Nembutsu and zazen

In a nondual experience of reality Amida Buddha and Kwan Yin are one. Still, in my daily experience Amida and Kwan Yin represent different qualities


While Kwan Yin is the ever listening bodhisattva, with Amida it feels as if there is, in a sense, two-way traffic going on. ‘Namu Amida Butsu’, the repetitive mantra of saying Amida’s name, speaks itself inside me as if it only needs to be spoken after aloud by me.

I once became engulfed in the dharma stream after I explored zen meditation as a technique to cope with unexpected health challenges. Now I feel engulfed by Amida Buddha. As with zen, taking refuge in Amida Buddha is not an act of my personal will but rather something happening to me. How does this relate to my zen practice?

Shin buddhist teacher Takamaro Shigaraki makes an interesting point about Shinran and Dogen in his book Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path, published this summer. He compares ‘shinjin’ (the experience of awakening in Shin buddhism) to the zen approach to ‘enlightenment’ found in Dogen’s writings. Both the nembutsu and sitting meditation (zazen) are in and by itself equal to awakening. But whereas the nembutsu can be practiced by everyone, everywhere, at all times, zazen requires a concentrated retreat from daily life:

The nembutsu is identical with shinjin. Shinjin is identical with the nembutsu. The nembutsu and shinjin are inseperable and nondual. Since in Shinran’s thought the nembutsu is a practice, the identity of nembutsu and shinjin can also be described as the nonduality of practice and shinjin.

In Zen thought, Dogen makes the same assertion when he states ‘practice is equivalent to enlightenment. ‘ Here ‘practice refers to sitting meditation (zazen), which represents a process on the path to buddhahood. ‘Equivalent’ refers to oneness or nondiscrimination. In Dogen’s thought, sitting is in itself enlightenment. Aside from enlightenment there is no sitting; there is no enlightenment apart from sitting. Sitting and enlightenment are nondual.

Shinran’s path of practicing the nembutsu has the same fundamental logic. In one sense, the nembutsu and shinjin are separate matters. However, in the true practice of the nembutsu, the nembutsu is identical with shinjin, and shinjin is identical with the nembutsu. Practice and shinjin are one and the same. They are nondual. We must become persons who are able to say this kind of nembutsu. Dogen’s path of sitting meditation is a form of Buddhism for renunciants, and it is necessary to practice it at a specific place and for a fixed time, away from the secular world. For that reason, it can only be done by a limited number of persons having the ability to do so. However, the path of the nembutsu, which Shinran teaches us, can take place in the midst of the secular world in any kind of lifestyle.

From: Takamaro Shigaraki, Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path. A Life of Awakening (2013), p. 61

The point the author makes is an old one in Japanese Pure Land buddhism. Traditionally it presented Zen as the hard way and Shin as the road accessible to anyone. Dogen’s practice is even qualified as ‘a form of Buddhism for renunciants’ by Shigaraki. There is a lesson here for lay zen practictioners in the West, like me. This could be right. Dogen did practice in secluded areas, as far away from the secular world as possible. In this respect there is a clear distinction between his practice an that of modern day zen buddhist followers. Does this impact the quality of their meditation? It could well be wishful thinking to answer this question in the negative.

But the way out, in my view, is not to continue juxtaposing Zen and Shin, but to combine their strengths. The Pure Land of Shin is the Pure Mind of Zen. The nembutsu and zazen are interchangeable experiences of awakening, practiced at different times on and off the meditation mat. I tend to regard both Amida and Kwan Yin as Jungian ‘archetypes’, seeds if you like, found under the surface of the dharma stream, in a kind of Yogacara interpretation of reality. When we experience the ‘Other Power’ (outside appeal) of Amida Buddha, this is tantamount to encountering the widening of one’s horizon when buddhist practice succeeds in opening the flood doors which usually protect the ego from overflowing.

Click here for a review of Heart of the Sin Buddhist Path in Tricycle magazine


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