A Time For Retreat

Inside the Sanmon Gate of Chion-in

Today I said goodbye to my wife and daughter who are going to Japan a week ahead of me (I have to stay behind for work, etc). As always, it’s hard to say goodbye to my daughter. She is a “daddy’s girl” and gave me lots of kisses before she bravely said goodbye. She hasn’t been feeling too well either because she has stomach flu again. Every year she gets stomach flu around this time of year. We think it’s the stress and excitement of Christmas, her birthday (late, late December) and Japanese New Year all coming around the same time. However, the good news is that her appetite has come back today my wife said, so we think she will be OK for the 10-hour flight to Japan.

As for me, I have a week to myself, work notwithstanding. In the past, I spent that time mostly playing the old Playstation and Final Fantasy games, or maybe just wasting time on the computer. When my wife and I first lived together, and she went to Japan, I let the house get very dirty until just before she returned. Recently, I am more diligent about maintaining the house, but I still waste a lot of time gaming.1

However, this time I decided to do something different. I was inspired by this quote from Honen, the patriarch of the Jodo Shu school of Buddhism:

We should often make special times for the repetition of the nembutsu [reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name] to stimulate both mind and body in its practice. In may seem enough if one repeats the sacred name over sixty or seventy thousand times a day. But there is a tendency with us, when our eyes or ears become accustomed to anything, gradually to lose interest in it. And with our daily work pressing in on us morning and night, we are in danger of shortening our practice. So in order to keep our spirits active, we would do well to setup certain special times for the practice of the nembutsu. Both of our great teachers, Shan-tao and Genshin, urged this upon us.

You ought to beautify the room where you practice. Adorn it with floral offerings and incense as best you can, and when you go into the room, purify your bodies. Then practice the nembutsu either six or twelve hours a day. When several do it together, you should try to rotate your sessions so as to keep up the recitation without cessation. Shan-tao prescribed that it should be done from the first to the eighth of the month, or from the eighth to the fifteenth, or from the fifteenth to the twenty-third, or from the twenty-third to the thirtieth. By arranging yourselves to suit everyone’s convenience, these special retreats may always be held for seven days at a time. Don’t allow yourself at all to be led astray by any of the foolish things that people may say and so make way for indulging in deluded thinking.

So, for once, I thought I’d take a break from my usual routine and really invest the free time I have to Buddhist practice. This year was especially tiring and stressful due to JLPT and work-obligations, so both the blog and Buddhist practice suffered. Therefore, I decided that I would make a little “retreat” here at home and devote one hour a night to reciting the nembutsu.

During Honen’s time, it was common for Buddhist clergy to spend constant hours reciting the nembutsu for tens of thousands of times, though lay-people recited the nembutsu far less. As far as Honen was concerned, the number really didn’t matter so much, you simply can never recite it enough. The routine was more important than the actual number, in other words.

For me though, reciting the nembutsu for an hour (roughly 4,000 times at my pace), is quite a challenge. I admit, I am already hesitating at the idea, but I tell myself “it’s only a week” until I fly out to Japan next Monday. It still allows me some free time for other things,2 and fits into my work schedule, but rather than squandering all my time on stupid, vain stuff, I just want to invest an hour a night for a week in special retreat. I have the free time, why waste it?

It’s like money. You can spend it all on stupid stuff, or invest some of it into something worthwhile. For me it’s tempting to go for the quick, entertaining fix, but investing some of that time/money into something wholesome has other long-term benefits. 🙂

Namu Amida Butsu

Update: Had to reduce the number of repetitions in half after the first day. More about it here.

P.S. The quote by Honen above can also be found in the book Traversing the Pure Land Path, which I re-read from time to time.

1 To clarify, I am usually too busy to play games during a normal week, so I condense it into the free time I often get at the end of the year. Still, it’s kind of a waste to spend all my free time gaming, since I usually only get maybe one week a year.

2 I still managed to spend hours today playing classic Halo, using Linux and Wine. I am a big fan of the original Halo, and have a figurine on my desk at work. 🙂

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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