Buddhist Beliefs, Practices and Experiences

Reflections: The Great Natural Way

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Buddhist Practice as Nembutsu
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The classic Shin book The Great Natural Way, written by Hozen Seki, offers the reader a variety of insightful reflections, sermons and sayings. Born in Japan, Mr. Seki later came to the United States as an active Shin minister and founded the New York Buddhist Church in 1933 and later the American Buddhist Academy in 1951.  Inspired by faith and dharma, he lived his life as a religious pioneer and as a progressive Shin Buddhist leader; he passed away in 1991.


Below are some excerpts from his most popular book with the gracious permission of his son, Hoshin Seki, of the American Buddhist Study Center (ABSC) in New York City.  Copies of The Great Natural Way may be obtained through ABSC.


Come As You Are


A dinner invitation for a delicious meal includes the condition: formal Dress. But a poor person cannot buy or rent a tuxedo. Thus, even wanting to go, he is not suited for the invitation; and invitation is not suited for him.


“Come As You Are.” Reads another invitation. This invitation is suitable for all.


There are many teachings –but this, of Amida Buddha, is suitable for all.





When we have heard of the boundless compassion of Amida, we will call his (her) name with gratitude as Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese. Namu means “I rely upon,” or “I bow,” so Namu Amida Butsu means “I rely upon Amida Buddha.” That is Nembutsu. Nembutsu and Namu Amida Butsu are the same thing.


Namu is our side, Amida Butsu is the Other Side.  But these two are oneness. Namu Amida Butsu, the Nembutsu, is oneness between me, limited “subject,” and Amida, infinite “object.” There is no separation between me and Amida. We are in Amida’s compassion; so Nembutsu is an expression of gratitude for the universal compassion called Amida Buddha….


Nembutsu is the realization of the guarantee of oneness with the Buddha Dharma; our form and thinking will be changed. To hear and accept is the stand of true faith. But this faith is not made-made….


…Nembutsu belongs to Amida Buddha, and its through Amida’s compassion that we will truly say Namu Amida Butsu….


In Shinran Shonin’s words, “this world is like a burning house.” No one can foretell tomorrow. Besides, our body and mind are filled with desires, greed, anger, and complaint. Everything in this world is impermanent –all is changing. However, the only permanent thing is the truth of the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu…..



The Middle Way


What is the Middle Way between being and non-being? Most people think it is between the two. But the teaching of the Buddha is based on nonattachment. If we think that there is a way between two extremes, then that becomes the third extreme, to which we become attached or from which we turn away; so we continue to discriminate.


The Middle Way is inclusive of all extremes, of all views; it accepts everything just as it is. This is the way of the center. But where is the center? It is the whole of all things together, just as the seed of the apple is the “middle way,” including the whole of the apple, right to and including the skin…



Precepts and Enlightenment


In the time of Gautama Buddha, there were no precepts. After the formation of the Sangha, some disciples drank liquors, and this behavior disturbed others. The Buddha heard of this and made a rule: in Sangha there should be no drinking of liquors. In this way, one precept appeared. However, one of the Buddha’s disciples became very ill due to obedience to the rule. When the Buddha heard of this, he permitted this disciple to take liquor. The Buddha established this Middle Way to accommodate his disciples’ physical and mental health.


After Gautama Buddha passed away, there appeared many rules; finally, some disciples thought, “through precepts we will attain enlightenment.” The same is true when Shinran Shonin lived in this world – after he passed away, some took to precepts, saying that without precepts, and enlightenment could not be attained: “In believing the teaching of Amida Buddha, people should obey precepts and rules.” This is a combination of absolute salvation and the social code. Such thinking is not true to the teaching of Amida Buddha.


This embrace is beyond our good or evil, beyond precepts. The true religious mind is completely in the mind of Amida Buddha, beyond bad or good. Someone thought that “this absolute salvation is very dangerous, because one may think that bad behavior is the purpose of the embrace of Amida Buddha.” This, however, is the wrong view. So Rennyo Shonin taught that we are like birds with two wings in flight. One is absolute salvation, beyond this world, good and bad. But to harmonize in this world, we need the other wing of precepts. We then fly with these two wings of salvation and precept.


