Question: When evil thoughts keep arising within the mind, what ought one do?
[Honen’s] Answer: The only thing to do is to repeat the Nembutsu.
After my efforts on the first day of my self-appointed “retreat“, I had to scale back somewhat. During weekdays, I am home less due to work, and I found that now that I am living alone again, I have to spend a lot more time on housework, preparing lunches and such. All the things I took for granted previously. 🙂
Also, I found that sitting on a hard cushion for an hour really made my back hurt. I think the cushion doesn’t support my back well, so about two-thirds of the way through, I had shooting pains in my back, and eventually I had to stand up and finish reciting the nembutsu from there. After this, I decided it was just better to reduce the retreat to a half-hour a night, which is about two full rotations on my rosary, or 2,000 recitations. It’s still a challenge for me, but something more reasonable and sustainable.
Speaking from experience, when I recite the nembutsu for a while, my mind inevitably wanders to frivolous thoughts. This can happen for minutes before I realize what I am doing. Lately, when that happens, I start thinking about the quotation above, and keep reciting the nembutsu.
The nembutsu is not a form of meditation in the Western, conventional sense. It simply is the practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name, taking refuge in the Buddha’s promise to welcome all beings to the Pure Land. No more, no less. However, Honen also taught that through repeated practice, one may also gradually cultivate something called the Three Minds and Four Modes of Practice (三心四修, sanjin shishū) which I mentioned in greater detail here.
The point is that engaging in Buddhist practice1 of any kind is very helpful in gaining insight into yourself. It really is like a mirror showing you who are.
I spend countless minutes, hours each day thinking about stupid, frivolous or embarrassing things but because it’s the norm, it’s easy to forget this.2 It’s like a fish in water: it spends all day in the water, and forgets that it is swimming in it. So, with something like Buddhist practice, devotionals, etc, it becomes like a mirror showing your mind as it is. It’s simple and effective. You can’t really contrive it; just keep it up and wisdom will come.
Reflecting thus helps me appreciate what Honen said about himself, while talking with the Vicar-General of Zenkōji Temple (from the same book):
“How hard it is to silence the mind, to prevent evil thoughts from arising, and to put one’s whole soul into the calling upon the sacred name [nembutsu]. It is like taking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s nose.”
But at least it’s better to be aware of the mind’s behavior than not. Realizing the depths of one’s mind, warts and all, does make one appreciate the Buddhist teachings more, I think.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 I believe this is called shugyō (修行) in Japanese or suhaeng (수행) in Korean, in case you were wondering. 🙂
2 Consider the words of the Buddha in the Fire Sermon from the Pali Canon (SN 35.28):
“Bhikkhus [monks], all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?
“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs….”