As Shin Buddhists - or inquirers looking for enlightenment and exploring Shin Buddhism as a possible path - it is good and useful to ask the question, “What is the meaning of NAMU AMIDA BUTSU”?
I have to be honest, that for a long time, I couldn’t answer that question clearly, because I was reading indiscriminately from many so-called teachers of Shin Buddhism who had all sorts of strange and esoteric ideas.
I tried - I sincerely tried - to understand what they were saying. But often what they said didn’t make sense - or one contradicted another - or seemed to contradict what I thought I was understanding from reading Master Shinran’s writings.
When there’s that much confusion in the Shin Sangha, it’s a sure sign that something is amiss - that something is off - that something has gone awry.
Why do I say that? Because this particular Dharma path is supposed to be the essence of simplicity itself - just as accessible to the total illiterate - to the medieval Japanese peasant who didn’t know Buddha from a hole in the wall - as it is to the Dharma scholar living his life in a Buddhist monastery.
It’s supposed to be just as accessible to someone from the West, as it is to someone from the East…just as accessible for a secular Jew from New York, as it is for a 16th generation son of Shin Buddhist priests.
It’s supposed to make just as much sense to someone from Romania, as it does to someone from Australia, as it does to someone from Norway.
It’s just supposed to be that EASY to understand.
By the time of Master Rennyo - 200 years after Master Shinran had delivered this SIMPLE pristine Dharma to the world, preaching and teaching to the educated and uneducated alike for sixty years - the meaning of NAMU AMIDA BUTSU had gotten very muddled, just as it has gotten muddled today.
It’s amazing, really, when you think about how history repeats itself - how we, as a race, keep doing the same foolish things over and over again.
So back then, along comes Master Rennyo, to the muddy murk that Shin Buddhism had become - and he was committed to dealing with the murkiness. He was committed to making Shin Buddhism simple and easy to understand, once again.
So here is Master Rennyo, answering the question I posed above: “What is the meaning of NAMU AMIDA BUTSU”?
In Fascicle 4:11 of his collected letters, Master Rennyo writes:
What is the meaning of NAMU AMIDA BUTSU? And further, how are we to entrust ourselves to Amida, and attain birth in the fulfilled land?
What we must understand, first of all, is that we entrust ourselves to Amida by carefully discerning what the six characters “NAMU AMIDA BUTSU” are all about.
“NAMU AMIDA BUTSU” is essentially nothing other than the entrusting mind of us sentient beings who rely on Amida to save us, bringing us to Buddhahood in the afterlife.
In other words, Amida Tathagata, fully knowing the sentient beings who entrust themselves, readily bestows virtue of unsurpassed, great benefit. This is what is meant by saying that He “directs virtue to sentient beings”.
Therefore, because those who entrust themselves to Amida are inseparable from Amida Buddha’s saving Dharma, we speak of this as “the oneness in NAMU AMIDA BUTSU of the person to be saved and the Dharma that saves.
It has this meaning.
We must bear in mind that this is OTHER-Power faith, through which our birth in the Pure Land is settled.
There you have it.
You don’t have to understand a whole lot. NAMU AMIDA BUTSU is simply an expression of trust…our trust in the person and work of Amida Buddha.
You don’t have to understand what the oneness is all about. Master Shinran called this trust - this Other-Power faith - INCONCEIVABLE. You can’t really understand it now, and you don’t have to knock your head on the wall trying to.
All you have to do is entrust your destiny to Him, and He will save you. You won’t have to take birth as a non-Buddha in Samsara any more. You will take birth in His Pure Land instead, where you will immediately become a Buddha. And then you’ll understand EVERYTHING -as only a Buddha can.
But here and now…for all of us who AREN’T yet Buddhas - we can ALL come to understand this simple Dharma message.
When it is explained simply, and correctly, anyone can come to understand this Dharma - anyone.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.