September 2016: Expanding Awareness & Acceptance
The American Sangha comes from many diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
As such, we should not assume a familiarity to the Japanese perspective that comes with the
Jodo Shinshu teachings. As I relate more traditional stories and familiar terms in Buddhism, I will be suggesting some expanded definitions. These definitions are not more correct. Our expanding awareness means that these additional interpretations may be more inviting and inclusive and provide a clearer, more contemporary meaning to traditional stories.
The Nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu, is the heart of Shin Buddhism. It is not just a verbal
expression, it is an experience of life. It has been described as our main practice. But this
description can lead to confusion. My own journey to grasp the essential meaning of the
Nembutsu, led me to the study of spiritual (transpersonal) psychology, some 35 years ago.
This major branch of psychology has been heavily influenced by Buddhist concepts, in order to understand the human relationship to the spiritual realm. I began to see a parallel of modern, English words with 13th century Japanese terms. I realized that Shinran’s appreciation of Amida’s Compassion, could be understood as receiving the efforts of many others. This was different from an attempt to achieve some ideal spiritual status. As I began to find many common, daily conditions to express my appreciation, my life got better. I modeled my grandmother’s appreciation of common, ordinary things (arigattai). This shift from “please” to “thank you” was a very practical way of understanding that the Namo Amida Butsu, is a deep expression of gratitude, rather than a petition or prayer for something else.
Hopefully, many of you have taken this suggestion to become aware of many common
situations to say “thank you.” As our daily desires (“please”) decreases, our gratitude (“thank
you”) increases. Joy is the sign that we are on the right path. A progressive, step-wise approach is important in any learning process. The 8-Fold Path is the classic model of steps in Buddhism. The next step would be to interchange “thank you” with “Na Man Da Bu.” This provides a familiar experience of Namo Amida Butsu and expands our awareness beyond a mental definition of words.
The 18th or Primal Vow in the Larger Sutra, is the fundamental mythology that presents the
Nembutsu. Shinran demonstrated his integrity in interpreting this sutra within his own experience.
His personal honesty challenged the methods maintained by the monastic, Tendai traditions of Mt. Hiei. He therefore left Mt. Hiei to follow Honen. Although he was honoring the teachings of his master, Honen, Shinran’s interpretation is significantly different. Shinran’s interpretation of the Nembutsu is validated by the research and practices of transpersonal psychology. A basic need of any human is to be accepted by a greater group. From our primitive roots, it has been essential for humans to survive as a member of a tribe or group. The Buddha relates this in the myth of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara becoming Amida Buddha. The Primal Vow assures all sentient beings of a spiritual awakening without any conditions.
Think about your activities of a given day. I know I always think about my appearance when leaving my home. Even when I’m dressing casually, I make sure that I’m not too casual and not too dressed up. I want to be acceptable. Our young people seemed to be obsessed, with belonging to a group. This is a natural instinct of humans.
We have an image of Amida Buddha in statue or picture form. He is leaning forward to
accept us. His robe is open to expose his heart to us. He has the hand gestures (mudras) that
convey the message of acceptance. We are reminded of his assurance of accepting us, just as
we are. The Nembutsu is our affirmation of this acceptance and our response of gratitude for this basic human need.
What would be greater than to belong to a group or sangha, whose principle value is to be
accepted? Of course, as humans, we have our limits of acceptance. Yet, this is our ideal. It is
something we strive for. Being good over bad, or right over wrong, has its challenges. And so is accepting others and being accepted.
I have found this quality of friendliness and acceptance very prevalent at this temple. Many
visitors and new members have expressed a similar view. I want to acknowledge this trait that is so natural to many of this sangha, that it may not be recognized. Let us expand this acceptance of others, especially toward those who may appear different from each of us.
This is the Nembutsu working both ways. By accepting others, each of us fulfills the need to be accepted ourselves.
Namo Amida Butsu.