Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer

In my Daily Teaching yesterday I spoke of the nembutsu as a key by which to access the Trikaya Buddha. I said that other spiritual paths have other keys. One such is surely the Jesus Prayer of Christians.

The form of this prayer is
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.
It is sometimes shortened to
Jesus have mercy.
Lord, make haste to save me.

I think we can readily see a close similarity between the nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer. Both act as a link between the ordinary being and the spiritual world of saving power.

In the case of Buddhists this saving power is attributed to Amitabha Buddha (Amida). In the case of Christians it is attributed to Jesus on behalf of God.

In terms of the logic of the trikaya, Jesus on Earth is the nirmanakaya while Jesus in Heaven is a form of sambhogakaya, manifesting to the ordinary believer as the Holy Spirit.

“Namo” literally means “I call upon”. When we say “Namo” one is indicating oneself as the one calling, “I call”, as the foolish being in need of enlightenment and salvation. In Christianity this is equivalent to “me a sinner”. In Japanese, the nearest term to sinner is akunin, literally "bad-person", and Pureland Buddhists often use this term to indicate the kind of person that is the special object of Amida’s love.

Christians use the term “mercy” because they have a concept of a judgement. This is a little different from Buddhism, but it is certainly the case that Amida is believed to rescue beings who through their own foolishness would otherwise fall foul of the terrible consequences of karma.

There is, therefore, an extremely strong parallelism between these two practices. Both are seen as forms of unceasing prayer and practised as such.

As far as we know the Jesus Prayer originates in the sixth century when it was taught in Egypt by Diadochos. He taught it as a means of arriving at inner peace. In Buddhist terms, we can say that it was a form of samatha meditation leading to anshin. Anshin literally means peaceful mind, with the implication of settled faith.

Was the Christian practice influenced by Buddhism? We do not know. it is possible. Religions are always borrowing from one another and, in the time before the rise of Islam, there probably was Buddhist influence in Egypt. We cannot say. It does not really matter because what impresses is the manner in which these parallel practices have won the allegiance of millions of practitioners in both religions over the centuries during periods when the two religions had no contact with one another, so even if there were an unknown common origin it has stood the test of time in both domains separately.  

For Christians this is the way to draw near to God. It is called the Prayer of the Heart. For Buddhists this is the way to allow Amida into our hearts and thereby connect ourselves with all the Buddhas. It is the most direct expression of shraddha (shinjin) which is faith. Etymologically shraddha means "heartedness".

In the Taoist classic it says “with desire, one sees boundaries; without desire, one sees into its wonder”.  Forms differ. The core is the same. Emphasising difference we demonstrate our superficiality. When we give up attachment to our group we see into the wonderful foundation of it all.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thankyou Dharmavydia for this clear summary. Another such prayer of the heart within the Christian tradition is of course the rosary, and the associated prayers to Mary Mother of God. I learnt recently that 'the cult of Mary' (as opposed to the historical details of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, or of Mary Magdalene) also came from Egypt, sometime later than the date above - so both would seem to have entered Europe from North Africa. One possibility is that crusaders returned to Europe with plundered statues of Isis with her divine child on her lap, figures that people took to be Mary and Jesus. Again, we're in speculative territory (of a good sort). I've fallen into praying the rosary for a year now. I come to it, I would say (do say), as a Pureland Buddhist: what I mean when I recite those prayers is precisely what I have come to understand as NamoAmidaBu. Turning to the unmeasuring face of the divine as Mother makes an intuitive sense, I think, one to which the inexorable spread of the rosary through Christendom witnesses, often (Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico) in spite of the ecclesiastical authorities, as much as because of them. And in a delayed reply to your question, as to what is 'The Way of the Rose', it's the 'rosary fellowship' formed by Clark Strand and his wife Perdita Finn. So much common ground there with Pureland Buddhism its hard to know where to start. I like this, very much: 'Emphasising difference we demonstrate our superficiality. When we give up attachment to our group we see into the wonderful foundation of it all.' At the same time, I notice a curious inability to cease 'fidgeting' in those terms, myself. So that's at the heart of what bombu means to me, really. Or 'sinner', for that matter: not just my overt foolishness, blind passion, compulsive nature, etc. (although there is always all of that), but more basically that in coming before the Divine Face, even the words or gestures used are themselves borrowed, provisional, tentative. A pretence at prayer, even, performed in the absence of 'the real thing'. But if there's a conviction here, it's that in a curious sense none of that really matters, or need matter: what all such adopted forms address turn to, is none of those things. And greets our uncertainty, as you taught me to understand, with a welcoming smile. 'Come as you are.' NamoAmidaBu, Mat



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