The nembutsu is Amida’s essential living prayer that allows us to live a truly happy and meaningful life by
transforming our confusion and suffering into our true potential as authentic human beings, and to be spiritually reborn in
Land. It must be clarified that the nembutsu is not a practice to
attain spiritual liberation but is the living expression of Enlightened Mind and conveys our deep gratitude towards
Amida's gift of liberation to us and all beings. As Shinshu Kyodan Renmei so eloquently said, “the
nembutsu is not my call to the Buddha but the Buddha’s calling me.” What
do the components of Namu-Amida-Butsu mean?
Namu – Historical Dimension and Devotion
The namu component expresses
our historical dimension of birth and death. In this linear dimension, we experience our lives as imperfect, finite and ultimately
self-centered beings. Furthermore, namu signifies our directionless and confused
lives, and our endless ability to cause and experience suffering. Namu, also, conveys our devotion to the Buddha Dharma and focuses on Buddha’s compassion. Through faith,
study and practice of the nembutsu, our lives will naturally improve by the innate momentum of Buddha’s karma (Primal
Vow); thereby, we gradually evolve to our potential and are then spiritually enabled to make our world a better place to live.
Amida – Ultimate Dimension
Boundless Life and Compassion is the transcendent reality beyond duality (pair of opposites)
which is beyond life and death and is the true essence of the cosmos and our deepest nature. This ultimate dimension also
known in Buddhist terms as the Dharmakaya is personified as Amida, who is the living expression of immeasurable life and light, and is the one Life of all beings in our vast
universe. In addition, the ultimate dimension is without description, definite location and has no beginning or end, but can
be experienced in the timeless now through the voicing of the nembutsu. Being one
with all things, Amida corresponds to absolute compassion because she equally identifies herself with the joys
and sorrows of all beings.
Butsu – Awakening and Way of Life
Butsu is Japanese
for Buddha, an honorific title symbolizing the living mind and essence of awakening. Butsu
is the vehicle to express our lives because he bridges the separate realities of Namu
and Amida. As the originator of the Primal Vow and our voicing of the nembutsu,
the Buddha is the dynamic karmic momentum that makes us realize our limitations (namu) within the nurturing embrace of boundless
compassion (Amida). Butsu corresponds to unconditional love and total acceptance
because Buddha wishes all beings to be free from suffering and ceaselessly works to liberate them regardless of race,
gender, class, intelligence, religion or moral status.
In addition, butsu points to a way of life, in which through devotion
and practice, we can experience an open, free and natural lifestyle at the intersection of Namu and Amida. That is to say, butsu
is an awakened life at the juncture of the historical and ultimate dimensions. This natural way of life is marked by freedom,
love, and gratitude.
The Nexus of the Historical and Ultimate Dimensions
The nembutsu is the spiritual “buzz” or “vibe” of the cosmos. It can also be seen as the
intimate calling of life itself, manifesting in our hearts and minds, transforming suffering into wholesomeness. The nembutsu
is the union of all opposites, in which the limited and confused self is integrated with Boundless Life and Light. In other
words, it is the union of the historical and ultimate dimensions in the very here and now. With Namu-Amida-Butsu, uncertainty and death are transformed into assurance and deathlessness. That is to say,
the finite, frail and mortal individual awakens to the fact that she has always been fused within the one life, which freely
and totally bequeaths itself to her through compassion and wisdom. As a result of this profound recognition, our deep
seated alienation and a sense of separation are replaced by spiritual inclusion and nurturing interconnection. Shinshu Kyodan
Remei captured the feeling of this inner transformation when he wrote, “Namu-Amida-Butsu
is the cry of joy, when meeting my true self.”
At its root, the voicing of the nembutsu is a non-dual practice, that is, its voicing does not just originate from
our volition or ego-centered will power but is really the result of the ceaseless working of Boundless Life within us, personified
as Amida Buddha. It is the natural consequence of deeply hearing the cosmic “buzz” with the entirety of one’s
mind, body and speech. As Muso Kimura so nicely stated, “While in a world of voices, one transcends all voices and one
hears the voice that is voiceless.” Shinran Shonin clarified this non-dual
nature of the nembutsu by saying, “although I recite the nembutsu, I am not reciting. It is Amida in me that makes me
recite…” The non-dual expression of Namu-Amida-Butsu, as a sign of
spiritual liberation, empowers us to truly fuse our lives with reality’s deepest source and consciously partake in
the Pure Land,
which is the realm of eternal life. This articulates the completion of circle of life, in which the merger of Namu (historical)
with Amida (ultimate) manifests as Butsu (awakening) in the eternal now.
Through the ceaseless working of the nembutsu, we are transformed to live at the nexus of the historical and ultimate
dimensions. As 20th century Shin Buddhist philosopher Zuiken summed it up, “the essence of the Mahayana is;
without severing blind passions, one attains Nirvana.” That is the say, our foolish and fictitious selves are gradually
dissolved and we are gratefully brought to the realization of the natural life, in which we are no longer bounded by
our self-limitations, isolated from the past, present and future but truly seeing everything arising and blending together
within the boundless interplay of the Pure Land.
Nembutsu and the Eucharist
To further clarify the nembutsu for the Western mind, let’s compare it with the Catholic sacrament of the
Eucharist, which is quite different from the nembutsu but shares some religious commonality with it. According to the Catholic
Church, the actual living presence of Christ is within the actual wine and wafer of the Eucharist. Furthermore, this rite
can only be taken at a Church service through an intermediary of an ordained priest of the Holy See. By taking the Eucharist,
the worshipper is literally and biologically absorbing in the life and spirit of Christ.
The nembutsu is somewhat akin to the Eucharist, in which Namu-Amida-Butsu
is experienced as the living embodiment of Amida Buddha in our minds and hearts. Unlike the Eucharist that can only be taken
through official rituals, the nembutsu may be experienced at anytime or place, and has nothing to do with intermediaries.
The nembutsu is the direct transmission of the sacred mind of the cosmos (the ultimate dimension) into our personal
life experience, which gradually and unfailingly transforms us from our unseeing and self-centered foolish selves into the
substance of enlightenment, full of gratitude, love and wisdom. The nembutsu is the way of partaking in the Sacred Story,
the Pure Land
and eternal life.
Furthermore, the nembutsu does not come from an external source like the Eucharist. Amida does not abide separately
from us and must be literally absorb into our biological system to be experienced. On the contrary, Amida is our true nature
that has always been within us and the voicing of Namu-Amida-Butsu is simply the
manifestation of its full and living presence in our consciousness and life experience.
How Can You Experience the Nembutsu?
What do we need to do to experience this sacred presence? Shinran Shonin said, "Just say the nembutsu and be liberated."
What did he mean? We just need to believe and then open ourselves up to Amida, aspire to realize our human potential, entrust
in her Primal Vow, and deeply hear within us the divine vibration of the cosmos. This whole spiritual process culminates
with shinjin, the experience of awakening, in which the nembutsu quite naturally
erupts from our deepest source and inevitably our “old selves” are cast off and we are reborn into new spiritual
lives. This religious experience may be experienced many times throughout one’s life. See segments on the Primal Vow, Faith and Spiritual Rebirth and the Our Central Message.