For many years I failed to return a book I borrowed from Dr. Haneda and finally remembered to bring it with me on my recent trip to Berkeley. It was a Jodo-shu commentary and Japanese translation (wa-yaku) of Shandao’s Kangyo-sho (“Contemplation Sutra commentary” – the text that includes the famous White Path story). I had used it as a reference for a study class at the temple and found the book very refreshing. While most Shinshu commentaries on the works of the Magnificent Seven go into a lot of gyrations to tie everything to Shinran’s interpretation, in this Jodo-shu book the passages were explained in a straightforward manner.
A few hours before meeting up with Dr. Haneda I thought I’d do the fortune telling maneuver of opening the book to a random page and see if any passage popped out at me. The words that caught my attention were in the title of a subsection: nembutsu no sozoku (念仏の相続), nembutsu’s/aspect/continuance.
The book went on to explain it in a Jodo-shu way, saying it meant that we should have “namu Amida butsu” coming out of our mouths as often and continuously as possible as the essential practice to bring us rebirth in the afterlife Pure Land. But what struck me in my Shin understanding of “practice” is that it is the nembutsu’s mouthless calling of “namu Amida butsu” which is continuously being heard in my life despite my forgetting about it altogether for days, weeks, months at a time. So even in my down mood, the nembutsu is still continuously in the background (rooted in the ground, streaming down from the skies, floating all around etc.). It is the essence reminding me that despite my bad moods, resentments, anger and self-destructive acting out, I am already assuredly “playing in the forests of the Pure Land” in the present moment.
You may ask “what good is the nembutsu if you keep falling into ugly rages and blue funks?” But it’s not my job to sell the nembutsu as some cure all for our psychological problems which can be too deeply rooted to ever figure out. But for me it’s good enough to know that in my life where everything I attempt fizzles out and relationships quickly become miserable that there is something ongoing, moving forward dynamically in the world.
One thing Shinran learned from Honen is that one can hear the nembutsu from all kinds of people, from animals and plants, from the waters and soil. So during my stay at a Catholic hospital, how do I hear the nembutsu? I’ve been noticing how all the staff members are pleasant to each other and to all the patients despite the pressures they are under with people acutely ill and many hovering near death in their care. Maybe you could say they are just putting on an act as part of their professional demeanor, but I feel a lot of sincerity, especially from the guys in transportation who move patients on gurneys or in wheelchairs to get tests done. As they drive down the hallways and in and out of elevators, those guys greet every staff member by name, from the doctors to the janitors, and receive warm responses. For patients, being in a hospital is uncomfortable enough, but it would be hell if the staff acted like most of us in our work environments, all grouchy at each other – at bosses and underlings and especially at the whiny customers.
So hearing a simple greeting exchanged by hospital workers is hearing the nembutsu. Aaron Lee in his “Be the Refuge” essay, said he worked to be a refuge of peace and compassion to all the health workers he came in contact with during his last few months. I’m crabby to begin with but being sick makes it harder to make myself into someone else’s refuge – with my hoarse voice and constant coughing, I can’t easily rattle off words of concern to the hospital workers. But they consistently show their concern for me. It seemed the lowest point of helplessness when I lost control of my bowels for the first couple days, but one can’t help but appreciate the nurse who comes to clean you up and put on a new diaper. Now that’s the help (not “salvation”) that I feel Shinran means by the word “tasukete.”
Not that I’ll ever recover enough to hit the road again as a speaker, but I want to make the nembutsu the topic of my future workshops. I’ve long had a reputation in BCA as the most boring speaker (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a repeat invitation to anywhere except Midwest) but I’d like to impose myself on temples where I have a few long-time friends, such as Toronto, New York and Orange County. (At Higashi temples people show up out of duty to support the few ministers Higashi has, no matter how little interest they have in listening to my babble). I’ll never enjoy the big crowds of fans that Dr. Haneda has, but unlike him, I really would like to venture out to places unfamiliar with Jodo Shinshu, such as in the South and Great Plains states. Well it doesn’t have to be me doing the lecture tour. If there’s someone else out there ready to present Shinran seriously (quoting his works in deep passages, not just warm-and-fuzzy slide presentations) to a wide audience, I’m willing to help them with research and expenses, since I won’t be able to go anywhere for a while.