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Hearing the Call of the Nembutsu

There's something about the age of 35, right? Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened at the age of 35, after years of seeking without truly finding. I can't claim enlightenment, but I am at least gratefully able to recognize pivotal moments and chew on slippery ideas until I finally understand them — and this, I think, is the essence of Jodo Shinshu practice.


When I was 35, I traveled solo to Cambodia to run a half marathon through Angkor Wat. Visiting Angkor Wat was the culmination of a dream born some 15 years previous during college; I added the half marathon as a "why not?" decision based merely on the fact the event was happening when I already planned to be there, not because I had any grand delusions of becoming an international athlete. I did, indeed, finish the race (and have the medal to prove it); however, I got a lot more than I bargained for.


I contracted cholera from contaminated bottled water and started getting sick before my tuk-tuk even got me back to my hotel. I lost 17 pounds in three days, started going into organ failure, and remember laying on the bed thinking quite calmly "this is it; I'm going to die."


Of course, since I'm here writing this today, I clearly didn't die. I did, however, become a minor celebrity at a Kaiser hospital upon my return; they'd never seen someone in my condition still able to move under their own power.


Once out of the hospital, I had someone stay with me the first night because I couldn't physically take care of myself. That person was neither Buddhist nor particularly religious in any sense; however, in the wee hours of the night, he spontaneously uttered the Nembutsu (Namo Amida Butsu), conceded that he didn't know what it meant or why he said it, or even where he'd heard it before.


Shortly thereafter, he thought I died in my sleep because I apparently stopped breathing. Of course, I didn't die then either; however, every fiber of my being then latched onto the idea that there must be some significance in a person spontaneously reciting the Nembutsu when someone else is on the brink of death — and I "just had to" understand that significance.


I scoured obscure academic journals. I exchanged emails with the ordained ministers I knew. I attended any number of seminars and talked to people afterward. Nothing made sense; nothing felt right. I couldn't figure it out — and I also couldn't let it go.


It took me a few years of chewing on it alone, but I eventually found my way back to a wonderful Sangha. Perhaps a year or two after that, while listening to a talk by Dr. Nobuo Haneda, I finally understood that it wasn't the spontaneous utterance that was significant. The significance was in the fact that I truly heard and recognized the call of the Nembutsu.


It would not be an exaggeration if I said the Nembutsu transformed me. I made a 180-degree course change as a result of what I heard — not in one great leap, but little by little, over years of "seeking and not-quite-finding" — until, all at once, it found me.


Namo Amida Butsu


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