Commentary on the Summary of Faith & Practice (part 5)

TEXT (is) the practice of Nien Fo

COMMENTARY

Nien means mindfulness. It also means an impulse of mind. The Japanese form is “nen” which becomes “nem-” in terms like nembutsu. Fo means Buddha. Thus Nien Fo is the Chinese equivalent to nembutsu in Japanese. The characters are the same. So nien fo is mindfulness of Buddha or the Buddha impulse in the brain. Every moment of mental connection with Buddha is nien fo. This, therefore, is the most fundamental and irreducible atom of Buddhism, or, we can say, of refuge.

Nien Fo is, therefore, the gateway to all possible dimensions of Buddhist practice and it is enough in itself. All other forms of practice are extensions, elaborations, supports to or derivatives from nien fo. If the practice is not mentally connected with Buddha then it is not Buddhist practice and if one is so connected then the practice, whatever it might be, is an extra flourish, a decoration of the fundamental gateway which is nien fo. So, on the one hand, we can say that all Buddhist practices are simply different ways of operationalising nien fo; and, on the other hand, when nien fo is established, nothing more is actually necessary.

Thus Honen Shonin talked of the importance of senshaku – a selection. When we choose nien fo we establish ourselves in the light of the Buddhas, we open ourselves to them and their Dharma. If we have made such a choice truly and profoundly then everything we do will become Buddhist practice.

Traditionally, the method of establishing Buddha in one's mind in this way was by meditation. However, all “methods” have pitfalls. The pitfall of meditation is the danger of falling into self-power. One may readily start to think of meditation in much the same way as one might think of going to the gym – as a way of enhancing one's own power and ability. Rather than opening one to the power of the Buddhas, one starts to see it as a self-training for purposes of self-enhancement. This does not have to be so, but it is a common mistake.

In a valid sense there is no method for establishing one's connection with Buddha, any more than there can be a method for falling in love. Of course, one can do some things. If one wants to fall in love then it is no good hiding oneself away. If one wants to connect with Buddha one has to make oneself available. If we put ourselves in the places and amongst the people where the influence of Buddha is strong, then we are much more likely to find this refuge.

Then there is great power in the Name. When we say a name, we bring the object to mind. When we do so often, it starts to live within us. When everything we do is associated with that name, then that influence is never far away and begins to saturate our being.

Saying the name can carry a million different emotions. Sometimes one feels great gratitude that one's karmic continuum has somehow become manifest in a world where Buddhas are, have taught and have brought the Dharma into the world, where it is possible to make offerings and even to offer one's life in one way or another. Sometimes one feels hope and longing, begging the Buddhas to remain in the world teaching the Dharma. Sometimes one feels awe and amazement that there are kalyana mitras – spiritual friends – able to reflect that Dharma and help beings along the path. Sometimes one is lost in one's own worries and troubles, yet through the nembutsu one finds a calmer place.

The practice of nien fo can be associated with a visualisation of Amitabha or of the great bodhisattvas or the Pure Land of Sukhavati, yet this is not essential. It may be practised sitting in the lotus position or during mindful walking or in some other yogic procedure – all of these are good, but, again, not essential. The Buddha gave us any number of practices. The practice with nien fo is powerful. The practice without nien fo is an empty shell.

Perhaps the most valuable practice is making offerings. If our offering expresses nien fo, then it is a true offering and the physical act of making the offering, of generosity, of letting go, or expressing love for the Buddhas... these all enhance the nien fo impulse and help to make it real. In some approaches to Buddhism, making offerings is seen as only a preliminary practice, but when we read the great scriptures we read time and again that this or that bodhisattva became a Buddha because of making offerings to myriads of Buddhas. Nien fo is itself the ultimate offering and it makes all offerings deeply meaningful and loving.

I, an ordinary, foolish being, call with all my heart, upon the Buddha Tathagata. I offer my life. I open myself to your grace. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. That's all.

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Taking refuge makes it possible for me to be more open to people and see them and not my projection of them. The knowledge that I'm at Buddha's feet makes it feel safe to let go.  

Thanks, Jan - nice comment.

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