Saturday, September 22, 2007

Four misconceptions concerning the nembutsu

-commentary on a fragment from “The Essentials of Faith Alone” by Master Seikaku-

The four misconceptions concerning the nembutsu, presented by Master Seikaku in the fragment I chose from the Essentials of Faith Alone, refers to the wrong understanding of impermanence, bad karma, good karma and the matter of once calling and many callings of the Name of Amida Buddha.

If we wish to understand a certain object, we look to its qualities, to the elements that creates it. Which are the elements and fundamental qualities of life? A body and mind which are subject to an inexorable cycle of birth, growing, maturity, decay and death. Decay and death …. Especially these two must attract our attention in the same way we analyze a certain object, some qualities distinguish themselves from the others and lead to the definition of the object.

In the case of life, impermanence is the fundamental characteristic. So, what we do with an object who has impermanence as its main quality? Who is as slippery as an eel and very dangerous, so that when it is wrongly understood and used, gives rise to suffering. This is the most important question. All true practitioners have analyzed and will analyze this life with the same seriousness Siddhartha treated the meeting with an old man, a sick person and a corpse. His life could no longer be the same after these meetings.
The life of someone who is aware of the truth of impermanence is not divided in the present moment and the moment of death, rather it is a life in which the moment of death is lived here and now, in this very second. My conversion happened in the moment when the distance between me and my death was reduced to zero. Until then, I always felt like having a lot of time to practice meditation, be wise, read, etc. But in that moment I felt that I have no time. Shinjin is always received on the death bed. At least that is how it was in my case. This is why nembutsu from that moment continues even now, because the first nembutsu was the nembutsu of a dying person.

But why my conversion was from a self power practice towards a practice based on Other Power? Why not to “a better practice”, but still in the realm of self power? Because I felt that I cannot rely on myself. Because in the moment one feels the fragility of his body and sees with his own eyes the corpse of a friend or of a close relative, one cannot praise himself with his personal capacities. In the moment of my conversion I felt that I cannot be a refuge for myself and that Amida became the only refuge. Since then I continue to experience this truth every day. Not only the perspective of my death, but my own personal life is a constant reminder of the necessity of getting free from myself in the embrace of Amida.

Master Rennyo said:
The teaching of Buddha Dharma is the teaching of non-ego”.
In Buddhism, the teaching of non-ego is often linked with the image of Bodhisattvas who never think of themselves, but are always dedicated to the salvation of all beings. This is true, but it is only one aspect of it. How can we, ignorant people, understand the teaching of non-ego? In what form do we find it emphasized it in Jodo Shinshu?

To follow the teaching of non-ego also means to abandon once and for all any thought of merit or non-merit, it means not to include any personal calculation in matters that concerns our birth in the Pure Land. Rennyo Shonin said:

“When a single thought of Faith is awakened in us, our birth in the Pure Land is definitely settled. It is left up to Amida Tathagata whether he saves us after destroying our karmic evil or not. It is useless for us to discuss matters concerning our karmic evil. What concerns us is that Amida saves those who entrust themselves to him.”

I see the two wrong views, corrected by Master Seikaku, about the influence of bad karma or good karma in the act that leads to birth in the Pure Land, in the light of the above two explanations given by Rennyo Shonin. In the same way, Seikaku demonstrates the futility of any attachment by the evil or good karma from the past. To worry about our karma, means to be blinded by ourselves and not to see the Buddha. It means not to hear the teaching but to hear the noises of personal ego. Because what is in the essence, our practice of reciting with faith the Name of the Buddha, if not the escape from the dangerous traps of the ego who thinks to be the center of the universe and tries in vain to lie that it struggles to transcend himself and attain Nirvana through his own efforts, when in fact, he does nothing more than strengthen himself in a more subtle way, putting more obstacles between him and the true Enlightenment. I wonder, how can the ego overcome himself while still relying on himself, how can we make a mirror through polishing a brick? These are fundamental questions in Jodo Shinshu.

Then, the question of “how many times should we recite nembutsu” is also useless for someone who relies on Amida. We must not become complicated but search to understand the essential. The Name is not separated from shinjin (entrusting heart). Saichi said:

“When someone is catching a cold he cannot abstain not to cough. I caught the cold of Buddha’s Dharma and I cannot stop coughing the nembutsu.”

The true nembutsu does not appear before the awakening of faith in the same way coughing does not produce a cold but is an expression, a manifestation of it. I like this simple explanation about the relation between shinjin and nembutsu. It is very simple to deduce from here that the number of nembutsu recitation is not important. But of course, when we catch a cold, we cough many times. It would be really stupid to think that a cold manifest itself only through a single cough, even if we became aware of its existence when we coughed for the first time. In the same way, when we rely for the first time on Amida, we say nembutsu spontaneously, as an expression of faith. Namo Amida Butsu! – I take refuge in Amida! – this is something very natural. Then, because we became “contaminated” with shinjin, of course we will feel the need to say nembutsu in the future.

To think “how many times must cough a man who has caught a cold” or “how many times must say ‘I love you’ a man who is in love”, is not something else but to philosophize on cold or love. It means to see them from outside. To remain aside and look from afar at the Primal Vow, asking yourself how many times you must say nembutsu, it means that you still haven’t “cling to Amida’s sleeves”, like Rennyo said.
We must truly let ourselves embraced by the nembutsu, that is to rely on Amida and not be concerned about anything else. And we must do this today, that is here and now, on the death bed of today, when every useless question ceased and nembutsu appears spontaneously.

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