QUESTION: I’d like to be clear about what nembutsu practice is. It’s seems from what I can glean from your writing you are saying Amida Buddhism is the work of compassion in the world in the play of opposites. So practice begins with some kind of descent into what has been disowned. So I enjoyed the way you framed the practices of Chih Quan and Nei Quan as two koans. And the three kinds of mind seem to describe a larger picture of what Amida Buddha practice entails.
So as I understand it, the nembutsu practice is the last step, maybe practice isn’t a word you would use to describe it since it seems to be an activated prayer based on faith in the unconditional love of Amida Buddha. So do you simply chant “Namo Buddha Bu”, like a mantra? Are you visualizing Amida Bu when you do this, or holding him in your heart and imagination. This seems to be both an act of faith and trust in the underlying love of the universe which supports us all, and a act of imagination, as our Bodhisattva vow is as well.
I’d appreciate any direction you could send me in to help me do some of this practice for myself.
SHORT ANSWER: Just say “Namo Amida Bu” in simple faith.
LONG ANSWER: Thank you, great question. Yes, hold the Buddha in your heart and imagination. But even if, sometimes, you just say the words, it is still powerful. The nembutsu does its own work.
Nembutsu is an expression of refuge. Understanding and entering into the deep and true meaning of refuge is the core of the Buddhist religion and it is a life long practice. So a Buddhist is somebody who chooses to take refuge in Buddha and keeps on doing so in deeper and deeper ways as understanding and experience broaden and deepen. In the Pureland forms of Buddhism, of which Amida Shu is one, the Buddha we take refuge in is Amida Buddha, on account of his all-acceptance. This goes with the Pureland emphasis upon humility in the practitioner - even if one is the lowest of the low, Amida will accept you just as you are. So the form of taking refuge in these branches of Buddhism is “Namo Amida Bu” or an equivalent in local language.
In the larger Pureland Sutra it says that Amida accepts anybody who thinks upon him with sincerity and “thinking upon him” is, for practical purposes, taken to mean calling his name. therefore, the most fundamental form of nembutsu practice is to call the Buddha to mind by saying his name - in this case “Amida” or “Amitabha”, usually “Namo Amida Bu”. This is called the nembutsu. (nem=mindfluness, butsu=Buddha, hence “mindfulness of Buddha” or “bringing Buddha to mind”). To call one Buddha is to call all Buddhas.
So nembutsu practice is simply to say the nembutsu in simple faith on all occasions, formally or informally, singly or in congregation, to oneself or out loud. Nothing needs to be done in advance of this. Choosing the nembutsu is the key action and commitment. To entrust oneself to the nembutsu is called shinjin.
Several things, inessential but useful, follow, in no particular order:
1/ The nembutsu is a window through which all of Buddha’s teachings may be seen. It gives one a perspective on the Dharma. Once one has chosen nembutsu as one’s key practice, all other practices become forms of nembutsu. Why is one bowing, offering incense, reading scriptures, sitting in zazen, etc? In order to deepen refuge and so make the nembutsu more real and sincere.
2/ The nembutsu, in effect, is the planting of Buddha seed in one’s heart. One becomes a Buddha womb. This seed will grow, just as an embryo grows in the womb of the mother, but the mother does not make the baby grow; one does not need to do anything about it. The process is unconscious. All the mother needs to do is avoid anything dangerous or damaging. Just so, a nembutsu practitioner should maintain good general spiritual health, but does not need to worry.
3/ Although subjectively one has the sense of having selected the nembutsu by oneself, in reality, the arising of the urge to do so is Amida’s grace. It is the Buddha who has planted the seed, not oneself. It is not really that one has done something so much as that one has been “seized by Amida”. This is not, therefore, a practice in which one strives to achieve something, so much as one in which one entrusts to a process more powerful than oneself and celebrates this grace that has come into one’s life.
4/ Consequently, many Buddhist teachings come to be seen “the other way around”. there is a kind of reversal. The eightfold path is an outcome, not a means. Salvation, enlightenment, samadhi and so on are not things to be achieved. They may be given, but it is all out of one’s hands.
5/ There are practices such as nei quan and chi quan which can deepen one’s appreciation of nembutsu in an experiential manner. One can come to understand better “Who or what is it that calls the Buddha’s name?” “Who has the Buddha called?” One can have experiences of the grace of Buddha descending into one’s frame. This deepening can also come through such simple practices as having gratitude, appreciating nature, simplifying one’s life and so on.
6/ There are also practices that can amplify the nembutsu experience. Thus
a/ visualisation. One can visualise Amida Buddha or the attendant bodhisattvas Quan Shi Yin (Kanzeon), or Tai Shih Chi (Mahasthamaprapta), or one can do the series of visualisations described in the Contemplation Sutra for visualising the Pure Land, and so on.
b/ circumambulating or prostrating to a stupa, relic or Buddha rupa while reciting the nembutsu
c/ ceremonies, litanies, etc.
7. There can be many psychological spin-offs from the practice since one develops faith and confidence, preoccupations fall into perspective, fear of death is dissolved and self-defensiveness tends to fall away. Accepting that we are all foolish beings, one feels fellow-feeling for others so empathy becomes more natural.
Many of the above can be done individually or in a congregation. It is important to stress, however, that they are all anciliary to the core practice of just saying the nembutsu as often as possible, on all occasions, inwardly or outwardly, and trusting that this does the trick without need of any additional aid since it invokes the power of the Buddhas. One might, when reciting, coordinate the chanting with the breath. If this helps one to keep going, very good. Or one might use a mala - I recommend it - but it is not essential.
Nembutsu can be chanted, like a mantra, or it can be said in the course of daily life, whatever happens. Good things happen: “Namo Amida Bu”, bad things happen: “Namo Amida Bu” - meeting a fellow practitioner: “Namo Amida Bu” - stopped at the traffic lights: “Namo Amida Bu” - looking at clouds in the sky: “Namo Amida Bu” - holding up a flower: “Namo Amida Bu”. Calling Buddha to mind in association with everything that happens saturates one’s being with grace and blessings and generates samadhi.
There is an endless amount one could say, but the basic practice is extremely simple. Namo Amida Bu.