Commentary on the Phrase: “This is not something done as a form of meditation”

This phrase in the Summary of Faith and Practice can be understood in a number of dimensions. It tells us that nembutsu

1. is not a self-power practice.
2. is not a personal development exercise
3. is not a therapy
4. is not something in which there is any premium upon technical proficiency
5. is different from many of the practices found in other schools of Buddhism.

The term meditation has come to have new meanings as a result of popular interest in Buddhism and yoga. In standard English, to meditate means to think. To meditate upon something is to think about it or to contemplate it, perhaps as a possible course of action in the future. However, nowadays, when people think about mediation they tend to think about mental exercises that have the cessation of thought as a proximate goal and spiritual enlightenment as an ultimate goal.

When contemporary Western people think about Buddhism, they generally think that it is a path to enlightenment and that meditation is the method by which enlightenment is to be accomplished. When we look closely at the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, however, it is not so much concerned with how to arrive at enlightenment and more concerned with how an enlightened person actually lives. In other words, it is how to proceed from enlightenment.

Nembutsu is not meditation in this sense of a means to achieve enlightenment. It does not aim to bring about enlightenment. In fact, it is associated with a belief that one is incapable of bringing about enlightenment by one’s own effort. Enlightenment comes as a gift and cannot be earned, achieved, constructed, or demanded. Nor is enlightenment in this life taken as an object of practice in Pureland. The spirit of Pureland is more that of having gratitude for whatever light one has. Live that to the full. Let any further development take care of itself, or be taken care of by the Buddhas. It is not possible for delusion to go beyond itself, but it is possible for a deluded being to be liberated. The Buddhas come precisely for the sake of deluded beings such as ourselves.

However, we can also note that it is probably the case that most modern people who meditate do not actually think that they are going to get enlightened thereby either. The idea of enlightenment has been made so elevated and remote that most people believe it to be completely out of reach for practical purposes. Meditation remains popular as a self-development exercise or as a quasi-therapy. People find that meditation relieves stress. It teaches them some disciplines, such as restraint and patience, and it trains them in tolerating silence, stillness and calm. In the mad helter-skelter of modern life these disciplines are worthwhile. Meditation therefore has some intrinsic value, but that value, for most people, is not really spiritual. By this I mean that it is not "akaliko", not timeless. It is, rather, utilitarian. Now nembutsu, in essence, is not utilitarian. It points at what is akaliko. it is the intention to indicate that which is akaliko that makes it nembutsu.

This does not negate the fact that those who practice nembutsu may derive some practical benefits from doing so. They may, but this is not the reason of motive for the practice. Any such benefit is incidental. If the attaining of such a benefit were to become the primary motivation then it would have ceased to be nembutsu, even if the form of words remained. The form would have become empty. On the other hand, so long as the intention is there, the substance is there, even if the form of words were to vary. It is for this reason that nembutsu can, in fact, take many forms and for a person who has genuinely made the selection (senchaku) of nembutsu, many practices can and do become forms of nembutsu. this is what makes Pureland into a generic form of spirituality. The wine can be poured into bottles of many different shapes. The Pureland practitioner can, therefore, appreciate many different forms of religion. Superficially this seems a paradox - that selection enables inclusivity - however the inclusivity is not inclusion of diversity in the manner of ecclecticism, it is recognition of commonality of deeper significance in the manner of transcendent inspiration.

In Pureland there is far more emphasis upon what is already the case than upon the prospect of achieving something in the future. In particular, the Dharma is already in the world, Shakyamuni has revealed the teaching, Amida’s light already shines upon us, and we are already fortunate to have these gifts, living, as we do, in samsara. Pureland practitioners do expect to become Buddhas some day - have more confidence in it in fact than most self-power practitioners - but they believe that this is and will be all taken care of and is not something that they have to worry about personally. The person of Pureland faith, therefore, has a great sense of assurance and this gives confidence and ease.

Actually, much of what we are here saying about Pureland is more generally true. Shakyamuni Buddha does not teach that meditation necessarily leads to enlightenment. Even after somebody have achieved proficiency in all the dhyanas there remains something to be done and some people in the Buddhist record clearly achieved enlightenment without ever mastering the dhyanas. In fact, there is no efficacious method for becoming enlightened. My own Zen teacher used to say that one does not become enlightened by trying to; it happens as a by-product.

Life throws up koans. We confront them or run away from them. We encounter circumstances that disrupt our taken for granted certainties. We come under the influence of inspiring examples. At some point, we may experience a great change of heart, an opening, a new perspective, but this is not something that one can contrive any more than one can contrive to have an accident. If it is contrived it is not accidental. Achieved enlightenment would only be an imitation.

The Pureland practitioner, therefore, simply celebrates the good fortune already manifest - the presence of the Dharma, the merit of Amitabha. We express our gratitude by saying the nembutsu, which is a continual reminder. The rest we leave in the hands of the gods and Buddhas.

This does not mean that a practitioner is forbidden to meditate. If one finds meditating, either in the old fashioned sense, or in the contemporary one, useful, go ahead, but do not expect thereby to become enlightened and do not let your attachment to this or any other practice displace the centrality of nembutsu in your religious practice.

In Amida Shu we do have meditative exercises... in particular, nei quan and chih quan, that are designed to deepen one’s understanding of the nembutsu. They are referred to as auxiliary practices. From a Pureland perspective this is the right order of priority. Meditative exercises can be useful as a support. They are not essential and nembutsu itself has a special merit that is well beyond them, but if one finds them useful then they have some intrinsic relative value and there is nothing wrong with that.

In Kamakura Japan there arose new forms of Buddhist practice such as nembutsu, zazen and daimoku. Although new in a certain sense, all these practices have their roots in earlier forms of Buddhist practice in China and India. It is worth our saying something here about zazen particularly because zazen means sitting meditation. The point is that many people practising zazen are thinking that this is a means to becoming enlightened. However, the founder of the zazen movement, Eihei Dogen Zenji said that zazen is already enlightenment and that sitting with an aim is not true zazen. This surely is simply a different way of saying the same thing as Honen was saying about nembutsu. If one understands zazen correctly, then it is surely simply a form of nembutsu. It is akaliko, which is to say that it is a celebration of timeless wisdom already present.

So, when we say, "not done as a form of meditation," we need to understnad the intention of the phrase as distinguishing nembutsu from self-power or utilitarian practices or treatments. All Buddhist practices, meditation included, when correctly understood, are consistent one with another, which, from a Pureland perspective, means that they are all forms of nembutsu, just as a person looking from a Zen perspective might say that they are all forms of zazen. The difference between schools is fundamentally one of style. The distinctive character of Pureland is its focus upon the condition of the ordinary person, and, therefore, upon gratitude and humility and upon taking refuge in the grace that the Buddhas bestow upon us rather than in our own meagre proficiency. In Pureland we say that nembutsu is not meditation (just as we say that it is not a mantra) to distinguish the particular style of Pureland practice, which is a style not for the highest kind of spiritual being, but for ordinary, vulnerable, fallible creatures such as most of us are.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hello Dharmavidya. Just wanted to express my deep gratitude for these daily teachings. You and the Amida Shu community are ongoing sources of inspiration to me. In Quaker terminology you ' speak to my condition.' Great also to hear of your continuing recovery. Namo Amida Bu :)

Thanks, Jeff.



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