Take the first precept –not t kill. According to some, we must completely obey this precept, and when conformity is secured, then we receive Amida Buddha’s embrace. But how can this be? Without killing, we cannot live in this world. Each day we are killing others. Of course we may not be killing humans –but mentally and religiously, we are doing so. We are killing so many different beings. Vegetables have their own life; when we eat one leaf of lettuce, we kill the lettuce; and so with chickens, cows, insects. We cannot eat or drink without killing. Nor do we live without stealing. Let us look deeply, and we will see that this is so. Through the precept we will not obtain enlightenment.



Our True Home


Until we leave this world, we cannot rely upon or hold anything- health, body, material goods –health, body, material goods –except the Nembutsu, the oneness of all life, in which limited self and unlimited Amida Buddha come together. Nembutsu is the returning home. Nembutsu is our home. When you drive, if you don’t know the direction, then it is very difficult to proceed. At each corner you are puzzled. But when you know the direction, it is easy to drive. Nembutsu is our spiritual direction, therefore it is the easy way toward our spiritual home. 


The direction is not of our own seeking, but it is a drawing power from Amida Buddha –drawing us to our home, like water running from high to low, as a river or stream. This stream of life is naturally going to the Great Ocean, were there is no discrimination, only the same taste. At the end of life, there is no discrimination, only Nembutsu. So Nembutsu calls Nembutsu. This is infinite; so Shinran Shonin, at the end of his life, wrote:


If you wish to see or hear me,

Call Nembutsu –

For it is in Nembutsu that I live.



Our Practice: Hearing the Light


In a Jodo Wasan (Pure Land poem) we read:


As the Light shines continuously,

We call him “Buddha if unceasing Light”

By believing in the power of the Light,

We are reborn into unceasing Mind.


But if we look at the Chinese characters of the original, we see that it does not say, believing in the Power of the light.” It does not even say, “seeing.” It says, to hear the Light.  This is very important – to hear. And to hear, to truly hear, is not of the ears.


The wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha are unlimited, and they continuously shine on us. But unfortunately we cannot see the light of Amida Buddha, because it is beyond our senses. We can see candlelight, starlight, the light of fire; but Amida’s light is beyond form and matter.


Still, everything is existing in the invisible Light of Wisdom and Compassion. Fortunately, we can hear the Light. Its sound, its voice is Namu Amida Butsu. So it is said, “We hear the Light,” or “We hear the Wisdom and Compassion.” Hearing this Light is the assurance of Amida’s continuously shining Light. Through this Light - Nembutsu - we are born into the true world of Wisdom and Compassion. Therefore Shinran Shonin tells us to hear the Light. This is a very natural way to understand Amida’s Light.


In this world there is first lightening, then thunder. The two really happen together, but the thunder is perceived later than the lightening. Even if we fail to see the light, still, the sound of the thunder assures us that it is flashing. To hear is to know of the light. To hear the Nembutsu is to know the light of Amida’s immeasurable wisdom and compassion; it is truly to hear the Light.



This Shore, the Other Shore


Higan –the other shore, Nirvana, the Pure Land. This shore, or world, is a place, full of disagreeable affairs, stealing, war, anger, hunger, desire. But the other shore is Nirvana, beyond karma; it is true peace, freedom, and happiness, so naturally we look for the Other Shore.


Geographically we imagine the two shores. But we may also imagine the Higan as up, nor over, and so by our effort we wish to climb up to the Other Shore. Or we may imagine the Other Shore as deep inside our minds—at their “bottom.” We see the Other Shore in all directions; flatly or vertically – in all directions.


But without this world there is not that shore. So when we imagine nonself, naturally we will recognize this shore and the other shore coming together in oneness. We are living on the Other Shore; however, we cannot recognize this, because we have form and a blind eye with which to see the Other Shore. This is why, instructing Queen Vaidehi, Gautama Buddha advised her to contemplate water. If we also follow this advice, we will come to understand the true meaning of suffering, emptiness, impermanence, and nonself. The sound of the water teaches us many ways to cross over the waters of suffering to the Other Shore. 



Buddha Nature


When we truly understand our innermost self, we will understand and trust the teaching of Amida Buddha. This teaching is natural; for example, water has various forms according to temperature: steam, hot water, ice, snow, mist, cold water, lukewarm water. But every form has the water nature. Even humans, plants, animals –all living things can be said o have the water nature, without which they cannot exist. One Mind is like this water nature. With Amida Buddha we are unified in One Mind. Shinran says that our existence is like ice - cold, hard; but at the end of life, our ice will melt into the One Mind of Amida Buddha. To understand and accept this “water nature” –Buddha Nature –is our salvation.



