Pastoral Letter of 21 March 2008
The Pureland Way is a kind of open secret. It is open in the sense that anybody can easily get to know that Purelanders are those for whom their prime spiritual practice is saying the nembutsu. It is secret in the sense that few who have not immersed themselves in it realise what a transforming effect this practice has upon people’s lives.
Firstly, let us appreciate the extreme simplicity of this approach which operationalises everything that was taught by Shakyamuni and all the other Buddhas in the most direct way. Through the nembutsu we give up self, entrust ourselves to the Great Way, fulfil our karmic destiny, create a Pure Land for all, attain great happiness, and free ourselves from samsara for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is all through the power of nembutsu.
The nembutsu way is a generic spirituality. Actually it is for “Buddhists of all religions”. There is nothing sacred about the actual words of the nembutsu - in different countries it is said differently - but it becomes nembutsu by intent - the intent to reach out toward and to be open to what is sacred. The person who says nembutsu (the nembuts’sha), in effect, says, “I am a spiritual person and I am embraced by the spirit everywhere.”
To be spiritual is to relate to the spirit. Different people conceive spirit differently due to differences of human capacity. The nembutsu means “I am an ordinary person calling out to that which is most good, true and exquisite.” These two interpretations of the nembutsu are just different facets of the same jewel for the spiritual person is the person who recognises his or her ordinariness and the spirit that is everywhere is that which is most sublime.
In Buddhist terms, “sacred” means a field of merit. In Buddhism, something becomes sacred through accumulation of merit, what has become sacred becomes a bestower of merit and the best thing to do with merit is to dedicate it to whatever is most sacred so that all beings may participate in that sacredness, because merit is accumulated by open handed compassion and wisdom, which is to say, by embracing all that is as it is.
The “is as it is” is called tathata and Amida Buddha is tathagata (Japanese, Nyorai) which means one who comes from the as-it-is. This sounds complicated, and doctrinally it can be so, but in the practice of nembutsu it all becomes totally simple. Just keep saying nembutsu and all troubles dissipate, all merit flows as it should, and all the wishes of the Buddhas are accomplished naturally.
This spirituality is also generic in the sense of being multi-faith. Amida Buddha is the most all-embracing Buddha. To serve Amida Buddha is to serve all Buddhas. It does not matter whether those other Buddhas have historically been designated as “Buddhist” or not. They could have been founders of other religions or spiritual movements. It says in our scriptures that when we go to the Pure Land, every morning before lunch we will make a tour and give offerings to all the other Buddhas. Therefore, to visit temples of other denominations and faith communities respectfully and in friendship is, for a nembuts’sha, simply to carry out what we are told to do in our own scriptures.
This does not mean that all religions are the same. They are all different: that is their richness. Ordinary people like ourselves are catered for in a diversity of ways. The measure of a religion is the degree to which it is centred upon Tathata - or, you could say, “Is your God a Buddha?” By this I do not mean, Is he/she/it signed up to the Buddhist religious institution. I mean is your God kind, wise, loving, all-embracing, - does your God embody love, truth, goodness and spiritual beauty? Everybody has a God of some kind. For some their God is money, for other nationality, for others pleasure-seeking, for many security, and so on. But none of those just listed are Buddhas - or, if they are Buddhas, then they are heavily disguised. It is the nature of things that by the pursuit of almost anything one can be led to wisdom in the end, but sometimes the road is rocky.
The secret of Pureland is the nembutsu. That is all. If you are a nembuts’sha you are a Purelander. Nothing else is essential. What ceremonies, if any, we do, or what dress we wear, or how long our hair is, or what social causes we support, or whether we live in community or in family households or alone, even what we call ourselves - all these are strategic decisions we make. They can change. Nembutsu alone is real and true. For a Purelander all religious or spiritual practice is just another way of expressing nembutsu. All auxiliary practices carry the risk of enhancing our sense of self-power, but if we are conscious enough to minimise that risk, then there are many beautiful things that we can do to decorate our nembutsu practice.
On the one hand, therefore, Pureland is a religion in which clergy are unnecessary since nembutsu is freely available to all. On the other hand, Pureland has always given rise to priests and ministers (rather than monks and nuns) because it is so helpful to have a spiritual friend on the path who can help one to tease out “this is me.” The Pureland minister is, therefore, not remote and not somebody who is intent upon his or her own enlightenment, but is close to the people, and ordinary being who is dedicated to the faith, ministers to others (rather than being served by them, primarily), and is thus a very precious asset to the community. At the cor of a Pureland group will be found dedicated people of faith who may or may not be learned, who may or may not have practical skills, but who have been “seized by Amida never to be forsaken” who thus become like the hot coals that keep a fire going. And those who do so minister, do so because of their deep realisation that they themselves are ordinary.
It is not nembutsu to see the nembutsu as intending anything other than entrusting ourselves to the Measureless Light. Amida’s grace reaches everywhere. We can, therefore, entrust ourselves wherever we may be. To entrust oneself implies seeing one’s own weakness and fallibility. It does not require that we necessarily understand the nature of Amida with any precision or in anything more than an intuitive way.
The spiritual experience of each person is unique. Each person’s experience of the practice is singular. This is one of the reasons why, next to the nembutsu itself, the practice of listening to one another has become one of the most cherished activities of our communities. Pureland gives rise to individuals who listen to one another and so learn to live in harmony, respecting and appreciating one another’s experience of the practice. Consequently, Pureland communities are in a constant process of evolution. Once the nembutsu is established as the bedrock of our practice we are released from all other rigidities.
This is also why Pureland is closely associated with the arts. As an artist one must entrust oneself to the Muse. This oes not mean that one ceases to make effort. It means rather that one becomes fully alive and fascinated with life in a very particular kind of way. A nembuts’sha is an artist with life and that often expresses itself in some specific art form.
The spirit touches each person uniquely according to his or her karma, just a a skilled wood carver can “see” the finished scupture in the raw piece of wood and “knows” what the piece of wood “wants to be”. We come into this world as karma. Thus each has his or her koan. We can say, each is here for a purpose and although in the last analysis all those purposes may comes down to a single entrustment to universal love, the actual form that it takes in each life is unique and special. Release from the koan does not generally come via a cleverness on our part since all our efforts are coloured by the same taint. At the same time, there is no point in forcing oneself or another to go against their karma-purpose - what in some other religious systems might be called soul. Now if the soul and spirit are trying to find one another, as if lost in a mist, it is, in fact, the spirit that has the better chance of success because we, blinded by our individual karma, cannot see very far. Nembutsu is like a cry that says, “I am here,” trusting that Amida will come and find one, like a parent finding a lost child. To say “I am here,” fully, implies also saying truthfully, “This is what I am.” My spiritual location is my being and while I disguise my being I remain more difficult to find and also blind to those occasions when I am found.
This is why we say that nembutsu is the crying out of a foolish being. “Infinite Light, be my delight, shine on me, an ordinary.” When I am able to say, “I am here, this is me, just as I am,” then Amida does not have much difficulty in finding me and shining his light into my life. All this is quite open, but what happened then is a secret.