06 February 2016

Nembutsu Practice

Let's say you've learned enough about Buddhism that you are now eager to begin practicing but you find yourself isolated and without a chance to learn how to practice. Many beginners are in this situation: where can I find someone who will teach me, down in the West Texas town of El Paso, or in Klamath Falls, or in Harrisonburg?

What you need in this situation is a practice you can do now that will bring real benefit, one that will help you create the causes and conditions that will put you next to an authentic teacher of Dharma. Nembutsu is a practice like this: open to the public and very profound. Here is how to do it:

Nembutsu is the mindful repetition of the name of Amitabha Buddha. You will need to be mindful of three aspects in this practice: your body, your speech, and your mind.

With your body, move mindfully with the understanding that the Buddha Amitabha is present and that your surroundings are ultimately a pure land, that you inhabit a sacred place where realization comes easily and all beings are blessed. During formal practice periods, we do nembutsu while walking mindfully. It is quite alright to do nembutsu while washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, or carrying on your other ordinary tasks so long as you can maintain the pure view of your location as being in essence inseparable from Amitabha's pure land. Do not fidget or fuss with extraneous things.  Turn off the television, the radio, the blackberry, the internet; cut away extraneous distractions and focus on the essential. Keep an upright posture and relax: not too loose, not too tight.

With your speech, gently repeat the name of Amitabha Buddha again and again like a flowing river. It need not be loud. If necessary, say the nembutsu with "the tongue of the mind," which is to say, in your imagination only. In Tendai, we recite it as Namu Amidabu, and this sounds like Nah Moo Ah Mee Dah Boo (you know the sound of "a" in "apple"? don't use that sound. Use the "ah" sound as in "open up and say 'ah'". If the pronunciation is difficult, send me an email and we can work on it.) It is possible to say this a million or two million times over and not exhaust the benefit of it. Just keep going.

With your mind, be very aware that Amidabha Buddha is near you. You can visualize Amitabha above your head as a standing Buddha emanating very bright clear light. Wherever this light touches and penetrates becomes purified of all negative past karma, and what is more, the seeds of bodhicitta are planted in the minds of all beings touched by it. As your practice strengthens, extend this Buddha-power to all corners of all worlds until Amitabha's pure light touches and blesses all without exception (your neighborhood, your town, your region, your nation, the continent where you live, the planet Earth, the cosmos) with no exceptions: the people who have helped you and the ones that have hurt you, the ones you like or don't like, all the beings from the cancer ward to the pigs in the slaughter to your daughter's classroom. All of them.

Studying images of Amitabha can help you get started and get inspired. If you put yourself into this practice one hundred percent, it begins to take on a life of its own and becomes more real than a heartbreak or a toothache. Too see this, however, you must try and not hold back.

The great Ch'an master Hsuan Hua made some profound comments on recitation practice. I'll repeat them here for your consideration:

Your goal is to dispense with all extraneous thoughts and to consolidate your thoughts into one mindful thought of the Buddha. If you don't have extraneous thoughts, you won't have any evil thoughts, and when nothing evil is arising in your mind, you're on the road to goodness.

(Surangama Sutra commentary, p. 231)

Finally, I would like to dispel a concern many beginners express when introduced to nembutsu practice: how do I know Amitabha Buddha is real and not just another bit of make-believe? My answer: Earnestly put it into practice and see which is more real, the body of Amitabha or your own aging body; your everyday distracted mind or Amitabha's enlightened mind; your everyday contradictory and not-always-perfectly-honest speech or the pure teaching of Amitabha Buddha.

In reality, your nature is no different from Amitabha's, and with practice, all the enlightened characteristics we associate with Amitabha arise in you. This is a method for accomplishing it, and it is free for you to try. I encourage you to do just that, to realize the nature of mind and be of real and lasting help to all who suffer.