SUMMARY OF FAITH & PRACTICE COMMENTARY ~ Part Twelve
Text: but who can with complete trust recite Namo Amida Bu
In English we have the three words ‘trust’, ‘faith’ and ‘belief’. We also have related words like ‘confidence’ and ‘reliance’. Here the text uses the word ‘trust’. In this context trust implies something relatively non-cognitive, a simple, largely unconscious reliance, rather similar to the everyday instances of unconscious or unwitting trust as when one sits down on a chair and trusts or assumes that it will support one. This is entrustment. This analogy is apt. In saying the nembutsu one assumes that one will be held and supported. This is related to the fundamental meaning of the word Dharma. The word ‘dharma’ is related to the soothing noise (rendered in English as ‘there, there') that a mother makes when holding a baby. The baby has complete trust in being held.
In Western religion, questions of faith and belief have become rather heavy in their implications. In Buddhism, however, we have never had an inquisition into heresy in quite the same way. It is true that some ideas have sometimes been declared to be heretical, but not with the consequence that those who hold them shall face capital punishment. It is merely a matter for debate. There is room for many interpretations of doctrine, but the simple act of entrusting oneself transcends forms of belief.
Thus the notion of ‘complete trust’ implies that there is no need to analyse. A person who even lacks the intelligence to analyse can still have complete trust. Nonetheless, trust has to be expressed somehow. The trust of the babe in arms may be expressed by closing the eyes and relaxing. In Pureland Buddhism it is expressed by saying the nembutsu.
If we do analyse and ask, what is one trusting? then the answer is that one is trusting the vows of Amida Buddha, and, by extension, of all the Buddhas. All Buddhas have made vows to save all sentient beings. However, saving beings is a bit like throwing a rope to somebody sinking in quicksand. The person in question has to trust the rope and express this trust by taking hold of it. Thus even though there is Other Power, there is still something for one to do. The Buddha reaches out a hand. Does one take that hand, bite the hand, run away, or simply not notice? To say nembutsu is to take Buddha’s hand and allow oneself to be pulled to safety. To bite the hand is to think that one can look after oneself and reject help. To run away or not even notice is to be lost in worldliness.
Ippen was a disciple of Shōkū, a disciple of Honen. He is the most famous of all the hijiri, or wandering holy men of medieval Japan. He made pilgrimage all over the country giving people slips of paper called fuda upon which were printed the nembutsu. When he gave a fuda he asked the person to say “Namu Amida Butsu” ichinen. The word ichinen has several possible meanings. As Ippen used it here it means “even once” or “just once”. However, one day, Ippen met a monk of the Ritsu School. Ritsu means Vinaya. This monk’s practice was to strictly keep the precepts. He took ichinen to mean “single-mindedly” with the implication of having sincere faith. He refused to take the fuda saying that sincere faith had not yet arisen in him. This plunged Ippen into a quandary. On the spur of the moment he told the monk to take the fuda even if he did not have faith and the monk did so. Nonetheless, Ippen later pondered much over this incident. In due course he was granted a vision in which he was told to have faith himself in the nembutsu and not worry whether the other person to whom he gave the fuda had faith or not. His own faith could extend to an understanding that Amida Buddha would take care of everything, so there was no need to worry.
A Pureland Koan
This story of Ippen does highlight what is, in effect, a koan for Pureland Buddhists. All spiritual paths involve an on-going enquiry or struggle. Spirituality is not just adherence to a static belief set, it is a continuing striving. This is true for all people and all religious or idea systems. Even a complete atheist still has to confront the difficulty of living in an unreliable world in an unreliable body using an unreliable mind. Different spiritual systems, nonetheless, do give form to this struggle in different ways. For a Pureland Buddhist, the koan often takes the form of an enquiry into one’s own faith. Does one completely entrust oneself? When? How? Is one really more like the Ritsu monk and, if so, should one take the fuda or not? These are the kinds of spiritual struggles that one might engage in.
This brings up the matter of the different styles of different Buddhist schools. Trust is something that is largely unconscious. One trusts many things without ever examining or thinking about the matter over much. Consequently, Pureland practice is quite substantially an unconscious affair and certainly much more so than those of many other schools of Buddhism. Commonly, much of the methodology of Buddhism is aimed at increasing consciousness and awareness as much as possible.
However, when we ask ourselves what is genuine in a person, we have recourse to what they do naturally, to how they respond when caught off-guard, and to the things that arise from their taken for granted attitude, rather than those things that they do in a deliberate or contrived manner. The truly generous person does not do a generous act after long reflection. He or she does generous things as a matter of course with very little thought. It is arguable, therefore, that conscious awareness is merely a means, not an end, in the cultivation of virtue.
The times when one did have ichinen faith were more likely those times when one said the nembutsu without a second thought. Indeed, ichinen can mean exactly that.
Realising One’s Nature
So if we go back to the text “realise that you are a totally foolish being who understands nothing, but who can with complete trust recite Namo Amida Bu” we can see that this can be read in more than one way. Probably, when we first read it, we take it as an implied injunction. We take it as instructing us to recite nembutsu with complete trust, even though we are totally foolish beings.
However, a closer reading suggests that it says that we can realise that (a) we are totally foolish and (b) we are of the nature to have complete trust. It is asking us to face the fact that fundamentally we are innocents. From a certain perspective, one could see this as realising one’s Buddha Nature, or, again, as getting in touch with one’s ‘inner child’, though there are certain pitfalls in taking it in each or either of those ways. Nonetheless, to realise that one can have complete trust - that the ability to do so is part of one’s make up - is a profound realisation.
The Paradox of Consciousness
Here we hit upon a seeming paradox. Generally we take ‘realise’ to mean and imply conscious awareness. However, strictly speaking, the word merely means ‘to make real’. Conscious awareness is a faculty that we have that enables us to take control of a situation. That is its purpose and aim. Complete trust, however, is a faculty that we have that addresses situations where we do not have control. Thus to try to have control of our faculty for trust is self-defeating.
Real realisation is, therefore, not necessarily conscious. Real Buddhas do not necessarily know that they are Buddha. One who has really realised his innocence may be innocent of having done so. We inherently have the capacity to say the nembutsu in every sense of the term ichinen, but the less self-conscious we are in doing so the better.