Nenbutsu and Comfort

 By Rev. Paul Imahara

I have been told many times that people don’t understand the meaning of Nenbutsu (reciting the words “Namu Amida Butsu”). Do I truly understand it myself? Not really, so I keep searching for Nenbutsu’s ultimate meaning.

Firstly, Nenbutsu is beyond our thinking and conception because it is coming from the Buddha world. To me, it is a calling; the Buddha is calling me directly. Amida Buddha’s calling is “Namu Amida Butsu,” but I can’t hear it.

          I can’t hear any voices from flowers

          because it is from the flower’s world,

          but it gives me comfort.

          I can’t hear Buddha’s calling

          because it is from the Buddha world,

          but it resonates in me;

          I wonder why?

          It is because the Buddha is in

          my heart.

          How do I know?

          Because I am going home to where

          I came from:

          the Buddha world.

This is a wonderful poem but it is not mine and I don’t remember where it came from, but it is in my computer. I heard in Buddhism, everyone who passes away returns to the Pure Land and becomes Buddhas. How can this be? Should I simply believe it?

For some of us, when we lose a longtime spouse, we become depressed and lonely, wondering why did this happen? We blame ourselves for their death. I felt this way after my wife passed away.

The day after her first stroke, I found a note from her. She had written: “Please don’t shout at me and push me away.” I was shocked and wondered if she sensed something after our argument the day before? Three years later she had another stroke and a week later, a massive heart attack took her away from me forever.

When I repeat Namu Amida Butsu, do I see her as a Buddha in front of me? No I don’t. Is it because of my feeling of guilt that I may have caused her stroke?

How does the Nenbutsu work on us? Shinran Shonin says Nenbutsu is the non-obstructive single path to our awakening. This means Nenbutsu is the only requirement in our lives.

I make regular visits to a few nursing homes. I think most people don’t want to visit nursing homes. I never wanted to go unless I had to go. Sometimes I wonder why? Why do I want to go? I don’t have any special people there. Am I strange? But there is something in me, some energy, if I can call it energy, I have the feeling that I am urged and something pushes me.

When I make my twice a month visitation, those nursing home patients smile at me; some say they were waiting for me. This is comforting to me. I always talk about Nenbutsu. Saying the words Namu Amida Butsu is the only requirement to be saved at our last stage in life. I use Shinran Shonin’s words, just receive the Nenbutsu, it is the unobstructed single path to lead us to the Pure Land. How wonderful and simple. But at times I wonder, does it work for those patients who don’t know Nenbutsu? Does it work for those people who never heard of Namu Amida Butsu?

At nursing homes, I always pass out our service books and ask them to chant Shoshinge (words written by Shinran Shonin) with me. My session with them is only 30 minutes so I stop half way and explain what we chant and why we chant, then I explain Nenbutsu in the simplest way I know.

Some of them are quite attentive but many doze off as I am talking. As I watch them dozing, they look so peaceful and if I call their names, they open their eyes and listen for a while and then fall back to sleep. They look so calm and peaceful. I feel they are at the entrance of the Pure Land or already in it. There is a word in Japanese, “shojoju,” which means “truly settled place” or “truly settled mind,” and it is one step before entering the Pure Land.

I sometimes personally feel the calling of Amida Buddha, so why can’t I say that those patients also hear the calling from Amida Buddha? I feel they are at “shojoju,” one step before entering the Pure Land. Perhaps I shouldn’t call their name and wake them up because they already are on the way to becoming buddhas. They may not understand my explanation when they are dozing off, but I feel they have accepted the Nenbutsu and they feel some sense of peace and comfort. They sure look like they are in that comfort zone. They are my Buddhas and I am comfortable with it. This is why I like to visit them often.

Shinran Shonin left us with many wasan (poems or hymns) and the one that touches my heart is this:

Of those who encounter the power of the Primal Vow,

Not one passes by in vain,

They are filled with the treasure ocean of virtues,

The defiled waters of their blind passions not separated from it.

From this hymn I feel I am in the “power of the Primal Vow.” It is for me to accept the Primal Vow, then I am filled by the “ocean of virtues.” This does not mean I become a virtuous person. It means Amida’s virtues come to me. I am full of the “defiled waters of my blind passions.”

I am also filled with Amida’s virtues. Then what happens? My blind passions settle down, the defiled water seems to clear up. This makes me comfortable. But the dirty mud of blind passions is not settled for good. It is still a big part of me. When I am disturbed, blind passions want to take over, but Amida’s virtue is stronger and more powerful. I don’t need to be frustrated for long. Amida’s virtues win over and I cool down quickly.

I don’t think I’m at the truly settled stage. I don’t feel I’m one step before entering the Pure Land. But I am okay knowing I am full of blind passions, and at the same time, I have Amida Buddha’s virtues within me. This gives me comfort.

Namu Amida Buddha.

(Rev. Imahara, Los Angeles Higashi Honganji)

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