Amida Buddha personifies the all-embracing, compassionate wisdom of the dharma. For Pure Land practitioners, reliance on Amida Buddha is the method for releasing self-attachment and progressing toward buddhahood. When practitioners in the Jodo Shinshu tradition awaken to the embrace of Amida Buddha and the truth of their ultimate liberation, they express it with nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu), a chant or cry that expresses their gratitude and joy.
Below, Rev. Earl Ikeda reflects on how the song of birds singing in the countryside reminded him of Namu Amida Butsu. The piece first appeared in Kokoro [“heart/mind”], a monthly newsletter published by the New York Buddhist Church.
Recently, when I was staying at the Seabrook Buddhist Temple in the New Jersey countryside, I realized that when I wake up in the morning there, I feel very refreshed. Here in Manhattan, I get about the same number of hours of sleep but I often feel very tired when I arise. Last time at Seabrook, I awoke because I heard birds singing! I lay in bed listening to their beautiful song, which held the promise for a wonderful day. I spent a moment reflecting about how quiet the night before had been: no fire engines, trucks, ambulances. I hadn’t recognized the constant noise of the city until I was somewhere it didn’t exist. Did that mean I had stopped noticing even the simplest of things?
I alone am not able to sustain myself—I rely on all that surrounds me to sustain me. How amazing, I contemplated, that my path has brought me to a very large city where many invisible things energize and embrace me, continuously moving at a fast pace. It is wonderful that I also have the opportunity to go to a rural area like Seabrook. Although I live in the city, I was born in a rural community, and returning from there, I asked myself whether I’d forgotten all the things that have helped me to be me.
The nembutsu—Namu Amida Butsu—is like the sun, rain, wind, air, and other elements of nature. They just are. It is because they “just are” that they don’t cater to just one place or person but share their gifts with all. The birds that woke me, although I felt they were singing only for me, were singing for everyone. The birds were wishing everyone a good day. It was my ignorance and ego that made me think that they were singing their beautiful song only for me. Their song sustains and embraces us all.
We all seek happiness, but I believe that we are already surrounded by happiness. The teachings of the Buddha have taught me that everything is neutral and perfect in its own way. If this is true, they why are we unhappy? It is because we all have excess baggage in the form of attachments. To put that into everyday language, we have developed our own expectations of what we perceive as being true and real. Unhappiness is created by want, anger, and illusion. Causes and conditions are caused by our body language, words, and mind. They are not physically tangible, but exist in our minds. When events or circumstances meet our expectations, or attachments, we are happy, but if they do not, we are distressed, and depending on the degree of disappointment, we can become very angry. With so much happening in the world, do we really need additional stress?
The teachings or vows of the Buddha are the means by which we may have a deeper understanding of who and what we are and the means by which we may separate from our attachments—the cause of our unhappiness or suffering. Listening to the truth, which Amida Buddha represents, and entrusting in the Buddha’s vows by answering the call of Namu Amida Butsu, will lead to understanding and eventually, acts of kindness. In this life, because there is Namu Amida Butsu, we are all embraced and accepted just as we are.
How sweet is the song of the birds, reminding us of Namu Amida Butsu.
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