The Unvarnished Nembutsu

A long time ago, I posted about a Jodo Shu monk named Shoku who was one of the chief disciples of the famous monk Honen, and established the Seizan (西山) branch of Jodo Shu Buddhism. Although it is a smaller branch of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, it is still sizable, and centered mainly in the Kyoto area. One of his most famous writings was on a concept he called the “unvarnished nembutsu” (shiroki nembutsu 白木念仏). He explains the nenbutsu (念仏), or ” repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha“, and ōjō (往生), rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land, like so:1

People who depend on themselves for their emancipation discolor the nenbutsu itself. One person gives a different color to it, because of the convictions he has reached regarding the Mahayana teachings. Another does the same by the understanding he has of other Buddhist principles. Another does it by her way of keeping the precepts, while a fourth by his method of meditative absorption (samadhi). In the end, those who color their nenbutsu practice with many meditative and non-meditative practices boast that they will definitely attain ojo.

Meanwhile those who cannot develop these practices and whose nenbutsu is utterly colorless grow discouraged about their ability to attain ojo. Well, both the boastful and the discouraged are illusions coming from self-dependence. The fact is that the nenbutsu taught in the Sutra of Immeasurable Life for people who live a hundred years after the Dharma has perished, and the nenbutsu taught in the Meditation Sutra for those who belong to the lowest of the nine ranks of sentient beings is the very nenbutsu I mean when I use the term “unvarnished wood”.

….Now if a person just says the nenbutsu, he or she will attain ojo — no matter whether the person leads a pure or impure life, whether their karma is bad or good, whether the person is of high class or low, a scholar or a fool….this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in the nenbutsu of people either deeply or just ordinarily knowledgable of the Mahayana teachings, or those who keep the precepts. It’s very important to avoid all confusions of thought here.

The key here, I think is not who’s right or wrong, or how deep one’s understanding of Buddhist doctrine is, because Amitabha will lead all such beings to the Pure Land simply on the basis of them uttering the nenbutsu.

1 Quoting from Traversing the Pure Land Path, which is a book I’ve owned for years, but occasionally like to re-read. 🙂

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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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