The Nembutsu Heard by Shinran Shonin

We hope to see you at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on May 21, 2023 at 9:30 a.m. for our Gotan-e Service celebrating the 850th birthday of Shinran Shonin, the Buddhist teacher who we look to as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition.  This year also marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Jodo Shinshu teaching. 

Shinran was born in Hino near Kyoto on May 21, 1173 during a time of great social turmoil in Japan when warlords battled for control of the country, severe famines caused widespread starvation, and epidemic disease took many lives.  As a young boy, Shinran surely encountered a great deal of suffering and sadness in the world around him.  At the age of nine, he became a Buddhist monk and sought refuge in the Dharma.  He arrived just before sunset on the day he was to be ordained at Shorenin Temple.  As night was beginning to fall, Jien, the head priest who would perform the ordination, told him to return the next day for the ceremony.  At that time, the young Shinran is said to have recited the following poem:

“For him who counts on tomorrow,
Like the fragile cherry blossom,
Tonight, unexpected winds may blow.”

Even as a child, Shinran was aware that just as beautiful cherry bloosoms may be scattered overnight by expected winds, the circumstances and relationships we are counting for tomorrow may be suddenly disrupted without warning.  It is said that Jien was deeply moved when he saw that Shinran possessed deep insight into the truth of impermance at such a young age, so he conducted the ordination ceremony by candlelight that very evening.

Shinran sought refuge in the Buddhadharma in the hope of realizing lasting peace of mind in the midst of this world of constant change.  He heard the wise and compassionate voice of the Buddha constantly calling to us in the Nembutsu, urging us to clarify the direction of lives today and settle the great matter of birth and death.

We look to Shinran Shonin as the founder of our Jodo Shinshu tradition. However, Shinran himself never set out to found his own Buddhist school.  Throughout his writings and teachings, he describes himself as a humble student of his teacher Honen Shonin, as we find in the following words from A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho):

As for me, I simply accept and entrust myself to what my revered teacher told me, “Just say the nembutsu and be saved by Amida”; nothing else is involved.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 662)

What is the nembutsu that Shinran received from Honen?  The Japanese word nembutsu is made up of two Chinese characters nen(m) 念 “to be mindful of” and butsu仏 “Buddha,” so one way to translate the word “nembutsu” would be “mindfulness of the Buddha.”  In the teachings of Honen and Shinran, the nembutsu refers to the recitation of the words “Namo Amida Butsu.” Namo Amida Butsu is a Chinese transliteration of a phrase from the ancient Sanskrit language of India.  A literal translation of the meaning of “Namo Amida Butsu” would be, “I take refuge in Amida Buddha, the Awakened One of Immeasurable Light and Life.”  The light of the Buddha represents wisdom and the life of the Buddha represents compassion.

Shinran taught that to say the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is to hear Amida Buddha calling us to take refuge in the boundless wisdom and compassion of awakening.  When we say Namo Amida Butsu, we hear the voice of Amida Buddha is calling to us, saying, “Hey you! Take refuge in me (Amida Buddha).”  Hearing the nembutsu in this way, we discover the joy and peace of mind that arise from entrusting in the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.  Thus, the simple practice of saying Namo Amida Butsu becomes an expression of profound awareness of the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha constantly guiding and sustaining us.

Namo Amida Butsu