Our Ultimate Purpose


Many think that happiness is to pile up material goods –money, houses, clothing, trips. But this happiness is not continuous –always misery is waiting. Someone says that health is happiness –but this happiness is not continuous. Or someone thinks that living in this world is happiness – but we must die one day. Fame and knowledge too are happiness and misery mixed.


Therefore our ultimate purpose for living must be to seek happiness which is beyond the world of birth and death. That happiness is the unconditional compassion of Amida; and when we meditate upon it, we feel truly happy. This is the only happiness that can rise above change, impermanence, self and suffering.



The Way of Transcendence


The contradiction between “spiritual” and physical” is resolved by the Way of Nembutsu, the recitation of Namu Amida Butsu.



What is Enlightenment?


Enlightenment is beyond size and form, long and short, square and round, various colors. Enlightenment is Truth itself. But Buddha Nature cannot separate from form. Form and formless are the same thing; form and emptiness are oneness.



The Lotus Opens


Usually we see a flower. But in Japanese we say hear a flower. This is when the lotus opens. People go in the morning to hear the lotus open.


When Nembutsu is uttered for the first time, a lotus opens in the pond of the Pure Land. The sound of the Voice opens the Lotus.



The Ceaseless Working of Salvation


In this world it is difficult to be selfless. But when we truly understand the teaching of the Buddha, then we recognize the truth of Shinran Shonin’s statement that “all beings are my father and mother.” Let us see why this is so.


When we meditate on the true nature of the universe and every sentient being, we will realize, as Gautama Buddha said, that all life is oneness; oneness is all. So we do not, cannot, live alone. And when we pass away from this world, we enter into infinite Life and Light. This Life and Light is not discriminated; it is not “my own” life and light –it belongs to all sentient beings.


Even the air exemplifies this –it spreads all over, so that the air we are breathing here is the same air breathed in Africa, Asia, Europe. All sentient beings are living in the same condition. This is the teaching of Gautama Buddha. And every sentient being will be enlightened –not just humans, but cats and dogs, birds and fish –and all are my brothers and sisters.

More than a thousand years ago, Gyogi Bosatsu sang of walking through the forest:


I heard the singing birds;

Suddenly I thought:

This is father’s voice, mother voice.


The teaching of the Buddha goes to every sentient being; this is all-equalness, nonself. If we wipe our eye with enlightenment, we will understand this oneness.  But always this eye is covered with selfishness and discrimination; therefore it is very difficult to see the Truth, for our thinking is greatly limited, and so are our words. Even Nembutsu cannot be recited to save anyone.


The important thing, then, is to become an awakened one. Awakening is to become Amida Buddha himself (herself). And if there is one single being who cannot awaken. Amida himself will not awaken. When we awaken, Amida Buddha’s vow and action become our vow and action. Not dwelling in any paradise, we work continuously for the salvation of others. This teaching is always action upon action, marching and marching, for the sake of all sentient beings. There is no rest.



Rebirth in the Pure Land


Every being will be born in the Pure Land. However, if one will not hear this teaching, one repeats birth and death, or suffering, until one finally hears. In that case, Amida will not obtain enlightenment until one hears; therefore to hear is very important.


Even the insect –any sentient being or grass or vegetable – will be born in Nirvana. From the Amida’s viewpoint, nothing is discriminated. Failure to hear the teaching – failure to be born –is from our viewpoint.


The son of the billionaire, if he is alone and destitute, thinks that he is poor. But when the father’s lawyer informs him that he is a billionaire, he says to himself, “I never know I was a rich man! How wonderful!”


Always there is the richness of the dharmata (dharma-nature) already fixed. But unless I hear this message, I will know nothing infinite and will instead suffer from birth and death. My hearing this teaching is the result of the past good karma, the beneficial outcome of distant karma, as Rennyo Shonin says. But this is to be understood through what Donran calls Amida’s karma power, the power of the Vow that takes in all and forsakes none.


Click below to enter the ABSC web site for more information on The Great Natural Way.


Our Beliefs, Practices and Experiences

Copyright 2006. G.R. Lewis, All Rights Reserved

The author grants permission to copy this document for personal uses only.