Last time I talked about the relationship between Pureland and Zen – Zen and Pureland and of course, it’s perfectly possible for a person who practices the nembutsu to also include a period of zazen. They do fit together quite nicely and indeed this is one of the commonest ways of practising Buddhism is China. Many Chinese do what they call “dual practice”, meaning they do Zen and Pureland, Chan and Pureland together as complementary practices.

Zen is the direct route to enlightenment and Pureland is a natural practice for one who hasn’t arrived at enlightenment. The two go together in that sense.  Though, if you practice nembutsu as a Zen practitioner, then, of course, you’re likely to regard the nembutsu as a kind of koan or you can make it into a koan by framing the question “Who is it who calls the Buddha’s name?” or: “To whom am I calling when I say Namo Amida Bu?”

The koan “Who is it who calls the Buddha’s name?” is one of the most commonly used in Chinese Chan because the practice of nembutsu has become so widespread in Chinese Buddhism and it was recommended by the great master Xu Yun* who was the most prominent Zen master in the early part of the 20th century.

These are koans. They are koans because they defeats the intellectual mind. The intellectual mind is a frame of mind in which one wants to be boss. By having knowledge, one thinks one has mastered things. If I have knowledge of something, I have cast some sort of spell over it, and in that state, I think that I am the master. So, it’s a form of ego-inflation.

Of course, the nembutsu defeats this sort of thing. At the end of the day, after I have delved into this koan, with all of my might and main, as they say “like a fish that has an iron ball trapped in its jaw”, it can neither swallow it nor spit it out, when one has wrestled with it in this way and reached the end of one’s forces, one realizes that whoever I am that calls the Buddha’s name and whoever it is I’m calling to when I say “Namo Amida Bu”, for goodness sake I need help! I am just an ordinary being.

I am just an ordinary mortal in the midst of the most complex and difficult situation. Here I am surrounded by the infinite complexity of the world, of the universe. I look up at the stars and by comparison I am nothing. I am a dot on a dot. Or a dot on a dot on a dot. The galaxy that we live in is just a dot and our solar system is a dot within it and the earth is a dot within that and I am a dot on that dot. I am nothing.

So, where is my power to be the master of all these things? Because I know the distance from here to the nearest star, does that make me a master of the universe? No.

When I look at a daisy, I’ll never understand the complexity of its beauty but I can still stand in awe and respect it from the bottom of my heart. And when I do that, what is there left in the way of practice? Only “Namo Amida Bu” -  “Please help me. I am just a bombu being in the midst of this amazing world”.

Namo Amida Bu
Thank you very much


* XU YUN 虛雲 (1840–1959). 

Xu Yun ordained at age 19 and spent much of the next forty years on pilgrimage, transferring the merit so that his parents might be born in the Pure Land. When he was 56 he had a great awakening while working with the koan “Who calls the Buddha’s name?”  Thereafter, he did a prodigious amount of teaching and restoring of monasteries.  After the communist takeover he was persecuted and tortured, but he persisted and by petitioning the government succeeded in getting the persecution ended.  He had a huge number of disciples and was the foremost Chan master of his time.

You need to be a member of David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis) to add comments!

Join David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis)

Email me when people reply –