The New York Buddhist Church

May 19, 2020

As we celebrate the birthday of our founder Shinran Shonin this week, I wonder what he would be thinking and doing today in the midst of a global pandemic.  Maybe he would just be doing what he did hundreds of years ago during the turbulent Kamakura era in Japan, bringing awareness of the unhindered light and unconditional love of Amida Buddha to EVERYONE.  His understanding and propagation of the meaning of The Primal Vow which assures each persons birth in the Pure Land gave strength and hope to people at that time.  It is the core of Jodo Shinshu teaching.  By reciting the nembutsu, or the name Namo Amida Butsu, we acknowledge our gratitude to Amida Buddha and become truly awakened by his great compassion and wisdom.

My first memory of the o-nembutsu was listening to my grandmother saying Na Man Da Bu over and over again when I was growing up in Hawaii.  She came from Hiroshima, a stronghold of Jodo Shinshu, and she was very devout.  Grandma, I would say, Not so loud!  Do you have to say that all the time?  Its getting bothersome!   At that time, I did not yet realize how I would come to think of her as one of the greatest influences in my spiritual life and to understand the importance of the o-nembutsu then to her and later for me.

Years later, when I was a foreign student at the mother temple in Kyoto, I was asked to be a guide during the commemoration of the 800###sup anniversary of Shinrans birthday.  What a special opportunity!   For over a month I eagerly listened to the morning and afternoon services as thousands of people from all parts of Japan and the world came to pay homage.   Many would rush to sit closest to the altar, putting their hands together in gassho to recite the onembutsu, their voices getting louder and louder.  Na Man Da Bu, Na Man Da Bu, Na Man Da Bu.  It felt as though I was again a young boy living with my grandmother listening to her fervent recitation of the nembutsu.  I began to realize that it was an expression of deep gratitude and wanted to learn more.  Im still learning!

After my studies, I returned to Hawaii and served as minister in temples there.  During that time I went on several pilgrimages to Japan to follow the path of Shinran and the spread of the influence of the onembutsu.   I often asked myself, why Shinran, why the onembutsu?   Perhaps one answer is the 18###sup vow of Amida, the Primal Vow, includes  everyone, universally.   It is completely inclusive and does not discriminate on the basis of social or economic status, gender, race, age, nationality or even religious belief.  The Primal Vow affirms that we are all equal and we are all accepted, just as we are.  The great wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha embraces everyone, everywhere, unconditionally.  It is timeless.

The Kamakura period was a time of war and violence, great poverty and distress, disease and a rigidly stratified class system.  In response, many new schools of Buddhism were started.  Shinran in his interpretation of the teachings opened the door of Buddhism more widely and brought hope and comfort to everyone, regardless of their background.   He taught that however imperfect we may be, we are all embraced by the vow of the Buddha and we all have value.  For him, the onembutsu was the answer confirming that one is not alone.  There is something out there that embraces each one of us unconditionally and we are all in the same condition, we are in this together.   That was true during his time and it may be true now.  I really dont know, what do you think?

Namo Amida Butsu.