There is a strong tradition in Buddhism of reciting large numbers of mantras or other holy texts and invocations. These accumulate quantities of merit. Thus, some members of the Amida Shu undertake to recite a million nembutsu in the course of a year. In the writings of Honen Shonen, he recommends reciting a million nembutsu in the course of a ten day retreat, either individually or collectively. Alternatively, we have held nembutsu retreats of up to ten days without any concern for numbers, but simply with the aim of maintaining a constancy of repetition for the whole time.

All of these practices are beneficial. Nembutsu is, among other things, and as Ippen says, “the end of wrong thought.” To immerse the mind in invoking ultimate goodness cannot be wrong. Most nights I go to sleep reciting nembutsu. I thus pass into the netherworld of sleep in the best possible manner. All this is a kind of mental cleansing as well as being the expression of that deepest of longings, the yearning for spiritual truth and salvation.

We do not use the word salvation much in modern times, associating it with old fashioned religion that we think we have somehow got beyond. However, all of us are conscious of the faults of this world and of life and we cannot help longing, if only implicitly, for something more perfect. I remember a young inmate of a prison that I visited in Florida saying to me “Don’t you think that we were made for a better world than this one?” That was an expression of the innate longing for salvation (or whatever else you would like to call it) that lies deep in every heart.

In the passage where Honen recommends the ten day million nembutsu retreat he also talks about the value of keeping the ten Mahayana precepts during that time. The ten precepts are listed in the Brahma Net Sutra. They prohibit killing, stealing, fucking, lying, intoxication, criticising, self-praise, maliciousness, anger and defamation of the Three Jewels. Actually all of the first nine are implicitly included in the last. However, he goes on to say that it does not really matter that much precisely what the “rules” are because we are incapable of keeping them anyway. Yet, although we inevitably break such rules, we do all have a longing for the kind of life and world that they point toward, one where people are kind and generous, loving and harmonious, interesting and interested, creative and full of gratitude, and so on. Saying the nembutsu - or any genuine invocation - is an expression of this desire and hope.

The Buddhist attitude to morality is a bit different from that of the religions common in the West. We are used to a morality where the rules really matter a lot. They are considered to be like parental injunctions. If you break them you will be punished and you keep them in order to please God. In Buddhism, however, we do not think in terms of that kind of god. Simply we know that we live in a world with consequences. Bad actions are those intended to have harmful consequences. Rules, even religious ones, are conventions. They are useful guidelines, but not absolute. It is not immoral to drive the wrong way round a roundabout if there is no other traffic on the road. It is unconventional and it might be illegal, but it is not immoral. This is a distinction that we have often lost sight of. Buddhist masters tend to be moral but are not always conventional, even in terms of the conventions of religion.

So, is reciting a large number of nembutsu moral, conventional, both or neither? Certainly it is sometimes conventional - a good way of bringing people together inspired by a similar wholesome wish. Certainly it is moral in the sense of being an intrinsically good thing to spend time doing. Yet, at the same time, we can also say that it is neither, because it is an act that is complete in itself. It has no further purpose than itself. In this respect it is like love - is love.

Thus, we can perhaps understand that while Buddhism teaches us how to generate and accumulate merit, it also offers something else, something even more precious, something that does not involve counting. The Buddha Amida is so named for this reason. Amida is completely beyond counting. Every single nembutsu is itself equal to a million nembutsu. This is the crazy logic of the other shore.

This crazy logic applies in everything we do. The better world that we long for is one in which every act is completely clean, free of any attempt to generate personal merit or credit. Yet, we know, if we look honestly, that almost everything that we do actually do, drags along with it a shadow of self-serving, of counting. We simply can’t help it and even our efforts to divest ourselves of this dreadful habit are themselves contaminated in the very same way. Such is our lot. So there is nothing for it but to recite the nembutsu in the very state that we are in and trust that the Buddhas will be true to their vows and accept our prayer anyway, cherishing us better than we are able to cherish ourselves or one another. We can trust in their crazy logic even if we cannot live it ourselves, and that trust, that faith, is actually the truest liberation of which we actually are capable.

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Replies to This Discussion

I just happen to be exploring this at the moment for a possible Running Tide article... thinking about daily practice, 'oughts' etc. - reading Shinran's little booklet Once calling or Many calling. Great timing, thank you!

I'm going to put it to the test. Starting Monday I'll do 3,000 a day for the rest of the year. I worked out it will take me about 10 minutes to do a thousand so half an hour a day at a reasonable rate should do the job! That feels like a good thing to do, crazy logic or not! Thanks for inspiring me. Namo Amida Bu(   :

Yes, it is true. Almost everything I do drags a shadow of self-serving (even when writing these little words, I suppose...) because my faith is very weak and I am so afraid...And occasionally I am also natural and spontaneous...But always there is a deep longing in my heart which needs to be cried out. I think, as you say, that this longing inhabits every heart so , on practising the Nembutsu, we can feel  all the  hearts joining as one. Then we remember, and fear dissolves, at least for a moment.... Thank you Dharmavidya

Timely ideas. The Hawaii sangha is doing the one million nembutsu this year, but I'm resistant to counting as it seems contrary to the whole concept. I have a daily practice of around an hour as well as going to sleep and middle of the night nembutsu, so I'm participating in my own outlier way. It's the act of opening my heart that matters, not the number of nembutsu. But it's all good. Namo Amida Bu!! 

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