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Finding the Measureless An introduction to Amida Buddhism Session Four

Cry of the Heart, Nembutsu

Amida Trust The Buddhist House 12 Coventry Rd Narborough LE19 2GR Prasada Ca roline Braz ier

Longing and Calling In the first session of this course we talked about the way that most of us have an intuition of the spiritual. We may feel this as a longing in our heart or a feeling of wistfulness. The human impulse to call out to the spiritual realm is expressed in the religious activities of many groups. In particular it is common to the practices of many groups to put special emphasis on calling the names of their spiritual source, whether they see that source as God or in some other form. In Buddhism the practice of calling on Buddhas and other celestial beings is common to many traditions. It may involve the recitation of the Buddha’s name or of epithets, descriptive terms associated with the Buddha, or of the names of Bodhisattvas (beings who embody particular qualities of Buddhas like compassion or wisdom) In Pureland the practice of calling on the Buddha is the main practice. It is an expression of our heart longing or of our gratitude to Buddha.

EXERCISE ONE Think about the experiences which you identified in session one. Do any of these experiences evoke a feeling of longing? What do you understand by the idea of spiritual longing? Is it something you can relate to? Try to find an image which speaks to you of the feeling of wistfulness or yugen and allow yourself to sit quietly, holding the image in your mind. See whether an impulse towards sound comes up in you. If you were to call out from that place of longing, what might it sound like?

Gratitude Whilst some people experience the calling out of the Buddha’s name as an expression of longing, for other people, the calling out is an expression of gratitude. When we contemplate our world and the good things we have received, our dependence on the goodwill of others and on the work of generations who have lived before us, we may feel overwhelmed with gratitude. This feeling can find expression in the spiritual practice of calling on the universal Buddha, the presence of love and compassion in the world.

Creating a bridge When we reflect on the spiritual realm and our own ordinary nature, we may feel a distance opening up between us, but the practice of calling on the Buddha’s name is like a bridge which reaches out between us and the Buddha. We do not even have to know what it is we are calling to. All we need is to feel our own impulse towards the spiritual and to express it.

Nembutsu as a bridge The practice of calling out to Buddha is called nembutsu. Nembutsu is the Japanese form of Nien Fo. It means having Buddha in mind. Nembutsu has a number of different forms, coming from different Asian languages. The exact form doesn’t matter. What matters is that nembutsu is an expression of our heart calling. The form we commonly use is

NAMO AMIDA BU Namo: literally means “I call” or “I name”. This is our heart reaching out towards Buddha. It is the expression of longing, the desire to connect, the taking of Buddha’s outstretched hand. Amida: literally means “without measure” (-mida is similar to our word meter, and a- is a negative prefix) Bu: is short for Buddha. Thus the second half of the nembutsu is the Buddha, or the spirit of Buddhaness to whom we reach. In this way the nembutsu forms a bridge between ourselves as limited humans and the universal spirit at work in the universe.

EXERCISE TWO Take a sheet of paper and put it in front of you. Sit in a meditative mind state and try to find a heart sense which expresses a longing for the spiritual. As you hold this feeling as the focus of your attention, write words on your sheet of paper that express its quality. These may express a calling out or a longing, a feeling of joy or gratitude or whatever emerges for you from the contemplation. When you have collected the words, create a poem of words, images or sounds which expresses the feeling which you have been exploring.

Nembutsu as a practice Nembutsu can be practiced in different ways. In our daily practice at Amida we chant it when walking and when sitting. We even chant it while we make bows (or prostrations as they are called) Sometimes when we chant it we use a percussion instrument called a mokujo to keep time. There are different tunes and different words that are used, but the meaning is always the same. These are all forms we use in our regular practice. · ·

Namo Amida Bu Namanda bu

· ·

Amitabha Namo Omito Fo Infinite Light, Be my delight, Shine on me, An ordinary


Origins of the practice Nembutsu expresses the spiritual feeling. The origin of Buddhist devotional practice probably goes back to the practices which grew up very early in Buddhist history when people felt great loss and longing for their teacher, the Buddha, after his death. In particular though, the nembutsu practice comes from the Larger Pureland Sutra. In this key text the Buddha tells of the vows which Amida Buddha made. These included the eighteenth vow which said that whoever called upon Amida Buddha’s name with faith would be born in the Pureland after death. Nembutsu is the basis then of the faith path within Buddhism. It is the most widely practised form of Buddhism in Japan and very popular throughout the Far East, though it is far less well known in the West.

Nembutsu in daily life Chanting nembutsu creates our link with the measureless Buddha, Amida. Next session will look in more detail at our experience of Amida, but for this week we can focus on our feelings of calling and longing for the spiritual dimension. Whilst chanting the nembutsu is a wonderful practice, people sometimes find it difficult to practise on their own, particularly when they are starting. Sometimes self-consciousness gets in the way. For other people the words seem meaningless to begin with. These feelings are quite normal and understandable. After you have been reflecting on your experience of the spiritual for a while and linking it to the nembutsu, the practice will start to make sense for you, and you will discover its richness, but this takes persistence. Practicing in a group helps. Like any spiritual tradition, the more you practise, the more deeply you will come to love and express the spirit of it. Each repetition helps to build your affinity with the nembutsu. Nembutsu is not always chanted. In daily life nembutsu can become a phrase that acts as a reminder that can be said on any occasion. Sometimes Pureland Buddhists carry a rosary and count many repetitions of nembutsu during a day. You can chant silently to yourself at the bus stop or waiting in a queue. Other times we say nembutsu to one another as a greeting or acknowledgment. You might write it on cards and place it round your home or office or might have it on your computer screen saver. The nembutsu is a reminder that life is good, we are supported, and the spiritual realm is always available.

EXERCISE THREE Make a list of ways you can bring nembutsu into your daily life

MEDITATION EXERCISE This week spend ten minutes a day practicing nembutsu. Sit in your quiet space and spend time settling yourself and breathing with your spiritual energy, then when you are ready start to chant. It is good to chant aloud, as chanting opens the heart and loosens your attachment to the mundane. It can be good to use a recording of chanting (there are some nice ones on the web) to keep you company. If you feel self-conscious, and this gets in the way, you can chant under your breath. The important thing is to say the nembutsu.


Session four of the programme