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The Universality of Namuamidabutsu

If Shin Buddhism is to make an impact on Buddhism in the West, it will have to express in a meaningful manner, what is Namuamidabutsu, to those who don’t read or speak Japanese.

Those of us who are Japanese Americans, we have grown up hearing the Nembutsu. Of course, it was a foreign word to us as well, but many of us have heard and seen our devout grandmothers or grandfathers saying with depth and conviction, Namandabutsu, Namandabutsu, when they went before their Obutsudan or in the temple Hondo.

I have such memories of my own grandfather, whose depth of Nembutsu I will never equate. We have all gone through our lives, maybe never thinking about it very deeply when young, but in time having come to feel and appreciate the depth and meaning of Namuamidabutsu.

From my 33 years of ministry, I know that this is an initial roadblock for those who are new to our Shin Buddhist tradition. Maybe many of you may have felt that way when you first began attending a Jodo Shinshu temple.

“What is it that they are saying in the service? Some kind of word that begins with an ‘N.’ What is that? What are they saying? What does it mean?”

Recently I had that conversation with a non-Nikkei person attending the temple. He said that he didn’t say the Nembutsu, because it felt too foreign and that it felt like he was paying homage to some kind of deity, which he really resisted, having left the Judeo Christian tradition. It made me realize that we must communicate what is Namuamidabutsu in a meaningful manner.

Namu” literally means “to bow one’s head.” “Amidabutsu” is “Amida Buddha.” But what is Amida Buddha? Amida Buddha is not a being or a deity. Amida Buddha is a metaphor for the truth of enlightenment, or wisdom and compassion. “Namuamidabutsu,” then means, “I bow my head to the truth of enlightenment. I bow my head to a truth beyond my limited ego self. I bow my head to great wisdom and great compassion.”

If Namu represents unenlightened, lost in delusion me, and if Amidabutsu represents the opposite of that, meaning the truth of enlightenment, then I think that all people experience Namuamidabutsu. If you have ever felt that something is missing in your life, if you have ever felt unfulfilled or that you were lost without direction in life, then you have experienced Namuamidabutsu.

Being aware that you are lost or that something is missing in your life, is evidence that the light of truth, the light of the Dharma is trying to break through the shell of your ego self, to illuminate your heart and mind. In that sense, all people, at some point in their life, experience Namuamidabutsu.


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