When do you say “Namo Amida Butsu?”

As we welcome the Autumn Equinox in this month of September when the sun sets directly in the west, let us reflect upon the direction of our lives.  Living in San Mateo, when I look to the west these days, my thoughts turn to our friends in Maui who are enduring great hardship following the devastating wildfires that tore through their community and my heart is filled with wishes for their safety and peace of mind. 

The Lahaina Hongwanji Mission is located in the heart of the area that was burned by the fires.  Like the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, they had planned to hold their Bon Odori festival of dancing and gratitude on August 12.  A fellow minister sent me an aerial photograph of Lahaina taken after the fires, and as I saw the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission yagura dancing platform standing amidst the charred rubble at the very moment that the San Mateo Buddhist Temple yagura stood in the center of our temple parking lot, I deeply felt the impermanence of this world.

When we are confronted with the impermanence of this human life, deep gratitude for the everyday experiences that we often take for granted awakens in our hearts.  To recite the Nembutsu in the words “Namo Amida Butsu” is to express the gratitude we feel for this precious human life that we receive.  When do you say Namo Amida Butsu?  We often recite the Nembutsu when we gather in the Buddha hall of the temple for services, or when we join our hands in gassho before a meal.  In the following verse from his Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Shinran Shonin reminds us that anyone can recite the nembutsu at any time and in any place:

For all people―men and women, of high station and low―
Saying the Name of Amida is such
That whether one is walking, standing, sitting, or reclining is of no concern
And time, place, and condition are not restricted.

Spending time with fellow travelers who rejoice in the Nembutsu, I have heard the nembutsu in all manner of everyday circumstances.  I recall one afternoon when I went out for lunch with a fellow minister.  As we walked across the parking lot from the car to the restaurant entrance, I heard the sound of his voice softly repeating the Nembutsu in the words “Namandabu, Namandabu.”*  Another minister I know has been heard reciting the Nembutsu at the grocery store while waiting in the checkout line.

From time to time, I carpool with fellow Sangha members to meetings and activities held at other temples in the area.  On one occasion, while make plans to attend a meeting at a temple about an hour away, a Sangha member said to me, “I used to go to that area often for work, so I’ll drive this time.”   As we slowly made our way down the road through rush hour traffic, my Sangha friend sat calmly in the driver’s seat of the car with the words “Namandabu, namandabu” flowing from his lips. 

Occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.  When the topic of sleepless nights came up in a conversation I had with a Sangha member in her eighties, she commented.  “That happens to me too.  Whenever I have trouble getting to sleep, I simply lie in bed and recite the Nembutsu.”

Walking across a parking lot, standing in line at a store, sitting in traffic, and lying in bed are all moments of life that I take for granted, but when I awaken to the truth that is truly marvelous that I have been able to continue living up to this point in this world of constant change, I feel deep gratitude for all the causes and conditions that sustain my life.  The wisdom of Amida Buddha that I receive in the Nembutsu is the light that illuminates the causes and conditions that enable my life to continue.  The Nembutsu that I encounter whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, and for which time, place, and condition are not restricted, expresses the deep gratitude I feel when I realize that this everyday life I take for granted is truly a precious gift.

Namo Amida Butsu

* “Namandabu” is a common contraction for “Namo Amida Butsu” in Nembutsu recitation.