Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Marcus Cumberlege


"Nembutsu Poetry and Daily Life"

The essay which follows, illustrated with my own haiku and three longer poems, focuses on our positive and negative attitudes towards the complex samsaric world we live in and pleads for a joyful acceptance of reality supported by nembutsu practice. My thesis is backed up by reference to the teachings of Honen, Shinran and Rennyo.

I am not a physical being having a spiritual experience but I am a spiritual being having a physical experience, which is often painful ....

The questions around which my thoughts revolve are the following: Am I to become a non-committal, other-worldly, uninterested, indifferent and even unwilling participant in the spectacle of life (Honen sometimes maintains that we should "loathe" the world, though he probably refers to the fact of transmigration). Or am I to be a committed lover of life in all its facets, an admirer of beauty in nature and people, a glad participator, an accepter, an enthusiastic creator, a poet?

As Shin Buddhists we are inevitably aware of the great contrast between this world of suffering and the shining Land of Bliss offered to us by Amida in his Primal Vow. This could be discouraging, in the sense that, while relishing the prospect of future peace and joy, we might not know how to spend the time profitably while waiting for the great event to happen.

It is easy to fall into the trap of designating some scenarios as good and others as bad. Enlightened beings do not do this. If we do, we are playing the game of duality. Luckily we have Shinran Shonin who constantly advises us to avoid all calculation and rely on Other Power for guidance. And very fortunately for us we have Amida Buddha who teaches us wisdom and compassion when dealing with our fellows, and with the hardships of daily life.

"If Shinran reaches the Pure Land
    how much more so
        a bombu like me?"

As a nembutsu practicer whose hope is a birth in the Land of Bliss, I often find myself 'saying goodbye' to or detaching from my environment and the people in it, believing that this really is my last time round. Life is a dewdrop slipping from the petal of a rose, it is fleeting and transitory.

"Every single leaf
    in our tiny garden
        whispers Amida's Name."

Human beings are fearful and uncertain. The author of these lines admits to being foolish, forgetful, self-centered, ignorant and often unmanageable in fact he has all the makings of a good Shin Buddhist, a perfect target for Amida's all-embracing compassion. This fear, or 'angst', evaporates completely when I recite nembutsu. There is something reassuring about it, as if I was no longer alone, and it calms me down. At times, shutting out conceptual thought, it confers a kind of Zen tranquillity of mind. I wouldn't say nembutsu if it didn't make me feel good. It's something to go by.

"Another fine day -
    Namo Amida Butsu
        is all I can say."

It is better to recite nembutsu, even in a distracted or despondent mood, than to gaze into space indulging in philosophy and speculation. Remember: nembutsu is the Act of Right Assurance. And then, when hesitation, doubt and uncertainty creep in, we have Rennyo Shonin to fall back on with his often repeated advice: "ignore evil karma and just recite your nembutsu in the normal way, with joy and gratitude." The Great Masters of our tradition certainly knew what they were talking about, and I have often been "saved" by an encouraging line like this come across in their writings.

"Gratitude is a grand feeling
    that opens the gates of happiness."

Since the emphasis of this conference is so much on daily life, let us stop for a moment and look at the animal in question. Without going too far we see that the average devotee is a bombu, a common mortal of limited intelligence, apt to make mistakes and in need of help. Our great Masters themselves often refer to us as "miserable wretches". Uncertainty and disappointment dog our lives at every step. Illness and death are prevalent. People can be unkind or hostile. Perhaps we are very poor. Suitable work may be hard to find. There may be no temple or teacher within reach. There could be barriers of language or race. The country might be at war. We could be confined in a prison or psychiatric unit. In short, we may be unhappy for any number of other reasons, and a hostile attitude towards life could influence negatively our acceptance of the Shin Buddhist teachings. For example, it is possible to believe something with one's intellect, but to disbelieve it with one's heart. At least, we have had the incredible good fortune to meet with the Buddha Dharma in this life.

Here follows a poem of 18 lines. Like the other short poems which appear here from time to time, it is in the "haiku" form, a type of poem which became popular in Japan in the 17th century.


Namo Amida
Butsu. I hear you in the
whistling of the birds.

Namo Amida
Butsu. I see your beauty
in the autumn tints.

Namo Amida
Butsu. My hands embrace you
round this cup of tea.

Namo Amida
Butsu. The smell of firewood
speaks to me of you.

Namo Amida
Butsu. The taste of mango
in my jaw. Blissful!

Namo Amida
Butsu. Joy of the Dharma.
The Pure Land is near.

In contrast to the attitude of indifference, and blindness to beauty, which can take hold of us when we are "down", this poem is a plea, central to my paper, for a beautiful, sacred and creative view of life, under whatever circumstances we happen to be. Comforted by Namo Amida Butsu, the Three Jewels and the teaching of Shin Buddhism we accept our human life as it is, simply get on with it, as Rennyo often advises us, and recite our nembutsu with gratitude, making the most of each day and not running away from difficulties.

