June 2018 Message
"Attention Shoppers, There is a lost boy..."
The great practice is to say the Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light. This practice, comprehensively encompassing all practices, is perfect and most rapid in bringing about birth; hence it is called “great practice.” Saying the Name, then, effectively breaks through all the ignorance of sentient beings and readily brings all their aspirations to fulfillment. Saying the Name is in itself mindfulness; mindfulness is Nembutsu; Nembutsu is Namu-amida-butsu. (The Collected Works of Shinran, vol. 1, p. 296)
Back one evening in 1998, two of my sons were taking a bath. As one of them was getting out of the tub, he slipped and instinctively grabbed the towel rack that was attached to the wall to regain his balance. Needless to say, the towel rack did not stay attached to the wall. Where it was once attached, two gapping holes remained marking where the screws and anchors had been ripped apart from the dry wall. This meant that I had to plan a trip to the hardware store to buy the materials to fix it.
Linda was volunteering at school the next day, which meant that I had to take Tommy, then 4 years old, with me on my errands. To get Tommy to cooperate on these errands, I had to use one of those special parenting techniques that have withstood the test of time— a Bribe. I told Tommy that we had to go on many errands and if he came with me, we would look for a new bicycle for him since his tricycle recently broke. So naturally he was very excited and motivated to come with me.
As we had many errands to do that day, I reminded him that he should stay close. His reply was, “I know!” Tommy obediently stayed close for the most part not wandering off too far.
The main reason for going to the hardware store was to get spackling paste so that I could repair the holes in the bathroom wall. But, I hate going into a store to buy only one thing. So, I browsed up and down the aisles looking for an additional towel rack that matched the one I was trying to repair, and luckily Home Depot had the style I was looking for. Tommy was also going up and down the aisles looking at various things too. After I found the other things, it was time to get the spackling compound. That meant we had to go to the other side of Home Depot. Tommy walked right along the side of me asking me,
“When are we going to Toys-R-Us to look for my bike?”
I answered, “As soon as we are done here, we will go.”
IWe got to the aisle where the spackling compounds were located, and as usual there were a number of different kinds and brands. Naturally I had to read the labels and directions to find which one was suitable for my needs. This of course took some time. With my attention diverted, Tommy wandered away. But I wasn’t too worried because he knew where I was and I figured that he would come back to the last place that we were together. After selecting the right spackling compound, I turned to go, but realized that Tommy wasn’t with me anymore. I figured that he must be in the close vicinity, so I cruised up and down the aisles looking for him.
Then from the front of the store, I heard a distant, “Dad?” Instinctively, I knew that it was Tommy. “Tommy” I responded in a loud but not obvious way. “Dad??!” “Tommy.” I began to hear a little panic in his voice. “Dad???” He began to cry. “Tommy, I am right here.”
By this time, I had gotten up to the front of the store near the registers. I saw him running frantically around trying to find me in the massive store where the echoes disguise where the sounds actually originate. I saw one of the store clerks who had just noticed that Tommy was in distress trying to comfort him. Just then, Tommy saw me approaching as well. He took comfort in my arms and opened up with tears.
In a way, this exchange of calling out each other’s name is very similar to the Nembutsu experience. Nembutsu is the heart of our Jodo Shinshu tradition and has gone through its own transformation. Literally Nembutsu means to be mindful of the Buddha. Shinran, as well as the 7 Masters, also realized that it included the meaning of Saying the Name of Amida Buddha, Namo Amida Butsu.
Often there is a misunderstanding where the Name, Namo Amida Butsu falls into a world of mystical magic. The recitation of Namo Amida Butsu has no miraculous powers in that sense. Simply by reciting Namo Amida Butsu, one’s illness may or may not be cured; one’s grief may or may not be overcome; one may or may not win the Lotto Grand prize. These are the matters of a relative mundane world. The recitation of Nembutsu transcends the limited, mundane, worldly oncerns and illuminates a fundamental reality of Truth that is described as Unobstructed Light and Immeasurable Life. This Infinite Truth embraces and envelops that which is finite. In other words then, the fundamental purpose of Nembutsu is to awaken to the reality of the finite self, which is inseparable from the boundless and infinite reality, that we call absolute life.
Central to the Nembutsu is the awakening to human limitations being lost, rootless and directionless. The word Namo, corresponds and expresses this reality of the limitations of human beings. This realization is brought about through Amida Butsu - the boundless, endless ocean of compassion and wisdom. Namo Amida Butsu, thus is the unification of the dual realizations of the limitations of human beings and the unlimited potential of a life embraced with wisdom and compassion.
In a way, Tommy’s first call of “Dad?” [Namo] reminds me of the realization of one who is lost and is looking for help and guidance. This is followed by a response, “Tommy, I am here” [Amida Butsu]. This response comes from a heart of wisdom realizing that one is in need of help and compassionately responds by saying “Come as you are.” After hearing the response and realizing that indeed Dad is close by, Tommy can feel assured that he is no longer lost and responds once more with gratitude, “Dad!” [Namo Amida Butsu ] This is very similar to the Nembutsu experience that we awaken to when we realize that we are illuminated by the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Infinite life. I am made to realize my reality as a karmic-bound being, limited, imperfect and mortal, contained within the realm of boundless compassion.
With this discovery and awakening, we can continue to live on in face of illness, death, sorrow, joy and pain. These obstacles do not represent barriers that cannot be overcome, rather, they become the source of true awakening and fulfillment. They become the call and response of Namo Amida Butsu itself.
Namo Amida Butsu!!