Reverend's Message - November 2015
"Easy does not mean not difficult"
Rev. Dean Koyama
Men and women, royal and common – everyone
Can utter the Name of Amida (Namo Amida Butsu)
Whether they are walking, standing, sitting, or lying,
Unhindered by time, or place, or other conditions.
(Shinran's Koso Wasan #94 on Genshin)
Several years ago, a visitor came into the temple. She was about 45 to 50 years old, casually dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. She came asking if I knew of a place where she could sit in a quiet darkened place. Not knowing exactly what she wanted, I invited her to come in and sit in the Hondo (the Main Temple Hall), which is usually dark because the lights are only on when we have services. She then said, "Oh no. You don't understand. I've been practicing sitting meditation for the last twenty years, but the apartment where I live now, is very noisy. I was wondering if you have a place like a retreat center so that I get away from people, the noise, and the traffic so that I can recharge myself." I told her that we didn't have such a facility and apologized for not being able to help her.
After she left, I thought to myself, I don't have anything to apologize to her for. That's when I thought…This is what makes our Jodo Shinshu tradition so special; we don't need a special place to practice, we don't need a special time to practice. We don't need to get away from the city noise and the congestion of people. In fact, it is exactly in the midst of other people, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our busy everyday lives that we need to find and should practice the Nembutsu..
The above poem written by Shinran is based upon the words of the Tendai monk, Genshin (942- 1017), who Shinran considered to be the 6th of the 7 Masters who clarified the teachings of Nembutsu. Genshin said:
"It is not difficult for anyone – man, woman, royal or common – to practice (the Nembutsu), at anytime –walking, standing, sitting, or lying, and regardless of time, occasion, or any other condition."
In Jodo Shinshu, the path to Enlightenment can be found not only in the quiet of the solitude in the middle of a secluded forest, but it also can be found in the midst of all these people in the middle of the city. Unlike Prince Siddhartha, we do not have to abandon our homes or family to pursue this path of Enlightenment. If this were a requirement, then indeed only a few would be able to do so. Originally, only those who did abandon their homes and family were allowed to practice the Buddha's Path. In other words, only the order of the monks was considered to be the Sangha. However, even these monks had to rely upon those who could not abandon their home and family. They provided the monks with their daily food offerings, clothing, and a place to study, practice and rest. It was through the sustenance provided by these lay, common people that the monks had the luxury to just concentrate on their practice.
Gradually, the relationship between the monk and the lay changed as well. This is very evident in looking at the historical development of the temples, especially in Japan. The area for the monks in the early Buddhist temples was basically the whole temple hall with just a small area for lay people to sit either on the side or none at all. But with the development of especially the Jodo Shinshu temples, the area for the monks became smaller - just around the altar (Naijin) while the area for the lay (Gejin) grew exponentially.
Part of the reason for this development was due to the influence of the Nembutsu. In other words, according to the Jodo Shinshu teachings, there is no distinction, no set of requirements or qualifications to practice the Nembutsu. We can do it anytime or anyplace. We can do it alone or we can do it with others. Why? Because it is easy and natural. But being easy does not mean it is not difficult.
When I was studying in Japan, the late Rev. Gyomay Kubose would come and visit every so often. There were quite a few of us ministerial students studying in Japan at the time. We would gather together at one of our apartments, have dinner and then Rev. Kubose would talk about Buddhism. He was also an accomplished Japanese calligrapher so we asked if he wouldn't mind teaching us. The first thing he showed us was to draw a straight horizontal line. He said you must practice this 50 times a day for one year. We all giggled thinking, "Oh this will be so easy. Anyone can draw a straight horizontal line." And indeed, when Sensei drew the line he made it look so easy. However, when we each tried to draw a straight horizontal line, our lines would be slanted or curved; the width of the line changed from fat and skinny. They didn't resemble the perfectly drawn line made by Sensei. He made it look easy, but in reality it was difficult.
The practice of Nembutsu has often been called the Easy Practice. It is easy because it is a practice that anyone can do. Again, no requirements, qualifications, special instructions are needed to be able to say Namo Amida Butsu. In theory, it seems easy…but in practice it is very difficult. It is difficult because we make it difficult. We try to analyze and justify it. We add our own preconceived calculations and contrivances to it. But most of all, it is difficult to say because our own ego gets in the way. When the minister or someone else leads us in the practice of the Nembutsu, many of us are comfortable just repeating it. And that is OK. We must first begin to practice it like when we begin to learn calligraphy, a foreign language, a musical instrument, golf, juggling, walking or riding a bicycle. But we must also get to a point where we are able to go solo too. I hope that together we can practice the Nembutsu so that it becomes natural and that we can say it without having to find a secluded quiet spot but rather in the midst of our everyday lives whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down.