Growing up in Minnesota, my favorite sport was alpine skiing. As a teenager, I competed in slalom racing on my high school ski team and the great sports hero of my youth was Olympic slalom champion Alberto Tomba. Our team practiced at a local ski hill that somehow managed to rise out of the flat surrounding farmland, gradually increasing in elevation over the years thanks to innumerable dump truck loads of dirt. I never came close to winning a race, but I enjoyed practices because the course of gates was set differently each time, transforming the otherwise unremarkable little hill into a challenging and exciting place to ski.
A tradition with origins in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games attracts the best athletes from all over the world to compete for the honor of being designated the greatest athlete in their sport. In order to reach the Olympics, athletes must emerge victorious in a series of qualifying events in their own countries. Having competed at the consistently superior level to reach the Olympics, the athletes who earn a place on the medal podium need to have the inward attributes of motivation, strategy, and discipline, as well as the outward attributes of speed, strength, and good equipment.
Although few of us will have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics, we enjoy the excitement of watching the games because we all face challenges in our own lives and receive inspiration from seeing others rise to the occasion and put forth their best effort, whether they go home with a medal or not.
Among the various challenges that we face in life, the Buddha teaches that the most important victory to pursue is the victory over greed, anger, and ignorance. Greed, anger, and ignorance arise from our self-centered way of thinking, and are referred to as the three poisons because they poison our lives by causing all kinds of suffering for ourselves and others. The way for us to overcome these three poisons is to attain enlightenment and live in accord with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.
The medalists at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games possess the inner and outward attributes of a superior athlete. Likewise, one who conquers greed, anger, and ignorance and attains the victorious state of Buddhahood possesses the inner and outward merits and virtues of enlightenment. The inner virtues of the Buddha include wisdom and fearlessness. The Buddha also displays outward virtues, such as sharing the Dharma for the benefit of all beings. By sharing the Dharma, the Buddha shines the light of his wisdom, freely illuminating every aspect of our lives.
The nembutsu, or the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” has been provided for us by the Buddha as a way to receive the immeasurable wisdom and compassion of awakening. In his writings, the eminent 12th century Japanese priest Hōnen describes how all the virtues of enlightenment are contained in the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” the name of Amida Buddha:
. . . into the name flow all of Amida’s uncountable virtues. That is to say, in the name are contained all the merits and virtues of Amida’s inner enlightenment, such as the four kinds of wisdom, the three bodies, the ten powers, and the four kinds of fearlessness. Also contained in it are all the merits and virtues of his outward activities, such as the major and minor bodily characteristics, the emanation of light, the preaching of the Dharma, and the benefitting of sentient beings.
(Honen’s Senchakushu published by the Kuroda Institute, page. 76)
In providing us with the nembutsu teaching, the Buddha provided us with a means to receive all the merits and virtues of enlightenment. To say the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” is gratefully acknowledging the working of the Buddha’s wisdom in our lives. We receive the benefits of the Buddha’s awakening as the light of the Dharma illuminates our lives, liberating us from the fear and darkness of ignorance.
As you face the challenges in your life, I encourage you to keep in mind that the Buddha has provided the Dharma as a light to guide you on your path to awakening and a life of wisdom and compassion. When you feel the presence of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in your life, you will find the words “Namo Amida Butsu” spontaneously echo in your heart and flow from your lips in gratitude day and night.
Namo Amida Butsu