At the heart of Shin Buddhism is contemplative practice, as is the case with most schools of Buddhism. But rather than seated meditation, like in Zen Buddhism, we do chanting. The main chant that we do in Shin Buddhism is called the name of Amida Buddha. In Japanese, it is pronounced namu amida butsu. Namu, the one who vows, vows because that person realizes that they have attachments, delusions, or what in Shin Buddhism we generally call blind passions that cause suffering. But they realize that because they’re illuminated by the deepest truth, the dharma. This truth is emptiness—oneness beyond words.
But just as emptiness is not something out there, Amida Buddha is not a being out there but our deepest, truest self, and our deepest, truest reality. Because emptiness—the deep flow of oneness—is not static but dynamic, the more accurate translation for Amida Buddha is the dynamic awakening of infinite light.
I’d like to explain this to you using a story from my own experience.
Many years ago, I was a graduate student studying Buddhist studies. My wife and I were living in the Bay Area in northern California. There are many temples, including many Shin Buddhist temples, in the area, so I started to get invited to give talks at local temples. One year, I was invited to give a talk in a Buddhist temple in San Luis Obispo, which is several hours down the coast of California.
Being a poor graduate student, I had a very bad used car, which had broken down many times, so I decided to rent a car at San Jose airport. I had an upgrade coupon, so I got a nice new red Thunderbird.
My wife was coming with me, and my cousin Scott, who also lived in the Bay Area, said he would also join us. The three of us got in this nice new red Thunderbird. We were driving down the freeway. Then, it started to get a little dark, so I turned on the headlights.
I was trying to be particularly attentive on this trip because this was my first weekend seminar that I was giving at a Buddhist temple. I straightened up my posture, and I was paying special attention driving down the freeway. But as I was driving, I noticed that the cars coming from the opposite direction didn’t have their headlights on.
I thought, “Ah, I know what it is. It’s rush hour. Everybody’s distracted. Some people are thinking, What’s on TV? Are the kids behaving? What’s for dinner? But not me. I’m not distracted.” My reaction was immediate: as soon as I’d noticed it was getting dark, I had turned on the headlights.
I continued to drive for another 10 or 15 minutes, and then there was a tapping on my shoulder. It was my cousin Scott.
He said “Mark, Mark, you can take off your sunglasses now.”
I like to tell this story because it fits so well with this Shin Buddhist teaching of blind passions and boundless compassion.
I had all the right ideas: “I should be prepared. I should be calm. I should be focused. I should be paying attention.” But really, what was going on was I was just full of myself, thinking, “I’m this upcoming scholar of Buddhism. I had been invited to a weekend seminar.”
No, I was so blinded by my ego self-image of who I thought I was or should be that I literally could not see the sunglasses directly in front of my eyes.
I thought everybody else was deluded, whereas who was the deluded being? Who was the foolish being filled with blind passions? It was Mark Unno.
And what brought me to that realization was my cousin Scott extending his hand of great compassion. […]
And so this is the dance of the foolish being and the awakening of infinite light, of blind passions and boundless compassion, in the Shin Buddhist tradition, which we realize in the contemplative practice of chanting namu amida butsu. I, this foolish being filled with blind passions, am illuminated, enveloped, and dissolved into the great flow of the oneness of reality, of the realization of emptiness, of the awakening of infinite light.
Adapted from Mark Unno’s Dharma Talk, Opening the Heart of Great Compassion: The Path of Shin Buddhism