The word 'Nembutsu' is Japanese and is made up of Nen and Butsu. Nen means ‘mindfulness’. Butsu means ‘Buddha’. So nembutsu is mindfulness of Buddha. However, it has come to mean not merely a mental act but also a verbal one. Thus all formulae of refuge in Buddhism are forms of nembutsu. However, nembutsu has come to mean especially mindfulness of the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of all acceptance, and this implies a very wide and generic approach to spirituality.
Consequently, the uttering of nembutsu is an exceedingly widespread practice in East Asia. When I was in Vietnam, people could see by my clothes that I was some sort of religious practitioner and one could see by their gestures that they were asking what I was. When I said “Namo Adida Phat” which is the Vietnamese form of nembutsu, all was immediately understood with smiles all round. They knew I was Buddhist. Similarly, if I meet Tibetan Buddhists and they ask what is my practice and I say “Om Ami Dewa Hrih”, or say that I am a devotee of Amitabha, they know exactly what I mean and we are friends straight away. In the West we tend to be much more concerned about sectarian differences because of our unfortunate history. It is nice to let all that go and just enjoy the variety of ways there are of practising. The form of words (Namu Amida Butsu in Japan, Namo Omito Fo in China, and so on) vary from place to place, but the spirit is the same. In English, we generally say Namo Amida Bu, but there are many variants.
Buddhism tells us that that mind is conditioned by its objects and the best object is Buddha so saying the nembutsu in one form or another is very healthy. It is also a community unifier. In our sanghas we say Namo Amida Bu as a way of saying “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, “Gosh”, “Never mind” and so on. It means that in all the little triumphs and disasters of daily life the Buddha is present. Thus, just as fine rain eventually saturates an overcoat, our fearful minds are gradually permeated with a beneficent influence and bit by bit, unconsciously to ourselves, a transformation occurs. When life ends we shall be naturally inclined toward going home to the Buddha Land.
Lovely summary, thank you. The soft rain soaking into one's coat is a beautiful metaphor.
Funny, but it seems exactly that sense of simple, accepting generosity that I notice a curiously entrenched resistance to. As if my mind were doggedly determined that the religious life amounted something more - what? Sectarian? Meritocratic? Authorised, maybe.
A sweet relief to just set those heavy ideas down... except like a dream, they have an odd way of getting back in ones's hand... to be set down, again.
I think that's one part of what nembutsu as 'deep listening' means to me. Just hearing, then hearing again, what you know in your bones, but keep forgetting.
Namo Amida Bu
Thanks, Mat. Nice. Yes. The 'nen' of nembutsu, of course, means 'remember' !
I like reminders like this. It's so easy to get caught up in absolute specifics and then, unknowingly, start to exclude other beings. I've just started readying, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement' by Sharon V. Betcher, who is a Christian theologian and also happens to be disabled. It's already clear from where I am in the book how disabled people (and that is all of us at some time) can be excluded through insistence on particular formulae. The above description of Nembutsu is nice and open and inclusive (at least, if read in that spirit) and seems to me to offer a way into Sangha. Certainly, from my experience leading singing in mixed settings, it is possible to really include people (including those who cannot form syllables and words) if the practice is open ended enough and imaginative enough.