CONTINUOUS AND PERMANENT
Nem or nen means mindfulness. It means that which occupies the mind. We all know that our minds are occupied with all kinds of matters. There are the practical matters of day to day life, the bigger and smaller decisions, entertainment, socialising, contemplation, trivia - all kinds of things, great and small, occupy the mind. However, generally there is not just one thing in mind. Our minds are capable of running several tracks in parallel. Much of this is modulated by association of ideas. The mind readily skips from one thing to another according to associations. These associations are not usually logical. They rely upon some connection and this might seem random. We always have something in mind and usually several. Spiritual practice involves deliberately cultivating the mind using these features, establishing good association, keeping a good track running, filling the mind with wholesome reflections.
Butsu means Buddha. Buddha is one of the things we have in mind, at least from time to time. I was once given an empowerment by a Tibetan teacher and I asked how often I should do the practice and the teacher said “Whenever you remember.” This seemed to me very practical. Things pop up in the mind. Things remind us. This is why it is a good thing to have a mala. Every time you even see the mala the thought of Buddha pops up. Buddhist practice is like that. it establishes many reminders that repeatedly bring us back to the matter of greatest concern. We surround ourselves with triggers so that the thought of Buddha returns and returns. Mindfulness is to keep the Dharma in mind.
Nembutsu practice is like that. It is an attempt to fill the mind with the thought of Buddha as much as possible. If at least one of the tracks that is running in the mind at any one time is the Buddha track, then that can be called continuous nembutsu. This is one way to do nembutsu practice - to try to keep Buddha somewhere in mind continuously. As soon as you realise that you have let it drop, recommence.
However, the mind is deep. Buddha can be in one’s mind even when one is not consciously and deliberately thinking about the Dharma. We practise calling the Name with a view to establishing this deeper residing. When Buddha resides deeply in the mind then this is a permanent nembutsu. The aim of continuous nembutsu is permanent nembutsu.
NEMBUTSU AS HEALING SEED
There are many ways to say nembutsu. We could say that Buddha has many names or we could say that there are many Buddhas. If you are concerned about metaphysics then these two statements seem contradictory, but if you are concerned with mystical reality, they are synonymous. Is Buddha one or many? It does not matter. To call one Buddha is to call all Buddhas. Quan shi Yin or Tai Shi Chih or Manjshri, or Akshobhaya or Samantabhadra all come to our aid. We think of Amida as closest and, perhaps, Vairochana as most remote, but it is all Buddha. Sometimes Buddha appears as compassion, sometimes as creativity, sometimes wisdom, sometimes awakening, sometimes goodness, sometimes as help close at hand, sometimes as ultimate truth and perfection, sometimes as space. These are all aspects or names of Buddha. Each answers to a specific human condition.
In this sense, we can think of nembutsu as spiritual medicine. Sometimes one needs to bring more compassion into one’s life: “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bo Sat”. Sometimes one needs to stimulate awakening: “Om Akshobhaya Hum!” Sometimes one is going through difficulties and needs resolution: “Namo Samantabhadraya.” But the commonest form of nembutsu is to call on Amitabha: “Namo Amida Bu.” This is the definitive calling that embraces all virtues and saving grace.
So the ordinary practice of nembutsu can be to call out, either according to one’s condition or simply in open faith and to do so as continuously as possible, and this will establish Buddha in one’s heart. In one’s heart this seed will grow. There will be a process of transformation. Once begun, this process will go on whether one is aware of it or not - this is the principle of irreversibility. When you have Buddha in your heart this is the Tathagatagarbha - the spiritual embryo that will one day be born as a new Buddha. So nembutsu is allowing oneself to be penetrated by the spirit, by the sattva.
Nembutsu is the best form of meditation. As one does such a practice, the practice itself gradually turns around. At the beginning it is a practice that one deliberately undertakes, perhaps with only a vague idea of why one is doing so, except that it seems to help. Saying "Namo Amida Bu" brings ease and stability. It holds the mind in difficult moments. It injects a sense of kindness. It brings patience. It soothes away nervousness. It provides endurance through pain and suffering and it enhances joy in moments of success. It makes a bond with other practitioners, both those one is familiar with and all the spiritual ancestors.
In due course, however, one starts to experience it not so much as something that one does so much as a grace that comes upon one. It is not so much that one is calling Buddha as that Buddha is reaching you. This turning around - paravritti - can involve emotion. Looking back, one can feel ashamed of one’s earlier ardour to get something. One sees that in the beginning one could only see the point of practice as being to obtain something for oneself, some personal betterment. Later, one just feels grateful for what one is already receiving. One is unsure whether one is actually receiving more than before or if it is simply that one now recognises how much one is receiving where previously one was lost in avidya. One realises that the extent of one’s ignorance and silliness is immense, but yet one is blessed.
Moments of bliss come upon one. The blessing of the Buddhas is a resounding peace that permeates one’s physical and spiritual being. With a heart at peace one sees beauty everywhere. There is much to be grateful for. Life continues as before, but packed with wonders. The Buddhas pour down their blessings. Quan Shi Yin ceaselessly empties her cornucopia of kindness upon all beings.
Nembutsu is a simple practice. Just say “Namo Amida Bu”. This is true refuge. It is the ultimate meditation. It is the ultimate because it is the meditation of Buddha - the Buddha who embraces all beings, even the lowliest. As one does it one realises oneself lowlier and lowlier towards the day when there is nothing but only Buddha, limitless light, everywhere.
Interesting article. Coming from a background of long-time insight meditation (samatha/ vipassana) and also extended practice of compassion meditation, nembutsu practice as you describe it, seems to work quite differently. However, reading your text creates a subtle and beautiful resonance in heart and mind. I wonder if there is space for silence in nembutsu practice? Do you ever rest in awareness?
Not so much "in awareness" - sharp consciousness is not prioritized because the aim is that the practice sink in - but rest in peace, yes. There are two ancilliary practices - nei quan and chi quan. Nei quan is a form of insight meditation revolving around the question of dependent origination: what have I received, what have I given, what trouble has my existence caused. This is generally followed by Chi quan which is a form of samatha in which one makes an offering of whatever has arisen in the Nei quan - no matter what it is, feelings, thoughts, insights, revelations, good or bad sentiments, no matter, one offers it all to the Buddha with a confidence in the Buddha's greater wisdom. As one does so - as one empties oneself - one experiences the peace descend upon one. This is the blessing of Buddha. It is a profound peace. It is physical.
The reason that these practices are "anciliary" is that Nei quan is essentially an enquiry into "Namo" - what am I? Who or what is it here that calls out to Buddha? To which the answer lies in dependent origination. And Chi quan is an experience of "Amida Bu", of the peace of Buddha coming upon one and finally residing in the heart and throughout the body. So Nei quan and Chi quan together provide a deepening of the experience of "Namo Amida Bu", the nembutsu. In this style, calm follows after insight - insight prepares the ground by demonstrating one's foolish nature. This humility opens the way for the grace of Buddha to descend.
Yes, I can resonate with that. In my understanding, receptive inquiry is a way to surrender to a question and listen deeply. This includes heart and body. Any insights bring up a sense of grace: one sees what has always been overlooked or misunderstood. Grace by its very nature cannot be achieved. It comes as a blessing.