Nenbutsu: Not a Name Alone

“Namu Amida Butsu” calligraphy (Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple)

By Rev. Ken Yamada

What does calling Amida Buddha’s name mean in Jodo Shinshu and how does it work? Traditionally, the answer relates to “faith,” leading many to blindly recite “Namu Amida Butsu,” hoping to go to “the Pure Land” upon death. Is this really Buddhism?

At the turn of last century, a group of innovative Higashi Honganji teachers questioned such age-old doctrinal beliefs. Led by Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903), they interpreted the teachings through Western thought and methodology. For their efforts, some were branded heretics and ousted from the denomination. Rijin Yasuda (1900-1982) followed them, tearing apart the practice of Nenbutsu –calling Buddha’s name—scrutinizing the “what,” “how,” and “when.”

In 1960, Yasuda met noted theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), spurring him to clarify Shinshu for the Western world. He emphasized how, despite appearances, Shinshu wasn’t based on a Christian-like grace bestowed by an otherworldly figure. Rather, reciting the Buddha’s name was an expression of Shakyamuni’s original teachings. As a memento of their meeting, Tillich gave Yasuda a strip of decorative paper on which he wrote, “A Name But Not A Name Alone.”

Yasuda used those words for an essay title in which he painstakingly tried to explain what Nenbutsu means, laying out a rational and logical argument, sans traditional terms typically laden with dogmatic assumptions and veiled meanings. That essay appears in Paul Watt’s book “Demythologizing Pure Land Buddhism: Yasuda Rijin and the Shin Buddhist Tradition,” and in “Cultivating Spirituality, A Modern Shin Buddhist Anthology,” edited by Mark Blum and Robert Rhodes. Watt translated the essay in both books.

Yasuda studied under Daiei Kaneko and Ryojin Soga at Higashi Honganji’s Otani University in Kyoto, Japan. Later, he founded a private Shinshu academy, lectured at various temples, and taught for a time at Otani University. His immediate predecessors may be better known, and few of his works have been translated into English, but his influence on Shinshu thought remains strong. His Nenbutsu interpretation is groundbreaking.

Yasuda’s perspective was shaped by Yogacara Buddhism, which delves deep into the nature of human consciousness and experience. Yogacara was founded by Asanga and his half brother Vasubandhu (4th to 5th Cent.), who Shinran Shonin cited as an important Pure Land master.

Yasuda premises his essay by exploring the nature of human consciousness and how thoughts and perceptions are shaped by “names,” i.e. names given to what’s essentially “nameless.” Consequently, “names” become “objects” in one’s mind, which actually may or may not exist. Names are only incidental to objects. They are not the objects themselves.

For example, people think a flower exists before they are conscious of it. But he says the “flower” only exists because of consciousness of it. Yasuda writes: “We cannot say that the object itself exists. An object does not exist apart from consciousness. In the realm of consciousness, all things are objects… It is not that existing things alone become objects. Nonexisting things also become objects of consciousness. In as much as there is the consciousness of nothingness, in the realm of consciousness both existing and nonexisting things become objects. Therefore, we cannot say an object called a flower exists unless we presuppose consciousness.”

Yasuda explains people think the concept of flower transmits the flower that actually exists without losing its true nature. In Buddhism, this is called delusion. It’s not that there’s something that causes delusion, but that humans are deluded about the fundamental nature of consciousness.

Consequently, humans live in a world constructed by names and objects as their “reality.” This is not “true reality,” but rather, a person’s interpretation of “reality.”

Yasuda writes, “Human beings do not exist in reality itself; rather they function within the context of their interpretation [of reality]. Humans are able to function in and be concerned about the human world alone; they cannot function in a world that transcends humans. We are like silkworms who make cocoons and who live within the cocoons we ourselves make.”

Yasuda writes: “We think that we are experiencing reality, but [that which we experience] becomes human experience through names. Reality itself is not a name. However, by establishing names, reality is conceptualized as an object. Therein lies the secret of human experience.”

“We do not live in a world of direct experience. Discriminating among names and objects is the basis of human existence. If that were not so, there would be no way for the passions and the like to arise in a world of direct experience… In a sense, humans are beings who, through names, are deluded by names.”

In Buddhism, this kind of mental discrimination is called dualistic thinking, which gives rise to human passions, attachments, and suffering.

Yasuda writes, “To regard names as real is not to respect names, but rather is to be deluded by names.” For example, some people regard the Buddha’s name as a magical spell or incantation that will cure illness. “When [the Name] becomes substantiated, the world of religion becomes something magical… To regard names as real is not to respect names, but rather to be deluded by names.” The name no longer fulfills its religious function.

In Buddhism, the true nature of reality is expressed in terms of “interdependence,” “oneness,” “impermanence” and “emptiness.” Jodo Shinshu uses the terms “suchness” and “Tathagata.” However, “Tathagata” (i.e. suchness) is not an object, but rather that which is infinite and embodies everything.

How do we free ourselves from delusion? By understanding that names are provisional, one becomes able to use names without being deluded by them.

Yasuda writes, “In order to awaken those human beings, the only alternative was to rely on names. Because humans are beings deluded by names, to awaken humans [the Tathagata] could not help but use names.” Otherwise, people have no way to understand that which is nameless unless there’s a name.

Amida Buddha’s name does not indicate an object, Yasuda says.  “It is a name that indicates a relationship. It indicates the relationship of I and Thou, not the existence of something. However, that relationship is not the relationship of one thing to another; it is the relationship between that which has form and that which does not. It indicates the relationship of time and eternity. The relationship is always mutual.”

In grasping the true nature of reality, one’s mind naturally is put “at ease,” according to Yasuda. However, when saying, “We will be born in the Pure Land in the future,” time is expressed as an object or concept. “One cannot put one’s mind at ease in a future Pure Land represented that way,” he says. “As long as consciousness has objects, one cannot be at ease.”

“The mind that has made contact with the origins of delusion and that has clarified the real character of delusion will no longer be deluded,” Yasuda writes.

“The solution to [the problem of] human beings is not for humans to become just as they think they should be; the problem of human beings is deeper than we human beings think,” Yasuda writes. “Thus, the problem of human beings is responded to by transcending human expectations. That is what is meant by the fulfillment of the original vow [of Amida Buddha].”

The meaning of ekō (廻向) in Jodo Shinshu means “turning towards.” Yasuda says this means turning one’s mind towards “suchness” (Tathagata). “The mind that has made contact with the origins of delusion and that has clarified the real character of delusion will no longer be deluded,” he writes. “Once the origins of delusion have been identified, going to the trouble of negating delusion is unnecessary.”

Yasuda writes: “The name of Amida is what allows human beings to awaken to the true nature of reality and of themselves, not in any magical way, but by achieving a transformation of consciousness. Through this transformation of consciousness, one gains a new and true self-awareness.”

“Consciousness that is in conformity with the truth is called understanding. It is not the kind of truth that, once experienced, [allows one] to remain just as one was… It represents a kind of truth that transforms human beings… That sort of wisdom is called the wisdom of nondiscrimination.”

According to Yasuda, realization comes first, followed by faith. This is diametrically opposed to the idea that one first must have faith, then salvation or realization follows. With realization, “sentient beings who existed as ordinary people are transformed into bodhisattvas.”

Yasuda writes, “According to Asanga, when a bodhisattva achieves the wisdom of nondiscrimination, that is, when people attain that understanding, sentient beings who existed as ordinary people are transformed into bodhisattvas.”

He says, “A bodhisattva is not an especially eminent person. A true human being [who] exists with a self-awareness of human existence—that is a bodhisattva.”

-Rev. Yamada is editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America