"Life is a learning / process and I am grateful / for some hard lessons."

In one's reading of Shin Buddhist literature one seldom comes across morally slanted texts suggesting what to do or how to behave in case of a depression or a relationship problem or the growing pains of adolescence, and other difficult situations. We are certainly warned against anger, greed and ignorance. And we learn that it is inadvisable to take poison because we know there is an antidote. Questions might arise like "What is the purpose of it all?" or "Why is this Simple Path so difficult?" At this point I find myself turning to Rennyo, who implies an awful lot in very few words: "Once our faith is settled," he writes, "we should live in conformity with the ordinary circumstances of human life". Remember, too, that we are also told that the person of faith is protected by hosts of bodhisattvas, treading an "unhindered path".

"Putting the spoons away
    I realized
        Amida does it."

In a simple way I have tried to express here how it dawns on me now and then that Other Power is at work when I turn it over and let Amida do for me what I could not do for myself. Who is putting the spoons away, me or Amida? Who is saying Namo Amida Butsu, me or Amida? It's when you get close enough to him and the identification is strong that things start to go right and you find yourself on the "unhindered path". That's when you start acting naturally, with more joy, and less hakarai or speculation. Starting up a series of nembutsus can be hard when you're in a doubting frame of mind; perhaps the so-called "Other Power Nembutsu" doesn't well up on your lips; don't bother your head: just get started and it will soon go smoothly. Rennyo often ends his letters talking about this phenomenon.

Our attitude towards and understanding of the Eighteenth Vow will largely determine the way we respond to Shin Buddhism and the recital of nembutsu. "Realizing Faith means understanding the Eighteenth Vow" are the words of Rennyo Shonin. "We shall be delivered from the cycle of birth and death by the wonder of Amida's great compassionate Vow", Shinran Shonin is quoted as saying in Tannisho. At all events, our chance of birth will be small if we baulk intellectually at this gift.

Nor will our Shin faith be on a solid footing if we entertain thoughts that this samsaric life we now know is definitely worth coming back to in a future existence. Here we are skating on thin ice, and can hardly call ourselves Buddhists at all. "I am free!" cried Sakyamuni Buddha at the very moment of his exultant realization. We have to be free, of ourselves in the first place, but also of the defiled world in the midst of which we struggle to earn our living and bring up our children. Not unjustly are Buddhas described in the sutras as "Conquerors". We too will have plenty of battles to win.

There is a long list of "attractive alternatives" to our way of thinking and practicing. In Buddhism alone there are various schools, one or two of which share some of our teachings. Two of my very best friends went over the road, one into Shingon, the other into the paradises of Swedenborg and Lorber. They probably couldn't settle their minds about the Eighteenth Vow or believe in something so dead simple (but utterly inconceivable!) as nembutsu. We are also competing with the vast entertainment industry which tells us that enjoyment (of food, football and five thousand other phenomena) is all that matters. One hour spent outdoors with a nenju in hand is, for this devotee, preferable to an hour in any cinema. At unexpected moments, the utterance of nembutsu always works for me, where other remedies fail.

Tannisho tells us: "We are born into that Land when we have exhausted, even though reluctantly, our karmic relations to this world of suffering." Here, reluctantly is often the operative word. For countless kalpas we have been drifting around in these bodies like mice on a treadmill and now the opportunity has come to exchange them for something incomparably better.

"Constantly reciting nembutsu I have nothing to worry about in this life or the next," says Honen. As a perennial worrier, I am enormously encouraged by the Master's words to say nembutsu the moment it comes into my head which, with practice I can thankfully say is becoming more and more often. In the poem which follows, with which I conclude this essay, I describe a few of the situations I meet with Namo Amida Butsu on my lips.


Just go on quietly saying your nembutsu,
while the blackbird sings its song in the garden,
a peach or a pear between your fingers and thumb.
Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu . . .
This practice opens for you the Pure Land gate,
gently increases your store of happiness and joy.

No matter if Confucius attempts to confuse you
with questions like "What is coming into the room?"
and the teachers of Tarot and Kundalini advise you
not to give vital energy to the opposite sex -
just go on saying it in spite of all annoyances,
an electricity bill, a grouch, an unpleasant mood.

Haste and fear are among the diseases of our time,
weapons which Mara the Tempter uses against us.
Action and inaction battle against one another,
the path gets lost, there is no light on the question.
Be resolute, and forge ahead with the utterance
strongly recommended by the Masters of our school.

All manner of things shall be well, wrote T.S. Eliot,
wisely exercising his poetic and prophetic gifts.
Nothing indeed can bar the progress of the person
who resolutely walks the unhindered Pure Land path,
calling Amida's Name ten or ten thousand times a day
because there is nothing more truthful or real to say.

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