on non-self. The whole idea that one becomes enlightened by doing anything for an extended period of time or accumulating knowledge or merit or whatever is unbuddhist. In the texts people are illuminated (or not) in an encounter with something - usually a person or a piece of writing. Of course, one can study these things and take them as a syllabus - that is doable - but it is not enlightenment, it is erudition or character training. One might even do that as a result of having become enlightened, but the actual illumination or awakening of faith is not something earned by effort.



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