Living Within the Nembutsu

The Taste of the Nembutsu cover image

A message from Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani which appears in the book, “The Taste of the Nembutsu,” published in 2016 by the HHMH State Ministers’ Association. The book is a collection of dharma messages by each of the active ministers.

To extend the reach of the dharma within these messages, we will publish one per week on our website.

Living Within the Nembutsu

Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani

My eyes being hindered by blind passions,
I cannot perceive the light that grasps me;
Yet the great compassion, without tiring,
Illumines me always.

(Koso Wasan, Master Genshin, #95, CWS P. 385)

Dr. Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (D. T. Suzuki, 1870-1966) was very instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen Buddhism and Jodo Shin Buddhism to the West. One of his major contributions to the Jodo Shinshu was the translation of Shinran Shonin’s “Kyogyoshinsho”. Upon request from the Higashi Hongwanji on the occasion of the Shinran Shonin’s 700th Memorial Anniversary, Dr. Suzuki started this huge task of translation. Although he passed away before he completed his translation, his effort was taken over by certain individuals and this translation was published in 1973 on the occasion of Shinran Shonin’s 800th birthday.

I once visited D. T. Suzuki Museum at Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, and saw the working draft of his translation of “Kyogyoshinsho”. Originally he entitled the “Kyogyoshinsho” as “the collection of passages expounding the true and real teaching, practice, and attainment of the Pure Land” in English. But on his working draft, he made many corrections and finally changed the word “practice” into “living”. I found this translation very interesting.

The Japanese word “gyo” (of “Kyogyoshinsho”) can usually be translated as “practice” as Dr. Suzuki initially did. The word “practice” connotes our self-effort; you go through some kind of exercise to get something. Probably Dr. Suzuki avoided using the word “practice” because it makes us think of things like Meditation or Zazen in Zen Buddhism, and that could invite misunderstanding about Jodo Shinshu teaching.

But why “living”? What does the word “living” remind you of? The first thing that came to my mind was words such as “my life” or “now”. When I asked my daughter, then she said she thought about “house”. I thought that was a good interpretation. What is happening in the house? Our daily life. Many things happen in our house every day… happy conversation, arguments with your spouse or children, watching children to grow, experience separation with your loving family etc. That is our “living”. So I think Dr. Suzuki wanted to teach us that we can enjoy and appreciate the Jodo Shinshu Buddhism or Nembutsu Dharma in our daily lives. We tend to misunderstand that the Nembutsu teaching is only in the temple and has nothing to do in our life, but when we open our Dharma eyes, this busy daily life itself has wonderful opportunities for us to enjoy and appreciate the Nembutsu here and now. Nembutsu in Jodo Shinshu does not exist apart from my daily life, but my life itself is the Nembutsu. Which means living itself is the Nembutsu.

The Nembutsu in Jodo Shinshu is Amida Buddha’s wish. The Buddha is wishing you to live a full life. “Whatever happens, I shall embrace you so that you will be truly happy!” That is Amida’s wish. We all spend our daily living, study hard or work hard, to get happiness. But there is another way to be happy which is to “receive” happiness. To me, the way to the true and long-lasting happiness is to encounter someone who is thinking about you and to become sensitive or awakened to their loving kindness.

I would like to share a story of a son and his mother. This mother struggled with a serious disease so she was compelled to stay in bed every day. One day, the son had to leave his home for a few days. He prepared everything he needed on the night before, and told his mother, “I will be leaving home early tomorrow morning. I won’t wake you up so please rest in bed.” On the next morning, when he went to the garage, he saw someone standing there. It was his mother shuddering with cold and waiting for him to come. He was surprised and said, “What are you doing here mother, you must stay in bed.” The mother replied, “Oh, now you came. Well, we don’t know what will happen in the next moment. Especially I am very sick now and there is no guarantee that I can see you again. So I wanted to see your face before you leave.” The son was happy but at the same time he worried about his mother’s condition. He said, “Ok, I understand. But please go back to your room and rest.” The mother replied, “Do not worry about me. If you go, I will go too. So you go now.” The son said, “All right I will go now then. But please rest, all right?” And he drove out with his car. He worried about his mother and looked into the rear view mirror. He saw his mother still standing in the garage, and saw her putting her hands together in Gassho and bowing her head toward his car.

When the son saw his mother’s gesture, many memories came back to his mind. As he reflected on his life, he realized that he had never put his hands in Gassho toward his mother, nor had he ever bowed his head to her. All he did to his mother during his lifetime was to complain and grumble, and caused her many troubles and made her cry many times. But for such a son, this mother did Gassho and bowed her head. It was not easy for her to get out from her bed, but now she was seeing him off. He thought he was worrying about his mother. But more than that, long before he started worrying about his mother, no matter what kind of son he had been, the mother was worrying about him always. This love from his mother is not something he got through his own effort but it was given to him and he received it from his mother unconditionally. With a sense of appreciation, for the first time in his life, he put his hands together in Gassho in his heart, bowed his head toward his mother, and recited “Namo Amida Butsu.”

We usually know nothing at all about our true selves. We do not even know that we are causing so many troubles to our parents. This son did not cultivate a sense of appreciation by himself. He was not forced to say thank you by his mother. But as a result of receiving (or awakening into) his mother’s caring heart, his mind was transformed and a sense of appreciation and gratitude naturally arose within his heart.

The Nembutsu is a manifestation of Amida Buddha’s heart that is warm, nurturing, and unconditionally supportive. When we meet with the Buddha’s heart which has been always directed to each of us, we see our true selves who are usually selfish, greedy, and use our hands to hurt others and use our mouth to criticize others. But yet, the Light of Amida transforms our hearts and minds and enables us to place these hands together in Gassho and the word “Namo Amida Butsu” naturally and spontaneously erupts from deep within.

Shinran Shonin taught us that this Nembutsu is available anytime, anywhere, and to anyone in our daily living. Through countless causes and conditions, we have now received this wonderful opportunity to enjoy the Nembutsu in our daily living. In our daily lives, we can meet with Amida’s wish. That is why, I think Dr. D. T. Suzuki used the term “living” to express Jodo Shinshu teaching. Let us continue to listen to the Dharma so that we can live a happy, grateful, and a full life within the Nembutsu. Namo Amida Butsu.