Who Loves Dies Well
Buddhism is often called a way of life. However, it can also be called a way of death. Many of the Buddhists I have met in Japan would regard it this way. The “great moment” is what really matters. All the rest is preparation, reassurance and gratitude for the assurance. Thus, where Western practitioners tend to see meditation and chanting as techniques to achieve something, such as stress reduction, that will make them better performers in the art of living, Japanese practitioners understand the Dharma as a welcome awaiting them at the point of death.
This does, in fact, salve their deepest stress, since it gives them the happy knowledge that they will be received into the arms of unconditional love, but the basic motivation behind the practice is different and this difference changes the style and manner of practice. Since it is the power of the Buddha that provides such assurance, practice is more a matter of gratitude than of self-development. How, then, does this play out in meditation?
Only Nembutsu is Real and True
In the previous sections, I wrote of how our habitual obsessions intrude and how prioritising the nembutsu sets them in their proper place. The nembutsu puts the Buddha-Dharma in the centre.
At the time of death it will be thus. Then there appears the bright white light. This takes centre stage in one’s mind. Everything else pales. Old obsessive thoughts, feelings and images may cluster around, but they cannot help one at that time. All that is necessary is to enter directly into the light. If one does so wholeheartedly one arrives in the pure abode of Buddhas directly, with no bardo state intervening.
The One Great Moment
Meditation upon nembutsu is, therefore, a simulation of this great moment. A Western practitioner might think of it as a kind of training for the event, but this way of thinking is not quite right because at that time one’s own power is useless. In fact, it is an obstacle. It is precisely the exercise of one’s own power that will cause one to wobble and enter the bardo leading to rebirth in a world of conditions. At that time all one needs is joy, gratitude and faith.
The spirit of nembutsu meditation should, therefore, be similar. Don’t make it hard work. Let it be a joy. If you approach it in this way, then you might be blessed with a vision, great or small, of Amitabha or of a sense of the white light, and if this happens, smile in your heart, but do not cling to it and do not cease to repeat the nembutsu with every breath. Let the vision come and go under its own power.
Seized by Amida
In this way you will be bathed in grace and the meditation becomes a contemplation of the holy. Within the few syllables of the nembutsu there dwells a wordless prayer to all the Holy Ones and a confidence that they will conspire to do everything necessary, even far beyond one’s small, human, personal understanding.
In this way one may have the experience of being “seized by Amida, never to be forsaken,” but it is not necessary to have any particular sensation or vision and one should not strive for such. All will happen as it should whether angels actually reveal themselves to you or not. Simply place the nembutsu in the centre with one recitation on each in-breath and one on each out-breath - such a simple practice - and entrust oneself to it.
If you continue to do this practice for some time you will reach a point when every time you become aware that you are breathing you will simultaneously be aware of nembutsu and with that awareness you will experience a “little death” and this will itself be a great reassurance. Not only that, but the realisation of such a connection will make one realise that even in the times when one does not have such a conscious awareness, the grace nonetheless continues. Nothing can stop it. There is nothing to worry about. When one has entered the stream of the Dharma it works within us and upon us, not dependent upon our conscious effort. Once the selection has been made, then everything becomes secret nembutsu.
Thus, for the practitioner, every moment is a death-moment, a letting-go-into-grace-time and this is independent of one’s conscious will. From time to time one is aware of it happening and the awareness that it is happening reinforces one’s faith and inner confidence.
One becomes one who already “knows that he has done what needed to be done” and when the moment comes he or she will happily enter the great light.